Imagine you are coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings.
Your team is favored, but you are trailing the best-of-7 series 3-0 with Game 4 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. You have to do something -- anything -- to revive your team.
Guess what Toronto coach Hap Day did to reverse the momentum? Implausibly, he benched his best scorer, a Hall of Famer, and best defenseman, and inserted three total unknowns to replace them.
Well aware no hockey team had ever recovered to win four straight Stanley Cup games, Day knew he had to do something dramatic to revive his club. Meanwhile, he was vilified by Toronto fans wherever he turned. "The abuse fell like rain," Day recalled. "We got blasted in the papers and on the streets. Everywhere!"
Maple Leaf Gardens directors demanded an explanation for the collapse. "I told them about Detroit's style," Day said. "And I told them our star defenseman Bucko McDonald was simply tired out. He had played wonderful hockey for us, but he was just tuckered out and couldn't cope with Detroit's shooting tactics.
"I said the same thing about my best shooter, Gordie Drillon. He was a great scorer but his style wasn't suited to that shoot-and-skate stuff that the Red Wings were using and was new to the League that year."
The Maple Leaf Gardens executives listened but were still unimpressed. "OK," said Col. William Alfred Hawley MacBrien, one of the Leafs directors, after Day completed his explanation. "Now what are you going to do about it?"
Anticipating the question, Day stunned the listeners to the core. He revealed he had devised a bizarre strategy to launch the most amazing comeback in NHL history.
Day benched his leading scorer, future Hall of Fame sharpshooter Drillon, in the prime of his career.
He also scratched his top defenseman, McDonald, notorious throughout the NHL for his thundering body checks.
As replacements, Day inserted rookie defensemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham as well as forward Don Metz, kid brother of ace forward Nick Metz. None of the new trio previously had displayed any special talents to that point.
According to the official NHL history, the changes were not generally regarded as meaningful, except in one key area. "Although the replacements did nothing out of the ordinary," wrote Charles L. Coleman, the original League historian and author of "The Trail Of The Stanley Cup," "the rest of the team was fired up and Detroit had its hands full."
Once Game 4 began, fans at Olympia Stadium experienced seesaw emotions. The Red Wings scored the first two goals, Toronto fought back to tie the game 2-2, but Detroit went in front again early in the third period when Carl Liscombe scored.
The Olympia record crowd of 13,695 began envisioning Stanley Cup champagne bottles being popped until Syl Apps tied the game once more and then sent Nick Metz in the clear for what proved to be the winning goal. The final score was 4-3, Toronto, but the Wings were as furious about penalties they received from referee Mel Harwood as they were upset about the result.
Coleman's NHL history recorded it this way: "Detroit's [Eddie] Wares got a misconduct and a $50 fine for refusing to leave the ice, and [Don] Grosso was fined $25 for throwing his stick and gloves and offering to trade punches. Manager Jack Adams climaxed the affair by rushing on the ice at the final bell and started a fight with referee Harwood. President [Frank] Calder was present and his action was prompt. Wares and Grosso were tagged an additional $100 by the president while Jack Adams was suspended indefinitely."
Some observers believe Adams' eruption and subsequent suspension was the turning point in the series. Veteran forward Ebbie Goodfellow handled the Red Wings from the bench in the fifth game at Maple Leaf Gardens, but Toronto was unstoppable and routed Detroit 9-3. The hitherto unknown Don Metz scored three goals and had two assists. The resounding defeat prompted Goodfellow to shake up his lineup for Game 6 at Olympia Stadium.
But the Red Wings couldn't contain overnight hero Don Metz. After 14 seconds of the second period, he intercepted a pass near the Detroit goal and beat goalie Johnny Mowers with a quick shot. It was his fourth goal in three games. Newcomer Goldham and third-year man Billy [The Kid] Taylor added goals in the third period to give Toronto a 3-0 victory and a 3-3 tie in the series.
"By the time the seventh and deciding game rolled around," said Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Vern DeGeer, "so much pent-up enthusiasm had attached itself to the series that the teams attracted 16,218 customers to the final match, the largest crowd to see a hockey game in Canada."
After a scoreless first period, Syd Howe put Detroit ahead with a backhand shot at 1:44 of the second period. Sensing victory, the Wings tightened their defense and preserved the lead through the middle period and into the early minutes of the third, But their carefully laid defensive plans were disrupted when rugged defenseman Jimmy Orlando received a two-minute tripping penalty in the fifth minute of the third period.
Desperately, the Red Wings battled the clock and seemed to have successfully killed the penalty as Orlando stepped out of the box. But Toronto's Lorne Carr had possession of the puck at the blue line and fed it ahead to Taylor, who feinted a shot and passed to Dave [Sweeney] Schriner. His shot skimmed tantalizingly across the ice just out of Mowers' reach and into the net.
Less than two minutes later, Toronto's Johnny McCreedy was checked when he skated into the Detroit zone. The puck flew crazily in the air and landed at the mouth of the Red Wings goal. Another virtual unknown, Pete Langelle, who was stationed near the crease awaiting a pass, took a whack and punched the puck into the net, giving Toronto a 2-1 lead.
Frantic now that they were behind, the Red Wings plunged headlong into the Maple Leafs' zone with little concern for defense. They needed a goal and realized if they didn't get one, there'd be no tomorrow. But Toronto capitalized on Detroit's offensive obsession and surged ahead when Billy Taylor took a pass from Lorne Carr and scored the Maple Leafs third goal. Interestingly, it was the same Taylor who after Toronto was down 3-0 in the series had vowed his club would win the next four games.
Only 3:47 remained when Taylor scored, so the Maple Leafs held fast and simply let the bewildered Red Wings come at them. It was no use. Goalie Turk Broda stopped everything he saw, and Red Wings shots were shunted harmlessly into the corners or the sideboards. Meanwhile, the overhead clocked ticked away the remaining seconds until the bell sounded, signaling the greatest comeback in hockey history.
Minutes later, as his triumphant Maple Leafs swilled champagne in the dressing room, coach Day looked up at the huge lettering across the top of the ceiling and smiled when he read the words: "DEFEAT DOES NOT REST LIGHTLY ON OUR SHOULDERS!"
Toronto's extraordinary comeback in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final certainly underlined that point.