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Did the Toronto Maple Leafs Discriminate Against Italian Players? by Frank GiornoDid the Toronto Maple Leafs Discriminate Against Italian Players?

by Frank Giorno

 

For many hockey fans, the 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of NHL hockey. Before expansion, in the era of the “six original teams,” the league was dominated by the likes of Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Jean Beliveau, and Bobby Orr. A good number of Italian names stood out as well: Phil Esposito, Alex Delvecchio, Lou Angotti, Eddie Giacomin. All came from Ontario, yet none of them – and virtually no other Italians – ever played for the Toronto Maple Leafs! In hindsight, and as a hockey fan growing up in Toronto – where so many Italian immigrants had chosen to settle – this situation struck me as nothing short of odd.

 

During this time, there was no universal hockey draft. All a team had to do was have good contacts within the community to alert team scouts of talented players in their area. The American teams did just that and established solid contacts within the various Italian-Canadian communities. That’s how the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks all managed to get Italian-Canadian players on their rosters from the 1930s. Toronto had virtually none. The few who did play for the Maple Leafs from the 1930s to the 1950s – Ray Ceresino, Jack Bionda and Ab DeMarco – played a combined 29 games!  But why pass up on players like Alex DelVecchio, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Lou Nanne, Lou Fontinato, Jerry Topazzini, Eddie Giacomin and many others, who played minor hockey within a car or train ride from Toronto?

 

The theory was that Conn Smythe, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927 to 1961, did not like Italian-Canadians and didn’t want them to play for the Leafs. In his book Thunder and Lighting (2003), the great Phil Esposito, who was born in Sault Ste-Marie, writes, “Even though I was from Ontario, I hated the Toronto Maple Leafs with a passion. The story around Sault Ste-Marie was that the owner (Conn Smythe) would never let an Italian play for his team. Alex Delvecchio played on the Red Wings… so I cheered for the Red Wings.”

 

Lou Angotti, former right winger with the Chicago Blackhawks and the first captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, concurs with Esposito. “The word was that no Italian would ever play for Conn Smythe’s Toronto Maple Leafs,” Angotti told me during a recent interview. Born in Toronto, Lou Angotti played at St. Michael’s College in the mid-1950s, yet he said he never wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He too cheered for the Detroit Red Wings.

 

The popular myth is that Colonel Conn Smythe, a patriotic Canadian who fought in both World Wars, disliked Italians because he saw them as fascists and because he lost friends on the battlefield in Italy in the wars. However, during World War I, Canada and Italy were allies. In World War II, Smythe, who had attained the rank of major, was stationed in France and never saw action in Italy.

 

The root of Smythe’s anti-Italian feelings may actually involve Lou Angotti’s uncle, Frank. Frank Angotti was a hard-working man who built a construction company from scratch, starting with barely a dollar in his pocket, in the years during and after World War I. At that time, Smythe was working as a clerk in the construction department of York Township, just north of the City of Toronto, which is where the two first met. Angotti arrived to submit a bid for some road work and Smythe noticed that the cost figures in the bid didn’t add up properly. As he states in his autobiography, If You Can’t Beat Them in The Alley (1981), Smythe suggested to Angotti that he needed a business partner, and that partner would be Smythe himself.

 

After several successful years, the partnership became acrimonious. Smythe attempted to take over the company but failed. Efforts to divide the assets failed as well, and the matter ended up in court. The judge awarded Angotti the construction portion of the business, and Smythe the more lucrative sand and gravel portion. It’s possible that the hard feelings that emerged from the breakup of the Angotti-Smythe partnership poisoned Conn’s Smythe’s attitude towards Italians.

 

In addition, reflected in Smythe’s relationship with Frank Angotti, was a general uneasiness among mainstream Canada towards southern Europeans in general and Italians in particular. The 1940s, 50s and 60s were a period of intense Italian immigration to Toronto. Anti-Italian sentiment is captured in the title of an article by Pierre Berton written for the Toronto Star in June 1961 titled, “How the Italians Live: How We Have Failed Them.”

 

There is a personal side to Conn Smythe’s tacit edict banning Italians from playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. My father and many other hard-working Italian-Canadians who had recently arrived in Canada – and who so desperately wanted to feel they belonged and were accepted – would have loved to see themselves reflected in the Toronto Maple Leafs. They so badly wanted to have an Italian-Canadian play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the way Lazzeri, Rizzuto, Berra and DiMaggio played for the Yankees. But they couldn’t; so they looked for players whose names might sound Italian. They argued whether Frank Mahovlich was Italian – “…ma questo Franco Mahovoliccio è italiano, no?” (Mahovlich was of Croatian origin.)

 

Sometimes, the conversations bordered on the absurd. Ron Stewart, a swarthy chap who looked like he might be Italian, was also conscripted into Toronto’s phantom Italian Maple Leaf crew by my father and his cohorts – “… Stuarto è italiano – ha cambiato nome!” (Stewart must be Italian – he changed his name!”)

 

Conn Smythe relinquished control of the Maple Leafs in 1960, when he sold the franchise to his son Stafford and to Harold Ballard. The colour barrier had been broken in baseball 12 years earlier by Jackie Robinson, and in hockey in 1958 by Willie O’Ree (playing for Boston). Yet, Italians could not (or would not) play hockey in Toronto during this time.

 

There was a softening of sorts towards Italian players under Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard: two Italian-Canadian players, Cesare Maniago and Milan Marcetta played a combined eight games for the Leafs in the 1960s. The reluctance to sign Italian-Canadians on the Leafs continued well into the middle Ballard years. In the late-1960s and 1970s the Leafs passed on such players as Tony Esposito, John Tonelli and Dino Ciccarelli.

 

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1980s that the Maple Leafs began to draft or trade for Italian-Canadian and Italian-American players – Bob Manno, Frank Nigro, Al Iafrate, Mike Foligno, Lou Franceschetti and Mike Peca. Some like Al Iafrate and Carlo Colaiacovo were, in fact, drafted in the first round.

 

The Toronto area continues to produce bona fide stars of Italian heritage. John Tonelli played for the Toronto Marlboros in 1970s and the four-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders in the 1980s. Jason Spezza was born in Mississauga and is the captain of the Ottawa Senators. Toronto-born Mike Cammalleri played for the Montreal Canadians and is captain of the Calgary Flames. Perhaps one day the Toronto Maple Leafs will find a genuine Italian-Canadian superstar of their own and make up for their past unfair treatment of Italian-Canadian players.

 

In the meantime, the National Hockey League would do well to rename the Conn Smythe Trophy – one of the most prestigious trophies in hockey awarded to the most valuable player in the playoffs. Too many hockey trophy names sound too “generic” and no longer reflect the ethnic diversity of the league: “Campbell Bowl, O'Brien Trophy, Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, James Norris Trophy,” to name a few. It would actually help the league by letting more of today’s hockey fans identify with the league’s diversity, and it would remove the name of a man clearly associated with bigotry. A name like the “Gretzky Trophy” sounds like a reasonable alternative. Wayne Gretzky, after all, is a hockey icon, and fans all around the world can identify with him!

 

 

Frank Giorno is a free-lance writer based in Timmins, Ontario.

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