montreal, 1920: beyond the shadow of a drought

New Digs: All was ready for the opening of the Montreal Canadiens new arena in January of 1920 … until a municipal strike cut the city’s water supply.

Montreal Mayor Médéric Martin asked that the waterworkers wait until after the holidays to walk off the job, but on New Year’s Eve of 1919, at 7 p.m., the unhappy municipal employees telephoned to say that they could delay their strike no longer.

So began what local newspapers would soon be calling Montreal’s “water famine,” a mid-winter crisis that quickly dried out Canada’s largest city and turned things desperate as hospitals, firehouses, homes, and businesses turned their taps in vain. In 1920 as now, hockey was no essential service, but it’s why we’re here, so it’s my duty to report the collateral damage: on this day 102 years ago, the Montreal Canadiens postponed the game they were scheduled to play against the Toronto St. Patricks, thereby delaying (again) the NHL debut of Canadiens’ brand-new arena.

Going into the league’s third season, the Canadiens were already on the third arena of their short NHL tenure. Water was only secondarily involved in the demise of the first two, which both burned down.

In early 1918, fire had razed the Westmount Arena, incinerating most of the Canadiens’ equipment in the process — their skates were spared, having been sent out for sharpening. The destruction of the arena at the corner of Saint-Catherine Street West and Wood Avenue (about two kilometres, or a 26-minute walk from Canadiens’ present-day home at the Bell Centre) also spelled the end for Montreal’s other original NHL team: after just four games, Sam Lichtenhein’s Wanderers folded that first winter.

The cause of that fire was deemed to be faulty wiring in the Wanderers’ dressing room.

For their part, the Canadiens made a move east to the arena where they’d started, in 1909: the Jubilee, a distance of just over five kilometres from the Bell Centre, at the corner of Saint-Catherine East and what’s now rue Alphonse-D. Roy. While the Westmount could accommodate some 4,300 spectators, the Jubilee only had room for about 3,000.

It was at the Jubilee that the Canadiens wrapped up an NHL championship in March of 1919, defeating the Ottawa Senators 4-2 to clinch the title in five games. Four days later, George Kennedy and his team boarded a train at Montreal’s Windsor Station, bound for Seattle (by way of Vancouver) and that year’s fatal, unfinished Stanley Cup finals.

It was later that same April that the Jubilee caught fire. The Gazette had the story next day. “Sweeping from St. Catherine street to Notre Dame street, the flames soon ate their way through the entire structure, which was of wood supported by iron beams. The beams soon crumpled under the heat and the building collapsed.”

The cause wasn’t immediately known. Police detectives interviewed striking carters who’d been loitering around the nearby Canadian Northern Railway station, but they were soon cleared of suspicion. The Montreal Star noted that another fire, earlier in the year, at the arena’s bandstand, was the fault of “irresponsible boys who had managed to get in the rink and had set the fire while playing with matches or cigarettes.”

This time around, survivors of the conflagration apparently included a pair of nets.

Canadiens owner and manager George Kennedy was 39 when he died in October of 1921, two-and-a-half years after his 1919 bout with Spanish flu.

Canadiens’ owner and manager George Kennedy had been hit hard in the Seattle outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall, and lingering of effects of his April illness would factor into his death at the age of just 39 in 1921. But by autumn of 1919, he was well enough to be preparing for a new NHL season, mailing out contracts to his players and working on finding them a new home.

One possibility had evaporated in September when the backers of a project at a familiar address decided to postpone their plan build on Atwater at Saint-Catherine Street West — i.e. directly adjoining the site of the roller rink and outdoor skating rink that had been operating since 1908 as the Forum. I’m not sure that much has been made of this aborted effort that might have seen the Canadiens make their home at Cabot Square five years before the new Forum was built with an original capacity of 9,300.

As it is, of course, it would be 1926 before the team moved to its most famous home, a mere 1.6 kilometres from today’s Bell Centre.

Another prospective arena was said to be in the works at a site east of the Forum. There was also word that the Canadiens might be considering playing at least part of the upcoming season elsewhere, out of town.

In November of 1919, as the NHL’s annual meetings got underway at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, the Gazette noted that Kennedy was busy negotiating terms with the management of the new (still under-construction) Mount Royal Arena. This was horse-racing promoter Tom Duggan’s project, situated on the south side of Mont-Royal avenue between Clark and St. Urbain Streets, on the site of former exhibition grounds and lacrosse fields — a journey on foot of 3.6 kilometres from the Bell Centre.

