always delighted to have canadians around

Command and Control: General Sir Bernard Montgomery congratulates one of his charges at the conclusion of the Canadian Army Overseas hockey championship in early 1944. (Image: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / e008128995)

In the months leading up to D-Day, preparing for the battle the would sweep the enemy from northwestern Europe, Canadian troops did what Canadians do: they played hockey.

This was 1944, end of February. The troops of the 3rd Canadian Division and supporting units were, as the security-conscious datelines read on the dispatches that fed the newspapers back home, “Somewhere In England.” On the specific ice of the Sports Stadium at Brighton, the Canadian Army Overseas championships got underway with a set of brassy special guests in the stands: joining Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the acting commander of the First Canadian Army, was the man in charge of all British and Commonwealth forces for the upcoming invasion, General Sir Bernard Montgomery.

The opening game of the best-of-three finals was played on a Tuesday night, pitting the Cameron Highlanders against B Group, Canadian Reinforcement Unit. They didn’t have a name to romance the imagination, maybe, but the CRU team dominated on the ice, posting an 8-4 victory.

Leading the way was the man a Canadian Press correspondent called “a fast-skating private with a deceptive shift:” H.W. Proulx scored three times and collected two assists. He had some big-name help in a trio of former NHLers. Captain Gordie Poirier, 29, and Corporal Ken Reardon, 22, had both played for the Montreal Canadiens, while 24-year-old Lieutenant Gordie Bruce was a Boston Bruins alumnus.

These three had only been in England for a few weeks, though they were, all three, veterans of military hockey success. They’d helped the mighty Ottawa Commandos to an Allan Cup championship in 1943 on a team that had counted goaltender Sugar Jim Henry along with NHLers Bingo Kampman, Neil and Mac Colville, Polly Drouin, Alex Shibicky, and Joe Cooper.

In England, the Reinforcements won the second game, too, the following night, to take the series. Six thousand Canadian soldiers were in the building to see it. The score this time was either 8-2 or 9-2 — both showed in subsequent press reports, possibly to confuse the enemy. Did General Montgomery attend both games? Maybe so; again, the record isn’t crystally clear. He was certainly at the Wednesday game, at which he was reported to have spent “most of the evening hanging over the boards.” Brighton’s rink was small — 25 feet shorter than most Canadian rinks, by some accounts — and a military reporter noted that this made “both teams look fast enough to burn down the rink.” Proulx was a stand-out again: “the equal of NHL players, and faster.”

Featuring for the disappointed Camerons was Terry Reardon, 24, Ken’s elder brother. He’d played in the NHL, too, before he’d enlisted, for Boston and then Montreal. In the effort to stymie the CRU he’s said to have stayed on the ice for the full 60 minutes — two nights running. This gave him time to fight with his brother — “a real go,” according to one witness, who reported that Ken gave Terry a black eye.

Monty had seen worse. At least, when the time came to award medals to victors and runners-up alike, he said, “This is one of the cleanest game I have ever seen.” He also took the opportunity to remind the men of their greater purpose. “If we can produce the team spirit when the Second Front starts,” he said, “we should not be long about it.”

That’s what he was there for, of course, rallying the troops, boosting morale. Ahead of the invasion, he was in the middle of a four-day visit to Canadian troops under his command. He’d commanded Canadian troops in ’43 in Sicily and before that, too, in England. “I am always delighted to have Canadians around,” he’d say later. He’d even played a bit of hockey, in his time — well, field hockey.

Ross Munro of the Canadian Press went along with him this time and sent word back to Canada of how, “on a dozen village greens,” he “met and talked to thousands of Canadian invasion troops” in a get-acquainted tour.

In a special train with Royal priority, the commander of the British group of armies for the Western European invasion sped from one second-front camp area to another and several times a day he spoke to groups of several thousand Canadians.

In battledress, standing atop a jeep,

he told them he wanted to see them and wanted them to see him — that they were going to fight together and should get to know each other. The talk was simple, clear and sprinkled with humor and joshing.

As impressed as he might have been by the display of Canadian hockey, Montgomery knew that it wouldn’t serve as a metaphor for a wider British audience. Later in March, he stepped up to stir the nation with this solemn statement:

We are preparing to take part in the biggest tug-of-war the world has ever seen, and if anyone should let go of the rope, then we lose the match.

