Every year it declares itself, as November ebbs away, sure as U.S. Thanksgiving, and this year was no different.
If you’re on Twitter and you have a taste for hockey history, then it may be that on Friday last, amid the day’s holiday leftovers, you saw a reference to the Legend of Eddie Shore’s Five Fighting Majors (An NHL Record). Maybe you also took in some of the replies and comments that attended the observance of the supposed anniversary: many of them, if you missed out, contained lusty endorsements of old-time hockey and its glorious bygone bad-assery.
The focus of all this is a game that the Boston Bruins played on November 23, 1929 against the Montreal Maroons at the old Forum. Although Shore didn’t, that night, accrue five majors or drop his gloves to fight five separate opponents, this was an exceedingly violent game. If it’s worth studying, it may be as an exemplar of the NHL’s troubling tendency (a big one in the 1920s) to veer into violence above and beyond the business-as-usual shoving and punching and grievous hacking and swinging of sticks that the league and its fans were more or less used to. It might have offered a chance for professional hockey to look itself in the eye and think about effecting real change. Instead, the NHL followed in a tradition it holds dear, one that’s still cherished to this day: it did nothing.
What’s not in doubt, looking back at what happened that night 89 years ago — well, several things. The game — and in particular, the third period — was vicious. Whether the malice was aforethought or of the moment, the Maroons do seem to have been intent on forcing Shore from the ice in the direction of a hospital. It’s true, too, that the referees charged with keeping the peace and reproving those who disturbed it failed in their work.
Veteran Maroons’ defenceman Buck Boucher later said it was the roughest game he’d ever played in. Fist-fighting doesn’t seem to have featured in the mayhem, so far as the written record shows. Mostly, the antagonists appear to have held onto their sticks and used them to do the damage they meant to do. Montreal trainer Bill O’Brien had been handling hockey teams for 27 years — as long as Eddie Shore had been alive at that point— and he said that never had he seen players so battered by butt-ends as on this November night.
So far as records being set? Shore took three minor penalties on the night, but didn’t incur one fighting major, let alone five. Indeed, for all the game’s turmoil, referees George Mallinson and Leo Heffernan assessed not a single major that night.
A visit to the NHL’s archive of historical game data at NHL.com confirms that (here). A review of contemporary newspaper accounts — what men who were at the game wrote and published in its immediate aftermath — doesn’t support the idea that’s so dear to the hearts of hockey-fight enthusiasts, viz. that Eddie Shore fought — i.e. dropped the gloves + exchanged punches with, or used sticks to fence against — five different Maroons on the night, thereby setting some kind of shining standard of bellicose derring-do.
Eddie Shore was many things as a hockey player. He was only in his fourth season with the Bruins in 1929, but already it was clear that he was a superstar, one of the NHL’s first. His talents, I guess, had limits, but those were far beyond most of his contemporaries. He also had a temper and a lack of fear that all these years later strike you at times — well, me — as almost monstrous. Reading about his exploits on the ice in the 1920s and ’30s conjures the image of a swiftly skating mean streak. All of which is to say that when it comes to hockey’s violent side, Shore was usually front and centre. “He is 185 pounds of rather husky bone, muscle and sinew,” wrote Ralph Clifford in The Boston Traveler, “and is willing to trade bumps, legal and illegal, with anyone on skates.”
He was, in a word, game. Maybe that qualifies the events we’re talking about here, but it doesn’t really explain them. “It was a whole clan against one man,” Le Canada reported, “and that’s what made the whole affair revolting. It was obvious that it was no longer hockey but a program to get rid of Shore.”
Shore’s injuries were widely reported: along with various facial cuts and what La Pressecalled “painful but non-serious bruises,” he suffered (from the Gazette) “a broken nose, the loss of four teeth that had been originally on a bridge, and a slight concussion.”
