gawky gus rivers: singer of songs, poison to rangers

Gus Rivers only played parts of three campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens — a total of 104 games, regular-season and playoffs — but you have to credit his timing: at the end of two of those seasons, 1930 and ’31, he helped the Canadiens to win Stanley Cup championships.

A Winnipegger, Rivers was, we know, born on this date, November 19 — but was it 1909, as many of the standard references record, or a year earlier? I’ll tend towards the latter: birth records from Manitoba and his U.S. military draft registration have Rivers originating in 1908. His hockey lineage isn’t in doubt: before he got to the NHL, Rivers played for the Elmwood Millionaires, the University of Manitoba, and the perfectly named Winnipeg Winnipegs. He was 22 in January of 1930 when the Canadiens signed him.

He’d started as a forward in Manitoba, before shifting back to defence; Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart put him to work on the wing when he got to Montreal. Upon his arrival, it was noted in the local Gazette that his “real name” was Gustave Desrivieres, though there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond anecdotal evidence that this was the case — it’s possibly that this was purely a fiction perpetrated by the Canadiens for the interest of their French-Canadian fans, in the tradition of declaring Howie Morenz’s background as Swiss. A year later, in the wake of another Stanley Cup triumph, the Gazette included this in their biographical round-up of the victors:

Gus was born in Winnipeg and played amateur hockey from 1924 to 1930 when he was recommended to Canadiens and signed by them. He came here under the name of Gustave Desrivieres and for a time he was thought to be French. Some of the American hockey writes still think so.

Rivers scored his first NHL goal on the last night the 1930 regular-season schedule, when the Canadiens dispatched the New York Americans by a score of 8-3. Teammate Howie Morenz scored five that night, so the fact that Rivers’ landmark tally didn’t get a whole lot of play in the press next day maybe isn’t so surprising. His second goal was more of a headliner: later that same month, Rivers scored the overtime winner that put an end to what to that date the longest game in NHL history, capping 68 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death hockey as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to open their Stanley Cup semi-final. Here’s the Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro describing how it went down:

Signed by Canadiens this season, Gus Rivers watched almost every game from the bench. He’d never got his chance to play. A shy, retiring chap, his favorite occupation on the team’s journeys was to sit in a corner of the car all alone and render the popular ditties to himself with feeling. Between times he received the joshing of all members of the team with a broad, good-natured smile.

It was this youngster that Manager Cecil Hart, of the Canadiens, put on the ice in the overtime session after all of the Flying Frenchmen were tottering on their feet. Rivers dashed out on the ice, ran the Rangers ragged for a while, then when Aurele Joliat and Sylvio Mantha struggled up the ice, he skated in front of the Rangers net. The rubber came his way from Mantha’s stick, and after 128 minutes of battling, the game was finally settled when Rivers slammed that puck past John Ross Roach.

The applause from a nerve-wracked crowd was deafening. But more significant was the fact that the Canadiens, exhausted and tottering, lifted the gawky youngster on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room, Gus Rivers had achieved recognition at last.

Rivers didn’t have too many more NHL goals in him — he only score four more in his career — but he did sink another overtime winner past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach, this one at Madison Square Garden in January of 1931.

In the wake of Montreal second successive Cup that spring, L.S.B Shapiro projected a big future for Rivers. “Gus possesses a neat poke check. He breaks fast and is dangerous around the goals.”

“From present indication,” the Gazette’s man gushed, “he will stand among the Morenzes and the [Pit] Lepines before many years have passed.”

As it turned out, while Rivers started the following season with Montreal, he finished it with the Providence Reds of the Can-Am League. He never made it back to NHL ice and after five further seasons with the Reds, he stowed his skates as a pro. Gus Rivers stayed on in Rhode lsland after his hockey career ended and, in 1985, that’s where he died. He was 75.

pappinin now

Pappy Birthday: Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on a Sunday of this same date in 1939, Jim Pappin is 82 today: manifold returns of the day to him. He made his debut as an NHL right winger in 1963 when he joined Punch Imlach’s roster in the wake of their second successive Stanley Cup championship. In 1967, Pappin not only scored the Cup-winning goal against Montreal, he led the league in playoff scoring. After five Leaf seasons, he went to Chicago in the trade that brought Pierre Pilote to Toronto. Pappin played in seven seasons for the Black Hawks, and saw action, too, with California’s Seals and the Barons of Cleveland. 

