A birthday today for the legendary Howie Morenz, born in Mitchell, Ontario, in southwestern Ontario, on a Sunday of this date in 1902. His heritage was Teutonic, but (as Morenz narrated in a feature for Esquire in 1935) “when I broke into the league with Les Canadiens in 1923, the World War was recent enough in memory to cause the club officials to worry about my acceptance by the team’s adherents, inasmuch as I am of German descent. So they promptly labeled me The Swiss Flash. Thereafter, when questioned about my racial ancestry, I said that I came from Switzerland, where I had developed agility by leaping from Alp to Alp.” The image here featured in La Presse in 1927.
“I can’t talk about it,” said Cecil Hart, coach of the Canadiens. “It is terrible — a thunderbolt.”
It was 84 years ago, late on another Monday night of this date, that the great Howie Morenz died at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc of complications after he fractured his left leg in an accident at the Forum in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of January. He was 34.
Funeral services were held at the Forum three days later. Ten thousand mourners were on hand in the arena, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 thronged the route as the cortege made its way to Mount Royal Cemetery for the burial.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, March 9, Morenz’s teammates somehow managed to get through their scheduled game against the Montreal Maroons. (The Maroons prevailed by a score of 4-1.) Aurèle Joliat, Morenz’s loyal left winger and his fast friend, was out of the line-up on the night with a leg injury, but he was back for Montreal’s Saturday-night meeting with the New York Rangers, wherein Canadiens prevailed 1-0 on a goal from Morenz’s long-time right winger, Johnny Gagnon.
That’s the night that the photograph above may well have been posed, showing Joliat and coach Hart gazing on Morenz’s forlorn gear. “The wait is in vain, the Meteor is extinguished,” read the caption above a version that ran on the Sunday in Le Petit Journal.
Leo Dandurand would tell the story that he’d been the one to put the 7 on Morenz’s sweater back when the Stratford Streak first signed on to play with Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. “Remembering that Morenz’ contract was dated July 7, 1923 (which was also my birthday),” the Montreal owner, manager, and sometime coach later wrote, “I assigned him sweater number seven the first day he reported to Canadiens.”
A whole constellation of early Canadiens stars had worn the number seven going back to the beginnings of the team in 1910, including Jack Laviolette, Jimmy Gardner, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Malone, Howard McNamara, and (the last before Morenz) Odie Cleghorn.
When Morenz departed Montreal for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934, Dandurand declared that no other Canadien would wear the number again. As Dandurand told it in 1953, he meant forever, though at least one contemporary newspaper account from the fall of ’34 suggests that the understanding at the time was that it would go unworn as long as Morenz continued playing in the NHL. Either way, by various accounts, sweater number seven remained hanging in the Montreal dressing room for the duration of Morenz’s two-year odyssey to Chicago and then New York.
He reclaimed it when he (and Cecil Hart) rejoined Montreal in the fall of 1936. When he was injured in January, it returned to its hook when he departed the Forum on his way to hospital.
In the wake of his death, Canadiens immediately declared that his number would be worn no more, making Montreal’s seven the third NHL number to be retired, after Ace Bailey’s Toronto six and Lionel Hitchman’s Boston three, both of which were so honoured in the same week (Bailey first) in February of 1934.
In November of 1937, Canadiens did amend their numerical position, slightly, making clear that when Howie Morenz Jr. ascended to play for the team, he would inherit his father’s number.
Howie Jr. had celebrated his tenth birthday that year. He did, it’s true, show promise as a centerman in later years, skating with the Montreal Junior Canadiens as well as the USHL Dallas Texans before a degenerative eye condition put an effective end to his chances of reaching the NHL.
November of ’37 saw the NHL stage the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at the Forum. A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team combing Maroons and Canadiens by a score of 6-5 in front of a crowd of 8,683 fans. Some $20,000 was raised on the night for the Morenz family. Former Canadiens owner (and goaltender) Joe Cattarinich paid $500 for the Morenz’ equipment and sweater, which he then handed over to Howie Jr.
The program for that Memorial evening included this photograph, just above, purported to be the only one in existence to have caught Morenz from the back while he wore his celebrated seven. It’s a good image, even if it isn’t, in fact, so very exclusive — I’ve seen Morenz showing his back in other photographs going back to the ’20s.
