blank slate, 1929: conn smythe tries something new as toronto (married men and bachelors) shuts out detroit

The 1928-29 Leafs line up outside Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Top row, left to right, they are: Shorty Horne, Ace Bailey, Alex Gray, Andy Blair, Jack Arbour, Hap Day, Lorne Chabot. Bottom, from left: Art Duncan, Art Smith, Dr. Bill Carson, Danny Cox, Joe Primeau, Gerry Lowery, Benny Grant.

Big win for Erik Källgren the other night, great that the 25-year-old Swedish rookie volunteered himself as the missing piece that completes the puzzle that is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltending situation, good night, good luck, see you in the Stanley Cup final.

Too much, too soon? Probably. No sense in getting ahead of ourselves, or the Leafs, maybe let’s just pause in the moment and say that Källgren looked good in his first NHL start as he made 35 saves to secure Toronto’s 4-0 home win over the Dallas Stars, careful, craftful, calm when he needed to be, hasty when haste was called for, agile, pliant, just lucky enough. He shouldn’t have had to explain himself once his work was done, but of course he was asked to, because that’s what TV demands.

“Ah, I mean,” Källgren gamely told TSN’s Mark Masters, “it’s a lot to take in right now, but obviously I’m really happy, and happy for the win, and how the guys played in front of me was unreal. So a lot of emotions right now but of course very happy.”

Gladdening the hearts of fans of historical significance, the NHL was quick to chime in on the evening’s historical resonances. This was the 100th regular-season win of Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe’s tenure, in his 163rd game behind the bench, which makes him the quickest Leaf to that milestone: Pat Quinn and Dick Irvin each took 184 games to reach 100 wins.

The NHL also tagged Källgren’s performance as the fourth in club history in which a Leaf goaltender had earned a shutout in his first game as a starter:

Notable. Sorry to say that that infographic is only partly true. Fans of historical nitpickery soon discovered that, with minimal due diligence. When it comes to Benny Grant, the actual fact of what happened in 1929 is stranger and altogether more interesting than the version the NHL boxed up this week for social media.

Benny Grant hailed from Owen Sound, up on the Georgian Bay shore. In 1927, he helped the Owen Sound Greys win the Memorial Cup, Canada’s junior championship. After a year with Bert Corbeau’s Canadian Professional Hockey League London Panthers, he signed with the Maple Leafs, where Conn Smythe was coach and manager, and another Owen Sounder, Hap Day, was the captain.

Grant was 20 years in the fall of 1928. Not every NHL team employed a back-up goaltender in those years, but Toronto did, maybe because the man slated to start for the Leafs that year was coming off a grievous injury that had almost cost him an eye in the previous spring’s playoffs. After two years with the Rangers, Lorne Chabot, 28, had arrived in Toronto in an exchange that sent John Ross Roach and $10,000 to New York.

Chabot’s health wasn’t a worry, though, as it turned out: he was fine. He ended up playing in every one of the Leafs’ regular-season games that season, along with all four playoff games. When Grant saw action, it was almost always in relief: he appeared in five games through the season (none in the playoffs).

In Chabot’s case, NHL records only have him playing 43 games through the 1928-29 regular season. Most other standard hockey references say the same. (The Society for International Hockey Research, in its wisdom, does credit Chabot with his full and rightful 44 games.)

A sliver of an oversight, yes? Maybe so.

Still, significant enough that it shifts the meaning of the very record that the NHL claimed last night for Benny Grant. The game that Chabot played that the NHL is missing is the one on Saturday, March 9, 1929 — Benny Grant’s first NHL start (against the Detroit Cougars), when he’s supposed to have recorded his first NHL shutout. But Chabot played in that game, too, so he shared in the effort to deny the Detroit Cougars a goal. Benny Grant’s first start, as it turns out, wasn’t quite the same as Erik Källgren’s week: in 1929, Grant had help. Should he get credit for in the record books? It’s not up to me to add or subtract official shutouts, but I will note that the same situation occurred five days later that March, with Chabot and Grant combining to blank the New York Americans, and neither one of them is credited in the official records as having recorded a shutout.

Got that? It’s all very arcane … as statistics are. Here’s where the story of Benny Grant’s NHL debut gets interesting, and a little strange. Unheralded as it is, that night at Toronto’s Arena Gardens is notable for a tactical innovation that Conn Smythe seems to have introduced that night.

Unless, of course, the Leafs were just fooling around, having some fun as the season wound down before the playoffs.

Toronto was in: with just four games remaining in the regular schedule, there was no danger, by then, of the Montreal Maroons catching them in the standings. Toronto’s first-round opponent, in fact, would be the same Detroit Cougars they were meeting on March 9.

