Thursday June 9th, 2016

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PITTSBURGH — After the fish and fists flew, the rookies rose up and the fines came down, the first and still only comeback from an 0-3 deficit in Stanley Cup Final history was recapped by Toronto forward Syl Apps, whose words spilled from the noisy home dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. 

“By jiminy!” he cried out, according to the Canadian Press.

Ten years after the franchise’s last title, as war raged in the Pacific and European theaters, the 1942 Maple Leafs had roared back against the Red Wings. The heroes included a pair of brothers, including one summoned into substitute duty before Game 4, and the witnesses for the decisive Game 7 included 16,218 fans, the largest Canadian crowd ever recorded. Before long, the improbability of the event was being placed into historical context.

“Generations of hockey players yet unborn will hear time and again the story of the 1942 playoffs—the most exciting in the 50-year history of the Stanley Cup,” wrote John N. Sabo of the Detroit Free Press, two days after Toronto capped its revival with a 3-1 win.

In the moment, the Leafs seemed more stunned. Former head coach Conn Smythe was rendered speechless, so noteworthy that the recap in the Ottawa Citizen devoted an entire subhead to it. “Oh boy. A great effort,” Smythe managed to blurt out, wiping a tear from his eye.

“We did it the hard way,” said then second-year coach Clarence “Hap” Day, who had played defense for Toronto’s 1932 Cup club. “I had my doubts right up until that final bell rang.”

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Wire services painted the picture of the celebration. Defenseman Bob Goldham, not yet 20 years old, pulled a hairpin and a chicken wishbone from his pocket, explaining that they were his good-luck charms, and he had been carrying them around since winning Game 4. Winger Johnny McCreedy, who would serve for the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and later return to the Leafs for their 1945 championship run, completed a trifecta havin won the Memorial Cup in 1937 and the Allan Cup in 1940. “I’ve just made a grand slam—me and Bobby Jones,” McCreedy said after Game 7.

Perhaps the best summarization, though, came from forward Sweeney Schriner, whose two goals sandwiched Pete Langelle’s winner midway through the third period. Amid the revelry, Schriner found W.A.H. MacBrien and shook the team president’s hand.

“You stuck with us through thick and thin, Colonel, and I’m glad we didn’t let you down,” Schriner said. “We must have been good to come from so far back.”

A similar mountain now meets the 2016 San Jose Sharks, who begin their attempt at a 3-1 comeback on Thursday night at Consol Energy Center against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not since 1942 has an NHL team even overcome a three-game Cup Final deficit, let alone duplicated the Leafs’ four-win miracle. “This isn't easy,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said on Wednesday. “It's a really hard thing to do. It's going to be hard for them to close us out. It's going to be hard for us to show up here tomorrow and win a game in this environment.”

“The game ended in a near-riot,” wrote the Canadian Press after Game 4, “when Manager Jack Adams, of the Red Wings, ran across the ice at the final whistle and started trading punches with Referee Mel Harwood. Other players joined in, and Harwood was escorted out of the rink by police.”​

So here’s how Toronto's Leafs managed to defy the odds:

Game 1: April 4, Detroit 3–2 at Maple Leaf Gardens

Game 2: April 7, Detroit 4–2 at Maple Leaf Gardens

Game 3: April 9, Detroit 5–2 at Detroit Olympia

In the 1941 Stanley Cup Final, the Red Wings bowed out against the Boston Bruins in four straight games, never losing by more than two goals but carrying the ignominious sweep into summer. This time, after surging from a fifth-place finish during the regular season, beating the Canadiens in the quarterfinals and the Bruins in the semis, things were resolved to be different.

In Game 1 against the favored Maple Leafs, whose 27-18-3 record ranked second in the league, Don Grosso, a sergeant in the Canadian Army Reserves, scored two goals, including one that came 97 seconds after the opening puck dropped. He also assisted on Sid Abel’s game-winning tally, which came off his own rebound. The crowd of 14,185 was listed as the largest ever to watch in Detroit.

Excitement for an upset was brewing. Before Game 2, according to the Citizen, City Council in Ottawa ended 45 minutes earlier than scheduled so the aldermen could watch the game. That night, Detroit scored twice in the first period and then twice more in the third, winning for the 15th time in 18 games and for the 12 straight time at home. According to the Canadian Press, Grosso was rewarded with $75 from Harry Jacobson, described by the writer as the “No. 1 Detroit fan.”

Grosso again rose to the occasion by scoring twice, sliding on his knees to convert a rebound in the 11th minute of the first period. Five days away from his 27th birthday, he pulled even with the Rangers’ Cecil Dillon for the NHL goals record in a single postseason (8). Jacobson rewarded him with $15 this time. The three periods were so lopsided that Red Wings coach Jack Adams said he thought the final should’ve been 7–3 instead of 4–2. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, resolved to improve. “I’m going home and dream[ing] about how bad we’re going to beat them the next time,” Schriner told the CP afterward.

In Game 3, Toronto took a two-goal lead thanks to Lorne Carr, who scored both of them on the power play 30 seconds apart, before Detroit stormed back with five unanswered strikes. The principal hero was Eddie Bush, a burly, block-headed defenseman who joined the team at midseason. He had assists on the first four goals, then flung a 50-footer for the fifth goal past netminder Turk Broda.

A scary moment occurred when Wings forward Sid Abel suffered a possible fractured jaw, but it did little to sour the result. A third Stanley Cup was within sniffing distance for Detroit, made even likelier when Abel was announced as returning for Game 4.

