montreal, 1920: beyond the shadow of a drought

New Digs: All was ready for the opening of the Montreal Canadiens new arena in January of 1920 … until a municipal strike cut the city’s water supply.

Montreal Mayor Médéric Martin asked that the waterworkers wait until after the holidays to walk off the job, but on New Year’s Eve of 1919, at 7 p.m., the unhappy municipal employees telephoned to say that they could delay their strike no longer.

So began what local newspapers would soon be calling Montreal’s “water famine,” a mid-winter crisis that quickly dried out Canada’s largest city and turned things desperate as hospitals, firehouses, homes, and businesses turned their taps in vain. In 1920 as now, hockey was no essential service, but it’s why we’re here, so it’s my duty to report the collateral damage: on this day 102 years ago, the Montreal Canadiens postponed the game they were scheduled to play against the Toronto St. Patricks, thereby delaying (again) the NHL debut of Canadiens’ brand-new arena.

Going into the league’s third season, the Canadiens were already on the third arena of their short NHL tenure. Water was only secondarily involved in the demise of the first two, which both burned down.

In early 1918, fire had razed the Westmount Arena, incinerating most of the Canadiens’ equipment in the process — their skates were spared, having been sent out for sharpening. The destruction of the arena at the corner of Saint-Catherine Street West and Wood Avenue (about two kilometres, or a 26-minute walk from Canadiens’ present-day home at the Bell Centre) also spelled the end for Montreal’s other original NHL team: after just four games, Sam Lichtenhein’s Wanderers folded that first winter.

The cause of that fire was deemed to be faulty wiring in the Wanderers’ dressing room.

For their part, the Canadiens made a move east to the arena where they’d started, in 1909: the Jubilee, a distance of just over five kilometres from the Bell Centre, at the corner of Saint-Catherine East and what’s now rue Alphonse-D. Roy. While the Westmount could accommodate some 4,300 spectators, the Jubilee only had room for about 3,000.

It was at the Jubilee that the Canadiens wrapped up an NHL championship in March of 1919, defeating the Ottawa Senators 4-2 to clinch the title in five games. Four days later, George Kennedy and his team boarded a train at Montreal’s Windsor Station, bound for Seattle (by way of Vancouver) and that year’s fatal, unfinished Stanley Cup finals.

It was later that same April that the Jubilee caught fire. The Gazette had the story next day. “Sweeping from St. Catherine street to Notre Dame street, the flames soon ate their way through the entire structure, which was of wood supported by iron beams. The beams soon crumpled under the heat and the building collapsed.”

The cause wasn’t immediately known. Police detectives interviewed striking carters who’d been loitering around the nearby Canadian Northern Railway station, but they were soon cleared of suspicion. The Montreal Star noted that another fire, earlier in the year, at the arena’s bandstand, was the fault of “irresponsible boys who had managed to get in the rink and had set the fire while playing with matches or cigarettes.”

This time around, survivors of the conflagration apparently included a pair of nets.

Canadiens owner and manager George Kennedy was 39 when he died in October of 1921, two-and-a-half years after his 1919 bout with Spanish flu.

Canadiens’ owner and manager George Kennedy had been hit hard in the Seattle outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall, and lingering of effects of his April illness would factor into his death at the age of just 39 in 1921. But by autumn of 1919, he was well enough to be preparing for a new NHL season, mailing out contracts to his players and working on finding them a new home.

One possibility had evaporated in September when the backers of a project at a familiar address decided to postpone their plan build on Atwater at Saint-Catherine Street West — i.e. directly adjoining the site of the roller rink and outdoor skating rink that had been operating since 1908 as the Forum. I’m not sure that much has been made of this aborted effort that might have seen the Canadiens make their home at Cabot Square five years before the new Forum was built with an original capacity of 9,300.

As it is, of course, it would be 1926 before the team moved to its most famous home, a mere 1.6 kilometres from today’s Bell Centre.

Another prospective arena was said to be in the works at a site east of the Forum. There was also word that the Canadiens might be considering playing at least part of the upcoming season elsewhere, out of town.

In November of 1919, as the NHL’s annual meetings got underway at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, the Gazette noted that Kennedy was busy negotiating terms with the management of the new (still under-construction) Mount Royal Arena. This was horse-racing promoter Tom Duggan’s project, situated on the south side of Mont-Royal avenue between Clark and St. Urbain Streets, on the site of former exhibition grounds and lacrosse fields — a journey on foot of 3.6 kilometres from the Bell Centre.

Duggan was eager to secure an NHL team of his own. When he couldn’t land one in Montreal, he eventually acquired rights for teams in Boston and New York. The former he sold to grocery magnate Charles F. Adams, who parlayed them into the Bruins; retaining the latter for himself, he pitched in with bootlegger Bill Dwyer to launch the New York Americans.

Canadiens eventually signed up for a five-year residency upon the natural ice of the Mount Royal Arena, though as of late November there were still rumblings that the new facility wouldn’t be ready and that Canadiens might be forced to go into hibernation for a year.

George Kennedy put those to rest: he insisted that the new arena would be ready for service by Christmas Day. With Montreal’s 1919-20 home season due to open on Saturday, December 27 against the Ottawa Senators, it would be a near run thing, and so it wasn’t such a surprise when, in mid-December, Kennedy asked that the game be switched to Ottawa’s Arena, which it duly was.

The new date for Montreal’s home opener was set for Saturday, January 3. “Contractors are rushing work on the rink, and flooding as started yesterday,” Ottawa’s Citizen reported on the last day of the old year. “All the seats are in and the electrical fixtures are now being installed.”

