fix you

Hold Still: Bill O’Brien, on the right, was trainer for the NHA Renfrew Creamery Kings going back to 1910, but it was as a mainstay of the Montreal Maroons’ support staff that he was best known, all the way through the 14 years of their illustrious history. In 1940, he took up as trainer for the Canadiens. Here he’s tending winger Ray Getliffe at the Habs training camp at St. Hyacinthe in October that year. A good glimpse here, too, of Montreal’s alternate white sweater, introduced in 1933. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

 

winterspiele, 1936: storm warming

The thermometer had dropped to -7 on the morning of Saturday, February 8 at the open-air rink at Lake Riesser as Japan skated out to play its second (and final) game at the fraught 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany. The Japanese had lost their opening Group D game 2-0 to Sweden; now, facing the eventual gold medallists from Great Britain, the Japanese had their chances in front of Jimmy Foster’s goal … just no goals. Final score: 3-0, GB. While the British and Swedes advanced to the second round of the tournament, the Japanese headed home. Seen here during the game is an unidentified Japanese player alongside one of the heaters that was provided to warm the team’s bench.

barry fraser, 1940—2022

Sorry to see yesterday’s news that former Edmonton Oilers chief scout Barry Fraser has died at the age of 82. Condolences to his family. He was a son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, who truly was one of the key architects of the juggernaut that the Oilers became in the 1980s.

“As Barry Fraser goes, so go the Edmonton Oilers,” Edmonton Journal columnist Terry Jones wrote in 1979, just as Fraser took up with the team (he stayed on until 2000). It was August of that watershed year, and Oilers were crossing over from the newly defunct WHA into the NHL by way of the entry draft. The team already an 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky aboard, but the future, still, was decidedly murky.

“Scouting,” Oilers coach and director of hockey operations Glen Sather was saying, “is going to be as important to this team as coaching in the next few years.”

“We won’t know if Fraser is a blooming genius or a silly fool,” Jones opined on the same Journal page that listed the players Edmonton secured that day:

Round One: defenceman Kevin Lowe of the Quebec Remparts.                                         Round Three: underage forward Mark Messier from the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers. Round Four: underage forward Glenn Anderson from the University of Denver.

In 1980, the Oilers drafted Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, and Andy Moog. The following year they snagged Grant Fuhr. By 1983, of course, they were playing in their first Stanley Cup final in 1983. “I don’t know how to even describe it,” Fraser said that year. “It’s a great feeling when you start from scratch and all of a sudden you’re on the doorstep.” As director of scouting and player personnel, Fraser would get his name on the Cup five times, in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990.

Peter Gzowski included a memorable sketch of Fraser in The Game of Our Lives (1981):

Fraser is a deceptively naïve-looking man who, with his pompadour and generous belly, resembles a contented Elvis Presley. His own playing career stopped in B, when he broke a leg while trying to make a team in Cochrane, Ontario. After his injury, he retired to an office job with Ontario Hydro, but he maintained his interest in hockey by coaching young boys, and gradually the canny reports he sent in on prospects from his neck of the woods drew so much attention that he was swept into full-time scouting, ending up as a senior official of the Houston Aeros of the WHA. By the time the WHA folded, he had achieved such a reputation as a bloodhound that Sather snapped him up to head the Oilers’ scouting staff. Kevin Lowe, who had been the first draft he recommended, had worked out well, but the 1980-81 season would be a full test of Fraser’s powers of discrimination; it was on his word that the Oilers had spent their valuable first-round draft choice on Coffey, had courted Anderson, and had gambled yet another draft choice on being able to talk Jari Kurri into coming to North America. It was on his system, which Sather had urged him to perfect, that the future of the team and its young personnel would depend.

les canadiens étaient là

A birthday today for this arresting headline from an inside page of Montreal’s Gazette — happy 113 years young!

