sons of sea-captains, butchers, hod-carriers, haberdashers: a short history of managing in montreal

My Back Pages: In his dotage and his dressing gown, Léo Dandurand surveys (with Mme. Dandurand?) the scrapbooks of his past, circa the early 1960s.

The Montreal Canadiens fired GM Marc Bergevin yesterday, two dismal days after the team made some unhappy history: Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres meant that Montreal’s 12 meagre points in 22 games are the fewest the team has gathered to open a season in all of the 104 years it’s played in the NHL.

Bergevin, who lasted nine years in the job, ended his tenure with a gracious statement. “The last years have been high in both emotions and learnings,” it read, in part. “You have witnessed my journey leading the organization. You won’t be surprised to hear me say it has not been a long, quiet river, and at times, it felt like we were living in a TV show. Despite the challenges, the organization I led with passion always fought back. For me, each experience, good or bad, made me a better leader.”

Seventeen men have now managed the Canadiens since the club was founded in 1909. For those keeping count, 12 of Montreal’s historical GMs were born in Quebec, four in Ontario, while one (Léo Dandurand) originated in Illinois. Five of them played for the team before they moved into the team’s executive suite, Bob Gainey being the most recent of those.

Before owner Geoff Molson names an 18th GM, here’s a quick journey back down the river with Bergevin’s predecessors in the job, going back to Montreal’s NHA start:

• Joseph Cattarinich was a goaltender, the Canadiens’ very first, in 1910, though he didn’t last long between the Montreal posts: he was soon supplanted by Teddy Groulx and, the following season, Cattarinich and Jack Laviolette signed up Georges Vézina, a stripling goaltender from Chicoutimi, to take care of future Montreal’s puckstopping. Son of a Croatian sailor, Cattarinich was an owner, subsequently, of racehorses and the tracks they ran on, Laviolette was known in business, apparently, as The Silent One and also Silent Joe. He was co-owner of the Canadiens between 1921 and 1935; in the ’30s he was in on a brief effort to put an NHL team in Cleveland.

Jack Laviolette, Hall-of-Fame defenceman, was a playing manager when managers were also, sort of, coaches, too. His on-ice career ended when he lost a foot in a car accident in 1918. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that didn’t keep him from refereeing the benefit game that was organized on his behalf in 1921.

Grapple Group: George Kennedy, on the left, alongside Belgian wrestler Constant Le Marin, circa 1910.

• George Kennedy, son of a sea-captain, was born George Kendall: he changed his named when he got into wrestling. He was good at that, a Canadian amateur champion before he turned to managing other wrestlers, and lacrosse teams, and buying the Canadiens, which he did in 1910, paying Ambrose O’Brien $7,500.

As manager Kennedy shaped the team that won Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup in 1916. “A natural humorist,” he was called in 1921, alongside a tale of a retort of his from a year earlier, during a particularly feisty spell in the NHL rivalry between Ottawa and Montreal. When the Senators’ secretary wired to wonder how many tickets the Canadiens would require for an upcoming game in Ottawa, the reply Kennedy sent back was: “None. None of my friends want to see you or your yellow team again.”

Kennedy was sickened in Seattle in 1917 in the outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall and stopped the Stanley Cup finals. He never really recovered his health after that: Kennedy died in 1921 at the age of 39.

• With partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau, Léo Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921 (for $11,500) after George Kennedy’s untimely death. Dandurand  was, in his time, a busy man, the owner of many horse racing tracks, a boxing and wrestling promoter, and (in 1946) founder of the Montreal Alouettes.  In his 14 years managing the Canadiens, Dandurand oversaw three Stanley Cup championships. Among other things, he’s remembered as the man who brought Howie Morenz to Montreal and the owner of a restaurant called Drury’s. Dandurand forbade his players from driving cars because of the risk of leg and hand cramps.