Also injured in the game were two of the other leading men: Babe Siebert, playing wing for Maroons, ended up with a broken toe, a bruised rib, and a blackened eye (swollen “just about closed”). Montreal’s Dave Trottier also came away in some distress, which the Montreal Gazette later specified with this (possibly non-clinical) diagnosis: a butt-end administered by Shore “shoved a bone in on his lungs which resulted in the Maroon winger having a hemorrhage after the game. Trottier was still spitting up blood yesterday.”
Boston captain Lionel Hitchman took a stick to the head in the first period, resulting in a cut near an eye. All but unremarked amid the uproar surrounding Shore is the possibility that both goaltenders — Boston’s Tiny Thompson and Clint Benedict of Montreal — suffered concussions during the game. Both men, of course, continued on after their brief respective respites, because that’s what you did as an NHL goaltender in 1929, until you no longer could.
The two teams did have a busy history of enmity. A mean-spirited game in January of 1928, for example, featured Boston defenceman Sprague Cleghorn butt-ending Maroons’ forward Hooley Smith (no penalty was called). Shore and Siebert feuded the night away, too: by the Montreal Gazette’s telling, one of their clashes in the third period saw Siebert apply stick and glove to Shore’s face. “Referee [Dr. Eddie] O’Leary waved Siebert off for a minor. Shore went to the ice as if badly injured. Referee-in-Chief Cooper Smeaton, who officiated when Alex Romeril was held up by a late train, took command and booted Siebert’s penalty to a major. Shore got up and continued in the play.”
NHL President Frank Calder had already suspended Siebert once that season, ten days for attacking Billy Boucher of the New York Americans with his stick; now, having incurred his third major of the season, Siebert faced a further one-game suspension for (as wire report put it) “belting Shore across the face with the flat of his stick.”
Another Bruins-Maroons meeting in February of 1929 was noteworthy (said the Gazette) for cross-checks, butt-ends, and “indifferent” refereeing. Hooley Smith served two minors, Shore four. Shore was Smith’s “old pet aversion,” said The Ottawa Journal; The Canadian Press recounted that the two of men were involved in “a private feud” all game. “In fact, Shore, reputed to be one of the most brilliant hockeyists in the game today, was a marked man throughout, and Smith was not the only Maroon player that paid special attention to the big fellow.”
The Gazette did on this occasion log Shore’s habit for playing “possum every chance he got.” Sometimes it helped his cause, but not always. “It looked pretty bad when the referees didn’t fall for his little spasms of emotional acting.”
The season was still young when the Bruins travelled to Montreal towards the end of November of 1929. The defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston had won all three of their games to begin the campaign, while the Maroons had a record of 2-2. Art Ross’ roster, coming into Montreal, was a diminished one, with Harry Oliver laid low with the grippe and George Owen left behind in Boston: a former Harvard University football star, he had a gig writing up his old team’s big game with Yale for the Boston Globe. So it was with just two defencemen that Boston lined up at the Forum, meaning Shore and Lionel Hitchman played every minute — save those, of course, when they were sitting on the penalty bench or lying bleeding in the dressing room, about to depart for the hospital.
Contemporary newspaper accounts don’t illuminate the game in anything approaching complete its colour and detail, but they’re what we have to guide us. My review of what did and didn’t happen relies on accounts from six main Montreal newspapers: the English-language Gazette and Herald as well as, in French, Le Canada, La Presse, La Patrie, and Le Devoir. These are fairly substantial reports, if not exactly consistent. Three of these were bylined: the Herald (Baz O’Meara), La Patrie (Horace Lavigne), and Le Devoir (X.E. Narbonne).
The Boston papers I’ve examined include issues of The Boston Traveler,The Evening Transcript, and The Daily Boston Globe, none of which seems to have had a correspondent of their own in Montreal at the Forum. The Globe, for example, relied on an Associated Press account of the action. Other prominent Canadian papers (Ottawa’s Citizen and Journal; the Toronto Globe and Star) ran short wire reports from the Canadian Press.Beyond those, you’ll find that accounts appearing in farther flung newspapers keep it short and distilled. Précised in Monday’s Winnipeg Tribune, the game that Manitobans read about was merely “thrilling” and “hard-hitting.”
