As detailed in yesterday’s post, Jean Pusie’s long hockey career was, shall we say, rife with incident. Proof positive here above: that’s Pusie on the charge, wearing number 1 on the back of his St. Louis Flyers’ sweater, during the third-period chaos that ensued at the Wichita Arena one Saturday night in February of 1939, when the Flyers were in to play the local Skyhawks.
According to The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the trouble started when St. Louis defenceman Bouncer Taylor took a penalty. Ralph was his given name; a decade earlier, he’d played in the NHL for Chicago and the New York Rangers. When a Wichita fan accosted him on the penalty bench, Pusie went to his aid, “slashing from the ice into the stands” at Taylor’s attacker.
Other fans joined in then, swinging, and hurling, the heavy metal folding chairs they’d been seated on. Pusie was hit on the head — and knocked unconscious, according to several accounts — before the counterattack we’re looking at here.
There was no mention of this when Pusie gave his version of events a few days later. The volatile defenceman had retreated to his home in Chambly, Quebec, by the time a reporter named John Leblanc tracked him down and transcribed the testimony he was willing to give in what Leblanc termed his “Habitant-ringed English.”
“You know,” Pusie began, “that’s one league where you must defend yourself. The National League, she’s tough. The International-American, she’s tough. I’ve played both. But the American Association, he’s toughest. The Murder League we call him.”
As Pusie explained it:
“I stay on the ice, you understood. One fan knock me down with a chair. The fan, I say, is always right. Another knock me down with another chair. I still think the fan is right. But then a third fan come at me with chair. I am knocked to my knees. I get up. The fan swings chair. I lift my stick and he puts up his chair to defend himself. When he lowers chair, I just let stick go at his chin, rifle style. The fans are wrong.”
Back in Wichita, two of them went to hospital with what were initially reported to be serious injuries, though both were soon released with no further details forthcoming. Zola Moore, 23, was one of them, though whether he was the first, second, or third assailant in Pusie’s story, I don’t know. He does appear in the photograph above: he’s the one with a hand to his head, next to the man gripping his chair as Pusie charges.
Pusie’s injuries were reported to be “deep scalp cuts and neck lacerations.” Despite these — despite having been knocked out — despite having assaulted a man with his stick — he returned to the game, head bandaged, when it resumed.
Pusie played the next night, too, when the teams met again back in St. Louis — despite having been arrested after the game Saturday night in Wichita, jailed, released, in time to join his teammates on the train back to Missouri, wherein he arrived with head swathed, as might have (the Post-Dispatch wrote) “done credit to a fellow caught in the explosion of a three-inch shell.”
As mentioned yesterday, Pusie was duly fined in a Wichita courtroom, though he missed the proceedings. Zola Moore later filed a lawsuit against Pusie, the Flyers, and the Skyhawks. He was seeking $5,000 in damages; I haven’t been able to trace how the suit turned out.
A player of small abilities is something they used to call Jean Pusie, back in the far-off 1930s, that and very popular. He was said to fool around a lot, which may have pleased the people in the stands but eventually wore out the welcome of coaches and managers, of league administrators, of referees (not necessarily in that order). Sort of like Sean Avery, then, except for widely beloved and altogether a sunnier spirit? Maybe more of an Eddie Shack. Hockey historian Andrew Podnieks, for one, is not impressed: Pusie was a man, he wrote in Players, his voluminous 2003 gazetteer of all-time NHLers, “who made such a bizarre ass of himself on the ice that he is as much myth as man, as much comic as player.”
Born in Montreal on Saturday, October 15, 1910, Pusie played defence for more 26 different teams between 1927 and 1947, most of them in minor leagues, Castors and Panthers, Cubs, Arrows, Renards, Monarchs, Tecumsehs.
I don’t know, though. Does he really deserve such an outright dismissal? There were also Rangers and Bruins and Canadiens in there, too. Pusie’s NHL career amounted to just 68 games in all, scattered across a 17-year horizon, but he could play. In 1931 he did duty in three of the five games that won Montreal the Stanley Cup. In 1934, Boston coach Frank Patrick was talking him up as “one of the most dangerous players in the game, with an extraordinarily fast and accurate shot.” And while Pusie managed just a single NHL goal over the years, he knew how to put the puck in the net. In 1933, he scored 30 goals to lead the WCHL.
He was a good lacrosse player, too, and a boxer. In 1933, not long after the Rangers signed him, Pusie made his debut as a professional wrestler, taking on a New York rival, Harvey Blackstone, and taking him down, mostly by way of (and I quote) terrific flying tackles.
Back in a hockey context,anticsis a word you often see nearby his name, which was often rolled out to full length, especially in American papers, Jean Baptiste Pusie.
Sometimes, too, they called him Gene in the U.S., where the sportswriters also had their brazen fun with his Quebec accent, to the point where (in 1939) it was deemed appropriate for The St. Louis Star and Times to render an answer he gave a reporter this way:
“I weel tell de troot. In de pazz, I have fight the referee; I have hit de fan; I have go home to Canada, for all of which I am verra sor-ree.”
Some of the other phrases associated, adjectivally, with his name over the years include:
- a versatile athlete who goes in for wrestling on the side (1933)
- giant defence player (1934)
- huge rookie for the Rangers (1934)
- the bristling and the pugilistic (1934)
- the riot of the Canam ranks (1935)
- Jean The Valiant (1936)
- a swashbuckling Frenchman (1939)
- hockey “bad boy” (1939)
- the rogue of the American Association (1939)
- Le Grand Jean (1943)
- the most colourful clown in all hockey history (1953)
- the bounce-’em-hard type (1956)
- a 75-carat kook; a jokester and superb showman (1980)
- an amusing fellow from Chambly (1992)
The unpredictable Jean Pusie dates to a 1940 report that details his refusal to pay a fine of $50. “Never have I paid a fine before,” Pusie declared. “There is no need to start now.” He was in the employ of the Vancouver Lions by then, in the PCHL, where Cyclone Taylor was president — he was the one to sanction Pusie, and suspend him for a game, after a fight. The Lions paid the fine, in the end, deducting it from Pusie’s wages.
Sportswriter Jim Coleman was someone who admired Pusie’s performance artistry. Called on to take a penalty shot, as he sometimes was, Pusie would preface his attempt by shaking hands with every member of his own team as well as the goaltender he was about to shoot on. “He’d circle the entire rink TWICE at high speed,” Coleman wrote, “pick up the puck and blast it at the goalie from 20-foot range. If he scored, Jean would circle the rink, waving his stick triumphantly at the crowd.”
