The early months of 1955 were tumultuous ones for the Montreal Canadiens. In March, as the regular season was winding to an end, Maurice Richard’s suspension roiled the team and, soon enough, the city of Montreal. The Canadiens did get to the finals that spring, but without the Rocket they fell to the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. That was in April. To start May, the news from Montreal was that after 15 seasons and three Cup championships, coach Dick Irvin was moving out and on, to Chicago, where he hoped to resurrect the Black Hawks.
There was plenty of speculation in Montreal, of course, on the matter of who might take Irvin’s place. Canadiens Managing Director Frank Selke was quick to rule out a couple of candidates with experience on the Montreal blueline: Ken Reardon, who was already ensconced in the organization’s front office, was thought to be a GM-in-waiting, while Butch Bouchard still hoped to play another season or two. Former Leaf great Charlie Conacher had experience coaching in Chicago, and when he was seen chatting with Selke, the rumour was quick to spread that he was the man. Another defenceman on the Canadiens roster, Tom Johnson, told a reporter that while he’d heard the names of former Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy and Toe Blake bandied about, he didn’t think either man would end up in the job: he suspected the new man would be a Quebecer. So maybe Roger Léger, yet another former Canadien (and one more defender), who was coach of Shawinigan in the Quebec league? Billy Reay was mentioned, too, though he was from Winnipeg, an erstwhile Canadien now coaching the Victoria Cougars in the WHL.
By the end May, Maurice Richard was weighing in. No disrespect to his old teammates Léger and Reay, but the Rocket felt — or knew — that it would be his former linemate, Blake, who should be taking charge. “I think Blake is the best of the three men, as he can handle men both on and off the ice,” Richard told reporters on a visit to Timmins, Ontario, to receive an award. “He should get the job over Reay or Léger, although they both have done good jobs.”
Blake, who was 42 that spring, and a son of Coniston, Ontario, which is now p[art of Sudbury, had been coaching previously in Montreal’s farm system, notably with the Valleyfield Braves of Quebec’s Senior League. As predicted by the Rocket, he was appointed to the job of Canadiens coach 11 days later, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955.
“I am stepping into a big pair of shoes in taking over from Dick Irvin,” Blake said told the press that day. “I have always considered him the best in the league, and with the help of Mr. Selke and Mr. Reardon and the players, we will continue to keep Canadiens hockey name on top. The team won’t let the fans down. I am not going to promise the Stanley Cup, but we will continue as a great fighting club.”
Blake’s first game in charge came that October, when Montreal beat Toronto 2-0 in the opening game of the 1955-56 season. The Stanley Cup that Blake’s Canadiens won the following spring was the first of five in a row, of course, as Blake steered Montreal to eight championships in the 13 years he remained at the helm before retiring in 1968 and handing over to Claude Ruel.
(Image, from the late 1960s: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
Phil Watson’s credentials as an NHL coach were forged out of a 13-year NHL career as a rumbustious right winger, all but one season of which he spent with the New York Rangers. Born in Montreal on a Friday of this same date in 1914, Watson took up behind the bench the year after he hung up stick and skates in 1948, at first with the New York Rovers, then of the QSHL, and later with the QJHL’s Quebec Citadelles.
In 1955, a 42-year-old Watson succeeded Muzz Patrick as coach of the Rangers. Pictured here is the end of his first campaign, which came on a March night in 1956. On their way to another Stanley Cup that season, the Canadiens dispensed with Watson’s Rangers in five first-round games, completing the job with a 7-0 demolition at the Forum.
Doug Harvey, Henri Richard, and Dickie Moore each scored a pair of goals; the shutout was Jacques Plante’s. The Gazette described the moment we’re seeing here: “When the siren sounded to end the game the Ranger players shook hands with their conquerors. Then Phil Watson and Toe Blake, the rival coaches, met at centre ice. Toe took off his hat when he received Watson’s congratulations. The crowd liked it and roared approval.”
Watson steered the Rangers through five not-specially-glorious seasons before he was fired midway through the 1959-60 season. He would go on to coach the Boston Bruins for another two seasons in the early 1960s. His coaching finale came a decade after that when he took charge of the WHA’s Philadelphia/Vancouver Blazers for two seasons in the ’70s.
Back when Gay Talese was writing hockey dispatches for The New York Times, he caught up to Watson after a game against the Boston Bruins. This was October of 1958; Watson explained the situation this way:
“My club is like a new car that has little things wrong with it. We got trouble with the windshield wipers, squeaks in the rear, and brakes need adjusting. It’ll take 10,000 miles to break this club in. In Boston I had piston trouble and we’re tied, 4-4. They also had the referee on their side.”
A sad advisory from the Edmonton Oilers, confirming the news that former coach John Muckler died on Monday night at the age of 86. A native of Midland, Ontario, Muckler cut his head-coaching teeth in 1968-69 with the Minnesota North Stars. He joined the Oilers as an assistant on Glen Sather’s bench in 1981 and played his part in five Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton, the last one, in 1990, as head coach. Above, he’s pictured in 1984-85; the team group below finds him between Father and goaltender Andy Moog in 1983. He subsequently spent four years coaching and managing the Buffalo Sabres and another three seasons on the New York Rangers’ bench. Muckler was GM of the Ottawa Senators from 2001 through to the summer of 2007.
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.
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.
“Personal relations between Art Duncan and myself are of the best,” Toronto Maple Leafs managing director Conn Smythe was saying 89 years ago today, on another Friday of this same date, stepping up to announce his utmost and ongoing confidence in his coach. “I cannot speak too highly in praise of Mr. Duncan’s attitude since he has had the team.”
