surrendered to the storm king: snowbound with the 1924 ottawa senators

Polar Express: Not, in fact, the CN train that the Ottawa Senators got stuck on in February of 1924. Not even a 1924 train, in fact: this reasonable facsimile of the Ottawa train is a 1927 CN locomotive from Saskatchewan. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

The people came early and they came eager, six thousand of them, maybe more, packing the Mount Royal Arena to its frigid rafters. Mostly they were men, as I suppose, men in neckties and overcoats — and hats. In 1924, that’s who mostly went to midweek hockey games in Montreal — men, wearing their hats and their 1924 moustaches. It’s hard not to dream this whole scene in black-and-white, as shadowy-plain and slightly sped-up as stuttery 1924 newsreel, but of course it was all in colour. I’m not actually all that certain just how universal the moustaches were — the moustaches, I confess, are largely speculative, no matter how clearly they’re formed up in my imagination.

The band played. The people waited. The ice — it must have been hard to see the ice so blank and empty for solong without leaping the boards for a dash across. Eight o’clock came and went, and half-past. The music was brassy and jolly and wafted in the hazy evening air of the rink, coalesced, coiled, rose to the rafters and condensed with the smoke and the smells and the chatter of men, all the nattering men, up there in the rafters, which it warmed, along with the adventurous boys who had climbed into these same rafters. That’s largely guesswork, too, much of that last part, in particular regarding the rising and warming properties of the music, if not the boys in the rafters — contemporary newspaper accounts domention the boys and their audacious climbing.

It was a Wednesday in February in Montreal: that we know. February 20, 1924 was the factual date of this waiting and alleged wafting. Some of the names of some of the waiters from that night we know. There was a Joliat, a Vézina, a pair of Cleghorns, a Morenz. None of them was in the rafters, of course. They were all in the home team’s dressing room, wearing skates, red sweaters, no moustaches. I’ve just checked again, and it’s confirmed: the 1923-24 Montreal Canadiens iced an entirely unmoustached line-up.

Aurèle Joliat was possibly hatted, which is to say capped: he often was, in those years, when he worked the wing for Montreal. Sprague was one of the most dangerously violent hockey players in history, as you probably know; his brother Odie, was a singular stickhandler. In 1924, Howie Morenz was a 21-year-old rookie, while Georges Vézinawas 37, with just two more years to live before his death in 1926 from tuberculosis. I’m sorry to cite that, even all these years later. Leo Dandurand was the coach of the Canadiens that year. I’m thinking of him propping the dressing-room door open so that the team could better hear the band and whatever 1924 songs they were playing — “Rose Marie,” maybe, or the “Pizzicato Polka,” maybe “Rhapsody in Blue?”

That February night in Montreal, the hockey players and their coach, all the people from the rafters on down, the brave band — they all waited together to see whether the reigning Stanley Cup champions would be showing up, or not, to play some hockey.

Spoiler alert: not.

In a time of nationwide rail disruptions, as snow falls and winds swirl across 2020 central Canada, let’s mark what followed and what did betide back in the NHL’s 1923-24 season, the league’s sixth, when winter played its part in shaping the schedule.

Ninety-six years ago, there were only four teams in the NHL mix, as opposed to today’s 31, three of them — Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton — rooted in Ontario, while the other, Montreal, was at home in Quebec. The regular season, then, saw teams play 24 games apiece, starting in mid-December, wrapping up in early March.

The weather took its toll early on. With Ottawa opening its new Auditorium that year, at the corner of Argyle Avenue at O’Connor Street, Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena was the only NHL rink still to be relying on natural ice. Having held their training camp in Grimsby, Ontario, the Canadiens returned home to an unseasonably warm December. With no ice to play on, they scrambled to take their early-season home games on the road. That worked in some cases, but not all, and just before Christmas, the scarcity of ice saw them postpone their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. Team officials calculated the loss of revenue for that game at $5,000 — about $74,000 in nowadays money.

Winter eventually took hold, and the Arena got its ice. In February, with the hockey season in full fling, the weather intervened again.

In back-to-back games to begin the month, Ottawa had lost to Montreal 1-0 on the road and overturned them 4-0 at home. As they prepared to face them again towards the end of the month, Ottawa (as happens in hockey) was missing key players in defenceman Georges Boucher, recovering from a knee injury, and star centreman and captain Frank Nighbor, who was out with a bad wrist.

Still, they were in fairly good shape as the season wound down. Only the top two teams would play for the NHL championship come March, with the winner carrying on to vie against the best team from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

With a fortnight left in the regular-season, with five games to play for each team, the defending Stanley Cup champions from the nation’s capital were riding atop the standings, with Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks eight points adrift, four points up on the lagging Hamilton Tigers.

