“The curly-headed lad from the lakehead has speed, power, and a vicious shot. He revels in the heavy-going and can carry a big load alone when a team is faltering.” That was the Montreal Gazette‘s 1927 scouting report on Jimmy Ward, the young right winger from Fort William, Ontario, who’d just signed with the local Maroons. A steady scorer and tenacious checker, Ward went on to play 11 seasons with the team, becoming one of its most respected players, and winning a championship, to boot, when the Maroons claimed the Stanley Cup in 1935. He suffered a serious concussion that same year after a mid-season collision with Boston’s Eddie Shore. Ward’s luck was better than Toronto’s Ace Bailey, whose NHL career was ended as the result of a 1933 clash with Shore; Ward was back on the ice after a little more than two weeks’ convalescence. After the Maroons folded in 1938, he played his final NHL season with the Canadiens. In the 1980s, Gazette columnist Tim Burke asked a colleague who, as a boy, had watched Ward play whether he was the Bob Gainey of his time. “Yeah, but I think he was better,” Marc Thibeault opined. “He scored more in the clutch.” Ward died on a Thursday of today’s date in 1990, at the age of 84.
Big win for Erik Källgren the other night, great that the 25-year-old Swedish rookie volunteered himself as the missing piece that completes the puzzle that is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltending situation, good night, good luck, see you in the Stanley Cup final.
Too much, too soon? Probably. No sense in getting ahead of ourselves, or the Leafs, maybe let’s just pause in the moment and say that Källgren looked good in his first NHL start as he made 35 saves to secure Toronto’s 4-0 home win over the Dallas Stars, careful, craftful, calm when he needed to be, hasty when haste was called for, agile, pliant, just lucky enough. He shouldn’t have had to explain himself once his work was done, but of course he was asked to, because that’s what TV demands.
“Ah, I mean,” Källgren gamely told TSN’s Mark Masters, “it’s a lot to take in right now, but obviously I’m really happy, and happy for the win, and how the guys played in front of me was unreal. So a lot of emotions right now but of course very happy.”
Gladdening the hearts of fans of historical significance, the NHL was quick to chime in on the evening’s historical resonances. This was the 100th regular-season win of Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe’s tenure, in his 163rd game behind the bench, which makes him the quickest Leaf to that milestone: Pat Quinn and Dick Irvin each took 184 games to reach 100 wins.
The NHL also tagged Källgren’s performance as the fourth in club history in which a Leaf goaltender had earned a shutout in his first game as a starter:
Notable. Sorry to say that that infographic is only partly true. Fans of historical nitpickery soon discovered that, with minimal due diligence. When it comes to Benny Grant, the actual fact of what happened in 1929 is stranger and altogether more interesting than the version the NHL boxed up this week for social media.
Benny Grant hailed from Owen Sound, up on the Georgian Bay shore. In 1927, he helped the Owen Sound Greys win the Memorial Cup, Canada’s junior championship. After a year with Bert Corbeau’s Canadian Professional Hockey League London Panthers, he signed with the Maple Leafs, where Conn Smythe was coach and manager, and another Owen Sounder, Hap Day, was the captain.
Grant was 20 years in the fall of 1928. Not every NHL team employed a back-up goaltender in those years, but Toronto did, maybe because the man slated to start for the Leafs that year was coming off a grievous injury that had almost cost him an eye in the previous spring’s playoffs. After two years with the Rangers, Lorne Chabot, 28, had arrived in Toronto in an exchange that sent John Ross Roach and $10,000 to New York.
Chabot’s health wasn’t a worry, though, as it turned out: he was fine. He ended up playing in every one of the Leafs’ regular-season games that season, along with all four playoff games. When Grant saw action, it was almost always in relief: he appeared in five games through the season (none in the playoffs).
In Chabot’s case, NHL records only have him playing 43 games through the 1928-29 regular season. Most other standard hockey references say the same. (The Society for International Hockey Research, in its wisdom, does credit Chabot with his full and rightful 44 games.)