For two periods, the teams battled (as the Gazette told it) like bulldogs, at lightning speed. That Boston won the game 4-3 was the least of the news when it was all over. “As hectic a struggle as Forum ice has witnessed in many a moon,” was the word from Montreal’s Gazette next day, under this vivid subhead:
Contest Stopped in Third
Period While Blood Is
Scraped From Ice.
Most of the havoc occurred in the third period. But most of the penalties — six of the game’s 12 minors — were handed out in the second. The NHL’s database is not so helpful that it names the infractions involved, and newspaper summaries aren’t any help either. One of the French-language chronicles helps out somewhat on this count. Shore’s two second-period penalties were called, respectively, when he “brought down” right winger Merlyn Phillips and then Hooley Smith. In the third: “Shore shoved Trottier and was banished.”
Was this last penalty roughing, maybe, or interference? I can’t say. The French verb used here is an excellent one, bousculer. What seems clear is that Shore’s third-period bousculade followed some that both Smith and Trottier visited on him without being penalized.
Smith was first. Here, translated, is how Le Canada saw that exchange:
Smith knocked over Shore and gave him a cross-check. He escaped without punishment. Art Ross tried to pull him back but he insisted on continuing. He was all bloody. Smith charged Shore again and again withdrew without punishment.
Cut though he was, Shore carried on. “His injuries,” Le Canada was convinced at this point, “were insignificant.”
Trottier came at him next. Le Canada describes “a strong cross-check” that wounded Shore above the eye.
La Patrie’s version of this:
Towards the middle of the third period, Trottier planted his stick in Shore’s face, cutting him deeply over the eye. It took a minute for the referees to stop the game, and Shore’s face was dripping with blood.
La Presse saw this intervention as somewhat more forceful. Near Montreal’s net, Trottier struck Shore “with a blow of the stick that would have felled an ox.”
This heinous assault was carried out under the eyes of referee Leo Heffernan and he did not even make a comment to the attacker. It is hard to believe that the blow was accidentally struck.
Along with these individual attacks, Smith and Trottier may also to have teamed up for more Shore-mauling. Baz O’Meara of The Montreal Star saw this:
Smith and Trottier sandwiched Shore and gave him plenty of butt end. He was sent reeling and was groggy when he came up. He was taken out by Art Ross and blood was streaming from his eyes as he went to the side for repairs.
The correspondent from La Presse couldn’t understand why Boston’s marquee defenceman remained in the game. “From the reporters’ gallery,” he wrote, “as from any prominent spot in the rink, you could see that Shore was barely standing on his legs.” Others noted that Ross’ efforts to pull Shore from the game were met by the defenceman’s refusal to withdraw.
It was almost over — so close. Under the heading “Siebert’s Villainous Act,” La Patrie told of the game’s furious finale. With a minute to play, down by a goal, “the Maroons were making unheard of efforts to equal the score.” There’s a lively shifting of tenses here on the page, past to present, present back to past:
Shore is everywhere, multiplying himself to stop his opponents. Suddenly, Siebert goes up the centre of the ice and Shore goes to meet him and blocks him. For an answer, Siebert raises his stick and hits Shore on the nose. The Bruins’ defense player bleeds in abundance, and even falls on the ice. The blow was struck under Mallinson’s gaze, five feet from him, and the least that the culprit should have had was a major punishment. But then the game was stopped several seconds later, when it was apparent that Shore was not getting up again. When he was helped to his feet, a pool of blood marked the ice, and it had to be scraped to remove it.
That’s the lengthiest of the accounts I’ve looked at describing the incident that ended the night. Others feature what seems to be conflicting information — did Shore make it off the ice on his own or was he borne? These include:
• La Presse’s, wherein Siebert “pitilessly” cross-checked Shore’s nose. “The victim collapsed to the ice in a pool of blood and his teammates then carried him to their dressing room.”