How long will the pull last? No-one can say for certain. It may last a year, it may take longer. But it will be a magnificent party and we shall win. It will be a proper job for proper men.”

He had a battle-cry to suggest, too, “for the nation:”

“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”

 

men o’ the north: the most talked of hockey outfit in the world

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At Ease: One of the 228th Battalion’s junior teams turned out for inspection. Standing in as coach, centre rear, is Captain George McNamara, Dynamite Twin, who played for the professionals. (Image: Discovery North Bay Museum)

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on December 31, 2016.

In Canada, the kinship between hockey and war is implicit. Our understanding of the relationship may be more intuitive than fully reasoned out. Both (of course) stoke patriotic pride, and there’s the recognition (maybe) that the vivid game that remains closest to the national heart reflects the confusion and desperate violence of the battlefield, while also (somehow) naturally honouring warrior values of bravery and perseverance.

Today’s NHL teams regularly celebrate the service of military men and women. Armored cars invade pre-game ice, players take warm-ups in camo. In 1916, war and hockey intersected as closely as they ever have in an episode without parallel in professional sports, before or since. A hundred years ago this winter, an active infantry battalion on its way to the front competed in a league with the world-champion Montreal Canadiens and other well-established teams.

Taking the ice, the hockey-soldiers of the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force wore khaki-colored uniforms, just like their brothers-already-at-arms along the bloodied Somme River in France. Known as the Northern Fusiliers or just plain Soldiers, the 228th was, briefly, one of hockey’s best teams.

It didn’t quite work out: after skating against the storied likes of Newsy Lalonde, Frank Nighbor, and Georges Vézina, the 228th had to retreat from the rink halfway through the season, in a welter of lawsuits and unhappy generals. But if they never quite got to play for the Stanley Cup, the ructions arising from their 1916-17 campaign did contribute to the demise of one league and the rise of another: the NHL.

For Canadians, another carnivorous year of war started in 1916 with a new year’s address from Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden. “Already we have learned the full meaning of sacrifice,” he intoned from Ottawa, vowing to double the size of Canada’s army to 500,000 men.

Major Archibald Earchman, 33, was one officer called on to help fulfill that promise. He’d already been to France when he was promoted and, that February, charged with raising a new battalion, 800-strong.

Headquartered in North Bay in Ontario’s near-north, the 228th quickly filled its ranks. “Probably the most diversified unit ever recruited in Canada,” Toronto’s Globe romanticized, “including such picturesque types as hunters, trappers, guides, prospectors, Hudson Bay company employees and Cree Indians from the James Bay district.” Flocking to enlist, some were said to have paddled for days on “swift rivers of the great northland;” others tramped 250 wilderness miles to reach a railway station.

It would have been impossible, in Canada, for the unit not to absorb hockey players, picturesque or otherwise. Some military minds thought they had the ideal fighting stuff. A 1916 book suggested that boys used to handling hockey sticks were naturals with rifles: “Firing for hours during a hot and sustained engagement does not fatigue them as it otherwise would. In the rough work of the bayonet charge, they keep their heads ….”

When high-profile hockey players joined the 228th in May, future Hall-of-Famers among them, the news crossed the country. Rising star Duke Keats was aboard, and the brothers McNamara, doughty defensemen known as “The Dynamite Twins.” Goldie Prodgers, meanwhile, had scored the goal that secured Montreal’s Stanley Cup championship that spring.

By July, the 228th was at Camp Borden, an open plain 65 miles north of Toronto where 50,000 men from 40 battalions were living under canvas. Like everybody else, the men of the 228th practised their marching, complained about dust and mosquitoes, suffered from poison ivy and heat exhaustion. They also gained mascots — a cat dubbed Kitty Borden along with a friendly red fox — and signed up for every sport their officers could think of to keep the boredom at bay: soccer, lacrosse, cricket, baseball.

Beyond camp lines, questions of just how sports should be conducted in wartime kept pressing. Did hockey leagues divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or were they vital to morale? In early 1917, with the United States about to join the Allied cause, baseball’s leadership wondered how to proceed. Yes, said the president of the American League, certainly the New York Yankees should incorporate military drills into spring training — he also pointed out, politely, that nobody had asked for batting to cease during the Spanish-American War.

