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Toronto Maple Leafs fans probably weren't this demonstrative in 1939 when the Leafs lost to the OHA Senior “A” Toronto Goodyears. (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP)
Portland Pirates (AHL)-5, Washington Capitals (NHL)-3? Not on a bet! Toledo (ECHL)-4, Detroit (NHL)-3? Absolutely not! For an elite major league hockey team to even PLAY against a minor league sextet in the new millennium, let alone be defeated by one, would be rarer than those rare days in June about which the poets used to write. In fact, the last time it happened was on Sept. 21, 2000, when the Flyers beat their Philadelphia AHL affiliate 6-1. When the average NHL player’s salary is $4,000,000 major league executives are unlikely to go for anything less than major league arenas with major league ticket prices against major league outfits.
But it wasn’t always that way. Previous to 1926, teams representing the world’s premier shinny circuit often faced off against both PCHA and WCHL squads in pre-season tilts. With the demise of the Western Hockey League at the close of the 1925-26 campaign, the NHL began accepting similar challenges from various minor league sextets. In fact, between the fall of 1926 and the aforementioned September 2000 exhibition matchup, some 840 such inter-league contests went into hockey’s archives. What is more interesting is that these hockey “Davids” whipped their counterpoint “Goliaths” no less than 103 times.
A plethora of reasons for this scenario comes from a cross-section of hockey personalities, including sports writers, public relations directors, former players, and a quote from the late, great “Jolly Jawn” Adams. Helping farm teams pad their coffers, getting a look at farm-team prospects, checking out players on OTHER minor league sextets, and fulfilling the desire of hockey fans in cities and towns remote from NHL cities to see their favourites they heard about on radio and watched on TV, are a few of the motivations involved. When Detroit took an extended 10-game tour of Western Hockey League towns in 1959, Adams claimed there was a benefit in playing weaker teams, because having more shots, perhaps 60 0r 70 during a game, gave his Motor City gang opportunity to practice this skill in game situations. It improved their conditioning as well. He was equally candid in admitting there was a “big fat profit” in doing so. The fact that spectators had to be turned away in these centers affirms that theory.
In late fall of 1910, George Kennedy demonstrated another purpose in barn storming. He had just purchased the Montreal Canadiens and wished to promote the bleu, blanc et rouge in the Eastern townships of Quebec. The NHA mercenaries easily whipped the amateur opposition wherever they went—except in Chicoutimi. They outplayed their counterparts by a wide margin—but they could not score on the slender, small-town goal keeper guarding the twine. A local player somehow managed to break through to fire the puck past the Hab’s goal guardian, resulting in the final scoring being 1-0 for them. That netminder, of course, was Georges Vezina. When the new campaign opened, he was between the pipes for the big-league squad.
With the increasing profiles of skaters at every level through “wire” services, such discoveries were unlikely. But the exposure of big-league talent through these exhibitions only served to increase the interest in major league pay-for-play—and more money filling their coffers.
The first instance of an NHL fraternity squaring off with the loop’s farm teams took place on November 9, 1926. The Can Pro circuit had just been organized, and teams from this circuit lined up as feeder squads for parent clubs. The Niagara Falls Cataracts hooked up with the second-year NHL’s New York Americans. It’s ironical that this initial game of its kind should end with the minors defeating the majors 1-0. Rene Boileau, the pride of Pointe-Claire, Quebec, and star of the Montreal Telephone League, tallied the only marker against “Jumpin’ Jakey” Forbes in the final frame of the match. Both teams concentrated on close checking, which kept the score to a bare minimum. The only other “name” player on the honeymoon city’s roster was Leo Reise Sr., who was halfway through his on-again, off-again eight seasons in the NHL. The Green brothers, Normie Himes, and Billy Burch, the star-spangled gang’s leading scorer, graced the line-up for that first of two meetings in that same week. Joe Ironstone, the Fall’s netminder, did get into one contest with the Americans. Interestingly enough, the dominance of the “Davids” over the “Goliaths” that initial year was short-lived. The Americans handily reversed the situation three days later, by whipping the Panthers 5-1.
By 1930, the Can Pro had become the International League, and the crew from London was now the Tecumsehs. But wearing their new logos had no ill effect. During the 15 gamed played which matched the established NHL versus IHL and Canadian-American League sextets, London claimed the only minor’s victory. On November 8th, the Chicago Blackhawks were visitors at the London Arena. The hometown squad doubled the score on the Illinois gang, 4-2.
“Toots” Holway, captain and defenseman for the Tecumsehs was the star of the night, keeping the fast-skating WindyCity gang at bay, as well as scoring two of the four markers in the winning effort. Leo Reise, working alongside Holway on the blueline, limited the Hawks to 21 shots, as compared to 32 directed at Charlie Gardiner. London’s forwards did an impressive job in managing to get by the “Taffy’ Abel/Cy Wentworth rearguard duo.