The worry behind it? Two new professional leagues were in the making that Saturday in December of 1909, which meant that Montreal might be seeing twice or maybe even three times as many games than the city was used to, of a winter, plus all kinds of senior fixtures, too, adding up to … a glut?

“Fairminded critics with nothing more than the interest of the game at heart are wondering what this big bill of hockey fare will lead to,” the Gazette noted. “It looks like a big gamble all around.”

Maybe the public would turn out, “and the game may boom as it never has before in Montreal.”

But maybe not. “It may, on the other hand, prove indifferent from the start, or become surfeited with hockey before the season is half over. In the latter event, there will be deficits for all the clubs, amateur and professional, to face at the end of the season.”

In other news, a new team was founded that very same day in Montreal, over in room 129 of the Windsor Hotel, the very same establishment in which the National Hockey League would conjure itself into being eight years later. The Gazette reported on that birthday the following week:

Many happy returns of the day, Le Canadien.

 

 

double take: what the camera shows, and doesn’t, of the barnstorming 1929 new york americans

On The Oregon Trail: The New York Americans line up outside the Portland ice Arena in April of 1929. From left, that’s Roy Worters, Harry Connor, Tex White, Billy Burch, Tommy Gorman, Lionel Conacher, Leo Reise, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, ? Beckett.

They’re some of the biggest names in hockey, standing there in their skates on the pavement, as though surprised by a photographer in their attempt to escape the bounds of the rink in Portland, Oregon, or maybe of hockey itself. That’s the dominant Canadian athlete of the first half of the 20th century in the middle, Lionel Conacher. Beside him is T.P. Gorman, a.k.a. Tommy, who as an NHL coach and manager was involved in winning four Stanley Cup championships with three different teams. The other future Hall-of-Famers here are Billy Burch, to Gorman’s right, and the tiny mighty goaltender Roy Worters, out on the end at far left.

There’s a mystery man lined up here, too, over on the right. Inquiring hockey minds have wondered about him, in recent years, who was he, what was his role with the team, how did he end up crossing sticks with Rabbit McVeigh outside the Portland Ice Arena in the spring of 1929? In another version, he’s in between Burch and an even happier Conacher:

Take Two: From left, Harry Connor, Tex White, Bill Burch, ? Beckett, Lionel Conacher, Leo Reise, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, Roy Worters, Tommy Gorman.

Thanks to photographer Theo Mentzer’s annotations we know his name is Beckett. Beyond that — I haven’t been able to find out too much more about him. Not that the first photograph doesn’t have surprises to spring. I came across those recently, as I looked for traces of him. As surprises go, these ones aren’t particularly momentous, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth waiting for. They seem to have been concealed for decades in … well, no, not exactly plain sight, I guess.

Some background, first. For that, we tunnel back to April of 1929 and the end of the NHL’s twelfth season. The Stanley Cup finals had wrapped up at the end of March, with the Boston Bruins collecting their first championship by overcoming the New York Rangers in a two-game series.

There were ten teams in the league at this point, and the New York Americans were one of the good ones. For all the team’s star-power, coach Gorman had failed to urge them past the first round: two weeks earlier, they’d been ousted from the playoffs by the Rangers, in a close-fought two-game, total-goals series.

The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, had ridden a bye into the second round of the playoffs, but they faltered there against the Bruins. To ease the pain of defeat — and supplement the club’s coffers — both disappointed teams, Canadiens and Americans, went west, departing on a post-season exhibition tour, a common practice for NHL teams in those years.

As April got going, as the Americans arrived in Oregon, for the first of six games they’d play on the Pacific coast, the NHL was concluding its last bit of business for the season, announcing the year’s individual trophy winners. Among them was Roy Worters, who had the high distinction of being winner of the David A. Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. It was the first time in the trophy’s six-year history that it had gone to a goaltender. Worters wasn’t deemed to be the best at his own position, it might be worth pointing out: in 1929 it was the Canadiens’ goaltender, George, Hainsworth, who was named winner of a third consecutive Vézina Trophy.

