syd howe’s six-goal smash (and unremembering joe malone)

Not Quite: Six-goal Syd Howe.

Syd Howe’s big night in February of 1944 started halfway through the first period when his Detroit teammate Don Grosso passed him the puck and he put it past New York goaltender Ken McAuley. Howe, a 32-year-old centreman, who scored again 18 seconds later, just kept going at Detroit’s Olympia, 76 years ago tonight. By the time the game was over, he’d notched six goals to help the Red Wings hammer the visiting Rangers 12-2. It was a mighty feat, to be sure, and it unleashed headlines across the NHL realm.

“Syd Breaks the All-Time NHL Mark,” touted the Detroit Free Press, under a six-column banner across the front of the sports section: “Here’s How: Howe, Howe, Howe, Howe, Howe, Howe — and How!”

“Howe Smashes Six Goals To Smash Aged Record,” The Globe and Mail proclaimed.

“Howe Sets League Record With Six Goals as Red Wings Crush Rangers Again,” declared The New York Times.

They were mistaken. The writers — like the Red Wings and the NHL at large — had forgotten their history. In a day before historical game summaries could be summoned by the click of a mouse, long before newspaper archives were readily accessible, the actual record had simply faded out of view.

It wasn’t Howe’s fault. He’d done his job. “I just hit a hot night,” he said in the dressing room, after the game, wearing what the Associated Press described as “a broad grin.” As hockey players did in those wartime years, he had another job, off the ice, working days in the tool room of a Detroit plant manufacturing war materials.

“I wonder what the boys in the shop will say now,” he was quoted as dutifully saying. “Yes, I’ll be on the job at 7:10 a.m., just like I am six days a week.”

Ottawa-born, Howe had started his NHL career in 1930 with his hometown Senators, eventually landing in Detroit after stints with Toronto’s Maple Leafs and a couple of other teams that, like those first Senators, didn’t last: the Philadelphia Quakers and St. Louis Eagles.

He came to be a much-beloved and valued Red Wing, and stepped up to captain the team in 1941-42. The year of his six-goal outburst, he put on the best offensive showing of his 17-season career, compiling 32 goals and 60 points in 46 regular-season games. Playing the wretched New York Rangers helped: that same January, he’d notched a hattrick and two assists in a 15-0 Red Wing drubbing of the New Yorkers that still stands as the worst defeat in NHL history. The goaltender who went unrelieved on both occasions was an overwhelmed rookie by the name of Ken McAuley: “the one-time Saskatchewan truant officer,” the Detroit Free Press called him.

Talk of Howe’s achievement turned on the idea that he’d surpassed eight other NHLers who’d previously scored five goals in a game, going back to Harry Hyland of the Montreal Wanderers on the league’s opening night in 1917.

Prolific Joe: Malone in Quebec livery.

In fact, four other players had previously already done what Howe did: Newsy Lalonde of the Canadiens and Joe Malone of the Quebec Bulldogs had each scored six goals in the winter of 1920, with brothers Corb and Cy Denneny (of the Toronto St. Patricks and Senators, respectively) repeating the feat the following season.

And Malone, of course, had done even better: he already owned the record for most goals in an NHL game, as he still does: a hundred years ago, on the last day of January, he scored seven in Quebec’s 10-6 win over Toronto. He could have had eight, in fact: another goal he deposited in the St. Patricks’ net was disallowed by the goal judge.

Twenty-four years later, Malone’s achievement continued to go unrecognized. Columnist Jim Coleman of The Globe and Mail seemed to be on the case within the week, writing that he’d heard from another Coleman, the industrious Charles L., no relation, who was a Toronto mining engineer with a passion for NHL history and statistics that he would eventually pour into three celebrated volumes of The Trail of the Stanley Cup.

Syd Howe’s six were all very well, but between them, the Colemans wanted it broadcast that both Newsy Lalonde and Tommy Smith had each scored nine goals in a single game. Lalonde’s triple-hattrick had come in 1910, when he was playing for Renfrew, while Smith’s was in 1914, on behalf of Quebec. Both of those outbursts had come, of course, in the old National Hockey Association, before the NHL’s time. Coleman’s list continued, too, citing six players who’d scored eight times in pre-NHL games, along with a further three who’d registered seven. Joe Malone was in the latter bunching, though not for what he did in 1920 in the NHL: he’d scored a whole other seven for NHA Quebec in 1913.

A year later, in March of 1945, Syd Howe surpassed Nels Stewart as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer when he notched the 515th point of his career by assisting Joe Carveth’s goal. The Red Wings were playing the Rangers again, and beat them 7-3 this time; Ken McAuley was, again, the goaltender.

A young Ted Lindsay was a teammate by then, though not Gordie Howe: he didn’t join the Red Wings until the year after Syd Howe retired from the NHL in the spring of 1946. The two Howes weren’t related: as the younger man’s fame grew over the years, the elder found himself clarifying this more and more. “I kid the people by telling them that Gordie’s my son,” Syd said in 1965, by which time, with Gordie as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, the question was coming up two or three times a month.  

Out of the NHL, Syd Howe, returned to his hometown, Ottawa, where he played a final year in the Quebec Senior Hockey League with the Senators. It was in February of 1947 that a former teammate of Howe’s on the old St. Louis Eagles, Bill Cowley of the Boston Bruins, overtook him for the all-time NHL tally of points.

It was the following month, March — a full three years after Howe’s six-goal performance — that the fact of Malone’s record seems to have started to surface in the NHL’s consciousness.

“It appears now that the NHL may have to revise its list of individual scoring records for a game,” Bill Westwick mentioned in his column in the Ottawa Journal. “Some fan has dug up evidence that Joe Malone once scored seven for the old Quebec Bulldogs against Toronto. If he did, Malone never bothered mentioning it.”

According to columnist Bob Mamini of the Calgary Herald, the NHL was looking into it. “Ken Mackenzie, head of the league’s information department, says the league will credit Malone with the seven-goal record,” he reported. “The newspaper files will be accepted as the authority, although the league may do more checking before it makes the change official.”

It seems to have taken a further three years for that process to play out. As Eric Zweig noted last week in his review of Malone’s seven-goal bonanza, it wasn’t until 1950, when the man they called “Phantom” was elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame, that the NHL seems to have fully ordained the record.

Even then, not everybody seems to have gotten the memo. On the June day Malone was inducted, a Canadian Press dispatch in the Calgary Herald acknowledged Malone’s seven goals as “a record that has not been equalled in National League play.” But if you were in Windsor, reading the local Star, this was the confusing news:

On January 31, 1920, [Malone] scored seven goals for Quebec against Toronto St. Pats. (NHL record books credit Howe’s one-game six-goal splurge the best since the NHL formed in 1917.)