A felicitous find by Mikaël Lalancette, writer at Quebec City’s Le Soleil and author, last year, of an insightful biography, Georges Vézina: L’Habitant Silencieux. As detailed in a column published in Le Soleil this past Thursday, Lalancette’s Vézina research took him deep into the century-old annals of Montreal Canadiens history, which is where he came across an early effort by management to breathe energy, endurance, and victory into a flailing team.
“In 113 years of history, the Montreal Canadiens have tried everything,” he writes, with a nod to the recent struggles of the current edition of the team. “Every means, good or not, to get the club out of its torpor has been tested by its leaders over time. As we know, reviving a losing team is not easy in professional sports and the most recent slide of Quebecers’ favourite club is a good example.”
The column is here (it’s in French, and paywalled). The upshot is this: early in the winter of 1912, with his team mired in a four-game losing streak, Canadiens manager George Kennedy had doctors dose his players with oxygen during a game at the Jubilee Arena.
According to Lalancette’s source material, an item in the Montreal Daily Star, the effect was negligible. According to history, too: Canadiens lost that game by a score of 9-1 to their local rivals, the Montreal Wanderers. The season, too, was a bust, with the not-yet-Glorieux finishing dead last in the four-team NHA standings.
Into just the third season of their existence, Canadiens had yet to flourish in the old National Hockey Association. Going into the 1911-12 season, they’d lost their leading goal-getter: Newsy Lalonde had departed for more lucrative horizons in the west, joining the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires. Still, Montreal featured Vézina in goal, along with a couple of other future Hall-of-Famers on the ice in front of him in Jack Laviolette and Didier Pitre.
The man overseeing them, George Kennedy, was a former wrestling champion who was well-known, too, as a manager of wrestlers and lacrosse teams. He also happened to own the Canadiens.
On a trip that winter of 1912 to the United States, he’d heard tell of “the wonderful effects of the oxygen treatment.” After consulting with medically minded friends in Montreal, he decided to give it a go. “In his desire not to let anything prevent his team from,” the Star reported 110 years ago, he soon acquired “a hundred gallons of the purified air,” along with a pair of doctors to administer it in the Canadiens’ dressing room.
The players were … wary. Another report from the rink noted that “the majority of the team did not seem to take kindly to it, in fact, some of them seemed to be afraid of it,” even with the doctors taking charge. The only player “who really tried it thoroughly,” the Star said, was forward Eugène Payan, “and though there was some improvement in his gait, it did not amount to much.”
As Lalancette notes in Le Soleil, while inhaling pure oxygen on an ad hoc basis might refresh a gasping hockey players, there’s no particular magic in it, particularly not for athletes in whose blood oxygen saturation is already maximized.
In 1912, the Star listed champagne as the between-periods tonic of choice for hockey players, while hinting vaguely “of even more dangerous stimulants … used occasionally.” One columnist from Ottawa’s Journal suggested that Canadiens would soon be back on the bottle, while another framed it as a question of sporting morality.
Any such artificial devices to excite temporary energy has its reaction, and must, in the long run prove injurious. When athletes reach a state of fatigue where the administration of oxygen is necessary, then it is neither to their advantage nor to that of the sport in which they participate to continue. Sportsmanship and the oxygen treatment are miles apart.
A coda (or three) to Lalancette’s report, offered in passing.
First, just a month after Montreal aerated its players, the Montreal Daily Star carried news of a letter that had appeared in a European newspaper concerning track events at the forthcoming 1912 Olympic Summer Games slated for Stockholm. Would a runner competing there, the writer wondered, be permitted to partake of “oxygen gas from a bag carried by him?”
It would be extremely interesting to see whether such breathing is of material assistance to the runner, and as oxygen gas is not a drug, but as natural an article of consumption as water, there seems to be no reason why the runner should be disqualified for refreshing himself with it as he may with water or soup.
I can’t say whether anything came of this: I have no further information, I’m afraid, on whether any of the results in Stockholm were oxygen- or soup-assisted.
I can recount (second) that back in Montreal, at the rink, Canadiens played their penultimate game of the 1911-12 season as March began, taking on the Wanderers again. This time they eked out a 2-1 win, thanks to a pair of goals by Jack Laviolette.
Further unhappy news headlined a column —
Payan Is Injured
Left Wing of Canadien Team
Taken to Hospital as Result
of a Collision
— in next morning’s Montreal Gazette.
Skating at high speed in the first period, Eugène Payan had collided, head-to-head, with the Wanderers’ Odie Cleghorn. Payan went down, but got up, and went on playing.
It was between periods in the Canadiens’ dressing room that he collapsed. From there, he was taken to Montreal’s Western Hospital, where he was deemed to have suffered a serious concussion, though no fracture of the skull.
As the Star told it, there was for a while some doubt in the immediate aftermath about whether he would survive, which made the scene as he departed the Arena all the more piteous: as the game carried on “amongst thundering applause, poor Payan still persisting in a half unconscious way: ‘I want to finish my game! I want to finish my game!’ was carried to the waiting ambulance.”
By the time the game was over, Payan was reported to be out of danger. The following day, the Daily Star carried tidings that he was “a good deal better.”
Through this ordeal, in the dressing room at the Jubilee Arena, it would seem, the Canadiens still had their oxygen apparatus at the ready. It featured notably in the Star’s dramatic description of intermission scene when Payan first collapsed:
He had gone in when suddenly he exclaimed in an awestruck voice, “I am paralyzed,” and began to sway. They grabbed him before he could fall and laid him on the table where they administered as much oxygen as they dared to revive him, not knowing exactly what had happened.
Suddenly his arms and legs began to twitch as if he had taken a violent dose of strychnine and a hurried examination showed that he had been hurt on the side of the head where the bone is as thin as letter paper.
Last (third), a flash forward to April of 1949, and what would seem to be the NHL debut of oxygen.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were hosting the Detroit Red Wings that year, and with the Leafs leading the series three games to none, Jack Adams’ Wings were open to anything that might lend them a lifeline.
With George Kennedy’s 1912 experiment long forgotten, the Canadian Press was claiming that the very first use of oxygen in a hockey game in Canada had come a month earlier, in March of 1949, when players with the Dartmouth College Indians had partaken as they surrendered the International Intercollegiate title in Montreal to the University of Montreal Carabins.
Then in April, Montreal’s junior Royals used oxygen at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto as they defeated the Barrie Flyers to win the Eastern Canada Junior championship. It was the Royals’ tanks, tubes, and masks that the Red Wings borrowed to try to oxygenate their hopes for a Stanley Cup comeback.
In vain. “Even mechanical strength-reviving gadgets have their limitations when the cause is hopeless,” Jim Vipond wrote in his dispatch for the Globe and Mail after Toronto duly wrapped up a 3-1 win to take the Cup. “The Leafs looked more impressive than ever, playing at the finish as if they, and not the weary Detroiters, had been inhaling at an oxygen tank at their bench.”