“Pusie was at his best in his early days of pro hockey,” Bill Roche wrote in 1953, “when all his stuff was spontaneous. Later on, it got to be an act, and he turned into something of a showboat. A smart lad, despite his tomfoolery Jean Baptiste soon realized that his comedy could be developed produce more publicity than his straight hockey ability, in which he was lacking. He finally carried things too far, got into trouble more than once by tangling with cash customers and the police, and thus he disappeared from the hockey scene.”
That’s a reference, the last part, to Pusie’s stint in St. Louis in 1939. He was 27 by that time, and the Flyers there, then, were a good team, the reigning AHA champions, with Joe Matte in the line-up, and also Fido Purpur.
Carried things too far is one way of describing Pusie’s post-Christmas adventures that season. The question that nobody seems to have raised at the time is, even if he didn’t find himself in court in December, how did he avoid it in February and/or March?
Sorry; to be fair, he did go to jail, in Wichita, Kansas, just briefly. And his case did surface in court, too, though Pusie himself was absent. That was in February.
But first things first: a month earlier, he got into a fight with the Tulsa Oilers goaltender, Porky Levine, during which he spent some time kicking Levine. On the way to the penalty box, Pusie tripped the referee, Davey Davidson, punched him in the head. The league fined Pusie $100 for that — he paid, or his team did — and suspended him for 10 days.
In Wichita, in February, the Flyers were in to play the local Skyhawks, and a fan — or fans — threw a steel chair — maybe several chairs. One of them hit Pusie, on the head. Pusie counterattacked, with his stick. Hit a fan, on the head. Zola Moore was the fan’s name. He was 23. He ended up suing Pusie, the Flyers, and Wichita under Kansas’ mob law, seeking $5,000 in damages. (I can’t find a record of the outcome.) On the ice, there was no penalty on the play; when order was restored, Pusie finished the game. The team from Wichita lodged a protest about that, but by then Detective Captain Le Roy Bowery of the Wichita police had already arrested Pusie, charged him with aggravated assault. Flyers coach John McKinnon posted a $500 bond to spring him from jail.
There was no suspension this time, though Pusie did remove himself from the line-up, his team, the country, headed for his home in Chambly, Quebec, south of Montreal — all because, he declared, in that same game, his own goaltender, Hub Nelson, had reprimanded him for failing to stymie a Wichita rush.
Back home, he stewed in his snit for a bit. While he was gone, Judge John Hurley heard his case in Wichita’s Police Court. A local lawyer entered a guilty plea on his behalf and Judge Hurley fined him $450 plus $1.90 in court costs. That came out of the money that his coach had put up originally, as far as I can tell.
It’s hard to gauge how people felt about all this, people who were paying attention, whether they were appalled, wondered if hockey had a problem that was larger than Pusie, puzzled over the conundrum of how hockey assaults so rarely seemed to be considered actual assaults. There was a certain measure of outrage at hockey’s violent excesses that echoed in St. Louis in and around these events in ’39, if not much specific surprise when someone like Jean Pusie carried things too far, and farther. In Canada, news of Pusie running amok was often reported in a wry he’s-at-it-again tone, raising no alarms.
In the wake of Pusie’s first game back with the Flyers at the end of February, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a photo showing him being restrained by the president of the team and a member of the St. Louis Police Department’s Mounted Division, to keep him out of a melee that other players had started.
They couldn’t contain him for long. He was in a fight the next game, against the St. Paul Saints.
His next outburst was his final one that year in St. Louis. It came at the end of March, when the Flyers were facing the Tulsa Oilers in the finals. The second game, in Oklahoma, is the one we’re focussed on here. In the first period, referee Stan Swain called Pusie for slashing. To say that Pusie objected doesn’t quite capture the moment insofar as his objection involved knocking Swain to the ice. “This precipitated a near riot,” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “and grave trouble might have occurred had not Swain recovered after being unconscious on the ice for five minutes and resumed his duties as official.”
For knocking a referee out cold, Pusie was assessed a match penalty. And while Tulsa police did escort him from the arena, it was to protect him from local fans — he wasn’t, this time, charged for his assault. Pusie was subsequently suspended, despite his protests of innocence. “But I do not attack heem,” the St. Louis Star and Times heard from the accused. “Do not say Jean Pusie heet heem, he only poosh heem, an’ he fall.”
He appealed the suspension. His appeal was rejected, with emphasis: Pusie was, the AHA made clear, banned from the league for life.
And so, while his Flyers teammates got down to wrapping up the championship, Pusie changed gears, announcing that he’d signed up for a series of wrestling bouts across the U.S. Midwest. He only ended up in a single match, as it turned out, conquering Young Joe Stecher from Boston at the St. Louis Coliseum. The Star and Times was only too pleased to hear him philosophize after it was all over. “I do not like to fight rough in the razzle reeng,” Pusie said, in reporter Ray Gillespie’s rendering. “Why should I try to hurt de odder fellow for only one hundred books. We both moost make a leeving.”
Otherwise, that pre-war summer of ’39, Pusie was in the news for familiar reasons: in June, playing in Quebec’s Provincial Lacrosse League, he was tossed out of a game for pushing referee Paul Jacobs. (Jacobs, it’s worth mentioning in passing, was a hockey player, too, and may have been, though probably not, the first Indigenous player to skate in the NHL.)
With the fall came news that St. Louis had traded Pusie to Vancouver of the PCHL. He fought there, incurred more fines, as detailed above, and generally carried with his brand of carrying things too far. He still had seven more years of pro hockey in him, at this point. He even got back to St. Louis: in 1941, in light of wartime manpower shortages, an AHA pardon paved the way for a return to the Flyers. Jean Pusie died at the age of 45 in Montreal in 1956.
One more detour, around one other loop, before we leave him. This is going back to 1931, when he made his debut in Canadiens colours at the age of 20. He’d been in the Montreal stable for a couple of seasons, but it wasn’t until December of 1930 that he made his first NHL appearance. He played six regular-season games that season while seeing regular duty with the Galt Terriers of the Ontario Professional Hockey League.
