BOTW Reviews – The Lives of Conn Smythe

The Lives of Conn Smythe – From the battlefield to Maple Leaf Gardens: A hockey icon’s story” by Kelly McParland (Fenn/|McClelland)

Price: 8.39 (paperback)/ 7.97 (Kindle)

 

If you have even a passing interest in hockey and you’re not familiar with the impact Conn Smythe had on the sport, you need only look to the very end of every season. Before the Stanley Cup is presented, Gary Bettman presents the Conn Smythe Trophy to the player voted most valuable to his team in the playoffs. The trophy itself sums up two of the things that Smythe himself put his love and effort into; Maple Leaf Gardens and Canada itself, a fact that becomes very clear in McParland’s book.

The book is split into 4 parts, each containing a few chapters and doesn’t scrimp on the details of Smythe’s life. From ‘Poor Boy’ to ‘Builder’ to ‘Warrior’ to ‘Mogul’, McParland sets about chronicling the life of a man who changed the sport of hockey and had a massive impact on the cultural history of the Canadian nation in the twentieth century, the impact of which is arguably still being felt.

Smythe lead an extraordinary life. By the age of 31 he had gone from being raised in abject poverty by his widower father, attending private school, changing school, running off to rural Ontario to become a homesteader to returning to become the on and off ice leader of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues to being a prisoner of war in world war one to founding a successful gravel business to being hired and fired as general manager of the New York Rangers. I’ve also left out a ton of stuff there.

Smythe is the founder of the organisation we know today as the Toronto Maple Leafs, renaming the Toronto St. Pats in 1927. He spent time as general manager, governer and coach and then, in the middle of the worldwide recession of the late twenties and thirties decided to build arguably one of the most iconic sports arenas in the world.

He rejoined the army in the second world war in his 40s and caused a political crisis when he criticised the training methods of Canadian soldiers. He became majority holder of the Leafs, he was a horse race trainer, he put Foster Hewitt, the original voice of hockey on the air; there is no way for me to adequately summarise this book without doing the research McParland did justice.

The book itself is a fantastic read. It is long, the paperback clocks in at over 330 pages but it doesn’t feel too long. If you’re interested in hockey or biographies, the length of the book really isn’t an issue and I personally struggled to put it down. With personal ties to hockey in Basingstoke, to discover that this titan of the sport spent time at a Canadian military hospital in the town in the second world war was really interesting for me.

It’s detailed and goes off at tangents at times to explain aspects of Smythe’s family life or the other people crucial to the story (Frank J. Selke for example) but all the threads are tied together and it makes the picture of Smythe the man feel more complete. McParland doesn’t sugar coat the story in any way and like all good journalists (McParland is a columnist for the National Post) leaves the reader to make the decisions over the morality of decisions whilst putting across all sides of the argument, something that really comes into its own when discussing the end of Smythe’s time at the head of Maple Leaf Gardens. The only criticism I have of the book is the end feels rather rushed. When you consider the detail McParland went into over the course of the book, the last 9 years of Smythe’s life are covered in 1 chapter that lasted 6 and a half pages and it just felt like the brakes had been put on too sharply. I appreciate that Smythe may not have been that active or there might not have been much to write about but it felt jarring.

That in mind, this is a great book that I am pleased I spent my money on. This is the third book I’ve reviewed here on the blog and I have to say that it’s probably the most accessible of the three in the sense that I don’t think that being a hockey fan is crucial for enjoying it. There’s a great story of a man and a bit of a story of a country and its changing attitudes as well as a bit of Canada’s role in both world wars (something we in Britain hear little about).

The hockey fan, particularly the Maples Leafs fan will love this book as it provides history and insight into one of hockey’s most influential people and, though Senators fans won’t thank me for saying it, one of the enduring huge names in professional sports worldwide. Whilst Leafs fans might get more out of it than fans of other NHL franchises, some of the stories in it will appeal to fans of all teams.

They say to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. This book will help you learn about one of the game’s most important figures in its history. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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