“McDavid looks like he’s different than everybody else. Last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league was Bobby Orr. I was nine years old. And this guy’s faster than the whole league, and it’s incredible to watch.”
• Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, November 2016
Last Wednesday, when it mattered, Connor McDavid flew down the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to score the overtime goal that beat the Florida Panthers. Earlier that night, McDavid had notched the 100th point of his burgeoning NHL career in what was his 92nd game in the league. While it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky-good — he did it in just 61 games — it’s a feat that puts McDavid fourth among active players, behind Alex Ovechkin (77 games), Sidney Crosby (80 games), and Evgeni Malkin (89 games).
Last Sunday, mostly for fun, McDavid took part in the Oilers’ annual Skills Competition. Matthew Benning was the quickest of Edmonton’s backwards-skaters on the day; Milan Lucic showed the hardest shot. When it came to racing face-forward ’round the ice at Rogers Place, Benoit Pouliot (13.895 seconds) and J.J. Khaira (13.941) were fast. McDavid, by no real surprise to anyone, proved faster, make it around the rink in a time of 13.382 seconds.
That got Joe Pack of Sportsnet wondering: how does McDavid’s speed compare to NHLers of this age and others?
He duly noted that Detroit’s Dylan Larkin took a turn of the ice at the 2016 all-star game in a time of 13.172 seconds, outdoing Mike Gartner’s 1996 mark of 13.386. But? Overlooked, Pack submits, is the fact that
Larkin, and last year’s crop of contestants, got an advantage no other skaters before had: they began from the far blue-line, only to have the clock start once they hit the red line. Gartner, and every other skater at the competition over the years, started from the red line.
So Larkin’s record, I’m suggesting, should have an asterisk attached. Gartner’s record has apparently been broken by McDavid.
The real test, of course, will come in next week’s all-star game. “Still,” Pack writes, “the conversation around McDavid’s speed has begun in earnest. Is he the fastest in the game now? Is he the fastest ever?”
While we wait to find out, maybe is a look back in order? Beyond 1996, even?
The annals of speedy hockey-player skating are incomplete. The documentation, shall we say, isn’t superb. And while hockey players have tested themselves to see how fast they go for almost as long as the NHL’s, the conditions (as Pack points out) haven’t exactly been standardized. Some have stood still on their start line, others have skated to it at full fling. Some have carried pucks as they careened against the clock — not McDavid or Larkin or most of the recent racers. Technology has changed: hand-held stopwatches have been replaced by precision timers with electronic eyes. All of which makes it hard to line up McDavid’s feat (if that’s something you felt like doing) in order to compare it with those of, say, a Howie Morenz or a Hec Kilrea.
Still, back we go.
In 1945, Montreal Canadiens’ centre Buddy O’Connor won a one-lap, flying-start, puck-carrying race around Ottawa’s Auditorium in a time of 14.8 seconds. Teammates Elmer Lach (15.0) and Maurice Richard (15.2) came in after him; defenceman Leo Lamoureux was disqualified when he lost the puck.
Maple Leaf Gardens hosted what the papers called a speed test at the end of January, 1942. The Leafs had played Thursday and would be back on the ice in earnest Saturday, but on this Friday night the occasion was charitable, with 13,563 fans showing up in support of a memorial fun for the late Toronto sportsman Robert Ecclestone.
The evening’s entertainment featured a 20-minute scrimmage of (mostly) oldtimer Leafs.
The racing involved a puck-carrying contest with players flying to the start. There were seven of them, active NHLers from each team: Syl Apps (Toronto); Flash Hollett (Boston); Sid Abel (Detroit); Tommy Anderson (Brooklyn Americans); Lynn Patrick (New York); Max Bentley (Chicago); Jack Portland (Montreal).
They wore their uniforms but not all of their regular padding. The former Ottawa Senators’ star who presided at the finish-line did so under his current title: RCAF Squadron-Leader Punch Broadbent held the stopwatch.
Each man skated twice, initially. None of them broke 15 seconds in the first round, which also saw Hollett momentarily lose control of his puck and a fall by Abel. In the second heat, Apps and Patrick both blazed around at 14.8 seconds. In the tie-breaker, Patrick slowed to 15 seconds while Apps stuck to 14.8.
So that pleased the local fans. The ovation, The Globe and Mail testified, “has seldom been matched at any time.”
(Not everyone was so impressed. When The New York Post chimed in, it was to say that the event could hardly be considered “the last word” in speedsters, given that Chicago’s Doug Bentley and Milt Schmidt of Boston weren’t involved.)
What may be the original test of NHL speed came in 1926 when The Montreal Star offered a $200 prize to the fastest skater they could find. I can’t detail that year’s contest too finely, other than to report that Canadiens’ Howie Morenz and Babe Siebert from the Maroons each rounded the Forum ice in 17 seconds flat.
