playing hurt: I’m getting back into that game if it kills me

Special Ed: Eddie Gerard in 1914, when he first joined the Ottawa Senators. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / e003525294)

So the Boston Bruins’ 42-year-old captain Zdeno Chara is in tonight, leading his team into the fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues despite that jaw of his that a puck broke two nights ago and (as Ron MacLean reported just before puck-drop) “we believe to be wired shut.”

Chara got medical clearance to play this afternoon, we’re told, whereupon he himself made the decision to play. Much of the coverage through the day focussed on Chara, watching him at the Bruins’ optional skate, imaging his discomfort. Much of the punditry heading into the game toggled between expressions of amazement at Chara’s pain-threshold/courage and reminders that he is, after all, a hockey player.

Along with frontline dispatches from Boston came historical reviews of other ghastly injuries suffered by other stout NHLers who gamely played on. None of those reached back to the 1923 Stanley Cup, so maybe that’s our duty here. A comparable case? Maybe not exactly, but here it is nonetheless.

Eddie Gerard is the man in question, captain of the (original) Ottawa Senators as they won their third Stanley Cup in four years. Coached throughout those years by Pete Green, this is a team (it’s worth mentioning) that has been called one of the finest in NHL history. Just because that’s impossible to verify doesn’t make it untrue. In its 1923 edition, the team’s 10-man line-up included eight future Hall-of-Famers, including Frank Nighbor, King Clancy, Clint Benedict, and Cy Denneny. A ninth player, defenceman Lionel Hitchman probably should be in the Hall, which leaves another blueliner, poor Harry Helman, as the odd man out.

Gerard, for his part, was one of the original nine players to be chosen for the Hall’s inaugural class in 1945, joining the likes of Howie Morenz, Hobey Baker, and Georges Vézina in that auspicious cohort.

In 1923, aged 33, he was still a dominant defenceman in the league, which the Senators duly topped. By beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on aggregate in a two-game playoff, Ottawa earned the right to represent the NHL in a three-team Stanley Cup tournament played in Vancouver. The Senators had to dispense with the Vancouver Maroons to make it to the finals, which they did, setting up a two-game sweep of the Edmonton Eskimos that won them the Cup.

It was in the final game against Vancouver, a 5-1 Ottawa win at the Denman Street Arena, that Gerard was hurt, Monday, March 26. He was rushing for goal, as Ottawa’s Journal had it, when he collided with Eskimos’ centre Corb Denneny, Cy’s brother. Gerrard ended up on the ice with his left shoulder dislocated and an injured knee. Helped off, he spent the third period on the bench with his arm in a sling, “shouting and coaching his players,” according to the eyewitness account of Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman, who was beside him, and would later write the game up for the front page of the Ottawa Evening Citizen.

“Twice he begged me to let him get back on the ice,” Gorman reported. “‘I can hold my arm up,’ he kept saying. ‘Let me on and they’ll never get in.’”

Gorman demurred; Gerard stayed put. The following day, the latter wrote, “the gallant Ottawa captain” lay in hotel room “smiling in the face of his pain and assuring his teammates that they’ll beat Edmonton without him.”

“There is,” Gorman concluded, “only one Eddie Gerard.”

A visit to a Vancouver hospital revealed that his injury wasn’t so singular: “Eddie suffered a double fracture,” the Journal noted, “and his shoulder ligaments are torn.” Gerard’s optimism was page-one news back home in the Citizen: he now said he expected to join his teammates when they took the ice Thursday night.

Gorman wasn’t so sure. By Wednesday, a compromise seems to have been reached. The shoulder was responding to treatment and Gerard would dress, though he would most likely stay on the bench. “If he should get into the game it will be for a few minutes at a time,” the Citizen’s correspondent wrote, “just to relieve George Boucher or Frank Clancy.” With defenceman Harry Helman ruled out entirely due to a cut on a foot and Lionel Hitchman (broken nose) uncertain, the Senators were looking at going into the game with (Gerard aside) a grand total of five skaters out in front of goaltender Clint Benedict.

Hitchman did play, in the end, scoring Ottawa’s first goal; Gerard remained for the entire game on the bench, even after yet another defenceman, George Boucher, hurt a foot. Despite a line-up that featuring the legendary likes of Duke Keats and Bullet Joe Simpson, the Eskimos (to the slightly impartial eye of the Citizen) “looked like an ordinary hockey team.” Cy Denneny decided it in Ottawa’s favour when he scored in overtime.

