black friday, 1931: the leafs fire a flying ace

Conn and Coach: Managing director and all-round Leaf overlord  Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs’ coach Dick Irvin. Irvin steered Toronto to a Stanley Cup in his first year with the team, and took them to six more Finals thereafter. In his nine seasons with the Leafs, his teams never missed the playoffs . (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

“Personal relations between Art Duncan and myself are of the best,” Toronto Maple Leafs managing director Conn Smythe was saying 89 years ago today, on another Friday of this same date, stepping up to announce his utmost and ongoing confidence in his coach. “I cannot speak too highly in praise of Mr. Duncan’s attitude since he has had the team.”

Actually, no, sorry, my mistake: fond as that speech sounds, Smythe was in fact firingthe man who’d been guiding his hockey team for just over a year. Five games into the new season, with the Leafs mired at the foot of the NHL’s four-team Canadian Section on a record of three losses and two overtime ties, Smythe had decided that Dick Irvin was the change that the Leafs needed.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Art Duncan had turned 40 in the summer of 1931. He was already a veteran defenceman when he came to the Leafs in 1927. A trade brought him in from the Detroit Cougars, with whom he’d served as playing coach before ceding the bench to Jack Adams.

Having headed up the syndicate that bought the Toronto franchise earlier in ’27, Conn Smythe would soon take over as manager and coach of the team, too. In 1930, after three years of guiding the team, Smythe decided that the time had come for him to fix his attention on getting a new arena built. Smythe had hoped that Frank Nighbor would succeed him, but when he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Pembroke Peach, he handed the job to Duncan.

This wasn’t Duncan’s first stint playing big-league hockey in Toronto: a decade earlier, during the First World War, he’d enlisted in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and played for the 228th Battalion team during its brief tenure in the pre-NHL NHA.

After the 228th cut short its season in 1917 to deploy to France, Duncan transferred to Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, as a lieutenant flying an S.E.5a fighter over Belgium and northern France, he was credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. For “continuous gallantry and initiative,” Duncan was awarded the Military Cross and bar.

By the fall of ’31, Conn Smythe had done what he’d set out to: on November 12 that year, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in a blaze of pomp and ceremony. The Leafs couldn’t contribute a win to the festivities. Two weeks later, they still didn’t have one to their name.

Duncan’s last game in charge saw Toronto fall in Montreal, 3-2 to the Canadiens, on the night of Thursday, November 26. When he was fired next day, he had coached the Leafs in 47 regular-season games — the same number, as it happens, that the present coach, Sheldon Keefe, has overseen to date. (Keefe’s winning percentage stands at .400 to Duncan’s .250.)

Several reports of Duncan’s dismissal noted that he would remain on the Toronto payroll, though that doesn’t seem to have worked out over the longer term. In February of 1932, news reached the popular press that Duncan was suing the Leafs for several thousand dollars in pay, claiming wrongful dismissal and breach of contract. (I haven’t been able to determine how that was resolved, or wasn’t.)

Dick Irvin, who was 39, had also served with the CEF, with the Fort Garry Horse. He was already a veteran star of the Western Canadian Hockey League when he joined the expansion Chicago Black Hawks in 1926, becoming the team’s first captain.

After a fractured skull put an end to his playing career in 1929, he took over as coach the team. He didn’t last, but then not many coaches did, for long, in those torrid years when Major Frederic McLaughlin was the owner in Chicago.

After just a year-and-a-half on the job — and having beaten the Leafs on the way to the 1931 Stanley Cup final, where Chicago lost to Montreal — Irvin resigned his post with the Black Hawks in September of ’31.

He was back home in Regina in mid-November as the rumours circulated that he might be convinced to return to the Black Hawks. Smythe, though, was persuasive enough over the telephone from Toronto that Irvin decided his future lay in Toronto.

He wasn’t on hand to get it started right away, as it turned out. With the new coach en route from Saskatchewan, and not due to arrive on in Toronto until the following Monday, Conn Smythe stepped in to take command of the Leafs that Saturday, 89 years ago tomorrow.

He did fine, steering Toronto to a 6-5 decision over the Boston Bruins — the Leafs’ very first victory in their new building. Andy Blair scored the overtime winner.

Dick Irvin’s first game in charge was at the Gardens on Tuesday, December 1, when another overtime failed to unlock a 2-2 tie between Toronto and the New York Americans. It was another two games before the new coach got his first Leafly victory, a 4-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.

Things got better and better from there, to the extent that in April of 1932, Irvin’s Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.

