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.

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)

kitchener’s coolest cucumber

Small but mighty, George Hainsworth made his NHL debut in November of 1926 when his Montreal Canadiens opened their season in Boston, losing 4-1 to the hometown Bruins. Eddie Shore got his start in the league that same night, for any who might be keeping track. Also for the record: in the third period, Canadiens’ winger Aurèle Joliat met Shore with what the Montreal Gazette rated “the hardest check of the night, “right at mid-ice, and Eddie, of Saskatoon, went up in the air a yard or two and landed on his third vertebra.” Shore’s Saskatchewan hometown is actually nearer Regina than Saskatoon, but never mind. By the Gazette’s account, Shore set up Carson Cooper for Boston’s fourth goal, even though NHL records don’t credit him with an assist. Hainsworth, for his part, well, the Gazette noticed that in the third, he “seemed to be handicapped by a thick fog which was rising from the ice at the end of the rink. The heat in the rink was fearful.”

It would take Hainsworth, who died on a Monday of this date in 1950, three more games in 1926 to notch his first NHL win, but by the end of the season he was recognized as the league’s best goalkeep, winning inaugural Vézina Trophy. By the time he retired in 1937, no-one doubted that he was one of the best ever to have played in the NHL — even if (rant alert) the league’s faulty 2017 ranking of superlative NHLers forgot about him. Twenty per cent of Hainsworth’s regular-season starts ended as shutouts; in 1928-29, he kept a clean sheet in 22 of 44 regular-season games.

Hainsworth grew up in southwestern Ontario, though at 5’6” and 150 pounds you wouldn’t say substantially. A tiny figure who looked lost in his bulky goaltending armor is a phrase extracted from a remembrance written at the time of his death. Earlier (1927), he was dubbed Kitchener’s coolest cucumber and seen, on some occasions (in 1929), to have spent the greater part of the game enjoying an impersonal view of the affair as he lolled back on the top cross-bar of his cage. What chances Ottawa did have that night he handled with such ease and nonchalance that they appeared simple.

Sometimes he had a bad night. In Boston in 1930, he stopped George Owen’s long shot, but then cleared in such leisurely fashion that he finally fell face forward on the ice, allowing Cooney Weiland to score.

Sleepy-eyed, Boston’s Globe called him in 1930, citing also his jovial calm. A year later he was deemed still as spry as a two-year-old whose utter sang-froid in stopping a puck affords a rare thrill in hockey.

He stood out like a beacon (1932), handling some of Charlie Conacher’s fastest shots as though they came from the stick of Morenz’s little son.

As of 1934, he was one of the smoothest articles seen between the iron bars on any rink.

His harshest critic was said to be his wife, Alma; back home in Kitchener, she’d read newspaper reports of his games and then write him letters telling him to do better.

He was an alderman in Kitchener at the time of his death in 1950 at the age of 57. He and Alma were returning from a visit to their son Bill in Val d’Or, Quebec, when, near Gravenhurst, Ontario, their car collided head-on with a small truck. Alma and three other were injured; Hainsworth alone lost his life.

limbering up on the gymnasium floor

Usual Suspects: From left to right, three unnamed attendants pose at the National AAA gymnasium alongside Montreal Canadiens Johnny Gagnon, Amby Moran, Aurèle Joliat, Wildor Larochelle, Billy Boucher, Pit Lepine, Rollie Paulhus, Sylvio Mantha, coach Cecil Hart.

Star centre Howie Morenz wasn’t there — he was on his way, from Cleveland — and right winger Art Gagne had yet to depart his off-season home in Prince George, B.C. A couple of highly touted new recruits hadn’t arrived in Montreal, either: defenceman Herb Gardiner (coming from Calgary) and (from Saskatoon) goaltender George Hainsworth. Still, first-year Montreal Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart made a start with what he had that last week in October of 1926, convening his in-town charges for what the local Gazette classed “a limbering-up session on the gymnasium floor” of the National AAA Club House on Rue Cherrier at St. Andre.

