Upon graduating in medicine from the University of Toronto in 1950, Hugh Smythe decided to specialize in rheumatology, the treatment of muscle and joint pain – a field then largely ignored by the medical community.
As a result, over the next 50 years, he was instrumental in changing the face of arthritis care across Canada, and is hailed as both an educator and a pioneer of research into the debilitating disease.
To hockey fans, however, the son of legendary Toronto Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe will forever be linked with one of the more memorable events in the National Hockey League team’s history: the decision to send Bobby Baun back on the ice with a broken ankle during Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup finals.
Baun responded by scoring the winning goal in overtime and the Leafs went on to defeat Detroit in seven games. “It’s always been one of my Dad’s favourite stories,” Conn Smythe, the youngest of three Smythe children, recalled in an interview.
Hugh Smythe was 85 when he died on Oct. 14 at his home in Toronto after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June.
It was always his dream to follow his own father’s footsteps with the Leafs. Named a director in 1962, when his older brother, Stafford, along with partner Harold Ballard and newspaper magnate John Bassett, took over the Gardens, he was still on the board when Stafford died suddenly in 1971.
Smythe tried to purchase his brother’s share but Ballard, as executor of Stafford’s estate, was able to shut him out. He first bought out Bassett and then a year later paid $7.5-million for Smythe’s share to gain full control. “My uncle should not have trusted Ballard and [made him] executor of his estate,” Conn Smythe says. “My dad was upset at that.”
Hugh Arthur Smythe was born in Toronto on Aug. 8, 1927.
After receiving his medical degree, he was awarded a research fellowship with the Arthritis Society and the affliction soon became a lifelong passion. In 1961, he became director of the society, a title he held until 1999, and two years later helped to spearhead the opening of Canada’s first rheumatic-disease unit at Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital. It became a model for other such units across Canada.
Smythe also was considered Canada’s leading expert in fibromyalgia and was instrumental in the creation of the Ontario Fibromyalgia Association in 1985.
“There were very few rheumatologists in the country at the time when Dr. Smythe started,” says Murray Urowitz, a Toronto-based rheumatologist who trained under him. “The disease wasn’t even recognized by the Royal College [of Physicians and Surgeons] as a legitimate specialty. “He was a pioneer.”
Not surprisingly, he was also a sports fanatic and spent much of his youth tearing around the building his father built – Maple Leaf Gardens.
He even served as a Leafs stick boy, and in 2007 recalled for the Journal of the Canadian Rheumatology Association that, “when a break occurred, I had to deliver the correct stick to [defenceman] Bingo Kampman as quickly as to [star centre] Syl Apps. It earned me my name being inscribed on the Stanley Cup with the 1942 team.”
In 1949, Smythe became team doctor with the Leafs, an association that was to last 20 years – and which led to the Bobby Baun heroics.
The ’64 Cup final was a tightly contested affair against Gordie Howe and the Red Wings. With the score tied in the third period of Game 6 in Detroit, Howe drilled a shot that careened off Baun’s right ankle in front of the Leafs’ net. The rugged defenceman collapsed in obvious discomfort and had to be carried off the ice on a stretcher.
Today, Baun has only a foggy memory of which team doctor attended to him in the locker room, but in later years Smythe often would recount how the player’s ankle was frozen and then heavily taped to allow him to return to action.
“The injury was an undisplaced fracture of the fibula, about three inches down the ankle joint line,” Smythe said in an account published in the CRAJ. “These fractures always heal and permanent disability was not a concern. It was a mere pain problem, easily controlled with local anesthetic.”
Early in overtime, Baun managed to get off a shot from the blueline that deflected off a Detroit player and into the net, providing the Leafs with a 4-3 win.
“Between Games 6 and 7 I stayed at a friend’s place on a farm and kept my leg frozen,” Baun recalls. Two nights later in Toronto, he was back on the ice for Game 7, which the Leafs won handily, 4-0. Only afterward did X-rays reveal that he had suffered a broken ankle. He would spend six weeks in a cast.
Baun, now 76, calls Smythe “something special,” a doctor who had the best interests of the athletes at heart. “He made sure that we were well taken care of and he would bring in all the proper specialists to make sure,” he says. “Our injuries were different from a lot of other people. I had my nose broken eight times. Everyday people don’t have their nose broken eight times.”
Smythe would also be called upon from time to time to stitch up unfortunate spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens who would often get cut by errant pucks that would fly into the stands before the advent of higher glass and protective netting surrounding the ice surface.
He also treated Leafs’ rivals, during one game sewing up a gash to the head of Montreal Canadiens star Maurice Richard.
“Rocket Richard was totally fearless as he charged toward the net, dragging the strongest of our defencemen,” Smythe later recalled. “But he was terrified of needles. I quickly put five stitches in his scalp without using local anesthetic, taking advantage of the relative numbness that occurs shortly after injury so that the ordeal was minor and brief, rather than prolonged and tentative.
“Illogical fears were not rare in these heroes, especially fear of flying.”
Away from work, Smythe was an avid sportsman who loved to ski, play golf and tennis with his wife, the former Mary Bernice Harris. She was a surgical nurse working in Toronto when she caught the fancy of a young doctor. The two married in 1952.
Smythe’s work in medicine afforded him the opportunity to travel the world. In his bid to understand the nature of rheumatic disease, he became an avid collector of antique headrests – designed to deal with a universal affliction. “Neck pain is a very common rheumatic symptom,” says Urowitz, who succeeded Smythe as the Leafs team doctor in 1970. “And Dr. Smythe was always interested in how different civilizations handled neck pain, because it’s so common. It’s part of our vernacular – you’re a pain in the neck. Everybody has neck pain.
“He learned in Eastern cultures in places like China, they often used these wooden or ivory neck rests which would be like the support pillows that you see today.”
The pride of the collection, which son Conn says numbers more than 60, is one Smythe picked up in China in the 1960s: a blackened and worn-looking inlaid piece carved from cypress. Back in Toronto, experts at the Royal Ontario Museum determined that because the wood was 4,000 years old, the piece may have been produced by an artisan of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom.
Bought for somewhere between $400 and $500, the headrest is believed to be worth at least $50,000.
Smythe leaves his wife, Bernice, and three children, Richard Smythe, Anne Smythe and Conn Smythe.
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