It was a team like no other.
The 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs are the answer to this trivia question – what was the only team to come back to win a best-of-seven Stanley Cup final after falling behind 3-0?
The Leafs lost the first three games to the Detroit Red Wings before storming back to win it all. And as raw rookie forward Gaye Stewart recalled, the Leafs were called "world champions" in those days. The heading above a photo of that team says, "Stanley Cup, emblematic of World's Professional Hockey Championship"’.
"That was a dig against the Russians," Stewart said. The Leafs, with Conn Smythe as GM, Hap Day as coach and Frank Selke Sr. as business manager, produced a 27-18-3 record during the regular season before ousting the New York Rangers 4-2 in the best-of-seven semi-final.
The final should have been a bit of a mismatch because the Wings had been very mediocre during the regular season with a 19-25-4 record. Somewhat shockingly, the Wings won the first two games in Toronto by scores of 3-2 and 4-2. In game 3 at home, the Wings won 5-2 to take a 3-0 series lead.
Then the comeback began. The Leafs, sparked by goaltender Turk Broda, came back to win games 4, 5, 6 and 7 by scores of 4-3, 9-3, 3-0 and 3-1. In Game 7 in Toronto, Syd Howe gave Detroit a 1-0 lead but Russian-born legend Sweeney Schriner scored twice and journeyman Pete Langelle fired the winner to lift the Leafs to the win.
"When the score was tied, Smythe came into the dressing room and said, 'Here’s $100 for the guy who scores the winning goal,'" recalled defenceman Wally Stanowski, 85. "So Pete Langelle got the $100.
"There was a little strategy involved in that series," Stanowski continued. "One of the Maple Leaf directors, Colonel Wm. MacBrien, talked to us the day before Game 4 and said, 'Don’t read what's in the newspapers.’ It (publicity) made Detroit a little overconfident. They had all the champagne ordered for after Game 4. The champagne has never been opened. The colonel said to play it one game at a time. By the time the seventh game came around, Detroit was pretty desperate. There was a lot of pressure on them."
It was a bittersweet victory for two of the Leafs because Day caused a few heads to rumble with what was called a "very public benching" of star forward Gordie Drillon and defenceman Bucko McDonald for the final four games of the series. In the off-season, Drillon was traded to the Montreal Canadiens. "There was a reason for Gordie getting benched," Stanowski said. "In the third game, there was a puck deep in our end and Gordie was only about six feet from the puck and he could have gotten it easily but he made no attempt to get it. A Detroit player, who was further away, came in, grabbed the puck and scored. The deal with Bucko – he wasn’t that good a skater and Detroit had a good skating club."
When all is said and done, you hate to say it but those Red Wings are the greatest hockey choke of all time. "I had just turned pro not long before that," recalled Stewart, who played the final three games of the series against the Wings. "I didn’t do much but I was only 18 at the time so it was exciting. I was floating in awe. I didn't recall being nervous. After the series I went back to high school at Northern on Mount Pleasant and people asked me, ‘Where were you?'"
What Stewart was trying to say was that there was little publicity in those days and not many people had realized he was playing for the Leafs.