erratum

First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.

Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.

This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.

He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong  embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.

The New York Times ran an Armstrong obituary on January 24.

But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.

This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.

Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.

The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?

There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:

The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.

Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.

Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.

Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.

His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.

On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.

Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.

You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.

Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)

Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.

maroosh

Now Hear This: John Mariucci makes his point with an unidentified member of the post-war Montreal Canadiens. That’s Chicago coach Johnny Gottselig looking in from behind (the second hatted man from the right); Montreal defenceman Kenny Reardon is the Canadian interceding on Mariucci’s right. The other Montrealer looks to me to be numbered 15, which means he could be George Allen or Bob Fillion or … Floyd Curry? The Chicago player nearest the camera could be a 3 but might be an 8, so who knows: Joe Cooper, possibly?

“To be sure there was hockey before Mariucci. But it was Mariucci who made hockey a game for more than Canadians. It was Mariucci who, by force of his play and his personality, made the game a Minnesota game, and then a U.S. game, as well. Pee Wee leagues and summer camps and a state high school hockey tournament and Brotens and Herbies and gold medals … all those things, which have become so much a part of Minnesota’s culture, can be traced to the toughest member of the Hay Street gang, John Mariucci.”

That was Doug Grow writing in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, paying tribute to the man they called Maroosh — also the godfather of Minnesota hockey —in the days following his death, at the age of 70, in 1987. A long-serving coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mariucci also steered the U.S. team to a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. He spent his latter years managing and assisting with the coaching of the Minnesota North Stars.

To mention that he was born on a Monday of this date in 1916 in Eveleth, Minnesota, is to circle back to Hay Street, where he grew up, and where the Mariuccis’ neighbours included the LoPrestis (Sam tended goal for the Chicago Black Hawks) and the Brimseks (Frank, a Hall-of-Famer, made his name with the Boston Bruins).

After a late start — by some accounts, Mariucci didn’t play organized hockey until he was 17 — he starred at hockey and football at the University of Minnesota before joining the Black Hawks in 1940. The adjectives his play as an NHLer generated include rugged and feisty and bruising, as well as the associated phrase never one to miss a bodycheck. “Mariucci Thinks It’s Silly To Fight; He Has Been In About 100 Battles,” ran the headline of a 1948 profile when he was playing for the AHL St. Louis Flyers.

“I’m really sorry every time I get into a fight,” he volunteered, “and I swear I’ll never fight again. … But I hope no opposing player takes advantage of me. I won’t stand for it.”

Top Hawk: Mariucci with the C (and a big old pair of gauntlets)  during the 1947-48 season, his last in the NHL.

His NHL career only lasted five seasons, interrupted as it was by the two wartime years he served with the U.S. Coast Guard. He did play some EAHL hockey in the service —Frank Brimsek was a teammate — with the formidable Cutters.

Back with the Black Hawks after the war, the quality of his leadership saw him named captain of the team. That was a distinction in its own right, of course, and press reports at the time suggested that Mariucci’s appointment was even more notable since he was the first American-born player to serve as captain of an NHL team. That wasn’t the case, in fact: Billy Burch, the man named as the New York Americans’ first captain in 1925, was born in Yonkers, New York — though it’s true, too, that he moved with his family at a young age to Toronto, where his hockey skills were mostly refined.

Not Quite So: The Blackhawks’ 2019-20 media guide errs on Mariucci’s dates.

There is a more noteworthy glitch in what passes as the official record regarding Mariucci’s captaincy that could do with some correcting. Could we fix that, somebody? Many of the standard sources you might find yourself consulting — including both the Blackhawks’ own website and the team’s 2019-20 Media Guide — assert that Mariucci was captain for two seasons, 1945-46 and 1947-48.

That’s not so. The first of those, 1945-46, did see Mariucci return to Chicago ranks from the Coast Guard, but it was left winger Red Hamill, a Toronto-born Chicago veteran making a return from a year on duty (and playing hockey) with the Canadian Army, who was elected captain that season, succeeding Clint Smith.

Hamill continued as captain the following year. And he was still with the team in October of 1947 when Mariucci supplanted him. That was Mariucci’s last year with Chicago and in the NHL: in the fall of ’48, when he was 32, the Black Hawks released him, and Gaye Stewart took over as captain. That’s when Mariucci joined the St. Louis Flyers of the AHL. He was named captain there; press reports from the time also note that he’d be doing some work, too, in his new Midwest home as a scout for the Black Hawks.