Silverwear: Canadiens owner and sometime GM Ernest Savard receives the Kennedy Cup from NHL president Frank Calder in March of 1938. Named for Montreal’s original owner/GM, the Kennedy recognized the annual winner of the season series between Maroons and Canadiens. With the demise of Maroons in ’38, this was the trophy’s last hurrah. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Ernest Savard was a stockbroker and sometime owner of Montreal’s baseball Royals, who headed up the syndicate that bought the Canadiens for $165,000 in 1935 from Dandurand and Cattarinich. An “expert golfer,” the Gazette called him that year, and “outstanding sportsman.” He served as GM for just a year before handing over to Cecil Hart; one of Savard’s first moves was to name Canadiens captain Sylvio Mantha as the team’s (playing) coach. The appointment, intoned the Ottawa Journal, “was believed to be the start of a re-organization program which it is hope will make the club a dangerous factor in the coming campaign.”

In 1937, when talk arose of Montreal’s two teams possibly amalgamating, Savard said that the Canadiens would never change their name.

• Cecil Hart, an insurance man, coached the Canadiens to a pair of Stanley Cups before he came back to manage them in 1937, insisting that he’d only take the job if the team brought back Howie Morenz to play. Lester Patrick called him “one of the best managers who ever sat on a hockey bench.”

• Jules Dugal was the Canadiens long-time secretary and business manager in 1930s who did some stand-in coaching when Leo Dandurand was indisposed. In 1938, the Montreal Gazette reported that he crossed words with Chicago Black Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin during a heated game at the Forum and also “whipped off his glasses and prepared to trundle into battle” when Bill Tobin, Chicago’s business manager, taunted him.

As Canadiens GM, Dugal got into a hoo-ha in 1940 with Bill Stewart in a game in New York after the referee claimed that Dugal had sent out the Canadiens to “get me” because “I put him out of the arena five years ago and he’s never forgotten.” After the game, Stewart stormed into the Habs’ dressing room, furious about the curses Dugal had been yelling at him and challenging him to a fight, which Dugal didn’t accept. About sending players after the ref, Dugal said, “I’d be crazy to do anything like that. Much as I dislike the man, I would not do a thing like that.”

Tommy Tune: Canadiens GM Tommy Gorman added a musical note to hockey games at Montreal’s Forum, installing a Hammond organ and hiring Ray Johnson to play it. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Tommy Gorman won a gold medal in lacrosse at the 1908 Olympics. He was a sportswriter and editor at the Ottawa Citizen, too, not to mention, before that, a parliamentary page, at the age of nine. “The other boys used to stuff me in wastepaper baskets,” he recalled. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier is supposed to have seen him bloodied from the bullying and told him to keep the peace.

Gorman started his management career with his hometown Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, winning three Stanley Cups along the way. In 1934, he coached the Chicago Black Hawks to their first Cup; the following year, he was at the helm of the Montreal Maroons when they won the Cup. He coached the Maroons until they folded in 1938 before joining the Canadiens in 1940, overseeing more Cup wins in 1944 and ’46. All in all, Gorman won seven Stanley Cups with four teams.

Desk Job: Frank Selke at work in his Forum office in 1946. Note the photos of Maurice Richard and Bill Durnan adorning the wall at his back. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Frank J. Selke stood 5’4” in skates. In the later 19th century, his parents emigrated from Poland, when it was still a part of the German Empire. In Berlin, Ontario — it’s Kitchener, now — Selke’s father worked as a labourer and a hod-carrier on construction sites. Selke worked construction himself, and as an electrician; later on, when he wasn’t rearing hockey teams, he raised fancy chickens, Patridge Wyandottes and Golden Pencilled Hamburgs.

For years he worked for Conn Smythe in Toronto, but then they fell out, and in 1946 Selke resigned and joined Montreal as GM. “I’ve never liked the Leafs since we left Toronto for Montreal,” his wife, Mary, told Vern DeGeer in 1964, “but we won’t go into that. Just say I’m a dedicated rooter for the Canadiens. I stand up and cheer like everybody else when we score a goal. And I don’t mind telling you I can boo the referees, too, when they make a mistake.” In Montreal, Selke was on the job for nine Stanley Cup championships. In 1948, he said in a speech that if the boys of Europe had been taught team games and learned how to make national heroes of men like Howie Morenz, “there would be no Hitlers or Stalins necessary for them.”

Draftee: In 1973, Montreal GM Sam Pollock (left) drafted Peterborough Petes winger Bob Gainey eighth overall in the NHL’s amateur draft. Thirty years + a month + four GMs later, Gainey would take over as Canadiens’ GM.

