Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
Defeat does not rest lightly on their shoulders.” Those were the words inscribed by Conn Smythe on a white and blue metal plaque inside the home team’s dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. The year was 1931—the first year the Leafs won the Stanley Cup—and starring for the Blue and White was a centre by the name of “Gentleman” Joe Primeau, who immortalized himself during the 1930s as a soft-spoken, smooth-skating playmaker and the driving force of the Kid Line.
Smythe tried to acquire the prospect while an employee with the Rangers, but ownership believed the centreman wasn’t tough enough. When Smythe migrated to Toronto, he promptly signed the overlooked five-foot-eleven, 153-lb. forward. Primeau played for the Toronto Ravinas and London Panthers in the Canadian Professional Hockey League, the equivalent of today’s AHL, before making the big club. He didn’t disappoint for the Leafs, and the breakthrough moment came in December 1929, when the 23-year-old Primeau replaced Eric Pettinger on the top line. An injury forced left-winger Baldy Cotton to remain in Toronto while the team travelled to Chicago, and in his stead, 18-year-old Busher Jackson joined Primeau and another youngster, Charlie Conacher, on the top line. The Leafs won 4–3. The Kid Line was born.
They arrived at precisely the right time. Rule changes allowed for forward passing, and offence around the league exploded. Primeau excelled with his ability to draw defencemen to him, then dish the puck off to his hard-nosed, desperate-for-the-puck wingers. Primeau joked about “cutting the puck in half” to appease both his linemates, who would curse and yell to get more scoring opportunities. “You guys will drive me nuts,” Primeau said years later of his desire to please them both. But he was content to let others have the glory—he led the league in assists three times and twice finished second in scoring, once to Conacher, once to Jackson.
Primeau was a calming and mature influence on and off the ice. Conacher was a huge right-winger with a big shot and personality, and he and Primeau meshed well, despite the practical jokes Conacher played on his centreman during the long train rides, switching clothes and shaving kits and blaming it on Primeau. In an era of fedoras and hand-knit hockey sweaters, Primeau carried himself with class and dignity. He may have received only one major penalty his entire career, but Primeau was rugged, and once took a stick to the face on New Year’s Eve in New York that knocked out his front teeth. He wandered around that night looking for a dentist. The one he found was drunk.
After scoring his last goal in the 1936 Stanley Cup Final, Primeau left the game, retiring at age 30 to focus on family and business. But he had coached throughout his playing days and it remained in his blood. His personality translated well behind the bench. He won at every level he coached and owns the distinction of being the only man to stand behind the bench of the winning team at the Allan Cup, Memorial Cup and Stanley Cup. Though some players of his era may have won more trophies or scored more goals, Primeau emerged as one of the greatest winners and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963. He etched his name one final time on the Stanley Cup as a coach in 1950–51, forever connecting himself to Maple Leafs lore as the hand that guided Howie Meeker, Bill Barilko and goaltender Turk Broda to victory.
Meeker remembers Primeau’s personable coaching style—in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Hap Day—from the many late-night visits on the road. “[Ted] Kennedy would be sitting up in bed reading his horse breeding book,” Meeker says. “We’d have a knock at the door—it’d be Joe. He would ask how we could get better, talk hockey. We were a pipeline for him. He was a warrior.”