What do you remember about your first year on skates?
I got a late start because I was raised in Victoria, British Columbia, where the winters are mild. Then we moved to Toronto and I was 13 when I first got on the ice. It was 1917 and an uncle of mine had gone to war and left a pair of skates at home. They were big for me, but I put a pair of woolen slippers inside to keep them snug on my feet. We lived across from a park, so after school I'd put the blades on and skate until suppertime. I'd have dinner -- with my skates on -- then go back out for almost an hour and skate until it was time to do homework.
When did you get serious about hockey?
There were a group of fellows as bad as I was, but we formed a club and challenged other teams. Eventually I got good enough to make my high school varsity as a right wing and then I was moved to center. I got good enough to try out for the Junior Marlboros, managed by Frank Selke. He was the assistant to Conn Smythe who ran the Maple Leafs. Mr. Selke sent me to a minor league club, the Toronto Ravinas. This was in 1926 when Smythe had been hired by the New York Rangers to put together their first team. Conn gave me $500, 10 $50 bills, as a bonus. It was the first time I had seen that much money. I pinned the cash in my inside pocket, went home and showed the money to my mother. She said, "Joe Primeau, you take that right back. You have no right to take that money." She thought I should be paying Smythe for the privilege of playing. Then Smythe got fired by the Rangers owners and returned to Toronto to organize the Maple Leafs, so I wound up starting with them.
How did you wind up centering one of the NHL's most famous lines?
By 1929 I began to feel that I really belonged in the NHL. Smythe had signed a new fellow named Charlie Conacher who had a terrific shot. Charlie and I worked on a line with Harold "Baldy" Cotton, who had come to Toronto via a deal with Pittsburgh. Then along came Harvey "Busher" Jackson, who replaced Cotton, and this was the beginning of what became known as "The Kid Line." At the time, though, we had no idea how [good] we were going to be, although it didn't take very long for us to jell as a unit.
Why was the "Kid Line" so good?
Harvey was a natural. He did things with the puck without having to think about them. As for Charlie, he was aware of every move he made and could tell you about each one. They had lots of fire and confidence, which helped me because I needed both at the time. We called Charlie "The Big Boomer." He was to the NHL at that time what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Like Babe could knock the ball out of the park, Charlie could win a game by making the big play. Sometimes he'd cruise in on a goalie who'd stiffen up expecting a tremendous shot, but Charlie would cross him up and just shoot that puck along the ice and it would be in -- so simple. And he'd never do the same thing twice.
What was it like to win the Stanley Cup in 1932?
We played the Rangers in a best-of-5 Final and beat them in three straight. The first game set the stage; we had a big lead, but the Rangers almost tied it and then we wound up in a furious ending with a 6-4 win. The second game was in Boston since Madison Square Garden wasn't available and we won 6-2 after being down 2-0. After we won the final game 6-4, Smythe -- he loved horse racing -- named one of his 2-year-olds, "Six-To-Four," another horse "Three Straight" and the third one "Stanley Cup, all because of that series.
That team from the early 1930s was called "The Gashouse Gang of Hockey." What pranks do you remember?
Charlie Conacher once hung Harold Cotton by the ankles, upside down, from a window very high up when we were at the Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan. Charlie, who was big and strong, got tired of Harold complaining about Charlie not passing hm the puck. I was with Harvey Jackson in a room just below and looked out my window to see Cotton upside down. Charlie pulled him back to safety after Harold promised to shut up about passes. Another time we were on our train and Charlie talked me into helping him mix up all the different bags belonging to the guys. When the players discovered the mess, they wanted to know who did it -- so Charlie says, "I haven't seen Primeau around for a while."
When did you decide to retire -- and why?
We played Detroit in the 1937 Cup Final and got beaten. When it was over, I figured I had given my best and gotten the same in return. If I continued playing, I wouldn't be giving as much. Besides, I was building up my own concrete block business in Toronto. Smythe tried to talk me out of retiring, but my mind was made up. Also, I had my eye on coaching and that's what I wound up doing in Toronto before World War II. During the war I coached a Canadian air force team called the Ottawa Commandos, and we won the national championship.
What made you continue coaching?