Hainsworth didn’t join his teammates in the west that spring: along with defenceman Sylvio Mantha and star winger Aurèle Joliat, the goaltender stayed home. I don’t know about the other two, but Hainsworth had a job to do, heading home to Kitchener, Ontario, where he worked as an electrician during the summer months. To tend to their goaling in his absence, the Canadiens borrowed Clint Benedict from the Montreal Maroons. He had just one more year left in his NHL career: the following one, 1929-30, was his finale, featuring a pair of fearful facial injuries suffered at the sticks of Boston’s Dit Clapper and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens, a prolonged absence, and a revolutionary (if ultimately unhappy) experiment with a mask.

Benedict and the Canadiens would play four games in Vancouver that April in ’29. In the first three, they took on the Vancouver Lions, Frank Patrick’s team, who’d just wrapped up the championship of the new four-team Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHL), Frank Patrick’s newly launched loop. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank. Percy Jackson was the goaltender: according to Frank Patrick, he was the best backstop there was, anywhere in hockey.

Ahead of the first game between Montreal and Vancouver, on the basis that the former were the best of the NHL’s Canadian-based teams, Patrick boldly declared that at stake in the three-game series between Canadiens and Lions would be nothing less than the “professional championship of Canada.”

This was news to NHL President Frank Calder, already wary of the PCHL, a more or less outlaw operation, in the NHL’s view, not to mention a possible threat to its hockey hegemony. One of the rumours making the rounds that spring was that Patrick was preparing to expand his operation eastward, setting up a league to rival the NHL there. That would never be, of course: this incarnation of the PCHL would fizzle out after a second season of play, with Frank Patrick heading east, eventually, to become managing director of the NHL, under Calder, in 1933.

Back in 1929, Calder was quick to kibosh the championship talk, noting to Montreal reporters that the PCHL was merely a “minor league” operation, “and it is therefore absurd to say that a minor and a major league team can be engaging for the championship.”

“Then there is the fact,” Calder continued, “that Canadiens went west with only half a team. They left Hainsworth, Mantha, and Joliat behind, and that surely is half their regular club.

“When the team left for the west understrength, I anticipated there would not be any big success for the Canadiens, and when I read advance notices that the games were being booked for the Canadian championship, I took steps to stop this, as it was not correct. But the enthusiasm of some of the western writers has overcome their discretion apparently, for the championship booking is repeated, and I have notified President Frank Calder to discontinue such references. These are merely exhibition with no championship involved.”

True to Calder’s lack of confidence, Montreal lost two of its three games against Vancouver, going down 2-0 on April 6 before rebounding two days later with a 4-1 win. On April 10, the Lions prevailed by a score of 3-2. A shot from Howie Morenz knocked Percy Jackson cold that night, if not out: the aforementioned Vancouver goaltender was revived and, as happened as often as not in those years, he carried on.

Cleaned Up Good: The Americans, again, suited up in Portland in April of 1929. Back row from left, they are Tex White, Harry Connor, Lionel Coancher, Billy Burch, Leo Reise, and Tommy Gorman. Coruched, from the left: Bullet Joe Simpson, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, and Roy Worters.

Gorman’s Americans, meantime, had alighted in Oregon. That’s them there, above, in their civvies in what seems to be yet another Theo Mentzer photograph. It has to be said: they’re looking great. No Beckett here, but another player makes an appearance, one who doesn’t show up in the top two photographs, Bullet Joe Simpson. Take a note of that, if you would: we’ll come back to him and why, though he was on the ice for New York throughout their tour, he happened to be absent from these pictures.

The Americans played two games at the Portland Ice Arena, beating the PCHL Buckaroos on April 1 by a score of 2-1 (in overtime) and again on April 4 by a score of 4-3. Portland had a couple of future NHLers in its line-up in centreman Paul Runge (a Bruin-, Maroon-, and Canadien-to-be) and left winger Red Conn (who’d join the Americans in the early ’30s).

