Irish ties smile on Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Here's to Clancy, Quinn and McNamara, and the one day that Leafs Nation turns from blue to green.

Not in envy of all the teams who've passed Toronto in the standings, but in celebration of the proud and often quirky history its hockey club has with the Emerald Isle. Of Ireland 'tis said: "The inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs". The same is true today of the team that once had a shamrock where the Leafs crest resides.

TRIBUTE

It was 76 St. Patrick Days ago that the first tribute game for a local athlete was staged, with the new Maple Leaf Gardens crammed full to fete Francis Michael (King) Clancy, the team's first franchise player. In a pre-game ceremony before playing the Rangers, parade-type floats of a harp, a pipe and even a potato circled the ice, while Clancy, with crown and flowing white beard, doffed his special robe to reveal a green and white shamrock sweater.

The three-time all-star defenceman refused to take it off when the game began, leading to a protest by Rangers boss Lester Patrick after one period. It wouldn't be the last time Clancy had the Gardens in an uproar, whether he was playing, officiating, coaching or making office secretaries dive for cover in the mid 1980s when he grabbed a stick and gave rookie Wendel Clark some impromptu shooting lessons.

"Dad was the leprechaun of leprechauns," said Terry Clancy, who followed his father to the Leafs for 86 games. "On St. Patrick's Day, he'd come in the Gardens with that big green top hat and a green tie and put on a show."

The other 364 days, Clancy was brimming with stories and song and would be among the last to leave the saloon whenever the hockey men gathered. As his behaviour grew more boisterous, bartenders would warn Clancy he had be cut off, but the fact is he never touched a drop of Guinness or Irish whiskey. It was all his gift of blarney.

Irish ties to Toronto go back to the early 19th century, but Irish eyes were not always smiling. Almost 40,000 flooded the city in the summer of 1847 after the potato famine with several dying of disease on the long trip. About 1,000 others made it no further than crowded "fever sheds" at the foot of Bathurst St. before expiring.

The strain that the influx of such poor immigrants put on the young city initially led to some resentment, but within five years, the Irish became its largest single ethnic group. Many of its sons and daughters took places of power and prominence, while the working class children adapted to the harsh weather in the new country, going on the icy waterways with a shillelagh and something to hit with it.

The St. Patricks sports organization had run many amateur hockey clubs in the area since the turn of the last century, such as a senior amateur team in the OHA. So when Toronto's first NHL team, the blandly-named Arenas, was sold to the St. Pats group for $5,000 in December of 1919, the new monicker was obvious, in hopes the Irish would help fill the 8,000-seat Mutual St. Arena.

The St. Pats, managed by Charlie Querrie and coached by George O'Donoghue, won the 1922 Stanley Cup in a series that began March 17 of that year.

The team was purchased in 1927 by World War I hero Conn Smythe, whose father Albert was an Irish Protestant from County Antrim. Smythe changed the name to the Maple Leafs, but briefly, kept team colours green and white as a tribute to the Irish. Three years later, he bought Clancy from the Ottawa Senators, using racetrack winnings, and an Irish ditty has been part of the game-night music ever since.

At St. Michael's College, founded in 1852, a strong hockey tradition began early in the 20th century, soon to be a pipeline for Leafs talent in the days before the draft. Future priest and Leafs Stanley Cup champ Les Costello played there, hockey pioneers Henry Carr and David Bauer were coaches and four Cup-winning, Hall of Fame Leafs came from the program in the 1950s and '60s, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon and Red Kelly, as well as the younger Clancy.

"We would pack the Gardens for the doubleheaders with the Marlies," Clancy recalled."

The Leafs kept their Irish ties strong through the 21st century, with Pat Quinn as coach, Brian Burke as GM, Belfast-born Owen Nolan playing a couple of years and current equipment man Tommy Blatchford arriving from the Belfast Giants of the British League.

You can almost hear the bodhrans, fiddles and penney whistles when reading the Leafs' all-time roster, reflecting the Irish diaspora, flavoured with names such as Corrigan, Curran, Darragh, Dorey, Finnigan, Haggerty, Hannigan (three of them), Kennedy, Maloney (two), McLellan, Murphy (two), O'Flaherty, O'Neill (two) and Sullivan (two).

If King came back today, he might well look around the ACC and give the traditional blessing: "May the roof above us never fall in, and may we friends gathered below never fall out."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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