(not so) bad (as all that) joe hall

Joe Hall’s shocking death is fixed in hockey’s history within the context of the 1919 Stanley Cup finals, famously stopped in Seattle by a wave of Spanish flu before they could be completed. Hall, a veteran defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens, died of pneumonia within days of the final game having been abandoned, that April. He was 37.   

PCHA President Frank Patrick paid him tribute that week. “Joe Hall was one of the real veterans of hockey,” he said. “He has been playing senior since 1902, and the game suffers a great loss by his passing. Off the ice, he was one of the jolliest, best-hearted, most popular men who ever played.”

Born in 1881 on a Tuesday of this date in Milwich, just south of Stoke-on-Trent in England’s Midlands, Joe Hall acquired a whole other reputation on the ice, of course. Going back to the earliest days of his hockey development in and around Brandon, Manitoba, Hall proved himself to be a highly skilled and determined competitor. He could also be, and consistently was, vicious with stick and skates and fists. He was often suspended, and several times banned outright; there’s a case to be made that the nickname he acquired during his playing days doesn’t adequately represent the record of his wanton acts. Particularly in his younger years, Bad Joe Hall was Heinous.

It might be worthwhile to explore some of that history — maybe in a follow-up post? Stand by for that. Today we’ll go the other way, to wonder whether, actually, was Hall not so bad as all that? Was he misrepresented, misunderstood, unfairly vilified? Is his reputation in need of redemption? 

As early as 1911, efforts were afoot to rebrand him. Maybe in his past he’d been headstrong, heedless, ever verging on the violent, but that was all behind him now. He was with the NHA’s Quebec Bulldogs by then, and would be a key component in the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships they collected in 1912 and ’13.

“Bad Joe Hall is no longer ‘Bad Medicine,’” the Edmonton Journal declared, “and recent dispatches from Quebec state that the Jesse James of hockey is now so tame that he will eat out of the hand.” 

He had, true enough, “gained an international reputation for pure cussedness and was really better known to the penalty timers than to the fans, as he used to spend at least half of every game in the sweat box.”

The problem now was that referees who, refusing to look forget the past, would penalize him simply because he was Bad Joe. And, you know what, even in those old days, maybe his intentions weren’t as malign as they seemed. According to the Journal, many people (none of them named) felt that Hall was “far from being a bad actor.”

“These [same people] also ventured the opinion that when he was caught in the act of delivering a body blow, he was only endeavouring to get even for something that had been handed him earlier in the evening.”

This got to be a bit of a theme over the next couple of years. Here’s a columnist by the name of C.C. Stein writing in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1913:

“Joe is a living example of that old and true saying, ‘Give a dog a bad name,’ etc. Just as long as Hall plays hockey, he will carry the appellation of the ‘bad man’ of the game. He can’t get away from it.”

As rough and ready as he might have played it in his youth, Stein insisted, Hall had changed his game, and was now as well-behaved as they came — other than “on occasion when he is forced to retaliate for self-defensive purposes.”

“Hall wants to play clean hockey, but how can he when his opponents take advantage and slash and cut him when they find Joe is a lamb instead of a bear? And the moment Joe starts to retaliate officials pounce upon him. If Joe wants to get by with a clean game all he has to do is forget that his bones are breakable, and smile every time he is cracked on the shins or ankle.”

The inimitable Joe Malone weighed in on this same issue many years later. A teammate of Hall’s on those triumphant Quebec teams in ’12 and ’13, Malone did some reminiscing for The Hockey Book, Bill Roche’s 1953 anecdotal miscellany. 

“His title of ‘Badman,’ which he acquired through his aggressive (not dirty) play, was one that he enjoyed and laughed at more than anything else,” Malone recalled. “Some long-forgotten hockey writer, probably in a fit of pique, pinned the ‘bad’ tag on him when Joe was playing right wing for the Houghton team of the old blood-and-thunder International Pro League, back around 1905-06. It was a brand-new catchword at that time and, unfortunately, it stuck.”

“His type of play was not of the mean sort,” Malone insisted. “He checked heavily for the sheer sport of bodily contact, and he was always ready to take as well as to give. That was all the more remarkable when one remembers that his normal weight was only about 150 pounds.” 

“There were plenty of huge, rough characters on the ice in Hall’s time, and he was able to stay in there with them for about 19 years. That, I know, was largely because of the fact that his personal habits were above reproach and a model to his teammates.”

Malone still hoped that Hall could shed his moniker. 

“Just the name, Joe Hall, should stand down through hockey history as a symbol of pluck, aggressiveness, and courage. The addition of ‘bad’ is, and always has been, unfair and wrong.”

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