Only once has an NHL team recovered from being down three games to none in a Stanley Cup final and proceeded to collect hockey's greatest prize. That was in the spring of 1942, when Syl Apps and the Toronto Maple Leafs accomplished this improbable feat. Apps called it the greatest moment of his hockey life.
|Syl Apps and Conn Smythe celebrating during the Stanley Cup presentation in 1942. (Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The 1941-42 season was the last before the beloved Original Six Era. That season was the final gasp for the New York (Brooklyn) Americans).
The road to the Stanley Cup final saw the Detroit Red Wings need to eliminate first the Montreal Canadiens and then the Boston Bruins in best-of-three series. The Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, eliminated the New York Rangers in a best-of-seven to advance to the championship final.
The final pitted the Red Wings against the Maple Leafs in a classic stand-off. The first two games, staged at Maple Leaf Gardens, ended in Detroit wins of 3-2 and 4-2. But when the series shifted to Detroit, the Red Wings astonished the Leafs, taking Game Three 5-2 and putting a virtual lock on the Stanley Cup.
Coach Hap Day had to make some substantial changes for Game Four. He benched rugged defenceman Buck McDonald and former scoring champion Gord Drillon, much to the surprise of the team and fans alike. In their place, Day inserted checking forward Don Metz and big winger Hank Goldup into the lineup.
Prior to Game Four, Coach Day read to the team a letter he had received from a young girl who stated she'd be embarrassed to go to school the next day if her Toronto Maple Leafs lost four in a row. Captain Syl Apps also spoke of the pride in wearing the Maple Leaf, and how a city -- and country - were depending on them.
Day also made a strategic change in counter-attacking a tactic Detroit was employing with more and more success. The Wings had been doing something considered novel at the time; they were dumping the puck into the Maple Leafs zone and then charging in after it. This was a radical departure during an era where surrendering puck possession was regarded as criminal. Day implored that his team begin dumping it right back out and in doing so, catching the Wings too deep in the offensive zone.
When the Wings went up 2-0 by the ten-minute mark of the second period in Game Four, it looked like the end was near for Toronto. But the Maple Leafs came back and edged the Wings 4-3. Detroit coach Jack Adams was so livid, he attacked referee Mel Harwood, and was summarily prohibited from appearing behind the Red Wings' bench for the remainder of the series.
Back in Toronto for Game Five, Hap Day replaced Goldup with Gaye Stewart. The youngster had spent the season playing junior with the Toronto Marlboros, joined the Marlboro Seniors for the playoffs, was sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League for their playoffs and on April 14, 1942, played his first NHL game. Game Five was a 9-3 spanking, with Toronto closing the gap three games to two.
|Syl Apps with the Stanley Cup in 1947.
(Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Maple Leafs evened the series with a 3-0 shutout in Game Six back in Detroit. Whether it was Hap Day's karma or a revitalized Leaf team with its back against the wall is a moot point, but the Stanley Cup now came down to a single winner-take-all game.
Game Seven, played at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 18, 1942, saw the Toronto Maple Leafs defeat the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 to capture the Stanley Cup after battling back from the brink of elimination. Pete Langelle scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal at 9:48 of the third period. For the Maple Leafs, it was their first Stanley Cup championship in ten years.
While there were several astonishing moments that spring, there was no surprise in the leadership of Syl Apps. He led the playoffs with 9 assists and tied with Don Grosso of the Red Wings with 14 playoff points. In the final alone, Apps scored 3 goals, assisted on 4 others and collected 7 points.
While the Conn Smythe Trophy was still more than two decades away from being introduced, a group of hockey historians with the Society of International Hockey Research (SIHR) judged that had there been such a trophy in 1941-42, it would have been presented to Syl Apps. He was named one of the Three Stars in four of the six semi-final games against the New York Rangers and helped turn the Stanley Cup final around with a goal and an assist in the pivotal fourth game and then scored two goals and added three assists in Toronto's 9-3 laugher over Detroit in Game Five.
Syl Apps enjoyed many pinnacles, but no finer moment than accepting the Stanley Cup on behalf of his Toronto Maple Leafs in the most dramatic comeback series ever to be played in the National Hockey League
Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.