Broad (Street) Brush: American artist LeRoy Neiman’s hockey work included portraits of the skilled set: Bobby Hull, Bryan Trottier, Wayne Gretzky. His sketchpad also reflected the game’s punishing side, as with these 1974 portraits of a trio of Philadelphia Flyers documenting the accumulated cost of doing business — smashed noses, slashed skulls, puckstruck teeth — suffered above the neck by (from left) a very Bobby-Clarke-looking Don Big Bird Saleski, Bob Hound-Dog Kelly, and Andre Moose Dupont.
“The thing about Ulf is that he seldom, if ever, misses a play. The reason we come out of our own end so easily is because Ulf gets himself into position to get the puck and then never gives it away. Anders and I work ourselves into position and he always finds a way to hit us with the pass.
That was Bobby Hull talking, back in 1976, about his Swedish linemates with the Winnipeg Jets, centreman Ulf Nilsson (seen above in 1977) and over on the right wing, Anders Hedberg. It was May of the year and the Jets had just beaten the Houston Aeros by a score of 6-3 to move closer to winning the WHA championship and the Avco World Trophy that went with it. Nilsson had a hat trick in the game and (as the Associated reported) he’d “also glared steadily into the eyes of Aeros’ players, prepared to drop the gloves if necessary.” Jets’ coach Bobby Kromm couldn’t ask for any more. “He played super hockey, offense and defense, scored goals and hit people. What else is there to do?”
Forty years later, the NHL Jets are set to honour Nilsson and his wingers: tomorrow, at a luncheon ahead of the weekend’s Heritage Classic, the trio will be the first players to be ushered into the team’s new Hall of Fame. The Swedes will be there in Winnipeg, but not Hull: as Paul Friesen of The Winnipeg Sun advises, Hull is staying away because — well, “it’s believed he’s upset with media references to his past legal trouble, which involved claims of spousal abuse from his former wives and his daughter.”
Nilsson was 24 when he first arrived in the Manitoban capital in 1974, Hedberg 23. They hailed from Nynäshamn and Örnsköldsvik, respectively. Nilsson had starred for AIK and Hedberg at Djurgårdens IF; both were stalwarts of the Swedish national team.
Was Nilsson maybe the toughest Swede ever to play big-league hockey in North America? Murray Greig says so, in Big Bucks and Blue Pucks (1997), a history of the WHA. Like Borje Salming and Inge Hammarström, who’d crossed to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs a year earlier, Nilsson and Hedberg found themselves … not exactly warmly welcomed the North American game. They were hacked and insulted — “took their initiation lumps,” as Mark Goodman later put it in Weekend Magazine.
It didn’t keep them from scoring. They both scored goals in the first game of the season and with Hull’s assistance, they kept on going. Nilsson finished the regular season with 94 assists and 120 points, while Hedberg (who also took home the league’s rookie-of-the-year trophy) notched 53 goals and 100 points.
Hull had seen enough of what he called “goon hockey” by the fall of the following year that in October of 1975 he staged a one-man wildcat strike, to protest hockey violence. “It’s been buggin’ him for a long time,” Jets GM Rudy Pilous said, “last year as well as this year.”
He was back after sitting out a single game. Did anything change? Hard to say. A few years later, in 1979, Anders Hedberg looked back on the nastiness he and Nilsson suffered when they first got to the WHA. “It’s always a problem when you let in anyone strange,” he told Goodman. “When something is established, you don’t want it to change because there’s no good reason to change it.” It made him think about Jackie Robinson. “Maybe we were a little bit like that when we first went to Canada. Through the press, guys would say, ‘Don’t come and take our jobs.’ But I think it enriches a sport for people from all over the world to play it. I like to think we bring something new to the game.”
Hedberg looked like he belonged in a Viking movie, Goodman said, and he had more speeds than a racing bike. Nilsson resembled “an American high school senior;” he handled the puck “like a Thai stick juggler.” By the time they left Winnipeg, they’d scored 376 goals between them in four seasons.
