reg noble: fastest on the ice, and a very hard man to relieve of the puck

Noble Oblige: Reg Noble strikes a pose in the late 1920s, when he turned out, and captained, the Detroit Cougars.

Here’s a story, for Reg Noble’s birthday — well about Reg Noble, the day after his birthday, which was yesterday. June 23 was a Tuesday in 1896, in Collingwood, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay, which is where was Noble was born 124 years ago. If you’re vague on Reg Noble details, here are a few of his hockey specs: he was very good, possessed of a wicked shot, a forward at first, then later a defenceman, played for the old Toronto Blueshirts and the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, the final year of the old National Hockey Association.

The following year, 1918, when the NHA was supplanted by the brand new National Hockey League, Noble signed with Toronto, whom he duly helped to win the Stanley Cup. He stayed with Toronto on into the 1920s, playing and captaining and even coaching the team as they turned into the St. Patricks, and winning still another Stanley Cup in 1922. The St. Pats eventually sold him to the Montreal Maroons, and he won yet another Cup with them, in 1926, before joining Detroit’s original NHL team, the Cougars, in 1927. That’s their livery he’s wearing in the photograph here, posing on a wintry tennis court colonized by the Cougars for a team practice and photo session.

Noble captained the team in Detroit for three seasons, and played on when they shifted identifies, from Cougars to Falcons. He was still there in 1932 when the team re-launched as Red Wings, though not for long: Detroit released him early in the season. He had one final whirl later that year when he returned to the Maroons, by which time his was the distinction, at age 36, of being the very last player from the league’s inaugural season to still be skating on NHL ice.

Noble was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 — a few months after his death, as it happens, at the age of 65.

And the story? It’s a wartime tale, going back before the NHL, in 1916, when Noble did what many young men were doing in the torrid time: he went to war.

He tried to, at least. Unlike Red Dutton and Joe Simpson and several other of his fellow Hall-of-Famers, Noble never made it overseas much less into the frightful fight of the Western Front.

As much as he might have wished to serve, he was ruled out and discharged before he got the chance. Hockey had rendered him unsuitable.

Noble was 19 in the winter in which 1915 turned to 1916. He was playing with Toronto Riversides that winter, as rover on the seven-aside team that won the OHA Senior championship that wartime winter. When the team’s regular season came to a close at the end of January, Noble was featuring prominently in a 4-0 victory over a military team, the 40th Battery. “Noble, as usual, was the fastest man on the ice,” the Globe reported, “and some of his rushes bordered on the sensational. He is a very hard man to relieve of the puck and is learning every game how to go in on a defence.”

Six days later, Noble joined up, presenting himself at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on the Exhibition grounds. His attestation papers from that day tell the tale, and show his orderly signature as he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, promising to fight all HM’s enemies and obey all of his orders, as well as those of all his Generals and Officers, so help him God.

Noble was measured for height (he was 5’8”) and girth of chest (40”), and the locales of his five scars noted down: three on a shin, one each on a foot and a knee. His complexion was deemed fair, his eyes blue. A Captain Barton was in charge of this medical examination, declaring Noble fitfor duty with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

That was just the beginning of Noble’s busy Saturday. That same evening, he lined up with his fellow Riversides to see to beating Toronto R and AA by a score of 7-2 in a playoff game at the Arena on Mutual Street. By midnight, Noble was home and suffering, not so fit as he’d been earlier: “he was in bed,” according to a subsequent report, “with a raging fever and a beautiful attack of la grippe.”

The battalion that Noble joined was a newborn unit, the 180th, formed in Toronto in January of ’16 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Greer, a prominent Crown Attorney who’d been a distinguished athlete in his own right in his University of Toronto days. “Pals” battalions had been common in the British Army since the start of the war, whereby men with common backgrounds — friends or neighbours or co-workers — enlisted to serve together. Conceived as a Sportsmen’s battalion, the 180th was one of the first units in Canada to follow that lead.