The second game was a costly one in that Lionel Conacher was injured, sent to hospital when his head accidentally met up with a skate belonging to Buckaroos defenceman Ted Jacques. The cut he suffered behind one ear took 16 stitches to close, and while he tried his best to get back on the ice the team’s final game on April 15, medical prudence prevailed and he sat out.

Lacking Conacher, the Americans did borrow a defenceman for the rest of the tour from the Buckaroos, Earl Armstrong, who seems to have acquitted himself well, though this was as close as he’d come to skating in the NHL.

The Americans went to Seattle next, where they split a pair of games (6-4; 1-4) against the PCHL Eskimos, who had Jack Walker leading the way on the ice.

Finally, New York followed the Canadiens to Vancouver. Montreal had completed its series with the local Lions, who New York now met, and beat, 1-0. Bullet Joe Simpson notching the decisive goal. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank.

The Americans played one last game, returning to Vancouver’s Denman Arena on April to outlast their NHL rivals from Montreal by a score of 5-3. Worters was outstanding in the New York net, came the report from the coast, while Benedict was only ordinary. Billy Burch scored a pair of goals for the Americans, with Johnny Sheppard, Harry Connor, and Earl Armstrong contributing the others. Battleship Leduc (with 2) and Armand Mondou scored the Montreal goals. Referee Mickey Ion called not a single penalty.

And that was all for the (non-championship) tour. The Canadiens had been planning to carry on to Portland and Seattle, but those games were cancelled. West-coast interest in hockey was waning as the spring sprang, apparently; Portland, it was reported, had lost money on its two games with New York.

As for the Americans, they headed home to nurse their wounds. Joining Lionel Conacher on the clinical ledger were Harry Connor, cut for seven stitches on the head after a Seattle collision with Smokey Harris, and Joe Simpson who (the Montreal Gazette reported) “had his right wrist twisted.”

Which brings us back to the photograph we started with.

As mentioned, historians and others who pore over the hockey past have puzzled over the second man in civilian clothes (after Gorman), including several of us who frequent the virtual byways of the Society of International Hockey Research, where no detail of hockeyana has yet proven too abstract or obscure for study. The fact that his name — his surname — has been preserved hasn’t (so far) been a factor in the investigation into his role with the Americans (if any) or how he happened to be lining up with the players that April day in Portland.  

Was Beckett maybe a bootlegger? Prohibition had been the law in the United States since the Volstead Act went into effect in 1920, and it would be 1933 before it was repealed. SIHR speculation has hovered over the possibility, the bottles prominent at Beckett’s feet having wetted speculation, at SIHR and elsewhere, around that possibility. That notion might be plausibly fortified by the fact that the Americans were owned by the prominent New York rum-runner Bill Dwyer who, starting in 1925, had spent more than a year in jail for his efforts attempting to bribe members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Or maybe was Beckett a boxer? That’s been hypothesized, too, if not proven out. An Oregon newspaper did note that fight promoter Herb Owen would be coinciding in Portland with the Americans that first week of April, and that his “party” planned to attend the hockey game, so maybe Beckett was with him, and could have been invited to pose with the visiting hockey players?

But there’s no further corroborating evidence to substantiate either one of the bootlegging or boxing theories — none that I’ve come across, anyway.

The likeliest answer is that Mr. Beckett was a railway porter. Jim Coleman identifies him as such in a 1942 Globe and Mail column, and he has the authority of Roy Worters himself behind him on this: Coleman describes studying one of the same rinkfront photographs we’ve been looking at in Worters’ own office at the Toronto hotel he ran (with Charlie Conacher) at the corner of Lawrence and Dufferin.

Along with everybody else in the first decades of the 20th century, hockey players took the train. In the NHL, that was the case in the 1920s whether it was the Ottawa Senators going to Montreal for a regular-season encounter with the Canadiens, or bands of barnstormers crossing the continent.