Wednesday they were due to meet the Canadiens in Montreal. As happens in Canadian Februarys, a blizzard that had concealed western Ontario on the Tuesday was on the move east. Newspapers would tell the tale over the course of the next few days. Snow that fell across the province to a depth of 30 centimetres was whipped by 80-kilometre-an-hour winds that didn’t relent for 24 hours, making for the worst blizzard to hit Ontario since 1905. Six trains were stuck on the tracks between Toronto and Hamilton; Owen Sound was cut off. Toronto’s streetcars were stopped in their tracks, and most of its taxis. Two thousand telephones were knocked out of commission.

“The large army of the city’s unemployed saved the city’s bacon,” the Montreal Gazette contended, “and 6,000 of them — all that could be rounded up were turned loose with shovels to open the streets. It is estimated that the storm will cost the city $100,000 merely on [the] snow shovelling account.” (That’s close to $1.4-million in 2020 dollars.)

Capital-City Champs: The 1923 Stanley Cup winners, a year before they ended up stuck in the snow. Posed in the back row, left to right, are team president Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Petie Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, Harry Helman.

Ottawa’s hockey team had, originally, been scheduled to depart for Montreal on Wednesday’s 3.30 p.m. Canadian National express. Normally, that would have seen them into Montreal’s Windsor Station by 6.30, with plenty of time to spare before any puck dropped at the rink up at the corner of St. Urbain and Mount Royal. With the weather worsening, Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman rounded up his players to get out early, catching the noon train from Ottawa’s Union Station, across from the Chateau Laurier, where the Senate of Canada is now temporarily housed.

That earlier train should have delivered the hockey players to Montreal by 3.30 p.m. As it was, the CN express was late arriving from Pembroke, so didn’t depart Ottawa until 1.30. It didn’t get far — at Hurdman, just across the Ottawa River, the train and its cargo of hockey players were delayed waiting for a railway snowplow to lead the way east down the track.

Farther along the river, at Rockland, a frozen water-tank precipitated another stop. The journey continued, but not for long: just past Hawkesbury, with nearly 100 kilometres or so still to go, a plow from Montreal stalled on the westbound tracks, blocking both the Ottawa express it was leading and the progress of the eastbound trains.

Passengers from both trains joined railway crewmen to clear the way, but it was no use, the snow and the wind behind it were too much. “The snowdrifts blew back on the tracks as fast as they could be removed,” Ottawa papers recounted the next day. Conveniently for them, they had a man on the scene, a former Citizen sports editor, no less: Ottawa GM Tommy Gorman himself, who would somehow manage to file his crisis copy in time to make the Citizen’s Thursday front page.

It was 5 p.m. when the train was stopped. Senators who took up shovels were Cy Denneny, who’d end up leading the league in scoring that year, and his fellow forward Jack Darragh, along with defenceman Frank (a.k.a. King) Clancy — future Hall of Famers, all three — and Ottawa’s trainer, Cosey Dolan.

In vain. “The battle against the elements was hopeless from the start and after two hours work,” continued Gorman’s lusty telling, “a complete surrender to the storm king had to be admitted.”

It was bad news for all the crew and passengers. For the hockey players trying to get to the rink on time, there was the additional concern of not being able to get word to Montreal. It was impossible: the nearest telephone was 10 or 11 kilometres away, and many of the lines were down anyway.

Snowbound, the passengers and crew, hockey-playing and non, waited, and waited some more.

Along with the weather, the hockey players were enveloped by both humour and pathos. That’s from Gorman’s Citizen dispatch, too, though I kind of wish I’d thought of it.

The Senators shared their carriage with a bridal party from Ottawa. “The little bride stood the first part of the journey with smiles, but finally curled up and passed the night in one corner of the coach, with confetti and paper streamers scattered around the car.”

They also had the Honourable Arthur Cardin with them, the Liberal MP for Richelieu who was serving in Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. He was reported to be in a good mood throughout the evening’s ordeal.

Also aboard was a new mother travelling from Pembroke on the way to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital with her baby. This is pathos portion of the program, now — and the pay-off coming up right behind it, too. We don’t know the name of the mother, or of her child, just that the latter was on the bottle and, at a certain point, the former ran out of milk for her. Or him. The dining car couldn’t help — their dairy situation was no better.

Never fear: Conductor Dion of the CNR faithfully volunteered to venture out into the blizzard to see what he could find. The train crew, Gorman attests, were great (Roadmaster Munroe gets a shout-out, too, though no first name). Once more, Clancy and Denneny stepped up, insisting on joining the mission. Gorman’s account tells that remarkable tale while also leaving us wanting so much more:

… they tramped nearly a mile in snow up to their waists before they reached a farm house and got the resident out of his slumbers. He readily turned over his available supply, and in less than an hour the party were back at the train with a supply of milk that brought gladness to the heart of the distracted mother. Denneny fell down a well during his travels and had to be hauled out, and both he and Clancy were all in when they returned.

