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Turk Broda's legend still looms large

Goalie, who won Stanley Cup five times with Toronto, acquired by Maple Leafs 80 years ago Friday

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Throughout the 1940s, the Toronto Maple Leafs' most glorious decade, goaltender Turk Broda often was the biggest story on his team.

Literally and figuratively.

On May 6, 1936, 80 years ago Friday, legendary Maple Leafs owner/general manager Conn Smythe paid the Detroit Red Wings $7,500 for the rights to Broda, a 21-year-old native of Brandon, Manitoba, who had arrived in the Detroit organization a few years earlier.

It was a princely sum during the Depression, but it would prove to be a tremendous bargain for Toronto; Detroit general manager Jack Adams often regretted the sale of a man who would become known as one of the greatest money goaltenders of all time, forever a Red Wings nemesis, a winner who was at his best when the stakes were highest.

Chunky Walter Broda was always a little larger than life; he was nicknamed "Turk" as a boy for a freckled face that resembled a turkey egg. It stuck; in later years, his generous upper body and pencil-thin legs didn't discourage teammates from comparing him to the bird.

Broda didn't lack confidence. He was barely out of his teens when he marched into the Red Wings hotel during a 1934 Western Canada tour to introduce himself to Adams as the goaltender of Detroit's dreams.

He never did play a game for the Red Wings, instead being assigned to Detroit's farm system. Smythe, meanwhile, knew that George Hainsworth, Toronto's 40-year-old goaltending incumbent, was in the twilight of his storied career. The purchase was made, with Adams deeming Broda expendable because veteran Normie Smith was parked in the Red Wings goal. Broda played 45 of the Maple Leafs' 48 games in the 1936-37 season.

He was in net for all but one of their 144 games the next three seasons, then anchored Toronto's historic comeback against the Red Wings in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, one of many Broda nightmares for Adams.

The Maple Leafs were down 3-0 to Detroit in the best-of-7 series before they roared back with four consecutive victories, with Broda earning a shutout in Game 6. Toronto won the fourth of 13 championships in franchise history.

Video: 1942 Cup Final, Gm7:Leafs overcome 0-3 series deficit

Toronto became the first of four NHL teams to rally from that seemingly inescapable hole and win a series, the Maple Leafs are still the only team to do so in the Final. They have since been joined, in earlier rounds, by the 1975 New York Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and 2014 Los Angeles Kings.

Broda served 2 1/2 years in the Canadian army during World War II, but he was back in the NHL for the 1946-47 season, helping the Maple Leafs to three consecutive championships from 1947-49.

As his legend was growing, so was his waistline; the doughy 5-foot-9 bon vivant had a futile battle with the scale. Indeed, his athleticism truly defied his girth.

Early in the 1949-50 season, Smythe finally ordered his star goalie to shed seven pounds to get down to 190. Broda's job was hanging in the balance. The topic transcended the sports pages; nutrition and health tips poured in from across the country as Broda worked to sweat off some bulk.

"People thought it was a publicity stunt and that Turk was in on it, but I don't know," teammate Joe Klukay said in "Without Fear," Bob Duff and Kevin Allen's 2002 book profiling 50 great goaltenders (Patrick Roy was ranked first, Broda 11th).

"Smythe had Turk run up and down the stairs at the rink every day, and that didn't look like much fun."

Still, Broda had fun with it. He was photographed weighing in on a cattle scale and sitting in his goal crease in full uniform, a stack of pancakes on his plate. This was a man who loved his beer and the nightlife that was a perk of his celebrity status.

After a one-game benching while on his weight-loss campaign, a comparatively svelte, 189-pound Broda returned to action with his fourth shutout of 1949-50, a 2-0 win against the New York Rangers, on his way to a career-best and NHL-leading nine shutouts that season.

"There may be better goalies around somewhere but there's no greater sportsman than the Turkey," Smythe joked, as quoted in 2010's "Hockey Hall of Fame Book of Goalies."

Authors Duff and Allen recount Broda, while taking part in an NHL All-Stars exhibition series in Hollywood following the 1942-43 season, wandering off one night on a pub crawl with an American G.I. he'd met.

The soldier would be found hours later, passed out in the orchestra pit of a nightclub, but Broda was still going strong into the wee hours, playing a piano duet with jazz legend Hoagy Carmichael. Somehow, the goalie was able to shut out the Canadiens 1-0 that night.

If Broda bore a sometimes uncanny resemblance to Howdy Doody, so too did his personality mesh with Buffalo Bob's famous TV puppet. Where many of his maskless counterparts were tightly wound knots of goaltending nerves, Broda embraced everything about his life. His ability to shrug off pressure making him a brilliant playoff performer.

He spent his entire 13-plus-season NHL career with Toronto, winning five times in eight Stanley Cup Final appearances and twice winning the Vezina Trophy.

In his 101 playoff games, Broda earned 13 shutouts with a 1.98 goals-against average -- more than half a goal-against better than his average in 629 regular-season games. He won the Stanley Cup for the final time in 1951, helping Toronto defeat the Canadiens in a series that saw all five games go into overtime.

Video: 1951 Cup Final, Gm5: Barilko nets Cup winner in OT

With his 38th birthday on the horizon, Broda played one period of one game in the autumn of 1951, surrendering three goals. He knew his days were done and he retired. Smythe held Turk Broda Night at Maple Leaf Gardens just before Christmas.

Or at least Turk thought he was retired. Smythe, seeking to inspire his team, brought Broda back for Game 2 of the Maple Leafs' semifinal against the Red Wings. It was his 100th career playoff game; he made 24 saves in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss, but was lit up in a 6-2 loss in Game 3 and hung up his pads for good.

More than a half-century after his retirement, Broda remains atop Toronto's all-time regular-season goaltending lists in games played (629), wins (302), shutouts (62) and minutes played (38,167).

He remained hugely popular in Toronto after his playing days, coaching the major junior Toronto Marlboros to Memorial Cup championships in 1955 and 1956 while deeply involved in the community until he died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 58, five years after he had been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

This October, to begin their centennial season, the Maple Leafs will unveil a statue of Broda on their Legends Row outside Air Canada Centre. His likeness will be joined on the occasion by those of fellow Toronto icons Dave Keon and Tim Horton.

"My dad would have loved this," Broda's daughter, Barbara Tushingham, told the Toronto Sun when the announcement was made in January. "He played with heart…. he loved the Leafs and the fans. He was everybody's friend."

Larger than life, still.

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