I was listening to the radio the other day and the host was opining that if the Leafs could just land themselves a centre, they might have the makings of a legitimate first line. This wouldn’t be a top-end first line, mind you, certainly not one of the top five first lines in the league or anything, but a line that you could put out there and people would say, “Yes, that appears to be a legitimate NHL first line, by cracky!”
Of course, at the time he was saying this, the Leafs’ top line (even with the cast of thousands at centre) contained the league’s leading scorer (and top goal scorer) as well as the guy tied for second. If that doesn’t rate as one of the top five lines in hockey, I’m hard-pressed to imagine precisely what would.
I get that there’s a semantic argument about “first-liners” and that they’re normally defined as “players on other teams,” but at some point current performance has to be a factor. Kessel has been hot since the all-star break last year. Yes, his prior history is a little hot and cold, but Jose Bautista had no real history either. That hot September of his was just an anomaly – until it wasn’t.
The whole thing about the line not being complete until another player was added to it is really just the latest iteration of one of the go-to storylines of the past 15 years: “(insert name here) needs somebody to play with.” Kessel has needed a centre (though another winger really seems to suffice other than on the radio). Prior to that, Sundin always needed a winger. On those brief occasions when Sundin had capable-looking wingers, this would be amended to Sundin needing better wingers. It doesn’t really matter who is actually available – the grass would be so much greener if only there was someone else we could put there.
This is why I find this Tod Sloan card so amusing. It puts me right in my comfort zone. Just like a 1952 article I saw that talked about Toronto really wanting an NFL team it was unlikely ever to get, it shows that certain things never change. We get new names and faces, but the storylines never really move:
If there were a Tod Sloan appreciation society, I’d definitely be a member. He’s a player that I don’t think gets anywhere near the recognition he should, mainly because the bulk of his career was spent with a Leaf team that was in slow decline. The NHL of the 1950s belonged to Detroit and Montreal and if you didn’t play for one of them, your name doesn’t get mentioned a whole lot.
In the late 1940s, Conn Smythe called Tod Sloan the best prospect in the country. A smaller forward with good wheels and moves who could give or take a hit, Tod scored 43 goals and 75 points in just 25 games in his last year of junior. He spent three seasons learning his trade with the Leafs’ top farm club in Pittsburgh and a year on loan to the Cleveland Barons.
By 1950-51, he was ready. The club he was joining had won Cups in 1947, ’48 and ’49 before being knocked off by Detroit in 1950. This club was strong. They set a team record with 95 points in the 70-game schedule, knocked off Boston in the first round and defeated Montreal in the famous 5-game Final in which every game was decided in OT.
Tod, playing on the wing with Ted Kennedy and Sid Smith, scored 31 goals that year, the third-best total in the league. He scored 9 points in 11 playoff games, the biggest one being a goal in the last minute of Game 5 of the Final. This goal, scored with the goalie out for the extra man, sent the game to overtime and set the stage for the heroics of Bill Barilko.
As the 1950s went on, Tod was moved to centre, playing behind Kennedy instead of with him. The Leafs were in serious transition and while I laugh about the line of him not having any wingers, it was actually true. In the season on the card, Tod’s 28 points were fourth overall on the team and as good as anyone not on the Kennedy line. The entire team only scored 147 goals (dead last in the league) but were still .500 thanks to Harry Lumley’s league-leading 1.94 GAA. Those Leafs lived and died by the 2-1 game.
In 1955-56, Teeder retired and Tod took over as the top centre. He responded with 37 goals and 66 points and was named to the second all-star team. A shoulder injury the next season would hurt his games played and points totals over the next two seasons.
In 1957-58, Tod Sloan was 30 – an age at which many careers were ending if not already over – and coming off two shortened seasons. Looking toward the future, he became involved in the formation of the original players’ association. This did not go over well with the management of the day. As punishment, he was sent to Siberia – he was sold to the Chicago Black Hawks.
Chicago had been a disaster of a team for most of the 1950s. They were effectively controlled by Red Wings owner Jim Norris and he ignored them, plucking players off to support the Wings. During 1954-55, the team so bad and so near collapse that the other governors agreed to help them out and make players available where possible. They picked up Eddie Litzenberger in this way. What also happened is that anyone who ran afoul of his manager soon found himself in the Windy City.
The players association, though, involved some fairly significant names and the effect was that Chicago began to become pretty good. Ted Lindsay joined Sloan in Chicago and along with Litzenberger they formed one of the better lines in hockey. Tod had 62 points in just 59 games as Chicago rocketed all the way up to third overall. With Glenn Hall in goal (traded from Detroit for failing to win the Stanley Cup) and emerging stars like Bobby Hull, Pierre Pilote and Stan Mikita, Chicago quickly became one of the teams to beat.
After winning the 1961 Stanley Cup as a Black Hawk, Tod retired. He played senior hockey for a season and represented Canada in the 1962 World Championships.
Tod Sloan at the hhof