For as long as the NHL hands out trophy for goaltending excellence in his name, Georges Vézina will be remembered for his proficiency in stopping pucks. Still, it is 90 years this fall since Vézina played his last period of NHL hockey, which means we don’t really have much of a sense of the man, his demeanor, or how he conducted himself, on or off the ice. His goaling statistics remain impressive, if not exactly overwhelming. Between 1910 and 1925, he was the only goaltender to ply the Montreal Canadiens’ net. He won two Stanley Cups before the NHA made way for the NHL. Of the 203 games he played over nine seasons once that happened, 113 of them were wins. You can study all this at one of the online stats archives, where you’re liable to learn that Vézina’s lack of a QSP and his relatively modest career GPS of 38.8 don’t seem to have affected his standing on the Elo Fan Rating ladder.
Not a fan of analytics? Fair enough. What about fantastical stats? Those are different from the fancy metrics with which the NHL game is now measured in that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with on-ice performance and, plus, they’re not true. For instance: you may have read, possibly in a book published newly this fall, that by the time he died in 1926, 39-year-old Georges Vézina had fathered 24 children.
If the book in question is Kevin Gibson’s Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences (Douglas & McIntyre), then you may know already that it doesn’t profess to be a major work. It’s a slim volume, light-hearted in tone, “a lively compendium of little-known hockey trivia,” as the publisher promises, from a “stats archaeologist.” More than a third of its 176 pages are devoted to a humdrum calendar of on-this-day-in-history reminders from the hockey past.
“I am,” Gibson volunteers in his introduction, “the TSN Research, Stats and Information Department.” As such, he’s all about facts, a word that choruses through both the author’s manifesto and the book’s marketing material along with notable others like urban legends, conspiracy theories, debunking, and falsehoods. The truth is, when it comes to hockey history, you just can’t believe what you’ve read. “I’d like to go through some old wives’ tales,” Gibson announces, “legends and confessional stories and get to the bottom of what is fact and fiction in the world of hockey.” Never fear, Gibson’s here, to separate the faux from the facts, all of which he’s analyzed and researched and uncovered.
Great. Happy to hear it. Lots of us who love hockey history revel in fine detail and quirky ephemera, and we’re always eager to learn more. Some of us have even gone before where Gibson goes, delving (for example) into Georges Vézina’s family history. That’s how we found out that the story of his multitudinous children is exactly that: plain fiction, a fanciful not-true made-up fallacious falseness that has been making the rounds for almost as long as the Montreal Canadiens have been around, ever since Léo Dandurand put it on a hook to see whether the newspaper boys might bite.
Family records do suggest an entirely tragic truth that may, somehow, have informed Dandurand’s fictionalizing: Vézina’s wife, Stella (née Morin), may have had as many as six children die at birth, while another, named Robert, lived just three months. The only two Vézina children to survive were were two sons: Jean-Jules, born in 1912, and Marcel, who made his debut on the last day of March of 1916, the night after the Canadiens won the Cup. There’s a famous (and adorable) photograph of him sitting in the Stanley Cup, as well as a popular tale that his parents gave him the middle name Stanley in recognition of the Cup. While it’s possible that he bore it as a nickname, baptismal records show that he was christened Joseph Louis Marcel.
Dandurand is, of course, a towering figure in Montreal Canadiens history, an owner who also coached and managed the team. He could have been a serial fabricator, I guess, but then again the story of his goaltender’s populous family might just as well have been a moment’s joke taken up by a newspaperman who didn’t bother to verify it with Vézina himself. The goaltender’s English doesn’t ever seem to have been very good, so maybe that was part of it. D’Arcy Jenish dates the original Dandurand telling to the spring of 1925, when Montreal was in Victoria to play for the Stanley Cup.
Gibson certainly isn’t the first reputable writer to repeat the error. When Vézina fell ill and left the Canadiens in the fall of 1925, various newspapers gave him a brood of 17 — “enough for two hockey teams, plus substitutes,” according to The Springfield Missouri Republican, who also saw fit to add six years to his age and promote him to police chief of his hometown, Chicoutimi.
After his death the following March of 1926, newspapers variously pegged his progeny at 17 (an Associated Press report in The New York Times) and 22 (Winnipeg Tribune). While I should say that the French press seems to have gone unfooled from the start, Montreal’s English papers preferred the fantasy version in which, for example, (The Gazette) “two sets of twins were born in the first two years of his married life.”
The numbers have fluctuated over the years. By 1936, The New York Post was at 18 — though two years later they’d revised themselves down to 14. Strange to say, but Rosaire Barrette’s 1952 biography of Léo Dandurand reiterated its subject’s original lie, hoisting the number back up to 22.
