Early in November 1947, a few learned hockey people thought Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe was downright nuts.
A dozen or so others merely seconded the motion.
They all raised the same question: How crazy is it for Toronto to trade five – count ’em, five – competent regulars to Chicago for just one NHL caliber player?
No matter if the player happened to be Maxwell Herbert Lloyd “Max” Bentley of Delisle, Sask., a center of considerable skill.
No matter that Black Hawks owner Bill Tobin tossed in a minor leaguer of no consequence named Cy Thomas just to make Second World War hero Major Smythe happy.
The Toronto Globe and Mail wasted no time calling it “The Greatest Mass Trade In Hockey History.”
Essentially, the staggering 5-for-1 exchange was similarly hailed as crazy by innumerable publications and broadcasters, and the reason was obvious. Smythe gutted almost a third of his 1947 Stanley Cup-winning team for a skinny center.
At the offensive end, Toronto gave away a formidable unit, “The Flying Forts” Line. It comprised center Gus Bodnar and wings Gaye Stewart and Bud Poile. All three had grown up in Fort William, Ont., now part of Thunder Bay.
The defense pairing was not too shabby, either. Bob Goldham and Ernie Dickens helped the Leafs to the 1942 Stanley Cup and still were young, rugged major leaguers.
“We got a lot of talent,” said Black Hawks president Bill Tobin. “We gave up a great one in Bentley, but this should make us a well-rounded competitive hockey club.”
On paper, it certainly did. More to the Leafs’ point, it put the onus on Smythe to justify his dramatic – and potentially dangerous – move to both the fans and the press.
“We needed a first-class center to round out a championship team,” Smythe explained. “Now, we have Bentley with Syl Apps and Ted Kennedy. That’s strength down the middle.”
Nor was it a mad impetuous move. Smythe had done his research, including conferring with coach Hap Day who already had won three Stanley Cups for Toronto.
“Before he made the deal,” said Day, “Conn came to me and asked which player caused us the most trouble, and it was Max Bentley.”
Now that the exchange was completed, Day had to determine where and how to play Maxie. His first line included Syl Apps centering Bill Ezinicki and Harry Watson. Then there was the equally successful Kid Line featuring Ted Kennedy between Vic Lynn and Howie Meeker.
Day decided to align his new prize with big, gritty Joe Klukay and veteran Nick Metz, who moved from his normal center position to the wing. Every Leaf was enthused about the deal, but none more than goalie Turk Broda.
“Max has the greatest shot in hockey,” Broda said. “A flick of the wrist and, brother, it’s gone. He lets it go ankle high, close to the post, and a goalie hasn’t a chance.”
As a 15-year-old Leafs fan, I couldn’t wait to see Max in action against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. In the meantime, I began following Bentley through the papers and radio since we didn’t have TV in those days.
The hockey-playing adjustment for Max was challenging. For years, he had lined up in Chicago with older brother Doug on one wing and Bill’ Wee Willie’ Mosienko on the other flank. The dipsy-doodling trio was known as the Pony Line.
In addition, Chicago’s style was giddyap hockey without a special accent on defense. Bentley’s new coach, Hap Day, was a former defenseman who considered checking as valuable as scoring. It was an eye-opener for Max.
“I thought I knew about the fundamentals,” Max said to author Jack Batten in the latter’s book, The Leafs In Autumn. “But when I got to Toronto, I learned from Hap Day that there was more to hockey than I ever dreamed of.”
Day also was interviewed by Batten for The Leafs In Autumn and was as surprised about Bentley’s skills as Max was with Day’s strategy.
“Max did more things with the puck than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Day said. “He had difficulties breaking into our system but he kept the puck so much of the time he was on the ice, it didn’t matter.”
The trade happened on Nov. 3, 1947. Exactly a month later – Dec. 3, 1947 – the Bentley-led Maple Leafs invaded (old) Madison Square Garden.
I was sitting in the low-price end balcony, which nevertheless afforded some of the best views of the action. However, before the official puck-drop, the Garden toasted the Rangers patriarch Lester Patrick with a “night” in his honor. Lester would retire after 43 years in the ice game.
But frankly, I was less interested in the Patrick testimonials and more focused on my Leafs, especially Max Bentley. Nobody disappointed me, and there was action aplenty, including a few fights. That’s not to mention spectacular and futile saves by Rangers goalie Sugar Jim Henry, including one on the Leafs’ right wing, Howie Meeker.
The headline in the New York Daily News – “Leafs Thrash Rangers, 4-1” – told only part of the game story. A Toronto-New York series often erupted in high-sticking duels and fights.
“As far as the rough stuff went,” wrote Dick Young in the Daily News, “the Rangers did all right. But when it came to scoring, they were a bunch of little men who were never there.”
Other teams who faced the Leafs following the Bentley trade had a similar reaction. As Smythe had hoped, the deal propelled his club to first place.
And, despite their five new additions, Chicago remained in the NHL cellar.
Just two days after I had seen the Leafs in Manhattan, they choo-chooed to the Windy City, where Max once had been a hero. Well, he was again in December 1947 but with a different team, as noted in the Toronto Telegram headline:
“Max Bentley Paid Off Against His Old Club.” The subhead added a bit more detail: “Drove Home Winning Tally For Leafs At Chicago In Rough And Ready Game.”
This time the Hawks had tied their foe 2-2 until late in the third period. Here’s how reporter Bob Hesketh reported the winner:
“Max Bentley’s clincher was the best of the night. Goalie Emile Francis didn’t have much of a chance against the high-flying Max who took a pass from Joe Klukay, and needled his way into position.”
In another game against his former mates, Maxie enjoyed a hat trick while motoring the defending Champs to a 12-5 decision. In his superb oral history, The Toronto Maple Leafs, author Eric Zweig summed up what Bentley meant to the Leafs.
“They finished the season in first place with a record of 32-15-13 for 77 points,” noted Zweig. “In the end, they were five points ahead of Detroit, who finished 30-18-12.”
While Chicago finished last, the Leafs won their second-straight Stanley Cup; another would follow. Smythe called the 1947-48 edition the best team he ever managed.
“We had the Murderers’ row of hockey with three 25-goal centermen,” he concluded. “I have had some great stars on other teams, but I never had a team like this.”
And it was all because Smythe had the courage to make a 5-for-1 deal for the one and only Max Bentley, who never let him down.