gawky gus rivers: singer of songs, poison to rangers

Gus Rivers only played parts of three campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens — a total of 104 games, regular-season and playoffs — but you have to credit his timing: at the end of two of those seasons, 1930 and ’31, he helped the Canadiens to win Stanley Cup championships.

A Winnipegger, Rivers was, we know, born on this date, November 19 — but was it 1909, as many of the standard references record, or a year earlier? I’ll tend towards the latter: birth records from Manitoba and his U.S. military draft registration have Rivers originating in 1908. His hockey lineage isn’t in doubt: before he got to the NHL, Rivers played for the Elmwood Millionaires, the University of Manitoba, and the perfectly named Winnipeg Winnipegs. He was 22 in January of 1930 when the Canadiens signed him.

He’d started as a forward in Manitoba, before shifting back to defence; Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart put him to work on the wing when he got to Montreal. Upon his arrival, it was noted in the local Gazette that his “real name” was Gustave Desrivieres, though there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond anecdotal evidence that this was the case — it’s possibly that this was purely a fiction perpetrated by the Canadiens for the interest of their French-Canadian fans, in the tradition of declaring Howie Morenz’s background as Swiss. A year later, in the wake of another Stanley Cup triumph, the Gazette included this in their biographical round-up of the victors:

Gus was born in Winnipeg and played amateur hockey from 1924 to 1930 when he was recommended to Canadiens and signed by them. He came here under the name of Gustave Desrivieres and for a time he was thought to be French. Some of the American hockey writes still think so.

Rivers scored his first NHL goal on the last night the 1930 regular-season schedule, when the Canadiens dispatched the New York Americans by a score of 8-3. Teammate Howie Morenz scored five that night, so the fact that Rivers’ landmark tally didn’t get a whole lot of play in the press next day maybe isn’t so surprising. His second goal was more of a headliner: later that same month, Rivers scored the overtime winner that put an end to what to that date the longest game in NHL history, capping 68 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death hockey as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to open their Stanley Cup semi-final. Here’s the Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro describing how it went down:

Signed by Canadiens this season, Gus Rivers watched almost every game from the bench. He’d never got his chance to play. A shy, retiring chap, his favorite occupation on the team’s journeys was to sit in a corner of the car all alone and render the popular ditties to himself with feeling. Between times he received the joshing of all members of the team with a broad, good-natured smile.

It was this youngster that Manager Cecil Hart, of the Canadiens, put on the ice in the overtime session after all of the Flying Frenchmen were tottering on their feet. Rivers dashed out on the ice, ran the Rangers ragged for a while, then when Aurele Joliat and Sylvio Mantha struggled up the ice, he skated in front of the Rangers net. The rubber came his way from Mantha’s stick, and after 128 minutes of battling, the game was finally settled when Rivers slammed that puck past John Ross Roach.

The applause from a nerve-wracked crowd was deafening. But more significant was the fact that the Canadiens, exhausted and tottering, lifted the gawky youngster on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room, Gus Rivers had achieved recognition at last.

Rivers didn’t have too many more NHL goals in him — he only score four more in his career — but he did sink another overtime winner past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach, this one at Madison Square Garden in January of 1931.

In the wake of Montreal second successive Cup that spring, L.S.B Shapiro projected a big future for Rivers. “Gus possesses a neat poke check. He breaks fast and is dangerous around the goals.”

“From present indication,” the Gazette’s man gushed, “he will stand among the Morenzes and the [Pit] Lepines before many years have passed.”

