Turk Broda was named one of The NHL’s 100, the top-100 players in the history of the National Hockey League’s 100 years of existence. This is the last in a series featuring the six Ukrainian hockey stars selected to this elite group.
During the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most glorious decade, the 1940s, Ukrainian goalie Turk Broda was the biggest story on the team.
He was the biggest story in more ways than one.
May 6, 1936, saw legendary Leafs owner/GM Conn Smythe pay the Detroit Red Wings $7,500 for the rights to Broda. The 21-year-old from Brandon, Manitoba, had arrived in the Detroit organization a few years prior.
This was a large sum during the Great Depression, but it would turn out to be a huge bargain for Toronto. Detroit GM Jack Adams would go on to regret the sale of one of the greatest money goaltenders of all time, forever a Red Wings nemesis and a winner who was at his best when the stakes were highest.
Pudgy Walter Broda was always a little larger than life – he acquired his nickname “Turk” as a young lad, teased because his freckled face resembled a turkey’s face. The nickname stuck, as in later years his generous upper body and very thin legs didn’t discourage teammates from comparing him to the bird.
Broda never lacked confidence – in his early 20s he boldly marched into the Red Wings hotel during a 1934 Western Canada tour to introduce himself to Adams as Detroit’s goaltending savior.
He never was given a chance in Detroit, instead being assigned to the minor leagues. In Toronto, Smythe reasoned 42-year-old goaltender George Hainsworth was on his last legs. Adams deemed Broda expendable because veteran Normie Smith was the man guarding the Red Wings net. Broda proceeded to see action in 45 of Toronto’s 48 games in the 1936-1937 campaign.
The next three seasons, Broda was in goal for all but one of Toronto’s 144 games, then spearheaded the Maple Leafs’ historic comeback versus the Red Wings in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, one of several Broda nightmares for Adams.
The Maple Leafs had lost the first three games to Detroit in the best-of-seven series before they shocked the hockey world with four consecutive wins, topped off with Broda’s shutout in Game 6. Toronto won the fourth of 13 franchise championships – the only team in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup Final series down 3-0.
Following a two-and-a-half-year stint in the Canadian army for World War II, Broda returned to the NHL in the 1946-1947 season, leading the Maple Leafs to the first of three consecutive championships. As his legend grew, so did his waistline – the 5-foot-9 doughboy engaged in a futile battle with his weight. His athleticism truly defied his girth.
Lose weight or else
Smythe finally ordered his star goalie to lose some seven pounds at the start of the 1949-1950 season, with a goal of hitting 190 pounds, or lose his job. The story ran rampant across all Canadian sports pages as nutrition and health tips poured in from across the country to help the portly goaltender sweat off his bulk. Some thought it was a publicity stunt.
Smythe actually had Turk run up and down the stairs at the rink every day. Through it all, Broda had fun with it. He was caught on film weighing in on a cattle scale and sitting in his goal crease in full uniform, with a stack of pancakes on his plate. This was a man who loved beer and the nightlife befitting his celebrity status.
After surviving a one-game benching while on his dieting campaign, a slightly thinner 189-pound Broda returned with his fourth shutout of 1949-1950, a 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers. This was the fourth of his career-best and league-leading nine shutouts that year.
One of Turk’s top nightlife stories was the NHL All-Stars exhibition in Hollywood after the 1942-1943 season, when he wandered off one night, on a pub crawl with a newly met American G.I. While the soldier was found hours later, passed out in the orchestra pit of a night club, Broda was partying on into the next morning, playing a piano duet with the legendary Hoagy Carmichael. That night, the venerable Ukrainian netminder was still able to shut out the Canadiens, 1-0.
He spent his entire 13-plus season NHL career with Toronto, winning five of eight Stanley Cup Finals, twice earning the Vezina Trophy (top NHL goaltender). In 101 playoff games Broda earned 13 shutouts and a 1.98 GAA – more than half a goal-against better than his average in 629 regular season tilts. He last won the Cup in 1951 when he led Toronto over Montreal in a series that saw all five games play into overtime.
Ahead of turning 38, Broda played one period of one game in 1951, surrendering three goals. Realizing his days were done, he retired. Conn Smythe honored him with Turk Broda Night in December 1951.
One last comeback
Seeking to inspire his team, Smythe brought Broda back for Game 2 of the Leafs’ 1952 semifinal series against Detroit. In his 100th career playoff game he saved 24 pucks in a gut-wrenching 1-0 defeat, only to be lit up in a 6-2 loss in Game 3, after which he hung up his pads for the final time.
More than a half-century after his retirement, Broda remains atop Toronto’s all-time regular season goaltending lists in games played (629), wins (302), shutouts (62) and minutes played (38,167).
He remained extremely popular in Toronto beyond his playing days, coaching the major junior Toronto Marlboros to Memorial Cup championships in 1955 and 1956 while deeply involved in the community. In 1972 Broda passed away after suffering a heart attack in the same year, at age 58, five years after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In October 2016, to begin its centennial season, the Maple Leafs unveiled a statue of Walter “Turk” Broda on its Legends Row outside Air Canada Center. His likeness was joined by those of fellow Toronto icons Dave Keon and Tim Horton.
“My dad would have loved this,” Broda’s daughter, Barbara Tushingham, told the Toronto Sun when the announcement was made in January 2016. “He played with heart… he loved the Leafs and the fans. He was everybody’s friend.”
Still larger than life.
Ihor Stelmach may be reached at email@example.com.