The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.
That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?
Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.
The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.
The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”
That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 78, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”
Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”
All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.
He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400. He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patrick’s to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.
On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his $400 investment.
Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.
The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.
“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.
In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared.
Here’s John Hallahan of The Boston Daily Globe on what happened next:
The face off was about to be started, Cleghorn — who had earlier in the season suffered a major penalty for hitting Phillips of Montreal — shot out a left hand that sent Bailey down on the ice.
Shore dropped his stick and took off his gloves. For a time it looked like the game might be forfeited. For his act, Cleghorn only suffered two minutes in the penalty box.
The Canadian Press took a slightly different view: Carson Cooper was the Bruin whose goal was disallowed, following on a second-period no-goal not-scored by Shore. This second time was too much for Cleghorn, who in objecting loudly also “struck Bailey in the face and knocked him down.” More paper flew from the stands; Cleghorn went to the penalty bench. That’s when Boston owner Charles Adams took up the quarrel with the referees — without, as far as I can, punching Ace Bailey.
St. Patricks headed next to Pittsburgh, where they played a Christmas-Day game against the Pirates, coached by Sprague’s brother Odie. “Listless at first, the ice battle turned into a raging tussle in the final period,” the hometown Press reported in detailing the Pirates’ 3-2 win. Bailey was peaceful, scoring a goal.
Boston, meanwhile, travelled to the Montreal Forum to meet the Maroons. That game was another wild one, “a guerilla struggle,” featuring an attack by Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn on Nels Stewart of the Maroons following which the home team considered refusing to play the third period and Art Ross railed about incompetent referees.
For all that kerfuffle out of Montreal, Charlie Querrie wasn’t going to let what had happened in Boston fade away.
It was when the St. Pats returned home to Toronto after Christmas that the legend of the Eric Zweig’s wrench began to take a public shape. Querrie was soon talking to his friends in the local press to make it known that he’d carried souvenirs home from Boston, including “a monkey wrench and a hard-boiled egg,” keepsakes hurled his way by irate Bruins’ fans when he’d ventured onto the ice to protest the fact that Boston management and ownership were already out there. The Toronto Daily Star noted that Toronto players had seized their own mementos during “the young riot:” 63 pennies picked up off the ice after the furor.
“I have asked President Calder,” Querrie jibed in before letting loose with a serious rant, “to revise his rules and put in a penalty for hitting a governor of the league with a hard-boiled egg. I was socked with an egg at Boston.”
The Star was only too happy to broadcast the full aria of his ire. It is, you have credit, a vintage harangue:
Honestly, what happened at Boston is a disgrace to the league. The offside goal disallowed by the referees, O’Leary and O’Hara, of Ottawa, was easily sixty feet off-side. Just as soon as the goal was called back the Boston players, led by Cleghorn rushed at the officials and Art Ross, manager of the Bruins, and Charlie Adams, the owner, clambered over the fence and took a hand in the argument. Ross had a rule book and he tried to make a pair of monkeys out of the officials by producing it and reading the rules to them in front of the crowd. Naturally the actions of Ross and Adams worked the crowd up and in a moment three or four excited spectators were over the fence and the pennies and the bottles and other things commenced to fly. I got over the fence, too, to protest the presence of Ross and Adams on the ice and someone hurled a monkey wrench at my head. It wasn’t any toy either but a full sized three pound wrench and I brought it away for a souvenir. It only missed my head by a foot. Then someone socked me with a hard boiled egg and not an overly fresh one at that. There were plenty of eggs flying. During the argument, Cleghorn deliberately punched Bailey in the face, knocking him down, and Bailey was not even engaged in the argument. Cleghorn got away with a minor foul. This man Ross is just about impossible. He is the only manager in the league who cannot get along with at least one of the officials. According to him they are all rotten. In fact, every official who is on or off the ice who pulls a decision against his club is either a crook or a boob according to Ross. He is the worst squaller in the whole league. Something will have to be done to curb him before he causes serious trouble. He has the Boston fans so worked up now with his squawking that they believe that the Bruins are being deliberately robbed every time they lose. Why, the Boston club even pays the expenses of Boston newspaper men away with Bruins on their trips. Is it any wonder that they report all these games in a biased manner and exaggerate any of the breaks which go against the club?
December 30 the teams met again in Toronto. The St. Patricks, declared “rejuvenated” by The Boston Daily Globe, prevailed again, 4-1. “The game was of the crowd-pleasing type, fast hockey that fairly sizzled at times.” Ace Bailey scored a goal; Sprague Cleghorn seems to have punched no-one. If anyone in the home crowd tossed any tools, the news didn’t make it into the papers.
The story goes into hibernation, then, for 13 years. The St. Pats transmogrified into Maple Leafs, in came Smythe, out went Querrie, eventually there was the change of Gardens, from Arena to Maple Leaf, and a Stanley Cup, along with five others lost in the Finals. Boston, meanwhile, won two Cups, lost two Finals in the years leading up to 1939, which is when the story starts again, that February.
Eddie Shore was still standing sentry on the Bruins’ blueline: that hadn’t changed. Art Ross was still the Boston coach, too. When he got to Maple Leaf Gardens that night, Charlie Querrie was waiting for him with a gift to give.
Querrie had decided that the time had come for his old Boston monkey wrench to go back from whence it came. He’d had it plated with chromium (not silver, as some newspapers had it). Also, upgraded into what The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer described as “a unique desk set, with an eight-day clock attached.” It was inscribed, too:
Returning a Gift
Thrown at Him
Many Years Ago
Querrie made his presentation in the Gardens’ press room before the game, with a little speech in which (maybe just for a little laugh?) he insisted on the version of the story that passed eventually to Eric Zweig: Ross was the one who’d launched it.
The story got muddled in the papers the next day. “That night,” The Ottawa Journal narrated, “a Boston fan threw a wrench at Querrie as he sat on the Toronto bench. It missed.”
Still, Ross was reported to be pleased. “I should wrap it over your ears,” he’s supposed to have said, “but I can’t take a chance on breaking the watch, so I’ll let you live.”
Ross invited Querrie to come down to Boston for the Bruins’ next home game. He didn’t make it, but the Bruins were back in Toronto before the month was out, and although Querrie didn’t attend that game, Ross dispatched defenceman Dit Clapper to the Palace Theatre on Danforth Avenue, where Querrie was the manager. In return for his monkey wrench, Ross presented his old rival with four pipes in a handsome leather case.
Charlie Querrie died on April 5, 1950. His last regret was that he couldn’t be on hand to watch the Maple Leafs defend their Stanley Cup championship that week. Several obituaries mentioned that. Both The Daily Star and The Globe and Mail also noted how close he’d been with Art Ross. Ross had made a special trip to Toronto to see him, though Querrie’s illness prevented the visit. “Querrie once sent Ross a silver-plated monkey wrench,” the Star wrote. “He claimed Ross fired the wrench at him in the heat of combat.”
(Ross image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved. Wrench image courtesy of Eric Zweig.)