Fly Guy: Art Duncan depicted by Jimmy Thompson in 1930, his first year as Leaf coach.

reg noble: fastest on the ice, and a very hard man to relieve of the puck

Noble Oblige: Reg Noble strikes a pose in the late 1920s, when he turned out, and captained, the Detroit Cougars.

Here’s a story, for Reg Noble’s birthday — well about Reg Noble, the day after his birthday, which was yesterday. June 23 was a Tuesday in 1896, in Collingwood, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay, which is where was Noble was born 124 years ago. If you’re vague on Reg Noble details, here are a few of his hockey specs: he was very good, possessed of a wicked shot, a forward at first, then later a defenceman, played for the old Toronto Blueshirts and the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, the final year of the old National Hockey Association.

The following year, 1918, when the NHA was supplanted by the brand new National Hockey League, Noble signed with Toronto, whom he duly helped to win the Stanley Cup. He stayed with Toronto on into the 1920s, playing and captaining and even coaching the team as they turned into the St. Patricks, and winning still another Stanley Cup in 1922. The St. Pats eventually sold him to the Montreal Maroons, and he won yet another Cup with them, in 1926, before joining Detroit’s original NHL team, the Cougars, in 1927. That’s their livery he’s wearing in the photograph here, posing on a wintry tennis court colonized by the Cougars for a team practice and photo session.

Noble captained the team in Detroit for three seasons, and played on when they shifted identifies, from Cougars to Falcons. He was still there in 1932 when the team re-launched as Red Wings, though not for long: Detroit released him early in the season. He had one final whirl later that year when he returned to the Maroons, by which time his was the distinction, at age 36, of being the very last player from the league’s inaugural season to still be skating on NHL ice.

Noble was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 — a few months after his death, as it happens, at the age of 65.

And the story? It’s a wartime tale, going back before the NHL, in 1916, when Noble did what many young men were doing in the torrid time: he went to war.

He tried to, at least. Unlike Red Dutton and Joe Simpson and several other of his fellow Hall-of-Famers, Noble never made it overseas much less into the frightful fight of the Western Front.

As much as he might have wished to serve, he was ruled out and discharged before he got the chance. Hockey had rendered him unsuitable.

Noble was 19 in the winter in which 1915 turned to 1916. He was playing with Toronto Riversides that winter, as rover on the seven-aside team that won the OHA Senior championship that wartime winter. When the team’s regular season came to a close at the end of January, Noble was featuring prominently in a 4-0 victory over a military team, the 40th Battery. “Noble, as usual, was the fastest man on the ice,” the Globe reported, “and some of his rushes bordered on the sensational. He is a very hard man to relieve of the puck and is learning every game how to go in on a defence.”

Six days later, Noble joined up, presenting himself at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on the Exhibition grounds. His attestation papers from that day tell the tale, and show his orderly signature as he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, promising to fight all HM’s enemies and obey all of his orders, as well as those of all his Generals and Officers, so help him God.

Noble was measured for height (he was 5’8”) and girth of chest (40”), and the locales of his five scars noted down: three on a shin, one each on a foot and a knee. His complexion was deemed fair, his eyes blue. A Captain Barton was in charge of this medical examination, declaring Noble fitfor duty with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

That was just the beginning of Noble’s busy Saturday. That same evening, he lined up with his fellow Riversides to see to beating Toronto R and AA by a score of 7-2 in a playoff game at the Arena on Mutual Street. By midnight, Noble was home and suffering, not so fit as he’d been earlier: “he was in bed,” according to a subsequent report, “with a raging fever and a beautiful attack of la grippe.”

The battalion that Noble joined was a newborn unit, the 180th, formed in Toronto in January of ’16 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Greer, a prominent Crown Attorney who’d been a distinguished athlete in his own right in his University of Toronto days. “Pals” battalions had been common in the British Army since the start of the war, whereby men with common backgrounds — friends or neighbours or co-workers — enlisted to serve together. Conceived as a Sportsmen’s battalion, the 180th was one of the first units in Canada to follow that lead.

