hockey for castro’s cuba (baseball is our main winter sport)

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So, no, that wasn’t Fidel Castro attending his first post-revolutionary hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens. As I wrote in this space back in 2012, it couldn’t have been, based on Castro’s having bypassed Toronto on his 1959 visit to Canada. But I wasn’t able, at the time, to identify the Castro-looking fan in the good seats at MLG.

Staff at the City of Toronto Archives cleared the case for me this weekend, as news carried from Havana that Castro had died at the age of 90. Touring Toronto in April of 1959 (above, in uniform) was the Cuban revolutionary government’s own Director General of Sports, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos.

He was a former rice-mill manager turned rebel, 32, wounded three times as a comrade of Castro’s in the long fight to oust the government of President Fulgencio Batista that had only come to its end in January of the year.

Like Castro, Matos had started his North American journey in the United States, dropping in to New York to see Mickey Mantle’s Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 3-2 in their American League home opener April 12.

Travelling on to Toronto, Captain Guerra was pencilled in as the starting (ceremonial) pitcher as the local (not-hockey) Maple Leafs opened their International League season against the Havana Sugar Kings. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor J. Keiller Mackay ended up tossing the opening pitch, from what I can tell, with Matos as his catcher: the Toronto Daily Star judged it weak. Leafs won, 6-5, in front of 14, 268 fans. Honest Ed Mirvish was on hand to present Captain Guerra with a gift the Leafs wanted the Cuban people to have: a tractor.

It was later the same evening that Captain Guerra dropped by Maple Leaf Gardens, along with (to Guerra’s right) Bobby Maduro, who owned the Sugar Kings, and (to his left) the team’s road secretary, Ramiro Martinez.

Hockey’s Leafs had finished their season a week-and-a-half earlier, losing in the Stanley Cup final to Montreal. But the Cubans were just in time to catch the Whitby Dunlops take the Allan Cup from the Vernon, B.C. Canadians, and that’s who they’re watching here.

8-3 was the score, which meant that the Dunnies won the series four games to one. Doesn’t sound like it was great finale: “a dreary conclusion,” the Star’s Jim Proudfoot adjudged. Over and above Cubans, only 1,952 spectators showed up to watch Whitby captain Harry Sinden raise Canada’s senior amateur trophy.

Three of the Dunnies’ goals that night were scored by Sid Smith, the former Leaf captain. At age 34, he’d decided to hang up his stick and skates for good. “Working at a job and playing hockey as well becomes too tough a grind,” he told Proudfoot. “This is it for me. I’m going out with a winner.”

On and off the ice, Proudfoot attested, Smith had proved himself a big leaguer every minute of his distinguished career. “With the Maple Leafs he scored nearly 200 goals and played on three Stanley Cup teams. Returning to top-level amateur competition as Whitby player-coach, he helped win the 1958 world championship and now the national senior title. What more can he do?”

No word on just whether Captain Guerra took possession of any further farm machinery. I don’t think so. He did sit down during his time in Toronto with Star columnist Lotta Dempsey, with whom he chatted about his wife and sons; youth fitness; and whether the revolutionary executions of five or six hundred Batista murderers and torturers really mattered in light of the indifference with which the world had regarded the unspeakable cruelties of the former regime.

Back at Maple Leaf Gardens, The Globe and Mail’s Ken McKee wondered, having spent most of the previous three years in Cuba’s Oriente mountains with Castro, what did Captain Guerra think about hockey?

He was very impressed, he said (via Ramiro Martinez, who translated), “by the speed and hard body contact.”

In fact, his office was very interested in bringing hockey to the people of Cuba, most of whom had never seen it before.

Harold Ballard was in the house, president of Toronto’s junior Marlboros and a member of the Maple Leafs’ management committee. He said there might be interest in taking a couple of junior teams down, so long as there was money in it.

What about a league of North Americans playing in Cuba? Bobby Maduro put the chances of that at “very remote.”

