just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin was called for the scrimmage’s only infraction, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

Two weeks later, the Montreal Canadiens were pencilled in for a Saturday-night meeting at the Forum with the New York Rangers. But Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip weren’t getting into Montreal until the Monday, October 29, so the game was shifted for them. The two teams met in New York on the Sunday night — the Rangers prevailed, 2-1 — then trained north for their full-length royal showing.

The royal couple was lodged at the Windsor Hotel, just across Dorchester Square from NHL headquarters in the Sun Life fortress. On the night, they travelled southwest by motorcade, up Peel, along Ste. Catherine to the Forum on Atwater. Churchbells pealed, bands played. They entered the rink at 8.30 sharp through the south entrance to thundering applause. A red-carpeted dais was ready for them on the ice, and there they stood while the band of the Royal 22e Régiment played “God Save The King” and “O Canada.” William Northey, vice-president of the Canadian Arena Company, which owned the Canadiens, had the duty of introducing the two captains, Montreal’s Butch Bouchard and New York’s Frankie Eddolls.

Princess Elizabeth wore three-quarter-length mink coat over a brown taffeta dress and a cloche brown hat with gold sequins and a veilThe Prince wore a blue coat with a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He was, the Gazette’s Dink Carroll reported in his front-page dispatchhatless.

Two hundred Montreal police detectives were on duty in the Forum that night along with — just in case, I guess? — a special corps of firefighters.  Surrounded by 11 Mounties and half-a-dozen soldiers and sailors, the royal couple watched the Canadiens beat New York 6-1 in the midst of a Forum crowd of just over 14,000.

Montreal captain Butch Bouchard greets Princess Elizabeth on Forum ice. Beside him is his Rangers’ counterpart, Frankie Eddolls; next to her, that’s Prince Philip and (obscured) William Northey.

Butch Bouchard would end up playing on through to the 1955-56 season, but in October of ’51, he was wondering whether it was time to call time on his NHL career. The captain was 32 that year. A slow start to the season had put coach Dick Irvin in what the Gazette labelled a “whip-cracking mood.” Just before the royal fuss, when the team was heading to Chicago, Irvin announced that he was leaving Bouchard behind. Doug Harvey, Jim McPherson, Ross Lowe, and Tom Johnson would man the defence: the captain was overweight. “It isn’t fair to the other players,” the coach said. “They are hustling and fighting for their jobs and doing their best to win hockey games.”

Bouchard had reported for the season weighing 211 pounds. The coach thought his optimal playing weight was 205. He’d started to lose the weight but not fast enough for Irvin. The Gazette: “Butch has been instructed to work out every day while the club is away and pare off the excess avoirdupois.”

Bouchard was miffed. Some papers had reported that he’d added the poundagesince the beginning of the season. That was where the retirement talk started: Bouchard said he wouldn’t return unless the impression was corrected.

He missed the Chicago game (a tie) and Montreal’s Sunday loss in New York. Monday Irvin and Bouchard talked and once they’d finished, Frank Selke told the reporters: “Butch will play tonight.”

No word on where his weight was at by then.

The royals were supposed to sit at the Forum’s south end, on a platform specially built for their viewing pleasure. But then at some point someone had shown the Princess a plan of the rink and what she thought was that maybe she and her husband should be situated nearer centre ice, where people could see her? Yes. Of course. So it was that on Monday afternoon, workmen rushed to dismantle the royal platform they’d built and the Princess and her Prince ended up in prime seats directly behind the Montreal bench. For company they had Senator Donat Raymond, president of the Canadian Arena Company, and Montreal’s mayor, His Worship Camillien Houde, along with their respective wives and Mrs. Northey.

There’s brief footage of the royals arriving at the Forum and gazing at the hockey there in this British Pathé newsreel, below, starting at the 4.37 mark.

Maurice Richard later said that ahead of the game the players were issued with special rules of engagement. By Clarence Campbell himself? He doesn’t say, just that “prior to the game we were asked by the league to try to make a good impression on the royalty. ‘No fights, no arguments,’ that was the word.”

If that’s so, it could explain the quality of the hockey on show, which was, to Globe and Mail correspondent Jim Vipond’s eye, “spotty at best and far from a first-class exhibition of our great winter sport.”

The Gazette concurred: “It dragged frequently and at times play was ragged.”

The Princess appeared tired at first, Dink Carroll thought, but she grew animated as the game went on. The Prince enjoyed the body-checking and applauded when Reg Sinclair scored for the Rangers. The Princess studied her program. The penalties seemed to puzzle them. Both showed considerable interest in the sprinklers that replenished the ice between periods. The Prince put on a pair of dark glasses near the end of the second period. The world heavyweight boxing champion happened to be visiting Montreal, too, from the U.S., and when Jersey Joe Walcott appeared on the ice between periods, the royal couple joined in the applause.

Philip was seen to point out the Rocket to his wife.

“He laughed,” the Gazette noted, “while joining the applause for goals and seemed highly amused when Don Raleigh of the Rangers almost over the boards by Ross Lowe, and again when Richard and Steve Kraftcheck almost came to blows just before the game ended.” The Prince seems to have been positively giddy that night. He’s described bursting into laughter (1) when the Rangers’ Eddie Kullman, having lost his stick, stepped into Lowe and knocked him down and (2) as Bouchard “slammed Eddie Slowinski into the boards.”

According to one wire-service report, their Royal Highnesses received “a rude scare” when the Forum’s siren went off to signal the end of the first period.

The couple, trained to react quickly to the wail of air raid sirens during the war, jumped forward in their seats and hurriedly looked toward the door. Realizing what had happened, they leaned back in their seats with smiles.

Floyd Curry scored a hat trick for the winners, the first and only of his career. Maurice Richard (he scored a pair) and Ken Mosdell were Montreal’s other scorers.

The Rocket told the story, later, that, as per instructions, he’d decided to stay out of trouble. “There was a little argument going along the boards,” he’d write in a memoir, “not far from where the Prince and Queen [sic] were sitting. Normally, I would have barged in and started pushing and shoving, but I decided to play it cool. Suddenly Prince Philip walked over to where we were standing and said, “What’s the matter, Rocket, don’t you want to fight?”

I guess that’s … possible? The royal couple did have at least one more hockey experience before they headed for home. On Friday, November 9, on a quick visit to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were steered into the local Forum to see a Maritime Major Hockey League between the local Islanders and the visiting Moncton Hawks.

The Princess ended up sitting next to the Charlottetown coach’s wife, Rita Lamoureux. Naturally enough, they talked hockey. Rita’s husband was Leo, the former Canadiens’ defenceman.

According to Mrs. Lamoureux, the Princess was most impressed by the three penalties that were called during the first period. “This is very exciting,” she said. “How long do these penalties last?”

“The game we saw in Montreal hadn’t too much action,” the Princess continued. “But the game before that one, Richard got into a fight. I’d really have liked to see the knockdown.”

It’s not clear who told her that. The records show that while Ranger defenceman Jack Evans punched Montreal’s Calum Mackay during that October 28 game — Mackay punched back; they got roughing penalties — Richard incurred no penalties on the night. That doesn’t mean he didn’t fight, of course. And nor does it take away the Princess’ regret at having missed exactly what Clarence Campbell wanted her to.

I wrote about Princess Elizabeth and her royal hockey tour of 1951 in my 2014 book, Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession. This post draws on that, as well as an earlier Butch Bouchard post, here.