With the NHL season set to open in Boston on November 16, Hart was aiming to have his players hit the ice at Mount Royal Arena by the first of the month. They never got there, as it turned out: in the last days of October, Canadiens announced that they were breaking their lease at the Arena to make a move to the bigger and newer west-end Forum, where they’d share the ice with the Maroons. Surveying his roster, Hart felt that he still had one hole to fill, at left wing, where he wanted someone to relieve Aurèle Joliat when he tired. Young Leo Lafrance was the man he had in mind; once he’d negotiated his arrival from Duluth of the Central Hockey League, Hart would (as the Gazette opined) “be able to sit back and survey his 1926-27 edition of the Canadiens with equanimity, as he will have a balanced squad with two players for every position.”

(Image: Classic Auctions)

leafs + canadiens meet in montreal: a february 9 primer

Chance of Flurries: Montreal and Toronto meets, circa the end of the 1950s (not on a February 9), and the action in front of Leafs’ goaltender Johnny Bower is torrid. The Richard brothers, Maurice and Henri attack, while Toronto’s Bob Baun and Carl Brewer defend. The referee is Frank Udvari.

As Toronto’s Maple Leafs skate out to face the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, would we note that this is the sixth time in the NHL’s 101-year history that a Toronto team has gone to Montreal on a February 9 to do battle with Canadiens? We would. And here’s some encouraging news for the visitors: only once has a Toronto team lost on this date in that city.

About those previous February 9 games, let’s note that they were played at four different rinks in Montreal, starting with the Jubilee Rink in 1918. The Mount Royal Arena saw two different games (in 1921 and ’24); the Forum (1985) and Bell Centre (2013) hosted the old rivals on one occasion each before tonight. Toronto’s team was the Maple Leafs for the previous two meetings, of course, but before that, in the ’20s, they were the St. Patricks. On that first February 9 game, during the NHL’s first season, they were the plain old Torontos, informally a.k.a. the Blueshirts. Four of the five games up have been played on Saturdays; in 1921, February 9 was a Wednesday.

Georges Vézina was Montreal’s goaltender the first three times Torontos and Montreals met, with (respectively) Hap Holmes, Jakie Forbes, and John Ross Roach guarding the far net. In 1918 (according to The Ottawa Journal), Montreal’s legendary backstop was “the saddest man in the rink.” His brother Pierre was in town, it seems, to watch the game, along with his Chicoutimi team, and Georges’ wife had made the trip, too, to watch her husband. But: “George [sic] fell down,” the Journal reported, “and played only a fair game.”

In 1921, when the St. Patricks skated to a 5-3 win, Babe Dye led the way with a hattrick that Reg Noble and Sprague Cleghorn padded with goals of their own. Newsy Lalonde scored a pair of goals for Canadiens.

Vézina finally got a February 9 win against Toronto in 1924; 5-3 was the score. Sprague Cleghorn got a goal in that one, but he’d switched teams since the last time, so it counted for Montreal, for whom Aurèle Joliat and Howie Morenz also counted. Babe Dye was still a St. Patrick, and he scored a goal in his team’s losing effort. Art Ross would soon have another job, managing, coaching, and generally inventing the Boston Bruins, but that was still in the future: on this night, he was the referee.

After 1924, it was 61 years passed before another Toronto team arrived in Montreal on February 9 to take on Canadiens, which gets us to 1985. Tim Bernhardt was in the Toronto goal that night, facing Montreal’s Doug Soetaert, as the Leafs won 6-2. Leaf winger John Anderson scored the decisive goal.

Leafs win in Montreal, 1918. Just a week earlier, they’d been schooled by Canadiens by a score of 11-2.

