Only a few NHL players have awards named after them. The Vezina, the Art Ross, the Rocket Richard to name a few. One award, created to honour the NHL players who are leaders on the ice and in their communities, is the King Clancy Memorial Trophy. Today, I am looking at the legendary player they called King.
Francis Michael Clancy was born on Feb. 25, 1903 in Ottawa and it was from his father he would gain the nickname of King. At the time, his father played football for Ottawa and was called King Clancy because he was known as the King of the Heelers on the team. That nickname would eventually transfer down to Frank, becoming his pseudo name for the rest of his life.
Growing up in Ottawa, Clancy would have seen the legendary Ottawa Senators team dominating hockey in Canada. Clancy first gained notice in Ottawa while playing for St. Joseph’s High School and then the city munitions junior squad.
Clancy would relate his first memories of playing hockey in Ottawa, saying in his biography, quote:
“The first memory I have of playing hockey was when I was a little gaffer growing up in Ottawa. I played for the fun of it and I really enjoyed myself going out on those cold winter days, walking four or five miles to the river just to play shinny with the boys.”
One of his first pair of skates were handed down to him by Eddie Gerard, who was a winger with the Ottawa Senators and who Clancy would one day play with.
In 1918-19, he began a three-year stint with the St. Brigids squad before starting his NHL career as a defenceman with the Ottawa Senators in 1921-22. During his tryout with the team prior to his first year, he gained every eye and other players on the team bounced him around but he kept coming back for more and was soon signed by the team.
Ironically, he was still wearing those same skates that Girard gave him.
Clancy would debut with the Senators on Dec. 17, 1921 at the age of 17, weighing only 150 pounds. He would score in his first game as well, an overtime win against Hamilton.
He describes those days, saying quote:
That first year, he would record 10 points in 24 games, followed by five points in 24 games the next season. In that second season, he helped the Senators win the Stanley Cup.
Clancy would say quote:
“Capturing the hockey championship of the world was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. After earning $800 for the season, and then collecting another $750 in one shot for the playoffs, I was a rich man.”
Known for his small size, Clancy was also tough and fast and would not back down from any fight. One anecdote states that Clancy started 1,000 fights and never won a single one. One Toronto journalist described Clancy as having a face like, quote, “a Dublin back alley.” One legend says that Clancy once challenged an unruly Boston fan to have it out with him after the game. He found out after that he was trying to pick a fight with Jack Sharkey, the heavyweight boxing champion. Another story tells of when Clancy went up against Harold Starr of the Rangers. Starr, who was also a professional wrestler, picked up Clancy, spun him around in an airplane spin and threw him into the lap of a spectator.
Clancy would say in the book The Mad Men of Hockey, quote:
“I guess I had a hundred stitches in my face but I was never what you’d call good lookin’. I always said you never get hurt as long as you play with reckless abandon.”
Clancy was also highly versatile. On March 31, 1923, in a Stanley Cup game against the Edmonton Eskimos, Clancy became the first hockey player to play every position. After the goalie Clint Benedict was given a two-minute penalty, requiring him to serve his own time in the penalty box, Clancy went and played goal for two minutes.
The Senators would win the Stanley Cup again in 1927 and Clancy’s point totals continued to increase. In 1929-30, he recorded 40 points in 44 games for the Senators but that would prove to be his last season with his hometown team. Over the course of his seasons with the Senators, he hit double digits for goals three times and was known for using every trick he could to defend his own zone.
By this point, the Senators were in dire financial stress and had begun selling off their prize players. No player on the team was as prized as that of King Clancy. Toronto manager Conn Smythe was a great admirer of Clancy and would pay $35,000, or $541,500 today, along with two players to bring Clancy to the Maple Leafs. The story of how Smythe was able to afford Clancy is a tale unto itself. The Leafs’ board of directors would only give him $25,000 to get Clancy, which was half what the Senators wanted. In order to get the money, Smythe entered the horse he had just bought for $250, Rare Jewell, into the stakes race at Woodbine. Smythe’s own horse trainer said Rare Jewell had no chance of winning, and she was a 107-to-one long shot. Amazingly, she won the race and netted Smythe $15,570. As he collected his winnings he turned to his friends and said, “Now I can buy King Clancy.”
While Clancy would come to love the Maple Leafs, spending the rest of his life with the team, he was not happy about the trade, saying quote:
“I never wanted to go. It was my home and it took me awhile to get over leaving. As it turned out, it was the best thing that happened to me.”
He would add in an interview in 1968, quote:
“I heard how much money Mr. Smythe had handed over to Ottawa and I must confess, I thought he was a foolish man.”
For Smythe, Clancy would not only turn his team into a powerhouse, it would also help him get a hockey shrine built, Maple Leaf Gardens. He would say, quote:
“Clancy made it possible. We were building a great team with many fine players, but Clancy made it all stick together.”
In his first season with the Leafs, he recorded 21 points in 44 games. In his second season, which saw him with 19 points in 48 games, he led the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup, the third of his career. He would stay with the Maple Leafs for the remainder of his career until 1936-37.
On March 17, 1934, in a game between the Leafs and Rangers, it was declared King Clancy Night and Clancy wore a special green maple Leafs jersey complete with a Shamrock on the back instead of a number. The Leafs honoured him with gifts as if he was royalty, complete with a crown and regal clothing. He did agree to take off his shamrock jersey in the second period as the Rangers complained it was distracting.
Clancy would say later:
“Whenever I think back to March 17, 1934 and how the Maple Leafs honoured me with a night, I am still amazed at the work they went to just for me. They gave me the greatest tribute an individual could ever hope to get. I didn’t do anything to deserve it. They must have banded together and said, ‘He’s an Irishman, Let’s give him a night.”