It was two-thirty in the morning by the time the track was cleared sufficiently for the Ottawa express to start out … back west, towards Ottawa. Three o’clock had struck by the time the rescued train made Hawkesbury, where it paused again.

Well Met: Cy Denneny, who led the NHL in scoring in 1923-24, despite having fallen down a well on a mercy mission to fetch milk for a baby in need.

As might be expected for the middle of a wintry night, the local restaurants were all closed. That didn’t keep foraging parties from setting out. “Canadian National Railway officials confiscated a big box of bread, intended for a local firm, and turned it over to the dining car staff,” Gorman wrote. The hockey players had successes of their own: “Frank Clancy landed back after their raid on the town with a can of soda crackers under his arm and [defenceman] Spiff Campbell succeeded in rounding up butter and eggs.”

By four a.m. the travellers were once again on their way east. They arrived in Montreal at 8.30. Fourteen hours after departing home, the Senators, Gorman tells us, “were hustled over to the Windsor Hotel and the players tumbled into their beds with instructions that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

Wednesday night’s crowd at Mount Royal Arena had been patient. When word began to pass that the Senators hadn’t reached the rink, the fans settled in for the wait. “It was a good humoured gathering,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the rooters in the east and west end sections making full use of every possible incident to create entertainment to pass away the time, while the band performed valiantly, one selection following one another [sic] in quick succession as the musicians did their bit to fill the gap.”

After an hour, some of the fans, a restless few, left the rink, though most stayed on. A line-up grew outside the box office as fans went looking for refunds.

At 10 o’clock, with no further word of where the Senators might be, Montreal coach Leo Dandurand stood up alongside presiding referee, Art Ross, to declare that the game would be postponed until Thursday night. Hold on to your ticket stubs, Dandurand mentioned in passing, they’ll be honoured then. The Gazette:

Spectators who did find themselves in a dilemma were those who threw away their stubs, and not a few were seen late in the evening frantically searching around the chairs for the lost coupons.

Thursday night, Ottawa was still shorthanded, dressing just nine players for the rescheduled game. George Boucher was back, but not Frank Nighbor. With Boucher and Lionel Hitchman taking care of defending goaltender Clint Benedict, Clancy shifted to centre.

The rink was, again, jammed to its 1924 rafters. “Little sympathy was shown the Senators by the crowd for the hardships they experience Wednesday,” the Gazette noted, “and when they took the ice last night they were greeted with good-natured boos.” All in all, the waylaid visitors performed as if they’d spent a night in a snowdrift after having fallen down a well: “Ottawa was never in the picture.”

Maybe, too, were they confident enough in their lead in the standings to allow themselves a night of letting up and coasting? The Gazette considered the possibility. “At any rate the Ottawas gave the impression of not being interested in the tussle. The forwards, barring King Clancy, lacked their customary aggressiveness; Hitchman played carelessly and even Benedict was off colour. Canadiens’ third goal was practically a gift from the Ottawa goalkeeper.”

Montreal captain Sprague Cleghorn scored that one, his second of the game, to increase a lead that Aurèle Joliat had given Canadiens. There were no more goals after the first period, and 3-0 for Montreal was how the game ended. The natural ice got stickier as time went on: “players from both teams found difficulty in keeping their feet and frequently overskated the puck.”

Two nights later, back home again, Ottawa beat the Canadiens 1-0 on a goal by Punch Broadbent. But while the Senators held on to their lead in the standings, they couldn’t turn their seasonal dominance into playoff success. In March, when the two teams ended up facing off for the NHL title in a home-and-home series, it was Montreal who came out on top, winning both games.

The Canadiens went on to meet the Calgary Tigers in the Stanley Cup Finals later on that month, sweeping both of the games they played towards the end of March. Winter wasn’t quite finished having its say that year: due to poor ice at the Mount Royal Arena, the Tigers and Canadiens caught the train to Ottawa, where they played the conclusive game of the 1924 season at the Auditorium.

Plow Now: A railway snowplow also not exactly related to the ordeal of the Ottawa Senators, but even unplaced, undated, illustrative all the same, no? (Image: Alexander Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-138699)

supper body injury

The NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was, unavoidably, a year of firsts.

Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers scored the league’s very first goal, and his teammate Harry Hyland notched its original hattrick while suffering (possibly) its earliest maiden concussion. The Wanderers’ coach and captain was Art Ross, and he took the NHL’s earliest penalty, though nobody seems to have noted down, officially or otherwise, just how he transgressed.

