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Sports Legend Revealed: Was a hockey player arrested for trying to switch to another military team during World War II?

March 8, 2011 |  3:00 pm

HOCKEY LEGEND: A hockey player was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for trying to switch to another military hockey team during World War II.

STATUS: I'm Going With True.

Fabforum On Oct. 13, 1943, 29-year-old Walter "Turk" Broda was on board a train headed from Ontario to Quebec, specifically to Montreal. During his career in the National Hockey League (NHL), goaltender Broda only played for one team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was for the Maple Leafs that Broda had just recently won the Vezina Tropy (which is given to the goaltender who has been "adjudged to be the best at this position") in 1941 and was a major part of the Maple Leafs' 1942 Stanley Cup championship (Broda would go on to win five Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs, with a career playoff won-loss record of 60-39 and a stellar average of 1.98 goals allowed per game). He was one of the best players in the NHL (and still holds pretty much all the notable goaltender records for the Maple Leafs). Traveling with Broda was a Sergeant Major from Montreal. Before the train reached Montreal, it was halted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP claimed that Broda was trying to breach his draft notice.

The truth behind the matter, however, ultimately led to great public outcry and a dramatic change in how military hockey teams would be treated in Canada during World War II.

Read on to see what the story was...

On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland, thus effectively starting World War II. Britain and France both declared war on Germany two days later. Now in the past, Canada was beholden to whatever England decided (so they declared war during World War I when England did), as they were a quasi-independent part of the British Empire. By 1939, however, Canada had reached full Sovereign status in the British Commonwealth, so they had control over whether to go to war. They took an extra week, but on September 10, 1939, Canada, too, declared war on Germany (and Italy). At the time of World War II's outbreak, Canada did not really have much of a military. The Permanent Active Militia, Canada's full time army, had a mere 4,261 officers and men. Meanwhile, the Non-Permanent Active Militia (Canada's reserve force) had 51,000 soldiers (who had received very little training and even less equipment).

In the early days of World War II, Canada did not expand their military in any sizable fashion. They committed just two divisions to the war effort - one for Europe and one for their own defense back home. However, a major event would take place in 1940 that would change things dramatically. You see, before the Canadian division could even reach France to help support the British/French defense of France, the Germans won the Battle of France, successfully invading France. The shocking victory of Germany sent British and French troops scrambling to get out of France so that they could re-group for later battles (this was the famous Operation Dynamo troop evacuation from the shores of Dunkirk, France). This distressing news from May 1940 hit Canada like a ton of bricks. No longer could they run a "Phony War" - they would have to step things up. Canada quickly passed the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA), which provided for the registration of all Canadian citizens and conscription, but only for duty in Canada. People could enlist to go overseas, if they so chose and a great many Canadians did just that - volunteering for overseas service. But the government still remembered the difficulty that they had drafting Canadians for overseas service in 1917 (French-Canadians rioted over the idea of being drafted to fight in a war to support a monarchy that they could care less about), so the Canadian government decided not to make overseas service a requirement. Initially, training as part of the NRMA would just last a month and then citizens could go back to their everyday lives. Most NHL players got their training done right before the 1940-41 season.

Right before the 1941-42 season began, though, a new wrinkle was thrown into the mix. Government boards started to refuse to allow Canadian hockey players to travel to the United States to play for U.S. hockey teams, under the theory that these were able-bodied men and they should not be playing hockey when they could be serving in the military. As you might imagine, this went over very well from a public relations standpoint, with only a few detractors asking, "Why single out hockey players? Why not ask that question to any Canadian citizen that has not enlisted in the army?" A general low turnout of enlistment in late 1941/early 1942 (particularly after the United States entered the War in December 1941 - Canada joined the U.S. in declaring war on Japan) coupled with the reality that they might have to contribute to a two-front war led to the Canadian government drastically changing their standards regarding conscription. They formed the National Selective Service (NSS) which would be in charge of all enlistment issues. They extended the NRMA and began to make various restrictions on the able-bodied men of Canada (making any single men between the ages of 20-29 eligible for call-up and not allowing men aged 17-45 to perform "non-essential" jobs). In addition, Prime Minister Mackensie King received permission from all Canadian provinces besides Quebec to go back on his promise of "no overseas conscription" if need be, stating famously "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." Overseas enlistment increased dramatically.