It was on a Thursday night of this date 84 years ago that the great Howie Morenz broke his left leg in a game at Montreal’s Forum pitting Morenz’s Canadiens against the Chicago Black Hawks. Removed to Hôpital Saint-Luc, Morenz spent a little over a month in treatment before he died on March 8, 1937, of pulmonary embolism. Adapted from my 2014 book Puckstruck, here’s an accounting of his January 28 injury.
Morenz sobbed when Leo Dandurand traded him, in 1934, to Chicago. He was supposed to be slipping, and the coach had replaced him between linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, the fans were booing.
He was pretty good in Chicago, but he didn’t get along with the owner. At about this time, in March of 1935, he turned again to freelance journalism. Back in Montreal he and Joliat had contributed columns to La Patrie, but now Morenz addressed a bigger, manlier audience by way of Esquire.
We’ll accept that Morenz was moved to write the piece himself, no ghostwriters to mediate his positively chipper tone, and that when he talked about himself in the third person, he meant it. The big news he had to deliver is a surprise: having lost all three fights he started the year before, Morenz has decided to give up fighting. “Yes, from now on I’m a pacifist, a hold-backer.” By the way, for those of you out there who thought that the fighting was a fake, “part of the show, fancy embroidery,” well, hold on just one minute, buster. He makes it all sound so jolly, so much fun, even the scene when the fleet winger meets the defenseman’s “solid, unlovely hip” and “the forward’s breath leaves his body with a ‘woof’, as he goes buckety-buck-buck and crashes into the boards.” On he prattles, and on, tickled as can be to be talking hockey, even when it’s to acknowledge that “Father Time easily overhauls the fastest mortals.”
A year later Chicago traded him to the Rangers — another sad step down, it looked like, on the staircase out of hockey. But then the Canadiens brought him back in September of 1936. He was 34. Cecil Hart was in again as the coach, his old friend, and he reunited Morenz with Joliat and Gagnon. By Christmas the Canadiens were at the top of the league, with Morenz one of the leading scorers. “I’m going the limit right now,” Morenz himself said. “I’m giving the fans everything I’ve got. The end may be in sight but the heart is still sound. You know what I mean.”
If you were writing this as fiction, you’d never write it so starkly obvious. He’s supposed to have told Frank Selke that he was quitting. “It’s getting too tough.”
Montreal played in Chicago on Sunday, January 24, 1937. Hobbled by a knee injury, he still managed to star, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 decision for Montreal. “Siebert’s got his knee strapped up,” Morenz said of teammate Babe Siebert before the game, “and I got me a new knee put on for the winter, but we’ll win.”
Two nights later, the Canadiens beat Toronto 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “The Canadiens had the upper hand when they had Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Johnny Gagnon on the ice,” the Gazette reported. Joliat scored a pair of goals, with Morenz assisting on both. Babe Siebert said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen Morenz play. “The Morenz-Joliat-Gagnon line was the whole show, and we defencemen hardly got up a sweat so well were the forward lines going.”
On the Thursday, the Canadiens were back home to host Chicago. Morenz’s knee was heavily bandaged. In the first period, he was down at the south end of the Forum, towards St. Catherines Street. Nowadays there’s a rule to stipulate that the boards shall be constructed in such a manner that the surface facing the ice shall be smooth and free of any obstruction or any object that could cause injury to players. In those years, though, it was more of a tongue-in-groove design, as seen in the photograph above, and therein lay the danger.
As Montreal winger Toe Blake saw it from the Montreal bench, Morenz went looping behind the Black Hawks net when he lost his balance and fell into the boards where Chicago’s Earl Seibert “kinda fell on him.” The Montreal sportswriter Andy O’Brien saw one of Morenz’s skates dig into the boards, then he rolled over and the leg snapped. Joliat was on the ice: as he saw it, Morenz lost his footing, went down, put his feet up as he slid into the boards, the heels of his skates stuck in the boards. Somebody checked Earl Seibert, who fell on Morenz’s legs, which broke the left one.
Clarence Campbell was the referee that night. The way the future NHL president described it, Seibert dove headlong at Morenz, knocking him down, skate stuck, buckety-buck-buck.