It did a roaring business filling its ranks that winter. Football players, scullers, boxers, and runners flocked to attest their willingness to serve in the early days of February. The famous Mohawk marathoner Tom Longboat, made on his way on foot from Brantford to Toronto to join up. Tommy Daly volunteered for the 180th, too, the well-known Toronto boxer who was also making a reputation as a baseball and hockey trainer — and who, post-war, having shifted his name to Tim, served for decades in that role for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lou Marsh, who’d played football for the Argonauts and wrote sports for the Toronto Daily Star was a lieutenant in the 180th as well as keeping up a busy schedule as a boxing and hockey referee. He was on the ice the night Reg Noble enlisted, in fact, whistling the game between Riversides and Toronto R and AA. Noble, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only hockey player bound for the ranks of the 180th: a report from a few days later made clear that the team’s entire line-up was joining up, the coach, too, Bonny Gard, who said “he might as well go along with them in France as stay at home here and be lonesome.” (With another month of the season still to play, possibly, Colonel Greer graciously agreed to make sure that the Riverside recruits would be granted leave for all and any games.)

Later that same week, on February 14, a recruiting jamboree for the 180th filled Massey Hall. “Half a dozen boxers, recently enlisted, gave sparring exhibitions, enlisted bike riders raced on rollers, and there was a long program free to members of athletic clubs,” a dispatch in the Montreal Gazette affirmed. “Massey Hall was packed to the roof with the flower of the Queen City’s athletes.”

In two hours, the 180th had signed up 325 new recruits, breaking, it was reported, “all Canadian recruiting records.”

At strength, the battalion eventually counted 31 officers and 833 other ranks. They spent the spring and summer training as infantry at Toronto’s Exhibition Camp. There was time for some hockey, too, before the ice thawed out for the season. In March, a few days after Noble and the Riversides wrapped up the OHA Senior championship over a Berlin, Ontario, team anchored in goal George Hainsworth, the 180th’s hockey team took on the 93rd Battalion from Peterborough in a St. Patrick’s Game at the Mutual Street Arena.

Reg Noble skated in that game, at rover, and he was judged to be the best player on the ice. He had a couple of teammates with OHA Senior experience skating with him, but they couldn’t overcome the 93rd squad, who’d played the season on the OHA’s Intermediate loop. The visitors ended up winning by a score of 2-1. Between the first and second periods, a speedy local skater named Fred Robson scampered (unofficially) 50 yards in just under the world’s record time of five seconds. In the second intermission, he returned to entertain the crowd with a barrel-jumping show.

Noble still had more hockey to play before he fully devoted himself to soldiering. Though Riversides opted out of heading west to Winnipeg to play for the Allan Cup, the national Senior championship, they did play several exhibitions late in March. Facing Dick Irvin’s visiting Winnipeg Monarchs at the Arena, the Riversides prevailed 8-7, with Noble playing a starring role that included scoring a goal while (the Daily Star related) “practically standing on his ear and with four Monarchs glued to him.” (The team that did win the Allan Cup, by the by, was Joe Simpson’s 61st Battalion from Winnipeg.)

At some point, with hockey having reached its seasonal end, the sporting soldiers of the 180th moved north out of Toronto to continue their training at Camp Borden, southwest of Barrie, where as many as 25,000 soldiers were under canvas that summer. When they weren’t learning infantry tactics and how to use their weapons, the men of the 180th boxed and raced and hit baseballs whenever the opportunity arose. In July, they helped build an in-camp stadium with seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

“Good athletes do not always make good soldiers,” a column in The Windsor Star warned around this time, noting that Lieut.-Colonel Greer had been forced to make some hard choices as the summer went on. “Much to the colonel’s surprise, he has been compelled to drop several champions from the ranks because they could not stand the wear and tear of a hard route march.” Names were named: Erme Woods, “the well-known distance runner” was ousted along with a couple of accomplished boxers who couldn’t keep up.

“Colonel Greer is handling his battalion just as he would [a] baseball team,” the Star said, “and is rapidly getting rid of the ‘dead-wood.’ He wants only the best, and it is his determination to make the 180th battalion second to none.”

He must have pleased when, in August, the Sportsmen dominated the 4th Brigade athletic meet, showing particularly well in the mile-run, the 16-pound shot put, and the tug of war. The Sportsmen didn’t fare so well in the bayonet-fighting contest, which they lost by a score of 5-3 to the 147th (Grey) Battalion from Owen Sound.

No Noble: Bidding farewell to Toronto in November of 1916, the men of the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion prepare to leave Union Station on their way to Halifax and, from there, the war in France. Reg Noble had already been discharged by this point. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 821)

In September the battalion got its notice from Ottawa to be ready to ship out — the 180th was  “warned for overseas,” in the parlance. In fact, it would be November before they made their move by train to Halifax. From there, they crossed the Atlantic to England in four days aboard the Olympic.

