Gordon Sparling directed Hockey Stars’ Summer, a 1951 ASN “Canadian Cameo,” with Andy O’Brien contributing the script.
Gordon Sparling directed Hockey Stars’ Summer, a 1951 ASN “Canadian Cameo,” with Andy O’Brien contributing the script.
It’s 80 years since Major Frederic McLaughlin schemed to end the tyranny of Canadian hockey domination by turning his Chicago Black Hawks all-American. I wrote about that in The New York Times not long ago. I would have liked to have expanded there on McLaughlin’s background and his marriage to Irene Castle, not to mention her hockey history, but I’m willing to do it here instead.
William F. McLaughlin starts selling coffee in Chicago in the 1860s. This isn’t a beverage history, but if it were, this would be the part that mentions how he helped to revolutionize the way Americans prepare their coffee at home. When W.F. dies in 1905, an elder son, George, takes over as president of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee while Frederic, younger, steps up as secretary and treasurer. Frederic is 27. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s already making a name for himself as a crack polo player for the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois. Accounts of his exploits on the turf remark on his supreme horsemanship, his daring, his fearlessness.
He gets married in May of 1907, at noon, to Helen Wylie, in Baltimore. “One of the surprises of the seasons,” The Chicago Tribune calls it. Not even a year later The Washington Post alerts readers: “The supposed domestic trouble of the McLaughlins is a frequent subject of gossip.” The Tribune’s sources suggest that the trouble stems from (i) McLaughlin refusing to give up “old haunts and friendships” and (ii) his wife spending too much on clothes. McLaughlin denies that they’re divorcing — his wife, he says, just spends a lot of time in Baltimore, visiting her mother. In 1910, the couple does divorce. Mrs. McLaughlin isn’t in court when her husband, alleging desertion, files suit, so he’s the one who does the talking.
Judge Lockwood Honore: Are you living together at the present time?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: How long have you been separated?
McLaughlin: A little over three years.
Judge: Did you leave her or did she leave you?
McLaughlin: She left me.
Judge: Did you know she was going?
Judge: Did you request her to leave?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: During the time you lived together, how did you treat her?
McLaughlin: All right.
The divorce is granted. Mrs. McLaughlin doesn’t ask for alimony; she just wants her name back.
McLaughlin plays more polo, suiting up for the Midwick Country Club in Los Angeles when the weather’s wintry in his native north.
In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sends troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin summers there, serving in the Illinois National Guard as a sergeant of artillery.
A year later, the United States joins the war against Germany. McLaughlin secures a commission with the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, where he takes command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. The division trains in Chicago and then England before shipping out for the front in France — just in time for the peace that breaks out in 1918.
Post-war, Major McLaughlin goes back to selling coffee and playing polo. In photographs from this time, he wears a tidy moustache, and accessorizes his bowtie, mohair coat, and Homburg hat with an air of privileged impatience. He returns to Chicago society as one of “the prize ‘catches’ among American bachelor-millionaires.” That’s what the newspaper columnists note in 1923 when news of the Major’s secretive wedding begins to leak. He’s 46 now, living in what’s described as a “seven-room deluxe bachelor apartment” on the top floor of a former coffee warehouse on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.
Prizeworthy as he might be, he’s also the least famous member of his new marriage.
The new Mrs. McLaughlin is the old Irene Foote, from New Rochelle, New York. She’s just 18 when she gets married for the first time, in 1911, to the English actor and dancer Vernon Castle, who’s 23. Together they help generate the ballroom-dance craze that sweeps the United States as the First World War starts to quake. The Castles teach America the tango, the maxixe, the hesitation, the turkey trot. In New York, they opened a dance academy and a night club. They taught and toured and lectured. “They ruled completely,” a later review of their regency recalls. “They set America to dancing as a naturally temperate country had never danced before. Weightlessly she moved; without effort he spun her about; smart people adopted and fads bore their name.”
Irene is a movie star, too, and revered as America’s best-dressed woman. The bob haircut is an innovation of hers, along with the ankle-length skirt and the velvet headache band.
Frederic McLaughlin isn’t the only one duty calls: Vernon Castle, too, joins up in 1916. There will come a time for romanticizing this later, with passages in The New York Herald telling how he’s “led by a glorious discontent to lay down his life for his country.” In the meantime, he returns to his home and native land, where he volunteers for the Royal Flying Corps, is commissioned as a lieutenant, ends up commanding a squadron at the front. Serves with distinction — wins a French Croix de Guerre — before he’s transferred to instructional duty in Canada in 1917.