The history of Black railway porters in Canada is a long, fascinating, and oftentimes fraught one in its own right. The points where that history intersects with professional hockey are worth investigating, too. I’m waiting for someone to file a feature on Hamilton, Ontario’s own Norman “Pinky” Lewis, for example. He was a beloved figure in his time, and would serve as trainer for the football Tiger Cats in his hometown, where one of the city’s downtown recreation centres is named in his honour.

Columnist Jim Coleman thought he ought to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his services to the game. In the 1920s, when he worked as a sleeping-car porter for the CPR while also working as trainer for Newsy Lalonde’s WCHL Saskatoon Sheiks (for whom George Hainsworth was the goaltender, in those years). By 1929, Lewis was trainer for the C-AHL Newark Bulldogs, where Sprague Cleghorn was the coach. Lewis himself went on to coach, notably for the OHA’s Owen Sound Greys.

Someone else could look into the bow-tied and behatted man who appears in a photo from another coastal barnstorming tour, this one from the fall 1922, when the Toronto St. Patricks, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, played a series of pre-season games in the west. Above, the team poses aboard the ship they took from Vancouver to Seattle. The man standing between Harry Cameron and Babe Dye is identified as F. Williams, though there’s no consensus on that initial: another contemporaneous version of this image calls him H. Williams, identifying him as a CPR porter while also adding the more than slightly disturbing designation we see here: “mascot.” I’ve never found any other trace of him and his time with Toronto.

The erasure of Messrs. Williams and Beckett, their names and contributions and experiences, isn’t unprecedented, unfortunately, or surprising. Maybe the blanks can be filled in: I hope so. It’s not impossible to imagine that they’re gone forever.

The past does have a way of continuing to churn, and of pressing its artifacts to the surface. These aren’t always of high importance or lasting significance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold their value. Sometimes you might even have been staring at them over a period of years without noticing what you were seeing.

Look again at the photograph we started with. Later commentaries on what we’re seeing here (one from 1942, another from 1960) reveal that Bullet Joe Simpson would have been in it, alongside his teammates — if only he hadn’t climbed into the car you can see behind Tex White and Billy Burch for a nap. By one account, the photographer, Mentzer, was taking too long in setting up his gear. In the other, Simpson was just plain tired.

Then again, if you study the second team photo, there does seem to another player in the line-up, next to Tommy Gorman on the far right, who’s been … excised? Is that Simpson, possibly? Why leave him out?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I can report that shenanigans were at play that day. The car in the first photo, you may also have noticed, is … not all there? Take a look: it seems to be missing its front half, including one wheel. This suggests a long exposure, and movement, of car, camera — maybe both. Which leads to the second surprise. It’s one that Montreal Gazette columnist Vern DeGeer revealed when he wrote about the full, uncropped version of this photograph, a copy of which Tommy Gorman used to have hanging in his office at the old Ottawa Auditorium.

Here’s DeGeer on what that, in its glory, looked like:

When the picture was developed there was much guffawing in the ranks. It showed the impish Roy “Little Squirt” Worters at both ends of the group.

The photog had used a panoramic camera. He started at one end with Worters and slowly swung the magic lantern down the line. As he was doing this Worters sprinted behind his mates, and was at the end other end of the group when the camera completed its arc.

They say that whenever Tay Pay Gorman feels depressed or tired, or just plain nostalgic, he parks the picture on his desk and laughs, and laughs and laughs.

So while Joe Simpson napped, Roy Worters scampered from one end of the line to the other. Knowing that, is it possible to surmise that something the same was going on in the other photo from that day, and that the shoulder next to Tommy Gorman belongs to a second Harry Connor? Maybe so.

I wonder where Gorman’s office copy is parked now. It may well be hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere, generating guffaws as it has since 1929. All that’s left to us in our vandalized version of the photograph is the edge of Roy Worters’ oven-mitt blocker and a bit of the butt-end of his stick, not far from the bottles, next to Mr. Beckett, on the far right:

And just to be clear: Worters would, of course, have had to have sprinted behind the photographer, rather than his teammates, on his way to replicating himself.