For all their trailblazing, the Wanderers didn’t survive, of course: in early January of 1918, they made their mark even as they erased it, becoming the first NHL franchise to fold.

That left the infant league with just three teams: Torontos, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens. Later in January, the storied Canadiens made history as the first NHL club to fall sick on an eastbound train as a result of supping on a bad batch of broth in Canada’s capital.

There’s not much more we know. How did the sickness manifest itself? Where on the line between Ottawa and Montreal did it strike? Which early Habs suffered? What was the name of the restaurant that served the quease-causing potage? What kind of soup was it?

That we do know, actually: the soup was a tomato soup.

For its opening act in 1917-18, the NHL divided its 22-game regular season schedule into two. As the end of January approached, Montreal stood atop the standings with 14 points ahead of Toronto (12) and Ottawa (six). On the Monday night of January 21, Canadiens visited Ottawa for an 8.30 date with the Senators.

The 6,000 fans who packed Dey’s Arena that night saw a bevy of future of Hall of Famers. Ottawa’s line-up featured Clint Benedict in goal in back of Eddie Gerard, Jack Darragh, and Cy Denneny. Georges Vézina guarded the Montreal goal, with Joes Hall and Malone working in front of him alongside Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. Paced by a hattrick from defenceman Hall, Canadiens solidified their lead by beating the home team by a score of 5-3. The game was mostly without incident, which is to say none of the notorious malefactors involved, including Hall and his Montreal teammates Billy Coutu and Bert Corbeau, were caught swinging their sticks at their rivals, or butt-ending them, as they tended to do, to fearful extent. “The cleanliness of the hockey appeared to tickle the big crowd,” the Ottawa Citizen was pleased to report the next morning.

It’s thanks to the report, above, from the Canadian Press that we know that the winners went for a post-game feed that included the fateful soup. If only we knew more. Where did they eat? What else was on the menu? Did all nine players eat the soup or just the six reported to have been indisposed? Who were the unfortunates, and who was spared?

Joe Malone: Sidelined by a soup?

Dey’s Arena was on Laurier Avenue in those years, facing the canal, occupying the southwest corner near the modern-day Confederation Park. Is it fair to surmise that they bunked nearby, taking their late supper in their hotel’s restaurant? Probably, though that doesn’t really help us much. Then, as now, there are plenty of hotels in that area of downtown Ottawa. Did the 1918 Canadiens alight at the Chateau Laurier? That wasn’t far from the rink, though the Windsor Hotel at Metcalfe and Queen would have been closer. Or what about the Russell House Hotel that still then occupied the corner of Sparks and Elgin? From a hockey history perspective, that would be satisfying: it was at a banquet at the Russell House, of course, that the Lord Stanley’s donation of a challenge cup was first announced in 1892. Then again, the Canadiens may have been lodged at an entirely different hotel. And indeed, on their way back there after the game, it’s true too that they could have stopped in at any local restaurant along the way. The New Idea, for instance, located at the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe, ads for which appear in the pages of Ottawa newspapers around this very time, featuring the slogan “For Quality, Quantity, and Quick Service.”

Not that I’d want to impugn their soup, even retroactively, without further evidence. What I can say is that this was wartime, remember. The First World War had been seething for more than three years, and November’s armistice was still, at this point, ten months away. While the Canadian government didn’t impose food rationing on the general population in aid of the nation’s war effort, the federal Food Board was, by early 1918, limiting hotel and restaurant menus.

An article in the Citizen a week before the Canadiens fell ill explained the lengths that local eateries were cutting back. “The purpose of the food controller in laying restrictions on hotels and restaurants,” it reported, “was to effect a saving in the three commodities most needed by the men at the front and by the Allied people — beef, bacon, and wheat, and to awaken the public conscience to the need of the hour.”

For at least three months, it seems, restaurants in the nation’s capital had been going beefless and bacon-free on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the Chateau Laurier, to conserve flour, no bread was being served at breakfast “except rolls and corn muffins,” while at lunch and supper, patrons were allowed nothing but “rolls and perhaps a couple of slices of brown bread.”

People didn’t mind, said the manager of the Russell House, where bread cutbacks were also in effect. “Bread is by no means a necessity in the hotel meal,” he confided. “I find that it is only eaten when people are waiting for the next course.”

Soupwise? All I can tell you is that the Chateau in earliest 1918, white flour was no longer being used to thicken soups and sauces: “cornstarch and arrowroot are taking its place,” the Citizen says.