• Le Canada: “There was a melee and Shore was seriously injured. Siebert gave him a cross-check to his face. The game ended a few seconds later.”
• Le Devoir: “Siebert was especially distinguished by his wild action in the final minutes of the game as he deliberately attacked Eddie Shore, applying a cross-check full in the face with the result that the defence player’s nose was broken and he lost a large amount of blood.”
• The Gazette says only that “Shore was cut down and so beaten that he lay prone on the ice.” (An accompanying aside asserts that Shore had, earlier in the game, gone unpunished when he “smack[ed] Siebert over the Adam’s apple when he lay prone on the ice behind the Boston cage.”)
• The Montreal Star: “Then in the final couple of minutes of the third period, Shore was victim to a high stick and was knocked down again. Siebert delivered the wallop. Shore was given a great hand as he went over to get attention. The ice was smeared with blood. He had another bad cut over his eyes. Siebert escaped without a penalty.”
• The Boston Globe’s AP report leaves it at “Siebert checked Shore heavily and the Bruin defense man was assisted off the ice by his teammates, leaving the ice stained with blood where he fell.”
While the hockey players travelled, the newspapermen prepared their columns for Monday morning’s editions. For Shore, the local papers had praise and commiseration: “the courageous athlete,” they called him, “brave” and “intrepid,” “a fortress in front of [Tiny] Thompson,” even “poor Shore.”
But this was mostly secondary: they had blame to lay. Montreal’s French-language press was particularly scathing when it came to calling out those deemed responsible for what La Pressecalled the “revolting butchery” and a “slaughter.” Le Canada’s writer was likewise sickened: he’d seen many “regrettable scenes” in the 20 years he’d been watching hockey, but none that surpassed what he’d viewed on this night.
A plurality of fans leaving the Forum were, from what X.E. Narbonne of Le Devoir could tell, “disgusted” with the “treacherous, anti-sporting, and repugnant tactics” practiced by members of the team they supported. Several spectators were reported to have sought out Boston coach Art Ross after the game to volunteer to testify about the attacks on Shore, if witnesses were needed for prosecutions. A pair of Boston city councillors who happened to be attending the game also stepped up to offer testimony on Shore’s behalf.
The papers reserved most of their disgust for referees Mallinson and Heffernan for allowing the violence to escalate. La Presse spoke of their “unspeakable indifference.” Ralph Clifford of The Boston Traveler described how, usually, two capable referees would split the work on the ice, with one man watching the puck and the other the players. “In this case,” he declared, “both must have been watching the puck, for Shore did not have the puck at any time that he was slashed or butted.”
“As the duel developed and personal feuds kindled into flame,” the Gazette would say, “practically everything went, including cross checking and open butt ends in opponents’ eyes, yet no penalties were given.”
“Both clubs agree,” Clifford offered, “that had officials been prompt in putting down the high sticks and other cute little innuendoes which virile hockey players sometimes inject into a red hot game, that no injury would have been done to any player.”
NHL supremo Frank Calder deserved some scorn, too — the man paid $12,500 to run the NHL certainly had to answer, La Presse said, for “culpable negligence” in appointing such terrible referees.
The papers didn’t spare the Maroons: La Patrie decried Trottier’s and Siebert’s “brainless” behaviour, La Presse their “wild acts of savagery.” The latter delineated the dishonour and shame they’d brought down on themselves and their team. There was much speculation regarding how long Siebert would be suspended, and whether it might be for life. Trottier deserved some kind of sentence, too, probably. Both men would, La Presse said, have ample opportunity while they sat out to “meditate on their inhumane acts.”
Also brutal (“to a lesser degree, certainly”): Nels Stewart, Red Dutton, Merlyn Phillips, and Hooley Smith.