There was a novelist in the house, too, on the night, Hugh MacLennan: he remembered (as a novelist might) a little smile on Morenz’s lips. “But once too often he charged into the corner relying on his ability to turn on a dime and come out with the puck. The point of his skate impaled itself in the boards. A defenseman, big Earl Seibert, accidentally crashed over the extended leg and broke it.”
MacLennan added another detail: “Howie’s head hit the ice with a sickening crack and he was carried out.” Unless Joliat and Gagnon helped him up and off. That’s another version that’s out there.
In the dressing room, there was a scene so stylized that somebody should paint it to hang up alongside Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.” Morenz was, apparently, a little more lucid than the general. He lay on the rubbing table, smoking a cigarette. “I’m all through,” he’s supposed to have muttered, “all finished.” Don’t blame Seibert, he said. “It was an accident. My skate caught.” Joliat thought it was his wonky right knee that had betrayed him. Johnny Gagnon had tears in his eyes. Babe Siebert kept saying, “Hang on, Howie, hang on, Howie.” Small boys wept in the Forum corridor as they took Morenz out, and though he was crying too, he gave a cheery way on his way to the ambulance that took him to Hôpital Saint-Luc.
His ankle was cracked and he had four broken bones in the leg. Or it was a compound fracture with the bones shattered in two places slightly above the ankle and below the knee. The papers had differing reports, and it must have been hard to make sense of it all, which may be why La Patrie saw fit to publish x-rays of Morenz’s fractures.
Were there two, four, five? It still wasn’t entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.
“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.”
Two days after the crash, the rest of the Canadiens travelled to New York and Boston, where they beat the Americans and the Bruins, which Howie appreciated. Gagnon and Joliat wrote to him every day they were away and when they got back to Montreal, they went to visit. Dr. Forgues was satisfied with the progress of his patient’s recovery, Joliat reported in his La Patrie column. “Howie is most enthusiastic,” he wrote.
The Winnipeg Tribune added an unsettling Forum update that same week. “An X marks the spot that performers in the Montreal Forum are avoiding,” ran the unbylined item. “A member of the Forum’s ice-sweeping staff put a mark on the boards where Howie Morenz’s skate dug into the wood when the Canadien veteran broke his leg. … A few nights later, Cam Dickson, a Montreal Senior Group player, hit the identical spot and broke his arm.”
The great Howie Morenz was born on a Sunday of this date in 1902 in the southwestern Ontario village of Mitchell. That’s where he first took to skates, atop the local Thames River, and first seized a stick. It was in nearby Stratford that Morenz started to make his hockey name and, when the ’20s were still young, signed the contract Leo Dandurand put in front of him to make him a Montreal Canadien.
The scene here has Morenz, in the middle, under examination by long-serving Canadiens trainer Jimmy McKenna while coach Cecil Hart, left, looks on. The latter piloted Montreal to successive Stanley Cups in 1930 and ’31, though my instinct is that this photo might date to 1936-37, when Hart and Morenz both returned to Montreal for one last season together. Morenz died, of course, midway through the year. He was 34.
As for McKenna, who also reached his 30s that decade, his years tending Montreal’s players made him a veteran: he’d been on the job with the team going back to the very dawn of the Canadiens in 1910.
“I’d say that Morenz and [George] Hainsworth were about the two players who caused me the least trouble in all the time I’ve been with the club,” McKenna said in 1940.
“Naturally I look upon Howie as the greatest of all players. But my opinion is based also on the fact that he never crabbed, and that he was easy for a trainer to handle. It’s hard to believe just how little trouble he’d cause you.”
The great Howie Morenz was born on this date in 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, in southwestern Ontario, when it was a Sunday. While he did most of his speediest skating for the Montreal Canadiens, Morenz did also stray, notably to Chicago, when he played a season-and-a-half. He was 33 at the end of January, 1936, when the Black Hawks traded him to the New York Rangers in exchange for winger Glen Brydson.
“How much has Morenz left in his aging legs?” Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eaglewondered. With the Rangers sinking in the standings, manager Lester Patrick was seen to be grasping at straws, “drafting an old, old hoss to put new life in the spavined Rangers.” The great but waning Morenz, Parrott pointed out, had been shopped to and turned down by every team in the league. It was said that Tommy Gorman of Montreal’s Maroons weren’t even willing to give up utility forward Joe Lamb.