Montreal recalled him in early April to bolster their defence as they took on the Chicago Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup finals. The Canadiens were, of course, successful in defending their title, dispensing with the Black Hawks in five games. Pusie dressed for three of those — and yet his name wasn’t one of the 28 that would end up being stamped on the Cup itself.
I wondered about that. Why didn’t Pusie rate the recognition along with teammates Howie Morenz, George Hainsworth, Wildor Larochelle, and the rest? Right winger Bert McCaffrey was the other Canadien whose name was left off the Cup that year, but then he’d only played in the regular season, and wasn’t called on for any of Montreal’s ten post-season games, so there’s a trace of logic there.
I checked in with Craig Campbell, manager of the Doc Seaman Resource Centre and Archives at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which is where the Cup is at home when it’s not out and about with the current champions. No, he confirmed, Pusie’s name is not on silver band that enumerates the ’30-31 winners. Furthermore, the Hall has no documentation noting why he might have been left off. “It’s a mystery,” Campbell e-mailed.
Mining the archives, I may have found an explanation. It doesn’t seem fair, but it could just be the reason Pusie’s effort in showing up and getting into his gear for 60 per cent of Canadiens’ successful campaign in ’31 wasn’t rewarded: he never got on the ice.
Heading into the Cup finals after a five-game semi-final against the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens were a battered bunch. Winger Armand Mondou was in hospital with what the AP described as “wrenched chest muscles,” while Battleship Leduc, stalwart defender, was out with what they were still calling a “brain concussion:” he’d collided with Dit Clapper and hit his head on the ice.
And so when the series opened at Chicago Stadium on a Friday, April 3, Pusie was one of five defencemen in the 13-man Canadiens line-up. Coach Cecil Hart mostly went with just three of them to secure Montreal’s 2-1 win, relying on the Mantha brothers, Sylvio and Georges, and Marty Burke. “Arthur Lesieur was on the ice only for a few minutes altogether,” the Ottawa Journal reported. As for Pusie, Hart “hesitated to try the youngster.”
Two days later, when the Black Hawks evened the series in a game that went into double overtime. Pusie was again in the line-up; La Patrie subsequently noted that “management did not use him.”
Back in Montreal, the teams went to three overtimes before Chicago’s Cy Wentworth settled the matter in the Black Hawks’ favour. At one point, with Lesieur and Sylvio Mantha both serving penalties, coach Hart deployed forwards AurèleJoliat and Pit Lepine alongside Burke rather than blood Pusie. “Although in uniform,” La Patrie recounted next day, he “never had the opportunity to take the ice.”
He never got another chance. Though Battleship Leduc had, according to the Gazette, spent more than two weeks in hospital, he and his rattled brain returned to the line-up for the fourth game of the series and the fifth, both of which Montreal won to claim the Cup.
Pusie appeared in just a single game for Canadiens the following year. He’d wait two years after that before making his return to the NHL ice as a New York Ranger.
There’s a scene midway through Goalie, the new Terry Sawchuk biopic that opened across Canada this month, and it’s a key one in the story of our beleaguered hero’s unwinding. It’s early in his career in Detroit, and Sawchuk, as rendered by Mark O’Brien, is already starring for the Red Wings, though the cost is already starting to tell. The puck that lies tauntingly behind him in the Detroit net has passed him by with maximum malice, which we know because he’s down on his knees, spitting out his teeth, bleeding his blood.
But that’s only the start of it. In the nearby stands, out of the Olympia hubbub, a needling voice rises: “Sawchuk! Sawchuk!” He’s nothing new, this heckler, just an everyday loudmouth, but Sawchuk has had it, enough. When Marcel Pronovost points him out, Sawchuk charges. Downs stick and gloves, skates headlong for the fence, which he scales quick as a commando.
But before the goaltender can clamber his way up to the fourth or fifth row to tear his tormenter apart, the man flees in a panic. Sawchuk’s the taunter, now. “Yeah,” he jeers, “you better run.”
Realizing where he is, he also apologizes to the fans whose midst he’s invaded. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
That’s the movie. The history is that Terry Sawchuk did scale the wire at Detroit’s Olympia, in 1954, in pursuit of a vociferous fan, though it wasn’t really about him, the goaltender was really only acting in a supporting role, backing up teammates.
Credit where credit’s due: it was Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay who led the charge. Lindsay didn’t have to do any climbing, it might be noted: whereas Sawchuk was on the ice and saw fence-climbing as his only option to join the fray, Lindsay was already off the ice, on his way to the dressing room, when he identified his antagonist and went at him.
In the days since his death on March 4 at the age of 93, Lindsay has been praised as a hockey giant, which he was, no question. A dominant force on ice, Lindsay was a tenacious leader who could do it all, and did, mostly on his own terms. His dedication off the ice to the cause of players’ rights has been highlighted, as has the price he paid for not backing down in the face of lies and intimidation of the men who were running the NHL.
Here, for the moment, we’ll focus on a lesserly known episode from his career, a single season among the 17 Lindsay played. I’ll propose that it offers insights into his later battles with the NHL, and more: it also adds context to events that exploded this very March day, 64 years ago, in Montreal.
To do that, we’ll follow Ted Lindsay through the 1954-55 season, which means pursuing him into the crowd for what must (I think) count as his most cantankerous year as an NHLer — it might be one of the most cantankerous season any player played, ever.
Lindsay was in his eleventh season with the Wings, his third as team captain. He’d finished the previous season third-best in league scoring, and was elected to the 1st All-Star. His Wings were on a roll: the defending Stanley Cup champions had won three Cups in five years.
The NHL’s 38th season is and forever will be charred at the edges by Montreal’s season-ending Richard Riot. It’s with no intent to diminish the importance or damages inflicted by those ructions, nor with any disrespect to Richard, that I’m going to posit here that, when it comes to instigating uproar, Ted Lindsay’s ’54-55 is a remarkable one in its own (if mostly forgotten) right.
Also: imagine, if you would, a circumstance by which, in today’s NHL, one of the league’s marquee players, captaining the defending Stanley Cup champions, finds himself implicated in altercations with spectators, not once or twice, but on four separate occasions. It would be the story of the season — though not in ’54-55. Is it possible that this player would still be around to be to contribute to his team’s winning a second successive Cup? It is, and was — in ’54-55.
