More than a quarter-century before Islanders coach Al Arbour discovered video as a conduit to four consecutive Stanley Cups, Conn Smythe had a version of the same idea with his Maple Leafs.
And, like Arbour, Smythe’s sextet won four Cups starting in 1947 and ending with the finale in the spring of 1951.
The only difference being that Toronto’s hockey boss employed celluloid films instead of videotape. What’s more, the Maple Leafs’ movies led to some bizarre episodes between Cup triumphs.
“Most of the time the movies worked,” recalled defenseman Jim Thomson, “but one afternoon we had to cut off the showing because the film somehow went up in flames.”
The innovative Smythe – like Arbour in the late 1970’s – was ahead of the game. Conn had decided that a regular movie show would detect on-ice errors that ordinarily would be missed by the media and Toronto’s coaching staff.
“When we weren’t playing up to par,” said forward Sid Smith, “we had to see films during one of our slumps or when (coach) Joe Primeau had a point that he wanted hammered home to us. He figured that the films would be best. And in some cases it helped us win championships.”
Smythe’s Theater never was more useful than during the 1951 Stanley Cup playoffs when Toronto was determined to dethrone the defending champion Red Wings. The Motor City sextet had finished the regular campaign with 101 points.
Only six points behind with 95 points, the Leafs defeated Boston, four games to one in the opening playoff round. Whether the Leafs won or lost, the movies were turned over to Primeau for serious study.
Smith: “The films were available a day or so after each game and had tremendous benefits as a means of pointing out team errors to the players themselves who now became movie-lovers of our own games.”
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal round, Detroit was upset by the under-.500 Canadiens, four games to two. Montreal’s ace, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, paced the Habs with a pair of critical sudden-death goals and now the Habs faced Primeau’s platoon with another chance to salvage a second victory.
That’s when Smythe went Hollywood again and turned even more earnestly to the Maple Leaf movies. So did the media. In fact I have a story in my scrapbook written by Al Nickleson, of the Toronto Globe and Mail explaining all about it.
“Through the medium of the camera,” Nickelson wrote, “a play could be halted for study and the benefits derived were well worth the (filming) cost of $8,000 yearly.”
As the 1951 Cup Final unfolded, Primeau’s Leafs enjoyed a three games to one series lead, But after consulting the films, Gentleman Joe still was concerned about the one loss and wasted no time telling his players about it.
“Rocket Richard scored the winning goal in overtime for Montreal’s only win,” recalled Toronto defenseman Bill Juzda,” and Skipper Joe was concerned that he might do it again against us.
“The films showed what we had already seen on the ice, especially Rocket’s breakaway speed. If nothing else, it gave us ideas about stopping him in the fifth game. We knew that it could be the Cup-winner for us.”
Smythe didn’t limit his extra-curricular research to the films. Another first was the Maple Leafs use of a battery of individual clocks to keep tabs of each stick handlers tour on the ice.
Nickelson: “The average time – not counting overtime periods – came to16 minutes for a Leafs forward and 30 minutes for a defenseman.”
However, a center such as Max Bentley – he was the assist leader in the 1951 postseason – would get extra ice time, especially on the power play.
In Game 5, the Leafs cameraman already had films of a play that coach Primeau dreaded. Rocket Richard steamed down the left side beating Toronto goalie Al Rollins to give Montreal a 1-0 lead.
Near the end of the third period in Game 5, the Canadiens still led by a goal, 2-1. As a last resort, Primeau pulled goalie Rollins and inserted Bentley as his extra skater. Now Toronto enjoyed a 6-5 player advantage.
Based on previous films, the coach had laid out a blueprint for a winning power play. This time the movie would show Bentley dancing through the Montreal defense before setting up Tod Sloan with the tying, 2-2, goal.
When overtime began, Primeau warned his defensemen to focus on sudden-death scorer Richard because of The Rocket’s proclivity for delivering clutch goals.
“Any defenseman who crosses into the Montreal zone when Richard is on the ice,” warned Gentleman Joe, “will get hit with a $500 fine.”
Post-game – sure enough – the movies showed defenseman Bill Barilko breaking the rule as he dashed over the blue line before hammering the Cup-winner past goalie Gerry McNeil.
More film depicted Primeau racing on to the rink and hugging his husky defenseman. Sound was not available but later the coach allowed that he told Bashin’ Bill, “Forget about the $500 fine!”
But nobody forgot about the role played by Smythe’s innovative filming idea and its role in delivering four Cups in five years for Toronto; at the time an NHL record.
During an address before an audience of Torontonians long after the Leafs triumph, high-scoring Sid Smith unabashedly bragged about his club’s film innovation and how it helped Conn Smythe’s club win a fourth Cup in five years.
“The taking of motion pictures of games is one of the most important developments in big-league hockey today,” Smith asserted.
Nowadays, video replays and the off-ice study of games has become a very complicated, detailed – and yet routine – practice.
Perhaps the Islanders Al Arbour – first to exploit Smythe’s movie idea – was inspired by the headline following Smith address to Toronto fans. Believe it or not, I still have it in my scrapbook:
FILMS BIG FACTOR IN CUP VICTORY SID SMITH SAYS!