hockey players in hospital beds: ching johnson on the fire-escape

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

“Ching Johnson, heaviest and oldest player in major league hockey, has spent 29 weeks of his career in hospitals.”
• Norman Thomas, “Ye Sport Sandwich,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 16, 1937

I’m not going to catalogue all of Ivan Johnson’s hockey ailments here — this isn’t the time for that, and it isn’t the place. Regarding that introductory tally of Norman Thomas’, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny his calendar calculation for the Hall-of-Fame defenceman better known as Ching. What I can confide is what a newspaper aside dating to 1926 alleged, just as Johnson was just starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers: that the hockey he’d played to that point had conferred “27 scars.” That’s a number that — maybe it’s just coincidence — recurs in a 1938 edition of Time: “in twelve seasons of big-league of big-league hockey he has had bones broken in 27 different parts of his body.”

Hockey hurt more in the early years of the NHL: the game was sharper, blunter, more broadly brutal in the damage it inflicted on the professionals who played it. That’s part of the Ching Johnson story. The abandon he played with had something to do with his hospital tenancy, too. He enjoyed throwing his body at oncoming forwards. Frisky was one of his adjectives, and bumptious was another. He was tall, 5’11”, and what contemporary newspapers liked to call husky and/or burly — paired as he often was in his first years as a Ranger with Taffy Abel, he was half of what The New York Times called “the beefiest combination defense in the game,” a blueline bulwark that brought some 461 pounds to bear (at least 210 of them were Johnson’s).

Sounds like a brute, I know. But Johnson was fast, too, and if we loiter, for a moment, on the skill that went with his physical dynamism, we can find his boss in New York, Lester Patrick, likening him to Babe Ruth. “Great boy, Ching!” he gushed to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1928. “He has only one superior as a stick-handling defenceman and that is Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins.” Ten years later, a Ranger teammate, Bill Cook, classed Johnson as the greatest hockey player he’d ever seen.

But. Hospitals. There is one in particular I’m heading for, though not before a few more paragraphs to gather momentum. Maybe, to start, a sampling of vintage newspaper headlines from the Ching Johnson Injury Archive:

Injured

Johnson Injured In Hockey Clash

Blesse Dangereusement Samedi Soir

Johnson Unable To Rejoin Ranger Sextet This Season

Injured, He Stars

If he was a hockey Babe Ruth, it’s also the fact that there were oft-hurt ballplayers — Del Bissonette was one — who were referred to as the Ching Johnson of baseball, as in much-mended.

Ching Johnson injuries we’re not going to discuss, too much:

• the collarbone he broke in a collision with Charlie Langlois of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke in 1926;

• three of his ribs, damaged when he tripped Herb Drury of the Pirates in 1928 and (as The Pittsburgh Press had it) Drury’s “feet flew up and crashed into Johnson’s side;”

• the jaw Dit Clapper’s shoulder smashed in 1930, causing a dislocation and compound fracture that attending doctors (according to Ranger publicist Jersey Jones) used 80 inches of copper wire to repair;

• the forehead that Detroit’s Ebbie Goodfellow clipped with his stick in the playoffs in 1933 which left him, Johnson, “looking as though a horse had kicked him in the forehead” (said The Associated Press), leaving a scar that carved “in a livid crescent from the top of his nose to near his left eyebrow” in which five stitches could be counted.

Something else we’re not really going to get into: Johnson’s many stitchings, other than to say he himself denied having taken on 1,000 in his career, as was sometimes claimed by others on his behalf. “Where could they put them?” he said in 1937. “I’ve had only 374.”

His lack of meanness is important to emphasize, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been any spite in him. “Johnson,” wrote Horace Lavigne in La Patrie, “is a gentleman on the ice and he never abuses his strength or his bulk.” He bodychecked with bonhomie, sometimes helping those he’d knocked down back to their feet. When he rushed the puck, Lavigne went on, it was “with the impetuosity of an overflowing torrent.”

