The Goalie Who Thrived On Pressure
On April 7, 1936, Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner Conn Smythe--looking to replace his 40-something netminder George Hainsworth who had allowed nine goals that evening in a Stanley Cup final game to the Detroit Red Wings--decided to stay back in Detroit to scout Earl Robertson of the Windsor Bulldogs who would be playing in an International Hockey League game the next evening against the Detroit Olympics. Smythe had heard that Robertson was a shoe-in as a future NHL goalie and wanted to see for himself without consulting any scouts.
The next evening, as the game progressed, however, Smythe was more impressed with the goalie at the other end of the ice: a short, dumpy 21-year-old named Walter “Turk” Broda, Red Wing property and four years younger than Robertson. Smythe quickly sought out Red Wings GM Jack Adams after the game and asked how much for Broda. Adams, who already had a solid goaltender in Normie Smith, replied, “Eight thousand.” Smythe had no problem with that. He and Adams shook on it and the two teams officially signed the deal a few weeks after Detroit took the Stanley Cup in the best-of-five series by three games to one.
Broda, a lifetime Leaf, would go on to backstop Toronto to five Stanley Cups, including three in a row and four in five seasons, during his star-studded 14-year Hall of Fame career. On the other hand, Robertson played in six playoff games in 1936-37 for the Red Wings (replacing an injured Normie Smith) in a losing Stanley Cup final cause, then spent five uneventful NHL seasons with the not-so-hot New York-Brooklyn Americans from 1937-38 to 1941-42 before finishing up in the minors.
Born May 15, 1914 in Brandon, Manitoba to a Ukrainian family, Walter “Turk” Broda received the nickname of “Turkey Egg” in his childhood for the many freckles he had. He played his junior hockey with the Brandon Native Sons and the Winnipeg Monarchs before the Detroit Red Wings signed him. Broda was a fun-loving, good-natured individual who seemed quite relaxed between the pipes: relaxed enough to fell asleep before the occasional game, and sometimes in between periods, much to the chagrin of his coaches.
He also loved to eat. A lot. And drink ice-cold beer. The Toronto press liked to call him “The Fabulous Fat Man.” They were the same press who thought Smythe was nuts to sign Broda in the first place, thinking that the netminder would eat his way out of the NHL on his big league salary. Broda’s weight was always an issue with owner Conn Smythe. He made huge headlines going partway into the 1949-50 season when Smythe ordered Broda to lose weight or he would lose his job. This was after Broda had minded the Leaf net for 215 straight games since returning from the Royal Canadian Artillery during World War II. Serious with his threat, supposedly, Smythe brought up two Leaf property goalies from the minors who were ready to go in on short notice: Al Rollins from the Cleveland Barons, and Gilles Mayer from the Pittsburgh Hornets. Ironically, the five-foot-six, 135-pound Mayer was the direct opposite of Broda: He was so skinny that his nickname was “The Needle.”
The whole Broda weight thing may have been more of a publicity stunt than anything else, but it put the Leafs on the city’s front pages, something Conn Smythe always relished. Broda had fun with the so-called threat by jogging up and down Yonge Street to the delight of well-wishing fans who cheered him on. After missing only one game, a 2-0 loss to Detroit on December 1 with Mayer in net, Broda eventually lost the 10 pounds he needed to keep his job, then finished the season with a 2.48 GAA and a league-leading 9 shutouts, and three more shutouts in the playoffs in a losing cause to the Red Wings in a seven-game first round.
Broda won two Vezina trophies in his career (2.00 GAA in 1940-41 and 2.38 in 1947-48), but some people felt he should have won more. His regular season GAA was 2.53 lifetime in 628 games with 62 shutouts. Every so often he would let in a bad goal, a “floater.” Only in the regular season, though. Early in his career he had a bad habit of allowing long goals, from 20-30 feet out. But through extensive practice conducted by coach Hap Day, Broda learned to correct that side of his game: Day had Broda--without a stick--face puck after puck shot from just inside the blue line. In the playoffs, however, something inside Broda kicked into high gear. He was a different man. He excelled to the point where his lifetime GAA dropped HALF a goal to 1.98. In 101 playoff games, he shutout the opposition 13 times.
With Broda’s lifetime regular season/playoff GAA comparison standing at 2.53/1.98., how does that rival the other noted NHL goalies who had spent their entire or major portion of their careers in the Original Six?
*Jacques Plante: 2.38/2.14…six Stanley Cups (Montreal)
*Glenn Hall: 2.49/2.78…one Stanley Cup (Chicago)
*Terry Sawchuk 2.51/2.54…four Stanley Cups (Detroit 3, Toronto 1)
*Johnny Bower 2.51/2.47…four Stanley Cups (Toronto)
*Frank Brimsek 2.70/2.54…two Stanley Cups (Boston)
*Bill Durnan 2.36/2.07…two Stanley Cups (Montreal)
Al Rollins 2.78/2.38…one Stanley Cup (Toronto)
Gerry McNeil 2.38/1.89…two Stanley Cups (Montreal)
*Harry Lumley 2.75/2.49…one Stanley Cup (Detroit)
*Gump Worsley 2.88/2.78…four Stanley Cups (Montreal)
Don Simmons 2.89/2.59…three Stanley Cups (Toronto)
*Hall of Famer
On the basis of these GAA stats, Broda was the greatest clutch goalie ever to play the game during the Original Six era. In a class by himself, he was a true money goalie. The others couldn’t match his ratio of 0.55 better in the playoffs, with the closest being Montreal’s Gerry McNeil at 0.47, Al Rollins at 0.40 and Don Simmons at 0.30. “If I had to play one game with everything at stake,” Conn Smythe once said to a reporter, “Turk Broda would be my goaltender.”
Two of Broda’s teammates added to the quality of his play. “Turk was a great goaltender, but he seemed to be able to go up another notch when he went to the Stanley Cup final,” said Ted Kennedy. Howie Meeker went further: “Broda was the best playoff goaltender I’ve ever seen.”
It seems that Broda had another talent, this one outside of hockey. According to Louise (Hastings) Carley--a girl friend of Leaf defenseman Bill Barilko--as stated in the 2004 book entitled Barilko without a trace by Kevin Shea, Turk Broda was an exceptional dancer at team get-togethers during his playing days. “Turk Broda was the best dancer I ever met in my life. He was so light on his feet. He has to go down in history as the best dancer ever!”
After retiring, Broda coached the Toronto Marlboros to back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1955 and 1956, both times beating my hometown Regina Pats. He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1967, our centennial year, then died five years later of a massive heart attack.