Strange But True: All for the Best

Sometimes success is due to a lucky break. Or what appears to be bad luck can really be a stroke of good fortune, although it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

During World War I, Conn Smythe was a young officer with Canada’s 40th Battery. He wasn’t much of a hockey player, but he was an excellent judge of talent. Canada wanted men to enlist for service. Smythe was ordered to form a hockey team that would compete in the Senior Series of the Ontario Hockey Association.

Rival managers in the league knew Smythe was inexperienced. They also knew that very few fans attended hockey games right after Christmas. Therefore, they scheduled Smythe’s first four games on his home ice in that time, figuring he wouldn’t draw big crowds. Later the 40th Battery would play on the other teams’ ice and they would collect the larger profits. Smythe didn’t know the scheme. Innocently, he agreed.

However, the 40th Battery did attract fans in their first three games. Then, just before the fourth game, the 40th received shipping orders. It would be their final game in Canada. They were going overseas.

Smythe decided to press his luck. The team’s treasury had $7,000. He bet the whole amount on his team with some gamblers. In the locker room he told the players what he had done. They went out on the ice grimly and destroyed their opponents. Quinn Butterfield, one of the Battery’s stars, scored five goals in the first eight minutes.

When Smythe came home, he tried for a job in big-league hockey. Colonel John S. Hammond, a wealthy New Yorker, bought a franchise that was called the Rangers. Smythe was commissioned to put together a team for Hammond.

The team Smythe assembled was loaded with future all-stars, including goalie Lorne Chabot; defensemen Ching Johnson and Taffy Abel; offensive specialists Frankie Boucher, Murray Murdoch, and the brothers Bill and Bun Cook. He got them all for $32,000. Experts said they were worth $250,000.

But someone convinced Hammond that Smythe wasn’t experienced enough to manage a big-league team. Smythe was fired.

Still determined to get into hockey, Smythe began planning to buy the Toronto St. Patricks, which were for sale. But he didn’t have enough money for the down payment. His main asset was a racehorse named Rare Jewel. Unfortunately Rare Jewel seemed to be a loser. Smythe raced the horse five times, and each time she finished last. Once, when Smythe bet that his horse would finish last, Rare Jewel finished next-to-last.

“What a nag,” snorted Smythe. “Even when I pick her to finish last she can’t do it.”

Smythe got a new trainer named Dude Foden, who trained Rare Jewel properly. After a while Foden told Smythe the horse was ready to enter the Coronation Stakes race. Smythe took a chance and bet heavily. He bit win, place, and show (first, second, and third place).

Sure enough, Rare Jewel put on a burst of speed in the home stretch and won the race. For each $2 Smythe had bet to win, he received $219; for each place bet the payoff was $49; for the show bet it was $18. He bet his winnings on a couple of hockey games and won again. Then he bought the St. Patricks, changed the name to the Maple Leafs, and built the Maple Leaf Gardens.

Conn Smythe’s “bad luck” was really good luck. If John Hammond had not fired him, he would probably not have tried to buy the St. Patricks. If Rare Jewel had not been such a loser in the beginning, the odds on the horse in the big race would not have been so high.

From The Giant Book of More Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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1 Comment

  1. This story is for Myo.
    Liss mixed up a few things, including the fact that Smythe initially held a minority stake in the St. Patricks/Maple Leafs with a $10,000 investment.  He didn’t become majority owner until 1947–almost 20 years later.  His bet on Rare Jewel also netted $10,000, but that was after Smythe had already become a minority owner in the team, so with the two figures being the same I can see how Liss got it mixed up.  Smythe put that 10k from the horse bet towards acquiring King Clancy from the Ottawa Senators.

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