Historicist: Huskies and Hoops
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Historicist: Huskies and Hoops

They hosted the first game in the precursor to the NBA, but only lasted one season. Here's the story of the Toronto Huskies.

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Ed Sadowski invites fans to opening night for the Toronto Huskies and the BAA. Source: The Toronto Star, October 31, 1946.

Given that basketball was invented by a native of the Great White North, perhaps the fates were at work when the first game of the league that would become the National Basketball Association was played in Toronto on November 1, 1946. That distinction would be one of the few highlights of the short existence of the Toronto Huskies. Poor personnel decisions, a problematic star attraction, and lousy gate receipts all proceeded to sink big-time basketball before it could establish itself in Toronto.

Toronto seemed like an odd choice to set up a pro franchise. While amateur games were found in city schoolyards, the passion and infrastructure for college hoops was nowhere near the growing popularity the sport saw in the United States. What Toronto possessed was a large arena, Maple Leaf Gardens, which belonged to the Arena Managers Association of America (AMAA). The association, which included all NHL rinks except the Montreal Forum and a healthy chunk of venues for American Hockey League teams, was approached by promoters looking for suitable arenas to launch a basketball league that would cover more large cities than existing pro leagues. While both the American Basketball League and the National Basketball League saw their business perk up after World War II, their powerhouse franchises were located in metropolises like Fort Wayne, Indiana and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It was hoped that the Basketball Association of America (BAA) would draw crowds on nights where the usual hockey tenants were off the ice.

Photo of Gino Sovran from the November 26, 1946 edition of the Telegram. The blurb under the picture noted that “he’ll be a big help before the season is much older.”

For a star attraction, the Huskies signed “Big” Ed Sadowski to the fattest contract in the league—$10,000. Sadowski had been a collegiate star for Seton Hall nearly a decade earlier and, if the choice had been up to him, he would have preferred to play near his alma mater and home in New Jersey for the New York Knicks after a few seasons in the Midwest in the NBL. When Knicks coach Neil Cohalan decided to go with a young squad, Sadowski pinned his hopes on receiving a call from the Boston Celtics, where his college coach Honey Russell was in charge. The phone never rang, so he settled for Toronto’s offer, which also included coaching duties. According to Charley Rosen’s chronicle of the first season of the BAA, The First Tip-Off, Sadowski figured coaching would be a breeze: “All he had to do was make substitutions, tell everyone to pass him the ball, and chew their asses whenever they lost.”

Huskies business director Lew Hayman gave Sadowski free reign over personnel decisions, which led the playing coach to recruit a lineup consisting mostly of Seton Hall alumni who lived near him. He was obliged to sign some Canadian talent to keep local fans happy, so six players were given tryouts to compete for two spots. The winners were two players from Windsor, Hank Biasatti (a star at Assumption University, the forerunner to the University of Windsor) and Gino Sovran (who had played sparingly for the University of Detroit).

Sadowski quickly found he wasn’t keen on the responsibilities of coaching. As Rosen noted, “Big Ed’s idea of practice was to make certain that the cigar stub clenched between his teeth while he rehearsed his dreadnought hook shot was unlit.” Drills and strategies were alien to Big Ed, who figured the best way to learn was through endless scrimmaging and shooting practice. Not that pre-season training conditions encouraged lengthy sessions—when the team arrived at the Galt Armoury in October, they discovered that the baskets lacked backboards. Once an alternate space was found, the team got to know local taxi drivers well as they were transported between their hotel in Galt and St. Jerome’s College in Kitchener. Sadowksi felt the team lacked a feisty, competitive edge to their play until Charlie Hoeffer decided to fight Biasatti when the latter’s defensive play proved too aggressive during practice on October 22. The team played several exhibition games against local colleges and held two final practices at the Central YMCA in Toronto before opening night arrived.

There were unsettling signs as the league’s debut neared. A portable wooden floor placed over the ice in Maple Leaf Gardens quickly proved treacherous due to condensation. Sadowski felt the pre-season competition had been inadequate to properly test the team’s skills. Their opening night opponents, the Knicks, received the following greeting from the border guard when their train reached Niagara Falls: “I don’t imagine you’ll find many people up this way who understand your game—or have an interest in it either.” Local papers provided silly commentaries about the height of the players in their opening night previews, with the goofiest reserved for Star sportswriter Joe Perlove’s dive into the world of fairy tales: “I know just what Little Red Riding Hood will say to her grandma at the league inaugural on the specially erected Gardens floor tomorrow night. She’ll say—and this’ll kill you—‘Oh grandma, what big guys they have.'”

Trading cards of Huskies coaches in other locales. Left: 1948 Bowman card of Ed Sadowski depicting him as a member of the Philadelphia Warriors. Right: 1951 Bowman card of Red Rolfe depicting him as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

While Huskies officials hoped for a crowd of up to 12,000 fans on November 1, the final tally was just over 7,000. It was believed most of those who showed up were youngsters and high school basketball players lured in by free tickets. Among those who participated in the opening ceremonies were Mayor Robert Saunders, Ontario Minister of Health Russell T. Kelley, and league president Maurice Podoloff. Plagued by poor free-throwing shooting and the loss of three players, including Sadowski, to foul outs, the Huskies trailed the Knicks for most of the game. They gained the lead at the end of the third quarter and the game see-sawed until the Knicks captured the lead for good in the last three minutes en route to a 68–66 victory. The crowd was raucous, cheering loudly after every basket and tossing ribald remarks at the referees. The reaction from the stands proved to Perlove that “these people aren’t basketball conscious.”