Time (I guess) for the Leafs to cut loose, just a little.

As has been noted before, Dick Irvin experimented with the idea of platooning goaltenders when he was coaching the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the NHL’s 1940-41 season. That was in March, too, with the end of the season in sight. Goaltenders worked hard, wore heavy pads, and like everybody else, they tired: why not, Irvin wondered, dress a pair of goaltenders and shift them on and off just like regular skaters?

“If we’d had an extra goalie,” he mused after a Canadiens loss in New York to the Rangers, “we might have used him along with the regular goalie in an effort to improve the situation. Those Rangers really were boring in and sure kept little Wilf Cude busy.”

Later that month, in Montreal’s final regular-season game, Irvin gave it a go. With the New York Americans visiting the Forum, Bert Gardiner started the game in the Canadiens’ net, with Paul Bibeault replacing him halfway through. The experiment was a success, I suppose, unless you’re a stickler for stats: though Montreal won 6-0, the NHL seems to have been unable to compute the shared shutout, so while Gardiner got the win, neither goaltender was credited with a shutout.

Twelve years earlier, lining up against Detroit in March of 1929, Conn Smythe’s version of doubling up his goaltenders added a fun twist — he “introduced another of his popular innovations,” as the Toronto Daily Star framed it. With a line-up of 12 players at his disposal, Smythe “used two complete teams and changed them completely every five minutes. The teams were known as the married men’s team and the single men’s team ….”

Bachelor Benny Grant go the start: he and Phyllis Banks wouldn’t marry until 1934. In front of him Grant hadHap Day and Red Horner on defence and a front line of Danny Cox, Andy Blair, and Ace Bailey. Marital status wasn’t so strictly enforced: Cox was married, while in the connubial substitute line-up of Chabot in goal, Arts Duncan and Smith on d, and Shorty Horne, Baldy Cotton, and Eric Pettinger at forward, Smith and Horne were single men. (Chabot, for the record, had married Elizabeth Money in 1927.)

Again, the two shifts operated as complete units: “When substitutions were made,” the Globe noted, “all six players left the ice and the other six replaced them.”

According to the Star, the Leafs made it even more interesting for themselves. “It was agreed before the game that the squad scoring [sic] most goals should be provided with new hats and it remained for a married man to help out the single men’s cause as Danny Cox, assisted by Andy Blair, got two of the goals. The other one, secured for the married men, went to Shorty Horne assisted by Harold Cotton.

 

And so the Leafs prevailed, 3-0. Grant had relieved Chabot earlier in the season in a game in New York against the Americans, but this was his outing on Toronto ice. “He upheld his end nobly,” the Star judged. “As a matter of fact he had a great deal more work to do than Chabot, the regular goalie.”

So much so, it seems, that Chabot’s contribution was ignored entirely by whoever was keeping records for the NHL. To this date, while the official online boxscore includes Chabot in Toronto’s line-up, it credits Grant with having played all 60 minutes of the game and collecting the win and the shutout.

What happened? Who knows. With the goaltenders switching out every five minutes, maybe it was just too much bother to keep track of them on the night. Even so, Chabot does deserve credit for his involvement in the game and (I’d argue) a share of the shutout that’s on Benny Grant’s record.

Chabot and Grant continued to share Toronto’s net for the rest of the regular season: in all three of Toronto’s three remaining games, Smythe used both goaltenders as the Leafs went 1-2 to finish the season, though it doesn’t seem that Smythe shifted his netminders quite so aggressively in these games. Records for all three of these games reflect the participation of both, even if (as mentioned) the shutout Grant and Chabot crafted in the penultimate game, a 5-0 home win over the Americans, was credited to neither man.

Former Toronto owner/coach/manager Charlie Querrie was writing a popular column in the Star in 1929. As he saw it, Smythe’s hasty goaling shifts were all for the show. “It is hard to create excitement,” he wrote, “with nothing at stake, but the Leafs did all they could to please the spectators, and the evening was worthwhile. It showed that the Leafs have plenty of good material and a round dozen players who can give a good account of themselves.”

As for the hats, the Globe’s Bert Perry delivered the goods on those. “The Maple Leafs will flash some Easter millinery this week,” he duly reported on the Monday following the Detroit win. That is, all the players got new hats, courtesy of management. “Ace Bailey,” he jibed, “will now be able to turn in his 1925 model for something modern.” The deal, Perry said, was that if the Leafs had lost to Detroit, the players would have been buying headgear for the team’s directors.

