ott’s job

A son of Kitchener, Ontario, back when it was still called Berlin, Ott Heller was born on a Thursday of this date in 1910. After starting as a right winger, he grew up to be a defenceman, and a stalwart one at that, working the New York Rangers blueline for 15 seasons starting in 1932. New York won two Stanley Cup championships in those years. From 1942 through to ’45, Heller served as captain of the Rangers. 

The game in which he’s depicted here won’t be held up, perhaps, as an exemplar of his or his teammates’ defensive prowess: on this night, March 4 of 1944, Heller’s Rangers lost to the Bruins at Boston Garden by a score of 10-9. That’s Heller on the right, clashing with Boston center Art Jackson, who contributed a pair of goals to the Bruins’ total. Jackson’s teammate Bill Cowley collected four goals and a pair of assists. Winger Fern Gauthier scored a hattrick for New York. Ken McAuley was the Ranger goaltender, with Bert Gardiner in the Boston net. 

At the time, the 19 goals the teams combined for was reported to be a new NHL record for scoring abundance, though it wasn’t so: on January 10, 1920, Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks splurged to the tune of 21 goals in a 14-7 Canadiens win. Several other previous games had seen 19 goals, too. That 1920 game still has a hold on the record, though it’s now shared with a modern-day game from December 11, 1985, when Edmonton’s profuse Oilers overwhelmed the Chicago Black Hawks 12-9. 

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

leafs at training camp, 1935: what’s a guy got to do?

maple-leafs-k-pkstrk

Squat Squad: Leafs and Stars line up in Kitchener’s Victoria Park with PT instructor Major Harold Ballantyne presiding at rear. Far row, in front of him, left to right: Andy Blair, Ken Doraty, Mickey Blake, Red Horner, Nick Metz, Joe Primeau, Pep Kelly. Middle row: Buzz Boll, Phil Stein, Chuck Shannon, Norval Fitzgerald, Bill Gill, Reg Hamilton, Jack Howard, Art Jackson (?), Normie Mann. Front row: Flash Hollett, Bill Thoms, George Hainsworth, Fido Purpur, Frank Finnigan, Bob Davidson, Hap Day, Jack Shill.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were the NHL’s best team in the spring of 1935 — everybody knew that, and said it, right up until the Stanley Cup finals, when they lost to the Montreal Maroons in three straight games.

Maybe that had something to do with the switch that Conn Smythe made, come the fall, when the Leafs headed to Kitchener to spend October preparing for the upcoming campaign — a new(ish) venue might do the team some good.

Since Smythe first conceived of subjecting his Leafs to a training camp in 1928, the team had wandered Ontario, ranging from Port Elgin up to Parry Sound and back down to Niagara Falls in the pre-season. They’d tried Kitchener already, in 1933, shifting to Galt, a little to the southwest, in 1934 — modern-day Cambridge — before this return.

There was a lunch, first, in Toronto, where Smythe addressed the troops. Then the team headed west. For the Leafs, it was the most populous camp in the team’s history, with 35 players making the trip. Some Assistant manager Frank Selke thought it might be the largest pro hockey training camp ever, which means he hadn’t read the papers: with Bruins and farm-hand Cubs on hand, Art Ross was watching over 41 players at the Boston camp in in Saint John, New Brunswick, while Canadiens coach Sylvio Mantha had 38 on the ice in Quebec City.

It was snowing in Winnipeg as Montreal’s other team, the Cup champion-Maroons, made their way west by rail. The train gained Billy Beveridge and Joe Lamb in Ottawa, and goaltender Alec Connell, who’d backstopped the Cup victory, was at the station to talk to manager Tommy Gorman, and there was talk that he’d changed his mind about retiring, but no, he was still on the platform when the train pulled out. Lionel Conacher and prospect Ken Grivel got on board in Sudbury. Toe Blake was waiting at Coniston, and Jimmy Ward, Earl Robinson, and Bob Gracie joined the journey at Kenora. Cy Wentworth was supposed to get on in Toronto, but he missed the rendezvous, and had to make his own way.

Lester Patrick’s New York Rangers were also training in Winnipeg in 1935. Captain Bill Cook showed up from his Saskatchewan farm in “tip-top shape.” “Burly” Ching Johnson arrived with “physique tuned up by horseback riding on his small California ranch.” All-star defenceman Earl Seibert stayed away, as he tended to do on an annual basis, waiting this year for the Rangers to agree to pay him $6,500 for the season ahead.

The Chicago Black Hawks were in Champaign, Illinois, where coach Clem Loughlin was searching for two solid right wingers to replace Billy Kendall and Lolo Couture, traded away in the summer. He’d bought helmets for all his Hawks and was telling his players they’d better get used to wearing them.

Equipment belonging to Red Dutton’s New York Americans’ arrived in Oshawa, Ontario, in early October, with his players getting in a few days later. Of all the NHL teams, only Jack Adams’ Red Wings stayed home, doing their conditioning in Detroit.