Stan Fischler settled on 20 in The Flying Frenchman (1971) but 22 is the number that’s proved the most persistent. It’s the one in both Ron McAllister Hockey Stars (1950) and Andrew Podnieks’ otherwise authoritative Players: The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone Who Has Ever Played in the NHL (2003). Podnieks notes that only two of the many were alive by the time Vézina died — true enough, in its way.
“He began fathering babies like he was aiming at a world record,” Brian McFarlane breezes in The Habs (1996). In Canadiens Legends: Montreal’s Hockey Heroes (2005), Mike Leonetti mentions Vézina’s devout Roman Catholic lifestyle: “He was married at 20 and produced 22 children!” That’s good enough, too, for Jack Falla, who paid tribute to Vézina in his 2008 book Open Ice, devoting a whole chapter to the man in which he described a pilgrimage to visit Chicoutimi and alluded awkwardly to Mrs. Vézina’s partnership.
The truth is out there. Michel Vigneault’s straightforward entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography gets it right. Online, The Hockey Hall of Fame successfully splits myth from truth, as does Vézina’s Wikipedia page. In The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory (2009), D’Arcy Jenish makes no mistake. And as recently as this very fall, Pat Hickey’s 100 Things Canadiens Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die tells (a little wearily?) the truth.
Is it such a big deal that Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences gets it wrong? Other than the several times the error is trumpeted on the book’s cover and in marketing materials, Vézina’s imaginary family occupies one small paragraph within one slim book. It is interesting that Gibson ups the ante more than almost anyone previously — only Stephen Cole, in The Canadian Hockey Atlas (2006), has ever claimed 24 minor Vézinas before now — but in the wider swing of things, it’s not such an egregious blunder.
Except for … it’s not the only one in the book. I gave up looking after not too long, but just before I got truly exasperated, I came across a glaring error of fact involving Gordie Howe hattricks along with a pair of Ching Johnson mistakes. I don’t have a ratio on how much faux Of Myths and Sticks contains compared to its facts, but whatever the number, it’s not favourable.
If you’re interested in how many times in his long career Howe registered one of his eponymous hattricks (scoring a goal, passing for an assist, and fighting a fight all in the same game), then you might already know that it’s generally agreed that the answer is twice. Gibson says it was three times, and that would count as a true revelation, if it weren’t wrong.
To the two established incidents, in 1953 and 1954, both against Toronto, Of Myths And Sticks ventures to add a 1967 game in which Detroit beat the California Seals 8-2. Howe picked up a goal and two assists and did indeed incur a major penalty. It wasn’t for fighting Wally Boyer, though, it was for high-sticking him, for which Howe was also fined $25.
Johnson: he was born in 1897, not 1898, and contrary to what Gibson tells us here, his nickname didn’t have anything to do with the sound a puck makes striking a goalpost. On the birthdate I’ll allow that Gibson is in good erroneous company on the Internet: all the many hockey databases are with him on 1898, along with Wikipedia and the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But if facts are your religion, or your job, there are other sources you might choose to mine. Canadian military records take finding, but not too much. I called up Ivan Wilfred Johnson’s 1916 army enlistment papers with a couple of clicks and looked at the year inscribed there: 1897. Click, click and another click: the Fourth Census of Canada from 1901 confirms young Ivan’s ’97 debut with an image of handwritten notations by one Robert S. Jackson for Winnipeg’s District 12.
Small feed is what you’d maybe say this is, extreme niggling in matters so esoteric that they could only be of interest to a drab handful of dedicated specialists. I don’t know. The idea that veracity matters less when it comes to hockey history than any other kind is a strange one. I really don’t mean to lecture or harangue, other than to go out on a gesture of throwing up my hands at all those — journalists and broadcasters among them, others who call themselves historians — who are content to retail unvetted myth and rumour as fact, allowing that because someone wrote about massed infant Vézinas in another book somewhere, of course it must be true.
“There have been many versions of how I received my title and some, I must admit, have been more colourful than the truth,” Ching Johnson explained in 1960.
Every winter my Dad flooded the backyard and all the neighbourhood kids congregated to try their luck with hockey sticks and skates. Our back kitchen took on a new role — that of a warming house where we would put on and take off our skates. About the time my Mother realized that the linoleum was beginning to suffer from so many young hockey hopefuls, my Dad decided to build a small place in the yard where we could get into our equipment and at the same time stay out from underfoot. Soon the stove in the shack seemed to offer more possibilities to me than mere warmth, so I decided to try my hand at cooking — mostly french fries. As a result, I acquired the name ‘Chinaman.’ When I joined the Winnipeg Monarchs, Dick Cing, a sports editor for The Winnipeg Tribune, decided to change ‘Chinaman’ to ‘Ching,’ and from then on, during my long career in hockey, I was never to be called by any other name.