Double Take: A cartoon illustrating Vern DeGeer’s 1960 telling of the tale came complete with a car-napping Joe Simpson and double Roy Worterses — but no Beckett.

northern lights

Canadian Content: Awarded to players on Canadian NHL teams accumulating the most three-star selection over the course of a season, the Molson Cup has a history going back to the early 1970s. It remains a going concern for the Montreal Canadiens (Nick Suzuki won the 2021-22 edition). The Vancouver Canucks maintain their own version of the award, too, now called, poetically, the Three Stars Award — J.T. Miller won it for 2021-22— but it seems as though the rest of the Canadian teams have let the tradition lapse in recent years. The winners, here, from 1982-83 are, clockwise from top left: Rick Vaive (Toronto), Lanny McDonald (Calgary), Mario Tremblay (Montreal), Thomas Gradin (Vancouver), Dale Hawerchuk (Winnipeg), and Wayne Gretzky (Edmonton).

the tooth and nothing but

Rink-Ready: Cecil Hart, and his skate-guards.

Charlie Dinsmore played his football with the Toronto Argonauts in the early 1920s (Lionel Conacher and Dunc Munro were teammates); in the NHL, he turned out at centre for Montreal’s new club in 1924, joining Munro and scoring the team’s very first goal when the Maroons-to-be played their very first game, at the Boston Arena, on a Monday of this same date, 98 years ago.

Art Ross’ Bruins were new to the league, too, and they ended up winning that historic first encounter, getting goals from Smokey Harris and Carson Cooper in a 2-1 final. This was one of only six games that the Bruins won that year as they finished at the bottom of the six-team NHL standings with a record of 6-24-0.

Montreal, who started the season with Cecil Hart as coach and manager, did a little better, finishing in fifth place with a record of 9-19-2. Both teams missed the playoffs. Hart didn’t last the season, as it turned out; he parted ways with the team in February of 1925, ceding the bench with nine games remaining to former Ottawa Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard.

Gerard, impressively, steered the Maroons to a Stanley Cup championship to top off the following year, 1925-26, you may recall. Ross’ Bruins, meanwhile, had to wait until 1929 to claim their first Cup championship. Hart, of course, went on to coach the Canadiens, winning a pair of Cups with them in 1930 and ’31.

Ross and Hart, who would have been old Montreal acquaintances, seem to have laid something of a (friendly?) wager ahead of their inaugural meeting on December 1, 1924. That, according to this Ottawa Journal item published following Boston’s win:

étude for skates and sticks

Peter Gzowski spins out the story that may have inspired this 1944 W.A. Winter masterpiece in The Game of Our Lives (1981) and Trent Frayne had a rendition, too, in a 1953 feature, “How They Broke the Heart of Howie Morenz.” But Gzowski’s facts are off, slightly, and Frayne’s accounts may err on the side of romanticism, so best, probably, to go back to Morenz biographer Dean Robinson, who was born, like his subject, in Mitchell, Ontario, and can point out, if you go there with him as I did in 2017, the place where this all happened near where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River.

Here’s the pertinent passage from Robinson’s Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, originally published in 1982, updated in 2016:

James Boyd, a retired dentist living in Kitchener, Ont., was a year older than Howie when the two were growing up in Mitchell. “We used to go down to the river on Saturday morning and scrape off a rink with scrapers we’d made at home,” recalled Boyd. “There’d be about six or eight of us, and by the time we’d finish, the snow would be about two feet high, and it would act as boards. We’d stay down there all day long. We might go home for some lunch, but we’d come right back again. We changed down at the river. At times we did build some benches, some roughshod benches, but mostly we just sat in the snow. Practically all of us wore magazines for shinpads. We’d pull our socks over them to hold them up.”

