vegas knights and fake swordfights? in 1926, wolves overran madison square garden ice

Wolf Man: Gogama, Ontario’s Joe LaFlamme started with wolves, but in later years he was known for training moose and bears. Here, at some point during the 1950s, he’s seen with a bear cub headed for Britain. (Image: Canadian National Railways / Library and Archives Canada)

Before their players went out and beat the Capitals in a wild 6-4 game Monday night, the team put on its own show pregame, a Game of Thrones-esque ceremony. It included a narrator describing how the west was won, a golden knight on skates taking out a group of skaters with red capes representing the Capitals and even a catapult launching CGI cannon balls at the opponents.

“The Golden Knights army has vanquished the Kings, feasted on Sharks and grounded the Jets,” the narrator began, referring to the teams Vegas beat to get to the Stanley Cup finals. “Conquering enemies on land, sea and air, the West belongs to Vegas.”

• Greg Joyce, “Golden Knights’ PreGame Show Was Bizarre Start To Stanley Cup,” The New York Post, May 29, 2018

With all the bustle over the pre-game hokum that Vegas has been putting on ice ahead of this week’s Stanley Cup games, can I just say that when it comes to side-shows put on by infant NHL franchises, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I’d much rather have been on hand when the wolves overran Madison Square Garden in 1926.

Even better would have been to have somehow accompanied those wolves on their epic journey to the NHL. Is it possible that they mushed all the way from Northern Ontario to Manhattan that long-ago winter?

Just possible, though that part of the story does seem a little far-fetched.

Tex Rickard, garbed for New York Americans’ goaling, c. 1925.

What is beyond doubt is that the NHL’s original New York team, the Americans, launched a year before the Rangers joined the league. Staffed mostly by players from the defunct Hamilton Tigers, the Amerks were owned by Thomas Duggan and the bootlegger Bill Dwyer. They were tenants of Tex Rickard’s fancy new Madison Square Garden. Rickard would get a team of his own in the Rangers the following year, but during the 1925-26 he had to make do with serving as landlord and “honorary president” of the Americans. He was the one, from what I can tell, who arranged for the appearance by Joe LaFlamme and his menagerie one Saturday night midway through the season.

LaFlamme is a fascinating figure; Suzanne Charron’s 2013 biography Wolf Man Joe LaFlamme: Tamer Untamed tells the tale of his long career in bootlegging, trapping, showmanship, conservation, wrestling, and zookeeping with verve.

Born Télesphore Laflamme in St. Télesphore, Quebec, in 1889, he became Joe during the First World War in an effort to avoid conscription. He succeeded, and kept the name. After a move to Gogama, Ontario, 191 kilometres north of Sudbury, he raised huskies for dog-sledding and made his name brewing illicit liquor. By 1923, he was trapping wolves and training them to sled.

It was during the winter of 1925 that he gained big-city celebrity when The Toronto Starmade the Wolf Man a centerpiece of its winter carnival. LaFlamme brought a team of 13 wolves and huskies by train to the city’s streets in aid of The Star’s desire “to give Toronto citizens the privilege of seeing this unique outfit from the northern woods.” Their itinerary included parading up University Avenue at a speed of 16 kilometres-an-hour, and a tour of the Danforth. Thousands turned out to visit them over the course of the week in a “bush camp” set up in High Park.

LaFlamme’s Manhattan adventure a year later wasn’t quite on the same scale. In this case, LaFlamme, then 36, had in harness to his sleigh a team of eight huskies, a mixed-breed wolf, and four actual timber wolves. Suzanne Charron doubts that LaFlamme drove them all 1,300 kilometres from Gogama to New York, though was the story that the local press went with at the time, including The New York Times (who also mentioned “a seven-dog team). LaFlamme and friends did steer down Broadway on the morning of Saturday, January 23, 1926, and they may well have stopped at City Hall to greet Mayor Jimmy Walker.

The New York Americans were no Vegas Golden Knights in their first year in the NHL, but they were respectable. In late January, they were sitting fifth in the league’s standings. That put them ahead of Toronto and Boston if not the other team making its debut that year, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were in third.

It was the Bruins who were visiting the night of January 23, and in front of a crowd of 10,000, they battled the Americans to a 2-2 impasse that overtime couldn’t resolve. Billy Burch and Shorty Green scored the New York goals, while Boston got theirs from Carson Cooper and Sprague Cleghorn. Worth a mention, too, maybe: both Green and his New York teammate Charlie Langlois were knocked unconscious during the game. “Sturdy souls, these boys, a local paper appraised. “A dash of water and a little persuasion and they were on their feet again.”

Joe LaFlamme dropped a ceremonial puck to start the evening’s entertainment, possibly. His command performance came in the first intermission, when he and his team (a reported seven dogs and four wolves) took their turns around the ice. It doesn’t sound like it was easy. According to the Times, “the timber wolves and dogs from the frigid North acted as if they knew they were far from home.”

The New York Daily News said he “attempted to persuade his dog team to obey his commands on the slick ice of the Garden rink.” In response, New Yorkers watching them go were “typically critical.” As the Daily News saw it, “the diet didn’t appeal.”

LaFlamme, on his sledge, shouted in strident tones: “Mush! Mush! Mush!”

The new Garden populace was quick with: “Cheese! Cheese!”

But LaFlamme tried.

The northerners were back two nights later when the Americans hosted Montreal’s Maroons. This game also ended in a fruitless overtime; 1-1 was the score. Nels Stewart scored for the visitors, with Eddie Bouchard replying for New York. Montreal’s Reg Noble was the casualty of the night, knocked out (as noted by The Times) when a shot of Bouchard’s caught him in the stomach. He revived and played on, it seems, though “it required considerable ammonia to bring him around.”

Joe LaFlamme had his struggles, again, in the first intermission. His animals, said The Times were unruly, making “it very plain that they do not care for New York. Joe gave his dogs a lot of orders, but they went in one ear and out the other.”