A bit of background is in order here. Early in November, 14 games into the season’s schedule, Detroit traded centre Metro Prystai to Chicago in exchange for a mostly untested right winger named Lorne Davis. A valuable cog in the Red Wings machine that won Stanley Cups in 1952 and again in ’54, Prystai was also a good friend and roommate of Lindsay’s and Gordie Howe’s at Ma Shaw’s rooming house. With Howe out with an injured shoulder, Prystai had moved in to take his place on Detroit’s top line, alongside Lindsay and Dutch Reibel.
For the defending champions, this wasn’t so much a hockey trade as a league-mandated equalization pay-out. Detroit didn’t pull the trigger so much as the NHL decided that the swap would help out Chicago, of the league’s perennially worst teams.
Conn Smythe, Toronto’s owner and martinet-in-chief, seems to have engineered the whole affair, chairing a meeting of league moguls in New York for the purpose of improving have-not teams like Chicago and Boston. “A unique professional sports move toward sharpening competitive balance,” is how Al Nickleson described it in The Globe and Mail; The Detroit Free Press dubbed it a hockey “Marshall Plan.”
Call it collusion, set it aside as an exhibit for some future (never-to-be-launched) anti-trust ligation — to the men in charge of NHL hockey, it was merely good business. Four players were involved upfront: Chicago got Prystai and Montreal’s Paul Masnick, while Boston landed Leo Boivin from Toronto. The Leafs got Joe Klukay; Detroit landed Davis; Montreal’s piece of the pie was to be named later.
“We’re trying to apply logical business sense here,” Smythe pleaded in the days before the redistribution went through. He only had the customer in mind, he would continue to insist. “What we want to do is present hockey at its highest calibre in every rink in the NHL.”
But Detroit was seething. “Is big-time hockey a legitimate sport or just a family syndicate?” Marshall Dann wondered in the local Free Press. Marguerite and Bruce Norris co-owned the Red Wings while another brother, James Norris, ran the Black Hawks. The word was that Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams didn’t know about the Prystai deal until it was already done, telling Prystai, “I’m sorry, they ganged up on us.” Adams accused Smythe of trying to break Detroit’s morale. No more would he serve on NHL committees, he said, and he vowed that he’d be boycotting Red Wings’ road trips to Toronto forthwith, as well.
The Wings had a home game the week of the Prystai trade, on the Thursday, against Smythe’s Leafs. Before the Wings hit the ice, Lindsay demanded that the Norrises, Marguerite and Bruce, meet with the players and explain to them why Prystai had been shipped out. In his 2016 memoir, Red Kelly says it was just Bruce who showed up, and that the players weren’t impressed by his explanation. They talked about sitting out the game to make clear their unhappiness. “We weren’t going to go on the ice that night, no way. The people were in the stands, but we didn’t care.”
Somehow, someone convinced them to play. They did so, let’s say, in a mood.
Ted Lindsay’s didn’t improve as the evening went on. In the second period, he unleashed on Leafs’ defenceman Jim Thomson, punching him in the face as they tangled near the Toronto bench. “They both went at it,” the Globe’s Al Nickleson wrote, “with no damage done.”
As order, or something like it, was being restored, Leaf coach King Clancy chimed in. “That’s the first time I ever saw you drop your stick in a fight, Lindsay,” is how Nickleson heard it. What he saw, next, was Lindsay throwing a glove at the coach. “The glove — it belong to Thomson — brushed Clancy and was lost in the crowd behind the bench.” Lindsay threw a punch at Clancy, too, but missed his mark.
Toronto won the game. Sid Smith scored the only goal and Leaf goaltender Harry Lumley, a former Wing celebrating his 28thbirthday, contributed a shutout. That can’t have lightened Lindsay’s temper, and when a fan spoke up as the Wings were headed off the ice, the Detroit captain decided to climb the wire and chase him down.
It’s from the scene that followed that director Adriana Maggs’ Goalie drew when she had her Terry Sawchuk climb into the crowd. Here’s Nickleson on Lindsay’s non-movie incursion:
He may have landed a blow or two — certainly he was swinging — although the action was partially hidden by fans, and by other Detroit players clambering over the high screening. Even Sawchuk, goal pads and all, made it with the help of a boost from a teammate.
Bernard Czeponis was the heckler. A blow of Lindsay’s that did land blackened his eye. He was only too happy to describe what happened to Marshall Dann from the Free Press. “I only asked Glen Skov if he wanted my crying towel,” Czeponis said. “He used foul language. Then Lindsay, instead of stopping it as a club captain should, came after me and hit me.”
The hockey headlines from 57 years ago tonight, when the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the New York Rangers? Leafs won, 4-1, to solidify their hold on second place in the NHL standings. A 20-year-old Dave Dryden was a story that night, too. As the on-call back-up in those days before teams regularly travelled with spare goaltenders, the Junior-A Toronto Marlboros’ ’minder was summoned from the stands early in the second period after the Rangers’ Gump Worsley left the game with an injured elbow. In his NHL debut, clad in Worsley’s too-small sweater, Dryden stopped 23 shots in his only career appearance for the Rangers, allowing three goals. “He played extremely well,” New York GM Muzz Patrick declared. “He’s a darn good prospect.”
But Dryden’s pro debut wasn’t the reason the game made the front page of The Globe and Mail the following Monday. The story there, just below the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (ten years on the throne) and the latest on the crisis in Algeria, was the bomb that someone threw from the stands at the Leafs’ bench while the band was playing “God Save The Queen” before the opening face-off.
To sum up: at an NHL game in 1962, two-and-a-half months before Toronto won the Stanley Cup, a small bomb exploded near Bobby Baun at one end of the Leafs’ bench, briefly blinding the defenceman, and linesman Matt Pavelich, too.
That first report allowed that it might have been a “giant firecracker,” but Toronto police detectives would subsequently classify the device as a “homemade bomb.” No-one, apparently, saw who tossed it, and the police investigation doesn’t seem to have turned up a perpetrator. From what I can see, all trace of the incident disappeared from the papers within the week. File it away, I guess, as an unsolved mystery whose consequences could have been much more serious than they were.
“The blast came,” the Globe recounted, “when the house lights were dimmed and the drums of the band were rolling at the start of the National Anthem. There was a loud noise, a bright flash, and a cloud of smoke. Players and fans in the vicinity said the smoke smelled of gunpowder.”
