fray dates: over the boards and into the crowd with ted lindsay

Up + Over: Detroit goaltender Terry Sawchuk follows his captain, Ted Lindsay, into the crowd at Detroit’s Olympia in November of 1954. That’s Glen Skov, number 12, getting ready to follow their lead.

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.

Oh, boy.

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.”

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on this night in 1962: boom goes the leafs’ bench

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.

Despite its title, Bobby Baun’s 2000 autobiography doesn’t mention the 1962 incident.

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.

Aftermath: In the week after a bomb exploded at Maple Leaf Gardens this month in 1962, a Toronto cartoonist picked up on the news.

on the ice, on the nose

Northern Rock: Gus Mortson spent his first six seasons as a stalwart of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence before a 1952 trade took him to Chicago for a further six seasons, three of which he served as captain. His friend Ted Lindsay ended up as a teammate in Chicago during Mortson’s final season there. He played a single season — his last — in Detroit, 1958-59.

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 next 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:

billy (of the bouchers) at the montreal forum

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.

whereat chabot jabbed him cruelly with his stick

Standing Tall: Lorne Chabot in New York Ranger garb, which means before a trade took him to Toronto in 1928 — and before he started assaulting goal judges.

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.”

in new york, on this night in 1937: the mother and the father of a rage

Enlivened By A Free-For-All: This scene at Madison Square Garden on this night in 1937. While the Leafs’ Turk Broda watches from the comfort of his crease, policemen try to quell the second-period uprising. That’s Sweeney Schriner with a patrolman at lower left, as New York goaltender Alfie Moore looks on, with referee Mickey Ion nearby. The Amerks’ Roger Jenkins, wearing 10 in white, does his best to restrain a Leaf who’s swinging at Hap Emms, 15. Joe Lamb is 14 in the foreground; I don’t know that I can see Red Horner.

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.”

George Currie:

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.”

Aftermath: Headline from the sports pages of a St. Louis newspaper, February 23, 1937.

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.

 

off the ice, though, howe was a peach

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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.

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