Naturally enough, hockey players wished to enlist. However, the owners of the NHL did not wish to see their star players go overseas to actually fight in battles, and indeed, of the many, many NHL stars who enlisted in the military, I do not believe that a single NHL star was killed during military service (heck, I don't believe any NHL regular player period was killed during military service - only young prospects). Instead, they were often given physical instructor jobs at military training camps, or other non-combat jobs like supply truck drivers. As more and more NHL players enlisted, they also began to play hockey for the military teams. It was here that things began to get a bit out of hand. You see, the idea of having teams for military service is to boost morale among the troops. Here, though, the rosters of the squads were beginning to fill up almost entirely with professional hockey players. In addition, these teams were then beginning to compete in amateur competitions against each other. The Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers, for instance, had the complete famed "Kraut Line" from the Boston Bruins – Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer and Milt Schmidt!! Naturally enough, in 1942 the Flyers won the Allan Cup, the award given to the nation's best senior amateur team (it replaced the Stanley Cup when the Stanley Cup began to be awarded to professional teams). The coach of the New York Rangers, Frank Concher, formed the Ottawa Commandoes, a similar all-star hockey team that won the 1943 Allan Cup.

This was becoming a big business - in fact, Conn Smythe's Maple Leaf Gardens was the exclusive home to all senior hockey games played in Toronto, most notably being the Toronto Army Daggers, and the profits were not being donated to the war effort (do note, though, that Smythe himself enlisted very early, even though he was in his mid-40s and he actually served overseas in World War II). These amateur games were being taken so seriously that they even had trades between teams! Trades! You see, the rules of amateur hockey have always allowed for military teams to transfer players between teams because, well, obviously military personnel gets transferred sometimes. So this rule was used to enable trades between squads.

This competitiveness came to a head in October, 1943, with the aforementioned Turk Broda. Broda, you see, had enlisted and was assigned to the Royal Canadian Artillery in Toronto. However, he was given an offer to join a Montreal unit and play for the Montreal Army senior team. In return, Broda would be paid $2,400 on top of his military pay. Broda took them up on the offer and was on his way to Montreal when the Mounties took him into custody. Publicly, the Mounties put it out there that Broda was trying to breach his draft notice. This was untrue, as Broda was not eligible for the draft (he was married with three kids). However, he was technically AWOL (absent without leave). The Montreal newspapers wrote that they felt Broda was being brought back to Toronto so that he could play for the Toronto Army Daggers. It is unclear whether that was the actual reason why the Mounties wanted to bring Broda back to Toronto, but it is clear that that was why he was headed to Montreal (even given a Sergeant Major escort!). As you might imagine, this led to great public outcry over the notion of the military teams being used as sort of a "shadow NHL." The Toronto Army Daggers were ordered to cease competing in amateur competitions, and many other units did the same (and all of them pulled out of the Allan Cup competition - the Allan Cup was actually halted in 1945 period). However, many military units did continue to field hockey teams with professional players, and in 1944 they made the news once again when it was reported that essentially professional hockey players would stay in camp to play on the teams while newly enlisted men would be sent off to fight in Europe.

This was part of the drive to install overseas conscription in Canada that ultimately came to fruition late in 1944 when Prime Minister King sent a one-time levy of 17,000 troops overseas.

Broda, interestingly enough, ended up going overseas himself (although he did not go into combat - he did pretty much the same thing in Europe as he did in Canada, serve as an athletic ringer, playing football and hockey in Canadian military units in Europe) for two years before returning to complete his impressive NHL career (including a second Vezina trophy in 1948).

Thanks to J. Everett Ross' article "Arenas of Debate: The Continuance of Professional Hockey in the Second World War" within John Chi-Kit Wong's Coast to coast: hockey in Canada to the Second World War for much of the information required for this piece!

--Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! In particular, you should check these legends involving the effect that World politics in the years leading up to and including World War II had on the world of sports...

The tragic tale of the Ukranian football team that defied its Nazi jailers during World War II.

The real story of Adolf Hitler and Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics.

Did Mussolini threaten the Italian World Cup team with death if they did not win the 1938 World Cup?

The strange story of how international politics led to the first Chinese Olympic delegation containing only a single athlete.

In addition, I have archives of all the past legends featured on the site in the categories of: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, the Olympics and Soccer/Football!

Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Legends Revealed for legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more! Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com. And please buy my book, "Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.

Photo: Turk Broda. Credit: AP.

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