Actually, no, sorry, my mistake: fond as that speech sounds, Smythe was in fact firingthe man who’d been guiding his hockey team for just over a year. Five games into the new season, with the Leafs mired at the foot of the NHL’s four-team Canadian Section on a record of three losses and two overtime ties, Smythe had decided that Dick Irvin was the change that the Leafs needed.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Art Duncan had turned 40 in the summer of 1931. He was already a veteran defenceman when he came to the Leafs in 1927. A trade brought him in from the Detroit Cougars, with whom he’d served as playing coach before ceding the bench to Jack Adams.
Having headed up the syndicate that bought the Toronto franchise earlier in ’27, Conn Smythe would soon take over as manager and coach of the team, too. In 1930, after three years of guiding the team, Smythe decided that the time had come for him to fix his attention on getting a new arena built. Smythe had hoped that Frank Nighbor would succeed him, but when he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Pembroke Peach, he handed the job to Duncan.
This wasn’t Duncan’s first stint playing big-league hockey in Toronto: a decade earlier, during the First World War, he’d enlisted in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and played for the 228th Battalion team during its brief tenure in the pre-NHL NHA.
After the 228th cut short its season in 1917 to deploy to France, Duncan transferred to Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, as a lieutenant flying an S.E.5a fighter over Belgium and northern France, he was credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. For “continuous gallantry and initiative,” Duncan was awarded the Military Cross and bar.
By the fall of ’31, Conn Smythe had done what he’d set out to: on November 12 that year, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in a blaze of pomp and ceremony. The Leafs couldn’t contribute a win to the festivities. Two weeks later, they still didn’t have one to their name.
Duncan’s last game in charge saw Toronto fall in Montreal, 3-2 to the Canadiens, on the night of Thursday, November 26. When he was fired next day, he had coached the Leafs in 47 regular-season games — the same number, as it happens, that the present coach, Sheldon Keefe, has overseen to date. (Keefe’s winning percentage stands at .400 to Duncan’s .250.)
Several reports of Duncan’s dismissal noted that he would remain on the Toronto payroll, though that doesn’t seem to have worked out over the longer term. In February of 1932, news reached the popular press that Duncan was suing the Leafs for several thousand dollars in pay, claiming wrongful dismissal and breach of contract. (I haven’t been able to determine how that was resolved, or wasn’t.)
Dick Irvin, who was 39, had also served with the CEF, with the Fort Garry Horse. He was already a veteran star of the Western Canadian Hockey League when he joined the expansion Chicago Black Hawks in 1926, becoming the team’s first captain.
After a fractured skull put an end to his playing career in 1929, he took over as coach the team. He didn’t last, but then not many coaches did, for long, in those torrid years when Major Frederic McLaughlin was the owner in Chicago.
After just a year-and-a-half on the job — and having beaten the Leafs on the way to the 1931 Stanley Cup final, where Chicago lost to Montreal — Irvin resigned his post with the Black Hawks in September of ’31.
He was back home in Regina in mid-November as the rumours circulated that he might be convinced to return to the Black Hawks. Smythe, though, was persuasive enough over the telephone from Toronto that Irvin decided his future lay in Toronto.
He wasn’t on hand to get it started right away, as it turned out. With the new coach en route from Saskatchewan, and not due to arrive on in Toronto until the following Monday, Conn Smythe stepped in to take command of the Leafs that Saturday, 89 years ago tomorrow.
He did fine, steering Toronto to a 6-5 decision over the Boston Bruins — the Leafs’ very first victory in their new building. Andy Blair scored the overtime winner.
Dick Irvin’s first game in charge was at the Gardens on Tuesday, December 1, when another overtime failed to unlock a 2-2 tie between Toronto and the New York Americans. It was another two games before the new coach got his first Leafly victory, a 4-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.
Things got better and better from there, to the extent that in April of 1932, Irvin’s Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.
There’s no need to exaggerate the influence that Art Ross exerted on the game of hockey and the way it’s played — what more could the man have done? He was an outstanding defender in the early years of the 20th century; designed the puck that the NHL adopted when it started up; devised the net that’s still in use today; was the first coach in the league to pull his goalie for an extra attacker. He did that, of course, as coach of the Boston Bruins, the team he was hired to run when they debuted in 1924, and the one he more or less shaped in his own never-back-down image, imprinting the franchise with his penchant for winning and contentious attitude right from the start.
A son of northern Ontario, Art Ross died on a Wednesday of this date in 1964 in the Boston suburb of Medford. He was 79.
His demise was, famously, reported long before that, in error: in the summer of 1918, newspapers across North America announced the sad news that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident in New Hampshire.
Ross was 33 that year, and had just become a father for the first time. He’d spent part of the previous winter playing the only NHL games he ever got into, three of them. He was captain and playing coach of the ill-starred Montreal Wanderers, scoring his only NHL goal in the team’s very first game, against Toronto. The Wanderers didn’t last, folding after playing four games and defaulting another two. That was all for Ross as a player, though he did get back on the ice as a referee that season, and worked the Stanley Cup final that Toronto won that March.
In the summer, at the time of his purported death, Ross was mourned as one of the “best known hockey players, motor cyclists, footballers, trap shooters, and al-around sportsmen in Canada” — that, from the Vancouver Sun.
As it turned out, Ross had survived an accident that had killed his nephew, Hugh Ross. While some newspapers would still be mourning the elder Ross for weeks to come, he had escaped uninjured.
Ross was back on NHL ice the following winter as a referee. He got his next coaching gig in 1922, when he took the helm of another team that didn’t last, the Hamilton Tigers, before signing on in ’24 with Boston’s expansion team.