It did a roaring business filling its ranks that winter. Football players, scullers, boxers, and runners flocked to attest their willingness to serve in the early days of February. The famous Mohawk marathoner Tom Longboat, made on his way on foot from Brantford to Toronto to join up. Tommy Daly volunteered for the 180th, too, the well-known Toronto boxer who was also making a reputation as a baseball and hockey trainer — and who, post-war, having shifted his name to Tim, served for decades in that role for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lou Marsh, who’d played football for the Argonauts and wrote sports for the Toronto Daily Star was a lieutenant in the 180th as well as keeping up a busy schedule as a boxing and hockey referee. He was on the ice the night Reg Noble enlisted, in fact, whistling the game between Riversides and Toronto R and AA. Noble, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only hockey player bound for the ranks of the 180th: a report from a few days later made clear that the team’s entire line-up was joining up, the coach, too, Bonny Gard, who said “he might as well go along with them in France as stay at home here and be lonesome.” (With another month of the season still to play, possibly, Colonel Greer graciously agreed to make sure that the Riverside recruits would be granted leave for all and any games.)

Later that same week, on February 14, a recruiting jamboree for the 180th filled Massey Hall. “Half a dozen boxers, recently enlisted, gave sparring exhibitions, enlisted bike riders raced on rollers, and there was a long program free to members of athletic clubs,” a dispatch in the Montreal Gazette affirmed. “Massey Hall was packed to the roof with the flower of the Queen City’s athletes.”

In two hours, the 180th had signed up 325 new recruits, breaking, it was reported, “all Canadian recruiting records.”

At strength, the battalion eventually counted 31 officers and 833 other ranks. They spent the spring and summer training as infantry at Toronto’s Exhibition Camp. There was time for some hockey, too, before the ice thawed out for the season. In March, a few days after Noble and the Riversides wrapped up the OHA Senior championship over a Berlin, Ontario, team anchored in goal George Hainsworth, the 180th’s hockey team took on the 93rd Battalion from Peterborough in a St. Patrick’s Game at the Mutual Street Arena.

Reg Noble skated in that game, at rover, and he was judged to be the best player on the ice. He had a couple of teammates with OHA Senior experience skating with him, but they couldn’t overcome the 93rd squad, who’d played the season on the OHA’s Intermediate loop. The visitors ended up winning by a score of 2-1. Between the first and second periods, a speedy local skater named Fred Robson scampered (unofficially) 50 yards in just under the world’s record time of five seconds. In the second intermission, he returned to entertain the crowd with a barrel-jumping show.

Noble still had more hockey to play before he fully devoted himself to soldiering. Though Riversides opted out of heading west to Winnipeg to play for the Allan Cup, the national Senior championship, they did play several exhibitions late in March. Facing Dick Irvin’s visiting Winnipeg Monarchs at the Arena, the Riversides prevailed 8-7, with Noble playing a starring role that included scoring a goal while (the Daily Star related) “practically standing on his ear and with four Monarchs glued to him.” (The team that did win the Allan Cup, by the by, was Joe Simpson’s 61st Battalion from Winnipeg.)

At some point, with hockey having reached its seasonal end, the sporting soldiers of the 180th moved north out of Toronto to continue their training at Camp Borden, southwest of Barrie, where as many as 25,000 soldiers were under canvas that summer. When they weren’t learning infantry tactics and how to use their weapons, the men of the 180th boxed and raced and hit baseballs whenever the opportunity arose. In July, they helped build an in-camp stadium with seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

“Good athletes do not always make good soldiers,” a column in The Windsor Star warned around this time, noting that Lieut.-Colonel Greer had been forced to make some hard choices as the summer went on. “Much to the colonel’s surprise, he has been compelled to drop several champions from the ranks because they could not stand the wear and tear of a hard route march.” Names were named: Erme Woods, “the well-known distance runner” was ousted along with a couple of accomplished boxers who couldn’t keep up.

“Colonel Greer is handling his battalion just as he would [a] baseball team,” the Star said, “and is rapidly getting rid of the ‘dead-wood.’ He wants only the best, and it is his determination to make the 180th battalion second to none.”

He must have pleased when, in August, the Sportsmen dominated the 4th Brigade athletic meet, showing particularly well in the mile-run, the 16-pound shot put, and the tug of war. The Sportsmen didn’t fare so well in the bayonet-fighting contest, which they lost by a score of 5-3 to the 147th (Grey) Battalion from Owen Sound.

No Noble: Bidding farewell to Toronto in November of 1916, the men of the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion prepare to leave Union Station on their way to Halifax and, from there, the war in France. Reg Noble had already been discharged by this point. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 821)

In September the battalion got its notice from Ottawa to be ready to ship out — the 180th was  “warned for overseas,” in the parlance. In fact, it would be November before they made their move by train to Halifax. From there, they crossed the Atlantic to England in four days aboard the Olympic.