Pavelich was standing by the gate at the southern end of the Leafs’ bench. He said he felt something graze his nose, then his forearm before the explosion. From the Globe:
There were holes in his sweater from wrist to elbow on the right sleeve and the front of the sweater was seared.
There also were powder marks on his clothing as well as on Baun’s glove, which he had raised to his face automatically when he heard the blast. Pavelich first clutched at his arm, then held a hand over his eyes.
“It just knocked me off balance,” Baun said, “and both Pavelich and I had trouble seeing for a minute or so. It exploded at the top of the gate.”
The game went ahead. I can’t tell you much about how jarred Pavelich was, or whether Baun’s play showed any shell-shock. The latter, just back in the line-up after a wrist injury, seems to have played as Toronto’s fifth defenceman, spelling Al Arbour. He took a second-period penalty, two minutes for interference.
Evidence of the blast did eventually go to laboratory used by Ontario’s Attorney-General: scrapings from the ice, a towel Pavelich used to wipe his face, his sweater, Baun’s glove. No trace of the device itself was discovered.
Globe columnist Jim Vipond couldn’t understand how the bomber could have gone undetected by his neighbours in the stands. He urged anyone who knew anything to speak up. No-one seems to have come forward, though. The lab analysis didn’t reveal anything, either.
The Leafs did step up security for their next home game, against the Boston Bruins. Private detectives and extra police were on duty at the Gardens that night. And this time, too, when the band played the anthem, the lights weren’t dimmed quite so low.
Ted Lindsay and Gus Mortson were old pals from up north in Ontario, played together as juniors at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, spent summers together prospecting for gold. Didn’t matter, once they skated out on NHL ice as opponents. “I don’t know anybody when a hockey game starts,” was Lindsay’s view of it, voiced in 1947.
Born on this day in 1925 in New Liskeard, Ontario, Mortson was 90 when he died in 2015. He joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as a defenceman in October of 1946, by which time Lindsay had already been a Detroit Red Wing for two seasons. When they met in Mortson’s debut, Lindsay welcomed his friend to the NHL with a cross-check that cut his nose. A frisky 21 at the start of that inaugural year, Mortson was, by the end of the regular season, the league’s leader in amassing penalty minutes. Nugget seems to be the nickname the newspapers preferred for him at the time, short for The Gold Nugget Kid; later, he’d also answer to Old Hardrock.
Mortson and Lindsay would clash (and exchange punches) more than once in their subsequent NHL careers, including on an infamous occasion when the Leafs and the Red Wings met in the first round of the ’47 playoffs.
Here, from The Windsor Star, is Doug Vaughan’s account of the proceedings that roiled the fourth game of the semi-final:
Rough-going Ted Lindsay put the match to the fuse when he cut down Gus (Nugget) Mortson, Leaf defenceman, and got away with it. Mortson came up fighting mad and not caring whom he hit — as long as the individual was wearing a red sweater. The innocent victim happened to be Bill Quackenbush. Mortson gave him a terrific cross check and the Wing rearguard had to be assisted from the ice with a wrenched left knee.
Mortson was given a two minute penalty. He was just sitting down in the box when Gordie Howe of the Wings skated over to the boards. Howe took a punch at Mortson. The Leaf player punched back. Policeman William Kamian grabbed Mortson by the throat. Players from both teams swarmed across the ice to see what was going on. Two Toronto scribes joined in the fray. Mortson punched the policeman. The policeman fought back. Somebody hurled a chair from the box seats back of the penalty box. It bounced off Mortson’s back and hit Roy Conacher of the Wings, who was standing out on the ice, on the nose. Additional policemen swarmed into the run-way to help restore order.
When peace and calm reigned once again the insane individual who had hurled the chair had been lugged off to the hoosegow by the police and Howe and Mortson were each given ten minutes [sic] misconduct penalties. Fortunately nobody was serious injured.
Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman wasn’t on hand in Detroit that night, but that didn’t keep him from filing his own vivid dispatch. If nothing else, it’s a master-class in period jocularity, a true classic from the catalogue of reporting NHL chaos as if it were all part of a big vaudeville act. The prose is entertaining, still, 72 years later. Without steering off into finger-wagging, may I also submit that the guffawing acceptance of the league’s long business-as-usual acceptance of violence manages (still) to astonish me?
Mortson, in Coleman’s telling, was penalized for “mopery and gawk.” In the penalty box,
he indulged in some ineffectual fisticuffs with Gordon Howe. At this juncture, Mortson was gozzled by a Detroit newspaperman and a Detroit constable.
In the turmoil a customer hurled a chair which splattered on the penalty-box rail and hit Referee George Hayes and Roy Conacher. It is alleged, then, that our two confreres, W. Thomas Munns and James Vipond, swarmed to the fray.
Munns was the Globe’s sports editor, Vipond a reporter. Coleman took down their testimony, including this from Vipond:
“Mortson took a swing at Howe and then Mortson was gozzled by a Detroit newspaperman. A Detoit policeman gozzled Mortson, too, and was lugging him around by the neck and massaging his noggin with the other hand. Now, I realized that Mortson is a wild and vicious character, and would most certainly break the copper into small pieces, so I went to the copper’s assistance. I put both arms around his neck and tugged him away gently, just so that he would be out of harm’s way. There is a rumour to the effect that I hit him, but this is false and unjust — a fly was perched on the constable’s cheek, and I was attempting only to dislodge it before the fly stamped on his eyeball.”
It took Toronto one more (relatively peaceable) game to eliminate Detroit and move on to meet (and beat) Montreal for the Stanley Cup that year. Before they left the ice at the end of the semi-final series, fans and writers and at least one photographer noted the renewal of Mortson’s and Lindsay’s friendship:
Among NHL Bouchers, Billy wasn’t as celebrated as his younger brother Frank, who won all those Lady Byng trophies. And unlike his elder brother, Buck, he never captained the mighty mark-one Ottawa Senators when they were glorious in the 1920s. Billy Boucher didn’t make it to hockey’s Hall of Fame, either, as both Frank and Buck did. Make no mistake, though, Billy was a player, as those Bouchers tended to be (a fourth brother, Bobby, played in the league, too). Billy, who died on this date in 1958, played eight seasons at speedy right wing, most of them for the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he twice won the Stanley Cup, though he was also a Boston Bruin and a New York American.