Right Said Red: The Chicago Tribune noted Red Hamill’s appointment as Chicago’s first post-war captain in October of 1945.

hockey coaches in hospital beds: down goes dutton

American Lit: Red Dutton gets a light for his cigarette from an unnamed nurse during his stay at Gotham Hospital in February of 1938.

Another month, another loss.

That was the story in the winter of 1938 for the New York Americans, who ended January with a 4-2 home defeat at the sticks of the Montreal Canadiens. Four days later, the Amerks started their February schedule with a 6-1 drubbing at Madison Square Garden by the Detroit Red Wings. That was their fourth loss in a row, and extended their winless streak to nine games. With a little over a month to go in the regular season, the Americans were in a fight for their playoff lives, just two points ahead of the Montreal Maroons and the basement of the NHL’s International Division.

Forty-year-old Red Dutton was in his third season as the New York coach and manager. His interest in the team, shall we say, ran deeper still: having captained the Americans as one of the NHL’s most effective and bruising defencemen until his retirement as a player in 1936, he was also a co-owner of the team.

The Americans’ slump had Dutton in a rage. He bent Harold Parrott’s ear after the Red Wings’ shellacking and Parrot, the hockey writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was only too happy to share the coach’s none-too-complimentary musings with his readership.

Were the Americans altogether too clean-living to prosper in the rough and the tumble of NHL hockey? Dutton wondered, citing the example of his goaltender, Earl Robertson. “He never looks at a drink or a girl,” Dutton was quoted as saying, “goes to bed early and trains on a running track just to be in shape for hockey — and yet there must be spots in front of his eyes.”

Turning to defenceman Joe Jerwa, Dutton speculated that maybe he had too much money in the bank to care about buckling down and playing effective hockey. “But that can’t be the trouble,” Dutton went on, “because most of the other men haven’t the price of a ham sandwich and they still seem to play as if they didn’t care.”

Dutton advised Parrott that the team’s biggest lack was a defenceman who could rush the puck. He was apparently willing to name those he thought weren’t getting the job done, deeming fifth-year defender Al Murray “the worst of the lot,” according to Parrott.

I’m not the one who’s going to draw the line between that very public scorn and what happened next. It’s not for me to say that Dutton ending up in hospital a week later had anything to do with payback. I’m just reading old newspapers here and patching together what I’m seeing there.

That’s this:

The Americans played their next two games against the Montreals, tying the Canadiens 3-3 in Quebec, then coming home to beat the Maroons 3-1.

That was on the Tuesday, February 8. The Americans didn’t play again until the following Sunday, away to the Red Wings. With the annual Westminster Kennel Club moving in to occupy Madison Square Garden for the week, Dutton decided to take his team to Detroit early. Doc Holst of the local Free Press reported the exchange Dutton had with Jack Adams, his Red Wings counterpart, when the Americans showed up Friday at the Olympia to practice.

“Whatsa matter, Mervin [sic], no ice in the Gardens?” Jack Adams asked.

“Nope, no ice,” Red answered. “They drove us out to put on a dog show.” There was a bit of hurt pride in the redhead’s voice.

It was during that February 11 practice that Dutton suffered the injury that put him in the hospital and into the picture above. The coach was out on the ice, skating with his team when — well, here’s how the Associated Press accounted it:

He tried to carry the puck past his best body-checker, 155-pound Al Murray. Murray smacked his boss with a sound body-check, and Red went flat on his back.

He suffered through the weekend, much of which he seems to have spent abed at his hotel convinced that it was just a bad case of lumbago. He still managed to arrange a trade from that prone position, gaining winger Johnny Sorrell from the Red Wings in exchange for Hap Emms. The Sunday game finished as a 2-2 tie, whereupon the Amerks headed for home.

It was more than lumbago.

At some point back in New York, Dutton ended up in Gotham Hospital up on East 76th Street, under the care of Dr. Morton K. Hertz. A Thursday dispatch in The Daily News reported him to be “encased in a 10-pound plaster cast” as a result of his collision with Al Murray. The diagnosis was dire:

Dutton had torn the lower back (latissimus dorsi) muscles loose from the hip. They must heal before he can stand erect. Hemorrhages that produced a kidney stoppage further complicated his condition, causing intense pain.

The AP listed him as resting uncomfortably, if “very much ashamed of himself,” insofar as he’d never been seriously injured during his 15 professional seasons as a player. The last time he’d been in hospital, the Winnipeg Tribune cheerfully noted, was during the First World War, when he suffered “a bad dose of shrapnel.” That was a reference to his service with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, with whom he’d been badly wounded near Vimy in 1917. During his recovery, he’d been in danger of losing a leg to gangrene.