Darkness determined when the games would end, and for Howie there just weren’t enough hours in a winter day. His mom didn’t help matters by scheduling him for piano lessons. On those days, Howie would stash his skates under the bridge, and after school, instead of reporting to the home of Ida Hotham, his piano teacher, he would race down to the pond. It wasn’t the greatest of schemes, but it worked until his mother found it necessary to ask Miss Hotham why Howie seemed to be stalled at “One-Fingered Joe.” The teacher told Rose Morenz that her son had been getting along fine, but she hadn’t seen him in weeks. Howie never did learn how to play the piano, which in later years he said he regretted, but eventually he mastered the ukulele.

a niche for mitch

Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger Mitch Marner scored an empty-net goal in his team’s 3-1 home win over the San Jose Sharks tonight and thereby recorded a point in his 18th straight game, matching the record for the longest point streak in franchise history. Darryl Sittler and Ed Olczyk each had an 18-game point run in consecutive games for Toronto, in 1978 and 1990 respectively. The portrait here is the work of Toronto editorial designer, illustrator, and endlessly interesting artist Nadine Arseneault. Her work has featured before on Puckstruck: you can find it here and here and here as well as here.

il est malade

Old Goaler: Georges Vézina outside Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena in November of 1925.

Heading into the NHL new season in November of 1925, Montreal Canadiens managing director (and co-owner) Léo Dandurand wasn’t sure whether Georges Vézina was going to play or not. The goaltender was 38 that fall, and he had a cabinetry business to run in Chicoutimi, his hometown. He’d served his time with Montreal down through the years, maybe earned his rest, nobody could argue otherwise: since 1911, Vézina had, astonishingly, been the one and only goaltender to defend the Canadiens’ net. He’d seen the NHA come and go in that time, and the rise of the NHL in 1917, and had suited up for every competitive game for the Canadiens in the eight years since then. The only break Vézina had taken in 14 years came in 1922, when he’d ceded his net to serve a slashing penalty against Ottawa, with teammate Sprague Cleghorn filling in on an emergency backstop.

In 1925, Vézina left it late to agree to play another season. Dandurand finally got him to agree to it on November 10, after (as the Montreal Star reported) “some busy long-distance telephoning.” This was to be his swansong. “There is little doubt that this is to be Georges’ last season in hockey,” the newspaper noted. “His business in Chicoutimi needs his attention more and more, and it was only in view of the fact that he had given the Canadiens the impression earlier that he would be with them again that he has made special arrangements for this season.”

Showrunner: Léo Dandurand

Dandurand was making contingency arrangements of his own, signing an understudy in 28-year-old Alphonse (a.k.a. Frenchy) Lacroix, the Newton, Massachusetts-born goaltender who’d backed the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. “Even though Canada scored six goals against him in the Olympic hockey final,” the Star advised, “he was given credit for staving off a worse defeat than that.”

Vézina arrived in Montreal the following Monday, November 16. He saw his first action two days later, in an exhibition match-up with Lester Patrick’s Victoria Cougars, the same WCHL team that had beaten the Canadiens in four games the previous March to claim the Stanley Cup. The Cougars prevailed again this time out, outlasting Montreal by a score of 5-3. Despite the loss, the hometown Gazette reported that Vézina’s “eagle eye” was intact, rating some of his first-period stops “heart-breaking to the Victoria attacking division.” A defenceman, Gord Fraser, scored Victoria’s last goal in the third period — the final goal ever to be scored on Vézina.

The following week, with their goaltender reported to be suffering from “a severe cold,” Montreal cancelled a series of further exhibition games against Tommy Gorman’s New York Americans in Hamilton, Ontario.

Still, Vézina was in his net at the Mount Royal Arena on the night of Saturday, November 28, when the Canadiens took Pittsburgh’s mighty Pirates. Steered by a former Canadien, Odie Cleghorn, who served both as right wing and coach, with Roy Worters in goal, the Pirates ended up winning the game, 1-0, on a goal by Tex White. The Pittsburgh Press carried a lively narrative next day, in which Montreal’s Howie Morenz featured both for storming offense and pugnacity. In the first period, he took a penalty for “bumping;” in the second he had “a fist fight in the corner” with Jesse Spring.