Duggan was eager to secure an NHL team of his own. When he couldn’t land one in Montreal, he eventually acquired rights for teams in Boston and New York. The former he sold to grocery magnate Charles F. Adams, who parlayed them into the Bruins; retaining the latter for himself, he pitched in with bootlegger Bill Dwyer to launch the New York Americans.

Canadiens eventually signed up for a five-year residency upon the natural ice of the Mount Royal Arena, though as of late November there were still rumblings that the new facility wouldn’t be ready and that Canadiens might be forced to go into hibernation for a year.

George Kennedy put those to rest: he insisted that the new arena would be ready for service by Christmas Day. With Montreal’s 1919-20 home season due to open on Saturday, December 27 against the Ottawa Senators, it would be a near run thing, and so it wasn’t such a surprise when, in mid-December, Kennedy asked that the game be switched to Ottawa’s Arena, which it duly was.

The new date for Montreal’s home opener was set for Saturday, January 3. “Contractors are rushing work on the rink, and flooding as started yesterday,” Ottawa’s Citizen reported on the last day of the old year. “All the seats are in and the electrical fixtures are now being installed.”

The Mount Royal would have room for 6,000 or so; in George Kennedy’s cheerful telling that fall, its only shortcoming was that it would never accommodate all the fans who so dearly loved his team.

As work on the building went on, the January 3 game, too, was pushed off, re-scheduled for the following Monday.

That was the game that the water strike nixed. This was a long-burbling wage dispute that came to a boil on New Year’s Eve: it was after the city administration told employees in the aqueduct department that they should accept the city’s latest offer or resign, about 100 engineers, firemen, oilers, coal passers had walked off the job.

While city officials claimed that Montreal’s water supply would not be affected, they were wrong. In the chaos of the early hours of the strike, boilers cooled, steam stopped, turbines slowed, pistons broke, reservoirs emptied. “The pumping stations were abandoned,” as a miffed editorial in the Gazette told it, “part of the city was deprived of water, and all the city was put in danger from fire.”

It would be almost a week before the sides settled and Montreal’s water levels returned to normal. The Canadiens were just another local business caught up in the crisis. On Monday, Tom Duggan explained that, given the situation, the Mount Royal Arena couldn’t get its ice ready for NHL hockey. With no water coming in from the city’s reservoirs, the Arena was relying on the private Montreal Water and Power Company for its flooding supply, and that was only available between three and five in the morning. With that, while the surface might be playable — and indeed, for several amateur leagues was, all that week — George Kennedy decided that it wasn’t up to professional snuff.

“The reason we did not play yesterday,” he explained as the week went on, “was that the ice was too rough then to risk valuable players on.”

That’s mostly all. When the Canadiens did finally play their home opener on the following Saturday, January 10, 1920, they did it with aplomb, before a full house, trouncing the Toronto St. Patricks by a score of 14-7. Canadiens’ winger Didier Pitre had the distinction of scoring the first goal in Mount Royal Arena history, while Newsy Lalonde, his coach and captain, ended the night with six goals.

Newsy Flash: Canadiens’ coach and captain Newsy Lalonde inaugurated the Mount Royal Arena in January of 1920 with a six-goal performance against the Toronto St. Patricks.

“Montreal once more has an adequate arena for hockey,” was the dry estimation of the Montreal Daily Star. “The seats are piled more steeply upon one another than they were in the old Westmount Arena, but they afford an obstructed view of the ice. The principal weakness is the backs, which circus-like are too low, but this it is said was due to a misunderstanding and will be remedied as soon as possible.”

“The ice surface is somewhat smaller than that of the Westmount Arena.”

“Under the prevailing conditions,” the Gazette decided, “the arena management furnished a good sheet of ice.”

The Canadiens made up their postponed game against the Quebec Bulldogs the following Monday, adding a 7-3 win to their account.

It’s with Montreal’s next home game that we’ll end, on Saturday, January 17, 1920, when the Ottawa Senators were in town. Riding a three-game winning streak, Canadiens made it four that night with a 3-2 win. Their new home, unhappily, didn’t perform as well as it might have.

The Montreal newspapers didn’t pay it much due, or seem too concerned; it was bigger news in Ottawa.