“Despite their recent successes,” Perry concluded, “the hat sizes of the Leafs have not changed since last fall. A more unassuming aggregation of athletes would be hard to find.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

charlie conacher lends a hand

Palmistry: Charlie Conacher, in the foreground here, shows goaltender Earl Robertson how it’s done at Madison Square Garden circa 1940. Otherwise, from the right, that’s Ranger Dutch Hiller (#8), Amerks’ Busher Jackson in the distance, and Ranger Phil Watson tussling with (I think) Art Chapman. Note the chicken-wire fencing protecting the fans. The only question: where’s the puck?

Birthday tidings today for the great Charlie Conacher — unless those are due tomorrow, or on December 20? Questions abound; you can review them here, if you’re in a mood. The scene here dates to the Big Bomber’s latter NHL years when, after ten seasons starring for the Toronto Maple Leafs and another year’s stop in Detroit, Conacher played his final two seasons with the New York Americans. Red Dutton’s team was not very good in those years, going 15-29-4 in 1939-40 and 8-29-11 the following year. Conacher’s own returns were modest, compared to the heady days when he was playing the Toronto wing, earlier in the decade. In New York, he contributed 10 goals and 28 points in 47 games his first year, 7 and 23 in 46 in his last.

Take a note, here, of the hand he’s showing. Cutting the palms out of hockey gloves is an old trick, of course, that someone like Conacher might have pleaded allowed him a better grip on his stick. That may have been the case; palmless gloves also aided in the freer and more surreptitious clutching of opponents in tight quarters. The NHL eventually cracked down on the practice, though not until 1964, when Leaf defenceman Carl Brewer was caught in the act and copped to the reason why his gloves were doctored. A new rule followed: all NHL gloves, after that, had to be fully palmed.

Toronto, remember, was on a three-year run winning Stanley Cups at the time. Coach Punch Imlach griped about the new rule, and others: he thought they were part of anti-Leaf campaign to throw the team off its championship form. “Those changes are aimed at us,” he said.

now hear this

Talk Talk: Detroit coach Jimmy Skinner broadcasts instructions on the bench at the noisy Olympia in January of 1956. Listening up is #11 Marty Pavelich.

Jimmy Skinner’s spirits were high in mid-January of 1956. The coach of the Detroit Red Wings had his charges on a five-game winning streak, and he’d just seen them beat the league-leading Montreal Canadiens 2-0 at Detroit’s Olympia. Skinner was in his second year as Red Wings coach, and he had a record to maintain, having led the team to a Stanley Cup the previous year.

The new year had Skinner tinkering with his team, shifting Red Kelly from defence to left wing, slotting Ted Lindsay onto Alex Delvecchio’s wing, trying Metro Prystai on right wing instead of centre. Sitting third in the standings of the six-team NHL, the Red Wings were making ground on the second-place Rangers and the Canadiens ahead of them.

Playing a leading role in the shutout win over the Canadiens was goaltender Glenn Hall; centre Dutch Reibel had scored both Detroit goals. Credit was due, too, to the home crowd who’d cheered the Wings on: the 14,988 spectators who’d showed up on a Sunday night to see the Canadiens game made it the largest of the season to date.

Fans in the Olympia had been so enthusiastic, in fact, that Skinner’s players had been complaining that they couldn’t hear him on the bench. Skinner’s solution, pictured here, was to have a microphone installed, connecting to a series of “squawk boxes” installed strategically along the length of the bench facing the players. I don’t know how long this broadcast system lasted. I can report that while the Red Wings did make it back to the finals that year, they ceded the Stanley Cup to the Canadiens, falling in five games that April.

net yield

Lean In: Detroit Red Wings goaltender Harry Lumley aslant on one of Bert Lindsay’s collapsible nets, circa 1950. Lindsay Sr. was himself one of the NHL’s earliest goaltenders; he was also, subsequently, Terrible Ted’s father. His scheme for a hockey net that forgave crashings like the one on display here had its (brief) day towards the end of the 1940s, when Lindsay Jr. was first making his name in Detroit. For a fuller account incorporating a primer on the evolution of NHL netting, there’s this.

the only goaltender ever to have won a game in the nhl? for an hour or two in 1917, that was bert lindsay

Goaltender Bert Lindsay was 36 by the time he took his first NHL turn — though to be fair, before he skated out for that debut in the waning days of 1917, there was no NHL.

Tending the nets for Montreal’s Wanderers, Lindsay started the league’s very first game on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, against the team from Toronto. (The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators also played that night, but that game was delayed, and started later in the evening.) Toronto’s goaltender, Sammy Hebert, conceded the first goal in league history when the Wanderers’ Dave Ritchie beat him a minute into the first period.

