à la douce mémoire

This 1926 Georges Vézina memorial postcard was sold at auction last month in Montreal for close to C$1,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Georges Vézina died 93 years ago, early in the morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926, at the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi. It was just four months since Vézina, who was 39, had tended goal for the last time for the Montreal Canadiens, departing the ice after a period in Montreal’s season-opening game in November of 1925 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, never to return.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Montreal in early December for Chicoutimi, where he spent his last days in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. His Canadiens teammates planned to visit, but it’s not clear that they made it before he died; Montreal manager and coach Leo Dandurand — a close friend of the goaltender’s — does seem to have made the journey.

A Montreal reporter who visited Vézina in early March found him in a bad way, pale and weak, though peaceful enough under the watch of his wife of 20 years, Marie, and in the care of Drs. Riverin and Tremblay. The paper held off running of a photograph of the stricken goaltender until after this death — more on that here — but did publish a long, heartbreaking, and quite remarkable dispatch from Chicoutimi a week before the end.

“His case is desperate,” one of the doctors confided; it didn’t seem likely that he would survive the month.

“Formerly, he was always calm in his goal,” the reporter reported. “Neither the most exciting phases of a game nor the most distressing moments could deprive him of this firm, concentrated attitude. It’s still the same.”

“Georges knows he is going to die and he is resigned.”

The piece continues at some length, not only including (as you might expect) a detailed biographical sketch of the legendary goaltender, but also (as you might not) an itemized accounting of the family’s finances. There’s this exchange, too, from the hospital:

Georges has his full knowledge and a perfect clarity of spirit. At times, his face writhes horribly. As we approached his bed, he looked up. We looked at him and he asked:

“How’s Leo?”

“He’s fine.”

Georges gathered his strength and asked us clearly:

“Tell Leo,” he said in a low voice, “that I want to see him, absolutely. That he should come with all the players, all my comrades. I want to speak to them.”

As these few words exhausted him, we were about to retire when he signaled us to stay. His eyes lit up a little. Gathering all his strength, he asked us in a very low voice:

“Did the Canadiens win last night?”

The Canadiens had lost. But how to say this to Georges when he was there, on his bed of suffering, waiting with a tragic anxiety, and almost begging an answer in the affirmative answer?

We told a virtuous lie: “Yes, the Canadiens won!”

Georges smiled and gave a sigh of relief. His face flushed. But the gaiety soon disappeared, driven away by a fit of grief.

“What score?” he asked.

“Four to two.”

“If you knew how tired I am,” he said in a whisper.

Georges no doubt meant that the many defeats of the Canadiens weighed heavily on him.

As he was exhausted, we left him.

The game in question here did end 4-2 for Montreal — but it was the Maroons who prevailed at the Forum on the night of March 13, 1926, handing Canadiens their 12th loss in a row. Back in November, Frenchy Lacroix had replaced the irreplaceable Vézina, but he had subsequently given way in Montreal’s net to Herb Rheaume.

il est malade

vezinaHe doesn’t look well but only because he wasn’t: Georges Vézina was one ill goalie in the fall of 1925. That’s when the Montreal photographer S.J. Hayward got him out on a plank outside the Mount Royal Arena to take this photograph, a print of which sold online this month for nearly US$1,000 at RMY Auctions. Vézina was 38 by the time it was taken. The only man to have guarded the Canadiens’ goal since 1910, he had, at this point, just one more regular-season game to play. He won his first Stanley Cup in the old NHA in 1916 and then he won another (in the NHL) in 1924. Between the two leagues, he was the goalie to allow the fewest goals seven times. He was a baker’s son and — this you already knew — his nickname was The Chicoutimi Cucumber.

Heading into the new season, Montreal coach (and owner) Léo Dandurand wasn’t sure whether Vézina was going to play. Just in case, he signed Alphonse Lacroix, who’d backed the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. On November 12, Vézina sent a telegram that he’d be back. In the week that followed, he played in exhibitions against the Victoria Cougars, the reigning Stanley Cup champions from the Western Canada Hockey League. And when the season started on November 28, he was in the Montreal net for the opening game against Pittsburgh’s mighty Pirates. Steered by Odie Cleghorn, their right wing/coach, with Roy Worters in goal, the Pirates ended up winning the game, 1-0, on a goal by Tex White. Montreal’s line-up featured Howie Morenz, Aurèle Joliat, and Billy Coutu. The Pittsburgh Press carried a lively narrative of the game next day, in which Morenz featured both for storming offense and pugnacity. In the first period, he took a penalty for “bumping” while in the second he had “a fist fight in the corner” with Jesse Spring.

Only briefly did the Press note a line-up change at the start of the second period:

 Lacroix was in the nets for [sic] Canadians at start of second period. Vézina was reported ill.

 Montreal’s Gazette carried a more detailed report under the sub-head “Vezina Was Shadow:”

But the high spot of the evening for the Canadien supporters came at the beginning of the second period when Lacroix, former United States Olympic goalkeeper went into the Canadien goal in place of Georges Vézina. The veteran goalkeeper started the game with a high temperature. He was pale and haggard looking as he turned shots aside in the first period. At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.

A few days earlier, The Gazette had reported that Vézina was suffering from “a severe cold;” now he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was soon home in Chicoutimi. Within four months, before the end of March of 1926, just 39, he was dead.