Descriptions of Odie Cleghorn from back when he was playing high-level hockey include relatively slow afoot, pudgy, and master showman. Phrases associated with his career, which saw him play ten NHL campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh’s long-gone Pirates, sometimes mention that no more gifted stickhandler ever graced the ice. He liked a short stick, and would nurse the puck close to his skates, I’ve learned. Also: he had a shift that was deception itself, as in a swerve.
Born on September 19 in 1891, James Albert Ogilvie Cleghorn debuted in Montreal to find an older brother already in the house. That was Sprague, of course, who’d become the better-known hockey player, as much for his skill and leadership (momentous) as for his brutality and propensity for injuring opponents (legendary). Sprague, who played defence, is in the Hall of Fame, and Odie, almost always a forward, probably should be.
The brothers broke into professional hockey together, signing with the Renfrew Creamery Kings of the old NHA in 1910, where they played with Steve Vair and Skene Ronan and — imagine it! — Cyclone Taylor.
The brothers were with Sammy Lichtenheim’s Montreal Wanderers in 1912 when the team met Canadiens in an exhibition game in Toronto, the very first professional game in that fair city, at the Arena on Mutual Street, just before Christmas. Wanderers won, 4-3, but that was the least of the news. Canadiens’ Newsy Lalonde seems to have been in a bad mood on the night. He was warned by the referee for charging Wanderers’ goaltender Bert Cadotte, and fined, too, for cross-checking. This before he collided with Odie Cleghorn and cut his mouth badly while also going down to the ice himself. He was lying there, Lalonde, “prostrate on the ice,” in The Globe’s account, when Sprague skated up and with “utmost deliberation, dealt Newsy a terrible blow on the head with his stick” causing a wound (“gaping”) that bled (“freely”).
Sprague was fined $25 and suspended and called to court in Toronto; Lalonde took on ten stitches, Odie three. In court, Sprague’s defence lawyer read a letter from Lalonde in which he said, “Sprague saw his brother fall and saw that he was bleeding and apparently lost control of himself when he saw his brother was injured. As far as I am concerned, I do not hold any hard feelings against Sprague for having struck me, and I do not desire him to be punished further.”
The judge in the case liked this. “I am glad to see that amity has been restored between you and Lalonde,” he told Sprague, who pleaded guilty to assault and paid a further $50 fine. His hockey suspension was lifted within days.
When Odie joined Canadiens, now in the NHL, in 1918, Lalonde was the coach; Sprague signed on a few years later. The brothers Cleghorn won a Stanley Cup with Canadiens in 1924, though Lalonde was gone by then. That was Odie’s only Cup; Sprague was in on three. In 1925, Odie, then 34, went to Pittsburgh to become the playing coach of the expansion Pirates, and he got them to the playoffs in his second season, though they didn’t really prosper there — anyway, he stayed on in Pittsburgh until 1929. It’s worth noting that in Pittsburgh in 1926 he actually started a game in goal when Roy Worters, sidelined with grippe, couldn’t manage it. Started and finished and won, beating his old team, Canadiens, with a line-up that featured Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat, by a score of 3-2.
Later, he signed himself up as an NHL referee. He seems to have been a good one, though that doesn’t mean that Eddie Shore didn’t shoot a puck at his back in utter disgust in 1936 over a goal Shore believed the Leafs hadn’t scored, and it didn’t keep a gaggle of Canadiens chasing him off the ice at the Forum to protest a penalty he’d called against them and then having to be rescued by another referee, Billy Bell, when the Canadiens started to shove. That was in 1935. After Odie put away his whistle, in the late 1930s, he was appointed manager of Montreal’s Mount Royal Golf Club.
In 1915, still playing for the Wanderers in the NHA, Odie was out on Montreal’s mountain one December afternoon just before the season opened, taking a long walk by way of getting himself into shape for the campaign ahead. There was a military band and a boy on a horse, the story goes, and when the band struck up, the horse bolted. The boy dropped the reins to cling to the saddle while the horse fled. Cleghorn was able to seize the bridle and drag the horse to a halt not far from a row of carriages. “Odie Cleghorn in Hero Role” was the headline in the papers a couple of days later. The boy, described as “small,” name not known, was reported to have fainted promptly upon rescue.