The game, let’s just say, was a tough one for any of the goaltenders involved. After Montreal put five pucks past him in the first period, Hebert gave way to Art Brooks, on whom the Wanderers scored a further five goals. Going the distance, Lindsay was beaten on just nine occasions, helping his team to eke out a 10-9 win. That meant that he was not the first goaltender to win an NHL game: briefly that night, he was the only goaltender ever to have won one. That distinction, of course, expired as soon as the Canadiens finished their game in Ottawa, beating the Senators 7-4, and Georges Vézina joined Lindsay as the NHL’s winningest goaler.

Bert Lindsay was born in the village of Belwood, Ontario, just north of Guelph, on the 23rd day of another July, this one in 1881. He eventually found his way north and east, to Renfrew, which is where he made his name as a professional hockey. For a couple of years starting in 1910, manning the nets for the NHA’s star-studded Renfrew Creamery Kings, Lindsay had Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Lester and Frank Patrick lining up in front of him. He subsequently played six seasons for the PCHA’s Victoria Aristocrats before returning east to join the Wanderers in Montreal.

He was the man in their nets for the final two NHA seasons. That gets us to 1917 and the NHL, wherein Lindsay guarded the Wanderer goal in the only four games the team ever actually played in the league. That opening-night win was the only one the Wanderers managed in its brief history in the league: Lindsay was on the losing end of four subsequent games.

The Wanderers were already undermanned, desperate for players, when in early January of 1918 the Montreal Arena burned down. While the building’s other tenant, the Canadiens, saw fit to make a move to the Jubilee Arena, Wanderers’ owner Sam Lichtenhein decided to disband his team. They defaulted two more games before their final extinction, and while many of their players joined other NHL teams for the remainder of the year, Lindsay didn’t catch with the Toronto Arenas until the following year, his last in pro hockey.

There are a couple of other facets to Lindsay’s place in hockey history. For one thing, Bert begat a Hall-of-Fame son, Ted, who was born in Renfrew towards the end of July of 1925.

For another, some 20 years after that auspicious event, Bert Lindsay devised a new and improved piece of hockey furniture.

This is 1947 we’re talking about now. Bert, who’d originally retired to Renfrew to run a car dealership and coach some hockey, was north now, living in Kirkland Lake. I don’t know long he spent cogitating on a safer hockey net, nor whether it had been in the works going all the way back to his own goal-guarding days.

It was a serious effort that almost (but not quite) made it to the big league.

The standard NHL net in 1947 was one that Lindsay’s old coach and teammate with the NHL Wanderers had invented: the Art Ross Patent Goal Net.

After his long and distinguished career playing defence came to end with the demise of the Wanderers, Ross took up as an NHL referee and then as a coach, originally with the Hamilton Tigers. When Boston entered the league in 1924, he signed up to shape the newborn Bruins.

As shrewd as he was a judge of hockey talent, and as careful a tactician, Ross was also one of the game’s supreme innovators, constantly working to refine the game and its tools.

He designed a better puck, one that the NHL officially adopted before the 1918-19 season.

To mitigate the damage those very pucks threatened to do to players’ feet, he devised a chainmail boot to fit over skates long before plastic skateguards became commonplace.

Ross experimented with metal-shafted sticks, too, years before aluminum and composite models became fixtures in the hands of hockey players everywhere.

As Ross himself told it, he was forced into renovating the nets that had been employed on NHL ice for the league’s first decade. This was the same model that had featured in the old NHA: flat-backed, all straight lines, it looked a bit like the unfinished frame for a chest of drawers.

Introduced in 1911, this net had been designed by another famous goaltender, Percy LeSueur, who’d end up (like Ross, if not Bert Lindsay) in the Hall of Fame. The problem: pucks could, and did, bounce out as quickly as they made their way into the LeSueur net, often defying the best efforts of referees and goal judges to discern their passage.

Bounceback: From Percy LeSueur’s 1911 patent application, a rendering of the flat-backed net that served the NHL for its first decade on ice.

Ross’ patience for this lasted through the 1926-27 NHL season but not beyond. His solution was to invent the net that, in basic design, is the one we know today. Built on a base shaped like the number three, it featured angled metalwork within, along with a strip of interior mesh, all of which helped to corral pucks and keep them from bouncing out.

“After a game in Boston last winter in which four goals were disputed,” Ross said in the fall of 1927, “I began to plan it, and here it is.”

Net Work: In 1927, Art Ross unveiled his new net. Adopted for the 1927-28 season, it served the NHL for almost 60 years without alteration.