If you study the Ching Johnson literature you come across many sentences regarding his good nature and perpetual smile, which was said to grow as the going got rougher. “Often,” said his 1979 obituary in The New York Times, “when Mr. Johnson was knocked down, he would flash a grin that bespoke his delight at the contact.” A 1932 Le Canada dispatch almost scans as poetry:

Haynes et Johnson en collision;
Ching n’en perd pas son sourire,
Haynes non plus. Mais,
de l’équilibre, c’est autre affaire.

•••

Johnson was about to turn 30 in early December of 1928, when he took to the ice at the Montreal Forum. The new NHL season was just six games old and the Rangers were in town to take on the local Maroons. When the two teams had faced each in the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring, it was the Rangers who’d prevailed. At 4-1-1, they were off to strong start in the new season, though it was the Maroons who’d handed them their lone loss so far.

Other game notes? Dave Trottier, star winger of Canada’s 1928 Olympic team, was making his home debut on the Maroons’ left wing.

Also in the house, front and centre in Forum crowd that numbered about 12,000: Su Alteza Real Don Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, cousin to King Alfonso XIII. With his wife, Infanta Doña Beatrice, and their son, Prince Alvaro, and a small retinue of retainers, Don Alfonso was on a North American tour when he stopped in Montreal. Mayor Camillien Houde met him at the train station, along with his host, Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, general manager of the Bank of Montreal.

The visitors spent a busy two-and-a-half days, touring the Royal Victoria Hospital and their host’s bank, attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica — and taking a pew at Saturday night’s hockey game, where the band opened the proceedings by playing of the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem.

On the ice, Maroons’ goaltender Clint Benedict was the star of the game, per The Gazette, “turning aside one drive after another with a brilliance that was uncanny.”

The game was fast. Also: rugged and robust and even peppery, but: not rough. Ching Johnson was a big part of this, and of the spectacle. “He is booed lustily by the fans,” The Gazette noted, “but they all admire him for a clean, hard playing, good natured defenceman, who smiles through fortune and adversity in hockey.”

The latter struck in the second period. With the game still goalless, Johnson took the puck and skated for the Montreal net, where a defenceman named Henry Hicks poke-checked him. The Gazette:

The Maroon defenceman started for the Ranger goal, and Johnson, somewhat off balance, kept on towards the corner behind the Maroon net. He could not get himself straightened out and crashed into the boards.

A later account described how the “pachydermic and bald defense ace” fell and slid feet first into the boards: “The weight of Johnson’s huge body carried such impetus that the ankle shattered under the strain.”

There were other Ranger casualties on the night: Taffy Abel didn’t return for the third period, and was reported to have suffered a gash from a skate to his left ankle, while left winger Butch Keeling went down with a (Montreal Gazette) “severely wrenched shoulder,” the right one. Torn ligaments, said the doctors later, when they looked.

Nels Stewart scored a goal for the Maroons before the second period ended, and he put another past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach early in the final period before Red Dutton made it 3-0.

That’s how it ended. The champions were beaten again. The Ottawa Journal rated Dave Trottier “fairly impressive,” particularly in the third; he also took two penalties. For Don Alfonso, well, he’d seen hockey before, in St. Moritz and Chamonix, but that was nothing like this.

“It is wonderful,” he said, “and we have all enjoyed every minute of the game.” He and his wife had both been touched to hear their anthem played. “We appreciated immensely the kindly touch and all that it meant.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was in a hospital that the Spaniards hadn’t seen, the western unit of Montreal General on what was then Dorchester Street. X-rays confirmed that his ankle, the left one, was indeed broken.

He wouldn’t be back playing for most of the rest of the season, The New York Times reported subsequently, and with Taffy Abel said to be gone for ten days, Rangers coach and GM Lester Patrick’s line-up was down to two defensemen, Leo Bourgeault and Myles Lane. For their next game, in Boston, the Rangers played with a reduced roster, 11 men. Abel’s and Keeling’s names were noted in the boxscores, though I don’t think either one of them got on the ice. The Bruins won that one, 2-0.