Ottawa-born, as those Bouchers also tended to be, Billy was the man who scored the first goal at the Montreal Forum the night it opened in November of 1924. He was 25, in his fourth season with Canadiens, skating on a line with Howie Morenz at centre and his old Ottawa teammate Aurèle Joliat over on left. Actually, Boucher scored the first three goals in the Forum’s NHL history, collecting a natural hat trick in Canadiens’ 7-1 opening-night win over the Toronto St. Patricks. Defenceman Sprague Cleghorn passed him the puck for the first goal, which came in the first minute of the game; the second and third both came when Boucher picked up and netted rebounds of shots of Howie Morenz’s.
Boucher had played centre until he arrived in Montreal and in the pre-season of 1921 he battled Canadiens’ veteran Newsy Lalonde to stay in the middle. It was only after the two of them ended up in a fistfight at practice that coach Leo Dandurand sent the rookie to the wing.
On another night, not so proud, perhaps, as that Forum debut, Boucher featured in a contentious game when his Canadiens met the Maroons in December of 1925.
In the first period, Joliat thought he’d scored a goal on Clint Benedict, though the goal judge didn’t see it that way; play went on. The arbiter in question was Ernie Russell, a former centreman himself, a one-time star of the Montreal Wanderers who would later be elevated to the Hall of Fame. When play stopped, Joliat skated at Russell with his stick held high, as if to chop a reversal out of him. “Then,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the action started.”
Policemen were standing nearby, apparently, but they just watched as an incensed spectator opened the door of Russell’s cage and pinned his arms. The Gazette:
Billy Boucher swept in from a distance of forty feet and while Russell was unable to defend himself, cracked the official across the face with his stick. Players intervened and tore Joliat and Boucher and Russell was free to defend himself against the rabid spectator. This he did to his own satisfaction, the fan beating a hasty retreat under the barrage of fists that were coming his way. He ran into the arms of policemen and was escorted to the Forum office where his name and address were taken and verified and he was let go with the understanding that a warrant would be sworn out against him …, the Forum management stating that they are determined to put a stop to this sort of thing from the first and as an example to others who may be tempted to act in this way.
Referee Jerry Laflamme missed the melee, reportedly; no penalties were imposed. As far as I can tell, Ernie Russell went back to work, as did Canadiens, racking up a 7-4 win.
NHL President Frank Calder did intervene, eventually. As Canadiens prepared to play their next game in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, Joliat learned that he’d been fined $50. Billy Boucher, Calder announced, was suspended indefinitely. Actually, that wasn’t quite the wording — Boucher would be out “until sufficiently punished,” Calder said.
Boucher was suitably remorseful, wiring Ernie Russell from Pittsburgh to express his regrets. They were “sincere,” it was reported, though the note was of a private nature, and not “an official apology.”
There was a rumour that Leo Dandurand hoped to fill the Billy-Boucher-shaped gap in his line-up by buying Babe Dye, Toronto’s leading scorer. He offered $20,000, but Toronto wasn’t interested. Instead, Dandurand shifted rookie Pit Lepine onto the wing with Morenz and Joliat, and that seemed to work: he scored the winning goal against Pittsburgh. Montreal also won the second game that Billy Boucher missed without learning how long he’d be in limbo. Frank Calder relented a couple of days later, and Boucher was back in the line-up for Montreal’s next game, a loss to the New York Americans.
When last we visited with him, Lorne Chabot, goaltender extraordinaire for the 1935 Chicago Black Hawks, was assaulting goal judges and getting sued for it. Turns out there’s more to the story than originally advertised.
First thing: this wasn’t Chabot’s first onslaught on the NHL’s goal-judiciary.
In February of 1932, when he was keeping the goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game in Detroit, Chabot felt that a puck shot by Herbie Lewis of the local Falcons hadn’t passed him and ended up in the net, despite what goal judge Duke Kennedy said. The Leafs’ outraged manager Conn Smythe lobbied successfully to have Kennedy ousted from his post, though the goal was not rescinded.
In taking issue with Kennedy’s finding, which helped Detroit win the game 2-1, Chabot was alleged to have punched the goal judge, (1) loosening a tooth and (2) dislodging a filling. Kennedy filed a complaint with NHL President Frank Calder, as did Smythe. Calder found for the goal judge, suspending Chabot for the Leafs’ next game. Toronto called up Benny Grant from Syracuse to stand in, which he did in style, shutting out the Montreal Maroons 6-0. Smythe’s consolation, such as it was: Calder promised that Duke Kennedy wouldn’t, in future, work any more games in Detroit that involved Toronto.
The story from 1935 went like this: Chicago was in New York playing the Rangers one January’s eve at Madison Square Garden. The game ended 3-3. The Rangers actually scored four goals on the night, but just before Frank Boucher put the puck in the net in the first period his teammate Earl Seibert slid into the Chicago net with (per New York’s Daily News) “three Hawks piled on his person.” Goal judge Dick Williams triggered the red light — only to have referee Eusebe Daigneault overrule him.
“Seibert’s presence in the net, however involuntary, outlawed the tally,” explained The Daily News.
Score one for goaltenders, if nought for the Rangers. And yet despite the goal’s having been annulled, Lorne Chabot was still irate to the point of taking the fight, once again, to the goal judge.
Dick Williams was his name this time. Joseph Nichols of The New York Times thought nothing of the incident, or at least not enough to include it in his dispatch from the Garden. Same went for the Associated Press report that found its way into the pages of Toronto’s Globe.
The Chicago Tribune described the melee surrounding the disallowed goal like this:
Chabot resented the argument which followed so much that he skated around the cage and jabbed his stick through it at Goal Umpire Dick Williams.
Leave it to Harold Parrott from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle to file comprehensive coverage of the entire proceedings. By his account, the puck bounced out of the net after Boucher put it in, whereupon referee Daigneault scooped it up and carried it with him on his visit to Williams. Parrott:
Chabot skated in, too, jabbing the wicked butt end of his stick through the wire mesh to raise two gashes on the goal judge’s face, and loosen two teeth.
Then, unaccountably, Referee Daigneault said, “No goal!”
Colonel John Hammond, president of the Rangers, was quick to fire off a letter to Frank Calder. Why hadn’t Daigneault allowed Boucher’s goal when the goal judge indicated it was in? As for Chabot, why wasn’t he ejected from the game? Colonel Hammond wanted to know.