A sliver of an oversight, yes? Maybe so.
Still, significant enough that it shifts the meaning of the very record that the NHL claimed last night for Benny Grant. The game that Chabot played that the NHL is missing is the one on Saturday, March 9, 1929 — Benny Grant’s first NHL start (against the Detroit Cougars), when he’s supposed to have recorded his first NHL shutout. But Chabot played in that game, too, so he shared in the effort to deny the Detroit Cougars a goal. Benny Grant’s first start, as it turns out, wasn’t quite the same as Erik Källgren’s week: in 1929, Grant had help. Should he get credit for in the record books? It’s not up to me to add or subtract official shutouts, but I will note that the same situation occurred five days later that March, with Chabot and Grant combining to blank the New York Americans, and neither one of them is credited in the official records as having recorded a shutout.
Got that? It’s all very arcane … as statistics are. Here’s where the story of Benny Grant’s NHL debut gets interesting, and a little strange. Unheralded as it is, that night at Toronto’s Arena Gardens is notable for a tactical innovation that Conn Smythe seems to have introduced that night.
Unless, of course, the Leafs were just fooling around, having some fun as the season wound down before the playoffs.
Toronto was in: with just four games remaining in the regular schedule, there was no danger, by then, of the Montreal Maroons catching them in the standings. Toronto’s first-round opponent, in fact, would be the same Detroit Cougars they were meeting on March 9.
Time (I guess) for the Leafs to cut loose, just a little.
As has been noted before, Dick Irvin experimented with the idea of platooning goaltenders when he was coaching the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the NHL’s 1940-41 season. That was in March, too, with the end of the season in sight. Goaltenders worked hard, wore heavy pads, and like everybody else, they tired: why not, Irvin wondered, dress a pair of goaltenders and shift them on and off just like regular skaters?
“If we’d had an extra goalie,” he mused after a Canadiens loss in New York to the Rangers, “we might have used him along with the regular goalie in an effort to improve the situation. Those Rangers really were boring in and sure kept little Wilf Cude busy.”
Later that month, in Montreal’s final regular-season game, Irvin gave it a go. With the New York Americans visiting the Forum, Bert Gardiner started the game in the Canadiens’ net, with Paul Bibeault replacing him halfway through. The experiment was a success, I suppose, unless you’re a stickler for stats: though Montreal won 6-0, the NHL seems to have been unable to compute the shared shutout, so while Gardiner got the win, neither goaltender was credited with a shutout.
Twelve years earlier, lining up against Detroit in March of 1929, Conn Smythe’s version of doubling up his goaltenders added a fun twist — he “introduced another of his popular innovations,” as the Toronto Daily Star framed it. With a line-up of 12 players at his disposal, Smythe “used two complete teams and changed them completely every five minutes. The teams were known as the married men’s team and the single men’s team ….”
Bachelor Benny Grant got the start: he and Phyllis Banks wouldn’t marry until 1934. In front of him Grant had Hap Day and Red Horner on defence and a front line of Danny Cox, Andy Blair, and Ace Bailey. Marital status wasn’t so strictly enforced: Cox was married, while in the connubial substitute line-up of Chabot in goal, Arts Duncan and Smith on d, and Shorty Horne, Baldy Cotton, and Eric Pettinger at forward, Smith and Horne were single men. (Chabot, for the record, had married Elizabeth Money in 1927.)
Again, the two shifts operated as complete units: “When substitutions were made,” the Globe noted, “all six players left the ice and the other six replaced them.”
According to the Star, the Leafs made it even more interesting for themselves. “It was agreed before the game that the squad scoring [sic] most goals should be provided with new hats and it remained for a married man to help out the single men’s cause as Danny Cox, assisted by Andy Blair, got two of the goals. The other one, secured for the married men, went to Shorty Horne, with an assist from Harold Cotton.
