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. Given the look of him and the date offered (1908), I’m not entirely convinced.

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 themost 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 get (briefly) 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. Bring 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 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

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 Mailcould 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 erred 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.