The first hint that the 228th might be angling to play pro hockey came as summer waned and military planners pencilled the 228th for transfer to winter quarters in the southern Ontario city of Hamilton — or maybe nearby St. Catharines? Problem: it would be hard to play professional hockey if they were going to be stationed down there. Colonel Earchman soon convinced his superiors to shift the battalion to Toronto, where they occupied two public schools. The Arena was an easy march away.

Players were plentiful enough in the ranks for the battalion to enter five teams in amateur competition. If the National Hockey Association was surprised by the 228th’s application for a franchise, the eight-year-old league quickly saw the advantages of granting it. With a history of erratic ownership and contract spats, plagued by “rowdyism” — a.k.a. brutal violence — the now six-team league was not only welcoming some of the nation’s best players back into its rinks, it was adding a fine patriotic finish to its profit-minded enterprise.

Lieutenant-Colonel Earchman okayed the battalion’s major-league hockey operations with his superiors. Sort of — with some of them. He made the case that a team as good as his would surely bolster recruiting; exposing shirkers to their quality would, no question, “induce eligible men in the audience to see their duty more plainly.”

The players took to the ice in early November. First, though, the 228th did what pro teams do: chased free agents. They helped themselves to Art Duncan, a star defenceman from the west coast, and enlisted a brilliant centreman, Eddie Oatman.

Afternoons in November, the Soldiers worked out at the YMCA, supervised by another new recruit, trainer Frank Carroll. They did some soldiering, too, joining the battalion in a parade of Army might that put 10,000 men on the march into Toronto’s streets. A few days after that, the 228th turned out for maneuvers through neighbourhoods on the city’s northwest fringe, Blue Army attacking White, 5,000 men in all, infantry, artillery, cyclists.

Hostilities commenced at 11 a.m. By the fight wrapped up at 2.30, the 228th had played a decisive role in a White victory. “It was the greatest and biggest sham battle ever staged,” The Toronto Daily Star exaggerated, “which carried with it all the grimness and realism of actual warfare.” Well, maybe not all: “Had it been real warfare, the casualties would have been appalling.”

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The Canadiens were favourites to top the NHA’s 20-game schedule, with the 228th next in the betting. They showed why as they opened the schedule at home to Ottawa just after Christmas. Fans paid a war tax of two cents on their 50-cent tickets, which also bought intermission performances by the battalion’s brass and bugle bands.

The score, as reported in next day’s paper, past the page commemorating three more Toronto men killed in action in France: 228th 10, Ottawa 7.

“The soldiers,” advised The Toronto World, “were a little loose around their own goal.”

They worked on that, and for the next three games, the 228ths were unstoppable. They overran Montreal’s Wanderers, drubbed Toronto’s team, the Blueshirts. A crowd of 5,000 saw that game, or didn’t, through the fog of war: despite a strict no-smoking policy, cigarette smoke shrouded the ice.

Keys to the Soldierly success? They were fitter, faster. And while Sergeant Goldie Prodgers may have broken an ankle playing summer ball, he’d mended sufficiently to score 12 goals in three games.

Correspondents covering the team did their best not to overdo the battlefield allusions. When they lapsed, the team comprised gallant troops who fought gamely in a battle royal by means of raids on entrenchments.

It was the Canadiens who finally stopped the Soldiers, which is to say they spiked the artillery of the fusiliers. Another loss came in a bad-tempered meeting with Ottawa, which saw Captain Howard McNamara charge from the defence to wrestle with referee Cooper Smeaton, who wrestled back. The goal that McNamara was disputing stood, and so did the fine imposed.

Falling 10-4 to the Wanderers, the Soldiers lacked dash; perhaps, the papers suggested, their bands should be rehearsing dirges.

Still, halfway through the schedule, the Northern Fusiliers stood third in NHA standings, behind Canadiens and Ottawa. But even as the Ottawa Journal was celebrating “the most talked of hockey outfit in the world,” military officials began to wonder if in pursuing its pucks, the 228th might be neglecting its training.

In February, the Soldiers returned to Ottawa, only to be trounced, 8-0. “No fighting spirit,” a local paper diagnosed. Was the rumour true that they were headed for France? It was. Orders came through clear: “This Battalion is warned for Overseas.”