Not until their third game, a home match against the Detroit Falcons, did the Huskies savour the thrill of victory. As November wore on, Sadowski found he couldn’t cope with the pressure of coaching and the onset of winter, while his players barely tolerated his mediocre leadership ability and ball-hogging on the court. Telegram columnist Ted Reeve, under the nom de plume Alice Snippersnapper, waxed poetic about the grumbling Husky:

Under the spreading basket hoop
Big Ed Sadowski stood
His arms were made of iron or steel
His feet were made of wood
And at the scoring pivot play
Big Ed was very good
But while his team mates flashed and sped
They could not get the ball past Ed.

The breaking point came after a November 29 match at home against the Cleveland Rebels. Despite a blizzard that struck that night, the team had to hit the road after the game to play the following night in Providence, Rhode Island. Four taxis took the team to Buffalo to catch their connecting train, but the harsh weather hindered their journey and the train was gone by the time they crossed the border. Facing a forfeit if they didn’t show up, the Huskies stayed in the taxis and continued on until they reached Providence. The fatigue caused by the ordeal played a part in the team’s loss to the Steamrollers. When the team checked into their motel afterward, Sadowski was nowhere to be found. While Heyman and player Dick Fitzgerald served as interim coaches, rumours placed Sadowski either back in Toronto (sighted either at the 1946 Grey Cup game at Varsity Stadium or in a local hospital) or attempting to negotiate a return to his previous team, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons of the NBL. Sadowski surfaced on December 2 when he contacted Podoloff to arrange a conference with the Huskies and league officials. He demanded to be relieved of his coaching duties and, if possible, be traded to a winning team. Heyman suspended his difficult star and began the search for a new coach.

One in a series of advertisements with player profiles. Source: The Toronto Star, January 23, 1947.

By mid-December, with the team well below .500 at five wins and 11 losses, a new bench boss was found: Robert “Red” Rolfe, a four-time All-Star during his ten-year baseball career with the New York Yankees. After his retirement from the national pastime in 1942, Rolfe served as baseball and basketball coach at Yale. Upon joining the Huskies, Rolfe quickly determined that the friends Sadowski had recruited couldn’t compete with the rest of the league and initiated a long series of trades and other personnel changes. Among those to go was Sadowski, who had briefly returned to playing duty before being traded on December 17 to Cleveland for Leo Mogus and Dick Schulz. One teenaged Huskies fan, John Strebig, summed up Sadowski’s liabilities on the court and how a Rolfe/Sadowski relationship probably wouldn’t have lasted long:

The Huskies had the thinnest playbook in the league—one play. That play was: throw it to Ed Sadowski…Big Ed hung around the offensive basket, wheezing a lot, and did his thing. He tried to play defence a couple of times, when the coach swore at him, but he kept running into his own players who were trying to bring the ball up and execute that one play. All the other teams in the league seemed to possess thicker play-books and so they outscored the Huskies, usually two to one.

Player turnover never allowed the team to properly gel and caused angry fans to stay away from the Gardens, especially after Canadians Biasatti and Sovran were released (with the latter receiving his walking papers on New Year’s Day). By the end of January, only four of the eleven players who started the season with the Huskies were still on the team.

Two attempts to draw customers. Sources: (left) The Telegram, December 13, 1946 (right) The Toronto Star, March 5, 1947.

Heyman tried all kinds of attractions to bring fans in. Heavy advertising in local newspapers, distribution of rule books, quiz competitions, pre-game matches featuring local high schools, heavy discounts on seats when teams worse than the Huskies were in town…none of these promotions boosted sagging attendance. A nylon giveaway was struck down by the provincial government when they declared that the silky garments still fell under war rationing restrictions that were still in effect. Before one late season game, Heyman declared that “we can only seat the first 15,000 fans. The rest will have to stand.” The only people standing were the ushers, as only a fifth of the anticipated crowd showed up. One match against Providence drew only 500 customers.

Despite one brief winning streak soon after Rolfe took over, the team continued its losing ways and finished the season with a grand total of 22 victories and thirty-eight losses. Despite assurances from team management that the Huskies were here to stay, rumours indicated that the franchise might move to Montreal. But an average attendance of just over 2,000 fans and financial losses estimated to be $215,000 sealed the franchise’s fate. At a league meeting on July 27, 1947, the Huskies announced that they would suspend operations.

In mid-August, Perlove conducted a post-mortem on the Huskies. Declaring that the team was “a sickly child from birth,” he determined that the team never had a chance to succeed in a city with few die-hard basketball fans (who preferred watching amateur matches) and failed to provide enough of a spectacle to entice customers to the Gardens.

Cause of death could be laid to financial malnutrition which caused over-eating. Because of the dearth of customers, club officials were forced to subsist on a diet of leftover tickets. As everyone knows, the caloric content in pasteboards is too low to keep body and soul together.

Additional material from The First Tip-Off: The Incredible Story and Birth of the NBA by Charley Rosen (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 2009) and the following newspapers: the December 5, 1946 edition of the Telegram; and the October 31, 1946, November 1, 1946, November 2, 1946, August 13, 1947, and May 30, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star.