And so the Leafs prevailed, 3-0. Grant had relieved Chabot earlier in the season in a game in New York against the Americans, but this was his first outing on Toronto ice. “He upheld his end nobly,” the Star judged. “As a matter of fact he had a great deal more work to do than Chabot, the regular goalie.”
So much so, it seems, that Chabot’s contribution was ignored entirely by whoever was keeping records for the NHL. To this date, while the official online boxscore includes Chabot in Toronto’s line-up, it credits Grant with having played all 60 minutes of the game and collecting the win and the shutout.
What happened? Who knows. With the goaltenders switching out every five minutes, maybe it was just too much bother to keep track of them on the night. Even so, Chabot does deserve credit for his involvement in the game and (I’d argue) a share of the shutout that’s on Benny Grant’s record.
Chabot and Grant continued to share Toronto’s net for the rest of the regular season: in all three of Toronto’s three remaining games, Smythe used both goaltenders as the Leafs went 1-2 to finish the season, though it doesn’t seem that Smythe shifted his netminders quite so aggressively in these games. Records for all three of these games reflect the participation of both, even if (as mentioned) the shutout Grant and Chabot crafted in the penultimate game, a 5-0 home win over the Americans, was credited to neither man.
Former Toronto owner/coach/manager Charlie Querrie was writing a popular column in the Star in 1929. As he saw it, Smythe’s hasty goaling shifts were all for the show. “It is hard to create excitement,” he wrote, “with nothing at stake, but the Leafs did all they could to please the spectators, and the evening was worthwhile. It showed that the Leafs have plenty of good material and a round dozen players who can give a good account of themselves.”
As for the hats, the Globe’s Bert Perry delivered the goods on those. “The Maple Leafs will flash some Easter millinery this week,” he duly reported on the Monday following the Detroit win. That is, all the players got new hats, courtesy of management. “Ace Bailey,” he jibed, “will now be able to turn in his 1925 model for something modern.” The deal, Perry said, was that if the Leafs had lost to Detroit, the players would have been buying headgear for the team’s directors.
“Despite their recent successes,” Perry concluded, “the hat sizes of the Leafs have not changed since last fall. A more unassuming aggregation of athletes would be hard to find.”
Born in Toronto on a Friday of this date in 1900, the tiny-handed man they called Shrimp played 12 NHL seasons, most of those for the Americans. He won a Hart Trophy in 1929, finishing ahead of Toronto’s Ace Bailey and Boston’s Eddie Shore, and collected a Vézina for his miniature efforts in 1931. He never won a Stanley Cup. Worters died in 1957 at age 57. He was voted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1969.
“I can’t talk about it,” said Cecil Hart, coach of the Canadiens. “It is terrible — a thunderbolt.”
It was 84 years ago, late on another Monday night of this date, that the great Howie Morenz died at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc of complications after he fractured his left leg in an accident at the Forum in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of January. He was 34.
Funeral services were held at the Forum three days later. Ten thousand mourners were on hand in the arena, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 thronged the route as the cortege made its way to Mount Royal Cemetery for the burial.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, March 9, Morenz’s teammates somehow managed to get through their scheduled game against the Montreal Maroons. (The Maroons prevailed by a score of 4-1.) Aurèle Joliat, Morenz’s loyal left winger and his fast friend, was out of the line-up on the night with a leg injury, but he was back for Montreal’s Saturday-night meeting with the New York Rangers, wherein Canadiens prevailed 1-0 on a goal from Morenz’s long-time right winger, Johnny Gagnon.
That’s the night that the photograph above may well have been posed, showing Joliat and coach Hart gazing on Morenz’s forlorn gear. “The wait is in vain, the Meteor is extinguished,” read the caption above a version that ran on the Sunday in Le Petit Journal.
