shut the front door: ottawa’s fireman was as fast as a flash

Mainstay of the Maroons, they called him, Horatius at the Bridge, the Sphinx of the Nets. Also? The Ottawa Fireman. That was a nickname, the last one, but it was also a straightforward description, because throughout Alec Connell’s 12-year Hall-of-Fame career as an NHL goaltender, he remained a dutiful employee of the fire department in the nation’s capital.

His renown was such that when, on a Saturday of this date in 1958, Connell died, the news was front-page-centre in the Ottawa Citizen, his hometown paper. He was 58.

Twenty-nine he served with the Ottawa Fire Department, starting in 1921. He was working as secretary to Chief Robert Burnett in the fall of 1924 when he was signed by the mighty Senators, Stanley Cup champions in three of the previous five seasons, to replace Clint Benedict. Connell’s sporting exploits were well-known in the city: “one of Ottawa’s best all-round athletes,” the Montreal Gazette advised. 

“He is a little man as fast as a flash and as cool-headed almost as the great Georges Vézina of the Canadiens.” He was, moreover, “a fine, clean-cut youth.” 

“Connell neither smokes nor drinks, and is in every way a credit to sport.”

He would play eight seasons, all told, with the Senators, often wearing what was described as a floppy hat, his face set with a serious expression that contemporary reports tended to classify as deadpan. He backstopped Ottawa to the 1927 Stanley Cup, and he was the Montreal Maroons’ goaltender in 1935 when they won the Cup. He had turns, too, with the Detroit Falcons and New York Americans before he gave up his pads for good in 1937.

On that subject, the pads, while Jake Forbes of the old Hamilton Tigers was the first NHL goaltender to transition from the old, narrow cricket-style pads to the new-fangled wider horsehide-and-kapok versions pioneered by Hamilton harnessmaker Pop Kenesky in the 1920s, Alec Connell was the second. These are Keneskys pictured in the image above, showing Connell in all his felted glory in 1931, when he was with Detroit; the pads are, in all probability, the originals that Connell commissioned from the legendary Pop Kenesky in 1927.

Some other Connell claims to hockey fame:

• He’s one of six goaltenders in NHL history to have captained his team, which in his case was Ottawa for the 1932-33 season. (Not counting Roberto Luongo here, whom the Vancouver Canucks recognized as their leader from 2008-10, despite the league’s latter-day rules that don’t allow captains in the crease.) 

• Playing for the Maroons in 1934, Connell was the goaltender of record when Ralph Bowman scored the NHL’s very first penalty shot

• Alec Connell still holds the record for the longest shutout streak in NHL history, 460 minutes and 49 seconds. That dates back to the 1927-28 season, when he strung together six consecutive clean sheets before Duke Keats of the Black Hawks solved him in a game in Chicago. Connell racked up 15 shutouts in 44 regular-season games that season — impressive, though not enough to win him the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, which went to George Hainsworth of the Canadiens that year. 

Flashman: An artist’s impression of Connell’s antics in a 1924 pre-season game against the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers. Note the pre-Kenesky pads, narrow, like cricket pads.

oh my, that glove

A birthday today for Tony Esposito, born in Sault Ste. Marie on a Friday of this date in 1943: he’s 78 now, and thereby the younger of the family’s two Hall of Famers. Tony launched his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens, starting his first game in Boston in 1968 against brother Phil … who promptly scored both Bruin goals in a 2-2 tie. Claimed by the Chicago Black Hawks, Tony O won the Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie in 1970. He played 15 seasons with Chicago, winning the Vézina Trophy three times along the way. “Tony Esposito used everything he had,” the Boston Globe’s Fran Rosa wrote in 1974 on an April night when the Hawks overcame the Bruins in the playoffs, “his stick, his pads, his body, his skates, even his head once, and of course, his glove. Oh my, that glove. It grew bigger and bigger as the game progressed.”

broad street backstop

Net Presence: Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1945, goaltending great Bernie Parent is 76 today. He held the Philadelphia fort when the Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and ’75, carrying off the Vézina Trophy in those seasons, too, and collecting successive Conn Smythes as playoff MVP. In 1977, he and Flyer teammate Rick MacLeish made the case, below, why the time was right for getting yourself fitted into a Flyerjak® just as soon as you possibly could. 

 

calgary hal

Hal Winkler

Tiger King: The bald-pated custodian is a phrase sometimes associated with Hal Winkler when he used to play, back in the 1920s. Born in Gretna, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1894, he was tender of nets for the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos when they lost out to the Ottawa Senators in the 1923 Stanley Cup finals. By the time he took this pose, above, it would have been 1925 or so, when he was with the WCHL/WHL Calgary Tigers. He got the NHL in 1926, when he joined the New York Rangers at 32. With Lorne Chabot proving himself in the New York nets, Winkler was sold to the Boston Bruins that winter. He played only a season-and-a-half for the Bruins before Tiny Thompson took over, but Winkler was so much admired in Boston that the team made sure his name to include his name on the Stanley Cup they won in 1929, after a season in which Winkler appeared in not a single NHL game. With a few more minor-league campaigns notched on his pads, he retired in 1931, whereupon he returned to Manitoba to run a mink ranch. (Image: Oregon Historical Society. Oregon Journal Negative Collection, Lot 1368; Box 371; 0371N275. Used with permission.)

just add pads

Born in Selkirk, Manitoba, in 1905 on a Saturday of this date, Paul Goodman was minding the nets for the AHA Wichita Skyhawks when the Chicago Black Hawks summoned him to Toronto in the spring of 1938 where they were battling the local Leafs for the Stanley Cup. With Chicago starter Mike Karakas out with an injury, the Black Hawks had made do in game one with emergency replacement Alfie Moore. Better yet, they’d won the game. That didn’t sit well with the Leafs, who refused to consent to Moore playing the second game, so in went 33-year-old Goodman. The Leafs won that one, but Karakas returned for the final two games to secure Chicago’s second championship in four years. Goodman got his chance at a more regular role with the Black Hawks two seasons after that playoff debut, taking over the starter’s job from Karakas, which is when this photograph dates to, January of 1940.  Goodman’s final NHL season was 1940-41. That year, he shared  the Chicago net with Sam LoPresti.

the goose that laid 50 eggs

Towering Tiny: An artist’s rendition of Boston’s mighty Tiny Thompson from 1930.

Score it 0-0: the game that particular February 24 on a Sunday night in 1935 ended up without a puck getting by either goaltender through three regular periods and a ten-minute overtime. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the scene, with 26-year-old Dave Kerr tending the nets for the hometown Rangers against Tiny Thompson and the Boston Bruins in front of a crowd of 16,000 or so. The ice, by one account, was wretched.

“For Rangers,” the Boston Globe disclosed the next day, “Kerr was the whole works.” He stopped 43 pucks, recording the 15th shutout of his five-year career. His closest call? Harold Parrott from Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle said it came on a “rifle shot” from Boston’s Babe Siebert, “which nearly tore the goaler’s little finger off and hit the goal post with that dull ping which signifies failure.” Thompson deterred 39 New York shots — or maybe 34. The NHL didn’t keep official counts in those early years, and the Globe and the New York Times begged to differ in their accounting of Thompson’s work. To the latter’s eye, his hardest test came in the second period on a “ripping long shot” from New York’s Murray Murdoch.

For Thompson, who was 31 and playing in his eighth NHL season, the night marked a milestone of distinguished denial: this was the 50th regular-season shutout of his career. He was the seventh goaltender in league history to make it to that mark, following in the venerable skates of (not in order) George Hainsworth, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Lorne Chabot, Alec Connell, and John Ross Roach.

 

suitcase and his socks

Luggage On The Left Coast: Gary Smith guarded Vancouver nets from 1973 through 1976.

Born in Ottawa on a Friday of this date in 1944, goaltender Gary Smith is 77 today. The nicknames he acquired during his career don’t really need a whole lot of explication, but here goes: Suitcase referenced his travels around the NHL, WHA, and minor leagues, wherein he played for 13 teams in 16 seasons during the 1960s and ’70s; Axe underscored his propensity for swinging sticks at passing opponents. His father, Des Smith, played defence starting in the late 1930s for four NHL teams, including Boston; brother Brian was a left winger for Los Angeles and Minnesota in the latter ’60s. Gary shared a Vézina Trophy with Tony Esposito for their work in the Chicago Black Hawks’ crease in 1972, and Smith backstopped the WHA Winnipeg Jets to the 1979 Avco Cup.

The following year was Smith’s last in hockey; it happened to be Winnipeg’s first in the NHL. Defenceman Barry Melrose was a teammate that season, and it’s to him we go for this news of Smith’s in-game rituals.

“He wore 13 pairs of socks in his goalie skates,” Melrose recollected in 2009, “because he hated pucks hitting his feet. He also wore long underwear and after every period, he took off all his gar and had a cold shower. Can you imagine the laundry the trainers had to do? It was 50-some socks per game plus four sets of underwear. The Axe was a weird dude.”

meet me in chicoutimi

Meet Me in Chicoutimi: Canadiens pose at the Aréna with (in white) local players on the afternoon of March 7, 1915. Dark-sweatered Montrealers are (front row, from left) Louis Berlinguette, Didier Pitre, and Harry Scott and (back row, from left) Jack Laviolette with Ernie Dubeau (I think) next to him, Nick Bawlf fourth from lef,  and Georges Vézina sixth from left, in the tuque. It’s likely that Vézina’s older brother Pierre would have played in this game, and judging from other photographs, I’m guessing that  he’s the tall one at the back, third from the left. Or maybe front row, farthest to the right? A defenceman, he played briefly for Montreal in the NHA, suiting up for a single  game in 1911-12.

A birthday today for Georges Vézina, who was born in Chicoutimi on a Friday of this date in 1887. That means he would have been 28 in March of 1915 when this photograph was taken on the ice at the Aréna one Sunday afternoon in his Saguenay hometown, when his Canadiens came to town for an exhibition game against the local Banque National team.  While I haven’t found a record of the score that day in ’15, what I can report is that Montreal’s season had finished with a thud a few days earlier, when they’d finished dead last in the standings of the six-team NHA.

It’s not that the team lacked talent: alongside Vézina, playing in his fifth professional season, the 1914-15 Canadiens iced a few other future Hall-of-Famers that year in Jack Laviolette, Didier Pitre, and Newsy Lalonde, as well as the solid talents of Bert Corbeau and Louis Berlinguette. A year later, with much the same line-up, Canadiens did win their first Stanley Cup, but in 1915 they just couldn’t get it together.

Finishing top of the NHA that year were the Ottawa Senators and Montreal’s other team, the Wanderers, and those two teams duly played for the league championship.

Ottawa won the two-game series, earning the right to play the PCHA-champion Vancouver Millionaires for the Stanley Cup. That was at the end of March; Vancouver prevailed, winning three successive games.

Progrès du Saguenay ad ahead of Montreal’s exhibition in Chicoutimi in March of 1915.

Montreal’s teams, meanwhile, went to New York, where they played in a friendly tournament at the St. Nicholas Rink at 69 West 66th Street. Wanderers lined up the Cleghorn brothers that year, Odie and Sprague, along with Harry Hyland and Goldie Prodger. They took the first game 7-6 over Vézina and his teammates, and won again the following night, 8-3.

Maybe “friendly” isn’t quite the right word, given the reports from New York.

“It was a hard game from start to finish in the way of body checking,” The New York Times wrote of the first encounter. “The players of each team crashed into each other with utter disregard of consequences and several times players were sent sprawling on the ice and time was taken so they might recover.”

Jack Laviolette impressed: a dispatch from the sidelines of the second game described him skimming “over the ice with such speed that in his jersey of flaming scarlet he resembled a fire brand.”

Vézina, too, earned praise, despite the eight goals that went by him that night. He was deemed to have done “some excellent work at stopping the rush of the Wanderers” even though “at times they came at him so fast and furious it was impossible for him to see the puck at all.”

The victorious Wanderers went on to meet their NHA rivals from Quebec in the next stage of the tournament. The Bulldogs featured Joe Malone in their forward line and Paddy Moran in goal, but the Wanderers overwhelmed them all the same, winning by scores of 12-6 and 15-12 to claim their reward: a purse of $2,500.

not to scale

Antechamber: By the winter of 1932, eight goaltenders had guarded the Boston Bruins’ net in the course of their nine NHL seasons. On a Thursday of this date that year, Tiny Thompson became the first of them to record 30 regular-season shutouts when he blanked the Black Hawks 1-0 in Chicago. Starting into his fifth season in the league that year, he’d had three more in the playoffs to that point. Thompson’s regular-season total of 74 career shutouts is the most in Bruins’ history, ahead of Tuukka Rask (50) and Frank Brimsek (35). He had a total of seven career shutouts. Showing off his paltry pads, Thompson is pictured here at the Boston Garden in 1937. (Image: © Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)

dental appointment: doc stewart takes to the boston net, 1924

B List: The 1925-26 Boston Bruins line up, from left, Sprague Cleghorn, Sailor Herbert, Gerry Geran, Carson Cooper, Red Stuart, Norm Shay, Stan Jackson (I think), Hago Harrington, Dr. Charles Stewart.

Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this same date in 1895, Dr. Charles Stewart was the second goaltender to take the net in the history of the Boston Bruins, making his debut on Christmas Day of 1924, after things didn’t quite work out with the team’s original goaler, Hec Fowler.

Stewart was a dentist, which explains his nickname, Doc, as well as the fact that he played in the Senior OHA for the Toronto Dentals, and (also) that he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army Dental Corps towards the end of the First World War. In and around and after his hockey career, Stewart had a dental practice in Hamilton, Ontario.

The good Doc lines up with Boston for a 1926 game against Ottawa.

It was to Kingston that Bruins coach and manager Art Ross tracked Stewart in December of 1924. Hec Fowler’s demise is a whole other story: let’s just say that seven games into the Bruins’ debut season, he had worn out his welcome. As well as drilling and capping teeth in Hamilton, Stewart was playing for the local OHA Tigers that winter, and Montreal’s Gazette reported that while Ross was offering him $2,500 to make the jump from amateur to pro ranks, as well paying living expenses in Boston, and the rent on his Hamilton practice, Stewart was holding out for $1,000 more.

I can’t say for certain what they settled on, just that Stewart was in Montreal on the 25th to defend the Bruins’ net against the Montreal Canadiens. Boston lost, 0-5, though Stewart’s effort was roundly praised. He and his Bruins had to wait another five games, until January 10, to celebrate his first win — still only the second in Bruins’ history — when Boston returned to Montreal to eke out a 3-2 overtime decision.

The Bruins finished dead last in the NHL that year, but things did improve the following season, 1925-26, when Doc Stewart went 16-14-4 to help the team to a fourth-place finish in the seven-team NHL. (They still didn’t make the playoffs.)

Stewart played half of the Bruins’ regular-season games the following year, 1926-27, his last in the NHL. That was a season that saw Boston go all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they lost in four games to the Ottawa Senators. Stewart’s time in Boston was over by then: he played no part in those playoffs. By that point, he’d been supplanted by Hal Winkler.

apple cheeks

Keep Your Eye On The Puck: Harry Lumley guards the Detroit goal at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday, March 20, 1948. The home team beat the Red Wings 5-3 on the night to clinch first place in the NHL. The foreground Leaf is Vic Lynn, with Howie Meeker cruising out near the blueline. Detroit’s skaters are, from the left, Red Kelly and Bill Quackenbush in the distance, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe closer to the camera. Detroit and Toronto would meet again later in April for Stanley Cup, with the Leafs prevailing in four straight games.

Born in 1926 in Owen Sound, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date, Harry Lumley was — and remains — the youngest goaltender ever to have started an NHL game: he was just 17 when he made his debut in net for the Detroit Red Wings in December of 1943. As he got older, the man they called Apple Cheeks won a Stanley Cup with the Wings (in 1950) along with a Vézina Trophy in ’54. He was a Leaf in Toronto by then; Lumley also skated, in the course his 14-year NHL career, for the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks, and Boston Bruins. Inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980, Harry Lumley died in 1998, aged 71.

(Image: Turofsky/Imperial Oil, from A Century of NHL Memories: Rare Photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame, used with permission)