Ross was livid. I’ve seen reference to a heated radio interview he gave when he got back to Boston, but I don’t know what he said there. Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam quotes his outrage without sourcing it: “The hockey displayed by the Maroons was a crime. It was brutal. Eddie Shore was knocked out four times.” As in unconscious? I don’t think that’s his meaning here: a Boston Globe write-up about Ross’ ire doesn’t quote him directly but says that it stemmed from “the fact that Shore was hurt four times and that he finally had to be carried from the ice.”
Ross made his report to Bruins’ owner and president Charles F. Adams, who duly submitted a formal protest to Frank Calder specifically citing Babe Siebert’s conduct. There was some urgency to the matter: the two teams were due to meet again on Tuesday, November 26, just three days after the hurly-burly at the Forum.
As for the Maroons, it should be noted that the Montrealers had their own narrative of what happened at the Forum. Here’s Ralph Clifford in November 26’s Boston Traveler:
The Maroons are peeved at being called vicious, or perpetrators of frightfulness. They declare that they are as much sinned against as sinning and that if certain of the Bruins were hurt it is because they were beaten to the punch. To a man they indignantly deny that there was any attempt to “get” Shore or any other member of the Bruins and whatever Shore or any other player got was merely what he was attempting to hand out to the Maroon players.
Would Siebert play? What about Smith and Trottier? All three did, in fact, line up for the Boston re-match, tender lungs and all. Frank Calder decided against suspending Siebert: as he explained it to Adams, “statements of the Shore-Siebert clash were so highly contradictory that the Montreal player was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.”
Eddie Shore hoped to skate in the rematch. He was home all day Monday, under the care of Bruins’ physician Dr. Martin Crotty. Shore wasn’t talking, but The Evening Transcript reported Tuesday morning that he was ready to go. “The only drawback out of his injuries is that the broken nose impairs his breathing.” If he did skate, it would be with a football helmet (“equipped with a nose protection”) borrowed from the Harvard University team.
Ralph Clifford noted Shore’s silence in Tuesday’s Traveler:
He has not uttered a single chirp about last Saturday’s game. He won’t even admit that he played. Surely the player who took such a beating as he got and won’t squawk to offer the tiniest alibi or make any statement is deserving of admiration. There are not many in the game who would let an opportunity like this go by without making a bid for sympathy, but the Edmonton Express is as mum as the Sphinx over the whole matter.
In the event, Shore only made it as far as the stands at Boston Garden, watching from a box with his wife, Kate, as the teams took the ice. George Owen took his place on defence. Anticipating that the 15,000 home fans on hand might try to take revenge on the Maroons in Shore’s name, the Bruins brought in extra police to keep the peace. As for Shore’s teammates, A. Linde Fowler reported in The Evening Transcript that Adams and Ross would “send their players on the ice with strict orders to play straight legitimate hockey, with no attempts at retaliation for what happened in Montreal.”
There was a local view, too, that the visitors weren’t to be feared. “When playing away from the Forum,” Fowler reflected, “the Maroons do not put on their rough stuff. In fact, they are about as meek an outfit as there is in the NHL while playing abroad.”
Just in case, Calder assigned head NHL referee Cooper Smeaton to work the game alongside George Mallinson. Smeaton started the night by assembling the teams at centre-ice to (the Globe) “read the riot act amid the hoots and jeers of the capacity crowd.” Whatever fireworks were expected, this second Maroons-Bruins summit “was devoid of real rough work.” Babe Siebert was booed, and “came in for much razzing,” but “attended to his knitting,” contributing an assist on Nels Stewart’s first-period goal.
The thermometer in the Garden didn’t help the home team, the Globe reported: the heat in the rink was “almost depressing,” and may have contributed to the Bruins’ lethargy. When it was over, Boston had lost its first game of the young season by a score of 6-1.
They righted themselves four days later in Pittsburgh. With Shore back in the line-up and scoring a goal, the Bruins beat the Pirates 6-2 .
The other news of the week was that Bruins’ president Charles F. Adams presented his hardy defenceman with a cheque for $500. This much-reported gift was said to be based on an admiring calculation of “$100 for each scar received,” according to Boston’s Globe. In an accompanying letter, Adams “spoke of the untiring efforts and high sportsmanship of the star since he joined the Bruins.”