During his career, Clancy was known for having quick wit, which often saved him from fights with legendary tough players like Eddie Shore. In one game, after Shore dropped his gloves to fight Clancy, Clancy shook Shore’s hand and said “Hey Eddie, how’s the family?” Shore immediately started laughing and skated away.
For Clancy, he described hockey as, quote “a joyous kind of game” and he played it just that way, for fun.
Another example of his wit was seen when Eddie Shore was hit by a teammate of Clancy. Clancy skated over and punched Shore as he was getting to his feet. Shore yelled as he got to his feet, quote: “Do that again Clancy!” Clancy responded quote, “Okay Eddie. Get back down on your knees.”
The era that Clancy played in was known for its rough style, Clancy would relate in his biography, quote:
“I’d get pushed in along the fence by a rival player and a fan would lean over and give me a good punch in the mouth. There were fights every night. Sometimes when a fan would give you a belt on your ear, you’d lose your temper and wade into the stands after him. You’d get belted in there again too.”
Eventually, Clancy realized he could no longer continue as he was unable to keep weight on his already small frame. Nothing was wrong with his health, but he knew the time was done. He would say, quote:
“I was 33 and the highest-paid player in the NHL when I announced I was hanging up my skates. I’ll never forget the date, it was Nov. 24, 1936. I was through as a player but not finished as far as the Toronto Maple Leaf organization was concerned. Mr. Smythe gave me a job as a goodwill ambassador and that kept me in touch with the game I loved.”
Upon his retirement, his 283 points as a defenceman were the most in NHL history. During his NHL career he was named to the NHL First All-Star Team in 1931 and 1934, and the Second All-Star Team in 1932 and 1933.
As Howie Morenz would say, Clancy was, quote
“the best defenceman of his time.”
Following his retirement, Clancy would briefly coach the Montreal Maroons. During his season, 1937-38 coaching the Maroons, they finished fourth and Clancy was fired. He then began working as a referee in the NHL, a career that would last the next 11 years.
Clancy would say, quote:
“Believe it or not, referring is a hard job. You can never satisfy anybody. I wasn’t used to the criticism you get as an official and this hurt a little bit at the start.”
With his quick wit, Clancy often had a retort to send back at the players and coaches who complained.
In one game, Detroit’s Ted Lindsay said “Clancy, you are the blindest son of a bitch I ever saw.” Clancy responded “Ted, you’re not seeing the net too well yourself.”
In 1949, the Montreal Canadiens hired him as the coach for their Cincinnati Mohawks AHL team. After two losing seasons he was released and he would take on a job coaching the Pittsburgh Hornets, the AHL team for the Maple Leafs. Clancy found much more success with that team, winning the Calder Cup as league champions in 1951-52, and nearly repeating as champions the next year.
Thanks to that success, Clancy was hired to coach the Maple Leafs in 1953-54, staying with the team for three years. While the team made the playoffs each season, they lost in the semi-finals to Detroit, a team in a dynasty run, each year.
Clancy would say of coaching the team, quote:
Rather than being fired, Clancy’s close friend Conn Smythe made him assistant general manager, which was more focused on public relations than building a team.
In 1958, Clancy would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He would remain as assistant general manager into the 1960s as the team settled into a new dynasty in which it won four Stanley Cups under coach Punch Imlach. When Imlach was fired in 1969, Clancy assumed he would be fired as well but he was made vice-president of the team instead.
Harold Ballard took over control of the Maple Leafs in 1971-72 and quickly became good friends with Clancy. In 1971-72, he stepped behind the bench for 15 games to coach the Maple Leafs while head coach John McLellan recovered from a peptic ulcer. Clancy would remain with the Leafs’ front office for the rest of his life.
In 1986, Clancy had an operation to remove his gallbladder but an infection from the gallbladder seeping into his body during the operation resulted in him going into septic shock. He would die on Nov. 10, 1986 and is buried at Mount Hope Catholic Cemetery in Toronto.
Clancy’s 65 years of work in professional hockey is a record only equaled by Marcel Pronovost. He was also the last surviving member of the Stanley Cup winning Ottawa Senators of 1922-23.
Along with the Hockey Hall of Fame, Clancy is a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. His #7, which was also worn by Tim Horton, was retired along with all the Honoured Numbers in 2016.
In 1998, he ranked 52nd on the list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players ever. The hockey tradition in the family continues with Laura Stacey, the great-granddaughter of Clancy. She would begin her professional hockey career in 2012, and has played for Canada at the World Championships and the Winter Olympics. In 2018, she won silver with Team Canada at the Olympics. She also wears #7 to honour her great-grandfather whenever she can.
The King Clancy Memorial Trophy was created in the 1987-88 season to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community. Lanny McDonald would be the first recipient of the trophy in 1988 due to his support of numerous charities. That first award was presented by Harold Ballard, who called Clancy, quote:
“One of the greatest humanitarians that ever lived.”
That same Toronto sports writer who said Clancy had the face of a Dublin back alley would also say, quote:
“There were few defencemen in NHL history as small as he, or with a heart as big. His play was inspirational.”
I will go once more back to Ballard, who said this of his best friend, quote:
“Like most leprechauns, he never won a fight on or off the ice. In more than 50 years on the Toronto scene, he has been a player, a referee, a coach and most important, a friend to anyone he has ever met.”
Information comes from NHL The Official Illustrated History, Hockey Hall of Fame, Wikipedia, BrianMacFarlane.com, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, NHL.com, icehockey.fandom.com, Maple Leafs Legends, NHL.com, Greatest Hockey Legend,