red-sweater days

Keeping It Light: A gathering of snowy-sweatered Habs in the Forum dressing room circa the later 1930s as depicted by artist Carleton “Mac” McDiarmid.

The problem was Detroit. Well, the design of Detroit’s Red Wing sweaters, anyway. The colour, to be specific, which was red. This week in 1932, the NHL discovered how much red was too much.

The NHL’s actual problems that Depression year included tottering franchises in Ottawa and Detroit, so in terms of trouble, this sweaters business was probably lower down on the list, low enough that nobody bothered to deal with it before the season got underway. The background, briefly, is that the Detroit Falcons, having faltered into receivership, were sold part and parcel with their arena, the Olympia, to James Norris, the Montreal-born, Chicago-based grain and cattle millionaire. It was Norris who changed the team’s name to Red Wings. He designed the new logo, too, the famous flyaway wheel. He’d wanted to call the team the Winged Wheelers, after the old Montreal Hockey Club, winners of the first Stanley Cup in 1893, but friends convinced him that the name didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

And, in early December of 1932, it was the Red Wings who were poised to relaunch themselves as part of the nine-team NHL. The league’s modern-day teams wear coats of many (and constantly changing) colours, but in those early years, most teams styled a single outfit for games at home and away. Notwithstanding the Expo-blue arrays that may have caught your eye this very week, the sweaters the Montreal Canadiens wore (and that bore their logo, banded around the torso) were, for most of the first two decades of their existence, solidly, gloriously, red.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were the first NHL team to give themselves options, adding distinctive white and blue arrays for the 1927-28 season, a year after they transformed from St. Patricks. This would have helped keep things clear when the Leafs took on New York’s blue-shirted Rangers, or New York’s (also) blue-shirted Americans, though I’m not sure how those two teams avoided overriding confusion when they played each other in Manhattan. I guess the Fourth-of-July extravagance of the Americans’ sweaters was enough for those trying to tell the two teams apart. (The Americans did introduce white sweaters for the 1932-33 season; it was 1951 before the Rangers diversified.)

In Montreal, Maroons and Canadiens were close on the colour chart but distinct enough — brownish crimson vs. Christmas-bright — to have co-existed for eight seasons without colourful incident. The sweaters the Detroit’s Falcons had worn were predominantly white, with red facings, so there was no clash there, either.

Norris’ new Red Wings went all-red — socks, pants, sweaters — with white accents. You know the look: nearly a century later, the team still wears more or less the same rig for home games. In 1932, Montreal saw the new Red Wings when Jack Adams’ team took its first road trip, arriving at the Forum to play the Canadiens 90 years ago this week. There, for the first time, the situation was deemed one that needed addressing. A Canadian Press dispatch from the scene told the tale:

Detroit and Canadiens both took the ice in red uniforms. To avoid confusion the Red Wings donned white pullovers which hid their identity completely, as the sweaters covered the players numbers. The next time the two teams meet they will have white sweaters for the visiting club, but with the numbers on them.

It’s not entirely clear whether this promise was kept or not. Following Canadiens’ 1-0 overtime win at the Forum that Thursday, November 17 (Wildor Larochelle scored the winner), the two teams met again four days later at Detroit’s Olympia. The home team exacted their revenge on Montreal with a 4-2 victory that was powered by a pair of goals from rookie defenceman (and future Canadiens captain) Walt Buswell. As seen in the photograph below, the Canadiens donned plain white — not noticeably numbered — pinnies.

Red November: Montreal goes white for a game in Detroit in November of 1932. From left that’s Aurèle Joliat, Gerry Carson, and Battleship Leduc, with Larry Aurie of the Red Wings swooping in at right.

The teams met on four more occasions that 1932-33 season, with (for the record) Detroit holding a 2-1-1 edge over their ruddy rivals. The teams had their final match-up on a Sunday in March, for which we have evidence (here below) that the pinnies did now bear identifying (though possibly fairly faintly printed) numbers.

Flurry In Front: Montreal’s (non-pinnied) goaltender George Hainsworth clears the puck at Detroit’s Olympia on March 12, 1933, after a shot from Detroit’s Carl Voss. Wearing white for Canadiens are defencemen  (left, wearing a faint #11) Gerry Carson and Battleship Leduc.

The following season, 1933-34, the league got things straightened out. Well, halfway, at least. Along with the New York Americans, the Canadiens added a second uniform to their wardrobe. In the case of the latter, this featured handsome new white sweaters coloured (as the Gazette observed) “only by the red, white, and blue insignia of the club.” (They sported snowy socks with these, too.) These they debuted in Detroit on the night of Sunday, November 27, 1933, as seen below.

New-Look Habs: Montreal goes all-white in Detroit in November of 1933. That’s Detroit’s Eddie Wiseman (at right, stick uplifted) putting a puck past Canadiens’ goaltender Lorne Chabot.

A few days later, they wore them at the Forum for a 3-1 win over the New York Americans. “The change in colour makes [Aurèle] Joliat look even smaller than he is,” the Gazette commented. “It gives Sylvio Mantha a more robust appearance.”

This is a full two years earlier, notably, than acknowledged by the most comprehensive of hockey references tracking these sorts of things, nhluniforms.com. (The catalogue for Montreal is here.) The Canadiens themselves have it wrong, too, on the website whereupon they track their own history: they, too, erroneously date the origin of the Canadiens’ all-white sweater to December of 1935 (here).

As for Detroit, they seem to have delayed adding a second sweater. During the 1933-34 season, Canadiens don’t seem to have worn their new duds when Detroit came to visit the Forum, which left the Red Wings to go with the pinnies again, as rendered here by the La Patrie artist who sketched Detroit’s 4-1 win over Montreal on Thursday, March 15, 1934.

As widely and accurately noted, the Red Wings got their white uniforms to start the NHL’s 1934-35 campaign. When, exactly, did they first wear them? While I haven’t found a contemporary press reference, it’s probable that the Wings took them for a spin on the night of Saturday, November 17, 1934, when they beat the Canadiens 3-0 to open Montreal’s season at the Forum.

By the new year, we know, Detroit’s players were getting into the habit of wearing white wherever they went on the road, following up another win over Montreal in early January in the new uniforms by wearing them next game, too, in Chicago, where the Red Wings won again in white.

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