• Sam Pollock, another nine-time Cup winner, was an English haberdasher’s son. Appointed to the job of Montreal GM in 1964, he was described as a roly-poly little man, as well as a nervous one who often chews on a handkerchief during an interview or a meeting. At 16, when he showed up try out for the Montreal Junior Royals, the coach took one look at him and told him to go home. Everybody assumed that Ken Reardon would be Selke’s successor, but no, wrong. Pollock brought Ken Dryden to Montreal and wangled the trade that allowed the Habs to draft Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson.

Change Of Chair: Sam Pollock and his successor in the GM’s chair, Irving Grundman, circa 1978. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Irving Grundman spent seven years as managing director of Montreal’s Forum before he took over from Pollock. Many people thought that Scotty Bowman would get the job, or maybe Ron Caron, but wrong, no. Before he got into rink-running, Grundman ran bowling alleys. He was 50 when he succeed Pollock, described in a profile that years as “a medium-built man” with “gray hair and blue eyes.” His clothes were “handsomely tailored;” his office, on the Forum’s second floor, featured “beige carpeting and beige drapes and several mighty modernistic and expensive paintings on the walls.”

“I grew up near the intersection of Pine and Saint-Laurent in the northeast end of the city,” Grundman attested. “It’s a tough neighbourhood. He was a butcher. I worked for him for 14 years, getting up early in the morning, going to the meat market and plucking chickens. When I look back on those days, running the Canadiens is not a tough job.”

• Serge Savard’s grandfather, Adélard, was a buttermaker in Landrienne, Quebec, who some Sundays refused to eat his supper, as a recent Savardian biography tells it, “feeling that he hadn’t accomplished enough on the weekly day of rest.”

Serge Savard’s association with the Canadiens began as a top prospect when he was 15, and he went on to win eight Stanley Cup championships playing on the team’s defence, overseeing another two as GM. In May of 1995, five months before Savard lost his job, team president Ronald Corey wrote him a memo that began, “The season that ended May 3 was certainly the most disappointing in the history of the Canadiens. We took a step backwards and also suffered significant financial losses.”

• As a player, Réjean Houle’s adjectives were exuberant and effective. As general manager in Montreal, he traded away Patrick Roy, Mike Keane, Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse, and Pierre Turgeon. He had tears in his eyes in 2000, when he was fired. “I did the best I could to put together a team within the budget I had,” he said, “and I think we’re in the middle third of the NHL.”

“When a team loses,” he went on, “the coach and the general manager are held responsible, but I think the players have to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether they did the job.”

“I’m 51 and this is the first time in my life I’ll be getting up and I won’t have a job to go to. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t have any hobbies. I’ve always enjoyed working.”

• The Boston Bruins picked André Savard, sixth overall in the 1973 NHL amateur draft, two spots ahead of Montreal’s choice, Bob Gainey. A centreman, Savard played a dozen NHL seasons for the Bruins, Sabres, and Nordiques. As Montreal’s GM, he brought in Jan Bulis, Andreas Dackall, and Doug Gilmour, among others, and discarded Brian Savage, Trevor Linden, Shayne Corson. After three years as Canadiens’ GM, Savard went into a meeting with club president Pierre Boivin to present his plan for the future of the team and came out having agreed to step down.

• “Gainey’s back? Yes! It’s going to be different now.” That was a Montreal taxi driver, quoted in 2003, en route to the South Shore on the June day that Savard stepped aside to make way for the Habs’ legendary winger to make a Montreal return. Gainey’s mother worked at his hometown newspaper, the Peterborough Examiner; his father spent 40 years in shipping and receiving for Quaker Oats. Gainey’s playerly adjectives were hardworkingpainstakinghonest, flawless. He won five Stanley Cups and captained the team. In 1981, Viktor Tikhonov said he was the best player in the world. In Peterborough, as a junior, he got a job putting up TV aerials after he quit the one at a clothing store. “I didn’t sell too many clothes,” he said. “I guess I didn’t have the gift of the gab.”

“I can’t separate myself from my history,” he said when he took over as GM. Yes, he’d played on some famous teams in his time. “But this is new. The city has changed since I left Montreal. The team has changed. I’ve changed. We’re going to have to get to know one another.”