They jumped to the NHL in 1978. There was talk that they wanted to go to the Leafs, but they ended up as the New York Rangers’ best-paid players. They prospered in Manhattan, even though their production did decline (as yours would, too) without Bobby Hull on the wing.
The NHL wasn’t a whole lot easier on them than the WHA had been. Asked why referees didn’t call more penalties on players who attended the star Swedes with sticks and elbows and unpleasantries, Rangers’ coach Fred Shero thought about it for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “if we went and played in Sweden and Russia, we’d get the same treatment. I imagine the world is the same all over. Nobody likes a foreigner. What can you do? When it comes to foreigners playing here, we got to almost murder them before they call something.”
Ranger goaltender John Davidson sparked a brawl at Madison Square Garden in December of 1979 when he went after the Bruins’ Al Secord, whom he accused of “cheap-shotting Nilsson.”
A subsequent Associated Press report was careful to explain to its domestic readership: “Swedish players, because they prefer a finesse game, often attract rugged play.”
Davidson was happy to elaborate after the game. “They have so many welts on their bodies it looks like they’ve been barbecued,” he said of Nilsson and Hedberg. The AP dispatch went on to include the sentence fragments “several Bruins entered the stands and fought with spectators” and “four fans were issued summonses for disorderly conduct.”
“The two Swedes are considered among the league’s most polished players,” Dave Anderson noted a few days later in The New York Times. “Ulf Nilsson is the Rangers’ leading scorer with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists). Anders Hedberg, the Rangers’ other Swedish import, is second with 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists).”
He had a larger point to make about the game with the Bruins, too:
Instead of acknowledging the European style and accepting the imports, NHL machos prefer to continue testing their toughness.
Following the melee, the Garden needed city policemen to disperse 200 spectators who threatened to overturn the bus.
Al Secord justified tripping the 165-pound Nilsson because, he said, the Swedish center had blind-sided him early in the third period, as if the Bruin defenseman had never been blind‐sided before. John Wensink, another Bruin, later called Ulf Nilsson “a little wimp,” but the NHL, even the Bruins, would be better with more little wimps like him.
(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-6669-001neg)
(Image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
As the adjectives continue to flock to Auston Matthews in the wake of his four-goal debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, the rookie offered up one of his own. The writers called him elite and incredible, sizzling, his performance was magical, spectacular, unforgettable, and NHL-record and historic. Writing the headlines for this morning’s Toronto newspapers, editors contributed Auston-ishing and Marvellous Matthews and Matt Trick to the conversation. Matthews himself? “It’s pretty surreal,” he told reporters in his becalmed way after the game.
“Auston Matthews Sets Goal Record in NHL Debut” The Globe and Mail’s Thursday front page declared above the fold. The Toronto Star’s had him as becoming the “first player to score four goals in NHL debut.” As mentioned last night here and elsewhere, Matthews’ isn’t quite the all-time goal-scoringest debut in NHL history: Joe Malone and Harry Hyland scored five apiece on the NHL’s very first night back in December of 1917. That made it, eventually, into some of the reporting last night, and figures into the late paragraphs of most of the stories online and in print yesterday.
There were some who saw reason to qualify what Malone and Hyland achieved as Lisa Wallace of La Presse Canadienne did in this morning’s La Presse: “Les deux avaient précédemment évolué dans l’Association nationale de hockey.” Some observers, like Darren Millard from Sportsnet, were amused by the notion that anyone might bother to reach back 100 years to find an historical precedent for something that was happening here and now. An adjectival fix (modern-day) seemed to satisfy others, like The Arizona Republic, which celebrated a native son on the front of the morning edition:
Historian Eric Zweig is the long-time managing editor of the NHL’s annual Official Guide and Record Book. He has a good explainer on where Matthews’ feat fits (or doesn’t quite) into the directory of deeds.
Also in need of further explication: Reg Noble.