Shore promptly cashed the cheque and shared the money among his teammates, “believing that every one of them was subjected to the same treatment” he’d suffered.
That’s almost all. In Boston if not anywhere else speculation lingered that the league might yet take action against Babe Siebert and/or make change rules to check the violence that seemed to be on the rise — or perhaps just look into improving the quality of the referees. The league’s Board of Governors met in Chicago in December of 1929 and there was some conjecture that the events of November 23 might be on the agenda. Maybe they were; nothing came of it.
A coda: after all his years with Montreal followed by a short stint with the New York Rangers, Babe Siebert was traded to Boston in December of 1933. For the Bruins, it was a bit of an emergency measure. With Eddie Shore’s indefinite suspension that month for his attack on Toronto’s Ace Bailey, the Bruins found themselves short on manpower.
So that’s what happened, back in November of 1929.
As for what didn’t, I can’t say where the apparently immortal myth of Shore’s five fighting majors first bloomed, just that it weeds Twitter every November 23, as it probably will again next year.
The fable of five majors seems to be seeded in, and mutated from, a lively description of the November 23 game that appears on page 69 of Liam Maguire’s 2001 book What’s The Score? A One-of-a-Kind Compendium of Hockey Lore, Legend, History, Facts, Stats. This account includes many of the same scenes and circumstances mentioned above, along with several that don’t show up in any of the contemporary accounts I’ve considered. What’s The Score? doesn’t cite sources, so it’s not clear where the outlier incidents originated.
Maguire doesn’t, to be clear, mention major penalties. His original claim for November 23, 1929 is that “Shore made hockey history with five separate fights in one game.” To wit: he exchanged punches with (in order) Maroons Buck Boucher, Dave Trottier, Hooley Smith, Red Dutton, and Babe Siebert.
Maguire has written elsewhere that it was no less of an authority than Aurèle Joliat who got him going on this in the first place. They were friends back in the 1980s and one night — December 12, 1985, in fact —the conversation turned to Sprague Cleghorn. Joliat declared that Eddie Shore was not only a better fighter than old Sprague, but had once, long ago, taken on five Maroons in a single raucous game. Maguire was surprised, and intrigued. “There was no record of this, no way to check it up. Seemed impossible.”
He duly dug up the details, he says, by consulting the second volume of Charles Coleman’s Trail of the Stanley Cup (1969), wherein he eventually came across the potted account of the 1929 game — this one — that seemed to fit the bill he was after.
It was at Ottawa’s public library, trawling microfiche, that Maguire subsequently turned up an account in a Montreal newspaper that backed up and fleshed out the story. He can’t recall which one it was, just that it confirmed the Maroons’ mandate to put Shore out of the game. And: “The story also detailed the incidents with Boucher, Smith, Siebert, Trottier, and Dutton.”
And the fact that so many Montreal newspapers that took a deep and even passionate interest in this game, along with others from Boston and beyond, don’t offer any evidence of this?
“It’s my contention,” Maguire says, “that Shore dropped the gloves in all five of those confrontations.”
That last assertion dates back a couple of years, to another late November, when Twitter was once again minorly abuzz with the spurious anniversary. I took the bait, bit, ended up, eventually, in a back-and-forth with Maguire that was exactly as edifying as any social-media back-and-forth ever is. I suggested that notwithstanding my admiration for Aurèle Joliat, I was having difficulty getting past the, well, history of the thing, and how primary accounts from 1929 failed to corroborate what Maguire was telling me and Twitter.
“Gotta go with the Trail and what I read,” was one response Maguire posted as a closing argument. Also: “You may choose to disagree.” Charles Coleman, he felt, still proves out his dream of Eddie Shore’s quintuple fight-night. “They were altercations. Violent. Sticks involved. For me, fights.”
I was back on the case on Twitter last Friday, as was Maguire. He’s sticking to his story: