headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

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No-one was spotting for concussions when the NHL first skated into being a hundred years ago: that’s not how hockey worked in 1917. But just because nobody was keeping track back then doesn’t mean that hockey-player brains weren’t being jarred with as frightening a regularity then as now. Hockey history doesn’t have much to say about early head injuries, beyond a few, famous, frightening incidents, like the night in 1933 that Toronto’s Ace Bailey nearly lost his life. For all we’ve read about the NHL’s inaugural two games on December 19, 1917, and about the first goal scored in league history (Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers got it), have you ever seen a reference to the league’s maiden concussion? I wondered about that, and about who might have been first. As I wrote for The Toronto Star over the weekend — the article’s online here — the best evidence we have points to Harry Hyland’s head. The Wanderers’ winger scored the NHL’s first hattrick that night, and ended up with a total of five goals in Montreal’s 10-9 win over Toronto. But the puck wasn’t going his way all night, as it happened: late in the game the Montreal-born future-Hall-of-Famer would also feel its bite.

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The Toronto St. Patricks team up in 1926-27, the season they turned into the Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: coach (short-lived) Mike Rodden, unknown. Middle: Bert McCaffrey, Ace Bailey, Bill Brydge, Danny Cox, coach and manager Charlie Querrie, John Ross Roach, Butch Keeling, trainer Tim Daly, unknown. Front: Bill Carson, Carl Voss, Hap Day, Bert Corbeau, Corb Denneny, Leo Bourgeault.

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

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Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967—that, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, and (almost certainly) many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

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Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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leaflet: george patterson scores a goal

g-pattersonWho scored the first Leaf goal? If you answered Tyler Bozak, well, yes, true enough, last night against the Florida Panthers he did do just that — but what about the first goal ever by a Leaf? Not this month, not this season — we’re talking here about 1927, when Conn Smythe and friends bought the team mid-season, transforming the club from one February day to the next from the St. Patricks they were to Maple Leafs we know today. If the name George Patterson doesn’t leap to mind — well, exactly.

Let’s review: the St. Patricks were 30 games into their 44-game schedule in mid-February of 1927 when Smythe did the deal that changed the complexion of hockey in Toronto. The Irish, as they were sometimes called, went to Detroit for their final game, which they lost by a score of 5-1 to the (pre-Red Wing) Cougars. It wasn’t much to see, judging by contemporary dispatches. Corb Denneny scored the St. Pats’ goal that night, the last in their history, in what sounds like an all-around dismal showing by both teams.

Other Toronto high(ish)lights: (1) Ace Bailey’s ongoing feud with Detroit’s Duke Keats was finally broken up by policemen on the penalty bench and (2) a winger by the name of George Patterson almost scored on a long shot at Cougar goalkeep Herb Stuart before stickhandling through to very nearly score another.

If Bailey remains a Maple Leaf legend, the same can’t be said of Patterson. Kingston, Ontario filmmaker Dale Morrisey is looking to change that with a new documentary, Hockey’s Lost Boy, which is just now making its way into wide release.

Patterson, who was 20 that winter and a Kingston boy himself, was in the first year of what would turn out to be a modest if incident-filled NHL career. His main claim on fame came two days after that dismal loss in Detroit when the newly minted Maple Leafs stepped out on home ice to take on the New York Americans.

In new duds, The Toronto Daily Star’s Bob Hayes wrote, “they looked like a lot of galloping ghosts in white;” more important, the home team didn’t let an early New York goal get them down, roaring back to win the game by a score of 4-1. And the very first Leaf goal, the one that started both the comeback on the night and a new era in Toronto hockey? George Patterson scored it, on a pass from Bill Brydge. “Lovely,” The Star rated it, with The Globe going a little deeper: Patterson’s “drive on the goal was so fast and well placed that [goaltender Jakie] Forbes hardly saw it.”

Morrisey’s thorough accounting of Patterson’s life and times includes interviews with former Leafs Doug Gilmour and Jim Dorey along with a host of distinguished hockey historians, including Bill Fitsell, Kevin Shea, Paul Patskou, and Mike Wilson. For more on Hockey’s Lost Boy, there’s a Facebook page, here.

a monkey wrench, a hardboiled egg: only missed my head by a foot

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Rossman: Coach and manager and spirit of the team, Art Ross shaped and led the Boston Bruins. Photographed here in the 1930s.

The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.

That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?

Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.

The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.

The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”

That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 78, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”

Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”

All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.

He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400.  He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patrick’s to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his $400 investment.

Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.

The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.

“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.

In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared. Continue reading

onward and upward with the leafs (+ also downward)

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Staircasing: Leafs captain Sid Smith and goaltender Harry Lumley ride the new escalators at Maple Leaf Gardens in October of 1955.

O for the failures of Leafs yesteryears.

Heading into a new season in October of 1955, the Toronto Maple Leafs were just five years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship. That didn’t keep president and managing director Conn Smythe from an apologetic address to fans on this day, 61 years ago, as he presided over a Maple Leaf Gardens open house to show off a brand new set of escalators. Rest assured, Smythe told the gathered masses that day, the new hardware was not a ruse by management to distract from the Leafs’ lack of recent success.

Maple Leaf Gardens was 25 years old that year. To celebrate the anniversary, the Leafs invited Torontonians to a Wednesday-afternoon wander through the corridors of the home arena. Why not? The following day they’d be opening the season in Montreal against the Canadiens. Fans would be welcome to browse the dressing rooms, the press salon, hospital, ice plant, and engine room. Most of exciting of all: those who showed up just after noon would witness the solemn ceremony with which the Gardens’ four new escalators would be inaugurated.

They’d gone in over the summer at a cost of $200,000, two on the west side of the main Carlton Street entrance, two on the east, to raise fans up to the second-level seats. Captain Sid Smith was on hand to snip the ribbon, and he was joined by six of his predecessors, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Bob Davidson, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day, along with other Leaf alumni: Joe Primeau, Ace Bailey, Turk Broda, Andy Blair, and Busher Jackson.

“I hope the team goes the same way as the escalators — up,” Conn Smythe said, as you’d guess he might, to some of the estimated 20,000 people came through the doors that day. He couldn’t know, of course, that another seven years would pass before the Leafs won another Cup, and he was bullish about his team’s immediate prospects.

“We have spent a minimum of $100,000 on hockey players in the last five years,” he told Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail. “This year I think we’ll get some of that back.”

It was MacLeod’s article, and he gave himself the last word:

The Gardens’ escalators, by the way, are reversible. It is too early to say if Leafs are too.

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This Way Up: Donna Falconer, secretary to Gardens’ building superintendent Shanty MacKenzie, poses on the new escalators in October of 1955. Falconer would marry a Leaf, two years later: the first of the forwards named Dave Reid to play for the team.