a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

à la douce mémoire

This 1926 Georges Vézina memorial postcard was sold at auction last month in Montreal for close to C$1,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Georges Vézina died 93 years ago, early in the morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926, at the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi. It was just four months since Vézina, who was 39, had tended goal for the last time for the Montreal Canadiens, departing the ice after a period in Montreal’s season-opening game in November of 1925 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, never to return.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Montreal for Chicoutimi in early December, he spent his last days in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. His Canadiens teammates planned to visit, but it’s not clear that they made it before he died; Montreal manager and coach Leo Dandurand — a close friend of the goaltender’s — does seem to have made the journey.

A Montreal reporter who visited Vézina in early March found him in a bad way, pale and weak, though peaceful enough under the watch of his wife of 20 years, Marie, and in the care of Drs. Riverin and Tremblay. The paper held off running of a photograph of the stricken goaltender until after this death — more on that here — but did publish a long, heartbreaking, and quite remarkable dispatch from Chicoutimi a week before the end.

“His case is desperate,” one of the doctors confided; it didn’t seem likely that he would survive the month.

“Formerly, he was always calm in his goal,” the reporter reported. “Neither the most exciting phases of a game nor the most distressing moments could deprive him of this firm, concentrated attitude. It’s still the same.”

“Georges knows he is going to die and he is resigned.”

The piece continues at some length, not only including (as you might expect) a detailed biographical sketch of the legendary goaltender, but also (as you might not) an itemized accounting of the family’s finances. There’s this exchange, too, from the hospital:

Georges has his full knowledge and a perfect clarity of spirit. At times, his face writhes horribly. As we approached his bed, he looked up. We looked at him and he asked:

“How’s Leo?”

“He’s fine.”

Georges gathered his strength and asked us clearly:

“Tell Leo,” he said in a low voice, “that I want to see him, absolutely. That he should come with all the players, all my comrades. I want to speak to them.”

As these few words exhausted him, we were about to retire when he signaled us to stay. His eyes lit up a little. Gathering all his strength, he asked us in a very low voice:

“Did the Canadiens win last night?”

The Canadiens had lost. But how to say this to Georges when he was there, on his bed of suffering, waiting with a tragic anxiety, and almost begging an answer in the affirmative answer?

We told a virtuous lie: “Yes, the Canadiens won!”

Georges smiled and gave a sigh of relief. His face flushed. But the gaiety soon disappeared, driven away by a fit of grief.

“What score?” he asked.

“Four to two.”

“If you knew how tired I am,” he said in a whisper.

Georges no doubt meant that the many defeats of the Canadiens weighed heavily on him.

As he was exhausted, we left him.

The game in question here did end 4-2 for Montreal — but it was the Maroons who prevailed at the Forum on the night of March 13, 1926, handing Canadiens their 12th loss in a row. Back in November, Frenchy Lacroix had replaced the irreplaceable Vézina, but he had subsequently given way in Montreal’s net to Herb Rheaume.

little green

Born on this date in 1899 (when it was a Tuesday), Redvers was the younger of the Green brothers who played in the early NHL; Wilfred was three years older. They were Sudbury boys who started out skating for their hometown Wolves before they found a way into the big time in 1923 with the Hamilton Tigers, where they were known, respectively, as Red and Shorty. Red (pictured here, for some reason, on bare concrete) played on the left wing, Shorty on the right. Shorty was team’s captain in 1925, and he was at the fore when the players went on strike at the end of the season. They didn’t get the money they were angling for; instead, the NHL suspended the team and saw it sold to buyers in New York. Most of the former Tigers ended up there the following season, repackaged as Americans in star-spangled red-white-and-blue uniforms like the one Red Green is styling here.

Shorty ascended to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. For Red, his best night was back in Hamilton, in December of 1924, when he scored five goals on John Ross Roach of Toronto’s St. Patricks.