They played their twelfth and last game on a Wednesday, losing 4-3 to Toronto. By Friday, news of the 228th’s imminent departure vied in the pages of Toronto papers with urgent appeals for public donations of socks: while the hockey players may have been well-supplied, other ranks were sorely lacking.

The 228th shipped out next day. Instead of travelling to Quebec to play the Bulldogs, the hockey team deployed to the 3 p.m. train for Saint John, New Brunswick. Six days later, the unit sailed for England aboard S.S. Missanabie. Unwilling to abandon their hockey gear, the players would get in one more game, in London, at a tiny, quirky rink in Knightsbridge, the Prince’s Club, where Sergeant Keats’ team beat Sergeant Prodgers’ in front of an attentive tea-drinking audience.

Hockey carried on, as it does, in Canada. The NHA had to adjust itself for the remainder of the season, and did so, shedding the Toronto team in the process (nobody liked the owner). Come spring, the Montreal Canadiens would end up NHL champions — even though they lost their hold on the Stanley Cup, to the Seattle Metropolitans.

The papers made their farewells to the 228th fond: there was a greater, grimmer game underway, after all, in France. The battalion’s role in it was shifting: they soon transformed from the infantry into a railway construction unit, spending the rest of the war laying track to keep men and supplies on the move to the front lines.

It’s probably only in retrospect that changing identity seems like something you’d do as a fugitive trying to shed your shady past. But the 228th’s stirring legacy of on-ice exploit was giving way to talk of misconduct and even, in the press, scandal.

Several Soldiers were reported to have been turfed from the battalion before it sailed to war. Eddie Oatman was ready to tell all: he’d never been a recruit, had only acted the part to play hockey, for which he’d been promised $1200. Where was his money?

There was more, too: the NHA was soon demanding $3000 as redress for the Soldiers’ sudden withdrawal from the league. Military authorities received this news with surprise and, in private, outrage. Whose permission did Colonel Earchman have to be running the team? Army inspectors also learned that ticket profits had somehow detoured from battalion accounts to the players themselves. Several non-skating officers lodged complaints, itemizing irregularities they’d witnessed, from hockey players being excused from parades to Earchman’s highly improper habit of gambling with the men.

Military authorities weren’t pleased. If Earchman wasn’t disciplined — continuing in his command, he went on to win medals for his unit’s railway work — was it maybe just easier to forgive the 228th’s excess of hockey enthusiasm?

Though the battalion’s hockey accounts weren’t the only ones in disarray.

The 228th had departed without paying many Toronto bills. William Nielson & Co. was owed $899 for ice cream, Vogan’s Cakes $40.63. Claims dating back to summer piled up, from peeved brewers, printers, tobacconists. A Toronto music store sought $1874.21 for flutes and clarionets sold to the band. Toronto Wet Wash wanted $150: “This unit left here leaving unpaid their laundry account.”

No surprise, then: A.G. Spalding & Bros. reported that the 228th hadn’t paid for its hockey sticks.

The stars of the 228th hockey team all survived the war. Art Duncan transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he was twice decorated for conspicuous aerial gallantry. Back in hockey, he would coach Detroit’s initial NHL team, the Cougars. Wounded in 1918, Goldie Prodgers recovered to return to a six-year NHL career. Others turned up, post-war, in the new league: Howard McNamara, Howie Lockhart, Amos Arbour.

Further ownership squabbles would see the NHA dissolve in November of 1917 — right before it reincarnated, later the same day, as the NHL. The legacy of the 228th would linger longer. It was 1918 before a court dismissed the old league’s claim against the battalion outright, deciding that war was more important than hockey — and, anyway, it wasn’t entirely clear that the Soldiers were even properly enrolled in the league in the first place.

War ended, peace took weary hold. The trustee liquidating the 228th’s debts finally got the news in 1920 that the government would write off the last of what was owed at public expense. The amount charged to the nation was $452.43 — the cost, more or less, of the gear that Spalding’s had contributed to hockey’s war effort.