The last time the two teams met in Montreal on this date was in the lock-out marred 2012-13 season. The Leafs’ victory on that occasion was a lopsided one, 6-0. Three players who’ll feature tonight were on the ice back then, Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher for Montreal, along with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri. If you have a memory of that game, it may not be of James Reimer’s 37-save shutout; the big news, unfortunately, had to do with the allegation that Toronto winger Mikhail Grabovski bit his Canadiens counterpart Max Pacioretty.

Bruce Arthur wrote about the incident in The National Post, describing the “vigorous scrum midway through the third period, Max Pacioretty wrapped his ungloved forearm around the face of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and for a second, it was just one of the writhing arms in the mess, which happens in pretty much every game. Grabovski allegedly opened his mouth and clamped down, which does not. The Canadiens have reportedly sent the NHL a picture of Grabovski’s dental work imprinted on Pacioretty’s arm.”

In the thick of it, Grabovski got a roughing penalty and a 10-minute misconduct for his troubles. The NHL looked into it, later, but nothing came of that: whatever it was that Grabovski was doing with his mouth, the league decided there was no conclusive evidence of a bite.

lions in winter

The Montreal Canadiens took to the ice at Verdun in January of 1924 for practice: here they are There’s not a whole lot more I can tell you about this photograph with any certainty. That’s Georges Vézina away down in the far net. And the near? Hard to say. Canadiens’ manager Leo Dandurand did sign a new goaltender that year, but not until October: Eugene Decosse, 25, was seen as an understudy and heir to Vézina, who was 37. (As it turned out, Decosse never played an NHL game.) So maybe is it right winger Billy Cameron? He wore number 11 that year, and it’s possible that he donned the pads in Verdun. I’m betting that the tall figure in front of him is captain Sprague Cleghorn. Based on the distinctive hairline, I’d guess that Billy Coutu is the man to his left. Otherwise — I don’t know. Sylvio Mantha is out there, and probably Sprague’s brother Odie, which is a pleasing phrase to say aloud, so here it is again: Sprague’s brother Odie. Could be a coated Dandurand, who also coached the team, off in the far corner, maybe? Is that a capped Aurèle Joliat skating up from the back — or is he bareheaded out on the extreme left? And next to that guy — possibly Howie Morenz, in his first season with Montreal, carrying the puck? The great Joe Malone played his last NHL hockey that year with Montreal, so he could be out there, too.

The record does show that Canadiens had a tough go of it in January of ’24. They would, just a few months later, win the NHL title, which they followed up by beating the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers to take the Stanley Cup.

But to start the year they went 3-7. Billy Coutu broke his wrist that month, and in a game against the Ottawa Senators at the Forum, Montreal’s Gazette noted that Vézina “looked a little off-colour, and caused a little apprehension among Canadiens supporters.” In Hamilton, during a 4-0 loss to the local Tigers, Canadiens’ winger Billy Boucher struck a spectator with his stick. “It might have been an accident,” the Gazettegenerously offers; “fans ran at him from all corners of the rink, but Cleghorn and a few more Montreal players barred the way to the dressing room until Boucher was safe behind locked doors.” They lost a subsequent game in Ottawa by a score of 2-1, despite a valiant showing by Morenz. This I’ve learned, too: “The Habitants plays seemed to made with deliberation and method and they wasted no valuable stamina in headlong rushes.”

Montreal was getting in gear by January 30, also a Wednesday in 1924, when they beat Hamilton 5-2 at the Forum on soft ice. Boucher and Morenz each scored a pair of goals, Joliat one of his own. The crowd was small, about 4,000, and the referee was Mike Rodden. The jeers he got towards the end of the game were “good-natured,” the Gazettesays: “he called back the play three times for offsides and on each occasion the puck had been sent past [Hamilton goaltender Jakie] Forbes.”

