“I can’t talk about it,” said Cecil Hart, coach of the Canadiens. “It is terrible — a thunderbolt.”
It was 84 years ago, late on another Monday night of this date, that the great Howie Morenz died at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc of complications after he fractured his left leg in an accident at the Forum in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of January. He was 34.
Funeral services were held at the Forum three days later. Ten thousand mourners were on hand in the arena, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 thronged the route as the cortege made its way to Mount Royal Cemetery for the burial.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, March 9, Morenz’s teammates somehow managed to get through their scheduled game against the Montreal Maroons. (The Maroons prevailed by a score of 4-1.) Aurèle Joliat, Morenz’s loyal left winger and his fast friend, was out of the line-up on the night with a leg injury, but he was back for Montreal’s Saturday-night meeting with the New York Rangers, wherein Canadiens prevailed 1-0 on a goal from Morenz’s long-time right winger, Johnny Gagnon.
That’s the night that the photograph above may well have been posed, showing Joliat and coach Hart gazing on Morenz’s forlorn gear. “The wait is in vain, the Meteor is extinguished,” read the caption above a version that ran on the Sunday in Le Petit Journal.
Leo Dandurand would tell the story that he’d been the one to put the 7 on Morenz’s sweater back when the Stratford Streak first signed on to play with Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. “Remembering that Morenz’ contract was dated July 7, 1923 (which was also my birthday),” the Montreal owner, manager, and sometime coach later wrote, “I assigned him sweater number seven the first day he reported to Canadiens.”
A whole constellation of early Canadiens stars had worn the number seven going back to the beginnings of the team in 1910, including Jack Laviolette, Jimmy Gardner, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Malone, Howard McNamara, and (the last before Morenz) Odie Cleghorn.
When Morenz departed Montreal for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934, Dandurand declared that no other Canadien would wear the number again. As Dandurand told it in 1953, he meant forever, though at least one contemporary newspaper account from the fall of ’34 suggests that the understanding at the time was that it would go unworn as long as Morenz continued playing in the NHL. Either way, by various accounts, sweater number seven remained hanging in the Montreal dressing room for the duration of Morenz’s two-year odyssey to Chicago and then New York.
He reclaimed it when he (and Cecil Hart) rejoined Montreal in the fall of 1936. When he was injured in January, it returned to its hook when he departed the Forum on his way to hospital.
In the wake of his death, Canadiens immediately declared that his number would be worn no more, making Montreal’s seven the third NHL number to be retired, after Ace Bailey’s Toronto six and Lionel Hitchman’s Boston three, both of which were so honoured in the same week (Bailey first) in February of 1934.
In November of 1937, Canadiens did amend their numerical position, slightly, making clear that when Howie Morenz Jr. ascended to play for the team, he would inherit his father’s number.
Howie Jr. had celebrated his tenth birthday that year. He did, it’s true, show promise as a centerman in later years, skating with the Montreal Junior Canadiens as well as the USHL Dallas Texans before a degenerative eye condition put an effective end to his chances of reaching the NHL.
November of ’37 saw the NHL stage the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at the Forum. A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team combing Maroons and Canadiens by a score of 6-5 in front of a crowd of 8,683 fans. Some $20,000 was raised on the night for the Morenz family. Former Canadiens owner (and goaltender) Joe Cattarinich paid $500 for the Morenz’ equipment and sweater, which he then handed over to Howie Jr.
The program for that Memorial evening included this photograph, just above, purported to be the only one in existence to have caught Morenz from the back while he wore his celebrated seven. It’s a good image, even if it isn’t, in fact, so very exclusive — I’ve seen Morenz showing his back in other photographs going back to the ’20s.