Leo Dandurand would tell the story that he’d been the one to put the 7 on Morenz’s sweater back when the Stratford Streak first signed on to play with Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. “Remembering that Morenz’ contract was dated July 7, 1923 (which was also my birthday),” the Montreal owner, manager, and sometime coach later wrote, “I assigned him sweater number seven the first day he reported to Canadiens.”
A whole constellation of early Canadiens stars had worn the number seven going back to the beginnings of the team in 1910, including Jack Laviolette, Jimmy Gardner, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Malone, Howard McNamara, and (the last before Morenz) Odie Cleghorn.
When Morenz departed Montreal for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934, Dandurand declared that no other Canadien would wear the number again. As Dandurand told it in 1953, he meant forever, though at least one contemporary newspaper account from the fall of ’34 suggests that the understanding at the time was that it would go unworn as long as Morenz continued playing in the NHL. Either way, by various accounts, sweater number seven remained hanging in the Montreal dressing room for the duration of Morenz’s two-year odyssey to Chicago (where he wore number 3) and then New York (where he was 12).
He reclaimed it when he (and Cecil Hart) rejoined Montreal in the fall of 1936. When he was injured in January, it returned to its hook when he departed the Forum on his way to hospital.
In the wake of his death, Canadiens immediately declared that his number would be worn no more, making Montreal’s seven the third NHL number to be retired, after Ace Bailey’s Toronto six and Lionel Hitchman’s Boston three, both of which were so honoured in the same week (Bailey first) in February of 1934.
In November of 1937, Canadiens did amend their numerical position, slightly, making clear that when Howie Morenz Jr. ascended to play for the team, he would inherit his father’s number.
Howie Jr. had celebrated his tenth birthday that year. He did, it’s true, show promise as a centerman in later years, skating with the Montreal Junior Canadiens as well as the USHL Dallas Texans before a degenerative eye condition put an effective end to his chances of reaching the NHL.
November of ’37 saw the NHL stage the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at the Forum. A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team combing Maroons and Canadiens by a score of 6-5 in front of a crowd of 8,683 fans. Some $20,000 was raised on the night for the Morenz family. Former Canadiens owner (and goaltender) Joe Cattarinich paid $500 for the Morenz’ equipment and sweater, which he then handed over to Howie Jr.
The program for that Memorial evening included this photograph, included here, above, purported to be the only one in existence to have caught Morenz from the back while he wore his celebrated seven. It’s a good image, even if it isn’t, in fact, so very exclusive — I’ve seen Morenz showing his back in other photographs going back to the ’20s.
“They are stepping along nicely,” Al Pudas said that day, having put his team though their paces ahead of their opening game. It was 1936, February. The 36-year-old coach was confident. “This is the strongest club I’ve ever had,” he said.
Spoiler alert: Pudas, who died on a Thursday of this date in 1976 at the age of 77, didn’t get the gold medal he, his team, and all of Canada was expecting. Maybe you know the story of the ’36 Olympics, which were in Germany, and how they ended Canada’s golden hockey streak. There’s more on that, here and here, if you’re interested. What we’ll say here is that to that point, teams sporting the maple leaf on their sweaters hadn’t lost a game let alone a gold medal in four Olympics, going back to Antwerp in 1920. Also, this: the fact the fact that the ’36 team could only manage silver wasn’t really Pudas’ fault.
Before he was a coach, Pudas was a referee. Before that he played, mainly on the wing. He did most of his skating in the ’20s, for teams in Port Arthur, though the fact that he was summoned in late 1926 to the NHL means that he was the league’s very first Finnish-born player: born in Siikajoki in Finland in 1899, Pudas had emigrated to Canada with his family before he turned two.
Pudas was playing right wing for the Windsor Hornets of the Canadian Professional Hockey League in December of 1926 when the Toronto St. Patricks signed him. They brought in left winger Butch Keeling at the same time. Both made their debut in a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins at Toronto’s Arena Gardens. Pudas wore number 14 during his short stay with Toronto, which lasted just four games. By mid-January of 1927 he was back in the Can-Am with Windsor, which means that he was only almost a Maple Leaf: it would be another month before Conn Smythe and his partners swooped in to acquire the team and switch the team’s identity almost overnight.