(Image: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-049739)

 

victory lap: in 1942, the nhl’s aged all-stars lined up in boston

Elder Flair: The NHL All-Stars who lined up to play the Bostons Bruins on Friday, February 6, 1942 in support of the U.S. Army Relief Society: Back row, left to right: Boston Olympics trainer Red Linskey, Marty Barry, Frank Boucher, Bill Cook, Tiny Thompson, Bun Cook, Ching Johnson, Major-General Thomas A. Terry, George Owen, Cy Wentworth, Red Horner. Front: Busher Jackson, Charlie Conacher, Hooley Smith, Herbie Lewis, Larry Aurie, Joe Primeau, Eddie Shore.

The NHL didn’t play its first official All-Star Game until 1947, in Toronto, though the league’s marquee players were involved in a little-remembered all-star series in Cleveland in 1918 at the end of the NHL’s very first campaign. Between those dates, the best of the NHL’s best did also convene for several benefit games — in 1934, for one, after Toronto’s Ace Bailey had his career ended by Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins, and in 1937 and ’39 (for two more) after the sudden, shocking respective deaths of Howie Morenz and Babe Siebert.

The wartime winter of 1942 saw another gathering of premier players — though in this case, many of them were retired from regular NHL duty. Then again, at the Boston Garden on that Friday, February 6, the stars who turned out to play when the senescent All-Stars met the (not-yet-retired) Boston Bruins were only asked to play two 15-minute periods mixed into a regular-season game the Bruins’ farm team, the EAHL Boston Olympics, were playing against the Johnstown Bluebirds. A crowd of 14, 662 showed to see the evening’s program, which raised more than US$14,000 for military widows and orphans supported by the U.S. Army Relief Society.

Major-General Thomas Terry the evening’s military patron, a man who, for his day job, was in command of what was known as the First Corps Area, and thereby largely in charge of defending New England against enemy invasion. Meeting in January of ’42 with Boston sportswriters to announce the All-Star exhibition, he explained the good work that the Army Relief Society did and thanked the Bruins for supporting the cause. To those who wondered whether the NHL and other sporting organizations might be forced to suspend operations because of the war, his message was … equal parts mildly reassuring and grimly ominous.

“Go ahead and plan your sports as you have before,” General Terry said. “Go along until something happens to cause a curtailment. There is no reason to get panicky, but take reasonable precautions at all times. If it does become necessary for a curtailment, it will be apparent to all of us.”

To the Bruins that NHL mid-season, what might have seemed apparent was that their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions had already been all but suspended. They were still lodged in second place in the seven-team standings, behind the New York Rangers, but there was a sense that winter that health and international hostilities were working against them.

Centre Bill Cowley was out with a broken jaw and goaltender Frank Brimsek had just missed a game with a broken nose. The week of the Army benefit the Bruins went north to play the Maple Leafs, and did beat them — but left two forwards behind in Toronto General Hospital, Herb Cain and Dit Clapper, to be tended for a fractured cheek and a badly cut ankle, respectively.

Adding induction to injury, Bruins’ manager Art Ross was about to lose his top line, the famous Krauts, to the war effort: after Friday’s benefit, Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer would play one more NHL game, against Montreal on February 10, before departing the ice to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.

For all that, the abridged All-Star exhibition of February, 1942, was a success. A few notes on the night, which ended in a 4-4 tie, might include these:

• The referee on the night, Bill Stewart, had retired from NHL whistleblowing, but he was glad to partake. “I was in the Navy in the last war,” he said, “and I stand ready to do anything I can to help a cause which benefits any servicemen.”

• Tickets for the best seats — in the boxes, on the promenade, and some along the sides —were priced at $2.50 each. Lower-stadium and first-balcony tickets went for $1.65 and $1.10. An unreserved place in the upper balcony would set you back 55 cents.

• The Garden was dark for the introductions, except for a pair of spotlights that followed the players as they skated out to the blueline accompanied (the Boston Globe recorded) by “a fanfare of drums.”

