Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, southwest of Ottawa, on a Tuesday of this date in 1890, Cooper Smeaton was the NHL’s very first referee-in-chief. It was the reffing that got him into the Hall of Fame, years and years of it, but Smeaton also played the game, served time (briefly) as an NHL coach, and presided as a trustee of the Stanley Cup. He got his start playing point — defence — with several Montreal teams in the 1910s, and was a teammate of Odie and Sprague Cleghorn’s with the New York Wanderers in the American Amateur Hockey League. He refereed in the old National Hockey Association before signing up, in 1917, to serve in the artillery with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was a sergeant when he returned from France, and decorated, having been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for saving an ammunition dump from destruction after it was hit by a German shell.
The Hall of Fame says that as a referee he was fearless and always showed good sense. Enforcing the rules in the NHL in the early 1920s was not, let’s recall, for the frail-hearted or self-doubtful. An account I’ve been browsing of a 1923 game between Canadiens and Senators at Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena describes how unruly fans besieged the Ottawa dressing room after the game, and how the referees, Smeaton and Lou Marsh, tried to defend the visitors. “Cooper Smeaton used his fists freely in the battle,” one report goes, “and the police grabbed two or three of the ringleaders.” It was in the aftermath of Billy Coutu’s attack on referee Jerry Laflamme that Smeaton was appointed as the NHL’s one-ref-to-rule-them-all in 1927. He kept on as a full-time whistler, too, and continued to pay the price. In 1929, overseeing a game in New York between Canadiens and Americans, he ended up with a broken leg after tumbling into the boards in a melee of players. That was in the second period; he finished the game before seeking treatment.
In 1933, after he cracked a pair of ribs breaking up a fight between Boston’s Eddie Shore and Sylvio Mantha of Montreal, he was back on the ice a couple of days later for a game between Canadiens and Senators. He had to warn the visiting team, that night, for foul language. “The Ottawans,” Montreal’s Gazette noted, “were very loquacious all evening, climaxing a night’s oratorical effort with a barrage of Smeaton as he left the ice.”
He took a break from refereeing in 1930 to coach the Philadelphia Quakers through their only NHL campaign, after the franchise moved from Pittsburgh, and before it folded for good in 1931. A couple of young Quakers, like Syd Howe and Wilf Cude, would go on to have fruitful NHL careers, but as a team that season, Philadelphia was a bust, winning just four of 44 games, and finishing dead last in the ten-team NHL.
Smeaton later said that he lost 40 pounds that year just from worrying whether there would be enough money day-to-day to keep the team on ice. He recalled waiting with his players on a Philadelphia street in hope that a messenger would show up from the bank. “We were scheduled to play in Chicago and it was getting near train time and we needed the money for the trip. The man finally arrived with the money but a succession of things like that can wear you out.”