Impossible to say whether this had any effect on the Canadiens. How did they know it was the soup that turned their stomachs? That, to me, is the nub of the whole thing. Did Jack Laviolette look over his spoon and wince his suspicion at Louis Berlinguette that something was up with the bisque? Could it be, perhaps, that club captain Newsy Lalonde, going on instinct, tried and failed to wield his authority with a plea for the team to order the untainted cream of mushroom instead of the tomato?

We just don’t know. Tuesday morning, the players boarded the train, whereon some of them sickened. They would have been home in about two hours. Montreal newspapers don’t seem to have noted their plight.

On Wednesday, Canadiens played a return date against Ottawa at the Jubilee Arena on St. Catherine Street East. Only Lalonde was missing from the Montreal line-up, though the reason for his absence doesn’t seem to have been soup-related: he had what the Citizen (painfully) refers to as “a spiked foot.”

Ottawa dominated this time out, prevailing by a score of 4-3. “The result came as a surprise,” reported the hometown Gazette; Canadiens were “listless.” The Ottawa papers took a slightly different view, crediting the victory to the stalwart work of captain Eddie Gerard, who played almost the entire game, and goaltender Benedict, who withstood an unrelenting Montreal barrage in the third period. “Canadiens set a smashing pace,” the Journal reported. “Canadiens piled in with everybody but Vézina and it looked as if they might batter in a goal by sheer weight.”

Joe Malone did score a pair in the final frame to tie the score, but Harry Hyland, who’d joined Ottawa after the demise of the Wanderers, got one back to make the difference. It as the fifth time the two teams had met in the history of the NHL, and Ottawa’s very first victory over Montreal.

art therapy

The Years With Ross: Born in Naughton, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1885, Art Ross (left) was an elite defender in hockey’s early years, winning two Stanley Cups on the ice before he took up as a referee, coach, manager, and all-around architect of the Boston Bruins. From refining the designs of pucks and nets to rethinking hockey’s rules, Ross was also an untiring innovator throughout his 50-year career in and around the rink. Did anyone do more to shape the game we know today, its rules and techniques and equipment? Well, maybe the man he’s seen talking to here, in a hotel room in 1935: when it comes to hockey influencers, it’s almost impossible to pick between the titanic contributions of Ross and Lester Patrick, another old-time master of defence, the founder (with brother Frank) of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association who coach, managed, and generally shaped the New York Rangers in their earliest incarnation. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose

If many of the standard online references (including NHL.com) list Eddie Shore’s birthdate as November 25, 1902, the facts favour a Sunday of this date in 1902. So happy birthday to the man they called the Edmonton Express. The photo here shows him when he was 36, in 1939, playing out the last few years of his spectacular career as a defenceman for the Boston Bruins. He was playing in his 13th and penultimate season for Boston that year, making a salary of $7,000 (the league maximum), which works out to about $130,000 in today’s dollars. In the spring of the year, he’d help the Bruins win their second Stanley Cup, their first since 1929. This day in that year, it so happens, is the infamous one on which the Montreal Maroons stopped short of killing Shore.

Almost a decade later, Shore’s brand of hockey was as physical and unyielding as ever. He was, as ever, a punishing and occasionally vicious opponent. He suffered, too, for his sins; the story of the bandaging seen here attests to that. It dates to March of ’39, when the Bruins were battling the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup semi-final series.

Having topped the NHL’s regular-season standings, the Bruins only played a single playoff series that year on the way to the championship round. Under the league’s quirky playoff format, they rode a bye to the semi-final against the second-place Rangers while four teams that had finished lower down in the table battled through two rounds on the other side of the bracket. Dispensing with the Rangers, Boston went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn the Cup.

But that was later. The Bruins/Rangers series was the first in the NHL’s 22-year history to go to seven games. It’s the fourth game we’re concerned with here, played on Tuesday, March 28, 1939, at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The Rangers prevailed on the night by a score of 2-1, with left winger Lynn Patrick scoring the winner shorthanded in the second period.

In those years, the Rangers featured a plurality of Patricks. Father Lester was still coaching and GM’ing a team while he counted on Lynn, 25, and his defence-playing brother, 23-year-old Murray — a.k.a. Muzz — in his line-up.

It was Muzz who featured in the game’s first period, along with Shore, when the hockey gave way to chaos.

Newspaper accounts trot out all the old epithets: meleepitched battle, and free-for-all. Canadian Press called it a “five-star punching bee,” while the Associated Press went with “one of the largest and bloodiest fights in a good many years. The New York Times settled on “the mass fist-fight.”

To sum up: it was just another old-time instance of hockey players swinging sticks and fists to concuss one another, after which a few penalties were called, repairs more or rendered, and everybody carried on despite the damage done.