The Mount Royal would have room for 6,000 or so; in George Kennedy’s cheerful telling that fall, its only shortcoming was that it would never accommodate all the fans who so dearly loved his team.

As work on the building went on, the January 3 game, too, was pushed off, re-scheduled for the following Monday.

That was the game that the water strike nixed. This was a long-burbling wage dispute that came to a boil on New Year’s Eve: it was after the city administration told employees in the aqueduct department that they should accept the city’s latest offer or resign, about 100 engineers, firemen, oilers, coal passers had walked off the job.

While city officials claimed that Montreal’s water supply would not be affected, they were wrong. In the chaos of the early hours of the strike, boilers cooled, steam stopped, turbines slowed, pistons broke, reservoirs emptied. “The pumping stations were abandoned,” as a miffed editorial in the Gazette told it, “part of the city was deprived of water, and all the city was put in danger from fire.”

It would be almost a week before the sides settled and Montreal’s water levels returned to normal. The Canadiens were just another local business caught up in the crisis. On Monday, Tom Duggan explained that, given the situation, the Mount Royal Arena couldn’t get its ice ready for NHL hockey. With no water coming in from the city’s reservoirs, the Arena was relying on the private Montreal Water and Power Company for its flooding supply, and that was only available between three and five in the morning. With that, while the surface might be playable — and indeed, for several amateur leagues was, all that week — George Kennedy decided that it wasn’t up to professional snuff.

“The reason we did not play yesterday,” he explained as the week went on, “was that the ice was too rough then to risk valuable players on.”

That’s mostly all. When the Canadiens did finally play their home opener on the following Saturday, January 10, 1920, they did it with aplomb, before a full house, trouncing the Toronto St. Patricks by a score of 14-7. Canadiens’ winger Didier Pitre had the distinction of scoring the first goal in Mount Royal Arena history, while Newsy Lalonde, his coach and captain, ended the night with six goals.

Newsy Flash: Canadiens’ coach and captain Newsy Lalonde inaugurated the Mount Royal Arena in January of 1920 with a six-goal performance against the Toronto St. Patricks.

“Montreal once more has an adequate arena for hockey,” was the dry estimation of the Montreal Daily Star. “The seats are piled more steeply upon one another than they were in the old Westmount Arena, but they afford an obstructed view of the ice. The principal weakness is the backs, which circus-like are too low, but this it is said was due to a misunderstanding and will be remedied as soon as possible.”

“The ice surface is somewhat smaller than that of the Westmount Arena.”

“Under the prevailing conditions,” the Gazette decided, “the arena management furnished a good sheet of ice.”

The Canadiens made up their postponed game against the Quebec Bulldogs the following Monday, adding a 7-3 win to their account.

It’s with Montreal’s next home game that we’ll end, on Saturday, January 17, 1920, when the Ottawa Senators were in town. Riding a three-game winning streak, Canadiens made it four that night with a 3-2 win. Their new home, unhappily, didn’t perform as well as it might have.

The Montreal newspapers didn’t pay it much due, or seem too concerned; it was bigger news in Ottawa.

“People got a lot of excitement,” as the Ottawa Citizen framed it, “that was not on the program.”

In the second period, Ottawa’s star defenceman Eddie Gerard picked up the puck, rushed Georges Vézina’s net, unleashed a shot. The Citizen:

There was a squeak of splintering wood as hundreds in the ‘bleachers’ crammed forward to see where the puck had gone, then someone began to scream and about a hundred wild-eyed hockey fans were precipitated when the balcony railing gave way down into the pit of the rink. Weight on the floor when the railing cracked, caused a portion of the stand itself to collapse, whereupon more of the spectators tumbled down about fifteen feet. Women began to scream, fearing that the whole rink was giving in, and Referee [Lou] Marsh stopped the play while police appeared from many corners and rushed out on the ice. Officials, players, and the police, as well as rink management showed a cool headed judgment, and within a few minutes it was seen that nobody had been injured, though it was miraculous that many were not seriously hurt. Fortunately, however, there was no panic of any kind, though many rushed for the exits, but there were a large number of nerve-racked women, several of whom had to be assisted out of the rink. These were sitting in the East end when the floor above them gave way, to send nearly a hundred boys and men head over heels upon them. After about ten minutes, order was restored and play resumed and there appeared no further difficulty. The police lined up in front of the portion that had loosened and managed to keep the crowd back. Doctors were on hand but they were not needed.

The Montreal Gazette offered a few more piquant details along with a slightly different damage report. No mention in the Gazette of any of the stand collapsing, only that “fifty feet of light wooden railing” gave way, causing spectators to tumble. The wire netting that protected fans from stray pucks broke their plunge.

The spectators, after the surprise of their fall, climbed back good humouredly into their seats and pulled up the railing with them, placing it in such a position that it would not fall again. None of them, however, jumped to their feet again during the game.

As for casualties, the Gazette enumerated a pair of broken eyeglasses and a single torn overcoat.

Officials and policemen did, in the Montreal version, make sure that nobody was injured.

Two women, however, preferred to leave, and Referee Marsh escorted them across the ice before resuming the game. The damage done to the gallery was slight.

Not Quite: Canadiens and Bulldogs didn’t get on the ice on January 5, 1920, despite the ads touting the game in Montreal newspapers. When the postponed game was played a week later, Montreal prevailed by a score of 7-3.

 

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