 

 

wildorness

The stars that shone brightest in Montreal in the 1920s and ‘30s were, of course, Howie Morenz and Aurele Joliat. Their teammate, right winger Wildor Larochelle, did his work lower down in the firmament, garnering fewer headlines: his name was more likely to feature in passing in reports from Forum ice, as it did in Montreal’s Gazette in 1934 when Larochelle got a nod for turning in “his usual hard-skating, hard-working display” in a game against the St. Louis Eagles. 

He did do some first-line service in his time, replacing Johnny Gagnon on the wing with Joliat and Morenz, and scored some goals — his best year in that regard was 1931-32, when he tallied 18 in 48 regular-season games. Born in Sorel, Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1905, Larochelle played parts of 11 seasons with the Canadiens, debuting in 1925 and helping in the effort that brought back-to-back Stanley Cup championships to Montreal in 1930 and ’31. Montreal sold him to the Chicago in 1935. He played parts of two seasons with the Black Hawks before his NHL career came to its end in 1937. 

Reading Room: Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle, and Aurele Joliat in a studious pose circa the 1930s. 

armand mondou, 1934: a trip and a penalty-shot miss

Armand Mondou played on the left wing for the Montreal Canadiens for a dozen NHL seasons from 1928 through to 1940, winning a pair of Stanley Cups along the way, in 1930 and ’31. 

Born in 1905 on a Tuesday of this date in Saint-David-d’Yamaska, Quebec, he was the first NHLer to take a penalty shot after the league added a new rule in 1934, 18 seasons into its early history. It happened on opening night that year, when the Canadiens were playing at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night of Saturday, November 10. In the third period Toronto’s Bill Thoms tripped Georges Mantha of Montreal as he broke in on Leaf goaltender George Hainsworth.

The rules for penalty-shooting were different in those years: ’34 through ’37, the puck was placed in a 10-foot circle located 38 feet from goal, just inside the blueline. As I’ve described before, in this post delineating the history of the penalty shot, the shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, either standing still in the circle and letting loose, or skating at the puck full tilt from farther back. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

That night in 1934, 29-year-old Armand Mondou was standing in on Montreal’s top line for Wildor Larochelle. Mondou had scored just five goals the year before, so it’s a little surprising that Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde picked him to revenge Mantha’s fall, especially since he had a formidable scorer (and future Hall-of-Famer) in Aurèle Joliat on the bench that night. Mondou decided on a speedy approach for the league’s inaugural penalty shot. That’s according to Montreal’s Gazette: “Mondou, with a running start, and his bullet-like slap shot, made the play against Hainsworth.”

Toronto’s hometown Globe had its own view of the same scene: “The fans were quite interested, but Mondou’s shot was a dud. It never left the ice and Hainsworth stopped it with his usual nonchalance.” 

According to the Gazette (interestingly), Hainsworth switched out his regular goaling stick for the penalty shot with “a lighter stick.” I’d like to know more about that, but I’ve yet to see another reference to this specialty tool. 

The Leafs won the game, 2-1. The NHL’s first successful penalty shot came a week later, when Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles put a puck past Alec Connell of the Montreal Maroons. 

mite is right

“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. Howie’s linemates, in fact, were even more diminutive than he was: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, nicknamed the Black Cat for his speed and his coiffure, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”

Widen your eyes, if you would, then, for Gagnon, whose birthday falls today: born in Chicoutimi on a Saturday of this date in 1905, he was a Canadien for ten years through the 1930s, which means that he was in on Montreal’s 1931 Stanley Cup. He also saw duty, briefly, for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Goalswise, he had his best year, notching 20, the season of Morenz’s untimely death, 1936-37. 

Gagnon went on, later, to serve as a scout for the New York Rangers. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.

Back to the ’30s and his gig as a flyweight partner to Howie Morenz. Here’s Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January of 1931 about the Stratford Streak’s wingers and the rivalry (possibly exaggerated) around what they displaced:

Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.