His plan? “We’re going to take the younger players and we’re going to improve them and we’re going to make them better. We’re going to push the players to do the things that need to be done to be a good team. It’s about tomorrow. It’s not about the 1970s … the 1980s or the 1950s.”

Seven years later, 2010, Gainey stepped down mid-season. “I’ve done my best,” he said, “and now it’s time for me to pass the torch.” Was it too soon? “If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier or a little later, I’d prefer earlier.”

• Pierre Gauthier was next. He’d co-managed the Canadian team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and oversaw hockey operations in Ottawa and Anaheim before returning to Montreal, his hometown. In California, when he was assistant GM of the fledgling Mighty Ducks, he fined team employees and players $100 each time they used the word “expansion,” because he thought it sounded like an excuse for losing.

When he arrived in Ottawa, he objected to players wearing big numbers on their sweaters, and caused Radek Bonk (76), Alexandre Daigle (91), and Stanislav Neckar (94) to reduce to 14, 9, and 24, respectively. Otherwise, he kept enough of a low profile with the Senators to earn the nickname The Ghost. “He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Gauthier,” an Ottawa reporter, Wayne Scanlan, wrote in 2012, a vegetarian in a steak-and-beer fraternity.” The flow continued when Gauthier got to Montreal, where columnist Jack Todd called him “a pint-sized bottle of vinegar.” As Canadiens GM, Gauthier was the man who fired the coach, Jacques Martin, who spoke French to hire another one, Randy Cunneyworth, who didn’t.

• Gauthier himself was fired in May of 2012. Introducing his replacement that month, team owner Geoff Molson said that the hiring of Marc Bergevin “represents the first step in re-establishing a culture of winning in Montreal.” Asked at the same press conference just how long it would take to turn the Canadiens’ fortunes around, Bergevin said, “I don’t have a time frame, but my vision of this team is that it has a good nucleus. To rebuild something, you start from scratch. I believe the pieces we have are good.”

Drafting: Alongside (from left) Canadiens director of player personnel Claude Ruel and coach Jacques Lemaire, GM Serge Savard announces a pick at 1983 draft at the Forum. Canadiens picked Alfie Turcotte in the first round that year; Claude Lemieux and Sergio Momesso in the second; John Kordic in the fourth round; and Vladislav Tretiak in the seventh. (Image: © Serge Savard)

 

 

 

 

joe canadien

Born in Lévis , Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1881, Joe Cattarinich was 29 in 1909 when he signed up to play goal for Montreal’s newest hockey outfit, Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien, in the newly hatched NHA. A month later, on January 5, 1910, he skated out on the ice of the Jubilee Arena to stop the first pucks in the history of Montreal’s mightiest, ending up a winner in overtime, as the Canadiens beat the Cobalt Silver Kings 7-6. The Gazette reported next morning: “The deciding goal in the overtime was scored by [Skinner] Poulin after Cattaranich [sic] had made two good stops at Canadiens end of the rink.” Ructions in the birth of the new league resulted in this game being nullified, and the season re-started. Montreal’s second debut wasn’t so inspiring: in Renfrew, powered by Lester and Frank Patrick and Cyclone Taylor, the local Creamery Kings beat Cattarinich and his mates by a score of 9-4.

Cattarinich’s Canadiens career lasted just two more games after that, losses both at the sticks of the Ottawa Hockey Club. Teddy Groulx took over after that; by the following season, Montreal had drafted in Georges Vézina to take good care of the goaltending, which he did for the next 16+ years.

When he wasn’t stopping pucks, Cattarinich was a successful businessman, starting as as a hotel manager in Lévis, then prospering as a tobacco wholesaler. A busy sports promoter, he was an owner of racing tracks and many of the horses who ran them in Montreal, Cleveland, Chicago, and New Orleans. Leo Dandurand was a partner in some of those equine ventures, and it was with him (and Louis Letourneau) that Cattarinich bought the Canadiens for $11,000 in 1921, following George Kennedy’s death. When the partners sold the team in 1935 to other Montreal interests, the price was $165,000.

“During their ownership,” the Gazette noted in 1938, following Cattarinich’s death at the age of 57, “the Canadiens thrice won the Stanley Cup and during that period some of the players never signed a contract at a stated figure, depending on Cattarinich to pay them a just salary, and in each case that player finished the season more than satisfied with his treatment.”