Ahead of the second game, played on Saturday, March 31, the word again that Gerard would be dressed, though it wasn’t clear how much he would play. George Boucher’s ankle was swollen to twice its usual size, but he too would be in the line-up. In event, it was Boucher who kept to the bench the whole game while Gerard made his return.

Ottawa’s victory was a narrow one: Punch Broadbent scored in the first period and they held on from there to claim the tenth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Gerard’s part in the piece was duly recognized. As Citizen sports editor Ed Baker saw it, the captain’s mere presence on the ice was an “exhibition of courage rarely witnessed in any form of sport.”

“He was unable to raise his lift arm as high as his chin at any time since he was injured,” Baker wrote, “but knew the serious position the Senators were in and went into the game more for the moral effect it would have on his teammates than with any expectation of playing up to his usual form.”

He mainly kept to coaching his teammates, Baker noted, though there were a couple of occasions on which he couldn’t resist a rush into Edmonton territory. In the second period, he fell badly, had to be helped from the ice — “but pluckily returned to the fray.”

Tommy Gorman filed his view from the Ottawa bench:

Eddie Gerard actually played for the greater part of the game, notwithstanding his injuries. Twice he went down with a crash and three times with the  shoulder, and after each occasion he skated over to the bench groaning under the pain, but refusing to retire. “Pull that shoulder back,” he would shout to Trainer [Cozy] Dolan. “I’m getting back into that game if it kills me.”

With Hitchman fading in the third, Gerard insisted on relieving him. “It was a physical torture to skate and could not shoot or handle the stick,” Gorman attested, “yet he blocked with all his old-time effectiveness, and steadied his team at critical moments. The Ottawa captain gave the greatest exhibition of pluck and endurance ever seen in Vancouver.”

For Gerard and Gorman alike, 21-year-old King Clancy was the pick of Ottawa’s litter. Gorman:

In the last period Clancy outskated every other man on the ice. With Gerard unable to carry the puck, and Hitchman hardly able to move, Clancy bore the brunt. “Heavens!” Eddie Gerard once ejaculated through his pain-racked [sic] body, “look at Clancy playing the whole Edmonton team. He’s the greatest kid in the world.”

Clancy stood out in this game for another reason: in the second period, when Clint Benedict was called for slashing Joe Simpson, the Ottawa goaltender (as one did in those years) headed to the penalty bench to serve his sentence. “King Clancy then went into net,” Ed Baker wrote, “and that gave the youngster unprecedented distinction of having played every position on the line-up during the present tour. He had previously subbed in both defence positions, center, and on right and left wing.”

The Senators enjoyed their victory — and nursed their wounds. “Eddie Gerard and George Boucher lie in their rooms smarting under injuries,” Gorman wrote, “but smiling and happy.”

The team enjoyed their triumphant cross-country train trip home. Ed Baker was aboard. From Moose Jaw he sent word that Gerard and Boucher were “both doing nicely and picking up more as every mile is reeled off.” Gerard (a.k.a. The Duke of Rockcliffe) was “getting the injured shoulder back to a working basis again” while Boucher hobbled his way around with increasing dexterity.

When the team’s train arrived in Ottawa on the morning of Friday, April 6, it was met by a crowd of thousands. There was a parade, and there were speeches, a lunch at the Chateau Laurier. “Men,” declaimed Mayor Frank Plant, “we are glad and proud to welcome you back home after your splendid victory. Ottawa is proud of you.”

The Citizen took one more survey of the cost of victory:

Many of the players bore evidence of their honorable scars. Eddie Gerard shoulder was bothering him and George Boucher walked lame from the effect of the bad smash he got in the West. Others had pieces of skin missing, but all were cheerful and smiling.

The Senators spent the summer months recovering their health. For Eddie Gerard, though, there would be no return to NHL ice. Though shoulder was recovered in time for the start of the new campaign, he fell ill in October with throat and respiratory problems that would keep him out of the line-up for the entire 1923-24 season. He spent the year helping coach the team before finally retiring in 1924 to sign on to coach the expansion Montreal Maroons.

Stanley Cup Sens: Ottawa’s 1923 line-up, showing (back row, left to right) Owner Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Pete Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, and Harry Helman.

 

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