In 1938, with Dutton sidelined, veteran defenceman Ching Johnson stepped out of the Americans’ line-up to take his place on the bench for a Tuesday meeting with the Canadiens. The As won that game, 4-0.

In fact, Johnson continued to steer the team through a further four games.

That in and of itself is worth a notation: nowhere in the annals of NHL coaching records can I find Johnson getting credit for this brief coaching career of his, including in the NHL’s online register, here. Attention, NHL coaching historians and stats-keepers: Johnson’s name should be added (and Dutton’s adjusted) to reflect the respectable 3-1-1 record that then Americans compiled under their emergency-measures boss.

Red Dutton returned to duty for the Americans’ February 27 home game against the Montreal Maroons. Though they lost that night, 4-2, Dutton’s crew did make it into the playoffs later in March, going two rounds before they fell to upstart Chicago Black Hawks in the semi-finals.

Clarence Campbell was the referee for the second game of that series, controversially calling back a goal by the Americans’ Eddie Wiseman that would have won the game for New York and sent them to the Stanley Cup finals. As it was, Chicago prevailed in overtime and in the next game, too, ousting the Americans. Dutton’s protests didn’t help that, of course, but they did include a vow that his team would have no part of any subsequent playoff game officiated by Campbell.

Campbell’s post-reffing career was in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. His return to hockey came in 1946, when he took over as president of the NHL, succeeding the man who’d taken the job after Frank Calder’s death in 1943 — Red Dutton.

The end of the 1938 season saw Ching Johnson call it quits as an NHL player, subsequently taking his talents west to serve as playing coach for the American Hockey Association’s Minneapolis Millers. Before leaving New York, he was rewarded as all the Americans were that season: as reward for their ’37-38 playoff successes coach Dutton handed each man a bonus of $250.

 

 

old guard: a brief history of aged nhlers

Don’t Let Go The Coat: The year before he became Montreal’s original Canadien (and nine years before he made his NHL debut at age 38), here’s Jack Laviolette, left, and a pal … possibly Didier Pitre, which is what the original caption says.  

The NHL debut that Connie Madigan made on this date in 1973 is notable because, at 38, the St. Louis defenceman was, well, in hockey terms — elderly. For 14 years he’d laboured in the minor leagues before getting his break, mostly with the WHL Portland Buckaroos, with whom he earned (not necessarily in this order) a nickname, Mad Dog, and a reputation for not letting the rules of the game compromise his style of stopping opponents. “All knees, elbows, and snarly looks” is how a Vancouver paper summed it up in 1968. “He hurts,” a rueful and respecting opponent said in 1971. That was the same year Madigan served a lengthy suspension for punching a referee, knocking him out.

Madigan was pleased, in ’73, to have finally made the big time. “Even after waiting all these years,” he said, “it was still quite a thrill playing in my first game. I’m just glad to be here, although I’ve always thought I should have been here sooner.” The Blues were playing Vancouver the night he premiered, and on his first shift Madigan gave the puck away to a Canuck, Barry Wilkins, whose own inadvertent pass eventually went to the Blues’ Pierre Plante, who scored — so no assist for Madigan, but not a terrible start. He took no penalties from referee Dave Newell, who happened to be the very guy he’d punched in ’71. “It didn’t bother me any that it was him,” Madigan said. “He leaves me alone.”

Madigan finished the year with St. Louis, getting into 20 regular-season games in all, then five more in the playoffs. That was all for Connie Madigan in the NHL; he finished his career after another few seasons in the minors.

Madigan was then (and sometimes still is) deemed the NHL’s “oldest rookie.” The definition of what constitutes one of those in the NHL has changed over the years. Since Mad Dog’s stint in the league, it’s been narrowed to exclude the exceedingly mature: “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie,” the league’s policy now stipulates.

That doesn’t change the fact that Madigan remains one of the most aged players ever to have waited for most of his career to skate in the big league. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not the oldest of the old. In fact, I think he’s no better than the third oldest player to make an NHL debut.

First would be Lester Patrick, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He was 43 and coaching the New York Rangers when he inserted himself into his own line-up for a game on defence in 1927. The following spring in the playoffs, he made a more famous appearance, replacing an injured Lorne Chabot in the Ranger goal. (More on that here.)