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Band Camp: Members of the 228th bands regularly entertained spectators at hockey gams through the winter of 1916-17. (Image: Discovery North Bay Museum)

 

 

men o’ the north: barrels of speed and classy stickhandling, and weight is their middle name

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As the NHL looks ahead to its centenary in 2017, the last week of 2016’s December marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the final dysfunctional season of the NHA, its now lesser-known and largely unloved predecessor. As the First World War entered its fourth ruinous year, the National Hockey Association opened its 1916-17 with six teams, five of which might be fairly classified as conventional franchises along with an entirely unlikely sixth. Joining Montreal’s Canadiens and Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa’s Senators and the Toronto Blueshirts on the eastern Canadian ice that winter was a team representing the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Raised in Ontario’s near-north and headquartered, originally, at North Bay, the battalion adopted the moniker Northern Fusiliers, a name that served the hockey team, too, along with Men O’ The North and just plain Soldiers. The story of how a team of Canadian infantry was (briefly, while it lasted) one of professional hockey’s powerhouses is a fascinating one that I wrote about recently in The New York Times. It’s one I’ll be reconnoitering in greater detail here, too, starting with (why not) the team’s first foray on ice ahead of the season’s opening. The NHA schedule had been published, with league play due to get underway on Wednesday, December 27. Across the league, rosters were still taking shape and indeed at the end of November, a nasty string of disputes over players had thrown the 228th’s participation into doubt. That was out of the players’ hands: they just wanted to keep skating.

The Soldiers hit the ice for practice at the Arena on Mutual Street in early November, the earliest Toronto pros had ever started their preparations in the city hockey history, some said. Even then they were being touted as favourites to win the championship of the NHA barely a month after their application to join the league was accepted.

Apart from the quality of their roster, it would be the fittest by far. The Ottawa Journal acknowledged the advantage that all the teams were calculating:

with a summer’s military training under their belt and with them doing gym work now as well as getting in an occasional practice on the ice, [the 228th] is bound to be in the best possible condition when the season opens.

From the NHA’s point of view, adding the 228th as a franchise made the straightest kind of sense. These were, after all, some of the best players in the land. They also lent the league patriotic cover during a time in which the debate about whether professional sports should be carrying on as usual was a real and active one.

And yet even after the Soldiers came aboard, their place in the league remained unsettled through November. Not all of the NHA’s civilian teams were willing to cede the hockey rights to players who, before they’d donned khaki, had been on their books. Canadiens seemed resigned to having lost Goldie Prodgers, Howard McNamara, and Amos Arbour to the khaki, but Toronto and its contentious owner Eddie Livingstone wasn’t as serene when it came to Duke Keats, Archie Briden, and Percy LeSueur. Wrangling over Keats in particular would nearly scupper the 228th’s NHA plan altogether, and it wasn’t until the end of November that the Northern Fusiliers finally backed down and ceded Keats and Briden to the Blueshirts.

Even so, the line-up as it was shaping up in the months ahead of the season’s opening was an impressive one. “The 228th Battalion could present as strong a team as ever played in the NHA,” Ottawa’s Journal was telling readers as early as September. Sergeant Percy LeSueur, 34, was pencilled in as the goaltender, a two-time Stanley Cup winner destined to end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Baz O’Meara also called him, in 1944, “the handsomest man who ever stood in front of a corded cabin.”) The brothers (and fellow lieutenants) McNamara (a.k.a. the Dynamite Twins) manned the defence. Slated for the attack were Sergeant Goldie Prodgers, Lieutenant Art Duncan, Amos Arbour, and Gordon Meeking.

In November, the team snapped up Eddie Oatman, who’d starred at centre for the 1915-16 season with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds, the team the Montreal Canadiens had beaten to claim the Stanley Cup. The 228th already counted three members of that Canadiens team in its ranks in Arbour, Howard McNamara, and Prodgers.

As The Toronto News told it, the latter pair travelled to Oatman’s home in Tillsonburg, Ontario, to persuade Oatman to forgo a return to the west coast. Why not join their campaign, instead? There would be controversy, later, regarding the terms of Oatman’s agreement with the battalion, and indeed whether he’d enlisted in the Army at all. He had, signing his attestation papers on November 1, with teammate Jack Brown standing by as his witness. According to the News, upon their arrival back in Toronto, the recruiters and their star catch made only the briefest stop at the 228th quarters before heading for Arena ice, where Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone watched the “Big Five” (the McNamaras, Prodgers, Oatman, and Keats) “take a whirl on skates.” Prodgers for one was reported to be “as enthusiastic as a schoolboy;”

now that Oatman has been added to the ranks, he can see nothing but another championship before they go overseas.

