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NHL Centennial

Broda, Maple Leafs conquered 'Battle of the Bulge' in 1949

Goalie fulfilled owner's mandate to lose weight, was turning point in Hockey Hall of Fame career

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

The Battle of the Bulge in World War II was a turning point for the Allies in their crusade to defeat Nazi Germany.

The Battle of the Bulge involving the Toronto Maple Leafs was a turning point in the career of goalie Walter (Turk) Broda, who later would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

How this icy and dicey melodrama unfolded during the 1949-50 Stanley Cup Playoff race was one of the most dramatic -- and humorous -- episodes involving one of the all-time great goaltenders.

The episode took place in the fall of 1949, when Toronto sought to win the Stanley Cup for an unprecedented fourth straight time.

Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe could sniff another championship. On Nov. 1, 1949, Toronto marched into first place and skated like champs. But in the following weeks, injuries decimated the lineup and the Maple Leafs played like chumps.

 

[RELATED: Turk Broda: 100 Greatest NHL Players profile | Broda's legend still looms large

 

Where once Smythe was delirious with joy, his mood had moved from curious to furious. By Nov. 30, the Maple Leafs had gone six games without a win, tying once. It was then that Smythe declared what became known as hockey's classic "Battle of the Bulge."

"It's condition that's needed," Smythe said. "Nothing but condition. If it isn't Turk's fault, we'll find out whose it is."

Smythe's opening gun in the Battle of the Bulge was a demand that some of his best players reduce their weight to specified limits. Broda, who weighed 197 pounds, was ordered to lose seven pounds.

To underline the seriousness of his offensive, Smythe promptly called up reserve goalie Gil Mayer from his Pittsburgh farm team.

"We're starting Mayer in our next game," Smythe asserted, "and he'll stay in there even if the score is 500-1 against the Leafs -- and I don't think it will be."

This was the supreme insult to Broda, who except for a stint in the Canadian Army had never missed a game during his 12 seasons as a Toronto goalie. But Smythe was unimpressed. That was Tuesday, and he was giving Turk until Saturday to fulfill the weight demand.

"I'm taking Broda out of the nets," Smythe said, "And he's not going back until he shows some common sense. Two seasons ago, he weighed 185. Last season, he went up to 190, and now this. A goalie has to have fast reflexes and you can't move fast when you're overweight."

Video: Turk Broda earned reputation as big-game goalie

Then Smythe directed his wrath toward other culprits such as forwards Howie Meeker and Harry Watson, and defenseman Garth Boesch.

"We have the best hockey public in the world and we're going to dish out the hockey it wants to see," Smythe said. "If the players don't come through, they won't be traded. They'll sit on the bench. I'm not going to let them loaf at the expense of some other teams. We'll let them try buying their own roast beef for a change."

Smythe's outburst reverberated across Canada and parts of the United States, and soon the Battle of the Bulge became a cause celebre. Neutral observers regarded Turk's tussle with the scales as a huge joke, win or lose, but to Smythe it was no joke. None of the Maple Leafs were particularly amused either. Outsiders figured it was worth exploiting for publicity purposes.

Smythe's buddy, Toronto's restaurant owner Sam Shopsowitz, took an ad in the local papers declaring, "For that 'Old Broda' look, eat at Shopsy's." Another featured a caricature of Broda stopping eight pucks at once with the caption: "Just three weeks ago, I was the best goalkeeper in the League. If I'd only eaten a few more king-sized steaks at the Palisades, I'd be fat enough to fill the whole net and they would never score on me!"

Meanwhile, reporters were following Broda's hour-by-hour fight against fat with utter fascination. The Toronto Globe and Mail featured a photograph of him sitting in a steam bath with a doleful look on his face and a towel wrapped around his head like a turban.

"It seems to me I've been eating nothing but apples," Broda was saying, "and killing my thirst with oranges. For my evening meal I had a lean steak and spinach. No potatoes, no bread. And a cup of tea. No cream, no sugar."