Johnson stayed in Montreal, resting his enplastered leg. The day after his teammates took on Boston, a photographer from La Patrie found the patient in his bed and pointed his camera. That’s it, above: Johnson looks comfortable, if a little unfocussed.

Later the same day, when the hospital caught fire, he’d be on the run.

Towards nine that night, an orderly smelled smoke. That’s how it started. He alerted the night superintendent and the hospital operator — “You will be interested to know that there is a fire somewhere in the building,” The Gazette has him telling her — and the operator telephoned the fire department. There was smoke to see now, more and more of it, so someone also pulled a fire-alarm, at 9.06 p.m. Two more sounded, at 9.16 and 9.17.

The flames started in the basement and were soon on the move. They climbed a stairwell and shot through the roof, lighting the night. Soon, along with the fireman who were arriving on the scene, came spectators — “thousands” of them — who rushed to the scene from all over the city.

Seventy patients were in the building at the time. Staff evacuated the young tenants of the children’s ward on the third floor and several private rooms as well. That all went smoothly, and shortly after ten o’clock Fire Chief Raoul Gauthier announced that there was no need to move patients from wards that the smoke hadn’t reached. The fire was under control by 10.30 and just before 11, the all-clear sounded.

“The patients who had been removed were brought back to their wards and their beds,” The Gazette reported next day, “none the worse for their adventure.”

The newspaper was able to dismiss the rumour that there had been an explosion in a basement laboratory — not so, said the firemen, they didn’t know what the cause was.

Dr. A.K. Haywood, superintendent of the hospital, estimated damage to the building to be somewhere in the range of $10,000. As far as casualties, several firemen did suffer cuts on the night, including Chief Gauthier, whose left wrist was severely wounded as he handled a window. Dr. Haywood was said to have tended that injury himself. He was also quick to praise the fire department and his own staff. “Every man and woman was on the job from the first to the last and no one left his or her post,” his commendation went. “The telephone operator stuck at her switchboard despite the fact that there was heavy smoke in that section of the building.”

And Ching Johnson? He’d been entertaining a visitor that blazing night: a brother of Lorne Chabot’s was in saying hello when the alarm went up. I haven’t been able to track down the brother’s name; Lorne, having played the previous season as a teammate of Johnson with the Rangers, was now guarding Toronto’s goal. With the help of orderlies, Chabot frère saw that the defenceman was carried from his second-floor room down a fire-escape and onward to a friend’s nearby apartment. A newspaper account notes that hospital authorities were informed of this removal and that once the flames abated, Johnson was returned “on the shoulders of his stalwart supporters, greeting the staff with a typical good-natured wave and an announcement that he had returned.”

I can’t say how long he lingered in Montreal, or just when he made it back to New York. The hospital staff is supposed to have told him, cheerily, to come back any time.

In an effort to replace him on the Ranger blueline, Lester Patrick tried to buy Harvey Rockburn, star of the Detroit (pre-Red Wing) Cougars’ farm team, the Olympics. But while Cougars’ owner Charles Hughes said he was tempted by the $17,500 offer, he decided not to sell. There was talk of wingers dropping back to the blueline, captain Bill Cook and Billy Boyd. Taffy Abel missed just a single game, returning for New York’s scoreless tie in Pittsburgh, and Butch Keeling played a bit in the third period of that one, too. Though Abel had to leave the next game, another tie, in Detroit, after re-injuring his ankle.

Johnson would spend two months on the mend before, late in February, doctors looked at new x-rays that seemed to say it wasn’t enough: the ankle wasn’t sufficiently healed, he’d have to take the rest of the season off. He wasn’t convinced, apparently, and was back for the Rangers’ final regular-season game. Alongside Abel once more, Ching Johnson anchored the Rangers’ defence throughout the playoffs, all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell just short of defending their title, losing to Boston in a two-game sweep.

Sources: The Ottawa Journal, St. Petersburg Times, Montreal Gazette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, La Patrie, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Pittsburgh Press, Le Canada.