Melee: The fracas unfolds. Shore is number 2, with Muzz Patrick in front of him. Number 8 is Jack Portland, 16 is Red Hamill. Boston goaltender Frank Brimsek stands alongside referee Mickey Ion.

It all got going halfway through the period, when the score was tied 1-1. Joseph Nichols from the Times testified that the situation began mildly enough with Bruins’ defenceman Portland meeting pesky Rangers forward Phil Watson in a corner back of the Bruins’ net. But let’s go to the eyewitness account that Lynn Patrick gave many years later:

I can see it now: Jack Portland and Phil Watson got into a high-sticking duel down in the 49th Street — 8th Avenue corner of the rink.

Shore, who never liked Watson anyway, went charging into it. As soon as Muzz saw that, he went in and pulled Shore off. As he did, Eddie swung at him. Muzz let his big one go … booooom. Shore was out for the rest of the period, but he came back wearing a lot of plaster across his face.

Victor Jones of the Boston Globe saw it from a different perspective. His account went like this:

… there’s no doubt that the Rangers started the jam and that they concentrated their best efforts on Shore.

The original battlers were Jack Portland and Phil Watson, who engaged in a bumping and high-sticking duel in the corner.

That blew over and Portland was skating away when [Bryan] Hextall climbed up his back. Shore then went over to aid Portland in his affair with the two Ranger forwards and this was the signal for Murray Patrick and Art Coulter, the Ranger defence pair, to skate the length of the ice and gang up on Shore.

Eddie of course got all the worst of it. He’s no match for Murray Patrick, former Canadian boxing champion, with his fists. He was outweighed 20 or 30 pounds and for a while seemed to be fighting the whole team single-handed.

Mickey Ion was the referee. He fell to the ice, or was knocked down, twice before the fracas was over. Restored to his skates, Ion assigned six major penalties, to Shore, Jack Portland, and Gord Pettinger of the Bruins, as well as to New York’s Phil Watson, Muzz Patrick, and Dutch Hiller.

Shore went to the dressing room for medical attention, so Ray Getliffe sat on the penalty bench in his stead.

Muzz Patrick in 1935, when he won the Dominion Heavyweight boxing title.

As mentioned, Patrick did have a particular punching pedigree: in 1935, in Edmonton, he boxed his way to the Dominion Heavyweight crown with an upset TKO of Tommy Osborne, the challenger from Quebec. A contemporary account of the championship bout is as instructive as it is dispiriting, an historical case study for retrospective concussion spotters and students of punch-drunk syndrome alike.

Four years later, in New York in ’39, Shore was almost certainly concussed when he returned to the ice midway through the second period. “I told him not to play any more after it happened,” Boston coach Art Ross later said. “But he insisted on getting out there again. He was fighting mad.”

Edmonton Eddie’s dented and bent prow was Harold Parrott’s jovial description in the next morning’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It was smeared over on the right side of Eddie’s face by three Muzz Patrick punches, and only a band of adhesive tape held it back in place when Shore returned to the wars.

Papers in New York, Boston, and beyond would spend the next several days cultivating a discussion of just how Shore had sustained his damage. “Patrick didn’t do that,” the man himself told Parrott, gesturing to his nose, which he said had been shattered “for about the tenth time.”

“Watson hit me with the butt-end of his stick even before the scrapping started.”

But Muzz Patrick was adamant. “I hit him three clean shots. I felt his nose give way.”

Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Globe later got Patrick on the record regarding his erstwhile boxing career. He tracked him down in the coffee shop of the Manger Hotel, next to Boston Garden, where Patrick started off by saying, “I’m a hockey player, not a fighter.”

“Sure,” he said, “I used to box as an amateur, but I haven’t fought since 1935, and the fight the other night was the first I’ve had since I quit boxing.”

Following up his Canadian heavyweight crown with several other titles, he’d considered trying to represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was having trouble with his own nose, though, and underwent surgery for a deviated septum.

So that was what ended his career in the ring?

“Oh, no,” Muzz Patrick told Hurwitz, “my mother was against it. She never liked it from the start. It was all right for me to come home from a hockey game with seven stitches in my head, but if I ever came home from a fight with a little black eye, it was terrible. I gave it up for her.”

Aftermath: Shore adjusts his helmet next to referee Ion. That’s Ranger goaltender Bert Gardiner restraining (I think) Brimsek. The Rangers in front of him include Muzz Patrick, whom Boston number 11, Gord Pettinger, is about to punch. Jack Portland, number 8, is all done.

(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.)

of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

will twice suffice? in 1929, the boston bruins won the stanley cup. a week later, they did it again.

(A version of this post appeared in The New York Times on June 10, 2019, under the headline When the Boston Bruins Won Their First Stanley Cup. Twice.”)

The Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in Montreal one Saturday night in March of 1929, sweeping aside the mighty Canadiens. Back home, a crowd of 3,000 met the team’s train at North Station, creating a clamor on a scale usually reserved for World-Series-winning baseball players and troops returning from war.

Then again, the series with Montreal was only a semi-final. Any doubts to their hold on the trophy were put to rest six days later, when the Bruins definitively won the Cup, conquering the Rangers in New York.

Two Stanley Cups in a week? Sounds unlikely. Not something that’s reflected in the records, either: those distinctly show the Bruins having won six championships, not seven.

And yet 90 years ago, a brief confusion in the hockey continuum did seem to present the Bruins with the opportunity for an unprecedented Stanley Cup double.

The 1928-29 season was a banner year for the 12-year-old NHL. From just four teams in 1923-24, the league had spread to ten cities, six in the United States. Overall attendance was up by 22 per cent from the previous season, with the Bruins rated the biggest draw.

They had been the first American team to join the NHL, bankrolled by grocery magnate Charles Adams. His first hire in 1924 was 38-year-old Art Ross, a Montrealer with a reputation as a genius of hockey strategy and innovation who’d also, in younger, playing days, won two Stanley Cups.

First awarded in 1893 by Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s governor-general, hockey’s most coveted prize was, from the start, a challenge cup intended to reward the best Canadian team. Won by Montreal teams, mostly, in the early years, it also went to Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Kenora, Ontario. In 1917, just before the advent of the NHL, the Cup left home for the first time, claimed by Seattle’s Metropolitans.

Opening Night: On Tuesday, November 20, 1928, the Bruins hosted Montreal’s Canadiens to kick off the new season and inaugurate the brand-new Boston Garden. Boston would get their revenge before the year was out, but on this night Montreal prevailed by a score of 1-0.

From 1918 on, Stanley Cup finals pitted the league’s champion against the best team from western Canada. That arrangement lasted through 1926, after which only NHL teams played for the Cup. The league further consolidated its prerogative in 1947 when the trustees formally delegated full authority for Cup affairs to the league.

Still, in 1927, NHL President Frank Calder believed (so he said) in the Cup’s original mandate, and that any serious challenger deemed worthy by the trustees should be allowed to play for it. He told an Ottawa audience that he favoured a competition beyond the NHL schedule, something similar to English soccer’s F.A. Cup, whereby any team in North America, amateur or professional, might take a run at the championship.

In the spring of 1928, the Bruins and Canadiens ended up atop their respective regular-season divisions, the American and Canadian. But both teams faltered on the road to the finals, allowing the lesserly touted New York Rangers to take the Cup.

Come September of 1928, Calder and NHL’s governors prepared for the new season by revamping the playoff system. To ensure that at least one top-performing team made it to the finals, the new format saw divisional leaders granted byes to a semi-final that would send one of them on to vie for the Cup against the team that survived a two-round playoff among the best of the rest. The purported architect of this new ordering? Boston manager Art Ross.

Six months later, at the end of the NHL’s 44-game regular season, Boston and Montreal had once again finished first. The Bruins lined up eight future Hall-of-Famers that year, including superstar defenceman Eddie Shore, rookie goaltender Tiny Thompson, and forwards Cooney Weiland and Dit Clapper.

As they prevailed in their semi-final, the word from the Boston Globe was that, because this was a battle of divisional champs, the sacred trophy was indeed at stake. Why wouldn’t the winner automatically succeed the Rangers as Cup champions? Of course they would — whereupon, as of old, the competition would enter its “challenge phase,” with the new holders defending their claim against the winner of the other semi-final.

NHL president Frank Calder

No Canadian newspaper seems to have reported any of this, despite the Globe’s assertion that the ruling was Frank Calder’s own. Hard to say whether the Globe was misled or just mistaken. Within a few days, the paper changed key: maybe the Bruins hadn’t “gained actual possession” of Canada’s Cup, but it was absolutely “theirs theoretically.” By the time Boston eliminated Montreal, Canadians used to claiming hockey as a proprietary technology all their own were otherwise occupied dealing with a traumatic new truth: for the first since in the 36-year history of the Stanley Cup, the (final) finals involved only foreign teams. Those didn’t last long: while the Rangers had earned the right to try to wrest back the title they might or might not have only just relinquished, Boston took the best-of-three final series in a brisk sweep.

“I’m proud of the boys,” Ross declared. “They’ve stood by me splendidly. Do you know not one of them has had a glass of beer since November?”

Training home again, this time from New York, the Bruins pulled into Boston’s South Station. But it was early Saturday morning, and no throng awaited the actual champions: the players quietly went home.

