Hap Emms will always be right near the top of the list of men who had the greatest impact on the game - good and bad.
Leighton "Hap" Emms was as controversial as he was successful during close to 60 years in hockey circles. Although Emms is primarily known for his years as an owner and general manager with various teams, he was in fact a good hockey player in his day. Emms was retired from playing by 1945.
At the age of 21, Emms played for the Stratford Nationals of the CPHL in 1926-27, where he scored eleven goals and five assists before being called up to play in eight games with the NHL's Montreal Maroons. He played in another eight games with the Maroons the following year, but after 16 games managed just a single assist.
The next two years of his pro career were spent in Windsor with the CPHL's Bulldogs. Emms regained his scoring touch, surpassing the 20-goal plateau both years. In 1930-31, Emms played his first full NHL season at the age of 25, dressing for 44 games with the New York Americans. He had five goals and four assists and 56 minutes in penalties. He also played three years in Detroit, one year wearing the Falcons uniform followed by two years in a Red Wings jersey. Emms' best offensive season was with the Wings in 1932-33 when he had nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points in 41 games.
Emms returned to New York in the fall of 1934 and played with the Americans for four more years. The 1937-38 season was his swan song in the NHL, although he did continue to play for three years with the Omaha Knights of the AHA. His final year as a pro hockey player was in 1944-45, when he suited up for two games with the St. Louis Flyers of the AHL.
It was after his playing days that Emms would make an everlasting name for himself. The accolades, successes, failures, innovations, suspensions and controversies are enough to fill a book. He was truly a legend in major junior hockey and it all started in 1945 when he began operating a junior team in his hometown of Barrie, Ontario. For the next 33 years of his life he would be directly associated as an owner, manager, and coach.
Hap's son, Paul, and nephew, Don, played on his first championship team in 1951. Eight of his teams made it to the Memorial Cup--four came away as champions. The second national junior championship came just two years later in 1953, and boasted the likes of Don Cherry, Skip Teal, Marv Edwards, and Orval Tessier. Despite the early successes of the organization, Emms moved the franchise to Niagara Falls in 1960, where the bulk of the team's fame and controversy would be established.
In 1965, the Niagara Falls Flyers won their first of two Memorial Cups under Emms' ownership. It was a team loaded with talent including future NHLers Jim Lorentz, Rick Ley, Don Marcotte, Barry Wilkins, Rosaire Paiement, Steve Atkinson, Bill Goldsworthy, Jean Pronovost, Johnny Arbour, Gil Marotte, Bernie Parent and Doug Favell. That junior team would have made an excellent NHL team.
While still owning the Niagara Falls Flyers, Emms became the general manager of the NHL's Boston Bruins from 1965 to 1967. Without a doubt his biggest accomplishment during his short stay was the signing of Bobby Orr. Emms was not happy in Boston, and the organization was not overly thrilled with his style of managing, so they mutually agreed to end the relationship.
Emms returned just in time to see his team win its second Memorial Cup in three years. The 1968 team had Ley and Atkinson as holdovers with other such new stars as Brad Selwood, Phil Roberto, Tom Webster, and goalie Phil Myre.
In 1972, Emms sold the Flyers and immediately bought the neighboring St. Catharines Blackhawks. During that tumultuous time in St. Catharines, Emms was suspended by the league for an incident involving the Toronto Marlboros' Mark Napier, who had signed a pro contract to play for the WHA's Toronto Toros. The contract was not to take effect until after his junior season was complete, but Emms felt it was wrong to have a player he deemed a professional playing in junior hockey. Emms and son, Paul, who was the coach of the Blackhawks, allegedly ordered their players to wear their sweaters backwards in protest. The antics resulted in the Marlboros being awarded a 14-0 decision, and Emms being fined $1,000 and suspended for the balance of the season. After four years in St. Catharines, Emms called it a huge mistake and moved his team to Niagara Falls in 1976.
After 50 years in hockey, Emms sold the Flyers to Reg Quinn in 1978. He suffered a stroke in 1983, which left him unable to walk or talk. He lived for another five years before dying of heart failure in 1988 at the age of 83 in Niagara Falls.