Interview with author of The Lives of Conn Smythe

Recently, I reviewed "The Lives of Conn Smythe" for The Checking Line, a biography on the former Leafs owner by Kelly McParland, writer and editor for the National Post. I had the opportunity to ask McParland some questions regarding the book, which reveal even more facts about Smythe, which hockey fans should find intriguing. If you haven't had the chance to pick up the book, you're doing yourself a disservice as a hockey fan.

The following are Mr. McParland's answers:

 

How did this project materialize? What made you decide to write a biography on Smythe?

I happened to come across an autobiography he wrote with Scott Young just before he died in 1980. His character came through clearly and it was filled with stories I'd never heard, but it was told entirely from his point of view. I wanted to read more, but discovered no one had ever written his biography, and most other books that referred to him just skimmed the surface. I found out that when he finally quit Maple Leaf Gardens for good in 1966 he took all his personal and business filed with him, and they'd been donated to the Ontario Archives when he died. They were filled with information no one had ever seen, and Smythe's own views and opinions on the people and events of his life. So all the information was there. just waiting for someone to tell the story. 

Through your research on Smythe did you learn anything new about him?

So much of it was new it would be hard to pick one. I hadn't realized he'd come up from an alcoholic mother and distant father, or the degree that his feeling of poverty motivated him. Or the extent that alcoholism intruded on his life: both his son Stafford and daughter Miriam died to some degree from hard drinking. I was also unaware of the tragic death of his fourth child, or his military record and how much he modeled the Leafs on the military and the type of discipline and teamwork it teaches. I also found his relationship with Frank Selke very intriguing and interesting: Selke proved to be as successful with the Canadiens as Smythe was with the Leafs, but Smythe could never think of him as anything but a second fiddle and simply couldn't connect with someone who didn't share his combative approach to the world.     

Can you describe the process of writing this book? I imagine it was a lot of work and demanded a whole lot of phone calls.

It was more library and archive work. Most of the people who knew Smythe are dead, and those players who did play for him in the 50s were generally so in awe of him (and he was such a distant figure by then) that they only have limited accounts to offer. The real meat came from Smythe's own files, and newspaper accounts from the day, when reporters were far less isolated from the players and the social distance wasn't what it was today. Fortunately, both Frank Selke Jr. and Hugh Smythe, Smythe's youngest son, are still with us and were generous with their time. That was very helpful in getting a sense of the man and the times.  

Was there a time in Smythe’s life that you found particularly intriguing?

I think it would be the years in the thirties and forties, when he was building the team and the Gardens, and then going off to war. It was the period of the Leafs greatest years, and some of the most colourful characters. Smythe was not only a great character himself but knew plenty of other people and personalities with great stories of their own: Charlie Conacher, who came from a family of 10 kids and whose father cut up ice blocks for a living; Foster Hewitt, who was a far more complex character than the bland exterior suggested; King Clancy, who seems not to have made an enemy in his life; George McCullagh, the owner of the Globe & Mail at the time, and W.A. Hewitt, Foster's, who was as friendly and outgoing as Foster was quiet and withdrawn, but who knew everyone in town and had great stories from the earliest years of the city and the game of hockey. Originally I'd written much more about those people, but unfortunately I had to trim a lot for reasons of length. 

What was the goal in writing this book?

My aim with the book was to try and reacquaint Leaf fans with the great years of the team before Harold Ballard came along and did so much damage. Even older Leaf fans can't remember much that happened before the Sixties, but the three decades up to 1960 were among the greatest and most colourful in the team's history. It was an entirely different world and a different game, and attitudes and the people involved were nothing like they are today. It's really a rich period that has been largely forgotten and shouldn't be, because so much of what the game is today derives from what was put in place by a small handful of men back then. 

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The Lives of Conn Smythe is available at many book stores, or online at Amazon or Chapters/Indigo.

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