THE SELKES – “A MARLBORO FAMILY”
Frank Selke Jr
Father Frank, son Frank Jr., grandson Gary and most recently great grandson Frank. Four generations from one family involved in Canada’s most storied minor hockey club. Their story is one of “Canadiana” lore that melds into the very fiber of our long hockey heritage.
A recent interview with Frank Selke Jr. has opened the door into the hockey history of the famous family, but even more importantly, takes us back into the very early years of the Marlboro Hockey Club.
Frank Jr. is probably best remembered as the intermission host for Montreal Canadiens games during the 1960’s. Besides being the son of legendary Marlboro Junior coach and NHL general manager Frank Selke, he was also a player in the Toronto Marlboro minor system in the early 1940’s.
Question: How did your father first become involved with the Marlboro hockey club?
Born in 1893 my father grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, and moved to Toronto around 1919. Working as an electrician at the University of Toronto Schools he was asked to coach the schools OHA junior hockey team, and was successful in leading the “Blues” to the first ever awarding of the Memorial Cup. Moving on to a position as the Director of Sports Programs run out of the old St. Mary’s church on Spadina Avenue, history will show two of his young charges playing multiple sports at the time were future Leafs owner Harold Ballard and long time humanitarian Harry “Red” Foster. It was in the mid 1920’s that Mr. Selke was approached by the Marlboros to coach and manage their OHA junior team. After a couple years of building, his efforts were rewarded with a Memorial Cup victory in 1929 over the Elmwood Millionaires. This would be the first of seven such titles for the Dukes. Players on that initial championship team included Leafs legends Charlie Conacher, Harvey “Busher” Jackson and the very physical “Red” Horner.
Question: How did your father first become involved with the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Ironically my father was hired by then Leafs owner Conn Smythe on September 7, 1929, the day I was born. While his official title was “Business Manager” for the hockey club and the Gardens, he was very involved in the day-to-day operation of the hockey club, not unlike an assistant G.M. in today’s NHL. Overseeing everything from scouting, to team travel, my father was unknowingly preparing to take over the entire operation. With the onset of “World War II” Mr. Smythe was called back to active duty, putting together his famous battalion that would eventually ship overseas to join the cause. In his absence my father was left to run not only the day-to-day business operations of the organization, but was also responsible for the buildings gem, the Maple Leafs hockey club. It was during this time that my father executed one of the most beneficial trades in Leafs history, acquiring future captain and legend Ted Kennedy from the Montreal Canadiens. With Kennedy in tow the Leafs would win two Stanley Cups in the 1940’s under my dads guidance.
Question: Your father would eventually leave the Maple Leafs for the Montreal Canadiens. What were the circumstances leading up to his departure?
Upon returning from the war Mr. Smythe let it be known that while he did not question the results of the Kennedy trade, he was very annoyed that he was not consulted about the trade prior to making the deal. Also during his absence the arena business took on a whole new look, when for the first time musical concerts, circuses and other assorted forms of entertainment began to fill the building on open dates. My father was given all the credit for the big turn around in the buildings fortunes, and this did not sit well with the “Major”. This would eventually lead to a power struggle within the Gardens executive. With Mr. Smythe holding most of the shares he began to make life shall we say “a bit uncomfortable”, and in April of 1946 my father tendered his resignation from the Maple Leafs.
What were some of your father’s accomplishments as General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens?
When my father took over in July of 1946, the Canadiens were an operation on the decline both on and off the ice. The team was made up of mostly aging veterans on the down side of their careers. On the business side the Forum was a building with too few seats, and very few non-hockey events. This made it very difficult to compete financially with the other NHL clubs. After studying the existing operation my dad quickly realized he would have to totally revamp the hockey operation, establishing a new scouting system across the country, as well as implementing a new farm system with junior and semi pro teams being added across Canada acting as a feeder system to the big club for years to come. With the organization at the point of losing money he moved quickly to remodel and enlarge the seating capacity at the Forum, and as he had done in Toronto he began to fill all the open dates with concerts, shows and events. It was very early in his tenure that he somewhat brashly announced that the organization would win a Memorial Cup within three years and the Stanley cup within five years. Not only did his hockey predictions turn out to be correct, but within three years the organization itself began to turn a profit and would never look back. The junior team would win the Memorial Cup in both 1949 and 1950, and the Canadiens would go on to win 6 Stanley Cups in the 1950’s including five in a row. My father continued to run the organization until 1964 before retiring to his horse farm where he lived until passing away in 1985.