“The little fellow from the northland was tireless,” said the papers next day. Also: “Goalkeeper Roach never had a chance. These fleet Hamilton players were merciless. They just naturally beat the defense with the greatest possible ease, and when they let the puck go there was a zip and a sting behind it that spelled goal.” Final score: 10-3.

billy (of the bouchers) at the montreal forum

Among NHL Bouchers, Billy wasn’t as celebrated as his younger brother Frank, who won all those Lady Byng trophies. And unlike his elder brother, Buck, he never captained the mighty mark-one Ottawa Senators when they were glorious in the 1920s. Billy Boucher didn’t make it to hockey’s Hall of Fame, either, as both Frank and Buck did. Make no mistake, though, Billy was a player, as those Bouchers tended to be (a fourth brother, Bobby, played in the league, too). Billy, who died on this date in 1958, played eight seasons at speedy right wing, most of them for the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he twice won the Stanley Cup, though he was also a Boston Bruin and a New York American.

Ottawa-born, as those Bouchers also tended to be, Billy was the man who scored the first goal at the Montreal Forum the night it opened in November of 1924. He was 25, in his fourth season with Canadiens, skating on a line with Howie Morenz at centre and his old Ottawa teammate Aurèle Joliat over on left. Actually, Boucher scored the first three goals in the Forum’s NHL history, collecting a natural hat trick in Canadiens’ 7-1 opening-night win over the Toronto St. Patricks. Defenceman Sprague Cleghorn passed him the puck for the first goal, which came in the first minute of the game; the second and third both came when Boucher picked up and netted rebounds of shots of Howie Morenz’s.

Boucher had played centre until he arrived in Montreal and in the pre-season of 1921 he battled Canadiens’ veteran Newsy Lalonde to stay in the middle. It was only after the two of them ended up in a fistfight at practice that coach Leo Dandurand sent the rookie to the wing.

On another night, not so proud, perhaps, as that Forum debut, Boucher featured in a contentious game when his Canadiens met the Maroons in December of 1925.

In the first period, Joliat thought he’d scored a goal on Clint Benedict, though the goal judge didn’t see it that way; play went on. The arbiter in question was Ernie Russell, a former centreman himself, a one-time star of the Montreal Wanderers who would later be elevated to the Hall of Fame. When play stopped, Joliat skated at Russell with his stick held high, as if to chop a reversal out of him. “Then,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the action started.”

Policemen were standing nearby, apparently, but they just watched as an incensed spectator opened the door of Russell’s cage and pinned his arms. The Gazette:

Billy Boucher swept in from a distance of forty feet and while Russell was unable to defend himself, cracked the official across the face with his stick. Players intervened and tore Joliat and Boucher and Russell was free to defend himself against the rabid spectator. This he did to his own satisfaction, the fan beating a hasty retreat under the barrage of fists that were coming his way. He ran into the arms of policemen and was escorted to the Forum office where his name and address were taken and verified and he was let go with the understanding that a warrant would be sworn out against him …, the Forum management stating that they are determined to put a stop to this sort of thing from the first and as an example to others who may be tempted to act in this way.

Referee Jerry Laflamme missed the melee, reportedly; no penalties were imposed. As far as I can tell, Ernie Russell went back to work, as did Canadiens, racking up a 7-4 win.

NHL President Frank Calder did intervene, eventually. As Canadiens prepared to play their next game in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, Joliat learned that he’d been fined $50. Billy Boucher, Calder announced, was suspended indefinitely. Actually, that wasn’t quite the wording — Boucher would be out “until sufficiently punished,” Calder said.

Boucher was suitably remorseful, wiring Ernie Russell from Pittsburgh to express his regrets. They were “sincere,” it was reported, though the note was of a private nature, and not “an official apology.”

