happy birthday, georges vézina

Toronto had everything, to quote from the local Star: “speed, courage, team play, aggressiveness, and ability.”

No, not the Maple Leafs as they’re currently constituted: they’re clearly snarled in a bit of a mid-season muddle. But a hundred years ago this very night, Toronto was having a very good time of it, quashing the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 11-3, and in so doing (I think it’s fair to assume) souring their goaltender’s birthday. Nowadays, a netminder suffering through such a night would expect, at some point, to be spared further misery, but there was no back-up to relieve the great (and newly 32) Georges Vézina that night, and no mercy from his opponents.

Toronto’s team was the Arenas that season, the NHL’s second, and they were the defending league and Stanley Cup champions. Still, the schedule to date hadn’t been kind so far in 1918-19, and Toronto was stuck in third place, behind Ottawa, who in turn trailed Montreal. That doesn’t sound so bad, I guess, except that the NHL was, that year, a three-team operation. Just ten days earlier, in Montreal, Toronto had been the quashed and Canadiens the quashers. The score that night was 13-4.

This time out, Montreal was missing its captain and star forward, Newsy Lalonde, who stayed home to nurse an injured arm. As Toronto trainer and master of the malapropism Tim Daly assessed it, without Lalonde, Montreal was like Hamlet without the eggs.

And yet manager George Kennedy could still count on a formidable array of talent: the Montreal line-up that night included future Hall-of-Famers in Vézina, Joe Hall, and Didier Pitre alongside the veteran abilities of Bert Corbeau and Odie Cleghorn.

“They might just as well have left their skates home,” said The Toronto Daily Star’s correspondent of those Canadiens who did suit up at the Arena on Mutual Street. Though it’s unbylined, the dispatch that appeared in the next day’s Star has a wry ring to it that could be Lou Marsh’s. He was a sportswriter on the paper at the time, though I suppose it’s unlikely that he would have been writing up the same game that he was working — his other job, of course, was an NHL referee, and he was manning the rulebook that night. Whoever it was who contributed the copy, he kept it light and laughable — just like the hockey itself. Canadiens, the Star’s man wrote, appeared to have no more use for hockey “than a goldfish has for a tenderloin steak.” Throughout, the speedy Arenas made the “weary Frenchmen look like tanks floundering around in the Somme mud.”

Harry Meeking led the way for Toronto with three goals, while Alf Skinner and Jack Adams each added a pair. On the question of whether or not it was right to be running up the score, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie apparently told his players to help themselves. “Go on in and get all you can,” he’s quoted as recommending. “They’d beat you 16-1 in Montreal if they could, so pile it up.”

Canadiens Suffer A Complete Failure was the headline with which La Presse cheered its readers the following day. The Gazette’s was a drowsier Toronto Team Beat Canadiens, with a subhead that seemed almost self-diagnosing: Flying Frenchmen Played Far Below Their Form and in a Listless Manner.

Back in Toronto, if the Star was mostly merry,the rival World was all in a temper. “The Montrealers played as if they didn’t care how soon it was over,” ran the peeved narrative there. Canadiens “lost a lot of local admirers,” who were decidedly “not taken with what was offered by the Frenchies.”

“The game left a bad taste in the mouths of the fans.”

An outraged column that ran alongside the World’s aggrieved game report went further, suggesting that the game had been fixed by gamblers. “Fake hockey,” the World charged, without offering no specifics or indeed anything in the way of positive proof. Nothing came of this charge, so far as I can determine — it seems simply to have drifted away. It doesn’t sound like the newspaper expected anything different. “The World mentions these things because it is the function of a newspaper to do its best to protect the public. Even on a race track a horse showing a performance like the Canadiens last night at the Arena would be ruled off the track. But not so in the National Hockey League.”

“Eleven goals against Vézina is something to talk about,” the World’s hockey reporter wrote. The again: “The Canadiens’ defence opened like a picture album, and everybody who asked had a peek at Vézina unmolested.”

“Vézina did not appear to advantage,” decided The Globe. “The Chicoutimi wizard, however, was given little or no opportunity to save the majority of the goals tallied against him and towards the close of the game grew rather careless.”

This 1919 debacle, I have to report, was only one of Vézina’s worst NHL showings. In 1920, he would twice allow 11 goals in a game. On two further occasions, in 1921 and ’22, he would see ten pucks pass him by.

Vézina’s NHL career spanned nine seasons, from 1917 through to 1925, and during those years he played six times on his birthday. Including the 1919 trouncing, his record in those games was a discouraging 2-4.