down and out with tiny thompson

Bobby Bauer shot the puck, backhanded, and Tiny Thompson stopped it, with his eyebrow.

Without that errant puck, hoisted by a teammate, and the damage it caused (that’s it, above), who knows how the fortunes of the Boston Bruins might have turned out in 1938? If he’d stayed intact, Tiny Thompson might have kept the Boston net, as planned, rather than ceding it to young Frank Brimsek. Of course, if that had happened, would the Bruins have gone to win the Stanley Cup the following spring?

This is a story that doesn’t answer that question, because it can’t. All it really aims to navigate is what happened to Tiny Thompson, who was born this week in 1903 in Sandon, British Columbia, in the first weeks of the 1938-39 NHL season. Also? How his circumstances coincided — collided? — with those of another distinguished goaltender, Normie Smith, who decided, in the end, that maybe he didn’t want to be a goaltender after all.

At the end of October that year, with the new season was a week away, Art Ross’ Boston Bruins were preparing for the campaign ahead as the consensus favourites to win the Stanley Cup. They’d come close in the spring, but not close enough, losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoff semi-finals. Chicago had taken the Stanley Cup.

Manager Ross hadn’t had to do much in the way of reloading. The veterans of his line-up included captain Cooney Weiland and defencemen Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore, and the young forwards of the Sauerkraut line were back, Bauer, Milt Schmidt, and Woody Dumart.

In goal, Thompson, who was 35, had been defending the Bruin net for ten years. He was up at the top of his game, having just won his fourth Vézina Trophy, the only goaltender in NHL history at that point to have won so many. Asked that very fall to name a team of the best NHLers he’d ever seen, New York Americans’ manager Red Dutton chose Thompson as his goaltender — the only active player in an elective line-up that included forwards Bill Cook, Dick Irvin, and Aurèle Joliat along with defencemen Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn.

Other Thompson claims to fame: he was the first NHL goaltender to have been pulled for an extra attacker (in 1931) as well as the pullee of record (probably) when the trick actually work out for the first time and a goal was scored (in 1937).

Back to 1938. For all the veterans in his line-up, Ross wasin the renewal business, as hockey managers have to be. He liked what he was seeing from young forwards Mel Hill, Pat McReavy, and Roy Conacher. Towards the end of training camp, he also acquired right winger Harry Frost, who’d led the U.S. amateur champion Hershey Bears in scoring a year earlier.

In goal, Ross had Frank Brimsek standing by. Just turning 23, he’d been serving his apprenticeship in the Internal-American Hockey League. Now he seemed ready enough for the big stage to spark a rumour that Ross was going to trade Thompson to Toronto in exchange for defenceman Red Horner. Ross did no such thing: with the season approaching, he made clear that Thompson would be the Bruins’ first-choice backstop, with Brimsek minding the nets for the IAHL Providence Reds, while also spelling off Thompson through the season. The writing that seemed to be on the wall still seemed to be off in the distance: as The Pittsburgh Press reported it, just before the season got underway “Ross believes Brimsek will have Thompson’s job in the Bruin cage in another year.”

He barely had to wait a month, as it turned out — and that Bobby Bauer backhand was the start of it.

The Bruins were finishing up two weeks of preparation in Hershey, in Pennsylvania, as October drew to its end. From there they travelled to Pittsburgh for an exhibition game against the (Larry Aurie-coached) Hornets of the International-American League. Art Ross was feeling good, declaring that the Bruins had enjoyed “the best training season in history.”

“If we can just get past Pittsburgh without any mishaps,” he said, “Boston fans are going to see a Bruins team in the best shape it has ever been [sic] at this time of year.”

“We must have set some sort of record for this training season,” he went — making a point of knocking wood as he did so. “We didn’t have a single injury. Not a player missed a single practice session, and the results are apparent in the way the boys are flying. From Eddie Shore down to our new kids, every one of them is ready to go.”

The Bruins won in Pittsburgh, and handily, 8-2. Roy Conacher collected a hat trick and Milt Schmidt scored two of his own. That was the Saturday. Sunday they arrived back in Boston for a final exhibition game, this one at the Boston Garden against the amateur Boston Olympics.

The Bruins prevailed by a score of 7-2, with Porky Dumart collecting a hat trick. The coach’s son, 21-year-old Art Ross Jr., was vying for a place on the Olympics’ roster and he took the net for the third period, but that doesn’t appear to have fazed his father’s employees — Dumart put two by him and Jack Portland added another.

At the other end of the rink, Tiny Thompson came through okay — it was after the game that he was wounded. The Bruins stayed on the ice to scrimmage and that’s when the goaltender, sprawled on the ice, stopped Bobby Bauer’s backhand with his starboard eyebrow.