There was a rumour that Leo Dandurand hoped to fill the Billy-Boucher-shaped gap in his line-up by buying Babe Dye, Toronto’s leading scorer. He offered $20,000, but Toronto wasn’t interested. Instead, Dandurand shifted rookie Pit Lepine onto the wing with Morenz and Joliat, and that seemed to work: he scored the winning goal against Pittsburgh. Montreal also won the second game that Billy Boucher missed without learning how long he’d be in limbo. Frank Calder relented a couple of days later, and Boucher was back in the line-up for Montreal’s next game, a loss to the New York Americans.

fanbelt, 1949: clouted by kenny reardon, not mad at anybody

Fix You: Clouted by Kenny Reardon, George Grbich was cut for ten stitches on November 2, 1949.  Nurse Amy Kreger tended his wounds.

It was a fracas is what it was, according to some of the people who were on hand to see what happened and write about it: some of them also rated it a rhubarb and a melee and a hoodlum outbreak. Chicago’s Daily Tribune either couldn’t sum it up in a word or two, or preferred not to: there was no bigger headline on next day’s front page than the one given Victory-in-Europe billing across eight columns: PLAYERS SLUG HOCKEY FANS.

However you want to frame the events at Chicago Stadium on this very date in 1949, any statistical summary of the proceedings should really reflect the number of Montreal Canadiens who ended up in jail (two) along with the score of the game (Chicago 4, Montreal 1).

Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle were the Canadiens incarcerated after time had ticked away to end the game. Chicago police from the Warren Avenue precinct arrested their teammate Billy Reay, too, briefly, before releasing him. There are famous photos of Reardon and Gravelle behind bars, with Canadiens coach Dick Irvin and Hawks president Bill Tobin in front of them. Tobin was the one who paid $200 to bail the boys and promised to see that they returned to Chicago to face justice. Here’s one version; others come with bonus hamming.

Flight Risks: Canadiens coach Dick Irvin, left, and Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin pose with the not-quite-free Leo Gravelle and Ken Reardon.

Good, maybe, that they could find some fun in the situation, given that the players had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and that there were other photos taken that same night, like the one at the top here, of men like George Grbich with bandaged heads who didn’t happen to be professional hockey players.

How had it come to this? In the regular heedless hockey way, I guess is the general answer. More specifically, well (also in the regular hockey way), there were various versions of the second-period unrest. The Tribune had it that Reardon ran into Chicago’s Roy Conacher against the boards. Reardon told police that someone grabbed him, so he swung his stick.

Montreal’s own Gazette quoted him saying this: “As I skated by, swung my stick instinctively. I thought I had busted it against the screen. I was the most surprised person in the world when I saw I’d bloodied somebody.”

That was Grbich. Bleeding from the head, he was seen to leap the boards to go after Reardon, whereupon ushers intervened along with hockey players, including Billy Reay, who got a misconduct from referee Bill Chadwick for directing what the Gazette called “a wild swipe of his stick” at — maybe fans, maybe Black Hawks. Reardon, for his part, wasn’t penalized on the play. Nor was Leo Gravelle, described by the Tribune as having swung his stick at spectators, striking a tavern owner and his nearby brother. Also struck: a taxi-driver, whose tie was torn.

I’ve seen a handwritten note that Reardon sent many years later describing what happened with Grbich. Here’s how he choose to recall the incident:

This fan stood up on top of the boards and grabbed me around the neck while I was carrying the puck along the boards. I hit him on his head when he spun me around. I hit him accidentally but the fan had no business tackling me while I was in action.

On the night, Grbich was tended by Dr. Mitchell Corbett, who closed the cut on his head with ten stitches. Described by the Tribune as an unemployed steelworker, the wounded man apparently stuck around until the end of the game. He and Reardon met, shook hands, were photographed (below and here, too). Grbich confirmed that Reardon’s stick has “clouted” him, but no worries: “I’m not mad at anybody.” He had to head to hospital for x-rays, but before left, he told police he wasn’t interested in pressing charges.