“People got a lot of excitement,” as the Ottawa Citizen framed it, “that was not on the program.”

In the second period, Ottawa’s star defenceman Eddie Gerard picked up the puck, rushed Georges Vézina’s net, unleashed a shot. The Citizen:

There was a squeak of splintering wood as hundreds in the ‘bleachers’ crammed forward to see where the puck had gone, then someone began to scream and about a hundred wild-eyed hockey fans were precipitated when the balcony railing gave way down into the pit of the rink. Weight on the floor when the railing cracked, caused a portion of the stand itself to collapse, whereupon more of the spectators tumbled down about fifteen feet. Women began to scream, fearing that the whole rink was giving in, and Referee [Lou] Marsh stopped the play while police appeared from many corners and rushed out on the ice. Officials, players, and the police, as well as rink management showed a cool headed judgment, and within a few minutes it was seen that nobody had been injured, though it was miraculous that many were not seriously hurt. Fortunately, however, there was no panic of any kind, though many rushed for the exits, but there were a large number of nerve-racked women, several of whom had to be assisted out of the rink. These were sitting in the East end when the floor above them gave way, to send nearly a hundred boys and men head over heels upon them. After about ten minutes, order was restored and play resumed and there appeared no further difficulty. The police lined up in front of the portion that had loosened and managed to keep the crowd back. Doctors were on hand but they were not needed.

The Montreal Gazette offered a few more piquant details along with a slightly different damage report. No mention in the Gazette of any of the stand collapsing, only that “fifty feet of light wooden railing” gave way, causing spectators to tumble. The wire netting that protected fans from stray pucks broke their plunge.

The spectators, after the surprise of their fall, climbed back good humouredly into their seats and pulled up the railing with them, placing it in such a position that it would not fall again. None of them, however, jumped to their feet again during the game.

As for casualties, the Gazette enumerated a pair of broken eyeglasses and a single torn overcoat.

Officials and policemen did, in the Montreal version, make sure that nobody was injured.

Two women, however, preferred to leave, and Referee Marsh escorted them across the ice before resuming the game. The damage done to the gallery was slight.

Not Quite: Canadiens and Bulldogs didn’t get on the ice on January 5, 1920, despite the ads touting the game in Montreal newspapers. When the postponed game was played a week later, Montreal prevailed by a score of 7-3.

 

net worth

Nels Stewart shoots, Normie Smith stymies; that’s Wings’ centreman Gord Pettinger arriving late to the action. Stewart’s New York Americans did end up prevailing on this night at Madison Square Garden in early February of 1937, with the lowly Amerks  outlasting the defending Stanley Cup champions from Detroit by a score of 3-2.

Smith, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1988, got his NHL start with Montreal’s Maroons before going on to play seven further seasons — winning two Cups — with Detroit. Though the NHL’s official recordkeeping doesn’t extend back far enough to recognize it, Smith holds the record for most saves in a game. On March 24, 1936, in the NHL’s longest-ever game, the Wings beat the Maroons 3-2 in the sixth overtime when Mud Bruneteau beat Montreal’s Lorne Chabot. Chabot had rerouted 67 shots before that, while Smith barred 90.

one moore time

Shop Talk: Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this same date in 1931, legendary Canadiens left wing Dickie Moore was part of six Stanley-Cup winning teams in the 1950s and ’60s. He twice led the NHL in scoring, winning the Art Ross Trophy in 1958 and ’59. Pictured here with his wife, Joan, on a shopping spree at some point during the ’50s, Moore was inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1974. He died at the age of 84 in 2015.

the sid previously known as kid

Pablum Child: Born on this date in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (it was a Friday there, then), Pittsburgh Penguins captain and three-time Stanley Cup champion Sidney Crosby turns 32 today. Heading into fifteenth NHL season, the former Kid has accumulated 1,216 regular-season points in 943 games, which ties him (pointswise) with Jeremy Roenick for 43rd on the all-time leaderboard. Among active players, he’s second only to Joe Thornton, who’s notched 1,478 in 1,566 games. Crosby has added a further 186 points in 164 playoff games.