When the Soldiers weren’t skating, they were working out under the direction of Sergeant Frank Carroll’s direction at the West End YMCA at the corner of Davenport and College. Carroll, a former boxer with a Canadian welterweight title to his name, was a trainer of some repute in Toronto sporting circles. He’d tended the Toronto Blueshirts when they won the Stanley Cup in 1914 as well as working a summertime job for the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s AA International League. After the war, he’d take on the same role for Toronto’s inaugural NHL team, the Arenas, where his brother Dick was coach.

Given all the trouble the 228th got into regarding the propriety of icing a professional hockey team and the permission to do so, it’s worth noting that the battalion did seek permission through the chain of command before getting involved in celebrating an Allies’ Carnival at the Arena in early December. Organized by the 204th (Beavers) Battalion, it featured as its centerpiece a hockey game in which the 228th deploying against a select military team drawn from the 204th and other battalions quartered at Toronto’s lakeshore Exhibition grounds. Organized and led by a former OHA star, Lieutenant Herbie Birmingham, the All-Stars counted a ringer, too, in their ranks: Bruce Ridpath, the first captain of Toronto’s original NHA team and a Stanley Cup winner with Ottawa in 1910-11.

A crowd of 5,000 were on hand for the game. The referee was Harvey Sproule, another future coach of the NHL Arenas. In this, the Soldiers’ first test, they passed colourfully, and with pomp. “The 228th can hardly be improved upon,” decided the correspondent from Toronto’s World.

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maple leaf garrison

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Show of Force: Upwards of 150,000 Torontonians flooded their city’s streets in June of 1941 to support the launch of the national Victory Loan campaign to raise money for the war effort. Thirty-five bands took part in the festivities, along with 6,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen, to present what The Globe and Mail declared “one of the most impressive and heart-stirring parades that ever traversed the streets of this parade-conscious city.” The floats were described as colourful and attractive. “They depicted war activities and the need of buying bonds for bombs, tanks, planes, and ships.” Later (above), some of the infantry showed off their training on the ice-free floor for an audience at Maple Leaf Gardens, under the approving gaze (upper right of the photo, above the band; detailed below) of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

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(Images: City of Toronto Archives)

private practice (1)

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The second last game Murray Patrick played for the New York Rangers before he went to war, he damaged Detroit captain Ebbie Goodfellow. Nobody called him Murray — Lester Patrick’s younger boy had been Muzz since he was a boy in Victoria, B.C. He was 25 in the spring of 1941, in his fourth year as a defenceman on a Ranger team coached by his father. They’d won a Stanley Cup in 1940, but the following year, the Red Wings knocked them out of the playoffs in three games. Muzz Patrick’s last pre-war game was a 3-2 Detroit win in which he didn’t figure in the scoring or the newspaper accounts. In the previous game, he’d collided with Goodfellow, knocked him out of action with a badly bruised elbow. Goodfellow came back for the deciding game — only to leave in the second period with a bad leg.

Detroit ended up losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins. Muzz Patrick, meanwhile, spent his off-season enlisting in the U.S. Army. His application for U.S. citizenship was already in the works when he volunteered at Camp Upton in Yaphank on Long Island. He passed his physical in June; in August, he reported to Camp Dix in New Jersey to be inducted and, as Private Patrick, Serial No. 32170256, to begin basic training.

the terrible things the canadiens were doing to our leafs

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Boiling Over Inside: Conn Smythe circa 1936. (Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Hockey is a quite a game. When I was overseas and the world was in flames, with the destruction of democracy seemingly imminent; the Russians falling back hundreds of miles; the enemy at our doors and threatening any day to engulf us; enemy planes overhead and few of ours to help us; hundreds of thousands of people dying or being killed or starved to death; I would get a letter from home telling me in frenzied tones of the terrible things the Montreal Canadiens were doing to our Leafs.

And I marvelled that anybody could get excited about hockey at a time like that. Then I came home and I saw grown men scooting over a frozen ice surface chasing a little bit of black rubber thing not as big as the palm of your hand, and I wondered even more.

Now I find myself again boiling over inside over that very same little black rubber thing, leaving the game before the finish, as I did Thursday night, because it was too much excitement for me. The fellow that invented that little black rubber thing was quite a guy.

