The NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was, unavoidably, a year of firsts.
Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers scored the league’s very first goal, and his teammate Harry Hyland notched its original hattrick while suffering (possibly) its earliest maiden concussion. The Wanderers’ coach and captain was Art Ross, and he took the NHL’s earliest penalty, though nobody seems to have noted down, officially or otherwise, just how he transgressed.
For all their trailblazing, the Wanderers didn’t survive, of course: in early January of 1918, they made their mark even as they erased it, becoming the first NHL franchise to fold.
That left the infant league with just three teams: Torontos, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens. Later in January, the storied Canadiens made history as the first NHL club to fall sick on an eastbound train as a result of supping on a bad batch of broth in Canada’s capital.
There’s not much more we know. How did the sickness manifest itself? Where on the line between Ottawa and Montreal did it strike? Which early Habs suffered? What was the name of the restaurant that served the quease-causing potage? What kind of soup was it?
That we do know, actually: the soup was a tomato soup.
For its opening act in 1917-18, the NHL divided its 22-game regular season schedule into two. As the end of January approached, Montreal stood atop the standings with 14 points ahead of Toronto (12) and Ottawa (six). On the Monday night of January 21, Canadiens visited Ottawa for an 8.30 date with the Senators.
The 6,000 fans who packed Dey’s Arena that night saw a bevy of future of Hall of Famers. Ottawa’s line-up featured Clint Benedict in goal in back of Eddie Gerard, Jack Darragh, and Cy Denneny. Georges Vézina guarded the Montreal goal, with Joes Hall and Malone working in front of him alongside Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. Paced by a hattrick from defenceman Hall, Canadiens solidified their lead by beating the home team by a score of 5-3. The game was mostly without incident, which is to say none of the notorious malefactors involved, including Hall and his Montreal teammates Billy Coutu and Bert Corbeau, were caught swinging their sticks at their rivals, or butt-ending them, as they tended to do, to fearful extent. “The cleanliness of the hockey appeared to tickle the big crowd,” the Ottawa Citizen was pleased to report the next morning.
It’s thanks to the report, above, from the Canadian Press that we know that the winners went for a post-game feed that included the fateful soup. If only we knew more. Where did they eat? What else was on the menu? Did all nine players eat the soup or just the six reported to have been indisposed? Who were the unfortunates, and who was spared?
Dey’s Arena was on Laurier Avenue in those years, facing the canal, occupying the southwest corner near the modern-day Confederation Park. Is it fair to surmise that they bunked nearby, taking their late supper in their hotel’s restaurant? Probably, though that doesn’t really help us much. Then, as now, there are plenty of hotels in that area of downtown Ottawa. Did the 1918 Canadiens alight at the Chateau Laurier? That wasn’t far from the rink, though the Windsor Hotel at Metcalfe and Queen would have been closer. Or what about the Russell House Hotel that still then occupied the corner of Sparks and Elgin? From a hockey history perspective, that would be satisfying: it was at a banquet at the Russell House, of course, that the Lord Stanley’s donation of a challenge cup was first announced in 1892. Then again, the Canadiens may have been lodged at an entirely different hotel. And indeed, on their way back there after the game, it’s true too that they could have stopped in at any local restaurant along the way. The New Idea, for instance, located at the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe, ads for which appear in the pages of Ottawa newspapers around this very time, featuring the slogan “For Quality, Quantity, and Quick Service.”
Not that I’d want to impugn their soup, even retroactively, without further evidence. What I can say is that this was wartime, remember. The First World War had been seething for more than three years, and November’s armistice was still, at this point, ten months away. While the Canadian government didn’t impose food rationing on the general population in aid of the nation’s war effort, the federal Food Board was, by early 1918, limiting hotel and restaurant menus.
An article in the Citizen a week before the Canadiens fell ill explained the lengths that local eateries were cutting back. “The purpose of the food controller in laying restrictions on hotels and restaurants,” it reported, “was to effect a saving in the three commodities most needed by the men at the front and by the Allied people — beef, bacon, and wheat, and to awaken the public conscience to the need of the hour.”
For at least three months, it seems, restaurants in the nation’s capital had been going beefless and bacon-free on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the Chateau Laurier, to conserve flour, no bread was being served at breakfast “except rolls and corn muffins,” while at lunch and supper, patrons were allowed nothing but “rolls and perhaps a couple of slices of brown bread.”
People didn’t mind, said the manager of the Russell House, where bread cutbacks were also in effect. “Bread is by no means a necessity in the hotel meal,” he confided. “I find that it is only eaten when people are waiting for the next course.”
Soupwise? All I can tell you is that the Chateau in earliest 1918, white flour was no longer being used to thicken soups and sauces: “cornstarch and arrowroot are taking its place,” the Citizen says.
Impossible to say whether this had any effect on the Canadiens. How did they know it was the soup that turned their stomachs? That, to me, is the nub of the whole thing. Did Jack Laviolette look over his spoon and wince his suspicion at Louis Berlinguette that something was up with the bisque? Could it be, perhaps, that club captain Newsy Lalonde, going on instinct, tried and failed to wield his authority with a plea for the team to order the untainted cream of mushroom instead of the tomato?
We just don’t know. Tuesday morning, the players boarded the train, whereon some of them sickened. They would have been home in about two hours. Montreal newspapers don’t seem to have noted their plight.
On Wednesday, Canadiens played a return date against Ottawa at the Jubilee Arena on St. Catherine Street East. Only Lalonde was missing from the Montreal line-up, though the reason for his absence doesn’t seem to have been soup-related: he had what the Citizen (painfully) refers to as “a spiked foot.”
Ottawa dominated this time out, prevailing by a score of 4-3. “The result came as a surprise,” reported the hometown Gazette; Canadiens were “listless.” The Ottawa papers took a slightly different view, crediting the victory to the stalwart work of captain Eddie Gerard, who played almost the entire game, and goaltender Benedict, who withstood an unrelenting Montreal barrage in the third period. “Canadiens set a smashing pace,” the Journal reported. “Canadiens piled in with everybody but Vézina and it looked as if they might batter in a goal by sheer weight.”
Joe Malone did score a pair in the final frame to tie the score, but Harry Hyland, who’d joined Ottawa after the demise of the Wanderers, got one back to make the difference. It as the fifth time the two teams had met in the history of the NHL, and Ottawa’s very first victory over Montreal.