Vintage Toronto Ads: You Will Believe A Bear Can Play Hockey

Originally published on Torontoist on September 9, 2008.

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Scene, September 20-26, 1970.

If Baikal was “the Bobby Orr of the bruin hockey world,” we hope that the bear’s knees were sturdier than the hall-of-famer’s. The results of two years of hockey drills for Baikal and nearly a dozen other bears were on display for Canadian audiences in the fall of 1970, when a Moscow Circus tour provided a slight thaw in Cold War relations.

The tour got off to a rocky start in Montreal after two trapeze artists hung helplessly for more than 10 minutes when a rope ladder became entangled around a swing and caused the acrobats to lose their footing. When the troupe arrived in Toronto, a photo call with three bears roped in Maple Leafs defenseman Jim Dorey and goalie Jacques Plante. Besides their prowess with the puck, the bears showed off their soccer, ballet, and tango skills.

The circus engagement forced the Leafs to go on an extended road trip to wind down their exhibition schedule. The team’s regular season started in Vancouver, where the Canucks earned their first NHL victory in a 5-3 match.

Reviewing opening night for the StarJim Proudfoot observed a less-than-enthusiastic crowd of 5,000, whose frosty reaction was attributed to the attempt to cross traditional circus acts and the Ice Capades.

As long as the Muscovites are doing their own thing they’re just marvelous. Their acrobats, their unicyclists, their trampoline athletes, their jugglers, all are magnificent. But they would be just as magnificent without skates. It is when the Russians attempt such things as production numbers and pairs and singles, just like they must have seem in some mediocre touring revue, that they fall absolutely flat. The comedy numbers are an example. Perhaps the audiences would be convulsed in Omsk or Minsk but in Toronto they were bored, or what is even worse, annoyed. One reservation must be made: the girls are gorgeous and sparkling and admirably energetic, and when they return the customers’ applause in the finale, beaming with genuine pleasure, they succeed where so many diplomats have failed. They make us love Russia.

Proudfoot was also impressed by the bears, who looked “no more disorganized than the Leafs on a bad night. They scored three goals, which doesn’t always happen on hockey night at the Gardens.”

Moscow-based circus acts returned to Toronto later in the decade. A planned appearance in October 1983 was cancelled by Gardens owner Harold Ballard after a Korean airliner that carried several Canadian passengers was shot down by the Soviets. Other cities followed Pal Hal’s lead and the circus tour was quickly scrapped, though the performers had an extended layover in Halifax when Aeroflot flights to Canada were suspended.

Besides joining the international condemnation of the Soviets after the airliner incident, Ballard may not have wanted to have been shown up by hockey-playing bears who may have exhibited stronger stickhandling than the Leafs of the early 1980s.

Additional material from the October 7, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Hockey Night in the 1930s

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2008.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1937 (left), December 6, 1937 (right).

The rumour mill is swirling around the Maple Leafs this week, as a less-than-stellar season and mixed signals from club ownership lead to daily reports about the fate of the team’s management and captain. With all signs pointing to a third straight early vacation at season’s end, the team’s followers are steamed.

Fans 70 years ago may also have been frustrated with the club, though in their case the problem was a team that usually reached the Stanley Cup finals but couldn’t quite win Lord Stanley’s silverware. At least if the team lost, the TTC was there to offer a cheerful bow before a warm trip home.

Under the stewardship of coach Dick Irvin, the 1937/38 edition of the Leafs finished first in the Canadian Division, eight points ahead of the New York Americans. The NHL would drop its divisional structure after the season, when its active membership fell to seven teams after the Montreal Maroons suspended operations (the franchise initially asked for a year off, tried to relocate to St. Louis and officially folded after the 1938/39 season). The existence of the Maroons explains why the Montreal Canadiens are billed by their nickname in today’s ad, as other period game notices indicated the city the Leafs were up against.

The game in question resulted in a 3-3 tie, highlighted by a stick-swinging fight initiated by future Habs coach Toe Blake. The Toronto Daily Star’s headline two days later read “Leafs Draw With Canucks But Lose to Tough Mick.”

The major hiccup during the season was the loss of captain Charlie Conacher in November, due to a dislocated shoulder. Doctors urged Conacher to retire—he sat out the rest of the season, but would return to action with the Red Wings the following year. Leading scorers for the Leafs, and the league, were right winger Gordie Drillon (26 goals, 52 points) and center Syl Apps (21 goals, 50 points).

TTC conductors would have had a busy playoff season, as the Leafs fought their way past the league-leading Boston Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals. Transit authorities didn’t have to worry about a mass victory celebration as the Leafs lost the Cup on the road to the Chicago Black Hawks, a team that still holds the record for the lowest regular season winning percentage by a Cup holder (14 wins, 25 losses, 9 ties). The Leafs may have tempted the fates by rejecting calls for goaltending assistance by Chicago after Mike Karakas suffered a broken toe—legend has it that the Black Hawks approached veteran minor leaguer Alfie Moore while he was drinking in a Toronto bar. It was the fourth time the Leafs had gone down in the Cup finals since their last championship in 1932 and they would lose twice more before hoisting the Cup in 1942.