“Detroit’s third straight victory in the best-of-seven series for the trophy emblematic of world hockey supremacy was so convincing that it became almost a certainty, even in the Toronto camp, that the series will not be carried from Detroit ice where the Wings are unbeaten in 13 successive games,” wrote the Associated Press on April 11. “You couldn’t get a wager that the surprising Red Wings would be halted in their mad dash for the cup they last won five years ago.”

Game 4: April 12, Toronto 4-3 at Detroit Olympia

A bold decision by Leafs coach Day forever altered history. For Game 4, he benched leading scorer Gordie Drillon and two other veterans, replacing them with a slew of unknowns, including right winger Don Metz, the younger brother of Leafs left winger Nick. It would be Nick who fired the game-winning goal with less than eight minutes left in the third period, spoiling an otherwise memorable night for Grosso, who had tied another NHL single postseason record by reaching the 14-point mark. The most memorable parts of Game 4, however, had nothing to do with the final score.

“The game ended in a near-riot,” wrote the Canadian Press, “when Manager Jack Adams, of the Red Wings, ran across the ice at the final whistle and started trading punches with Referee Mel Harwood. Other players joined in, and Harwood was escorted out of the rink by police.”

The fight had started during a last-minute face-off. According to the Detroit News, linesman Sammy Babcock had called an offside on the Wings. When they lined up for the draw, a fan threw a hot water bag at Babcock. Forward Eddie Wares then mockingly handed the bag to Harwood, who whistled him for misconduct. Harwood refused to explain the reason for the infraction, simply waving Wares to the penalty box. In protest, Grosso skated in front of Harwood and laid his gloves and stick at the official’s feet. For their efforts, Wares was handed a $50 fine—on the ice, no less—and Gross drew $25.

This set off Adams, who charged onto the ice and flung haymakers at Harwood. Equally furious, the home crowd in Detroit littered the ice with paper, peanuts and, as the Canadian Press noted, a woman’s shoe. “What right had Harwood to swear at Grosso and Wares when they asked him the reason for penalties? What right had he to order the puck dropped when Capt. Syd Howe asked for explanations of the penalties?” Adams said after, via the Free Press. The allegations changed little. NHL President Frank Calder suspended Adams indefinitely, and Wares and Grosso both received additional $100 fines.

“Of all the lousy jobs of officiating, that one takes the cake,” Wares barked in the locker room, but at least the Red Wings were still one victory away from the Cup.

Game 5: April 14, Toronto 9–3 at Maple Leaf Gardens

Back at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto took a 2–0 lead in the first period, both on power plays, then scored five times in the third to complete the blowout, which at the time tied the record for most goals scored in a playoff game. Don Metz accompanied his first career hat trick with two assists, while Apps also chipped in five points. Detroit finally scored its first goal at 3:12 of the third period, but by that point Toronto led 7–0. “And seldom in history has a team played so erratically in the final series as the Wings did tonight,” wrote the Free Press.

Once more, chippiness reigned. With the actual contest out of hand, Maple Leafs rookie defenseman Bob Goldham sparred with Grosso on the ice during the third period, and then continued jousting in the penalty box. Grosso talked some solid trash after, saying that Goldham “won’t be able to kiss his girl for a long time.” In response, Goldham claimed he had actually been punched in the cheek. And, he said, “I don’t kiss with my cheek.” At the same time the fight was happening on the ice, another brawl broke out among fans, delaying the game for 15 minutes.

Game 6: April 16, Toronto 3–0 at Detroit Olympia

Miraculously, zero penalties were whistled. “It’s News: Wings Praise Officiating,” read one headline in the Free Press. Referee Bill Chadwick earned high marks for keeping the riff-raff in check. Adams even approached him after and said, “Bill, you call a fine game.” Keeping with apparent tradition, fans tossed a few orange peels and peanuts, and even a pickerel fish onto the ice. But this wasn’t much, the Free Press noted, compared to Game 4.

The Leafs, meanwhile, were rolling. Broda made 27 saves for their first clean sheet against Detroit in 23 playoff meetings to that point. After a scoreless first frame, Don Metz struck 14 seconds after the second period began, stopping a clear attempted and shoveling a backhand past Johnny Mowers for his fourth goal in two games. Goldham and center Billy Taylor each scored 32 seconds apart in the third period to stamp the shutout.

If anyone desired to find symbolism for the Red Wings’ slide, it came courtesy of Detroit blueliner Doug McCaig, who had been promoted for his first Stanley Cup appearance. The morning of Game 6, according to the Free Press, McCaig promptly had his new car, purchased around Christmas, stolen from a downtown parking lot.

Game 7: April 18, Toronto 3–1 at Maple Leaf Gardens

The Wings handled their collapse with class. “They had a little better club but it could have gone the other way with a few breaks,” said Ebbie Goodfellow, the assistant who handled coaching duties during Adams’ suspension. But Game 7 perfectly encapsulated the course of the series. Up 1–0 on Syd Howe’s second-period goal with 12:13 left in the game, Detroit succumbed to a late rally by the Leafs, in front of a reported 16,218.

According to WhoWins.com, Toronto remains the lone champion to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, achieving what 31 others teams to date have not. And now here stand the Sharks, a long way from history 74 years ago, hoping to join the exclusive club where only the 1942 Leafs reside.

No word yet on whether Sharks defenseman Brent Burns’ camouflaged backpack now contains hairpins and chicken bones.

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