Hockey’s managers and mandarins were impressed when he revealed his prototype. “I wish we had thought of such a net years ago,” said Frank Patrick, no mean hockey visionary himself. The NHL was on board from the start, adopting the new Ross net for service effective that very season.

Affixed to the ice with steel pegs, the net that Ross conceived in 1927 did duty in the league for nearly 60 years, and it went more or less unchanged until 1980. That was the year that Mark Howe, then of the Hartford Whalers, suffered a horrific injury when he slid into and was badly sliced by the Ross net’s protruding middle plate. It was in the aftermath of that that the NHL did (eventually) get rid of the latter and switch out the uncompromising steel pegs in favour of the magnetic anchors used today.

While the fix that Bert Lindsay proposed in 1947 wouldn’t have adjusted the way nets were secured to the ice, he was focussed on the damage they could do to players, and how to improve their “yieldability.”

That’s a word from a patent application of his. “It is well known that in ice hockey,” Lindsay explained in his filing, “a player is frequently injured by collision with a rigid goal post. The object of this invention is to provide a goal that precludes or lessens such injury and is accomplished generally by the provision of yielding posts in the goal structure.”

Lindsay’s design put hinges in the goalposts, and backed them with heavy springs. Say Maple Leaf winger Gaye Stewart lost a wheel driving for the Detroit net one night, crashing into one of Harry Lumley’s posts. By Lindsay’s design, a mere seven pounds of pressure would cause the upright to give way. “When the force of the impact has been removed, the section … promptly returns to its normal position under the action of the springs.” The net itself might not be displaced, but Lindsay’s contention was that injuries to players would be “much less severe than if a rigid post were struck.”

Try, Try Again: Drawings for Bert Lindsay’s second patent application show his spring-loaded collapsible net.

Lindsay’s collapsing nets got some play in 1947, on the ice in Kirkland Lake, apparently. Then they gradually worked a way south. Following a demonstration in North Bay, Ontario, Lindsay Sr. arranged to ship a prototypical pair to Toronto towards the end of March.

He’d had discussions by then with the NHL president, Clarence Campbell, and it seemed possible that the new pliable nets would get a run out at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs were hosting a Stanley-Cup semi-final. Starring for their opponents from Detroit was 21-year-old Ted Lindsay, all grown up now, and in his third season playing truculent left wing for the Wings.

Bert Lindsay’s nets didn’t get their chance in the NHL on Saturday, March 29, 1947, as it so happened. Press reports don’t get into the details but in the end, the experimental nets only ended up being tested before the second game of the Toronto-Detroit game that night. The Toronto Daily Star reported their findings, awkwardly and without attributing them to anyone by name: NHL officials “found them fine after they smooth out a few rough spots.”

While his net didn’t make the opening line-up, Bert Lindsay did get to see his son put a pair of pucks into the old Art Ross cages, as the Wings overwhelmed the Leafs by a score of 9-1. It was a big night all around for Red Wing parents: Sid Abel’s mother had travelled from Melville, Saskatchewan, to see her son play for the first time in his seven-year NHL career.

The next time Bert Lindsay’s nets rated a mention in the popular press seems to have heralded their last gasp. It was a year later, 1948, when they showed up in New York. I don’t know much about this, but they seem to have had a trial in (I think) in the Eastern Hockey League, (possibly) at Madison Square Garden. They also seem to have been given a test run in Windsor, as the caption for the photo below suggests.

They didn’t catch on. A rough spot that hadn’t been sufficiently smoothed was the concern that sly goaltenders would seek to bend back the posts to help them keep pucks out.

Their failure to prosper that year seems also to have had to do with the problem that Art Ross had wrestled with 20 years earlier. The Lindsay nets were, the Boston Globe advised, too shallow: “pucks bounce out too easily.”

The old goaltender kept on working on his novel nets, retooling, refining. This we know because in 1950, two years after he’d filed his original specs, Bert Lindsay was back at the Patent Office with paperwork for a new and improved version of his innovative net. In vain, it seems: while he may have fixed its early flaws to his own satisfaction, nobody else in the hockey world seems to have given it a third chance.

Bert Lindsay died at his home in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1960. He was 79.

greening the game

This week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman sit down with Ron Francis, GM of the NHL’s new and yet-unnamed Seattle franchise for a wide-ranging discussion of what’s coming on the west coast. They discuss Francis’ decision to join the project and how he’s staffing the new team, and about the state-of-the-art new rink they’re fashioning out of the old KeyArena. They touch on whether Kraken might be in the cards as a name (could be, Francis divulged, but maybe not) and Marek’s notion of raising a banner to the rafters to honour the Stanley Cup the Seattle Metropolitans won in 1917.