The team formally took possession of the coveted Cup when they reconvened, three days later, for a banquet in the Copley Plaza Hotel’s Swiss Room. The players’ rewards were individually rich, too: each received a share of playoff receipts, about $2,000 (nearly $30,000 in 2019 dollars), along with a $500 “purse of gold” from owner Adams. From Art Ross they each got a diamond ring, while faithful fans chipped in with gold watches for all.

Meanwhile, Canada kept mostly calm. One Vancouver newspaper did run a single-sentence editorial on the nation’s behalf, trying out what would become more and more of a traditional refrain as American-based teams continued to claim championships.

“Players imported from Canada won the Stanley Cup for Boston,” the Province wrote.

 

 

 

bruins’ captains + broken jaws: a stanley cup tradition

Chin, Chin:  Looking more than a little Zdeno Chara-esque, Lionel Hitchman models the headgear he wore in the spring of 1930 to protect his broken jaw.

The puck hit the captain of the Boston Bruins square on the jaw and he headed for the bench. The pain the big defenceman was in was obvious to anyone watching, but he finished the game. X-rays later revealed that the jaw was fractured, but that wasn’t going to deter him, and he was soon back on the ice as his team battled for the Stanley Cup.

No, not Zdeno Chara.

As Pam Coburn was recalling on Friday, the Bruins’ 20th captain isn’t the first to play in the Stanley Cup finals while wearing special headgear to protect a less-than-intact jaw: Lionel Hitchman got there first, the team’s second captain, in the spring of 1930. An Ottawa-area writer and former CEO of Skate Canada, Coburn knows the story well, having just published a Hitchman biography, Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Hero, that makes the compelling case that the stalwart defenceman’s absence from the Hockey Hall of Fame is a wrong that ought to be righted. She also happens to be Hitchman’s granddaughter.

As Chara prepares to put his face, once again, to the fore in tonight’s sixth game in St. Louis, a quick review of Hitchman’s historical hurt is what we’ll undertake here. He was 28 in 1930, playing in his sixth season as a Bruin, the third as captain. If Eddie Shore, his brilliant, combustive partner on the Bs’ blueline, got most of the headlines in those years, Hitchman was considered by many to be league’s most effective and hardest-to-bypass defenders.

The Bruins, you may remember, were the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1930. At the beginning of March, cruising towards the end of the regular season, they brought along a 14-game unbeaten run to their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. It was in extending that streak with a 2-1 win that Hitchman suffered his damage, and Shore was the one to inflict it. In the second period, during an Ottawa attack, Hitchman fell to friendly fire: the puck that struck Hitchman came off Shore’s stick.

As mentioned, he finished that Saturday game, though by the next day the Bruins were announcing that, based on the breakage that team physician Dr. Joe Shortell was seeing in his x-rays, Hitchman wouldn’t be back in action until the playoffs.

That was almost right. Hitchman missed four games before making his return for the Bruins’ final regular-season date, on Tuesday, March 18, at home to the New York Rangers. Though their winning streak had ended earlier in the week with an overtime loss to Chicago, the Bruins were back on track again, walloping New York 9-2. The captain wore the headgear pictured here, above. After having missed almost three weeks, Hitchman was his usual steady self, “the same defensive star” as ever, according John Hallahan of Boston’s Globe, “his poke and sweep checks being as brilliantly executed as before his injury.”

Of note: the Rangers’ best defenceman was also back on the ice with a sore jaw to protect. Ching Johnson had broken his in a February collision with the Bruins’ Dit Clapper, only making his return to the line-up in the Rangers’ previous game. The device that he wore wasn’t so much a helmet as — well, in New York’s Daily News, Noel Busch described it as “a brown bib or choker of some sort, patterned after a horse collar and intended to ward off any injuries to his tender portion.”

Hitchman subsequently played in all six of Boston’s playoff games that spring. They first faced the Montreal Maroons, overwhelming them in four games. The limits of Hitchman’s headgear were apparent in both the second game, when a Montreal stick cut him over the left eye for two stitches and the fourth, during which Nels Stewart caught the Boston captain over the right, adding seven new stitches to his forehead.

The Bruins met the Canadiens in the final. Despite Hitchman’s best efforts, they couldn’t defend their title, falling in two straight games to the mightier of the Montreals. John Hallahan was at the Montreal Forum to see the decisive game, which saw Montreal prevail 4-3 after a puck that Cooney Weiland put past George Hainsworth was deemed to have been kicked in and so disallowed.

“After the final bell,” Hallahan wrote, “the players condoled and congratulated each other. Capt Lionel Hitchman and Manger [Art] Ross raced to the Canadiens’ dressing room to congratulate the winners.”

 

(Top image courtesy Pam Coburn)