Bruins’ physician Dr. Marty Crotty sewed five stitches. His opinion? He didn’t think it would keep Thompson out of the season opener, Thursday in Toronto. “As a precaution, though,” Herb Ralby wrote in the morning-after Boston Daily Globe, “the Bruins will hold on to Frankie Brimsek.”

Monday: Thompson insisted on practicing with the team, though the eye was swollen almost shut. “Tiny may be ready to play by Thursday night,” Ross was saying, “but we won’t take the slightest chance of his hurting it again.” Brimsek wasn’t needed in Providence before the weekend. “So he may as well come along with us.”

Also going to Toronto would be Bruins’ new “Baby Line,” featuring Conacher, McReavy, and Hill. “There’s only one way to put the kids to the test,” said Ross, “and that’s out on the ice.”

Not wanted on the voyage — or at least not getting on the train at Boston’s South Station — was Eddie Shore. Having started training camp, Shore now stopped to make the point that he wasn’t satisfied with what the Bruins were paying him. A couple of years earlier, he’d been the NHL’s highest-paid player, making a reported $10,000 a year. Injured and not so effective, he’d taken a cut in pay the year before — possibly as much as $4,000. Now he wanted his old salary back — and refused to sign his contract until he got it.

So Art Ross called up Jack Crawford to take his place in Toronto.

Born and raised in Eveleth, Minnesota, Frank Brimsek had never yet played a game in Canada. He’d only ever travelled north of the border once before. Thursday night , Ross started him in net as the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Brimsek kept the net for the Bruins’ next game, in Detroit, and he was superb in Boston’s 4-1 win there in which Normie Smith guarded the Red Wing goal, bravely but in vain.

Thompson played his first game in New York, which ended with the Bruins losing to the Americans. Nothing to panic about, of course, though the first goal was one that Thompson, as they say, would have liked to have had back. Napping was a word that appeared in The Boston Daily Globe’s account of what Thompson may have been doing when Lorne Carr sent the puck at him from out by the blueline — “a slow, knee-high shot that found a place in the corner of the net.”

Thompson redeemed himself next a game in a 1-1 overtime tie in the Bruins’ home opener against Toronto, which he preserved with what the Globe called “one of the most remarkable stops of his long career.” Eddie Shore was a spectator. Unable to make any headway with their star, Bruins’ management had put the matter in NHL President Frank Calder’s hands, but Shore still wasn’t signed.

With Thompson seeming to have claimed back his net, Boston beat Detroit and their new goaltender, Harvey Teno, 4-1. Thompson then beat the New York Rangers 4-2. With just a single loss in seven games, the Bruins seemed to be rolling, even without Shore in the fold. The fans hadn’t forgotten him: even as the Bruins piled up the wins, they were chanting his name.

Tiny Thompson was in goal again when Boston beat the New York Americans, 8-2. That was a Thursday, the last week of November. It was Thompson’s last game as a Bruin. By Monday, he’d been sold to Detroit, where the Red Wings had been living through a goaltending drama of their own. Normie Smith was their mainstay, had been for three years, during which he’d won a Vézina Trophy while helping his team win two Stanley Cups.

For all that past glory, the 1938 season had begun badly: the Red Wings lost their first four games. The Rangers were responsible for the last of those, in New York. Later that same night, Smith failed to return to his room at the Piccadilly Hotel and in the morning, when his teammates caught the train for Montreal, Smith missed that.

Adams fined him $150 and announced that he was calling up 24-year-old Harvey Teno from the IAHL Hornets. This was the first fine imposed on a Red Wing in years, Doc Holst of The Detroit Free Press explained:

Since 1935 Adams has had a strict rule on the club forbidding even one glass of beer. There is a $50 fine for its violation. The club now is the only one in the league that forbids players beer after hockey games. Serious trouble experienced by Adams players in the old days brought about the strict rule.

Not that he was suggesting anything in particular regarding Normie Smith: he, Holst insisted, had a reputation for “strict sobriety.”

Smith made it to Montreal in time to play. He explained that he’d been staying with friends on Staten Island and had simply overslept. Adams heard him out, but gave Teno the start. Smith watched from the stands as the Red Wings won 7-1. That made it easier, I suppose, for Adams to decide that he was sending to Smith to Pittsburgh to punish his peccadillos.

So Teno played in Boston, facing Tiny Thompson and Eddie Shore, too: he was back on defence after having agreed to what was reported to be a $12,000 contract. Returned to his perch as the NHL’s best-paid player, he sparked the Bruins to a 4-1 win. Thompson also starred.