There’s talk, too, of movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a co-founder and co-majority owner of the Seattle team, and what he might bring to the hockey table. “I think he’s excited to be a part of this,” Francis says, “I think he’s excited to help shape the organization as it moves forward, whether it’s colours, how it’s presented on TV, names, you name it.”

Which leads Marek to wonder about how radical some of the changes he might float could be. Could we see NHL games played on colourful ice instead of the wintry white we’re used to? Francis suggests that might be something that a Bruckheimer-inspired Seattle might indeed be aiming to introduce.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s recall, why not, that NHL ice hasn’t always been so pallid as appears is now. In the earliest decades of the league, the ice tended to be murky. Here’s a description from The New Yorker in 1925, when the New York Americans debuted at Madison Square Garden (the Rangers would join them there as tenants the following year):

The ice, by the way, is coffee-coloured, and as the evening progresses, grows to look more and more like a big cake of maple sugar the mice have scratched up.

And one from Boston’s Herald in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup:

The Garden ice, as usual, was dark brown. Boston and New York Garden have something to learn from Montreal Forum. There the floor is painted white under the ice and visibility is increased greatly.

On the New York end of things, that seems to contradict another New Yorker dispatch from early in 1926, reporting that “whereas a month ago the ice was a dirty and disturbing brown, it has lately become nice and white.”

“The procedure, until recently,” the item continued, “was to run a couple of inches of water over the concrete and freeze it, with the result that the concrete showed through a shabby chocolate colour.”

The rumour was that Garden owner Tex Rickard had arranged for milk to be mixed in with the water wasn’t to be credited: the deal was that rink staff were now freezing an inch of ice, painting it white, then freezing a further inch or so atop the paint.

Just when other NHL rinks got into the blanching of the ice isn’t clear — by one report I’ve seen, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden didn’t start whitening the ice until 1949.

Jerry Bruckheimer take note: 66 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings did play two regular-season games at the Olympia on green ice.

To be more specific: pastel green.

Edmonton Journal headline from January of 1953.

This was in early 1953. The first reference to this that caught my eye was in a French-language account, and the word that stood out was combattre. The thought I had, naturally enough, was bien sûr, c’est logique, bonne idée. I assumed that hockey had reached one of its breaking points, where the game on the ice had grown so tetchy and tempestuous that the league would try anythingto calm the tempers of its players, including dyeing the ice as green and soothing as grass.

The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions that season. Almost 50 games into the 1952-53 season, they were battling the equally mighty Montreal Canadiens for first place in the league standings. The last Saturday in January was when they first skated out on green ice, beating the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0. The next night they did it again, walloping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on the tinted ice. Already topping league scoring, Gordie Howe helped himself to two more goals and three assists against the Leafs.

If the cool of the green of the ice was supposed to bring down the thermometer of the players, well, let’s just note referee Jack Mehlenbacher did call seven roughing penalties before the night was out, sanctioning several noted hotheads in so doing, including Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Marcel Bonin and Toronto’s Fernie Flaman.

The Globe and Mail weighs in.

In fact, the experiment of greening the ice wasn’t about mood-altering, at all. The combattre that caught my eye had to do with reduction that combat. As Red Burnett of the Toronto Star explained, “it was designed to cut the white glare that bounced off the eyeballs of customers in the upper balcony seats.” Locally, TV viewers of WXYZ broadcasts of Red Wings’ games had also complained that the white ice was hard to watch. The idea to tint it green was said to come from a Detroit newspaper photographer.

So with the NHL’s blessing, the Olympia’s ice-man, Red Tonkin, gave it a go, mixing in 15 gallons of green paint instead of the usual white with the 400 gallons of water he froze to make the playing surface.

According to Burnett, the colouring was “hardly visible to the naked eye.” The players were said to approve, and NHL president Clarence Campbell deemed the experiment a success, though that’s as far as it went. Four days after beating the Leafs, the Olympia ice was its regular chalky colour as the Red Wings tied the New York Rangers 3-3.

Toronto Star headline, quoting “one office wag.”

department of bright ideas: refs in glass cages

Switch Up: In 1940, Herbie Lewis was out of the NHL, steering the AHL Indianapolis Capitals as player-coach. He had a bold plan to renovate the way referees called games, and where from, that put them in command of a system of lights. He even had a working model to show how it all might work.