He nearly dies there, in a crash near Deseronto, Ontario, before he’s killed in a training accident near Forth Worth, Texas, in 1918.
His widow marries Captain Robert Tremain, an American aviator, three months later, though the match isn’t announced for a year after the fact.
In 1923, amid rumours that she’s angling to divorce her second husband, Mrs. Tremain insists that no, she’s not. Captain Tremain rushes to France, just in case, to woo her back, which he succeeds in doing, the papers report, with Al Jolson’s help. “If I ever get a divorce,” Irene says when she arrives (alone), Stateside, “it will be because I want to be single and not because I want to get married.”
That turns out to be not entirely true: she has a Paris divorce in hand when she says this, and in November, she and Major McLaughlin celebrate a quiet wedding at his Michigan Avenue apartment.
In December they sail away as honeymooners, from Seattle, on the President Grant. It’s supposed to be a six-month trip, but they’re back within two. Gossip, inevitably, attends their return. Some of the honeymooners’ shipmates are talking, and the newspapers are happy to take it all down. They report on Mrs. McLaughlin’s charm and poise, and how popular she is, along with her Belgian Griffon, Joy. The Major they find cold and aloof. Two weeks out, during a storm, in the middle of a round of mahjong, he’s reported to take offense at a stray comment by a New York silk salesman, whom he then knocks under a table with one punch.
There’s more trouble, supposedly, when they land in Japan, and Mrs. McLaughlin draws more attention than her new husband would like. Report on this run long, with plenty of detail, though not a lot of direct quotation. The couple cuts short their journey, returning home on the ship they’d come out on.
Canadian reporters rush to the deck for a comment when the ship docks at Victoria, B.C. In vain, as the Vancouver Daily World reports it:
While the ship’s orchestra played “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Major McLaughlin answered three questions with the terse “No, we will give no interviews.” Irene herself refused to speak at all.
Take that, if you want, as the first public evidence that she’s giving up her old life, retreating from the limelight, effacing Irene Castle in favour of Mrs. McLaughlin.
A New York columnist confides that the marriage is “a surprise, a shock, and a disappointment to Chicago society.” The feeling there, it’s said, is that the Major should have married further up the social ladder. His mother is reported to have opposed the match.
Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.
That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”
There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”
Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.
He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”
He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”
He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.
The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”
He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.
“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”
Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.
It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”
“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”
He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.
The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.
Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.
Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”
Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”
“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”
He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”
It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.
(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)
(A version of this post appeared on page D3 of The New York Times on June 12, 2017.)
Long before President Donald J. Trump turned a protectionist eye to the iniquities of Canadians, another opinionated American tycoon decided that he had had enough. Eighty years ago, the cross-border irritant wasn’t Nafta or softwood lumber. As Major Frederic McLaughlin saw it, Canada was flooding American markets with too many hockey players.
In 1937, his short-lived America-first campaign was all about making the Chicago Black Hawks great again.
Canadians have long and fiercely claimed hockey as their own, a proprietary technology that also happens to be a primary natural resource. But the game’s south-of-the-border veins run deep, too. The first organized American game is said to have been played in the 1880s at St. Paul’s, a prep school in Concord, N.H.. The first fully professional league was based in Michigan, in 1904, though most of the players were Canadian.
When the N.H.L. made its debut in 1917 with four Canadian teams, it counted a lonely three Americans among 51 players.
“The climate is not suitable for hockey in the United States,” Lester Patrick (b. Drummondville, Quebec), the longtime Rangers coach and manager, explained in 1928. Unfair as it might be, Canadian boys donned skates at age 3.
“They start skating from the ankles, then with the lower leg up to the knee and at maturity they skate from the hip,” Patrick said. “It is an evolutionary process of time.”
“The Americans,” he held, “start too late to develop a full-leg stride.”
None of that mattered, of course, when it came to the potential profitability of American markets. The N.H.L.’s sometimes rancorous rush south saw Boston’s Bruins as the first United States-based team to join, in 1924. Pittsburgh’s Pirates and New York’s Americans followed in 1925 before the Rangers debuted in 1926, along with teams in Detroit and Chicago.