In any other October, the NHL season would be just getting going instead of settling into the off-season … but then this is 2020, and everything’s bent out of shape. In 1928, when the NHL didn’t drop the puck on the new season until mid-November, October was the month teams stretched themselves in playing form. The Toronto Maple Leafs migrated to Port Elgin, on the Lake Huron shore, to get themselves readied in those years, as I wrote about once here and in the pages of The Globe and Mail. Taking charge of the team’s fitness regime that years as well as several subsequent others was Corporal Joe Coyne of the Royal Canadian Regiment, seen here standing over his Leaf charges. They are, starting in front, from the left: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Second row: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Art Smith. Third: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Gerry Lowrey. At the back: Alex Gray and Danny Cox.
Born in 1903 on a Friday of this date in Bracebridge, Ontario, Ace Bailey only ever played for Toronto during his short NHL career. He debuted with the St. Patricks in 1926, the year they transformed into Maple Leafs, and played seven further seasons after that, on the right wing. He was speedy, and prone to scoring, leading the league in goals and points in 1928-29, and notching the goal, in 1932, that won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. His career came an end when he was 30 years old, one December night in 1933, after Eddie Shore of the Bruins blindsided him at the Boston Garden. His head hit the ice hard; a doctor at the scene diagnosed a lacerated brain. Two subsequent surgeries saved his life. “It’s all in the game, Eddie,” is what he’s supposed to have told Shore at the rink when the Boston defenceman apologized for knocking him down. After he didn’t die, when he’d recovered enough to never play hockey ever again, Bailey went on to coach the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues men’s hockey team. Later, he worked as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens. His number, 6, was the first in NHL history to be retired. Inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1975, Ace Bailey died in 1992. He was 88.
Hockey history remembers him by his nickname, Flash, but he was Frank William Hollett — or just Bill — from his earliest days, which got underway on a Thursday of this date in 1911 in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Hollett later recalled learning to skate on the local harbour ice in Cape Breton. His father, Frederick Hollett, was a fisherman who died of Spanish flu in another pandemic, whereupon his mother, Lena, moved her six children to Toronto’s west end.
In 1932, as a 21-year-old, Hollett signed to play professional lacrosse for the ball-slinging version of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a new league that collapsed before a single game was played. He made his debut with the puck-slapping Leafs a year later, when he was called up to replace a suspended Red Horner in the grim aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending injury. Hollett notched a goal and an assist in his debut, and after spending the following year on loan to the Ottawa Senators, returned to the lead the Leaf backline in scoring in 1934-35, a year in which only Boston veteran Eddie Shore had more points among NHL defencemen.
When Hollett started slowly the next season out, chief Leaf and affirmed knave Conn Smythe blamed it on Hollett’s having married over the summer. A contract dispute and a wrist injury didn’t help Smythe’s view of his young defenceman, and in early 1936 the Leafs sold Hollett to the Boston Bruins for $16,000.
A “brilliant young player,” the Boston Globe crowed, by way of introducing Hollett to Bruins’ fans, “who, by his color, has earned the nicknames of ‘Flash,’ ‘Headline,’ and ‘Busher,’ but prefers ‘Flash’ himself.” He played nine seasons with Boston, piling up the points along the way. The two Stanley Cups he helped the Bruins win included the 1939 edition, when Hollett scored the final goal of the series that saw his new team defeat his old, the Maple Leafs. In 1941-42, Hollett set a new NHL record for goals by a defenceman when he scored 19, surpassing the 18 Harry Cameron had registered two years running for the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21 and ’21-22.