Many of the men would see action — some would die — the following year in the harrowing battles around Vimy Ridge in northern France. But the 180th was no longer, by then, a unit. In January of 1917, the battalion was absorbed into the 3rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, from which the men were assigned to other battalions in need of reinforcement.

The Leafs’ trainer-to-be got to England, where Private Tommy Daly served as Colonel Greer’s orderly — his servant, basically — before being invalided home and discharged from the CEF because of a wonky right shoulder. Daly had hurt it in February of 1916, not a month after enlisting. “Injured slightly while boxing,” his medical records testify, “Feb. 21/16, and has had pain since then.”

Private Reg Noble’s story was a little different: he never even made it to the wharf in Halifax. Declared “Medically Unfit,” Noble departed Camp Borden, the battalion, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force in one fell swoop at the end of September of 1916, a victim of — well, I guess in Colonel Greer’s way of seeing things, he was surplus to the battalion’s second-to-none purposes.

Noble may have had an 18-year NHL career ahead of him but that fall, as it turns out, he just couldn’t march the way soldiers of the infantry are meant to march.

An old hockey injury was to blame. Or maybe newer baseball damage? Contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that he hurt an ankle playing ball at Borden in the summer of 1916 and that the injury was not only serious enough to see him mustered out of uniform, it looked like it might keep him off skates, too.

That could well have been the case but if so, it doesn’t happen to have been entered as the official reason for Noble’s military career coming to its end.

As detailed in Noble’s CEF discharge papers, one of the scars that Captain Barton had marked down when Noble attested in February, the one on the instep of his right foot, commemorated a cut from a skate he’d suffered in 1914 playing hockey back home in Collingwood. The blade had gone deep, enough to cut the tendon and immobilize his big toe.

The 180th’s Medical Officer, Captain Brown, wrote it up. “Can follow the marching under difficulty but has to have frequent periods of light duty,” he noted. “Sent him to hospital where they could do nothing for the condition.”

On a second page, Captain Brown gave his own interpretation of Noble’s scar status — unless Noble had acquired a new configuration in a summer of mishaps? Now, instead of 3 shin scars and one apiece on a foot and a knee, he was credited with

Scar on palm of left hand. Scar on right foot. Bullet scar on right leg.

Farther down the page, in answer to the military form question What is the probable duration of the disability?Captain Brown wrote “Permanent.”

Next question: To what extent will it prevent a full livelihood in the general labour market? Please state in fractions. Captain Brown’s answer: “Will not prevent his earning full livelihood more than before enlisting.”

True enough. By mid-November, as Noble’s former brothers in arms set sail, the word from Toronto was that Eddie Livingstone, wildcard owner of the local NHA Blueshirts, had signed Noble to his first pro contract.

And so, in the winter he didn’t go to war, Noble lined up for a team that included Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Duke Keats. He made a quick impression, and a good one. The Blueshirts started the season in Montreal by beating Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions, by a score of 7-1. Noble didn’t score, but neither did he seem to show any signs of a tender ankle or instep. “He checked [Didier] Pitre, the Canadien star forward,” Toronto’s Daily Star noted, “and smothered him throughout the game. … His rushes were effective, too, and he had speed to burn.”

Reg Noble scored his first pro goal, and his second, in Toronto’s next game, back at the Mutual Street Arena, when the Blueshirts did away with the Quebec Bulldogs by a score of 8-5.

The Blueshirts didn’t last out the season: early in 1917, when the team from the 228th Battalion famously left the NHA in a whole lot of hurry, the league decided to eject Toronto, too, mostly because they didn’t want to deal with owner Eddie Livingstone any longer. That’s when Noble made the switch to Montreal, seeing out the ’16-17 season with Canadiens.

That fall, of course, the NHA collapsed and the NHL arose all on the same day, in Montreal, mostly, again, to stymie Livingstone. Toronto launched a whole new team that year, and Reg Noble was one of the players they signed up. That’s how, in December of 1917, he was on the ice to score an Auston Matthewsesque four goals in his and his team’s National Hockey League debut, as they started out on their way to winning the franchise’s very first Stanley Cup.

For a panoramic view of the many men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, proudly paraded in April of 1916 at Toronto’s east-end Riverdale Park, click over this way, then click again to zoom in. Reg Noble is in there somewhere, along with the man-who-would-be-Tim-Daly, long-serving Maple Leafs trainer. Let me know if you find them. Look beyond the soldiers, too, over to the right: those are hockey rinks coming down for the season, aren’t they?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.