In 1927, The Star upped the prize money to $400. As far as I can tell, players from teams beyond Montreal took their tries at the record when they were in for games at the Forum. It was Morenz, all the same, who won again, rounding the rink (with a puck) in a time of 17.2 seconds.
A year later, the contest took on more of a profile when the final laps took place ahead of the final game of the Montreal Canadiens’ regular season.
The defending Stanley Cup champions from Ottawa were in town. The game itself ended as a 4-0 win for the home team, but it was a while before that got going. First up, there were trophies and gifts to dispense.
The former included the O’Brien Cup, awarded to the Canadiens as top team in the NHL’s Canadians Division, and the Vézina, which went for the second year of its young existence to Montreal goaltender George Hainsworth.
Hainsworth also received a large silver four-leaf clover for his efforts, while admirers of Canadiens’ winger Aurèle Joliat — I only wish I’d made this up — presented him with a black kitten on a string-leash.
As for the racing, from what I can piece together, several players had previously skated that year’s course in a time of 17 seconds, including Jimmy Ward and Russell Oatman of the Maroons along with Canadiens’ Gizzy Hart and (of course) Morenz.
Now, before the Forum crowd — and with no fewer than three distinguished citizens standing by with watches — Ottawa winger Hec Kilrea stepped up to try his best. That turned out to be pretty good: he finished his turn in 16.4 seconds. Two other Canadiens who tried to beat that clocking were Joliat and another winger, Wildor Larochelle, but they came in at 17 and 19 seconds respectively.
Morenz was going to give his legs one last go, too, and his name was announced over the Forum PA. The man from The Ottawa Citizen held on with the rest of them:
After a wait of a few minutes, he failed to appear. Unless they decide to run the contest over into the playoffs, which the representative of the newspaper responsible stated was unlikely, Kilrea is the winner is the winner of somewhat over four hundred simoleons for some 34 seconds work. The previous Saturday, Hec, skating wide at the turns, was only able to go the round in 17 3/5 seconds.
If that seems to have been the last of The Star-sponsored speed trials, there are a few others of interest to chronicle.
In February of 1928, Everett McGowan started on the fly, with a puck, and blazed around Madison Square Garden in New York in a time of 14 seconds. McGowan was a former champion speedskater from Minnesota who’d switched to hockey skates. While he didn’t make it to the NHL, he did play a handful of seasons with the Springfield Indians of the old Canadian-American Hockey League.
Howie Morenz was supposed to take on speedskaters in 1933 at a winter festival at Montreal’s baseball stadium. This was in February, and Morenz’s Canadiens were in the middle of their season, but that didn’t seem to faze anybody involved.
The idea was this: the amateur speedskaters would do their thing from a standing start, over a course of 220 yards — about 30 yards more than Morenz was used to, rounding hockey rinks).
Once they’d finished, Morenz, 30 now, would take his turn. It was said to be the first race of its kind, at least in Montreal. “Hockey players for the most part believe Morenz can hold his own with anybody at a furlong,” The Gazette noted.
I guess we’ll never know. On the day, the 7,500 fans who showed up in mild weather had to make do with displays of snowshoeing and broomball and skating by lesser mortals. The ice at Delorimier Stadium was deemed too rough for Morenz to skate. The Gazette:
It was feared the Canadien star would be injured if he attempted to unleash some of his speed. Morenz was introduced to the crowd, however, and was accorded a great reception.
I don’t have the winning times from the hockey-player races at another benefit show that took place on Forum ice in January of 1936. I do know that it was a busy card that night in support of Nels Crutchfield, a Canadiens rookie whose bright career had been ended when he suffered a serious skull fracture in an off-season car accident.
A crowd of 11,000 was on hand, raising some $7,000 for the Crutchfield cause.
Along with performances by figure skaters, there was a women’s game (Maroons defeating Canadiennes) and an exhibition featuring veterans of Montreal’s NHL teams that may or may not have gotten out of hand: when it ended, some 30 players were on the ice under a scoreboard that read Canadiens 97, Maroons 31.
A penalty-shot competition was contested by a host of active NHLers that included Toronto’s King Clancy and Red Horner along with Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy, Jean Pusie, and Armand Mondou.
There was a relay as well as an individual dash. The latter final saw Bob Gracie from the Maroons — “lightning-like,” The Gazette called him — outpacing Pusie.
The marquee event? For me, looking back, that has to be the battle of the goaltenders. It was a few days earlier, after the Maroons overcame the Canadiens 4-1, when the losing goaltender challenged the winner to a duel.
And so it happened, at the benefit, that Canadiens’ Wilf Cude lined up at the starting line to race Maroons’ Bill Beveridge around the ice. The two goaltenders were in full equipment, sticks and all. Cude opened up an early lead, but it wasn’t to be. He fell first, which meant that Beveridge won. Not that he ended so well, either: he only made it a half-lap farther than his rival before, The Gazette recounted, “he became tangled in his bulky pads and capsized.”