Origin Story: The Gazette reports on the beginnings of Montreal’s (eventually) mighty Canadiens in December of 1909.

canadiens, 1919: pacific policy

Montreal’s 1919 Canadiens. Back row, from left: manager George Kennedy, Didier Pitre, Louis Berlinguette, Jack McDonald, Billy Coutu, trainer A. Ouimet. Front, left to right: Newsy Lalonde, Odie Cleghorn, Bert Corbeau, Joe Hall, Georges Vézina.

The last time the Montreal Canadiens played a competitive game in Seattle, they were up against the PCHA Metropolitans. It was March of 1919, in the time of another pandemic, and the NHL champions were on the coast to play for the Stanley Cup they’d yielded two years earlier. You know the story, no doubt: the teams played five games, and were about to play a sixth to decide the thing when an outbreak of Spanish flu stopped the series in its skates. With members of both teams suffering, the final game was cancelled. A week later, Montreal defenceman Joe Hall was dead of pneumonia at the age of 37.

Tonight’s the night the Canadiens return: 102 years after that fateful Stanley Cup final was abandoned, in a brand-new pandemic, the (modern-day) Montrealers make a return to Seattle to play the NHL newly minted Kraken. The rink is new, of course: Seattle Climate Pledge Arena is a 30-minute walk or so north of the old downtown Seattle Arena.

And so, as the present proceeds, a quick glance to the past. Along with a look at the team Montreal lined up in early 1919, here’s an oddment from an Ontario paper, published in early March of that year, as the Canadiens set out aboard the CPR’s Imperial Limited for the coast.

As it turns out, Montreal’s players, management, and (single member of) staff — the same 11 men seen in the image above — were insured (some more than others) against … well, it’s not quite clear just what potential calamities were covered by the policies they had, or whether any monies were ever paid out. It’s worth remembering here that George Kennedy, who was the owner of the Canadiens as well as team’s manager, was one of six members of the Montreal travelling party who was sickened by Spanish flu in Seattle in the spring of 1919. Kennedy never really recovered: he died a little over two years later, in October of 1921, at the age of 39.

 

thru the smoky end boards with didier pitre

Boardsbreaker: It’s not clear when this photo of a magnificently threadbare Didier Pitre was taken, but I’m going to venture that it dates to the end of his career with Montreal’s Canadiens, which came in 1923, when he was 39.

He was, in his day, hockey’s best-paid player, a speedy right wing with a serious goal-scoring habit and a shot that was said to be the hardest in all the land. Born in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, southwest of Montreal, on a Saturday of this very date in 1883, Didier Pitre was a Hockey Hall of Famer who made his name in the young years of the 20th century. He played with the Montreal Canadiens when they got their start in the old NHA in 1910, lining up at point (i.e. a defenceman) as a 27-year-old when the team played its very first game in January of that year, a 7-6 win over Cobalt at the Jubilee Rink. That turned out to be a false start, in fact: when a rival league folded that same week, the NHA expunged the Cobalt game from its books, and Canadiens relaunched against Lester and Frank Patrick’s Renfrew Creamery Kings. Montreal lost that game, 9-4, with Pitre scoring a goal. He would soon be making a cool $3000 a hockey season at a time when most NHA salaries were paying $800 to $1000. You’ll see references to the power of his shot, if you go browsing in old newspapers, including mentions of his having blasted pucks through backboards, though I haven’t seen specific accounts of when or where that might have been. His feats of scoring when he actually hit the net were prodigious through the years of the First World War, when he and Newsy Lalonde took turns leading Canadiens in scoring. Pitre’s best goal-gathering year was 1914-15, when he scored 30 in 20 regular-season games. Pitre played 13 seasons with Montreal, winning a Stanley Cup in 1916. He was still with the team in 1917 when the NHA subsided to be almost instantly replaced by the NHL. As a 34-year-old, he scored 17 goals in 20 games in that inaugural season to finish the season third among Hab goalscorers behind Joe Malone and Lalonde. Pitre played five more seasons with Montreal before hanging up his skates at 39 in 1923. 