How did you first become involved with the Marlboros?
Back in the late 1930’s hockey was not as organized as it is today. Most kids played outdoors on natural ice rinks and playing for an organized team began at the age of 10 or 11 for most boys. It was back in the 1938-39 season that my father used his hockey connections in placing me on a team called the “Maple Leaf Imps”. It was a west end Etobicoke team run by future Leafs doctor Hugh Smythe. And even though the bulk of the team was made up of 10-year-old players, I was chosen as one of the two goaltenders as an 8 year-old rookie. I played for this team for two years winning the then “T.H.L.” title in both years. We would practice and play a lot of our games out of doors but occasionally we would find ourselves inside at the Ravina Gardens, the Royal Curling Club or Varsity Arena. The highlight was our Saturday morning practice at the Maple Leaf Gardens. After that second year I was picked up by the Marlboro’s for their 10 year-old team, where I played until I was in grade nine. As a student at St. Michaels I switched over to their program for Bantam, Minor Midget and Midget.
Were the Marlboro minors a successful organization in those early years?
Yes, even back then there was a certain “arrogance” that came with the success of the clubs Senior, Junior, and minor teams. If the Marlboros played against a team that had an outstanding individual, he was usually playing “with them” by the next season. The Marlboros always had new uniforms each year and were treated like “little pros”. Some of the early executive included names like club president Bill Christie, vice presidents Art Halliwel and Bill Campbell and coaches such as Jack Christie, Frank Sullivan and Les Chews. The late T.H.L. President Ralph Barber once told me I was the only player to win eight consecutive T.H.L. championships during my minor career, many of them with the Marlboros.
What kind of game and practice schedule would a Marlboro team have enjoyed in those days?
We would generally have one game per week during the regular season and one practice per week at the Gardens. Our schedule would be about twenty-four games and we would play at venues such as Wexford Arena, Willowdale, Icelandia, Royals and Varsity. Once the playoffs began we might play 2 to 3 times a week. There were no tournaments in those days but the winners of the various divisions would compete at the end of the year in the still running “King Clancy Tournament”.
Did you ever have the opportunity to compete at the junior or pro level?
Unfortunately in my Midget year at St. Mike’s I found I was starting to take a lot of shots off the face, which doesn’t sound bad until you realize there were no masks in those days! A trip to the optometrist quickly confirmed I would require glasses thus putting an end to my playing career.
How did you end up working for the Montreal Canadiens?
After my father left the Maple Leafs he was quickly hired by Senator Raymond to turn around the fortunes of the struggling Canadiens. When we moved to Montreal I was supposed to finish my grade twelve year at Catholic High, but somehow convinced my dad to let me drop out and go to work at the Forum. Starting at the bottom I would clean the seating area and sweep the ice as a general labourer for a grand total of $28.00 per week. It was only a couple years later that I was promoted to work in the teams Public Relations department where I stayed until 1964 before becoming Vice President of Marketing and Promotions. It was during my stay with the Canadiens that I was given the opportunity to do some of the television intermission hosting work that would eventually become a regular part of my duties. When the first N.H.L. expansion took place in 1967 I was lured out west to work as President of the new Oakland Seals.
What are your memories of having grown up in what can only be described as the two most famous shrines in hockey history, The Gardens and the Forum?
As a young boy in 1930’s Toronto our entire family would join the Smythes and Hewitts at the Gardens every Sunday after church. We would have the run of the place, playing shinny and skating where the Leafs had waged battle only a few hours before. There were no sports or entertainment allowed on Sundays in those days, so the building was always available for the family skates. I can remember as an 11 year-old getting a call from my father to come down to the Gardens and bring along my goaltending equipment. The legendary Syl Apps had been injured, and needed a “target’ to shoot on during one of his rehab skates. I can’t tell you what a thrill that was! A similar situation would arise years later in Montreal when I provided a body for Habs legend and future coach Toe Blake to shoot at.
Frank Selke Sr. had a huge impact on the history and success of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. The N.H.L. has recognized his contributions in naming the award for the leagues “most outstanding defensive forward” in his honour. Frank Jr. will be remembered by all fans of the Leafs golden era in the 1960’s as the game host for all the famous battles emanating from the rival Montreal Forum. Grandson Gary would serve minor hockey well in becoming a board member with the now G.T.H.L. And great grandson Frank followed in his grandfathers footsteps, playing as a goaltender for the Marlboros, before moving on to school at McGill University in Montreal.