There was no better team in hockey through the 1920s than the Ottawa Senators, who won four Stanley Cups in eight years with a line-up stacked with future Hall-of-Famers. Coached by the brilliant (and sadly undersung) Pete Green through the first years of the NHL’s first decade, the Senators counted on a core of supremely skilled players in those years that included Clint Benedict in goal, King Clancy and Lionel Hitchman on defence, and Cy Denneny, Frank Nighbor, and Jack Darragh on the forward line.
Captaining the team through those first three championships was the anchorman of the defence, Eddie Gerard. Born in Ottawa on a Saturday of this date in 1890, Gerard deserves a bigger fame, better broadcast, than he has nowadays. The modern-day Senators could get things going — and should — by retiring his number 2 and raising it to the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre. Then again, according to me, they ought to be hoisting a whole wardrobe’s worth of sweaters to honour that golden age, including Nighbor’s number 6, Cy Denneny’s 5, and Darragh’s 7, just for a start.
Gerard played his last NHL season in 1923, when, aged 33, he steered the Senators their third Cup in four years. (He actually got his name on four straight Cups, but that’s a tale for another day.) It was early March when the Senators beat the Montreal Canadiens in two games to take the NHL title, whereupon the team boarded a CPR train for Vancouver.
On arrival to the coast, Ottawa surpassed the PCHL Vancouver Maroons in four games to earn the right to meet the Edmonton Eskimos in for the Stanley Cup, which they collected by way of a two-game sweep of the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos.
On the rails heading west, the Senators were accommodated in a special carriage, the “Neptune.” It’s worth noting that they left two prominent members of their team behind in the capital: winger Jack Darragh and coach Pete Green were both unable to make the trip west. Canadiens winger Billy Boucher did join the Senators for their Stanley Cup swing — he was from Ottawa, after all, a brother to Senators’ defenceman Buck Boucher — but didn’t, in the end, play a single game on the coast. So Ottawa had just nine players available for the six games they played on their way to winning the Cup.
It wasn’t easy. During the finals, Harry Helman cut his foot and was unable to play. Buck Boucher and Lionel Hitchman played through injuries, while Eddie Gerard suited up for the last two games despite torn ligaments in a shoulder that was also doubly fractured. In the deciding game, after Clint Benedict was penalized for chopping at Joe Simpson’s skates, 20-year-old Ottawa defenceman King Clancy took a turn in goal, proving himself to be uniquely versatile — earlier in Ottawa’s undermanned visit to the coast, he’d also taken turns at centre and on both wings as well as doing his regular duty as a defender.
Back in Ottawa that April, Eddie Gerard was invited to address the regular Wednesday-night meeting of the youngsters of the Canuck Club at the YMCA. His young audience sat on the gym floor to listen to the Senator captain tell them (as the Ottawa Citizen reported it) “that the first man signed on by the Ottawa players before starting out West was ‘Mr. Harmony,’ and he said that without harmony nothing could succeed.”
His message was, of course, about playing as a team, with a shared purpose — but it was also about, well, harmonies.
Turns out that the Senators packed a small piano for their train journey west, with Gerard and trainer Cozy Dolan as principal performers, ably accompanied by Lionel Hitchman on violin, Clancy on harmonica, and Helman on drums. “This might appear on paper as a joke orchestra,” Citizen sports editor Ed Baker wrote, “but it is not. It’s a real honest to goodness band.”
Gerard recalled this a decade later, when he was coaching the New York Americans. “Harmony on a hockey club,” he told Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1931, “is half the battle. And one kind of harmony brings another. I like to sign singing players. If they knock around together off the ice, they’re liable to fight for another on it. Conversely, the player who curses his teammate in the hotel and on the trains isn’t going to pass him in front of the goal when he should.”
That’s when he remembered the musical rides of the ’20s. The Senators had shunted west in 1921, too, also (I guess) with a piano aboard? “All the fellows could sing,” Gerard testified in 1931, “but I think Sprague Cleghorn had the best voice. Our trainer, Cozy Dolan, could play anything from the big drum to the little piccolo.”
One more (non-musical note), on a matter of historical housekeeping: shouldn’t Tommy Gorman get the credit for coaching the Senators to that 1923 Cup? With Pete Green staying home in Ottawa, manager Gorman does seem to have taken charge on the Ottawa bench for those western playoff games that year. And yet in most of the standard records, Gorman’s coaching career is listed as beginning in 1925, when he took over the New York Americans. Seems like deserves the credit for the work he did in that regard for the Senators, too, in claiming that Stanley Cup.