Then, next: Jack Laviolette, Hall of Fame class of 1963. Born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1879 — he died, at 80, in 1960 — he’s the most original Montreal Canadien you can name, the team’s first hire in 1909 when it came into being as Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien. As manager and coach, he built the team; on the ice, he captained it from the defence that first futile year, when Le Canadien finished at the bottom of the seven-team National Hockey Association standings.

Laviolette would soon cede the managing, coaching, and captaining to others — George Kennedy, Adolphe Lecours, and Newsy Lalonde succeeded him, respectively, in 1910-11. Continuing on the defence, Laviolette did (briefly) get the captaincy back the following year, and played on as an influential member of the NHA Canadiens through the war years. In 1916, he helped the team win the Stanley Cup.

He was still in the picture as the team prepared for a new season in November of 1917, even as the old league was dissolving and a new one materializing.

The latter was, of course, the NHL, and when its four teams got going on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, Laviolette was the eldest of its players at 38 years, 145 days. (On his St. Louis debut, Connie Madigan was 38 years, 125 days.)

Canadiens were in Ottawa that opening night, where the local Citizen lamented the home team’s lacks (Frank Nighbor, Horace Merrill) while singing the virtues of the visitors. Montreal “skated out with one of the finest all around hockey machines they have ever had.” Anchored by Georges Vézina in goal, Canadiens counted on Joe Hall and Bert Corbeau on defence and a forward line led by Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Joe Malone. Jack Laviolette was a substitute by now, along with Billy Coutu and Louis Berlinguette.

In his role as a reliever, the Citizen said, Laviolette showed he had “lost little of his speed and snap.” Montreal prevailed on the night by a score of 7-4 with Laviolette notching an assist for his troubles — the only one he’s credited with in his 20-game NHL career, to go with two goals.

I don’t know what Laviolette’s plans were for the following year, but his hockey future was decided in May of 1918. His off-season gig at that point was as manager of the Joffre Café in Montreal; he also had a thing for speed. For as long as he’d starred on the ice, Laviolette had excelled at other sports, as well: he was a superior lacrosse player and excelled at racing both motorcycles and automobiles.

He seems to been driving one of his racing cars in a non-competitive setting one night in the Montreal neighbourhood of Longue-Point, near the river, when the car skidded and hit what’s described in contemporary accounts as an “iron tramway pole.” Two friends who were with him escaped unhurt, but Laviolette’s injuries were such that surgeons ended up amputating his right leg below the right knee. That was the grim news the Gazette reported in the days following the accident — though subsequent reports that summer had him losing his left foot.

That might warrant further investigation. Some more historical housekeeping might be in order here, too, in the matter of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career. Consult the usual trusted sources — Hockey Reference, say, or Canadiens’ own historical reservoir — and you’ll find Newsy Lalonde listed as the team’s coach for 1918-19. Like Laviolette before him, he was multi-tasking in those years, coaching, playing, and captaining the team. But that December, as the new season was getting underway, several newspaper reports had Jack Laviolette coming on as coach — or, in the terminology of the day, trainer. (Just to confuse things, head coaches were in that early era often also referred to as managers.)

The day of the team’s first practice, for instance, Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Gazette notes that at Jubilee Rink, at 7 p.m., Laviolette (“whose hockey career is finished”) “will make his initial appearance as trainer.”

“Laviolette has been given charge of the team, and should make good in the position.”

The Ottawa Citizen mentions him, too, as Canadiens’ trainer in December, with an intriguing coda: “He will give an exhibition of skating between the periods.” Pluck that thread and you might extract an item from Toronto’s Daily Star in which Toronto coach Charlie Querrie mentions this same plan. “Querrie says that Laviolette already handles his artificial foot so well that strangers never notice his disability,” is how that report ends.

Did Jack Laviolette end up coaching the Canadiens for some of their schedule in 1918-19 or did he simply entertain the faithful between periods? I don’t have much more to go on either way, at this point. If you’re reading the old newspapers, you’ll find that he fades from the page — until early February, when his name emerges one more time. “Happy” Jack Laviolette, the Ottawa Citizen tags him, announcing that he may that very day get up on skates and give them a go.

“He threatened to put them on early this winter, but somehow or other refrained,” the report continues. Depending on how things go, and given the scarcity of NHL referees, the Citizen suggests that Laviolette may soon be enlisting as an arbiter. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though. The final line of the Citizen’s update doesn’t really clear up the coaching mystery, either, noting that “Jack has been acting as a sort of a coach and adviser to the Canadien hockey team.”

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bringing up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to, but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th 1909.”