Jason Kay is on the case in the latest edition of The Hockey News. “Do The Refs Really Suck?” is the headline over his editor-in-chief’s note therein in which he wonders whether NHL referees deserve the derision they get at playoff time. No, he concludes, they don’t. “Hockey officials arguably have the toughest job among pro sports referees,” he writes. “The question of speed + physicality + instantaneousness decisions = occasional errors.” Fans should understand, sympathize, stay civil. Oh, and hey, the NHL? Kay’s not the first to advocate, and reasonably enough, for the league to give officials “at least as much access to technology as viewers and spectators.”

None of that is going to calm the city of Boston, its Bruins, their fans, most fair-minded independents, pundits, and/or interested passersby. The story of Thursday night’s game, if you missed it:

Headlines from across the Boston mediascape echoed and amplified the local incredulity:

Marred by another controversial non-call in an already contentious postseason
(Boston Herald)

The clown show continues in Game 5: The NHL gets faster while the referees fall behind
(The Athletic)

Series deficit about more than officials, but Game 5 was a crime
(Boston Globe)

Meanwhile, down at the St. Louis Dispatch, the mood glowed a little lighter:  

Missed calls and the fallible refs whose whistles fail to blow aren’t new to hockey, of hockey; controversies relating to hockey’s rulebook are as old as the league itself. So too is the question of what to do about them. Social media takes care of defaming and dunning officials who are perceived to have erred, and the NHL is in the habit of exiling those who blunder, but the shaming and the shunning doesn’t actually solve anything. Twitter sizzled with suggestions (go back to the old single-referee system; call more penalties, period; wake the fuck up, @NHL).

Also:

This last notion isn’t an entirely new one.

It’s positively antique, in fact. Herewith, a couple of notions of how hockey refereeing might be overhauled from a couple of would-be hockey innovators of old. They dreamed, no question, of enhancing the quality of hockey officiating, but their missionarying also had mercy in mind: they wanted to remove referees to safety, where wrathful fans and players couldn’t reach them.

First up, Irvin Erb, who in 1930s served as manager of a couple of OHA teams in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. His main concern seems to have been for health and well-being of the referees, which is commendable. Here’s what he wanted to do, from a 1931 newspaper report:

Instead of having the officials on the ice, as at present, he would enclose them in a glass, sound-proof cage along the sidelines where they would be safe from the stormy protests of the crowd which sometimes takes the form of showers of coins, peanuts, chairs, and bottles.

The cage would be equipped with loud speakers, through which the referee’s decision could be made known. Competent referees who have found officiating on the ice too strenuous could return to the game, in Erb’s opinion.

Almost a decade later, Herbie Lewis, a Hall-of-Fame left winger, had his own plan for preserving referees from harm. Lewis played his entire career, 11 seasons, in Detroit, where he started as a Cougar in 1928, morphing subsequently into a Falcon when the franchise did, and then a Red Wing. By 1940, he was out of the NHL, coach the AHL’s Indianapolis Capitals while also still playing on their forward line.

“This may sound like a fairytale,” a report on his brainstorm began, “but there’s a hockey player who wants to do something for the poor, downtrodden referee.”

Lewis aimed to elevate officials above the fray:

Herbie would build a high perch for the referee, somewhat like those used by tennis officials. From there he would regulate the game with a system of lights and be out of the reach of irate players.

The lights, I guess, would be set into the boards, as shown in Lewis’ pictured prototype, above. A flash of red would stop play, with the amber indicating where the foul had happened. “Other lights on the scoreboard would show the nature of a penalty and on whom it was called.”

And so players would … escort themselves to the penalty bench? Restrain themselves from tussling, police their own fights, just skate away? Possibly would there be further, much brighter lights that the referee could zap into players’ eyes to illuminate their misconduct and/or temporarily blind them?

Lewis probably had it all worked out in detail. It’s likely he was ready to explain the whole luminous scheme just as soon as someone took it seriously.

“If we can get this kind of a system installed,” he advised, “we’ll have better officiating and less trouble.”

today’s matinee: in 1933, the nhl played its first afternoon game

Wing, Dinged: A year after they met in the NHL’s first afternoon game, Detroit and Chicago met in the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s Detroit’s Herbie Lewis taking the fall here, in the first game of the series, won (like the Cup itself) by Chicago. At right, numbered 2, is Chicago defenceman Taffy Abel.

The Chicago Black Hawks weren’t going anywhere on this date in March of 1933 — they already knew they’d be missing the Stanley Cup playoffs as they limped into the last weekend of the NHL regular season. Beset by injuries and under investigation, they might have been looking forward to the cease of hockey as a mercy that couldn’t come soon enough.

