In September 1945, $500 bought both an electric range and an automatic washing machine.
That same month, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frank McCool decided his pesky ulcers were also worth $500 — and he didn’t say “maybe,” either.
Furthermore, he told this to his boss, Conn Smythe, during the contract negotiations.
After leading the underdog Maple Leafs to the 1945 Stanley Cup championship, McCool was hailed as Canada’s victorious hero. And a very brave one at that.
“Frank played every single game (50) in the regular season (1944-45), but every game was a life-and-death struggle for him,” said former Maple Leafs press official Ed Fitkin. “McCool’s ulcers led to his being discharged from the army. Playing as a goaltender in the NHL was a case of tension piling up at the top.”
“Between periods he drank milk in the dressing room to calm his fluttering stomach and there were times during a game when he was almost too nauseous to continue, but what made him special was that he never gave up.”
During the 1945 Stanley Cup Playoffs, McCool, a rookie, led the Maple Leafs to a surprise run against the defending champion Montreal Canadiens and their Hall of Fame goaltender, Bill Durnan. Toronto won the best-of-7 series in six games and reached the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings.
McCool opened the best-of-7 finals with three straight shutouts, an NHL record.
After suffering the next three straight losses, McCool tamed his volcanic stomach and the raging Red Wings 2-1 in Game 7 to help the Maple Leafs win the trophy.
“If I were to give individual praise to anyone, I would have to say that McCool has come the furthest of the entire team since training camp in Owen Sound,” said Maple Leafs coach Hap Day. “At the time we weren’t even sure if he had the background to be included in the squad.”
Having never played professional hockey prior to camp in Toronto in 1944, McCool was delighted to sign a $3,000 rookie contract embellished with a $1,000 signing bonus. After winning the Stanley Cup and Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year, he raised an additional $3,200.
“McCool was the best story of the 1944-45 season in Toronto,” wrote Maple Leafs historian Eric Zweig.
Thrilled by his golden boy image — but without recurrent ulcers — McCool returned to his hometown of Calgary for the summer. He got a job selling used auto parts and vacationed at his brother-in-law’s ranch.
“He was gaining weight and he wasn’t worried,” said former Toronto Star sports editor Andy Lytle. “The ulcers were dormant. In fact, he forgot her.”
McCool didn’t forget that Smythe had gifted him a new contract, a $1,500 raise, taking his salary to $4,500. So far, so good. All was looking good for the 27-year-old star.
Then it happened. On the long train ride from Calgary to Toronto, McCool began to think about his ulcers and how the goaltender could tear his stomach up over a 50-game season. When he got to Smythe’s office, he was ready to resign.
“Hello, champ,” Smythe greeted, his cold blue eyes shining warmly. “Are you willing to put them aside for us?”
McCool explained that he was planning to quit but his wife urged him to try again and he felt he owed the club that gave him such a great opportunity.
“If you give up, you’ll be the first fighting Irishman to act like that,” Smythe said. “And you’ll probably hate yourself for the rest of your life.”
“All right,” he said. “I will go to the camp and do my best. I’ll stop worrying.”
At least he was partially true to his word. He went to camp and did his best. McCool became by far the best goalkeeper, with up-and-coming Aldege “Baz” Bastien finishing second by a wide margin and diminutive Gordie Bell acting as a stand-in for the substitute.
Feeling unusually confident, McCool decided to take a chance and challenge Smythe. Coincidentally, this was the biggest mistake of his fledgling NHL career and would tarnish his rising star just as he flew into orbit.
He returned to Smythe’s office and blatantly demanded a raise, estimating his ulcers at $500. In other words, half the huge bonus wasn’t for him, it was for his stomach ache. Smythe didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The Globe and Mail Sports Editor, Vern DeGeer, captioned his story: “$500 Ulcers Put Frank MCCOOL Out of Hockey.”
“I think I’m worth an extra $500 because of my ulcers,” Frank told Smythe.
The veteran manager looked him up and down before firing back, “That’s not how we do business. You are through!”
McCool was shown the door. Bastien was invited.
Smythe wasn’t kidding. He informed Day that 26-year-old Bastien would be in goal on opening night, October 27, 1945, against the Boston Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens.
So far so good – for Smythe. The game ended in a 1-1 draw and McCool was – at least temporarily – a forgotten goalkeeper. However, that was not the case after games 2, 3, 4 and 5, each a loss for Toronto.
Bastien’s 0-4-1 record and 4.00 goals against average weren’t enough for Smythe.
“That’s about all Smythe could take,” Fitkin said. “Baz got the hook and Bell got the job.”
Day was more patient with Bell, who was ultimately better than Bastien. But not much better. He was 3-5-0 with a 3.87 GAA, leaving Smythe frustrated but still hopeful.
Around the same time, McCool rubbed his stomach a few times and then felt his wallet. While the ulcers didn’t hurt very much, his bank account did.
“‘Mac’ called the boss and made an appointment,” Fitkin said. “He knew he screwed up and ‘The Major’ knew he needed Mac’s goalie. But only if Frank would admit defeat.”
Last but not least, The Grand Ulcerated Armistice meeting produced a very remorseful Toronto goaltender and triumphant employer.
“I realized I made a mistake,” McCool admitted to Smythe. “Now I understand that if I had stayed in Toronto instead of taking the train back to Calgary, we could have resolved the difficulties. I will take the boils out of my demands.”
The goaltender and general manager shook hands and agreed that the originally agreed upon $4,500 contract was enough.
Unfortunately, upon his return, McCool was left a rusty, abandoned hero. He suffered more from an injury-plagued, aging Maple Leafs team than from his stomach problems. He returned to the NHL on December 1, 1945, but he was a shadow of his former Cup-winning self.
All in all, his arithmetic wasn’t that bad. McCool played 22 games and had a 9-10-3 record with a 3.68 GAA. He played his last NHL game on February 3, 1946.
Three nights later, future Hall of Famer Turk Broda – after being discharged from the Canadian Army – resumed his pre-war position as Toronto goaltender. Broda maintained that role into the early 1950s, winning a Stanley Cup championship in 1947 and three more through 1951.
Reflecting on his bewildering conflict with McCool, Smythe remarked, “I don’t understand the boy. But they tell me ulcers do these things.”
McCool died on May 20, 1973 at the age of 54. According to a communiqué, “ulcers were confirmed to play a role in his death.”