In New Brunswick, Art Ross barred the public from watching the Bruins skate. “He and coach Frank Patrick decided to keep the practice sessions private,” noted a dispatch in The Montreal Gazette, “in belief this policy would assist the training and eliminate any nervousness that the presence of critical fans might cause among prospects trying out for places with the teams.”

The worry for Canadiens was Aurel Joliat: he was back in Montreal, refusing to sign the contract business manager Jules Dugal had proffered.

For the Leafs, many of the stalwarts who’d almost won the Cup were back: captain Hap Day and King Clancy, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau, goaltender George Hainsworth. Pep Kelly was back, and Nick Metz. Other familiar names included Red Horner and Buzz Boll. A couple of veterans were gone, Hec Kilrea and Baldy Cotton, traded away to Detroit and the New York Americans respectively.

Mickey Blake and Jimmy Fowler and Fido Purpur were among the free agents and amateurs hoping for a break, George Parsons and Normie Mann, and Jack Markle looked like he might have a shot, last year’s International league scoring champion, and former University of Saskatchewan ace Jim Dewey, and the brilliant Sudbury junior Chuck Shannon, and Knucker Irvine, one of the best players in the Maritimes, and Norval Fitzgerald, too, and Busher Jackson’s little brother Art. Most of them were destined to play out the year as farmhands for the IHL’s Syracuse Stars. The Syracuse coach was in town, Eddie Powers, to lend a hand to Leaf boss Dick Irvin. Along with Tim Daly and his training staff, Major Harold Ballantyne was standing by to play the part of PT instructor.

Ballantyne, whose regular job was with the Kitchener school board as director of physical education, was the fourth soldier to take charge of getting Leaf teams into trim since Conn Smythe started sending his players away for the pre-season in 1928.

Twenty-nine players assembled in Kitchener’s Victoria Park to do his bidding on the morning of Thursday, October 17. King Clancy was missing yet, nursing an infected foot back home in Toronto, while Charlie Conacher was holding out for a better contract.

Of those who did take part, several ended up wounded by the end of the day. Normie Schultz, acquired from Detroit in the Kilrea deal, went down with a badly sprained ankle. Bill Thoms knocked his head on somebody’s knee and cut his lip in two places.

“Later on,” The Globe chronicled, “while catching a rugby ball, a finger on his right hand was dislocated.” Not to worry: coach Powers yanked it back into place. Buzz Boll bruised a thigh. Coach Irvin warned the players that Ballantyne was just warming up, and he didn’t rule out handing out bucksaws and sending the players to work on the woodpile — though “someone caught the coach passing that one off with a wink.”

Day two included an hour’s stay at the park. The Globe:

Major Harold Ballantyne sent his charges through a gruelling workout, including relay racing and football, aimed at building up stamina and wind. Members of the squad agreed today’s workout was more killing than any the Major staged when they were here two years ago.

Ballantyne had his favourites, and they were named: hardworking Normie Mann, Jack Shill, Art Jackson.

Clancy arrived on Friday, later on, and so did Fido Purpur. Conacher too, having agreed to a contract that was rumoured to be worth $7,000, the league limit. He denied he’d been holding — “other business” had kept him in town. Never mind that now, though: he’d arrived just in time to tee off with his teammates at the Westmount Golf Course. Later that night, the Leafs’ star was reported to be joining Major Ballantyne to aid in opening (unofficially) the local badminton season.

The players got the weekend off, with most of them heading home to Toronto. Before they left, though, they reported for a weigh-in, from which the news was soon transmitted to the wider world:

Conacher was the heftiest Leaf, at 203 pounds — a five-pound increase for him from a year earlier. Busher Jackson had added six pounds, which put him to 202. Lightest of the Leafs: Pep Kelly and Joe Primeau at 155 pounds apiece, and goaltender George Hainsworth at 153.

Continue reading

bru crew

Boston Cream: Never mind the world at war, the big hockey news in Boston in the winter of 1939-40 was that, in his 14th year as leader and idol of the Bruins, Eddie Shore was on his last turn. It wasn’t a particularly glorious ending: Shore played in just four Boston games that year and though the Bruins said they’d never trade him (right up to the moment they did), he ended the year (and his career) with the New York Americans. Without the man they were calling Old Mr. Hockey, a new generation of Boston stars took the team to the top of the NHL standings, where they finished the regular season. With his 22 goals and 52 points in 48 games, centreman Milt Schmidt led the league in scoring, followed in the charts by Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, his two Kraut-Line wingers, each with 43 points. The Bruins couldn’t keep it going in the playoffs, though, losing out in the first round to the eventual champions, the New York Rangers. Above, in hats and spiffy jackets, a bevy of Bruins gather in a Garden stairwell. Front, from left, that’s: Jack Crawford, Schmidt, Bauer, and Dumart. Behind, left to right: Flash Hollett stands with Art Jackson, Frank Brimsek, Roy Conacher, Jack Shewchuk, and Dit Clapper.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)