Coaching insanity led Maple Leafs to NHL’s most miraculous comeback

Toronto pulled off its epic and unmatched Stanley Cup comeback against the Red Wings in 1942 thanks to some weird and wacky moves by legendary coach ‘Hap’ Day, explains Stan Fischler in this Strange But True tale.
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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

It never happened before, nor has it happened since. And it very likely never will happen again.

Coached by Clarence ‘Hap’ Day, the 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs remain the only team to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup final. They accomplished that feat because Day went totally against the coaching grain, and then some.

On the cusp of elimination, Day benched Gordie Drillon, his leading goal-scorer, and also his top defenseman, Bucko McDonald. Drillon was replaced by a mostly minor-league grunt, Don Metz, kid brother of Leafs forward Nick Metz. McDonald’s stand-in was an inexperienced rookie, Ernie Dickens, backed by another freshman, Bob Goldham.

Based on those nutsy moves, the 13,694 fans that jammed Detroit’s Olympia Stadium April 12, 1942 had good reason to believe the Red Wings soon would celebrate their third Stanley Cup. Wally Stanowski, a third-year defenseman on the Leafs, remembers the arrogance of Red Wings boss, coach-GM Jack Adams, who already had predicted the Cup win.

“Adams went on the radio and said his club was ready to wrap up the series,” Stanowski says. “That fired us up as much as anything.”

Prior to the fateful game, Day read a letter to his troops from a 14-year-old Toronto girl who still believed in her Leafs. When Day finished, Sweeney Schriner leaped off his bench and said, “Don’t worry Skipper, we’ll win this one for the little girl.”

And so they did, 4-3, after which an irate Adams leaped on the ice after the final buzzer and pummelled referee Mel Harwood until officials and police intervened. After viewing the mayhem, NHL president Frank Calder suspended Adams indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Day kept rolling the dice. For Game 5 at Maple Leaf Gardens, he benched three-year vet Hank Goldup for 19-year-old left winger Gaye Stewart, even though the rookie was less than a year out of junior. Don Metz mesmerized Red Wings goalie Johnny Mowers with a hat trick plus an assist. Stanowski assisted on Nick Metz’s first goal, scored the second and set up Don Metz’s third goal in the 9-3 rout.

Now the series was getting serious. In Game 6 at Olympia, Leafs goalie Turk Broda managed to preserve a 0-0 tie after the first period. With less than 15 seconds gone in the middle period Don Metz (who else?) buried the puck behind Mowers with what proved to be the winning goal. Late in the third period, rookies Goldham and Billy Taylor cushioned the lead, ensuring Broda’s 3-0 blanking. Near the end, a Detroit fan summed up prevailing opinion by hurling a dead fish on the ice.

“That fish,” wrote Toronto author and former Leafs publicist Ed Fitkin, “was symbolic of Red Wings fans reaction to the collapse of their team.”

Tied 3-3, the series was up for grabs in the decisive Game 7 April 18, 1942. With the Second World War going on, players on both sides realized they soon would enlist in the armed forces. For many, this would be their last game until they returned. Some, such as Leafs boss Conn Smythe, already were in khaki. ‘The Little Major’ was granted leave from his base in Petawawa, Ont. That explains why the uniformed Smythe was one of the 16,218 spectators, the largest crowd in the NHL’s history to that point, in the rink he helped build a decade earlier.

After two periods, no miracle appeared at hand. Detroit led 1-0 and Smythe, who earlier had vowed to stay away from the Leafs dressing room, changed his mind because he had a brainstorm.

“I could see that the game had slowed down,” Smythe said in his autobiography, If You Can’t Beat ‘Em In The Alley. “That made the game exactly right for old Sweeney Schriner, old Lorne Carr and young Billy Taylor and I told them.”

Sure enough, with the Wings shorthanded in the third period, Day heeded Smythe’s advice and deployed Schriner, Carr and Taylor on the power play. Once again the roulette ball fell into the Leafs’ slot. Carr and Taylor crafted passes that eventually sent the puck to Schriner who beat Mowers at 7:46. After the roars had finally subsided, Day gambled again, dispatching veteran Bob Davidson with youngsters Pete Langelle, Johnny McCreedy and Goldham. Youth would be served when McCreedy penetrated the Detroit blueline and fired the rubber at Mowers. The Wings goalie stopped the shot, but his rebound skimmed tantalizingly to Langelle who deposited it for the go-ahead goal. Minutes later Schriner proved Smythe a genius by delivering the insurance goal.

Bulging Maple Leaf Gardens rocked as never before with all eyes on the overhead clock. As the final seconds wound down, the fans helped it along: “...three, two, one.”

Fitkin described the scene: “Pandemonium broke loose on the ice and in the stands. The crowd roared with the ecstasy of the moment.”

And why not? The Leafs had manufactured a miracle and no team has created one like it ever since.

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