St. Michael's College in Toronto had a junior team affiliated with the Maple Leafs, and Smythe asked me to coach them. We had a strong club and won the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior championship, in 1945. Next year we reached the final and lost in the last three minutes of the seventh game. We won it again in 1947. Then Smythe asked me if I'd coach the Leafs' senior team, the Toronto Marlboros, and I accepted.
Where did that lead you?
Eventually to the senior championship, the Allan Cup; but not right away. We got beat in the 1948 playoffs and again in 1949; but in 1950 we got to the final round against Calgary. The series was supposed to start on a Monday night, but Monday at noon I got a call from my brother that my father had been hit by a car and killed. So I flew home after the game, we won 5-4, for the funeral and missed the game on Wednesday. (Calgary won 4-1). I got back for the Saturday game and we went on to win that one and eventually clinched with a 9-5 score in the last game. The Marlies team was quite an outfit. It certainly helped me get my NHL job as coach of the Maple Leafs in the fall of 1950.
You followed Hap Day, who had won the Stanley Cup five times with Toronto. How about that challenge?
I inherited a lot of good players. On defense I had Jim Thomson, Gus Mortson and Bill Barilko. They had played so well on Cup-winning teams in 1947, 1948 and 1949. I also had a couple of tough boys, Fern Flaman and Bill Juzda. Up front we had three good centers with Ted Kennedy, the captain, leading the way. He was a tremendous competitor and face-off man. Cal Gardner and Max Bentley were the other centers. Max was one of the most exciting players I ever saw. Then there was more depth up front -- Tod Sloan, Sid Smith, Joe Klukay and Danny Lewicki, who I had on the Marlboros when we won the Allan Cup.
How did you handle the goaltending?
That was interesting because Turk Broda, one of the best in the clutch, was in the twilight of his career. But we also had a younger goalie, Al Rollins. I alternated them about evenly during the season. By this time Broda had a weight problem, so I had orders from Conn Smythe to weigh Turk on the first and 15th of every month, the days that the paychecks were handed out. Turk had to be under 190 pounds or else he was fined. As a goalkeeper, Broda was great. He had the knack of coming back after a bad loss with a terrific game; his mental outlook was excellent in that respect. The tandem with Turk and Al worked well for us right into the 1951 playoffs. In the first round it really paid off. I started Rollins against the Bruins -- but he got run down by Boston's Pete Horeck, so I had to put Turk back in goal. He played well and we beat the Bruins to get into the Cup Final against Montreal.
What was it like to be a rookie NHL coach in the 1951 Cup Final?
Very thrilling. That series was one of the best of all-time because every single game of the five went into overtime. But the fifth one was really special because we were only one win away from being champs. Still, as coach, I had a couple of worries. One was stopping the great "Rocket" Richard, who had beaten us on a breakaway to win the second game for Montreal. My other concern was taming my aggressive defenseman, Bill Barilko. I had been after him for "getting caught in the slot." For a defenseman to get caught up ice was poison. That was especially so against Richard, who would break out and be gone. I said, "Bill, if you get caught up there I'm going to fine you $100, and $100 for every time after that. So Barilko started playing it pretty cautious -- until that fifth game went into overtime.
How did Barilko handle it?
Early in [overtime], Bill was being careful, staying outside the blue line when we were pressing for the winner. Suddenly the puck came skimming toward the blue line. Barilko saw it and made this tremendous dive because he had to get the puck before a Canadien did or else there'd be a clear shot down the ice for Montreal. Somehow he threw himself at the puck and swung his stick all in the same motion. Bill fired the puck and then seemed to hang in the air, parallel to the ice, with his eyes fixed on the net. The puck flew over Canadiens goalie Gerry McNeil into the net. We had won the Cup! I immediately jumped the boards and ran to Bill. He remembered that I'd been harping at him about playing back. "Well, Skipper " he said, "you didn't want the hook on me that time, did you?"
Looking back, do you have any regrets?
No, sir. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing. Winning the Memorial Cup, the Allan Cup and then the Stanley Cup was something special. Those coaching victories gave me a hat trick with the major hockey trophies. But eventually it was time for me to make a change. I still loved hockey, but to do the job right, the game involves a real, honest endeavor -- and by this time I had my outside business primarily on my mind, and knew I couldn't do both. I look back with pride. A pure hockey player is as honest a person as you can find because of what he does out there on the ice. There's no covering up anything. His performance tells the tale, especially when a player wins the Stanley Cup!