That didn’t dampen the rumours. One of them reached Montreal’s Gazette, who had it that with (i) Brimsek’s ascendance and (ii) the fact that Thompson didn’t get along with Eddie Shore, Art Ross was (a) about to accept Jack Adams’ offer of $15,000 cash for Thompson, unless he (b) already had.

He hadn’t, though. Word from Boston was that fans were outraged at the notion of losing Thompson, and several sportswriters added their doubts to the debate.

The lobbying seems to have registered with Art Ross, if only up to a point. As Doc Holst told it, Ross had turned Adams down four times before changing his mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of Monday, November 28. With Eddie Shore’s new contract to pay for, Ross told Adams he’d take his $15,000, along with either Normie Smith or IAHL Pittsburgh goaltender Jimmy Franks.

“We regret that we were forced to dispose of Tiny,” Ross told reporters later on that morning. He was soon quelling an insurrection within his remaining roster. “First they took Marty Barry,” defenceman Dit Clapper was quoted as saying, “and now it’s Tiny. Well, I’m going to ask Art Ross to sell me, and I don’t care where I go.”

Clapper stayed, in the end. As for Thompson, Ross gave him a $1,000 “bonus” as he prepared to leave town. The goaltender was pleased, too, to be headed for a new opportunity, he said. “I should last a few more years there than I would in Boston.”

Boston had no choice but to cull their crowded crease, Jack Adams said. Brimsek, he felt, would be ensconced there now for 14 years. “Thompson,” he said, “should be good for five more years.”

It was a stint that Thompson started well, notching a 4-1 win with Detroit over the Stanley-Cup-champion Black Hawks. “Thompson,” went the Detroit Free Pressdispatch from Chicago, “did everything with grace and ease and directed the defence as calmly and coolly as though he had been in the Detroit nets his entire career.”

As for Normie Smith, he’d played a single penitent game with Pittsburgh for Larry Aurie’s Hornets, a 5-0 loss away to the Hershey Bears. The Pittsburgh Press reported “a most amusing goal” that got by him:

Normie Smith had stopped Wally Kilrea’s shot at the goal mouth, and feeling that he had cleared sufficiently, he paid no more attention, leaning against his goal net and chewing gum. Sammy McManus, sparkplug of the Hershey Bears, coming up halfway between the face-off spot and the crease, flicked the puck in for Hershey’s fourth goal. The crowd laughed for more than half a minute.

That can’t have helped Smith’s mood, much less his confidence. That had been suffering for a while, according to Doc Holst. The Red Wings had had a rough 1937-38 season and with the poor start to the new season, the fans in Detroit had been booing the goaltender. “Smith, normally good natured and philosophical,” Holst noted, “has taken the criticism as the natural course of events until recently, when it was observed that it had begun to more than just get under his skin.”

After the Hershey loss, Smith returned to Detroit, where he and Teno both practiced with the team ahead of the Red Wings’ Thanksgiving game against Chicago. With Teno playing so well, Adams said, it was hard not to stick with him. Smith, he decided, would head back to Pittsburgh for at least one more game.

But Smith wasn’t having any of it. “I won’t play minor-league hockey,” he said. “I am either good enough to play for the Red Wings or not at all. I told Jack at the start of the season that when I had to play minor-league hockey, I was through. And I am. Detroit is my home and my living is here and I intend to stay.”

And so, aged 30, Normie Smith called it quits. He had a job — “a responsible position,” the Free Presssaid — at the Ford Motor Company, and so he dedicated himself to that. “I intend to keep in shape and if Jack ever needs me to play in the nets in an emergency, I will play. I want to be a Red Wing or nothing.”

He remained unmoved a few days later when he heard that he may have been traded to Boston. He wanted no part of them, either.

“I can’t make him go if he doesn’t want to,” Adams said. Jimmy Franks doesn’t seem to have made it to Boston, either — in the end, as far as I can determine, it was a straight cash deal.

Regarding the longevity of Adams’ new goaltender, his forecast was a little off. Thompson played just two seasons with Detroit before he was supplanted by Johnny Mowers. He left to coach the AHL Buffalo Bisons.

As for Brimsek, he began his Boston career by backstopping the Bruins to the 1938-39 Stanley Cup. He lasted five years with the team before signing up to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard for the duration. After the war, he returned for four more Bruin seasons before a final one in Chicago in 1949-50.

Normie Smith did make it back to the Red Wing net, eventually. After four years out of the NHL, he returned to the only team he ever wanted to play for, appearing in six games over two seasons from 1943 through 1945.

 

(Top 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.)