While most of these exhibition matches were pre-season affairs, with much more free time betweens games in the “original six” era, some of these challenges were accepted during the season. For instance, with a mere 10 days left in the 1938-39 schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs agreed to a game against the OHA Senior “A” Toronto Goodyears. They had just clinched the Provincial Championship and were ready to advance to greater heights against the NOHA Kirkland Lake Blue Devils. The Northern Ontario supporters concluded that “if the Tiremen could take the Leafs by one goal, the LakeShores could whip the Goodyears by two!” Well, at an afternoon match-up in Varsity Arena, the so-called amateurs came out on top by a 7-6 score. Toronto’s coach, Dick Irvin Sr., who called the impending defeat “a disgrace”, afterwards left the arena without a word, admitting later that “speech failed him”. The Toronto press had a field day at the Leaf’s expense.
“Conn Smythe was away in New York…about the only thing the wobbly Maple Leafs had to be thankful for… They failed to make tired men out
of the Tiremen, who outskated them and were superior in their combination work….”
Syl Apps was visiting his family, and Broda looked sulky BEFORE THE LOSS EVEN TOOK PLACE. Don Metz, Hank Goldup, & Peanuts O’Flaherty, were part of the OHA squad.
With Canada’s Senior “A” service clubs saturated with professionals during WW II, it is not too surprising that this kind of upset took place more than once during the 1940’s. One of the most glaring examples involves the Canadiens in a pre-season clash with the Cornwall Army of the Quebec League. On Oct. 29, 1942, these upstarts outlasted a line-up which included Toe Blake, Elmer Lach, and Rocket Richard. The latter two were only subs at the time, but Terry Reardon, Gordie Drillon, and Jack Portland were established campaigners. Jim Conacher was the only name player on the Khaki sextet (unless you count Punch Imlach). It was Conacher who salted the win away on a penalty shot with less than three minutes to play in the final frame. For the Canadiens, the same Dick Irvin was their coach, and he was no more impressed than three years earlier. The Habs went back to hard drilling the next day.
In the fall of 1947, it was announced that the erection of the new Kingston Hockey Hall of Fame would be assisted by a number of NHL teams, who would contribute to the fund raising by playing exhibition matches in the Limestone City. The Rangers prevailed against the OHA Hamilton Tigers, 5-2; Chicago whipped Kingston/Queens Combines 20-6; and the Bruins toppled the same Tigers, 5-3. But on Oct. 15th, the Allan Cup champion Montreal Royals surprised the Stanley Cup-winning Maple Leafs, 5-4. And, three months later, on January 7, 1948, Joe Primeau’s Toronto Marlboros Seniors bested Boston to the tune of 4-2.
With only six fraternities in the NHL during the 1950’s, pre-season schedules were filled with competition against teams from the Quebec Senior League, the United States Hockey League, and the American League. In 1956 alone, there were 26 matches played between September 19th and October 8th. Not only did the number of losses by the big boys continue to surprise, but the convincing manner of some of those victories was an embarrassment to the established fraternities. For instance, the QSL’s Quebec Aces doubled the count on the Blackhawks 4-2, in 1952; Buffalo of the AHL did the same in 1956 in their defeat of the Rangers; and those same Bisons humbled the Bruins 3-1 in 1955.
Perhaps the motivation for these upsets was demonstrated in the Maple Leafs’ succumbing to their farm squad, the Rochester Americans, on September 24, 1958. While the final score was only 3-1, the final tally was credited to Ken Girard, who had just been demoted to the minor league affiliate a few days earlier. With only 120 jobs available in the Big Time, those earning AHL or QHL salaries were anxious to win the favour of the NHL big-wigs—to escape long bus trips and inferior paycheques.
On this occasion, Gerry McNeil stood between the pipes and turned away wave after wave of Toronto’s attempts to bulge the twine. Claude Labossiere and Reg Flemming also rose to the occasion on the Americans’ blueline, minimizing what also was described as “inept” attacking efforts. After the smoke had cleared, the prevailing opinion was that Rochester might be able to strengthen the Leafs, rather than the opposite.
During the 1960’s the Western Hockey League and the Eastern Pro League (later as the Central League) got involved in these exchanges with the NHL in pre-season tilts. Scores like Hull/Ottawa-2, Canadiens-1; Portland-5, Bruins-2; L.A. -5, Rangers-2, lit up the sport pages.
