Only one team in NHL history ever had the sobriquet “Gashouse Gang” attached to it, and that was the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1930 through 1937. They earned the label by pulling off some of the most mirthful, colorful off-ice antics imaginable. “As their coach, they were my dream team type of players,” said Dick Irvin. “But they were certainly my nightmare types in hotels and on trains.”
No prank was too outlandish and no hostelry was too swank, not even Boston’s high-brow University Club, where one Maple Leaf, Charlie Conacher, once barricaded his buddy, Harold ‘Baldy’ Cotton, in their room just for the fun of it. Only Cotton’s screams brought an unsuspecting Irvin to the rescue. “It was during an era that lasted all too briefly,” said Ed Fitkin, an erstwhile Maple Leafs press agent.
Fitkin should know, having authored a book, The Gashouse Gang of Hockey, about the Gang’s ringleaders. Naturally the headliners were Hall of Famer Conacher and often unsuspecting victim Cotton. “Conacher was one of the prime instigators,” Fitkin noted. “Nothing was sacred. They couldn’t even trust one another if there was the possibility of a good gag.”
The Gashouse Gang’s gag of all gags was labelled “Man Over Manhattan” by Cotton in Bill Roche’s oral history, The Hockey Book. In it, Baldy spoke firsthand about what it was like to be hung upside-down outside a skyscraper hotel room. Cotton happened to be the man, and a piece of Manhattan was the hunk of geography over which he was perilously hung.
Interestingly, this particular bit of madcap mayhem took place in 1932-33, while the Leafs were defending Stanley Cup champions yet Jekyll and Hyde in their behavior. “This Leaf team was full of fight and competitive zeal on the ice,” Fitkin recalled, “and full of fun and zest away from the rink.”
He could have added “and over Times Square as well,” because that’s where Cotton made his near-flying debut. But before getting on with the antics it should be noted here that when it came down to the business of winning, both Conacher and Cotton took defending their title very seriously. Conacher was the big gun on Toronto’s famed ‘Kid Line’ with Busher Jackson on the left side and ‘Gentleman’ Joe Primeau in the middle. No slouch himself, Cotton spent a dozen big-league years on left wing for Pittsburgh’s original NHL club, the Pirates, followed by his stint with Toronto and, later, the New York Americans.
The difference between the two was Conacher’s marquee name as the Leafs’ hotshot scorer. Meanwhile, the unobtrusive Cotton played grunt guy on Irvin’s checking line. “For me scoring chances were none too plentiful,” Baldy allowed.
But they were plentiful for Cotton one Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens. Trouble was that every time Baldy found an opening, no teammate skimmed him the puck. “I had skated into scoring position several times, but I never got a pass,” he lamented. “I was downright annoyed.”
Fair enough, but Harold should have kept his peevishness to himself. This was especially true after the Leafs arrived at New York’s Hotel Lincoln in advance of a Sunday night game at Madison Square Garden with the Rangers. More importantly, Baldy should have noticed that Conacher desperately wanted to sleep.
Alas, slumber wasn’t available in that 20th floor suite, because Cotton paced the floor beefing aloud about the Leafs’ lack of generosity with the puck. In The Hockey Book, Cotton vividly described how he talked himself out the window and almost down to the Eighth Avenue sidewalk without a parachute. “I said, ‘I’ll never pass the puck again to anybody in scoring position as long as I’m with the Leafs.’ Then I repeated it and added, ‘To heck with teamwork, I’m going to be a lone wolf hockey player.”
A crash-dive OOH-GAAH went off in Conacher’s head, and before Cotton could even think an “I’m sorry,” Conacher tackled his roomie, pulled him to an open window and grabbed his legs. “He hung me, head-down, dangling 20 floors above the pavement,” Cotton said. “Everyone on the Leafs had known I had a fear of high places.”
Conacher, on the other hand – or foot as the case may be – had a fear of seditious teammates. He transmitted that feeling by swinging Cotton to and fro to the tune of, “Are you gonna pass the puck?” Then just to make his point, Conacher let Baldy drop another inch or two. Rather than count the pedestrians below, Cotton got the message. “I gave in,” he concluded, “and promised to pass the puck and be a good Maple Leaf.”
Convinced the punishment fit the crime, Conacher pulled his bud back to safety, and did what he started out to do in the first place – go to sleep. Cotton didn’t!