was the headline when the Duke of Edinburgh got his first taste of the NHL’s game, and the Globe and Mail had it from an eyewitness, his Royal Highness’ host, Conn Smythe who, as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had arranged for his team to skate in a command performance for Canada’s own Princess Elizabeth and her husband during the Royal couple’s five-week tour of the Dominion in the fall of 1951.
Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip died in London on Friday morning at the age of 99.
Princess Elizabeth was 25 back during that ’51 visit to Canada, Prince Philip 30. Their cross-country odyssey that fall came just months before the death of George VI, in February of 1952, and Elizabeth’s succession to the throne. Maybe hockey wasn’t the focus of the couple’s busy schedule, but it did feature prominently enough, as it happens, because, well, Canada. Twice that October, the NHL twisted its regularly scheduled programming to accommodate their Royal Highnesses.
First up was an abridged afternoon scrimmage between Toronto’s Leafy defending Stanley Cup champions and the Chicago Black Hawks. That was followed a week later by a game at Montreal’s Forum with Canadiens taking on the New York Rangers.
A fuller account of both those games and the fuss surrounding them can be found, photographs, too, by steering over here. Today we’ll recall that, according to Conn Smythe, both Royal guests enjoyed their experience at Maple Leaf Gardens “tremendously.”
“That was apparent,” Smythe told the Globe, “in the way Prince Philip roared with laughter at the upsetting body-checks and the way the eyes of Princess Elizabeth glowed as the payers shot by her at full speed.”
As Smythe understood it, the Princess had only ever seen hockey once, on television, though the Prince had spent hours attending games in London.
Smythe was charmed by his guests, to say the least. “I’ll tell you that I’m not much for feathered hats,” he enthused, “but I thought the Princess wore a beautiful creation. It was a feathered hat.”
Prince Philip? “He’s a terrific Prince and what a sportsman.”
As a parting gift, Smythe handed over the puck the Leafs and Hawks had chased. “I told the Princess it was for Bonnie Prince Charlie,” he said, “and that the Leafs were putting him on the negotiation list.”
Smythe may have misunderstood, it turns out, about Prince Philip’s hockey-spectating history. What he told the Globe in 1951 is, at least, at odds with Sir Arthur Elvin’s understanding of things from the following year.
Elvin was the founder and owner of London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. Hockey had caught his eye in the early 1930s, when he saw Canadians play at the rink at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and in 1934 he saw to it that Wembley’s new Empire Pool could be converted to a hockey-hosting rink.
By Elvin’s account in 1952, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had only ever seen live hockey on his Canadian tour, never in Britain. That changed on December 4 of that year when Elvin arranged a Wembley game in Prince Philip’s honour, pitting the Wembley Lions against an All-Star team drawing players from their English League rivals.
Reflecting the tenor of the times in British hockey, it was a mostly Canadian affair on the ice. The All-Stars lined up two homegrown players, goaltender Bill Alderson from the Harringay Racers and Streatham Royals forward Pete Ravenscroft. The Lions turned out another pair, in English-born defencemen Art Green and Roy Shepherd. Otherwise, the players involved hailed from Ottawa and Winnipeg, Flin Flon, Montreal, Grand-Mère, Timmins, and Stony Mountain. Wembley’s player-coach was Frank Boucher, son of Buck, nephew of famous Frank, and the man who’d also steered the RCAF Flyers to Olympic gold in 1948.
“Despite a display of nerves by the players in the initial stages,” Sir Arthur noted in his write-up for Ice Hockey World Annual, “the match was packed with thrills and good hockey, as all present will testify and the Duke was as excited and enthusiastic over the play as the most ardent fan present.”
The All-Stars won, 2-1; when it was all over, Elvin narrated, “the Duke descended to the arena from the Restaurant where he had dined and watched the play, to present commemorative medals to all the players participating.”
When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.
Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.
The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.
Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.
It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.
Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.
But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.
Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.
I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.
Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”
The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”
The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”
“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”
Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.
“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”
She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”
The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.
Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”
Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.
Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”
They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.
Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”
“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”
At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin was called for the scrimmage’s only infraction, for holding.
That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.
A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.
What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.
Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.
I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”
In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.
This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”
Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.
“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.
Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”
He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.
So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).
By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.
Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”
Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”
The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.
That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.
Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.