In Chicago, McLaughlin emerged as the majority shareholder. The McLaughlins had made their fortune on the Lake Michigan shore as coffee importers. In the 1850s, most American coffee drinkers bought raw beans and roasted them at home. W.F. McLaughlin was one of the first to sell pre-roasted coffee. When he died in 1905, his elder son took the helm of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee with Frederic, the younger son, aboard as secretary and treasurer.
Harvard-educated, Frederic found fame in those prewar years as one of the country’s best polo players. In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin served in the Illinois National Guard.
A year later, the United States went to war with Germany, and McLaughlin joined the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, taking command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. Trained in Chicago and England, the division reached France just in time for peace to break out in 1918.
Postwar, McLaughlin returned to Chicago society as a prized catch among bachelor millionaires. But he gained national attention after secretly marrying Irene Castle, a ballroom dancer and movie star revered as America’s best-dressed woman.
As president of Chicago’s N.H.L. team, he reserved naming rights, borrowing from his old Army unit’s tribute to an 18th-century Sauk warrior. From his polo club, the Onwentsia in Lake Forest, Ill., he plucked the distinctive chief’s-head emblem that still adorns Black Hawks sweaters.
“Oh, boy, I am glad I haven’t got a weak heart,” McLaughlin is reported to have said at the first hockey game he ever attended, in November 1926, just a month before Chicago’s NHL debut. His newly minted Black Hawks were in Minneapolis, playing an exhibition that featured Canadian men named Moose and Rusty and Tiny.
McLaughlin and his fellow investors bought a ready-made roster to get their franchise going: 14 players who had spent the previous winter as the Western Hockey League’s Portland Rosebuds, men named Dick and Duke and Rabbit from Canadian towns called Kenora and Snow Lake and Mattawa.
While owners in New York and Boston hired old Canadian hockey hands to run their teams, McLaughlin decided he would do the job himself. Asked whether his team was ready to compete for a championship, he said, “If it’s not, we’ll keep on buying players until it is.”
The Blackhawks started respectably enough, making the playoffs in their inaugural season. Coaches came and went in those early years, while McLaughlin cultivated a reputation for ire and eccentricity. Still, after only five N.H.L. seasons, Chicago played its way to the finals. Three years later, in 1934, the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup.
Key to Chicago’s winning formula was McLaughlin’s decision to replace himself with a veteran (Canadian) coach and manager, Tommy Gorman.
“I’m sending myself to the cheering section,” McLaughlin grinned, announcing his midseason surrender in 1933. “I’m convinced that I’m just an amateur in hockey. It’s been a case of the blind leading the blind as far as my influence on the team goes.”
The joy of victory did not linger. Gorman resigned, and Charlie Gardiner, the team’s beloved goaltender, died at 29.
Charged with the reconstruction was a former Black Hawk defenseman, Clem Loughlin, a son of Carroll, Manitoba. Hired in the fall of 1934, he was Chicago’s 11th coach in nine years. The team remained largely Canadian during his regime, with several talented American exceptions, including Doc Romnes and the goaltender who arrived in 1935, Mike Karakas.
A photograph promoting Loughlin’s 1936-37 squad bore the slogan “Lightning On Skates.” When the season opened, Chicago’s still largely Canadian roster struck for a pair of listless ties. Then they started losing in earnest. By Christmas, they had won only two of 16 games.
The new year brought no relief. Coach Loughlin threatened a shake-up and then shook, releasing center Tommy Cook, an eight-year veteran accused of “failure to keep in playing condition” and “lax behavior.”
The remaining Hawks won a couple of games before reverting to type. Mulched in Montreal, trimmed in Toronto, they returned to Chicago to lose again and solidify their hold on last place in the league’s American division.
That’s when McLaughlin announced that he had an answer, or at least a vision. Having already lobbied the N.H.L. to replace Canadian referees with Americans, he divulged his plan to shed the yoke of northern tyranny: within two years he would have only American boys skating for the Black Hawks. And he would be changing the team’s nickname to Yankees.
“I think an all-American team would be a tremendous drawing card all over the league,” McLaughlin said.
He was also said to be annoyed that his Canadian veterans rejected the daily calisthenics he insisted they needed.
“We’ve found out you can’t make athletes out of hockey players,” he declared, “so we’ll try to make hockey players out of athletes. Give me a football player who can skate and we can show this league a lot of hockey.”
