Video: Ted Kennedy was catalyst for first Leafs dynasty
The voice belonged to otherwise reserved Maple Leafs fan/gas station owner John Arnott, who would urge his team's heart-and-soul player to do what he did best -- provide the spark that would ignite another Toronto victory.
Ted Kennedy traced his nickname, "Teeder," back to the kids who mispronounced "Theodore" in his hometown of Humberstone, Ontario. Whatever you wanted to call him, Kennedy was Toronto's fire-starter, the catalyst for the first Maple Leafs dynasty when they won three Stanley Cup championships in a row from 1947-49 and five between 1945 and 1951. He captained the final two title teams, but even before that Kennedy was Toronto's leader by example. His reputation as a big-time playoff scorer and his ability to score clutch goals, set up others, anticipate the play, dominate in the faceoff circle and forecheck relentlessly all emanated from an intense and unsurpassed desire to win.
"He was not the most gifted athlete the way some players were, but he accomplished more than most of them by never playing a shift where he did not give everything he had," Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe said. "He was the greatest competitor in hockey."
Games: 696 | Goals: 231 | Assists: 329 | Points: 560
Ruggedly built at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, and with energy to burn, Kennedy was enormously popular among fans, who could plainly see the determination etched on his face. "No player worked as hard as he did or showed so many signs of struggle," author Jack Batten wrote in his book "The Leafs in Autumn." "Toward the end of every season, Kennedy would look like a man in torment. From the Gardens seats, his face seemed to swell into small lumps of pain, as if a bunch of golf balls had somehow materialized under his skin. His head glistened in sweat, and when you looked at his hair, kinky with tight little curls, you figured he might have stepped out of a heavy shower. His play was a form of torture."
Some speculated the rationale behind Kennedy's over-the-top work ethic was to compensate for his subpar skating ability. "He was not an easy skater, appearing to run, not glide, on the blades, often with a look on his face as if he were in pain, perspiring from the effort," Frank Orr wrote in the Toronto Star.
Smythe defended Kennedy's inelegant footwork by saying, "Sure he labored. That was his style. But I never saw anyone catch him when he had the puck and that's what counts." His linemate Howie Meeker, the team's best skater, seconded that, saying Kennedy "went from A to B just as fast I could because he went through people."
Born Dec. 12, 1925, Kennedy had grown up a Maple Leafs fan, glued to the radio to follow their exploits, especially those of his favorite player, Charlie Conacher. He also became something of a rink rat in Humberstone. His twice-widowed mother, Margaret, had to take on two jobs during the Depression to support her family and she worked each evening at the local rink's concession stand. "She was a woman with the kind of perseverance and unwavering courage that you learned from," Kennedy said decades later. His aunt also worked there, and young Ted and his buddies would help clean the ice in exchange for ice time for shinny when the senior games ended for the night.
His desire made him a standout youth hockey player in the neighboring town of Port Colborne, where he caught the attention of the Montreal Canadiens, who invited the 16-year-old to their training camp in 1942. Although ticketed for the Montreal Royals junior team, he grew homesick. Kennedy packed his bags and returned home, joining the Port Colborne Sailors senior team.
It was a fortuitous move because the Sailors coach was "Old Poison," Nels Stewart, who at the time had the most goals in NHL history (324). Stewart saw Kennedy's potential and tutored him in both shooting and passing. Kennedy improved so much that Stewart tipped off the Leafs about him and, before the season's end, he was in Toronto's lineup for two games as a 17-year-old in 1942-43. He is still the youngest player to dress for the Maple Leafs.
Toronto had to trade with the Canadiens for his rights, and the deal became a huge footnote in hockey history. Maple Leafs executive Frank Selke swapped promising defenseman Frank Eddolls for Kennedy, and Smythe, overseas serving in World War II, was not consulted. It led to a schism between Selke and Smythe, and Selke eventually left the Maple Leafs to run the Canadiens, transforming them into a dynasty. Ironically, Kennedy became Smythe's favorite player.
Once in Toronto, Kennedy found a new tutor in Day, who taught him the importance of winning faceoffs. He'd become the NHL's best faceoff man, not only winning draws but positioning his teammates before the puck drop to maximize his effectiveness.
Over his first two full seasons with the Maple Leafs, Kennedy averaged better than a point per game and, still a teenager, led them in scoring in 1944-45 (54 points). In the playoffs that season, Toronto first faced the powerful Canadiens, who featured Maurice Richard (who had scored 50 goals that season), Elmer Lach and Toe Blake - an explosive combination called the "Punch Line." Day put Kennedy between Bob Davidson and Mel Hill and sent them out head-to-head against Montreal's big three.