Many of the men would see action — some would die — the following year in the harrowing battles around Vimy Ridge in northern France. But the 180th was no longer, by then, a unit. In January of 1917, the battalion was absorbed into the 3rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, from which the men were assigned to other battalions in need of reinforcement.

The Leafs’ trainer-to-be got to England, where Private Tommy Daly served as Colonel Greer’s orderly — his servant, basically — before being invalided home and discharged from the CEF because of a wonky right shoulder. Daly had hurt it in February of 1916, not a month after enlisting. “Injured slightly while boxing,” his medical records testify, “Feb. 21/16, and has had pain since then.”

Private Reg Noble’s story was a little different: he never even made it to the wharf in Halifax. Declared “Medically Unfit,” Noble departed Camp Borden, the battalion, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force in one fell swoop at the end of September of 1916, a victim of — well, I guess in Colonel Greer’s way of seeing things, he was surplus to the battalion’s second-to-none purposes.

Noble may have had an 18-year NHL career ahead of him but that fall, as it turns out, he just couldn’t march the way soldiers of the infantry are meant to march.

An old hockey injury was to blame. Or maybe newer baseball damage? Contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that he hurt an ankle playing ball at Borden in the summer of 1916 and that the injury was not only serious enough to see him mustered out of uniform, it looked like it might keep him off skates, too.

That could well have been the case but if so, it doesn’t happen to have been entered as the official reason for Noble’s military career coming to its end.

As detailed in Noble’s CEF discharge papers, one of the scars that Captain Barton had marked down when Noble attested in February, the one on the instep of his right foot, commemorated a cut from a skate he’d suffered in 1914 playing hockey back home in Collingwood. The blade had gone deep, enough to cut the tendon and immobilize his big toe.

The 180th’s Medical Officer, Captain Brown, wrote it up. “Can follow the marching under difficulty but has to have frequent periods of light duty,” he noted. “Sent him to hospital where they could do nothing for the condition.”

On a second page, Captain Brown gave his own interpretation of Noble’s scar status — unless Noble had acquired a new configuration in a summer of mishaps? Now, instead of 3 shin scars and one apiece on a foot and a knee, he was credited with

Scar on palm of left hand. Scar on right foot. Bullet scar on right leg.

Farther down the page, in answer to the military form question What is the probable duration of the disability?Captain Brown wrote “Permanent.”

Next question: To what extent will it prevent a full livelihood in the general labour market? Please state in fractions. Captain Brown’s answer: “Will not prevent his earning full livelihood more than before enlisting.”

True enough. By mid-November, as Noble’s former brothers in arms set sail, the word from Toronto was that Eddie Livingstone, wildcard owner of the local NHA Blueshirts, had signed Noble to his first pro contract.

And so, in the winter he didn’t go to war, Noble lined up for a team that included Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Duke Keats. He made a quick impression, and a good one. The Blueshirts started the season in Montreal by beating Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions, by a score of 7-1. Noble didn’t score, but neither did he seem to show any signs of a tender ankle or instep. “He checked [Didier] Pitre, the Canadien star forward,” Toronto’s Daily Star noted, “and smothered him throughout the game. … His rushes were effective, too, and he had speed to burn.”

Reg Noble scored his first pro goal, and his second, in Toronto’s next game, back at the Mutual Street Arena, when the Blueshirts did away with the Quebec Bulldogs by a score of 8-5.

The Blueshirts didn’t last out the season: early in 1917, when the team from the 228th Battalion famously left the NHA in a whole lot of hurry, the league decided to eject Toronto, too, mostly because they didn’t want to deal with owner Eddie Livingstone any longer. That’s when Noble made the switch to Montreal, seeing out the ’16-17 season with Canadiens.

That fall, of course, the NHA collapsed and the NHL arose all on the same day, in Montreal, mostly, again, to stymie Livingstone. Toronto launched a whole new team that year, and Reg Noble was one of the players they signed up. That’s how, in December of 1917, he was on the ice to score an Auston Matthewsesque four goals in his and his team’s National Hockey League debut, as they started out on their way to winning the franchise’s very first Stanley Cup.

For a panoramic view of the many men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, proudly paraded in April of 1916 at Toronto’s east-end Riverdale Park, click over this way, then click again to zoom in. Reg Noble is in there somewhere, along with the man-who-would-be-Tim-Daly, long-serving Maple Leafs trainer. Let me know if you find them. Look beyond the soldiers, too, over to the right: those are hockey rinks coming down for the season, aren’t they?

duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

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

23-4-4-228th-battalion-1917-o-h-a-jr-hockey-team

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)