fourstall

Game Theory: The Montreal Canadiens fight to live another day as they skate out at the Bell Centre tonight in the fourth game of the Stanley Cup Final. Down three games to naught, the incumbent Habs will try to emulate those who went before, and turned a series around. The 1971 Canadiens, for instance: down two games to the Chicago Black Hawks, they roared back to win the Cup in seven games. Henri Richard was a member of that team, of course: that’s him here, all in a blur against New York’s Rangers at some point in the early ‘70s. (Image: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

fête nationale

Celly: One joyous night in Montreal deserves another. As the present-day Habs book their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 28 years, here, above, is Mario Tremblay embracing Keith Acton at Montreal’s Forum in a game against the Quebec Nordiques on April 13, 1982. Same below, with RéjeanHoule arriving. (Images: La Presse)

keep calm and carry on

At Ease: Ken Dryden ponders life in the playoffs at the Montreal Forum during his rookie run in April of 1971. That was the year, maybe you’ll recall, that Canadiens went on to win their 17th Stanley Cup, with Dryden picking up the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. (Image: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

gilles lupien, 1954—2021

Saddened to have learned it, sorry to report it: former lofty defenceman Gilles Lupien died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 67. Born in Lachute in 1954, he was drafted by Montreal in 1974 and joined the AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs. At 6’6” and 210 pounds, he got into policing, and led the league in penalty minutes for two of the three full-time seasons he spent in the A. “I guess you can say they wanted me to be an enforcer,” Lupien said in 2010. “I think I did a good job.” He played three seasons with the Canadiens, collecting a single regular-season goal and 100+ penalty minutes in each one. His colleagues on defence included Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and Guy Lapointe, which goes a long way to exaplaining why, at the end of both of the first two seasons in Montreal, in 1978 and again in ’79, Lupien hoisted the Stanley Cup with his teammates. He went on to play parts of two more NHL seasons, lining up with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers before ending his on-ice career with a combative season with the AHL Binghampton Whalers in 1981-82. Gilles Lupien was, in recent years, a popular player agent.   

Montreal’s Cup-winning 1978-79 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Gilles Lupien, Larry Robinson, Rod Langway, Serge Savard, Brian Engblom, Guy Lapointe, Rick Chartraw. Second tier from the back, that’s Yvon Lamber, Pat Hughes, Mario Tremblay, Bob Gainey, Cam Connor, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Doug Risebrough. Third tier from the back: trainer Eddie Palchak, Doug Jarvis, Pierre Mondou, Mark Napier, Pierre Larouche, Rejean Houle, Jacques Lemaire, trainer Pierre Meilleur. Front: Michel Larocque, director of player development Claude Ruel, coach Scotty Bowman, captain Yvan Cournoyer, president Jacques Courtois, GM Irving Grundman, vice-president Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden.

joe benoit: pacing a punch line in montreal, scoring a scad across pre-war europe

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before war interceded. After serving with Canada’s armed forces,  he returned to the Canadiens in 1945.

The Montreal Canadiens headed into the 1940 NHL season with optimism — though, of course, what else were they going to embrace, having finished the previous campaign plumb last in the seven-team NHL?

They did have a new coach at the helm, the great Dick Irvin, and as the team’s training camp wound down towards the start of the new season, he was talking … well, he sounded a little defensive, to be honest. “We’ll have a team by November 3,” he said; “we won’t be any pushovers.”

He did have an impressive rookie class at his disposal. That fall, Canadiens added 20-year-old centre Johnny Quilty, who end up winning the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, along with a few other quality assets (and future Hall-of-Famers) in centre 23-year-old Elmer Lach, defenceman Ken Reardon, 19. Also making his debut: 24-year-old right winger Joe Benoit, who was born on a Sunday of today’s date in 1916.

With Irvin at the helm, Montreal did improve that year, clambering into the playoffs … before clattering out, in the first round, at the hands of the Chicago Black Hawks. Quilty finished as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals and 34 points in 48 games, just ahead of the veteran captain Toe Blake (12 goals, 32 points) and Benoit (16 goals, 32 points).

As one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players, Benoit deserves more recognition than he’s been accorded to date. If we’re talking about the league itself, that recognition is — well, non-existent. At this late date, the NHL still, for some reason, chooses to ignore the stories of trailblazers like Buddy Maracle, Jim Jamieson, Johnny Harms, and Benoit.