The depiction here? Yes. Right. It was rendered in baby food, by artist Scott Modryzynski, back when he was more regularly crafting hockey logos and portraits out of foodstuffs. (Some of those sublime creations, ketchup-, pasta-, and gum-based, we’ve featured before, here and here and over here.) “It was the height of the ‘Fuck Crosby’ times,” Modryzynski was saying today, “so I was kinda poking fun at him for all the whining he was notorious for back then. Honestly, I don’t follow as closely as I did (a combo of starting a family and being soured by too many lockouts have steered me away from the NHL a little), but I’m under the impression he’s shed that image on his inevitable road to the Hall of Fame.”

You can find more of Modryzynski’s remarkable work at mojoswork.com.

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 in early December for Chicoutimi, where 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 the 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, who was Boston’s captain for the 1945-46 season. 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 1st All-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 NHL.com a bit of a … head-scratcher. 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? — may have done some inky photo-doctoring here to restore Jack Crawford’s lost thatch.

sammy rothschild: very speedy, with a whistling shot — lacks poundage

Any chance of a professional sporting career was supposed to have vanished for Sammy Rothschild on a baseball diamond in 1923. Sliding into second, he broke a leg, and that was supposed to be it for young Rothschild, who was already making a name for himself on ice as well as grass and basepaths.

No-one told Rothschild, apparently. Born on this date in 1900 in Sudbury, Ontario, his budding hockey career had, by the time of this injury, seen him star with the junior Sudbury Wolves and for McGill University. In the fall of 1924, Rothschild was among the first players signed by manager Cecil Hart when he was building an expansion team in Montreal. It took a while for them to take on the name Maroons; when Rothschild joined the team that October, there was still some thought that they might be a second band of NHL Wanderers. Starting out, they went mostly by Montreals.

The 24-year-old rookie left winger who happened to be the NHL’s first Jewish player skated out for the team’s inaugural game in Boston against the league’s other newcomers on December 1. Clint Benedict was the Montreal goaltender, with Dunc Munro and Dutch Cain on the defence; the forward line also featured veterans Punch Broadbent and Louis Berlinguette, winners of Stanley Cups, respectively, with Ottawa’s original Senators and the senior Montreal team, Canadiens. The Bruins prevailed, on that opening night, edging their visitors by a score of 2-1.

Rothschild scored for the first time in the NHL the next time the teams met, on December 17, when he notched two goals and added three assists in a 6-2 Montreal victory. The team had, by then, recruited another old Stanley-Cup-winning hand, Reg Noble. He and Broadbent were most of Montreal’s offense that year, sharing the team’s scoring lead with 20 points each by the time they’d finished their 30-game regular-season schedule. Rothschild was next in line, accumulating five goals and nine points as the team finished fifth in the six-team league, ahead of Boston if not quite in the playoffs.

The Maroons upped their game for their second season. With Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert added to the roster, they topped Ottawa in the NHL finals before going on to beat the Victoria Cougars of the PCHL to win the Stanley Cup. Rothschild was a modest contributor that year, statistically, scoring two regular-season goals (both of them game-winning) and four points. He played all four Stanley Cup games in 1926 without getting on the scoresheet. With a championship in hand, details like that may not registered so blankly to the Maroons and their fans. It’s also the case that each of the Maroons’ 11 players earned upwards of $3,000 each in bonus money for their Cup win.

Rothschild played another season in Montreal before coming to a crossroads in the fall of 1927. Maroons waived him, making him a free agent, and he thought about quitting the game, then, to go into the insurance business with teammate Nels Stewart. Montreal’s Gazette felt that he had plenty still to offer on the ice:

He is a brainy player with a whistling shot that is always dead to the corner and would be a valuable man to any club, major or minor.

Several teams were said to be pursuing his services before Odie Cleghorn signed him to play for his Pittsburgh Pirates, heading into their third season in the NHL. The local Pittsburgh Press approved:

The acquisition of Sammy Rothschild …, the only Jewish lad playing professional hockey, is expected to solve the center problem, and with a little more strength on the defense the Pirate pilot believes his club will get up in the running.

The Pirates did, it’s true, would make a return to the playoffs that season, though the Rangers stopped them there early on. Rothschild didn’t play much of a Pirate part at all, as it turned out. Just as the season was getting going he went down with what the Press diagnosed as “a slight attack of appendicitis.” Not long after that, the team suspended him for lacking condition and “violating club training rules.” The latter, in the NHL of the 1920s, tended to be a catch-all euphemism for living large and (often) bibulously, but back in Montreal the Gazette took up Rothschild’s defence.