Replying to the latter question, Daigneault said that he hadn’t seen the attack on Williams. Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick had an answer for that. “It’s not necessary to see the blow when Williams’ nose and cut lip drip blood. Do you think those injuries grew there?”
Not according to The Daily News, which had salient details to add:
Skating behind the net, [Chabot] signaled Williams to draw close to the wire fencing the rink. Williams, apparently expecting a whispered confidence, placed his face to the wire, whereat Chabot jabbed him cruelly with his stick. Williams suffered a split lip and a bloodied nose and required the attentions of a doctor.
Calder doesn’t seem to have acted on Hammond’s protest; in time, Williams did (though maybe not). The following week is when word got out that goal judge was pursuing legal remedies. It wasn’t exactly explicit: the press reported that his suit for $10,000 in damages was “underway.” His claim seemed to be against the Hawks rather than Chabot himself. Poked was the operative verb that Montreal’s Gazette (among others) employed to describe the attack; regarding Williams’ injuries, there was this:
Later Williams was treated for slight facial contusions. He charges, however, that he subsequently discovered the inside of his mouth was seriously injured and teeth were loosened. He added that he hasn’t been able to eat since.
There was news, next, that Chabot had apologized; Williams, nevertheless, was said to be pressing his suit.
Except that … he wasn’t. Never had been, Williams declared in early February. “It’s a lot of hooey,” the goal judge protested, and I quote. “Imagine a league official suing a club member. That sock of Chabot’s did hurt, though.”
That’s almost that, but for this: in 1951, columnist Jimmy Powers from The Daily Newsgot Williams shooting the breeze about what happened that night in ’36. Williams was still working at the Garden, flashing the goal-lights when he thought he spied a goal. He was, by then, in his 25thyear on the job at the Garden. The job, mark you, was unpaid — Williams flashed his light and took whatever abuse came his way entirely as a volunteer. The Chabot incident? Oh, he remembered it well — if not, maybe, entirely the way it actually happened. For one thing, his chronology seems to have warped slightly over time.
Sixteen years later, Williams told Powers that Chabot had loosened four teeth rather than the original two. Also: Chabot was a pal of his, presumably dating back to the goaltender’s early NHL years as a Ranger. Williams’ explanation of what went down that night started in the first period:
“Chabot’s feelings were ruffled when the goal judge at the other end called one [goal] against him.
“In the second period Chabot made a beautiful stop but he caught the puck with his gloved hand inside the cage. I kept flashing the light. Chabot blew his top. He thought he caught the rubber outside the cage and he thought I was the same judge who called the first goal against him. He forgot he had changed goals. He charged back and rammed the butt end of his stick into my face.
“Chabot and I were really good friends. When he discovered his error, he pleaded with me to forgive him. Today we have glass partitions instead of the old-type chicken-wire.”
Charlie Conacher broke his wrist in the fall of 1936, in an exhibition game the Toronto Maple Leafs played against the Detroit Red Wings. Turk Broda and Syl Apps both made their Leafs debut that night, and Conn Smythe was pleased with what he saw from them. Of Apps he said, glowingly if unkindly, “He’s a better player than Joe Primeau ever thought of being.”
But the Conacher news was bad. As it turned out, he’d still be recovering come late February of 1937 when the Leafs welcomed the New York Americans to Maple Leaf Gardens. Rivals in the NHL’s four-team Canadian Division, they were battling for the last playoff spot. This was a Saturday night, and the Leafs won 4-3, which put them nine points ahead of Red Dutton’s team. Catching a train after the game, the two teams headed for a return date in New York the following night — 81 years ago tonight.
Conacher wouldn’t be ready to return for a few more games, but he was travelling with the team. In his spare time, he was putting his name to a newspaper column for The Globe and Mail, which is how we know that the Leafs wandered down to the docks in New York, to look at the Queen Mary. Conacher’s take? “What a ship! It certainly is one of the modern seven wonders of the world.”
At Madison Square Garden, the Leafs went down with “all the honours of war.” That was George Currie’s view, expressed on newsprint next morning in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Other dispatches described “a torrid match,” (the Associated Press), “climaxed by fisticuffs,” and (from the United Press) a second period “enlivened by a free-for-all.”
The Leafs got the first goal, from Gordie Drillon, assisted by their leading scorer, Syl Apps. Also featuring in the first: New York’s Nels Stewart earned a a ten-minute misconduct for insulting referee Mickey Ion. “It seems that Stewart was pretty saucy to Irons and hurt that worthy’s feelings pretty badly,” was how George Currie wrote it, muddling the referee’s name. “So into the dungeon he was cast.”
Most of the fuss, some of which is depicted here, came later, when Ion whistled for a penalty shot after the Leafs’ Jimmy Fowler tripped Hap Emms. As that was unfolding, Toronto defenceman Red Horner parleyed with New York forward Joe Lamb. Horner had the NHL’s leading collection of penalty minutes at this time, so talking was never going to settle it. He later said that Lamb had high-sticked him. “I told him to keep that stick down and he said he’d shove it down my throat,” he explained. “So I let him have it.”
With his stick, Horner meant, about the head, as Lamb was turned to talk to Ions. “The blow landed on Joe from behind,” George Currie wrote, “and he flew into the mother and the father of a rage. He raised his stick and if Horner hadn’t ducked, there might have been a serious carnage. As it was the blade landed on Horner’s heavily padded shoulder. The issue was joined and the air was filled with flying fists.”
“Hockey,” wrote Joseph Nichols of The New York Times, “was forgotten.”
With a glad whoop, the crowd egged them on. Americans streamed on to the ice, a silent but bland Dutton holding the dasher door wide open, lest his janissaries be delayed even a split second. Connie Smythe, the mercurial Leaf pilot, ran out on the ice, thereby making himself very illegal though not felonious. It developed that Connie for once was not bent upon leading his cohorts into a battle-royal. He simply wanted to coax the angry Horner off the ice before his team in the Polyclinic Hospital or the W. 47th St. police station.
Policemen, as you can see, did intervene. Fifteen minutes the affray went on, with everybody but goaltenders Broda and New York’s Alfie Moore joining in. “Amerks and Leafs paired off,” Currie reported, “and looked with an elegant bellicosity at each other but swapped only menacing gestures and tall words” before something like peace was restored.
It didn’t last. As he skated to the penalty box, Horner went after Lamb again, who raised his stick. Horner was stickless, so he stopped, whereon his teammate Busher Jackson stepped in. They fenced, Nichols wrote, “while somebody held the huge Horner.”