“We bring ice shows in for a week or so,” he said, “and would operate a hockey tour the same way. Baseball is our main winter sport. Hockey would be a spectacle.”

 (Image: City of Toronto Archives,  Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4903)

naming rights, naming wrongs: brownies, montreals, defenders of the realm

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Maroons-To-Be: The Montreals, 1924-25

Vegas Golden Knights is the name of the NHL’s newest franchise, as you know if you watched the big unveiling live this week from Toshiba Plaza, out in front of T-Mobile Arena, in hockey’s new Nevada home. Rumours of what the team might be called had been tumbleweeding around the internet for months. Nighthawks maybe? Desert or perhaps Silver Knights? Sand Knights, possibly? The announcement came with accents of fire and ice and, in keeping with hockey tradition, a crowd that booed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who smiled his tight smile.

So. Las Golden Knights of Vegas. No — sorry: lose the Las. Vegas Golden Knights™ is what it is, as per official NHL pronouncements the following day. Team colours? Black, gold, steel gray, white, and red. Seems like a lot, but fine. “Our base colour, in my mind, really exudes strength,” the GK GM George McPhee is seen to say in a promotional video, referring (I think) to the gold. Team owner Bill Foley was the one to explain the thinking behind the name: “We selected ‘Knights’ because knights are the defenders of the realm and protect those who cannot defend themselves. They are the elite warrior class.”

How did these medievals make it from the realm over to the Sagebrush State? I’d hoped Foley would go on to that. That’s the story I’m waiting to hear. I’m sure it’s coming. Maybe in time for next June’s expansion draft?

In the meantime, let’s look back to an earlier NHL expansion. It was, after all, at this time of year in 1924 that another new NHL team announced its name, even as another did not.

The league grew by 50 per cent that fall, with Boston and a second Montreal team joining a loop that already included Canadiens, Ottawa’s Senators, the Toronto St. Patricks, and Hamilton’s Tigers.

Expansion had, it’s true, been brewing for a while — for the full story, I recommend Andrew Ross’ Joining The Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945 (2015). Still, compared to today’s process, the whole thing looks hasty if not altogether last-minute: with the new season slated to start at the end of November, news of the new franchises didn’t appear in the press until mid-October. In 1924, Boston and Montreal each paid $15,000 to join in the fun, which amounts to something like $200,000 in modern dollars; Foley’s franchise fee sends the NHL $500-million.

In Boston, owner Charles F. Adams, the grocery-store tycoon, had hired wily old Art Ross to manage his hockey operation ahead of the team’s debut, December 1, at home to Montreal’s not-Canadiens. If the names of the initial Bruins players Ross gathered didn’t exactly soak into hockey history, men like Bobby Rowe and Alf Skinner and goaltender Hec Fowler were doughty veterans, and there was some young talented blood, too, in Carson Cooper and Werner Schnarr. Most of the players met up with Ross in Montreal. Together they took the train south to their new hockey home.

Friday, November 14, they arrived. They checked in at the Putnam Hotel on Huntington Avenue, walking distance to the Boston Arena, where manager George Brown had starting making new ice a day earlier: hockey was coming, yes, but public skating was opening for the season, too, Saturday morning at nine o’clock. He’d had to reduce the size of the ice surface to bring it into line with NHL norms, but in doing so, the Arena also gained 1,000 new seats for paying customers.

The hockey players had a hotel and a rink, and they got a name and colours in time for the weekend.

The Boston Daily Globe laid it all out for prospective fans. Uniforms would be brown with gold stripes around the chest, sleeves, the stockings. “The figure of a bear will be worn below the name Boston on the chest.” Yes, brown. That was, after all, the Adams hue in all things:

The pro magnate’s four thoroughbreds are brown; his 50 stores are brown; his Guernsey cows are of the same color; brown is the predominating color among his Durco pigs on his Framingham estate, and the Rhode Island hens are brown, although Pres Adams wouldn’t say whether or not the eggs they lay are of a brown color.