Still, that March 19, the Black Hawks did have one last home game to play, and they made history playing it. That Sunday, along with the visiting Detroit Red Wings, Chicago took part in the first afternoon game in NHL history.

About 6,000 spectators showed up for a game that faced-off at 3.30 p.m. instead of the usual 8.30. When it came to the gate, that was a better number than the last time the Hawks had played at Chicago Stadium, earlier in March, when they beat the Ottawa Senators in front of a crowd of just 3,000. Two days before that, at their previous (nighttime) Sunday game, the crowd that saw them fall to the Toronto Maple Leafs was 7,000.

A few other notes from the Detroit game: the first-place Red Wings prevailed on the afternoon by a score of 4-2, getting goals from Hap Emms, Ron Moffat, Doug Young, and Eddie Wiseman. Mush March scored both Chicago goals. By a Detroit account, the game was a “free-swinging battle” wherein “two fist fights and a free-for-all narrowly were averted;” referee Cooper Smeaton called 11 penalties. Chicago defenceman Roger Jenkins suffered a gash to a cheek that needed four stitches to close. Another Chicago blueliner suffered a worse fate: Billy Burch left the game with a compound fracture of the left leg after he went into the boards with Detroit winger Frank Carson.

It turned out to be the last game of Burch’s distinguished career. At 32, he was playing his 11th NHL season. Starting in 1922 with the late, lamented Hamilton Tigers, he’d was a fast forward in those years, winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP in 1925. When the Tigers sank, he went to New York, where he prospered as the first captain of the expansion Americans. He’d be elected, eventually, to the Hall of hockey Fame; 1930swise, the news was that he was back on skates again by the fall of 1933, trading in stick for whistle as a referee in the minor Can-Am League.

Also in the house in Chicago that March afternoon was NHL President Frank Calder. He was on a mission to investigate the conduct of Chicago coach Tommy Gorman who, five days earlier, had pulled his team off the ice in Boston, forfeiting the game to the Bruins after a dispute over a goal Boston scored in overtime. The latter wasn’t sudden-death at the time, so there was still some time to be played, or would have been, except for the fracas that saw Chicago players attacking goal judge, and Gorman exchanging punches with referee Bill Stewart. In the aftermath, Stewart ejected Gorman, who took his team with him; that’s where the forfeit came in.

I don’t know that Calder took any further action, for all the fuss that was stirring in the days that followed. It’s possible Chicago was fined $1,000 for departing the ice; otherwise, the team’s punishment seems to have been to subside away into the off-season.

A year later, the Black Hawks found a better way to end their season’s story when they made it all the way to the Finals, meeting and beating the Detroit Red Wings to take Chicago’s first Stanley Cup. Mush March scored the goal that clinched the championship.

Hawks Asquawk: A Chicago crew of a slightly later vintage, circa 1938. From left, that’s Jack Shill, Carl Voss, Cully Dahlstrom, and Mush March making some noise.

for faster and flashier hockey: building a better, oilier skate

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Skateguard: King Clancy, circa 1953, strikes a pose in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room — with a plain old unimproved skate. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, R11224-2910-X-E, Walter Curtin, Liberty Magazine)

In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”

Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.

That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.

Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.

Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.

Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.

Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.

Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.

That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.

It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.

Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading

footnote

art ross

Nikolai Kulemin was the first Leaf winger to fall to what the papers were calling friendly fire. This was October and the season hadn’t even started when in practice he caught a teammate’s shot on the ankle, which chipped the bone. Two weeks he was out of the line-up. Same thing happened at the end of the month to Joffrey Lupul, “plunked” in practice, as The Toronto Sun put it — though Lupul’s was only a bone-bruise, and he missed but two games.

That was no solace to Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. Both players should have been wearing plastic foot-guards over their skates, as mandated by the team for players at practice. It was just common sense, said Carlyle. “You don’t drive your car any more without a seatbelt. It’s basically the same principle.”

Modern-day foot-guards — they’re also called shotblockers — are light and resilient. They’ve come a long way since the steel-mesh prototype that the man they called “hockey’s Edison” came up with in 1939. By then, of course, Art Ross (above) had long since retired from a stellar playing career. He’d been managing the Boston Bruins since 1924. He’d already re-invented the hockey net by the time he turned his attention to trying prevent foot and ankle injuries, and in 1940 he’d get his patent on a refined puck.

In December of 1939, at the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings in New York, Canadian Press was reporting that Ross’ skate chainmail was an experiment tried and abandoned, having “proved unsatisfactory.” Already he had a new idea, and the league had approved it for trial: “a new-style stick, which combines a wooden handle, steel tube shaft and wooden blade.”