Hollett scored 19 again the following year before getting to 20 in 1944-45. That record stood for 24 years: no defenceman scored more in a season until Boston’s Bobby Orr got 21 in 1968-69. That record-breaking year, ’44-45, Hollett was playing for Detroit, where he captained the team and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team. After retiring at 35 from the NHL in 1946, he returned to the ice as an amateur, joining the OHA senior Toronto Marlboros, with whom he’d win an Allan Cup national championship in 1950. Flash Hollett did this month in 1999. He was 88.
(Top image: © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography. Photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved. Bottom: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
It was 86 years ago last night that a combination of NHL all-stars met the Toronto Maple Leafs in a benefit game in aid of Leafs’ right winger Ace Bailey, who’d nearly lost his life the previous December. Often identified the NHL’s very first All-Star game, it wasn’t. Pictured here, three of the NHLers: that’s Larry Aurie of the Detroit Red Wings with the puck, looking up ice while Chicago Black Hawks’ goaltender Charlie Gardiner observes. Behind the net? Looks like Red Dutton of the New York Americans to me.
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 32489)
On a Wednesday of this very date in 1934, an aggregation of NHL all-stars took on Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens in a benefit for and tribute to Leaf right winger Ace Bailey. Bailey, of course, was grievously injured, and his career ended, the previous December when Boston defenceman Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice in a fit of pique. Before the Leafs got around to beating the All-Stars by a score of 7-3, Bailey dropped a ceremonial puck, above, with the Leafs’ Joe Primeau (left) and Montreal’s Howie Morenz standing in. The referee is Mike Rodden. Shore played on the All-Star defence. Before the game he and Bailey met at centre ice as the crowd of 14, 074 cheered. “Shore leaned over and whispered to Bailey as the two clasped hands,” a witness noted. “Bailey was smiling.” Then he presented his attacker with a commemorative windbreaker from Eaton’s and a gold medal. The gate for the game, and for Bailey: $20,909.40, about $396,000 in today’s dollars.
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 32487)
Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, on this date in 1894 — it was a Friday there, then — Bertram Orion Corbeau was better known in his hockey-playing years as just plain Bert, as well as by his distinctive nickname: Pig Iron. His mother was Fanny; his father, Francois, made a busy living as a carriage-maker, undertaker, and furniture-store owner, and later, in the 1920s, served as mayor of Penetanguishene. A defenceman whose adjectives included sturdy (1916), husky, and blond backwoodsman (both dating to 1917), Bert Corbeau signed with the NHA Canadiens in 1914, helping Montreal win a Stanley Cup in ’16. He worked the Canadiens’ blueline in the team’s earliest NHL years, before Montreal sold him to the Hamilton Tigers ahead of the 1922-23 season. Traded the following year to the St. Patricks, he played his final four NHL seasons in Toronto. It’s a dubious distinction, but noteworthy all the same: in 1925-26 he became the first player in NHL history to amass more than 100 penalty minutes in a single season (he finished with 125 that year, just ahead of Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons, who had 121.)
Corbeau went on to serve as an NHL referee and, subsequently, as a minor-league coach in Ontario and with Atlantic City of the Eastern U.S. Hockey League. Bert Corbeau drowned at the age of 48 in September of 1942 when the 75-foot launch he owned and was piloting in the waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron capsized. Vern DeGeer remembered him in the pages of The Globe and Mail the day after the shocking accident, in which a total of 25 men died. “Although the barrel-chested, sandy-haired son of Penetanguishene was one of the roughest and toughest of the men of iron that jolted and jarred their way through major pro puck competition in the gory era of the sport,” DeGeer wrote, “Corbeau was a thoroughbred campaigner. Friend and foe respected the raw courage of the man.”
Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.
That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.
Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.
Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:
This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.
Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary, Ev Marshall, donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.
Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.
We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.
“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”
If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.
I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.
It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.
All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.
Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”
Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.
The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.
Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.
Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.
No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”
By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.