Forgiven: Following Montreal’s 4-1 loss to the Hawks, Reardon and Grbich met and shook hands.

The other fans who’d been involved weren’t quite so forgiving. Anthony Scornavacco was the tavern-owner, and with his brother, John, and the taxi-driver, Peter Zarillo, he’d marched right out of the Stadium over to the Warren Avenue police station to complain about the Canadiens. That was enough for Sergeant James Smith, apparently. Having heard their story, he sent Detectives Joseph Gordon, Joseph Sidlo, and Peter Garamone over to the rink to make the arrests. When Grbich wouldn’t add his name to the complaint, Patrolman Hugh Frankel signed in his stead.

A court date was set for later in November, when the Canadiens were due back in town for another meeting with the Hawks. Stay tuned; we’ll get to that (here). In the meantime, Montreal had a train to catch for home, where they were hosting the Boston Bruins.

Over at South Shore Hospital, Dr. Nicholas Columbo was still waiting to get George Grbich’s results back. He was keeping him there, just to be on the safe side. Dr. Columbo said he suspected that the patient had a “slight concussion” to go with his stitches.

 

 

early adapter

Up And Away: Boston defenceman Jack Crawford lifts off in early 1939, during his first full season as a Bruin.

Lots of NHLers donned helmets in the 1930s: call it the Ace Bailey Effect. Bailey, of course, was a fleet Toronto winger who nearly died after Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him down in December of 1933 and his head hit the ice. Carried off the ice at Boston Garden, Bailey’s survival was very much in doubt as he underwent the two skull surgeries that ended up saving his life, though he never played another hockey game.

Many players across the league adopted helmets in the months that followed; lots of them ended up abandoning them after a brief trial.

The Bruins actually had a regular helmet-wearer before Bailey went to ice in George Owen, who served as the team’s captain in 1931-32.

Afterwards, they had Jack Crawford, captain for three seasons through to 1950. He didn’t start his career as a Bruins’ defenceman until 1938, and he arrived in the league with headgear in place.

Born on this date in 1916, Crawford hailed from the western Ontario hamlet of Dublin, not far up the road from Howie Morenz’s hometown of Mitchell. He would go on to play all of his 13 NHL seasons with Boston, winning two Stanley Cups along the way, in 1939 and 1941. In 1946, he was named to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team. He died in 1973 at the age of 56.

For Crawford, wearing a helmet was a matter (at least in part) of modesty. It all stemmed from a youthful mishap caused by … a helmet. He played schoolboy football in Toronto in the early 1930s — possibly at St. Mike’s, where he was a Junior B Buzzer? Along with several teammates, he suffered a reaction to the paint used on the football helmets, causing the loss of his hair, and he wore a leather hockey helmet ever after to cover the lack.

Just how bald was he?

A Boston Globe article from 1938 explaining the situation says “practically.”

“Jack very, very bald,” Stan Fischler has written. “The helmet did a very, very good job of concealing his pate.”

“Completely bald,” Fischler has also said, in a different book, explaining that he was “so embarrassed by it that he decided to wear the headpiece.”

A reminiscence from a 1970 edition of The Boston Globe recalled this:

Whenever his helmet was knocked off the capacity crowd would react when they saw his totally bald head. There was just something eerie about hearing 14,000 gasp “Oooooh!”

All of which makes this photograph from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive a bit of a … head-scratcher. It’s the only one I can recall seeing that shows Crawford without the helmet. He first wore number 5 for the Bruins before switching (as above) to 19 for a single season, 1938-39. After that he was 6, which means this photo was taken at some point between 1939 and 1950, probably in Toronto by one of the Turofsky brothers.

So what’s with the hair? Did he at some point manage to grow this array? Acquire a hairpiece? I can’t say so with any real authority, but spying as closely as I can, my bet is on the stranger still possibility that somebody — by request or on their own initiative? — did some inky photo-doctoring here to restore Jack Crawford’s lost thatch.