• Conn Smythe, Toronto Daily Star, April 2, 1947

post-war puck-drop: there’s no sense talking about it later

Private Practice: Smokey Smith tosses the inaugural puck of the 1945-46 NHL season for

Private Practice: Smokey Smith tosses the inaugural puck of the 1945-46 NHL season for the Leaf Billy Taylor and Boston’s Milt Schmidt. King Clancy is the referee.

NHL hockey ended in April of 1945, but the war still had some fight in it. Reds In Heart of Berlin was the main headline one day in The Globe and Mail, just above the news of Huns Routed in Italy. Inside, the same edition that carried news that Major Conn Smythe’s Toronto Maple Leafs had beaten the Red Wings in Detroit to secure the Stanley Cup also counted 45 Canadians in the Today’s Casualties column: Dead 10, Missing 29, Prisoner 6.

It was all over, of course, by the time hockey rolled around again that October. The Boston Bruins were in Toronto to open the season at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday the 27th, and the news in that day’s Globe was that the Toronto Scottish, the first Canadian Army battalion to have deployed to England at the start of the war, had arrived back home in Halifax.

opening game 45For the hockey game, the Leafs mobilized the brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, as they’d done every on opening night since 1931 (and have continued to do up to and including tonight’s meeting with Montreal). They’d also invited to the game five of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have received the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, given for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

Major David Currie was there, along with Majors Paul Triquet and John Mahony, and Corporal Fred “Toppy” Topham. They had, variously, organized at great personal risk a defense against German armour at the Falaise Gap (Currie) and, in Italy, showed “superb contempt for the enemy” in the face of fierce enemy attack during which they encouraged their men with the words “Ils ne passeront pas” (Triquet) and (again in Italy), against a vastly superior enemy force, crawled forward to save a section of his company despite having been wounded in the head and twice in the leg and refusing medical aid in order to continue to direct the defence of a bridgehead (Mahony) and parachuted in as a medical orderly as part of an Allied assault on the east bank of the Rhine where, despite being shot through the nose, continued to aid and extricate companions under heavy German fire, including rescuing three soldiers trapped in a burning gun-carrier despite an officer warning him to stay away (Topham).

The fifth man showing his V.C. that evening was Private Ernest Smith — “Smokey” — the only private soldier to have won the medal during the Second World War. He was the man the Leafs brought out to centre ice to drop a ceremonial puck almost a year to the day after he’d been in Italy with his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, trying to cross the Savio River.

Smith, who was 30, had enlisted in 1940. Like Major Mahony, he hailed from New Westminster, B.C. As the newspapers told it when he went to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal from King George VI, he’d almost single-handedly held off a German counterattack, turning back three Panther tanks, a pair of half-tracks, and some 30 infantrymen. The V.C. citation describing his efforts is worth reading — it’s here, along with those for the rest of the recipients mentioned above.

“Here’s a little present from me to you,” the King is supposed to have told him at the investiture.

“I couldn’t help doing what I did,” was what Smith said after he’d received his medal, “after seeing my buddy after he was wounded.” The Ottawa Citizen:

He saw “red” at that point and “didn’t give a hoot” so long as he avenged his pal.

Otherwise, he preferred to keep quiet. “It’s okay to kill men when you have to,” he said, “but there’s no sense talking about it later.”

After Smith died in 2005 at the age of 91, his body lay in state at the House of Commons in Ottawa. In 1945, was fêted across Canada and lent his fame to the campaign to sell War Bond. The government granted him a gratuity: each March and September, they’d send him $25, for life.

At Maple Leaf Gardens, he and Major Currie talked about how much weight each man had added since leaving active duty. Currie said he’d gained 35 pounds, while Smith only admitted to 15, “in the wrong place.”

The game ended in a 1-1 tie in front of 14,608 spectators — one of the largest crowds the Leafs had seen at a home-opener, the papers agreed. Bill Shill scored for Boston before Bob Davidson tied it up. Paul Bibeault was the Boston goaltender; Baz Bastien guarded the Toronto end.

Private Smith said it had been so long since he’d seen hockey that he’d forgotten how the game was played.

At Ease: Maple Leafs coach Hap Day chats with Private Smith.

At Ease: Maple Leafs coach Hap Day chats with Private Smith.