The pride of Collingwood, Ontario, he played on that first NHL night in 1917 as a dynamic member of Toronto’s original NHL team, known as the Arenas and also the Blueshirts or just plain Blues. Looking back at newspaper accounts of Toronto’s opening game versus the Montreal Wanderers, I saw that Noble was down as having scored a Matthewsesque four of his team’s goals in their (Leafslike)10-9 loss. I was quick to make Noble’s claim, which nobody else seemed to be advancing and wasn’t on the NHL books.
Upon further review, it looks like Noble didn’t score four. Or did, only to have credit for one of them rescinded. Or could have, maybe, but it was hard for witnesses to see. Unless it was the scorer’s fault — did he mess up? Whatever happened, Noble’s fourth goal did not pass into history or the NHL archives.
So let the record show that Noble scored a mere three goals on December 19, 1917. Also maybe can we concede that it’s a little more smudged that we’d like? Easy to fault bygone chroniclers who weren’t as attentive to detail as we might wish them to have been, to bewail the paucity of corroborating tweets and GIFs. That doesn’t change anything, though: the reports from Montreal are as vague as they were before we started carping.
The accounts we have can’t agree on how many spectators were on hand at the Westmount Arena on the night. “A very small number” was as much as The Ottawa Journal could bring itself to divulge. “Barely 500,” La Patrie counted, while a wire report that appeared in The Toronto World and elsewhere had the crowd at “about 700.” Le Canada? “Hardly more than 1200 fans.”
When it came to the scoring, the local papers repeated the Toronto Daily Star summary in which Noble’s name was attached to Toronto’s first, sixth, seventh, and ninth goals. In its short game report, La Patrie identified 22-year-old Noble as “l’ex-Canadien” (he’d played the 1916-17 NHA season for the Habs). He was “active” and carried himself “like a veteran” — “he deserved a better fate.”
“By himself, he had four goals for Toronto.”
The Wanderers’ Art Ross was the star of the night, in Le Canada’s books, though he scored just a single goal. Noble got no special mention, but then nor did Montreal’s own five-goal hero Harry Hyland. He was knocked out at one point, according to The Ottawa Journal, when an errant puck “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye.”
Like everybody else writing about the game, Le Canada noted Toronto’s dreadful goaltending. Sammy Hebert started the game, but after what the Journal rated a “mediocre” first period (he allowed five goals), in came Art Brooks. “Sammy Hebert couldn’t stop a flock of balloons,” someone at the game advised the Daily Star, “and Brooks wasn’t any better.”
Ross’ goal was “one of the prettiest of the evening,” testified The Ottawa Journal’s witness, failing to file specifics: “an individual effort in which he outguessed the Blue defence” was as much as he was willing to say.
The Journal’s summary is the only one I’ve seen that varies from the Noble-scored-four norm. It’s a complete muddle, missing one Toronto goal entirely and attributing another to someone called “Neville” when no-one of that name was lined up for either team — although the referee was Lieutenant Tom Melville. In this version, Reg Noble is down for just two goals.
To further confound its stats-minded readership, same day, same edition, the Journal ran a list of the NHL’s leading scorers that tallies ten for Torontonians.
Back in Toronto, the Daily Star sowing some confusion of its own. A suggestion that Noble’s famous four goals might not last into posterity appears in a dissenting opinion in the December 20 Star two columns to the left of the game summary in which they’re reported.
“Just how good Cameron and Noble were at Montreal last night is indicated by the fact that they got three goals each,” writes the Star’s anonymous contradictor. “Charlie Queerie [sic] says that Dennenay [sic] got the other three, but the official summary credits Skinner with one.”
Whether or not he scored four that first night, Noble did turn in a stellar season for the eventual NHL and Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Credited with just the three, he ended the regular season with 30 goals in 20 games, finishing third in goals and points in the league, behind Canadiens’ Joe Malone and Cy Denneny of Ottawa.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing: in February of 1918, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie fined Noble and teammate Harry Cameron $100 each for what the papers called “breaking training.” That could include anything, of course, from oversleeping to refusing to do push-ups to smuggling a bottle of gin onto the powerplay in the game against Canadiens. What we do know is that Noble’s fine was doubled when he continued to defy the boss.