Bruins was the name Adams and Ross had agreed on, having considered and discarded Browns. The worry there: “… the manager feared that the Brownie construction that might be applied to the team would savor too much of kid stuff.”

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Was it Art Ross’ secretary who came up with the name? That’s what Brian Macfarlane says in The Bruins (1999), drawing on (I’m guessing) a few terse newspaper accounts from the late 1960s — I can’t find any earlier source. So Bessie Moss from Montreal, the story goes, was Ross’ assistant, handling the mail before he headed south, and once she heard that the team would be clad in brown suggested Bruins. Could be. Why not? The name wasn’t unknown at the time in U.S. sports, it’s worth noting: in college sports, it’s the Brown’s Bears were widely known as the Bruins, as were baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

Saturday the hockey team practiced for the first time. “I appreciate the fact,” said Ross, “that we don’t have too much time to get ready, and I’ll have to work fast with the amateurs.” The word from the rink over the course of the next ten days was that Ross was driving his men at a terrific pace and that no team that has made Boston its headquarters has ever been sent through such vigorous workouts. Ross had two players for every position other than goal, a correspondent for The Boston Daily Globe advised. “This double shift of men in good condition means hockey of the thrilling type.”

Thanksgiving night the new team lined up for its first and only pre-season game against the Saskatoon Sheiks of the Western Canadian Hockey League. A formidable professional crew, they’d just beaten the world-champion Canadiens twice in three exhibition games in southern Ontario. Manager Newsy Lalonde also played on the defence, and he had former NHLers Harry Cameron, Corb Denneny, as well as future stars Bill and Bun Cook skating for him, along with George Hainsworth in goal.

There were lots of possible reasons why only 5,000 spectators showed up. It was a holiday, and football season hadn’t quite wrapped up, and nobody knew the hockey players who’d just arrived. “Thrills were almost lacking,” was The Boston Daily Globe’s verdict on what an unfull house witnessed on Arena ice, “the crowd becoming enthusiastic only over an occasional clever stop by a goaltend.”

Sheiks won, 2-1, on a Bill Cook winner set up by Lalonde. The home team might have had a second goal, but referee Lou March rescinded it:

Late in the first period a mix-up in front of the Sheiks’ goal heaped half-a-dozen players on the ice, and when the tangle was straightened out by referee Marsh, the puck was in the net. Saskatoon, with two men serving out penalties on the side-lines, had five men on the ice.

Furthermore, there was an extra puck on the playing surface.

Marsh could not find the explanation, so he reduced the Sheiks by one and disallowed the goal.

On to the regular season. For their first NHL game, the Bruins faced Montreal’s newest team, known mostly in those infant months as “the new Montreal team.” Under the managerial eye of Cecil Hart, they’d been getting themselves up to seasonal speed in Montreal and Ottawa. Clint Benedict was the goaltender; notable skaters included Punch Broadbent and Canadian Olympic star Dunc Munro. Continue reading

the house that conn built

Gardens Party: Seen here, above, in the 1980s, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens hosted its first hockey game on this night in 1931. If the occasion was one to remember, the hockey the building hosted that night wasn’t, particularly. The rink that Conn Smythe built all in a hurry to house his Leafs welcomed a crowd that night of 13,542, the largest ever to have seen a hockey game in the Ontario capital. Bert Perry was among them, on hand to report for The Globe. “The immensity of this hippodrome of hockey, claimed to be the last word in buildings of its kind, was impressed upon the spectator, and those present fully agreed that Toronto had at last blossomed forth into major league ranks to the fullest extent.” The Chicago Black Hawks beat the Leafs 2-1 on a goal from Vic Ripley. “It was not,” Perry opined, “a brilliant game of hockey.”

(Image: City of Toronto Archives,  Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 426, Item 16)