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NHL Centennial

1933 Bruins-Maple Leafs playoff game nearly decided by coin flip

Finale of Semifinal series went six overtimes before Toronto scored only goal

by Stan Fischler / Contributor

Can you imagine a Stanley Cup game starting on time one evening and not concluding until five minutes before two the following morning? And then nearly being decided by a coin toss?

The men who wrote the NHL Rule Book surely never planned on such a scenario when the League was born in 1917. But 16 years later, such a crisis developed during the deciding game of the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Semifinal series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

The game took place at Maple Leaf Gardens and began on April 3, 1933. But it seemed as if it would never end. Nor did the officials have any idea how to end it after seven scoreless periods, three in regulation and four in overtime, with no goal in sight.

That's when the respective general managers, Conn Smythe of Toronto and Boston's Art Ross, brainstormed. They finally agreed that the game should be decided by a coin toss -- provided the players agreed.

They did not. Adamantly. The players demanded to skate to a finish.

"We wanted to play until somebody won legitimately," recalled Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson, who turned aside wave after wave of Toronto shots. "It didn't matter to us if it took all night, and it nearly did."

That's how the NHL's first genuine marathon game wound up being settled on a goal scored by the least-likely hero on either team: Toronto's miniscule forward Ken Doraty.

The series had been thrilling and evenly matched. The Bruins won the opener 2-1 in overtime at home, but the Maple Leafs tied the series with a 1-0 overtime win at Boston Garden in Game 2.

Game 3 in Toronto also went to overtime, with the Bruins winning 2-1.

Desperate for young legs, Smythe dressed amateur stars Bill Thoms and Charlie Sands, and ordered more ice time for Doraty, a 135-pounder who appeared too tiny to survive for long against bigger opponents. But Toronto's new trio came through like veterans, and the Maple Leafs won the fourth game 5-3 to tie the series.

By this time, fans on either side of the border were consumed with hockey fever. Toronto's faithful supporters lined up in the middle of the preceding night in hope of obtaining tickets, and by game time Maple Leaf Gardens was overflowing with 14,540 fans.

Goaltenders Lorne Chabot of the Maple Leafs and Thompson of the Bruins were impeccable. Chabot was beaten once, by Alex Smith in the third period, but the goal was negated by an offside call. At the end of regulation time, neither team had scored.

"With everything on the line," Thompson recalled, "even the crowd felt the tension that we experienced. They had come early, but had no idea how late they'd stay."

Neither team scored in the first sudden-death period. Meanwhile, the consensus in the press box was that the longer the game continued, the better for Boston because Toronto's top players were among the skating wounded. Forward Ace Bailey was playing with his shoulder taped tightly to keep it in place. Defenseman Red Horner was holding his stick with his one good hand, and ace center Joe Primeau -- just released from the hospital -- still had an extremely tender foot.

On and on the game flowed, through a second overtime and a third. Since the ice in those days was not reconditioned after each period, it became sloppier and choppier as the game headed toward a new day.

"Morning papers appeared in the rink and were sold as fast as they were produced," Maple Leafs publicist Ed Fitkin said. "Fans both in and out of the rink were apparently determined to see it through while players were near exhaustion."

With the exception of two minor penalties, Boston defenseman Eddie Shore didn't leave the ice for the first 60 minutes. He took brief respites (and served two more penalties) during overtime. King Clancy was equally inspiring for Toronto.

"There wasn't a weakling out there," Fitkin said. "The fans knew it, and they began talking about the inhumanity of letting the game go on. They were saying the tension and strain might affect the players for the rest of their lives.

"NHL officials must have been thinking along the same lines, for when the fourth overtime session got underway they were trying to figure out the best way to settle the issue."

Primeau, sore foot and all, almost made that issue academic after having been rested for most of the night. Upon seeing the dapper center skate onto the ice, the fans rose as one and gave him a thunderous ovation.

Primeau promptly orchestrated an attack, skimming a pass to Clancy, who took a few strides and fired the puck behind Thompson. The red light flashed, and Maple Leaf Gardens was rocked to its foundation. So high was the decibel count that few onlookers realized that the whistle had blown, signaling an offside. The goal was immediately disallowed and the fourth overtime concluded without a score.

That's when Smythe and Ross, who normally couldn't agree on the time of day, decided to flip a coin to determine the winner. At least they hoped they could.

"Those so-and-sos aren't going to beat us by any toss of the coin," shouted Toronto forward Harold Cotton. The players were supported by NHL President Frank Calder. "The game," he insisted, "must be fought to a finish, no matter how long it takes."

So the fifth overtime began and, once again, the Maple Leafs seemed to have victory in their grasp. Cotton snared a loose puck behind the Bruins' net, circled in front, and attempted to stuff it between Thompson's skate and the post. When the Boston defenders piled on Cotton, referee Odie Cleghorn whistled play to a halt. Cotton argued that a Boston player had fished the puck out of the net before the referee had seen it, but he was overruled, and the fifth overtime period ended well past 1:30 a.m., with neither team having scored.

As the sixth overtime began, the teams played "kitty-bar-the-door" hockey. "The scoring thrusts," Fitkin said, "lacked the sting of authority and were incapable of drawing blood."

Many among the media believed that the indomitable Shore could come up with the big play and end the endless game - even though the exhausted Eddie had carried the load for Bruins all night.

"He looked dead beat," Fitkin said, "and he was. Eddie needed a rest and was trying to make an offside pass to one of his mates and thus stop play. Shore finally spotted Joe Lamb in the clear and slid the puck toward him."

But it never reached Lamb. Andy Blair, Toronto's lanky mustachioed center, anticipated Shore's plan and intercepted the pass. In one motion, Blair made a pass to his tiny right wing, Doraty, who took it in stride, skated about three strides and then shot the puck past Thompson's pads and into the net.

The red light went on and, this time, there was no calling it back.

Yet for a moment, the fans were peculiarly silent. "The crowd," Fitkin recalled, "seemed unable to comprehend the fact. When they did, however, bedlam broke loose. People cheered, shouted, danced, threw programs, hats, anything they could get their hands on, while Doraty was being mobbed by his mates."

The time was 1:55 a.m. The puck went into the net at 4:46 of the sixth overtime period, after a total of 164 minutes and 46 seconds of hockey. It was the longest NHL game in history to that point, though the record lasted just three years.

"Countless oldsters across the country," Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell said, "will recall how they finally fell into the sack, shortly before the dawn's early light, with the name of Doraty still ringing in their ears."

Doraty's record was broken on March 24-25 at the Forum in Montreal, where rookie forward Mud Bruneteau scored for the Red Wings at 16:30 of the sixth overtime to give Detroit a 1-0 win against Montreal Maroons.

"But I was the first," Doraty insisted. "I bet more people remember my goal than the one that guy -- what's his name, Bruneteau -- scored."

Better still, neither game was settled by a coin toss.

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