box seats

Published 73 years ago today, the February 1, 1949 edition of Maclean’s magazine featured a couple of longstanding roughhouse rivals, Toronto winger Bill Ezinicki and Montreal’s Maurice Richard occupying the penalty bench at the Montreal Forum, as rendered by artist Franklin Arbuckle.

Richard was 27 that year and, as usual, in the thickest of things, scoring goals and, in the week before the magazine appeared, fighting Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Boston’s Fern Flaman.

But as the Globe and Mail reminded its readers later that week, Ezinicki, who led the NHL in penalty minutes, remained the Rocket’s “arch-enemy.” The main chatter as February got going was the — semi-serious? half-facetious? — offer the Leafs were said to be prepared to make to bring Richard to Toronto. Montreal’s management scoffed. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” said Canadiens GM Frank Selke. Coach Dick Irvin, a former Leaf himself: “It’s propaganda. All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

Maybe it worked. Thursday, February 3 was the date of the game in question, two days after Maclean’s hit the newsstands. In front of what Al Nickleson of the Globe described as “a violently partisan Forum gathering of 11,226,” Ezinicki and Richard duly engaged in the second period. Richard ran into Ezinicki, breaking his stick; Ezinicki loosed a “mild punch.” Nickleson:

Referee George Gravel blew his whistle to assess minors and both skated slowly toward the penalty box, talking quite earnestly, nose to nose.

Suddenly, Richard let go a right that caught Sweet William around the shoulders. Then they were into it, with [Leaf defenceman] Gus Mortson, never one to miss a battle, rushing to the fray, followed by other players. Combatants wrestled, tugged, and threw an odd punch as the main-bouters went into a wrestling hold. They were separated three times and at the end it looked as if the Rocket had earned a wrestling decision over Ezinicki, who took a couple to the chops, didn’t land any hard ones in return, although he tried mighty hard.

They went to off to serve the majors and minors that Gravel doled out. They were joined in detention by Mortson and Montreal defenceman Glen Harmon. Unlike the Maclean’s version, Canadiens and Leafs were separated in what was then still one big communal penalty box.

The Leafs won the game 4-1, on the strength of two goals by Max Bentley.

on a line called broken bone

Damaged Goods: Tony Demers, Elmer Lach, and Maurice Richard line up on Forum ice in 1942. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

When Elmer Lach first stepped up to centre the Montreal Canadiens’ powerful Punch Line in 1943, his wingers were Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. The combination was a new one, though not the name. Going back at least as far as the 1939-40 campaign, the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League had a Punch Line of their own, with Buddy O’Connor flanking Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. All three of them, of course, would eventually graduate to play for the Canadiens, with O’Connor going on to win Hart and Lady Byng trophies as a New York Ranger. Then in 1942-43, when O’Connor and Heffernan were both skating for Montreal, the team’s top trio was a Punch Line featuring Lach down the middle with Blake and Joe Benoit as his wingers. Maurice Richard took Benoit’s place the following year when the latter enlisted to serve with the Canadian Army.

Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1918 in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, Lach had made his NHL debut during the NHL’s 1940-41 season, during part of which he played on a line with left winger Tony Demers and, on right, (the other, non-Detroit Red Wings) Jack Adams. The following year, ’41-42, Lach and Demers combined with rookie Richard to form the line shown posing in the photograph here. All three players having been injured during the previous year — Lach and Richard on the ice, Demers in an automobile accident — they were dubbed, naturally, the Broken Bone Line.

 

 

helmets for hockey players, 1947: richard and lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos

Top Gear: Elmer Lach, on the right, fits linemate Maurice Richard with the helmet he wore for all of two games in 1947. Lach’s, just visible at the bottom of the frame, didn’t have quite so long a career on NHL ice.

Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL neither were they a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.

So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.

It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.

Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.

Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)

Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.

Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)

Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.

“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.

Nokomis’ Own Dandy: Lach in his helmet on the day of its debut, November 27, 1947.

Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”

Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”

Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.

“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”

And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”

Boxed: Maurice Richard sits out his third-period elbowing penalty during the November 27 game at the Forum.

But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.

Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”

None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.

Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”

For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.

Tusslers: Richard and Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson … hard to say what they’re up to, actually. A bit of vying, I guess; some grappling?

and a fighter by his trade

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The Boston Bruins’ 32-year-old defenceman Hal Laycoe (above left) hangs out with boxer Jimmy Carter, lightweight champion of the world, at Boston’s Ye Garden Café in May of 1955. Carter, 31, was gearing up to defend his title that spring: in June, he’d meet the challenger, Wallace “Bud” Smith at Boston Garden. He lost that bout in the late rounds — a stiff right in the 10th from the underdog Smith seems to have turned the tide, followed by a sweeping left to Carter’s eye. The two fighters met again that fall, in Cincinnati, but Carter couldn’t reclaim his crown.

And Laycoe? This day that same year (March 16 was a Wednesday in 1955, too), he caught an early plane in Boston and flew north to Montreal. “Shortly after arriving there,” wrote an anticipatory Tom Fitzgerald in The Boston Daily Globe’s, “Hal will appear before NHL Pres. Clarence Campbell to tell his version of the hectic happenings in the Garden Sunday night when Laycoe was involved in a brawl with Maurice Richard, the noted wood-chopper.”

The season was almost over; another week and the playoffs would be underway. Montreal was battling with Detroit for first place overall; the Rocket was duelling with teammate Boom-Boom Geoffrion for the league’s scoring lead.

In Boston what had happened was that Canadiens were losing 4-1 with about seven minutes left in the game. With Boston’s Warren Godfrey in the penalty box, Montreal coach Dick Irvin pulled his goaltender, Jacques Plante. What happened next was not, perhaps, what the coach (or anyone) had hoped for.

Richard carried the puck toward the Boston net. Laycoe’s raised stick caught him on the side of the head. Referee Frank Udvari called a high-sticking penalty. Fitzgerald:

Richard raised a hand to his head where Laycoe’s stick landed. When the hand came down crimson-covered, Rocket waved it at referee Udvari, then he went berserk.

“Richard rushed at Laycoe and swung his stick,” was The Associated Press version of it: “Laycoe parried the blow, dropped his stick, eye-glasses and gloves and went after Richard. Richard hit Laycoe on the shoulder with his stick.”

Fleming Mackell retrieved Laycoe’s stick for him. Linesman Sam Babcock tried to separate the belligerents, in vain. They wrestled and fell to the ice. A Richard uppercut cut Laycoe under the eye.

The other linesman, Cliff Thompson eventually pinned Richard to the boards. Richard hit him under the eye; Thompson tried to hit him back, but missed. Richard then got his stick back and, said the AP, “whacked Laycoe a solid blow on the head.”

After the game, Boston Police Lieutenant Frank Gannon was ready to arrest Richard — Dick Irvin, too, when he raised a fuss. Bruins’ president Walter Brown dissuaded him, though, and the policeman had to be satisfied with a stern warning: next time.

So it was up to Clarence Campbell to decide on punishments. The hearing was set for 10.30 a.m. on the Wednesday. Laycoe planned to say his piece and head straight back to the airport to catch a 1:15 flight back to Boston. I guess he wasn’t expecting a suspension: his aim was to get back in time for the Bruins’ game that night with the Red Wings.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)