Eddie Shore, who appeared last, got a two-minute ovation, and gave a little speech. “Everyone has special thrills in their lives,” he told the faithful, “but none of you know how much I appreciate this welcome or how I feel this evening. It’s like a fellow whom you haven’t seen for a long time walking up to you, holding out his hand, and slapping you on the shoulder. Then he says, ‘Gee, it’s nice to see you.’ That’s how I feel tonight, and thank you very much.”

• Also warmly received: former Bruins Tiny Thompson and Cooney Weiland along with Charlie Conacher and Ching Johnson, “whose bald dome glistened beautifully under the klieg lights.” Former Leaf Red Horner got cheers and boos — “and the big redhead showed the combination made him feel right at home by breaking out with a broad smile.”

• At 39, Shore was still skating professionally, the playing coach for his own AHL Springfield Indians. Busher Jackson, 31, was the only other active player on the All-Star roster — he was a serving Bruin. Both Shore and Jackson had, incidentally, played in all four benefit games cited above — the Bailey, Morenz, Siebert, and Army Relief.

• Jackson reunited with his old Maple Leaf Kid Line linemates on the night, Charlie Conacher, 32, and Joe Primeau, 36. Oldest man in the game was Bill Cook, 46, who lined up with his old New York Ranger linemates, brother Bun (44) and Frank Boucher (40). For some reason, no Montreal Canadiens alumni appeared in the game. The lack didn’t go unnoticed: a letter from a hockey purist published in the Globe that week complained that organizing a game like this without Aurèle Joliat or any Hab greats was like “having an American League old-timers’ game without including Ty Cobb or the New York Yankees.”

• Marty Barry and Larry Aurie said they hadn’t skated in, oh, a year. The Globe: “Large Charlie Conacher weighed in at 245 pounds for the affair, although Marty Barry looked plenty hefty at the 215 to which he admitted.”

• Warming up, the veterans all wore sweaters of the teams they’d last played for in the NHL — except for Shore, who showed up in his Springfield duds. For the game, the whole team wore the bestarred V (for Victory) sweaters shown in the photograph. Hooley Smith was pleased to learn he could keep his: in all his 17 years in the NHL, he said, he’d never kept any of his sweaters.

• Just before the opening puck-drop, as they’d always done in their Boston years together, Weiland and Thompson “went through their old Bruins’ custom of having Cooney put the last practice puck past Tiny.”

• “Believe it or not,” The Globe noted, “the old-timers actually had a wide territorial edge during the first period.”

• Injured Bill Cowley was called on to coach the Bruins, while Cooney Weiland took charge of the All-Stars. To start the second period, he put out five defencemen: Horner at centre between Cy Wentworth and George Owen, Shore and Johnson backing them on the blueline.

• Globe reporter Gerry Moore: “While truthful reporting demands the information that the glamorous old-timers were aided by some lenient officiating and no bodychecking from the Bruins in pulling off their garrison finish, the All-Stars displayed enough of their form from glory days to make the night not only the best financially of any single event staged for the Army Relief Fund, but one of the most interesting presentations ever offered in the Hub.”

• The Bruins went up 3-0 in the first half, on a pair goals from Bobby Bauer and one by rookie Gordie Bruce. In the second, the All-Stars went on a run, with Bill Cook twice beating Frank Brimsek and George Owen and Busher Jackson following his example.

• With “the rallying old men” ahead by 4-3, the game … failed to end. “At 15:56, or 56 seconds after the final gong should have been sounded,” Bruce again beat Tiny Thompson to tie the score. Allthe players hit the ice after that, with all 32 players playing “shinny in an effort to break the stalemate without success.”

• Eddie Shore was deemed the star of the night. “The crowd yelled for the Edmonton Express to pull off one of his patented rushes, but Eddie played cagily in the opening session.” Eventually he gave the people what they wanted, though he didn’t score. Thompson, too, was a stand-out.

And: “Bald Beaned Ching Johnson also came up with several thrilling gallops,” Gerry Moore wrote.

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to, but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th 1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mail could very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.