With the 1967 NHL expansion, and the thinning of talent level prevailing, especially in the 12 new clubs, the rash of minor league triumphs over the established circuit’s skaters prevailed. The QHL Quebec Aces took special delight in outscoring the parent Philly Flyers two seasons running, to the tune of 6-1 in 1967 and 2-1 in 1968. While it was no laughing matter to the fledging Minnesota North Stars, lots of snickering made the rounds after the Central League Memphis Wings outlasted the NHL’ers 9-7 on September 18, 1968.
With the Flyers gaining strength in the early 1970’s, eventually becoming the first expansion club to capture Lord Stanley’s coveted trophy (two seasons in a row, 1974 and 1975), it was quite a shock to the orange-clad Broadway Bullies to have their AHL affiliate, the Richmond Robins, whip them 5-2 on October 3, 1972. The headlines announced that even with Bobby Clarke in the lineup after his triumphant Summit Series under his belt, the “mad men” from Richmond can’t be stopped.
Predictably, Coach Fred Shero declared that “if the Flyers were not embarrassed, they have rocks in their head!”
Assistant bench boss, Mike Nykoluk, announced that “the kids, just sent down, always want to prove the big club made a mistake!”
Another element prevailed during that decade. Starting in 1974, there were an increasing number of games against the rebel WHA. By 1976, the exhibition scoreboard featured almost one quarter of the pre-season competitions falling into that category. Initially there was a balance in the “wins” column—but as the seasons passed, the upstarts began to get the upper hand. Two years in a row, the WHA representatives trumped the long-standing circuit in victories. Some of those wins were quite decisive: Like Winnipeg -6, St. Louis-2; New England-9, Pittsburgh-0; and Quebec-4, Rangers-1. This review is only an aside, since that loop claimed to be an opposition major league.
A change of pace took place starting in 1979, with the revival of Canada’s participation in the Olympics. That fall, and again four years later, the NHL accepted challenges from teams, both the land of the maple leaf and the USA. That fall, Team Canada cleaned up on Winnipeg 7-3, and outmatched Toronto 6-5.
These on-ice exchanges continued on into the mid 1980’s, with scores like Team USA-8, Hartford-4; Team Canada-7, Los Angeles-4; and Team USA-7, Rangers-3. The Winnipeg Free Press singled out two highlights of a 1983 game in the Manitoba capital! First, Team Canada’s criss-cross pattern of attack mesmerized the young Jets’ defense corps! And second, the thrill of a local skater, Dale Derkatch, who found delight in beating his hometown pros. He came within an ace of scoring as well.
During the ninth decade of the 20th Century, the on-going format pitting the majors against the minors continued. But it proved to be the last hurrah for this arrangement. 14 games were played—seven were recorded as victories for the “Davids”. Included in that number was the WHL’s Victoria Cougars win over Los Angeles, 4-2; Sherbrooke (AHL) edging the Canadiens 3-2 in 1986; and the Hershey Bears of the same loop doubling the count on the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2, in 1987.
Just how motivated the underlings were in their efforts to show the organization that they were not second-rate shinny citizens was revealed in 1982, when the Quebec Nordiques visited their farm club, the Frederiction Express. The match ended in a 3-3 tie. But the Nova Scotia crew only lost the lead with less than two minutes left, thanks to a power play marker. Normally ties have not been mentioned in this missive—although there were several over the years. But it was two injuries to the NHL club which outshone the game itself. That prompted Coach Michel Bergeron to snap: “This type of game is ridiculous! If we ever come back to Fredericton, I hope it will be to play against another NHL team!”
The Express’ skaters’ passion to prove themselves backfired—and the big club suffered because of it.
Another one that lit up the headlines was the Sherbrooke Saints humbling of the mighty Canadiens, who would finish second overall that coming season of 1987-88. The trouncing came on September 20th. 34 seconds in to the first frame, Bob Gainey put the Habs on the scoreboard, and it looked like a rout may have been in store. But Jose Carbonneau got that one back three minutes later—the first of seven which beat Patrick Roy on the way to the lop-sided triumph. The Bleu, Blanc et Rouge couldn’t outguess either Vince Riendeau or Jocelyn Perreault again.
Typically, the victors admitted they had more motivation. “We didn’t want to give them an easy way to cut us”, said one player who had just been demoted a week earlier. It was the second year in a row that this script was followed—the Saints had earned a 6-5 shoot-out win a year earlier.
There were only three examples of the majors/minors set-up in the 90’s. All of which ended up in the win column for the NHL’ers. Already mentioned, the next and last competition of its kind took place on September 21, 2000, the Philly Flyers dominating their AHL counterparts, the Phantoms, 6-1.
As was the case in the Biblical account of the youthful David overcoming the powerful Goliath—the latter had all the resources—sword, shield, spear and experience in battle. But that is not always enough. Besides his faith, the real-life David utilized his lesser arsenal in his determination to make a point. On 103 occasions, the minor league forces did the same thing.
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