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.”

 

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

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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 reported to 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.

new year’s eve, 1941

The good old Eishockey game: At a pre-war hockey game between Germany and France in Berlin in the fall of 1937, the attentive crowd includes (centre, in the leather coat and light hat) Hitler’s Reichssportführer (Reich Sports Leader), Hans von Tschammer und Osten sitting beside (on his left) the French ambassador to Berlin, along with (second row from the front, second from left) Luftwaffe General Erhard Milch, who was at this time Hermann Göring’s direct subordinate; and (next to him, conferring) Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer who later became governor of Poland and (later still) was found guilty at trial at Nuremberg and executed for crimes against humanity. (Photo: Photoreportage Trampus)

The good old Eishockey game: At a pre-war hockey game between Germany and France in Berlin in the fall of 1937, the attentive crowd includes (centre, in the leather coat and light hat) Hitler’s Reichssportführer (Reich Sports Leader), Hans von Tschammer und Osten sitting beside (on his left) the French ambassador to Berlin. Nearby (second row from the front, second from left) is Luftwaffe General Erhard Milch, who was at this time Hermann Göring’s direct subordinate; and (next to him, conferring) Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer who later became governor of Poland and (later still) was found guilty at trial at Nuremberg and executed for crimes against humanity. (Photo: Photoreportage Trampus)

Hockey isn’t war and never was, despite the blood and the punching and all the borrowed bellicose terminology, the attacking and the shooting, the battling and the holding the fort. Hockey means no disrespect: it well understands, as we all do, that war is war and hockey is only ever hockey. Hockey admires wars, of course, which is to say soldiers: it has lots of time for honouring those in uniform, always has. Because? Well, hockey is nothing if not patriotic and understands, too, the sacrifices soldiers make, and those are worth constantly honouring, aren’t they, in as public a way in as meaningful a venue as we have in Canada? (Maybe the camo sweaters are a little much, and maybe too the light armoured vehicles patrolling the ACC ice.) There’s no denying that hockey and wars have — speaking very generally here — drawn traditionally from the same segment of the population. Young men who play hockey have often in our history gone to war, and once they’re soldiers there’s no stopping them from taking to whatever ice they can find behind the front lines. It reminds them of home; it’s also just something we Canadians do.

Soccer sometimes causes a war (see Kapuscinski, Ryszard), but hockey has never been that careless. In at least one case, though, a hockey game played in wartime seems to have precipitated a real live battle, resulting in real dead casualties.

I don’t have much on this; I’m doing my best trying to find more. The game was in Belgium, Brussels, in 1941, during the German occupation; Canadians had nothing to do with it, as far as I know. I got in touch with the Royal Belgian Ice Hockey Federation to ask what they might know, exchanged e-mails with the gracious and helpful Jan Casteels, but he’d never heard of this dreadful match-up, which took place on a Wednesday in December of 1941, the very last one — New Year’s Eve.

I’d come an account across in an Australian newspaper, published several days after the fact. That’s where this started for me. It was a tiny newsbreak and secondhand, quoting a Swedish newspaper whose correspondent had picked up the news in Berlin. Details were meagre. Who was playing, on which ice, what started it, why: I don’t know any of that. I don’t even really know what it was. Belgians and Germans fought a pitched battle during an ice-hockey match: three people died in the rink. Spectators, I think, though I suppose they could have been players. The report lists the dead as a Gestapo man, a German soldier, and a Belgian. A second Belgian was wounded. By the time the news appeared in Australia, a German military court (the Swedish reporter said) had already sentenced three other Belgians to die.

That’s as much as I’ve found. A few months later the Australian press was reporting German death sentences for 14 Belgians accused of “murder, sabotage, the possession of weapons, Communist activities, and anti-German propaganda.” I think those are altogether separate cases. These accused, said the court, had “to a high degree been influenced by broadcasts from Britain.”

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Anyone with any leads on the awful events in Brussels on December 31, 1941, please drop a line to puckstruck@gmail.com.