Although there was no prospect of hearing the sound of curfew bells ringing off in the distance, the Bruins and Maple Leafs knew they were running out of time. It was Saturday night in Toronto, and the city's bylaws dictated that their game would need to be scrapped if there was no clear winner before midnight.
It was exactly the type of contest you'd want to see in the postseason. Both teams had fought tooth and nail, to which Boston's Johnny Peirson could certainly attest. He was forced to leave the ice with a fractured cheekbone, which took 34 stitches to close up.
After the Maple Leafs opened the scoring less than five minutes after puck drop, the Bruins tied the game in a penalty-filled middle frame. Toronto then doubled up its opponent in shots in the third period, but simply couldn't solve netminder Jack Gelineau.
As the game proceeded into overtime, time was not on its side. Since it was the semifinal of the 1951 Stanley Cup playoffs, NHL rules mandated that the contest continue until a team broke the deadlock. There was plenty at stake, with Boston having a chance to go home up 2-0 in the series.
There was only one problem. They were playing in Toronto. As part of the city's curfew regulations, the teams could not start another period if it meant the game would continue into the early morning hours on Sunday.
While the Bruins and Maple Leafs searched for the winning goal in extra time, the clock ticked closer to midnight. When the first period of overtime ended at 11:45 PM, the two teams were still tied, which effectively ended the game. All of the statistics from the match would be kept, but there would be no outcome. As far as the playoffs would go, it would be as if the March 31 game in Hogtown never happened.
The next day, the Buds and Bruins squared off in Boston. It was not a continuation of the previous encounter, it was a brand new contest. The slate had been wiped clean. For the Leafs, it was just as well. They were down 1-0 in the series, and despite having dominated the Bruins in their curfew-shortened game, anything can happen in overtime. After setting the tempo the night before, the Leafs were helpful they could continue the pace in Beantown. They did not disappoint. Guided by an incredible performance from goaltender Turk Broda, the Buds blanked the Bruins 3-0 to even the series.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but it's hard not to look back and think that the cancelled contest may have been the difference maker in the series for the boys in Blue and White. Typically, when we think of curfew and hockey, we associate it with curbing player delinquency, but with the 1951 Maple Leafs-Bruins semifinal, it may have been the turning point.
Today, halting a Saturday night Stanley Cup playoff game in the midst of a savage stalemate would be unfathomable, but back in the day, it was simply sometimes the price of hosting sporting events in Ontario's capital.
Dating back to the late 19th century, many small Canadian cities had looked to curfews as a way to protect children and curb nighttime criminality. Larger centres such as Toronto resisted these measures, but by the time the Second World War erupted, many places revisited the idea. According to historian Tamara Myers, Toronto "used curfew laws to clear the streets of young people in the name of keeping the home front discipline while fathers served overseas and mothers engaged in war work." When the conflict ended, many of these protocols persisted.
Of course, even before curfew laws were on the books, Toronto had already long established itself as a bastion of morality, particularly under the leadership of mayor William Howland, who vigorously cracked down on crime and upheld the sanctity of the Sabbath. It's no surprise that it was during this period that the city earned the nickname "Toronto the Good," a moniker that persisted well into the 20th century.
Compounding the restrictions brought on by Toronto's curfews, was that the Big Smoke, along with other Canadian cities, was subject to theLord's Day Act. A national piece of legislation, that can be traced back to the Laurier era, it sought to impose the sacredness of the Sabbath by limiting commerce and recreation on Sundays.
It was against this backdrop that the Toronto sports scene, and entertainment in the city in general, often found itself feeling the pinch at the expense of maintaining societal order and religious observance.
On the diamond, the Maple Leafs, the city's International League baseball club, were consistently impeded and halted by Sunday curfew. Under the Lord's Day Act, no professional sporting events on Sunday could start after 1:30 PM and had to be concluded before 6:00 PM. Although this particular provision was not always enforced on a national level, Toronto had incorporated it into its suite of bylaws. A basic search of the Globe and Mail's archives reveals countless examples of the Maple Leafs having to suspend games throughout the 1950s and 1960s either because contests didn't finish before the deadline or due to weather delays pushing start times too far into Sunday afternoon.
There were, however, times when curfew would be lifted for special sporting occasions. For example, when Toronto hosted the British Empire's championship wrestling bout at Maple Leaf Gardens in October 1950, curfew was waived in order to avoid imposing a time limit on combatants Yvon Robert and Whipper Watson. The Globe and Mail noted that the match was far too important to be hamstrung by time restrictions.
Of course, in the 1950s these laws were not unique to Toronto or Canada. After the Bruins and Maple Leafs' second game was halted by curfew, the issue came up again during the series, this time in Boston. As Beantown prepared to host Game 6, which happened to fall on a Sunday, the American Press noted that Massachusetts governor Paul Dever had to amend a state law that previously prohibited games from being played beyond 11 PM on Sunday nights. It was a preemptive move should the Bruins and Maple Leafs need additional time to settle the contest.
It turned out it wasn't necessary. Toronto handedly dispatched Boston 6-0 to finish the series, and moved on to compete for the Stanley Cup. From there, the Maple Leafs took on the Canadiens in the Final. With what would prove to be his last NHL goal, Bill Barilko clinched the series for the Maple Leafs, giving the the team its fourth championship in five years. The Maple Leafs wouldn't win another until 1962.
Even as Toronto entered the liberating Sixties, the curfew laws still hung around. City council finally took steps to remove the 6 PM regulation surrounding Sunday sports, but even as late as 1964, curfew was still complicating NHL games. In the spring of that year, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings were gearing up for a seventh and decisive game for Lord Stanley's Mug. To be played in Toronto, and with hockey's ultimate prize on the line, the league—still remembering what had happened 13 years earlier—was carefully reviewing plans should the game be halted due to curfew. One of the options mentioned in the Globe and Mail included playing an eighth game, and as much as that would have made for tantalizing history, it never came to that. With the specter of curfew hovering over the Maple Leafs, they quashed all concerns and blanked Detroit 4-0 to win their second straight championship.
As Toronto loosened its approach toward nightlife, the curfew laws came off the books. The Lord's Day Act was also toppled, albeit many years later in the 1980s, when Big M Drug Mart challenged that the legislation contravened religious freedom. Since then, curfew hasn't threatened a National Hockey League game in Toronto, but then again, the Maple Leafs also haven't won a Stanley Cup since then, either.
Somewhere Lou Lamoriello is feverishly pulling statutes from the clerk's office, hoping to find a remnant from the curfew era that he bring forward to city council, just in time for the playoffs.