He already had a so-called “hockey factory” up and running, with five prototype Minnesotans and Michiganders in training on the ice and at Chicago’s Y.M.C.A. These were men in their 20s named Bun and Butch and Ike. Plucked from quiet amateur careers, none of them had yet shown particular signs of stardom. In command was Emil Iverson, a former Danish Army officer who’d coached college hockey in Minnesota and — briefly — the pre-Gorman Hawks.
Meanwhile, the Hawks went to New York, where they hammered the Americans, 9-0. The Americans, as it happened, were almost entirely not — Roger Jenkins of Appleton, Wis., was the only exception. Chicago’s goals were all scored by importees.
Ridicule was brewing in Canada. John Kieran, a columnist for The New York Times, reported that the north-of-the-border consensus was that an all-American team would dominate at “the same time that the Swiss navy equals the combined fleets of the United States, Great Britain and Japan in total tonnage and heavy armament.”
Coach Loughlin stood by his boss. “It isn’t as silly as it sounds by any means,” he said. “I contend that most hockey players are made, not born.”
By March, the future had arrived. With the Hawks out of the playoffs, McLaughlin decreed that his five factory-fresh Americans would debut against Boston.
It went well — for the Bruins, who prevailed by 6-2. The Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings wired Frank Calder, the president of the league, to protest Chicago’s use of “amateurs” while other teams were still vying for playoff positions.
Boston Coach Art Ross called McLaughlin a “headstrong plutocrat.”
“I have been in hockey 30 years,” he railed, “and never in its entire history has such a farce been perpetrated on a National Hockey League crowd.”
He demanded Chicago refund the price of every ticket —“that’s how rotten the game was.”
“I don’t know whether our constitution will allow the cancellation of an owner’s franchise,” Ross continued, “but if it does, I’ll do everything I can to see that the board of governors do it.”
Unsanctioned by the league, the Hawks went to Toronto, where loudspeakers blared “Yankee Doodle” as “the cash customers prepared for a comedy,” one correspondent reported. Ike Klingbeil of Hancock, Mich., scored a Chicago goal in a losing effort, though a Canadian critic deemed his skating “stiff-legged.”
The new-look Hawks got their first win at home, outlasting the Rangers, 4-3. That night at least, the Times allowed that McLaughlin’s experiment might not have been so far-fetched after all.
The Hawks themselves weren’t entirely contented. A New York reporter listened to a Canadian veteran on the team grumble about the new Americans. “We score the goals and make the plays and they do nothing but a lot of spectacular heavy back-checking,” he said, “but they get all the headlines and all the praise.”
Chicago lost its final two games, finishing a proud point ahead of New York’s even-worse Americans. When the playoffs wrapped up, the Stanley Cup belonged to a Detroit team featuring one American among 21 Canadians with names like Hec and Mud and Bucko.
Come the off-season, the Major gave Clem Loughlin a vote of confidence, right before the coach decided he preferred a return to wheat-farming and hotelkeeping back home in Canada.
Chicago’s five experimental Americans were released. None of them played another N.H.L. game.
The team’s new coach was appropriately unorthodox, for McLaughlin: Bill Stewart, born in Fitchburg, Mass., was best known to that point as a Major League Baseball umpire who carried a wintertime whistle as an N.H.L. referee.
McLaughlin’s wife sued him for divorce that summer, which may have distracted the Major from his all-American plan. In any case, Stewart announced that it was on hold, and the team would continue as the Black Hawks.
When the new hockey season opened, the team started slowly. By March of 1938, they surprised most pundits when they beat the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup.
The trophy itself was absent from the final game, so the champions had to wait to hold it high. Eight of Chicago’s 18 players that season were Americans, men named Doc and Virgil and Cully, who had learned their hockey in Minnesota towns called Aurora, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake.
No N.H.L. champion would count more Americans until last year, when the Pittsburgh Penguins had 10.
(Note: Chicago’s NHL team was Black Hawks for the first 60 years of its history; Blackhawks became one word in 1986.)
(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)
Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.
That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”
For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.
His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.
Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.
As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”
Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.
Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.
While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.
Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.
Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.
Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.
“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.
Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.
From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.
It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.
Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.
The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.
He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.
When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”
“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”
Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”
He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”
The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”
Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.
Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.
He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.
In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”
But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.
When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.
Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.
The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.
Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.
As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”
A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.
“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.
He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.
“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.
Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.
He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.
At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.
The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.
An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.
Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.
Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.
Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.
“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”
The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.
He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.
The family takes a different view.
“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”
There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”
“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.
His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.
His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.
He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.
The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”