It was the stunner of '42

EARL MCRAE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:30 PM ET

The last club the Ottawa Senators would want to take inspiration from is their hated rival the Toronto Maple Leafs, but tonight they should when they do battle with the Buffalo Sabres and need to win all three of the next games.

Maybe the Senators should search for mystery girl. If she's alive today, she'd be 78. Maybe the Senators could persuade her to write again. To them. Those words that, so long ago, worked magic.

Like the Sens, the favoured Leafs had been down 3-0 in games in the 1942 playoffs, only this was the Stanley Cup final, the opponent the Detroit Red Wings, and when Toronto came back to take four in a row and the Cup, it was the first time in any major team sport it had happened, the media of the day calling it the sporting comeback of the century.

There were only seven teams in the NHL -- New York, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, Brooklyn -- and the Leafs finished second in the 48-game season with 57 points, the Red Wings fifth with 42, but before the opening game of the Cup, Detroit's bombastic general manager Jack Adams said: "We've got the team to beat the Leafs. We'll take them in six games."

LEFT STUNNED

Not a chance said the sports pundits and Leafs fans, and they, along with the team, were stunned when the Wings took the first three by scores of 3-2, 4-2, 5-2 because Adams, a shrewd strategist, had seen something and what he'd seen was that Leafs wall of a defenceman, the veteran Bucko McDonald, wasn't too fast.

In those days, players carried the puck into the other team's zone, but the Red Wings introduced a tactic that hadn't been used in the NHL: The dump and chase. Time and time again, the breaking Wings fired the puck past the bamboozled McDonald, blew by him, retrieved the puck.

After the third loss, Leafs manager and founding owner, the fiery Major Conn Smythe, demanded a shake-up, and coach Hap Day benched McDonald and Gordie Drillon, the team's leading scorer in the regular season who hadn't notched a point. He replaced the two stars with lesser-lights Don Metz, who'd been watching the games from the stands, and unproven rookie defenceman Ernie Dickens, but both of them fast.

Day wasn't done. He put Don Metz on a line with his older brother Nick, thinking they'd mesh and inspire each other, and he yanked veteran Hank Goldup in favour of 18-year-old rookie left winger Gaye Stewart who, the next season, would win the Calder Trophy.

In the fourth game, third period, within seconds of Day uniting the Metz brothers, Nick Metz scored on Detroit's Johnny Mowers, Don Metz and Syl Apps assisting, to give Toronto a 4-3 lead and victory. Jack Adams was so furious with the officiating that at the end of the game, he jumped onto the ice and punched referee Mel Harwood several times before being restrained. League president Frank Calder suspended Adams for the rest of the series.

RALLY TIME

The shenanigans weren't over. The Leafs won the fifth game 9-3 in Toronto, the sixth 3-0 in Detroit, and now came the seventh in Toronto. Conn Smythe wanted to give his team a pre-game pep speech, but was banned by club director Ed Bickle who feared his rhetoric would backfire.

Hap Day told Smythe he'd punch Bickle out if he tried to stop the Major, and Smythe defied the ban, not once, but twice: Before the game, and at the end of the second period with Detroit up 1-0 on Syd Howe's goal. In the third, Toronto's Sweeney Schriner scored to tie it, and Maple Leaf Gardens was bedlam, but nothing like the bedlam when Pete Langelle made it 2-1 and Schriner again 3-1, and the Toronto Maple Leafs had pulled off the impossible, the Stanley Cup was theirs.

In the dressing room before the fourth game, Hap Day stood before his demoralized players and read a letter. It was written to the team by a 14-year-old girl. It was emotional, it was pleading. It was all about belief, pride, and never giving up. For the Leafs who'd been bludgeoned by their fans and the media, it was the tonic that inspired. Sweeney Schriner jumped to his feet and shouted: "Don't worry about this one, Skipper. We'll win it for the little girl."

And they did. And the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Oh, mystery girl, where art thou?

earl.mcrae@ott.sunpub.com


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