Only briefly did the Press note a line-up change at the start of the second period:

 Lacroix was in the nets for [sic] Canadians at start of second period. Vézina was reported ill.

 Montreal’s Gazette carried a more detailed report under the sub-head “Vézina Was Shadow:”

But the high spot of the evening for the Canadien supporters came at the beginning of the second period when Lacroix, former United States Olympic goalkeeper went into the Canadien goal in place of Georges Vézina. The veteran goalkeeper started the game with a high temperature. He was pale and haggard looking as he turned shots aside in the first period. At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.

The Star detailed an even more desperate scene:

His temples throbbed with fever, his face, while on the ice, was flushed, pale and drawn, and though he should have been home and in bed, he insisted on remaining till the end, impatiently sending out [Canadiens assistant trainer] Pat Kennedy and ither messengers, to find out how the battle progressing.

When the Canadiens went to Boston for their next game, Vézina stayed home. “Dandurand left instructions with a doctor here,” the Star reported on December 1, “to give Georges a thorough examination today to see if anything really serious is the matter with him.”

By the end of the week, the verdict was out: Montreal’s iconic goaltender had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Star ran a long story under the headline

Greatest Hockey Goal Keeper of Past
Decade Will Never Play Again

that featured Leo Dandurand’s (more or less?) embroidered account of Vézina’s turbulent final weeks in Montreal.

Sick List: A Montreal newspaper with the Vézina news in November of 1925.

It was Dandurand, remember, who’d played a large party in fashioning his famous goaltender’s image over the years, certainly in the English press, in Montreal and beyond. Vézina wasn’t interested in publicity, kept mostly to himself and to the French language, allowing (or suffering) Dandurand to fill the void. It was the Canadiens’ owner, for instance, who’d launched the myth, a persistent one that still, today, comes back to life from time to time, that Vézina was the father of 22 (or maybe was it 17?) children.

Dandurand’s account from this week in 1925 may be the straight goods; it does have, it has to be said, an air of having been over-crafted.

Tuberculosis isn’t mentioned, oddly: instead, Dandurand is quoted as saying that “poor Georges has the battle of Christy Mathewson to fight.” That would have held no mystery for sports fans: news of the great New York Giants pitcher’s death from the disease at the age of 45 had rippled across North America that same October.

Announcing the goaltender’s retirement, Dandurand added the news that Vézina had left for Chicoutimi without bidding farewell to his teammates, who had returned to Montreal to meet the Maroons on Thursday, December 3. Dandurand framed this as “Vézina’s last act of devotion to the club he loved so well,” quoting the goaltender himself. “Perhaps they will play better if they think I am coming on,” he’s supposed to have said. “When I’m not on they will soon forget about me in the excitement of the play.”

Dandurand had more to disclose. “I had known from the first that Vézina was not the Vézina of old. He did not look well when he reported, but assured me he would improve. That too was typical of him. But he lost weight in an alarming fashion, and it was not by accident that we signed Lacroix. I saw Vézina was nearly done, and though he insisted on going through his last game with a temperature of 102 degrees, and even then gave a good account of himself, he never recovered. Perhaps his insistence on playing the game spelled his doom. He was taken to bed that night, stayed there for a week, and when doctors examined him, it was found he had lost 35 pounds since coming to the city. Further examination revealed that his lungs were in bad shape ….”

Dandurand described the goaltender’s final visit that Thursday to Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena dressing room. Vézina found his usual corner. “I glanced at him as he sat there, and saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He was looking at his old pads and skates that [trainer] Eddie Dufour had arranged in George’s corner thinking that probably Vézina would don them that night. Then he asked one little favour — the sweater he wore in the last world series. Then he went. I doubt if hockey will ever know his like again.”

Vézina was soon home in Chicoutimi. Within four months, before the end of March of 1926, just 39, he was dead.