  NHL Centennial portrait of Turk Broda done by Canadian artist Tony Harris

 

After one day of severe dieting, Broda trimmed his weight from 197 to 193, and all of Canada seemed to breathe easier. Even so, by midweek he had still not reached his approved weight limit and Smythe dropped another bombshell. He sent five players as well as cash "in five figures" to Cleveland for 23-year-old goalie Al Rollins.

According to hockey experts, Rollins was the best professional goalie outside of the NHL, which he proved in years to come. The acquisition of Rollins emphasized the gravity of Broda's position.

"I don't blame Mr. Smythe," Turk said. "I guess we had to learn the hard way."

To which Smythe replied, "If Turk makes 190 pounds and makes the team, he can play. We'll do everything in our power to have him out there until the last button pops off his vest. But as far as I'm concerned, the team will come before manager, coach or any player. Turk's done a great deal for us, and we're not forgetting that. But we've done a great deal to make Turk a great goalie too. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see him get down in weight, get his timing back and see the team fighting to keep him in there."

Turk and his wife, Betty, were besieged by advice and good wishes from people all over Canada. A well-known nutritionist advised that the way to lose weight was by willpower. "Overweight," he told the rotund goalie, "is caused solely by eating more food than is needed." One woman phoned Betty Broda to tell her that she lost 28 pounds in two weeks. She promised to forward her diet to the Brodas.

Smythe had set the final weigh-in for Saturday afternoon, just before the evening game against the New York Rangers at Maple Leaf Gardens. He refused to divulge what specific action he would take against Broda or the other Maple Leafs if they did not pass muster, but he suggested that it would not be lenient.

"I think that's my business," Smythe asserted, "But I might fine them $500."

As the indicated players approached the homestretch, they appeared to have lost the stipulated pounds but they were suffering in the process. Harry Watson, who had shed nine pounds, four more than necessary, said that he was too weak to report to the gymnasium Friday afternoon. Defenseman Garth Boesch said that he was so hungry he could eat dog meat. And Broda, forcing a laugh, announced "I'm so thirsty I could drink a rinkful of water."

 

[RELATED: Leafs won 1942 Cup with historic comeback | How Smythe's gamble paid off for Leafs

 

The climax of the anti-corpulence crusade finally arrived when, one by one, the penitent Maple Leafs stepped on the scales under Smythe's watchful eye. Watson, Boesch, Vic Lynn, Sid Smith and Meeker all weighed in under the limit.

Finally, it was Broda's turn.

Turk moved forward and gingerly placed his feet on the platform. The numbers finally settled -- just under 190 pounds. He had made it! Turk was delighted and Smythe was doubly enthusiastic because he regarded his goaltender with paternal affection.

"There may be better goalies around somewhere," he said, "but there's no greater sportsmen than the Turkey. If the Rangers score on him tonight, I should walk out and hand him a malted milk, just to show I'm not trying to starve him to death."

That night, Maple Leaf Gardens was packed with 13,359 Turk fans. When Broda skated out for the opening faceoff, the Gardens' regimental band swung into "Happy Days Are Here Again" and followed it with a chorus of "She's Too Fat For Me."

No longer Fat Turk, Broda proceeded to blank the Rangers 2-0. He was at the top of his game, if not the top of his weight.

Surrounded by jubilant players in the dressing room, Broda was embraced by Smythe and his new understudy, Al Rollins. He stepped on the scales and discovered he had lost four more pounds during the heat of the game. He was down to 186 and raring to go through the season's campaign.

Although Smythe's edict worked on the scales, the Maple Leafs missed winning their fourth consecutive championship. But a slimmer Turk wasn't finished with his heroics. A year later, Broda combined with Rollins to help Toronto to its fourth Stanley Cup title in five years and added a dietary cherry to the cake by co-winning the Vezina Trophy with Pal Al.

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

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