severely jarred, badly wrenched: the life and sore times of howie morenz

A unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:

I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?

Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.

In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.

That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?

Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:

His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.

(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)

Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.

In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.

The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”

Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,

Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.

In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.

Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.

In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,

Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.

The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.

A month later, playing Pittsburgh, he had to be carted from the ice after bruising the same ankle in a collision with the Big Train himself, Lionel Conacher.

Morenz went into another post in late 1927. Opening night Madison Square Garden, fans in fur and finery, the West Point Army Band, New York’s mayor was there to drop the puck between Morenz and the Amerks’ Billy Burch. Early on, Burch banged up a knee in what looked like a serious way while Morenz stayed around long enough to score a pair of goals.

The smash-up in the second period does sound like a highway disaster: six players went down in the Canadiens’ net. “Driven against the stout iron support,” Morenz suffered “a severe bruise on his left side and possible kidney injury.”

Babe Siebert bodied him hard in 1928 and he fell and injured a finger on his right hand.

Hec Kilrea slashed him over the head in Ottawa in 1928, not really but maybe sort of on purpose. Three years later, Boston’s Eddie Shore smote him on the forehead, though it was Shore’s teammate, George Owen, who got the blame and the penalty. With Kilrea, he and Morenz were “exchanging compliments.” The description in The Ottawa Citizen brings to mind mortal Lord of the Rings combat, the wizard Gandalf versus the fiery Balrog:

Morenz turned Kilrea around completely with a jab in the mouth, and as the blonde left winger was whirling, his stick caught Morenz over the right temple, inflicting a gash of about two inches.

Four stitches bound the wound; Morenz returned in the third period. Kilrea said he was very sorry; Morenz told reporters Kilrea wasn’t the type to injure a man deliberately. “Bright particular star of the Canadien sextet,” The New York Times was saying a few days later, Morenz was still sporting plasters, “although his brain is said to be functioning fairly well.”

How did he keep going?

• November, 1930: nursing severely strained back;

• January, 1931: hurt an ankle playing the Rangers and — cautious — checked into Sir Henry Gray’s Hospital in Montreal. He was suffering from a sore wrist at this time, too, as well as a charley horse.

• April, 1931: Chicago’s Taffy Abel caught him heavily on the shoulder; “in fairly bad shape.”

In 1934, he damaged his left ankle in a Maroons-related incident then, next game, there was a tangle in the Rangers’ goalmouth and maybe the post dunnit, maybe not, Morenz’s ankle was twisted, badly, again. Back at Sir Henry Gray’s again, doctors applied a cast he kept a month. In February he skated, carefully, and started on his way back to finding his old form.

Is it worth noting here that he gave as good as he got? Or, another way of looking at it: playing hockey, you’re at risk not only of getting hurt but of hurting others. In Morenz’s case, this is the way that went:

• March, 1930. He clashed with Chicago’s Ty Arbour behind the net. Arbour departed the game with torn ligaments, Morenz visited the penalty bench.

• April, 1931: Chicago again. Skating with Tommy Cook at centre ice, “Morenz flung the light Hawk player to the ice, hurting his face. Both were penalized and [Chicago goaltender] Chuck Gardiner skated up to protest.”

• March, 1934: Morenz would surely have incurred another of his goalpost injuries if he hadn’t crashed into Detroit goalie Normie Smith while scoring on him. Wounded “about the head,” Smith left the game to spend four months in hospital to heal his fractures.

It was Morenz, too, who broke Clint Benedict’s nose with a shot in 1930, forcing the Maroons’ goalie out of the game and a little while later, his career. I’m not saying that was Morenz’s fault: the evidence seems to show that Benedict’s nerves were already well-crushed.

A month later when he returned he was wearing the nose-guard that may or may not have been the NHL’s first goalie mask. It looked strange and vexed Benedict’s vision so much that he’s supposed to have discarded it before the game against Ottawa, that March, when someone fell on him. Possibly another shot of Morenz’s might have caught Benedict in the throat at some point in here, too.

Can we agree, also, that Morenz didn’t necessarily need hockey to hurt himself?

In 1932, he had his mother-in-law staying over at his house in Montreal, 4420 Coolbrook Avenue. Streetview it on Google and you can imagine him standing there on the porch surveying, bestowing good will on the neighbourhood — actually, no, not really. Too many silver Hondas and Kias parked in front, now, all those 21st-century strewn garbage bins. Lacking Morenz, it does look like a promising place to call home, calm and leafy.

Morenz drove Mrs. Stewart home to her house on Jeanne-Mance, not far, a grey street on the day Google scoped by, with its trees looking spindly. Turn the view around and you can admire the big cross up on Mont-Royal. Possibly Mrs. Stewart was giving Morenz hockey advice all the way home, stuff he wasn’t hearing anywhere else, not from coach Cecil Hart or anybody, and he took it, too, his mother-in-law’s counsel, and it improved his game, helped to hone it, and no-one ever knew but the two of them. You don’t know, and I don’t, either. Without a photograph at hand, you’re free to assign her a prim, tweedy, bespectacled look, but is that fair? The door of her house was unlocked when they got there.

In they walked. Mrs. Stewart turned on the light and that’s when the tall man stepped out from behind the door with a revolver in hand. He said either “Give me money” or “Give me money before I shoot you:” accounts vary.

Morenz stayed cool. The season had been over for a month, but he still had his hockey wits about him. He told the guy, careful with that gun. He said, “If you shoot Mrs. S you’ll be in the hoosegow a long time.” Not those exact words, but close.

Did the guy know who it was, threatening him with hypothetical jail sentences? Was he a tall Habs’ fan? Impossible to say.

We do know that Morenz jumped him. Think of that! Little Morenz! He pulled down the guy’s overcoat —smart — partially trussing him. This all has to have been fast and frenzied; newspaper accounts slow it to sludge. The thug, they said. He got an arm free and slashed Morenz “several times over the head and temple.” With a hockey stick no-one previously noticed? No: the gun. He added another bash as he shed his coat, then he was gone, running south on Jeanne Mance, disappearing down Fairmont.

Mrs. Stewart telephoned the police. Special constables Geraldeau and Laroche came immediately from the Laurier Avenue police station. From reading too many Tintin books, I’m compelled to picture Morenz sitting on the floor, legs splayed, hand to head, which stars and punctuation and musical notes orbit. He gave the policemen a good description of the suspect: 35ish, dark suit, grey fedora. They couldn’t figure out how the guy got in. In his abandoned coat they found a flashlight. The cut on Morenz’s head looked bad, but he said he was okay with some first aid. He didn’t go to the hospital.

Also in 1928, in the summertime, Morenz was golfing his way around Montreal’s Forest Hill course when a storm played through and lightning zapped the club he was holding. There was a sharp crackle, a flash; the wooden-shafted club he’d been swinging was left twisted and split. Morenz and his caddy both said they felt a jolt.

(Top image, from outside Montreal’s Bell Centre: Stephen Smith)