the nhl’s first noël: christmas day, 1920

Scored, Sat Upon: Toronto’s Babe Dye, c. 1920.

“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”

NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very firsttime was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.

A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.

Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.

Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”

Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.

Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.

In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”

Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he alsoplayed “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”

For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”

Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”

The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”

While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”

This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”

“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”