In the first game he played as a Ranger, Morenz faced none other than his old mates from Montreal. “Old Time Morenz Dash Aids To Down Canadiens,” the Gazette headlined its dispatch from Madison Square Garden. Shifting from centre to left wing, he lined up alongside centre Lynn Patrick and right winger Cecil Dillon on New York’s top line. Wearing number 12 on his back rather than his old Montreal seven, he soon showed the crowd of 11,000 some of his old stuff, with (as the Gazette saw it) “an exhibition of end-to-end rushing that brought back memories of his hey-day when he was the greatest figure in the game.”
Here’s how Harold Parrott of the Daily Eagle opened his report: “The answer is: Morenz can still fly!”
He set up Dillon’s opening goal in the first period, then beat Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude for a goal of his own on the powerplay. After Montreal got goals from Pit Lepine and Georges Mantha, the game went to overtime, with Dillon scoring again to decide the matter.
Parrott caught up to him in the dressing room:
“I have not played in two weeks,” he explained, as trainer [Harry] Westerby wrapped steaming hot towels around his swollen ankle after the game. “So I say to myself: ‘You go like Hell soon in game, before legs tire.’ By gosh, I did it!”
Morenz scored in New York’s next game, too, a 4-2 home win over the Maroons, notching his sixth of the season. That was all, so far as his New York goal-scoring was concerned: he scored no more in the next 16 games he played as the Rangers finished the season out of the playoffs.
Come the fall, Morenz was back in Montreal. Suiting up once again for one final season, he had his old number seven on his back, along with a pair of familiar wingers at his side, Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat.
An unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck, I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:
I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?
Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.
In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.
That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?
Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:
His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.
(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)
Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.
In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.
The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”
Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,
Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.
In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.
Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.
In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,
Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.
The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.
(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)
Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.
That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”
For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.
His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.
Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.
As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”
Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.
Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.
While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.
Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.
Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.
Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.
“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.
Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.
From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.
It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.
Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.
The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.
He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.
When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”
“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”
Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”
He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”
The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”
Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.
Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.
He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.
In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”
But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.
When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.
Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.
The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.
Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.
As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”
A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.
“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.
He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.
“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.
Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.
He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.
At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.
The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.
An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.
Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.
Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.
Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.
“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”
The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.
He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.
The family takes a different view.
“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”
There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”
“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.
His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.
His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.
He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.
The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”
Eighty years ago this past March, Howie Morenz died at the age of 34. My dispatch from his hometown appeared in Sunday’s New York Times.
Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.
These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.
There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.
It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.
Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.
This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).
In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.
To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.
Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.
The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.
And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.
Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.
The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:
Goal Scoring Ability
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”
At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”
All of the nine wrote back.
“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.
“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”
King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.
Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.
I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.
I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.
Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:
Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.
Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”
If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:
Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.
Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:
My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.
Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?
Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:
I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.
Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”
I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.
I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.
Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).
When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:
- Howie Morenz
- Maurice Richard
- Bobby Orr
- Gordie Howe
- Bobby Hull
- Jean Béliveau.
If Mavis Gallant won’t be remembered as a hockey writer, can we agree that it’s probably hockey’s fault, for not doing enough to catch her interest before she departed Canada in 1950? Gallant, who died on February 18 at the age of 91, lived most of her life in Paris, which is where she worked her beautiful, bleak, unforgiving prose into stories. She did return home now and then, in person and on the page. Latterly, there were, in particular, five Linnet Muir stories that drew on Gallant’s childhood in Montreal. In “Voices Lost In Snow” (1976), her young alter ego recalls walking through the crowded city with her father, crossing Sherbrooke Street on the way to catch an evening train. The pain and helplessness described here are the father’s, but I don’t know that it’s too much of a stretch to believe that they encompass Morenz, too:
One day we heard a mob roaring four syllables over and over, and we turned and went down a different street. That sound was starkly terrifying, something a child might liken to the baying of wolves.
“What is that?”
“Who is it? Are they chasing him?”
“No, they like him,” he said of the hockey player admired to the point of dementia. He seemed to stretch, as if trying to keep every bone in his body from touching a nerve; a look of helplessness such as I had never seen on a grown person gripped his face and he said this strange thing: “Crowds eat me. Noise eats me.”