It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.

“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.

 “Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.

So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.

“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.

A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.

“One hundred and thirty-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.

Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the description of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”

In A Minor Key: Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat.

ready eyes ready

Born on a Tuesday of this very date in 1915, Wilbert Hiller was a son of Berlin, Ontario, modern-day Kitchener, where his childhood friends included Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer. Dutch was the nickname Hiller mostly went by in his NHL years, which started in New York with the Rangers in 1937. As a speedy left winger — he was renowned as one of the league’s swiftest skaters — Hiller helped the Rangers win a Stanley Cup championship in 1940. He played for Detroit and Boston before landing in Montreal. He had his best season, in the goals-gathering sense, with the Canadiens, in 1944-45, when he collected 20. He won another Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1946. Hiller sometimes wore his glasses to play, and in 1942, he was the second NHLer to use contact lenses, after Montreal defenceman Tony Graboski. He migrated to California after he retired, where he coached a bit, and worked as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company. His gaze turned again to pucks in 1967, when the Los Angeles Kings joined the NHL, and Hiller worked for the team as a goal judge. Dutch Hiller died at the age of 90 in 2005. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)

réal deal

Born in Timmins, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1932, left winger Réal Chevrefils was briefly a Detroit Red Wing but he spent most of his eight-year NHL career with the Boston Bruins. Goalgetting, his best year was 1956-57, when he scored 31 for the Bruins. Leo Labine was a sometime linemate of his: he called Chevrefils “a finesse hockey player who had the strength and the ability and didn’t give up on the puck.” Here he is in on Black Hawk goaltender Al Rollins at Chicago’s Stadium, on a Friday night, February 27, in 1953, when Rollins shut out the visitors by a score of 3-0. Chevrefils struggled with alcoholism during his career and afterwards. He died in 1981 at the age of 48.

all the roadrunning

A birthday today for former Montreal Canadiens captain Yvan Cournoyer, so here’s to him. Born in Drummmdville, Quebec, on a Monday of this same date in 1943, the man they called The Roadrunner is 77 today.

Cournoyer made his debut with Montreal in 1963 and played a total of 16 seasons on the right wing, winning 10 Stanley Cups along the way. His pile of 863 regular-season points is the sixth-largest in team history, and he scored another 127 in playoff games. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1973 for post-season merit. Cournoyer had begun that season, of course, playing with Team Canada, among whom he was the first member to hug Paul Henderson after he scored that final goal of his in Moscow.

(Image: Antoine Desilets, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

art’s work

Born in Ottawa on this date in 1896 — it was a Monday then, there, too — Art Gagne played the right wing for a parcel of amateur teams in his hometown, Aberdeens, Royal Canadiens, Grand Trunk. That was during the First World War. In 1919, he signed with Quebec in the NHL, though he never turned out for them, heading west, instead, to join the WCHL’s Edmonton Eskimos, where he skated with Joe Simpson, Eddie Shore, and Duke Keats, and played in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1923, when the Eskimos lost to the Ottawa Senators.

As a Canadien in Montreal in the latter ’20s his regular linemates were Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat. Morenz was the tallest of the three at 5’9’’, Joliat and Gagne were both 5’7”. “Joliat and I were good skaters,” he recalled in 1965, “but we could never keep up with Howie. He was a man who flew on skates, and he had to be at top speed to shoot. For a couple of little fellows, we did fairly well. Oh, yes, they treated us rough, but they weren’t dirty to us. We didn’t stand still long enough for them to drive us into the boards.” Of Morenz he remembered that he could shoot a puck through a board; he also said that he and Joliat wore a minimum of pads in their effort to keep up with the Stratford Streak. Gagne’s best goal-getting year in the NHL was 1927-28, when he scored 20 in 44 games. Joliat had 28 that year; Morenz led the league with 33. After three seasons with Montreal, Gagne went to Boston for a year; he also had stints with Ottawa and the Detroit Falcons. Art Gagne died in 1988 at the age of 91.

riverton’s rifle

Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.

With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:

Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?

A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.

When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.

Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.

But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.