Unintimidated by the rugged Lach, the NHL's most valuable player that season, Kennedy helped shut down the "Punch Line" in Game 1 and scored the only goal with 22 seconds left in the third period, shocking Montreal. He opened the scoring early in the Maple Leafs' Game 2 victory and with the Maple Leafs trailing 2-0 in Game 4, he assisted on a goal by Hill to cut the deficit to 2-1. The Maple Leafs would eventually win in overtime. The Maple Leafs pulled off a stunning six-game upset and advanced to face the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. The 19-year-old Kennedy was thrust into the hockey spotlight.
Frank "Ulcers" McCool's three consecutive shutouts helped the Maple Leafs take a 3-0 series lead, and in Game 4 Kennedy nearly knocked the Red Wings out singlehandedly with a hat trick. But Detroit roared back to take that game and the next two before Toronto prevailed in Game 7 to win the Cup. Kennedy led all playoff scorers with seven goals and always maintained that postseason represented his favorite hockey memory.
"Some had called the '45 Canadiens the best team in NHL history to that point," Kennedy told Frank Orr. "But about a dozen of us scrubs were able to beat them because of Day's remarkable use of his players. I'll tell you one thing: I was never as tired in my life as when those playoffs were over."
Starting in 1946-47, Kennedy wore Conacher's old No. 9 on his back, and Conacher himself presented it to him in a small ceremony. That was also the season a rebuilt, younger Toronto club began its run of three consecutive Cup victories (the Maple Leafs would become the first NHL team to win three straight titles). Kennedy -- now centering Meeker and Vic Lynn -- resumed his role as the Maple Leafs spark plug. He led the Maple Leafs in scoring with 60 points and helped Meeker win the Calder Trophy in 1947.
If ever there was a player who made his linemates better, it was Kennedy. "If you couldn't play hockey with Kennedy, you couldn't play with anybody," Meeker said in his biography, "Golly Gee -- It's Me!" "He was probably as great a competitor as has ever played the game, and certainly by far the toughest competitor on our team. He had great hockey sense and great puck-handling and passing skills."
Kennedy distinguished himself in each of those championship seasons, always finding a way to help the Maple Leafs win. He scored two game-winning goals in the 1947 Final, including the Cup-winning goal at 14:37 of the third period in Game 6, and a big insurance goal in Game 3 with Montreal pressing to tie the game late.
In 1947-48 he led the League in playoff goals (eight) and playoff points (14). Plus, he played, in today's parlance, a beautiful 200-foot game. He was everywhere, it seemed, doing everything, scoring four goals in Game 2 against the Boston Bruins in the first round. Typical was the series-winning sequence in Game 5 against Boston, his strong forecheck leading to a Toronto possession that he completed by scoring off a pass from Meeker after deking Bruins goalie Frank Brimsek.
The Maple Leafs struggled to make the playoffs in 1949. An injury to Kennedy was one reason why. He returned in mid-January and they squeaked into the postseason. Then he went to work, again leading the team in playoff scoring (two goals, eight points) as they eliminated Boston in five games and swept fast-rising Detroit.
When NHL President Clarence Campbell presented the Cup to Kennedy, the tired captain cradled it with a big smile, telling the Toronto crowd over the PA system, "We must have been an awful strain on you because there were times when even we didn't think we were going to get into the playoffs. But here we are - and there's the Cup." Three in a row, and Gardens' response was deafening.
When the Maple Leafs defeated Montreal to win the Cup in '51, in a series in which all five games went to overtime, Kennedy's faceoff win late in Game 5 led to Tod Sloan's tying goal, setting the stage for Bill Barilko's legendary overtime Cup winner. It was Kennedy's fifth Cup championship, the most of any NHL player to that point. And it was Barilko's last goal; he would die in a plane crash during the summer.
Strangely, Kennedy played seven seasons before he began to receive recognition from the NHL for major awards. In 1950 and '51, he was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team and received Hart Trophy consideration, finishing second in the voting in '50 and fifth in '51. "He lost out on the All-Star balloting because he was not a free skater," Selke wrote in his autobiography, "Behind the Cheering." "But many times men were named who were far from Kennedy's equal in all-around effectiveness." Kennedy again made the Second All-Star Team in 1954, although he believed his game had declined and he contemplated retirement.
He returned for one last season and won the Hart Trophy recipient in '55. With his retirement imminent, some considered it the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award rather than recognition for that season. Kennedy came out of retirement for the second half of the season with the struggling Maple Leafs two years later, hoping to assist Meeker, who had been named coach. Then he retired for good.
Kennedy, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, finished with 231 NHL goals, and had 29 goals and 60 points in 78 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Teeder Kennedy, who died on Aug. 14, 2009, and his vociferous fan John Arnott, who made "Come oooonnn, Teeder!" known throughout the hockey world, actually struck up a friendship over time. "Ted is my idea of a perfect hockey machine," said Arnott, echoing the sentiments of all who played with him, coached him or cheered for him. "He never stops trying."
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