His story, Joe Benoit’s, seems to have started in the northern Alberta community of Egg Lake, though he grew up (like Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla) in St. Albert, to Edmonton’s north. The records I’ve reviewed aren’t entirely clear on his family’s history.  His father’s mother was Métis. In 1921, when Joe was four, the Census of Canada lists his father’s “origin” as French and the rest of the family (his mother and four siblings) as Cree.

Later, the story of young Joe’s hockey origins was told this way: with no arena in St. Albert or even an outdoor rink, he puckhandled through the streets. “Benoit learned his hockey with a homemade stick and a piece of ice as a puck, stickhandling his way up and down the main street of the tiny western hamlet. He developed his stickhandling wizardry by flipping the pieces of ice out of reach of paws and jaws of two gambolling dogs. This was Joe’s only opposition until he went to the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in 1935, where he had his first taste of team play.”

That’s from 1943. No telling now how romanticized a scene-setting that is. There’s no explicit mention, you’ll note, of skates, though subsequent retellings added those, too.

Benoit’s NHL career was noteworthy, interrupted as it was by war and service (and hockey) with the Canadian armed forces. He played just five seasons in the big league, all of them with Montreal. He was the original right winger for the Canadiens’ top line in the early ’40s, skating with Lach and Toe Blake on the original Punch Line, before a bright young prospect by the name of Maurice Richard took his place. Benoit’s best season was 1942-43, which he finished with 30 goals and 57 points. The year he returned to the NHL, 1945-46, Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but a back injury kept him out of the playoffs, and his name wasn’t among those stamped in the silverware.

Back between his street-skating years in St. Albert and his first turn on Montreal Forum ice, Benoit, who died at the age of 65 in 1981, did win a couple of notable championships. In 1938, his Trail Smoke Eaters burst out of B.C. Western Kootenay Hockey League to win the Allan Cup, the national senior title.

That earned the team the right to represent Canada the following year at the World Championships, which they did, embarking on a truly remarkable odyssey through Europe on the brink of the war.

Sailing from Halifax aboard the Duchess of York in mid-December of 1938, the Smokies eventually made their way to Switzerland in the new year, where they defended the world title won the previous year by the Sudbury Wolves and by the Kimberley Dynamiters the year before that. In 1939, Trail went undefeated in eight games, beating Germany, Czechoslovakia (twice), and the United States along the way.

Glory to that, but that’s not the remarkable part. Before they set sail for Canada on the Duchess of Richmond in April of 1939, the Smoke Eaters barnstormed their way around Europe, playing 70 games in three-and-a-half months. In Scotland and England they skated, and through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

Along the way, they compiled a record of 67-1-2, with their only loss coming by a score of 4-1 in London against an all-Canadian team, the Wembley All-Stars.

Joe Benoit counted the only goal for Trail that night. All told, he scored some 60 goals on the tour, leading all the Smoke Eaters in scoring, including a couple of other future NHLers in left winger Bunny Dame, who’d join Benoit in Montreal, and right winger Johnny McCreedy, who served a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mere months from the outbreak of war, the hockey players returned to Canada happy but tired, with tales to tell. “The players criticized the food in Germany,” the Regina Leader-Post noted, “where they said a lack of butter, white bread, and meat existed.”

“The players had never seen so many soldiers before,” reported Vancouver’s Province, quoting an unnamed player: “It was terrible in Germany — soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.”

“The streets were full of the them,” the Province continued, “and windows full of uniforms. England was busy digging tunnels as a precaution against air-raids and gas attacks.”

Our Joe: An Edmonton report on the European adventures of Benoit and the Smokies from January of 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.

He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.

Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.

Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.

It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.

Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.

Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.

Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.

Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.

 

 

all the roadrunning

A birthday today for former Montreal Canadiens captain Yvan Cournoyer, so here’s to him. Born in Drummmdville, Quebec, on a Monday of this same date in 1943, the man they called The Roadrunner is 77 today.

Cournoyer made his debut with Montreal in 1963 and played a total of 16 seasons on the right wing, winning 10 Stanley Cups along the way. His pile of 863 regular-season points is the sixth-largest in team history, and he scored another 127 in playoff games. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1973 for post-season merit. Cournoyer had begun that season, of course, playing with Team Canada, among whom he was the first member to hug Paul Henderson after he scored that final goal of his in Moscow.

(Image: Antoine Desilets, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)