When it came to doling out penalties, Mickey Ion went with the simplest math he could muster: Horner and Lamb each got 20 minutes and a game, meaning they were banished and the teams had to play four-on-four for the duration of a period. Everybody else was forgiven their sins. And, I guess, simmered down: Ion called no more penalties for the rest of the night.
Emms scored on his penalty shot, and teammates Eddie Wiseman and Sweeney Schriner later followed his lead, giving the home team a 3-1 win. The Americans didn’t make it into the playoffs that year, and while the Leafs did, they were gone in two games, losing to the New York Rangers.
Charlie Conacher returned to the line-up a couple of nights after the fracas in New York. In the meantime, he wrote it up, cheerfully, for his Globe column:
Although Joe Lamb put plenty of weight behind his stick when he walloped “Red” Horner Sunday night, Horner doesn’t look a bit the worse for it. “Red” always could take it. The Leafs say the only thing wrong with the crack “Red” took at Lamb was that it wasn’t half hard enough. Lamb doesn’t rate very highly in their popularity league.
Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.
Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”
“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”
You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.
The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?
No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”
The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”
“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”
Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.
Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):
“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”
Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:
• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”
When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.
• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”
Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.
If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.
A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”
• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:
… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!
The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.
Not a full biography, faulted Daniel Okrent in May, appraising for The New York Times Book Review the big new book by (quote) our matchless master of popular history. I guess by our he means America’s, though could possibly be humanity’s, too. Anyway, the book, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster) sounds good, even if our/their/everybody’s august historian is interested in only one thing, namely how it was possible that two autodidacts from Ohio managed to satisfy a longing that that the species had harbored for centuries.
In this singular pursuit (Okrent declares), the master soars, and with an empathy and fluency that’s uncommon.
Which is good to hear. What Okrent doesn’t mention in his Times review is how McCullough does when it comes to that crucial episode in the history of the Wright Brothers and indeed of human flight, i.e. Wilbur’s hockey accident.
Without it, we’d all still be earthbound. You could argue that. Would you? Would I? Not with any real enthusiasm. The fact that Wilbur Wright took a hockey stick to the mouth in the 1880s is one link only in a long chain of events that put him in the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903. I don’t think there’s any dispute: upper-body injury or no, the brothers Wright were going to fly one way or another.
The hockey link leads back to the winter of 1884-85 (though I’ve also seen it as 1886) on a lake (that may have been a pond), although the hockey actually might have been closer to the old shinny than the hockey we know today, and that the sticks they were using may or may not have been more like bats. Either way, I think we can all understand what Elmo Scott Watson means when he says, as he did The Walnut Grove Tribune in 1930, that whatever game they were playing, there was a melee.
So Wilbur was a brilliant student, a star high-school athlete at the time we’re talking here. He was the third-born of five Wright children, aged 17 in the winter in question. This was in Dayton, Ohio, on a pond/lake adjoining the Dayton Soldiers’ Home.
Wilbur was smashed in the face with a stick, knocking out most of his upper front teeth.
As hockey injuries go, it’s familiar as it is painful-sounding and Bobby Clarke-reminding. Wilbur was treated at the scene by an army surgeon, as John R. McMahon tells it in his book, The Wright Brothers, Fathers of Flight (1930). The opposing team, he also elaborates, was composed of the sons of army officers. And:
He refused the offers of a ride home, saying that he would walk lest it frighten his mother if he were carried home.
While McCullough misses that detail, he and McMahon do coincide in most of what happened next.
For weeks he suffered excruciating pain in his face and jaw, then had to be fitted with false teeth. Serious digestive complications followed, then heart palpitations and spells of depression that seemed only to lengthen. Everybody grew more and more concerned.
There followed a long period of delicate health if not semi-invalidism, with a diet confined to liquids, eggs and toast. It seemed to every one that the boy was handicapped for life and none dreamed of the possibility of a great compensation …
The boys’ father, Milton Wright, was a bishop in the United Brethren Church. Wilbur’s plan had been to go to Yale and thereby, eventually, to follow in his father’s pious footsteps. His delicate convalescence put an end to the college talk. His brothers went out into the world, travelled, married. Wilbur stayed home with his parents. For three years he was more or less a recluse, “cook and chambermaid,” as an older brother wrote, to his parents. In the seven years or so he spent fully recovering his health, he spent much of his time reading, worrying now and then about his lack of ambition. He eventually joined his younger brother in business, first at Orville’s printing press and newspaper, then at his bicycle shop. This is the period, in the 1890s, that they began to turn their attention in earnest to the effort of getting themselves off the ground.
What’s new from McCullough on all this is, at best, a footnote — but it’s a pretty sensational footnote at that. Where most previous accounts frame Wilbur’s injury as accidental and by the hand of an anonymous opponent, McCullough offers another view. Quoting Bishop Wright’s diary, he identifies the perpetrator as Oliver Crook Haugh, i.e. up there with Ohio’s most notorious all-time murderers, executed by electrocution in 1907 for killing his father, mother, and brother, and implicated in the deaths of perhaps a dozen others.
“At the time of hockey incident,” McCullough writes,
Haugh lived just two blocks from the Wrights. He was only fifteen, or three years younger than Wilbur, but as big as a man and known as the neighborhood bully. As would be written in the Dayton Journal following the execution, ‘Oliver never was without the wish to inflict pain or at least discomfort on others.’
Haugh “threw the bat that struck Wilbur” is the phrasing in Bishop Wright’s diary. Did he have a score to settle with Wilbur, or was he just mean and/or carried his stick carelessly on the ice or — high? We’ll never know for sure, but as the old master writes in an unexpected coda to the hockey episode, it turns out the murderer-to-be did have a job working at a Dayton drugstore where the druggist, taking pity on the boy’s complaints regarding his painfully rotting teeth, gave him a popular cure of the day: “Cocaine Toothache Drops.”
Hard to say what lessons we can draw from all of this. Mouthguards might have helped, if someone had thought to invent them in time. It’s always a good idea, too, to try to keep the psychopaths off the ice. Unfortunately for Wilbur Wright, it was at this time, as McCullough recounts, that
young Haugh became so dependent on drugs and alcohol, his behavior so out of control that he had to be committed for several months to the Dayton Asylum for the Insane.