The suspension was a surprise to all who’d encountered him in Montreal,

where Rothschild is popular and regarded as a player with an excellent club spirit. The report left an inference which no-one here who knows Rothschild would accept as the little forward player is noted as a clean-living lad whose habits are above reproach.

More likely: the problem lay with upper management, who weren’t providing the resources Odie Cleghorn needed to build a strong team, and that was leading to dissension within. Whatever the truth, Rothschild didn’t last: by the end of December, the Pirates released him unconditionally.

Within a week he’d found a new hockey home with the New York Americans. His Sudburiness likely figured in here: the coach in New York was his old Sudbury Wolves teammate Shorty Green, whose brother, Red, another former Wolf, played the left wing. Right winger Alex MacKinnon was said to have grown up next door.

“Very speedy and a clever stickhandler,” the Ottawa Citizen assessed Rothschild as he headed to his new team, standing 5’6” and weighing in at 145 lbs.; “lacks poundage.”

In New York, the newspapers scouting the Amerks’ new acquisition took an interest (in a way that the Canadian press never really seems to have) in Rothschild’s Jewishness. In announcing his home debut in early January of 1928, a column in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Madison Square Garden crowd would be filled with “American rooters and Sammy’s compatriots of the Jewish race.” To aid, perhaps, in drawing just such a crowd, the columnist cited this tantalizing (and almost certainly spurious) family history:

Sammy is a descendant of the Baron de Rothschild, Jewish international banker, perhaps the most famous in the world over. The story of the de Rothschild family is very interesting. The banking family originated centuries ago in Germany, but is now Parisian. The title is Austrian. Branches of the family are scattered all over the world. Sammy represents the British line in Canada.

The Daily News went with a more direct appeal, headlining its game-day coverage this way:

HEY! HEY! JEWISH SKATER JOINS AMERICANS TONIGHT

It was in the fall of 1926, little more than a year earlier, that the Americans’ MSG neighbours and rivals had launched their bizarre campaign to attract Jewish fans to their games. A press agent working for the Rangers, Harry A. Bruno, was the brains of that short-lived operation, which involved pretending that goaltender Lorne Chabot (a Catholic) was, in fact, the NHL’s first Jewish player, variously identified in the local papers as Leopold Shabotsky/Shavatsky/Chabotsky. Before newspapermen back in Canada pointed out that no, Chabot wasn’t, Bruno also tried to pass off Rangers’ winger Ollie Reinikka — his actual background in British Columbia was Finnish — as an Italian named Ollie Rocco.

On the ice for the star-spangled Americans, Rothschild seems to have made a good early impression in New York. He does seem to have sickened again that winter, which kept him out of the line-up; there’s also mention of a bad knee, presumably the one he’d injured running the bases back in ’23. Nevertheless, some columnists felt, he was destined to become one of the most popular players in Manhattan, “a Hebrew athlete never fails to draw crowds to the gate.”

It didn’t work out. Rothschild couldn’t score in the 11 games he played for the Americans that winter, or didn’t, and by mid-February he was out of the line-up. I’ve seen it suggested that his aching knee forced him to quit, though nothing conclusive. Rothschild’s professional demise was as thorough as it was quick, to the point that the next NHL reference I can see in the newspaper archives is from 1931 when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenceman Alex Levinsky. He was going to be good, opined The Ottawa Citizen at that time, and if he was, well, one of the New York teams would surely try to lure him to Madison Square Garden. “Gotham has been on the lookout for a Jewish hockey star for years,” the feeling was. “Though he is very popular in Toronto, New York would open him with open arms.”

After the NHL, Sammy Rothschild returned to Sudbury. He was a referee and then a coach, taking to the bench of his old team, the junior Wolves, and steering them to a 1932 Memorial Cup championship. He was a curler, too, and served as president of the Dominion Curling Association. Away from the ice, he prospered as a clothier, a Montreal Gazette obituary relates, “one of the city’s most prominent businessmen.” He served as a city alderman and, in 1963, ran without success for mayor. Sam Rothschild died in 1987 at the age of 87.

Of his NHL days, Stanley-Cup-winning though they might have been, he once said this:“I was only a player, never a star. Some think that anyone who played in the NHL at that time must have been a star. But it just wasn’t so — especially in my case.”