There were injuries, too, notably at the end of the season, when Noble was reported lamed in the last game of the regular season when Ottawa’s Rusty Crawford kicked him with his skate — while, puzzingly, Crawford was trying “to get” teammate Eddie Gerard.
Still, as the season wound down, The Ottawa Journal was picking Noble out of the crowd to praise. Not only was he big and fast and tricky on the stickhandle, he checked back hard, scored goals without being selfish, “and has a lot of hockey knowledge stored in his noodle.”
Noble has played beautiful hockey this winter and though fans hear and think more of Malone, Lalonde, Nighbor, and a couple of others, the blue-clad boy appears to have a little on them all as an around player. Reg Noble for ours, if we have asked [sic] to pick out the most effective player in the NHL today.
The modern-day Maple Leafs get set to announce, today, their list of the best 100 players in their history. Will Auston Matthews’ name be among them? I’m guessing that Reg Noble’s won’t be. Who remembers him? There’s always a chance, of course, that he’ll be back in the news as soon as tomorrow night, when Matthews makes his home debut against the Boston Bruins. Reg Noble’s came on another Saturday, December 22, 1917, when Toronto beat the Ottawa Senators 11-4. Don’t tell Matthews, but in his second game, Reg Noble scored four goals.
Hospital chaplain Rev. W. Mann visits Reg Noble at Toronto General in April of 1960; nurse Nancy Beatty looks on. (Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
David Remnick gets it right, as the editor of The New Yorker usually does: if you mean to celebrate today’s announcement that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, do it by ear. Cue up “Abandoned Love,” listen to “Desolation Row,” with “Brownsville Girl” to follow that, then “Dignity,” then “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Keep going. And while you’re doing that, read this, from Dylan’s seductive memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), in which he recalls his youth in Minnesota:
Winters, ten below with a twenty below wind-chill factor were common, thawing spring and hot, steamy summers — penetrating sun and balmy weather where temperatures rose over one hundred degrees. Summers were filled with mosquitoes that could bite through your boots — winters with blizzards that could freeze a man dead. There were glorious autumns as well.
Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time. I always knew there was a bigger world out there but the one I was in at the time was all right, too. With not much media to speak of it, it was basically life as you saw it. The things I did growing up were the things I thought everybody did — march in parades, have bike races, play ice hockey. (Not everyone was expected to play football or basketball or even baseball, but you had to know how to skate and play ice hockey.)
Auston Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, though they weren’t quite enough to beat the Ottawa Senators: the home team scored five to win the game in overtime.
Calling the game across Canada on Sportsnet, Paul Romaniuk was quick to declare that Matthews, 19, had set a new NHL record: no-one before had scored so many goals ever before in their first game in the league.
That’s not true, of course: three players did so, even if it was a very long time ago: on the very first night of NHL action, December 19, 1917. All four of the league’s teams were playing, with the Montreal Canadiens beating the original Senators 7-4 while the Montreal Wanderers overwhelmed Toronto’s Arenas 10-9. Harry Hyland scored 5 goals in that latter game for Montreal, while Toronto’s Reg Noble notched four; for the Canadiens, Joe Malone finished with five, too.
By the time tonight’s game was over, as the excited dispatches started to appear online, Hyland and Malone were duly acknowledged, if only grudgingly — they were aged, it was pointed out, 28 and 27 years old respectively, and had had plenty of big-league experience already playing in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association. Sportsnet was still claiming the all-time NHL record for Matthews during the Edmonton-Calgary broadcast that followed the Toronto-Ottawa game and on through the latenight round-ups, but most others reports were allowing that the record is “modern-day.”
Reg Noble’s name was mostly missing from tonight’s mentions — maybe because it doesn’t appear in the NHL’s own record book, according to Eric Hornick, a statistician on New York Islanders’ home broadcasts. We’ll see whether Noble gets due, too, ancient-day or not.