Could she have erred?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mail could very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe got it wrong again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

hockey players in hospital beds: most of the 1938 chicago black hawks

chi abed 1

1. Maybe there’s a more impressively populated photograph of hockey players abed in hospital, but I doubt it. The patients, from left, are Cully Dahlstrom, Mush March, Louie Trudel, Doc Romnes, Carl Voss, Johnny Gottselig, and Art Wiebe, members all of the 1937-38 Chicago Black Hawks. Their injuries, respectively, were to the: leg, groin, scalp, nose, leg, leg, and forehead.

2. Blame Red Horner.

3. That’s what Chicago did. Not that he did all the damage, just a lot of it, especially to Doc Romnes, who vowed revenge (apparently) and (verifiably) took it. April of ’38 this was, when the Leafs and Black Hawks were in the Finals, playing for the Stanley Cup.

4. The first two games were in Toronto. The Leafs, who’d swept by the Boston Bruins in the semi-finals, had finished 20 points ahead of Chicago in the season standings. Chicago had surprised Montreal and the New York Americans in the playoffs: they were being called “the Cinderella boys.” The Chicago Tribune said that the entire club radiated confidence.

5. There was a goalie kerfuffle that I’m not really going to get into here. Suffice to say Chicago’s regular goaltender was injured and a man whom the Black Hawks didn’t want guarding their net was kind of forced on them, and then when he won the first game, that was the end of it, the NHL wouldn’t let him play for them again. Alfie Moore. The score was 2-1.

6. The second game Toronto won, 5-1. A drubbing, The Winnipeg Tribune called it; local newspapers were pleased. In action that night, Chicago had a different goaltender, Paul Goodman, due to the continuing situation that you’ll have to look up elsewhere. What’s important to say here is that several Hawks were hurt in this game, including Art Wiebe (cut in the head by a teammate’s stick while trying to dodge a flying puck as he sat on the bench), Johnny Gottselig (slashed on the foot), and (cut in the head by high sticks) Louis Trudel (six stitches) Roger Jenkins (two), and Alex Levinsky (two). Mush Marsh’s pre-existing aching groin kept him out of the game altogether, joining Hawk goalie Mike Karakas, whose toe was fractured, causing the whole goaltender of which we’ll continue not to speak.

7. According to the Chicago papers, Toronto captain Red Horner was the high-sticker-in-chief; he also broke Doc Romnes’ nose.

8. George Strickler from The Chicago Tribune wrote that bitter feelings were engendered by (1) the goaltender hubbub that probably would have been worth explaining; (2) lax officiating (looking at you, Ag Smith and Bert McCaffrey) as well as (3):

It was evident from the opening faceoff that the favored Leafs, aroused by the publicity resulting from Tuesday’s unexpected defeat were intent on making the beating physical as well as official. They checked viciously and needlessly and completely mastered the Hawks until the latter began retaliating in kind.

9. In 1962, The Chicago Sunday Tribune recalled the brutality of the game. Here’s what Ted Damata wrote about Romnes, who had, it’s true, won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1936 in recognition of his gentlemanly peacefulness:

Elwyn Romnes, who looked and acted so much like a meek professor that the players nicknamed him Doc.

10. Contemporary accounts don’t dwell too much on what Horner did to Romnes. Mostly what they say is that the former broke the latter’s nose, and this forced Romnes from the game in the second period. Subsequent reports multiply the damage: the nose was apparently broken in three places.

11. Stan and Shirley Fischler, in Who’s Who In Hockey (2003): Horner rapped Romnes across the face. A contemporary report from the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph (presumably an AP report) attributes the damage to a Horner body check. Whereas Mark Stewart, in The Chicago Blackhawks (2009) seems to suggest the wound was self-inflicted: Romnes broke his nose.

That echoes the blamelessness that Charles Coleman enshrined in The Trail of the Stanley Cup (1969): Romnes emerged from a fracas with a broken nose.

Andrew Podnieks, in Players: The Ultimate A—Z Guide To Everyone Who Has Ever Played in the NHL (2003): his nose was smashed by a punch from Red Horner.

Kevin Allen tells us that it was a Horner butt-end that did the damage. This is in “Then Wayne Said to Mario. . .”: The Best Stanley Cup Stories Ever Told (2009).

12. Horner wasn’t penalized for whatever it was he did, though he did take tripping minor in the second. Still, according to Globe and Mail Sports Editor Tommy Munns, the referees were “stricter than any other pair in any other playoff game.” NHL President Frank Calder had met with Smith and McCaffrey before the game, telling them (Munns speculated) “to get away from the practice of letting almost everything go.” Continue reading