As it turned out, while Rivers started the following season with Montreal, he finished it with the Providence Reds of the Can-Am League. He never made it back to NHL ice and after five further seasons with the Reds, he stowed his skates as a pro. Gus Rivers stayed on in Rhode lsland after his hockey career ended and, in 1985, that’s where he died. He was 75.

boston mass

When the modern-day Montreal Canadiens skate into Boston’s TD Garden tonight to meet the contemporaneous Bruins, it will be the 751st regular-season meeting between the two teams since 1924, when Boston joined the NHL. Canadiens won their first encounter 4-3 at the old Boston Garden, on Monday, December 8 of that year, with Montreal winger Aurèle Joliat putting the winner past Boston goaltender Hec Fowler. Overall, Montreal has the better record, with 363 wins/274 losses/103 ties/10 OT losses entered into the books; Canadiens have a record of 106-71 in the 177 playoff games the teams have played. The last time they met (below) was February 12, 2020, in Boston, with the Bruins prevailing by a score of 4-1 on the strength of a David Pastrnak hattrick. Above, a postcard view of the old rivals at the original Boston Garden in the 1930s.

 

 

wildorness

The stars that shone brightest in Montreal in the 1920s and ‘30s were, of course, Howie Morenz and Aurele Joliat. Their teammate, right winger Wildor Larochelle, did his work lower down in the firmament, garnering fewer headlines: his name was more likely to feature in passing in reports from Forum ice, as it did in Montreal’s Gazette in 1934 when Larochelle got a nod for turning in “his usual hard-skating, hard-working display” in a game against the St. Louis Eagles. 

He did do some first-line service in his time, replacing Johnny Gagnon on the wing with Joliat and Morenz, and scored some goals — his best year in that regard was 1931-32, when he tallied 18 in 48 regular-season games. Born in Sorel, Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1905, Larochelle played parts of 11 seasons with the Canadiens, debuting in 1925 and helping in the effort that brought back-to-back Stanley Cup championships to Montreal in 1930 and ’31. Montreal sold him to the Chicago in 1935. He played parts of two seasons with the Black Hawks before his NHL career came to its end in 1937. 

Reading Room: Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle, and Aurele Joliat in a studious pose circa the 1930s. 

armand mondou, 1934: a trip and a penalty-shot miss

Armand Mondou played on the left wing for the Montreal Canadiens for a dozen NHL seasons from 1928 through to 1940, winning a pair of Stanley Cups along the way, in 1930 and ’31. 

Born in 1905 on a Tuesday of this date in Saint-David-d’Yamaska, Quebec, he was the first NHLer to take a penalty shot after the league added a new rule in 1934, 18 seasons into its early history. It happened on opening night that year, when the Canadiens were playing at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night of Saturday, November 10. In the third period Toronto’s Bill Thoms tripped Georges Mantha of Montreal as he broke in on Leaf goaltender George Hainsworth.

The rules for penalty-shooting were different in those years: ’34 through ’37, the puck was placed in a 10-foot circle located 38 feet from goal, just inside the blueline. As I’ve described before, in this post delineating the history of the penalty shot, the shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, either standing still in the circle and letting loose, or skating at the puck full tilt from farther back. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

That night in 1934, 29-year-old Armand Mondou was standing in on Montreal’s top line for Wildor Larochelle. Mondou had scored just five goals the year before, so it’s a little surprising that Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde picked him to revenge Mantha’s fall, especially since he had a formidable scorer (and future Hall-of-Famer) in Aurèle Joliat on the bench that night. Mondou decided on a speedy approach for the league’s inaugural penalty shot. That’s according to Montreal’s Gazette: “Mondou, with a running start, and his bullet-like slap shot, made the play against Hainsworth.”

Toronto’s hometown Globe had its own view of the same scene: “The fans were quite interested, but Mondou’s shot was a dud. It never left the ice and Hainsworth stopped it with his usual nonchalance.” 

According to the Gazette (interestingly), Hainsworth switched out his regular goaling stick for the penalty shot with “a lighter stick.” I’d like to know more about that, but I’ve yet to see another reference to this specialty tool. 

The Leafs won the game, 2-1. The NHL’s first successful penalty shot came a week later, when Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles put a puck past Alec Connell of the Montreal Maroons. 

mite is right

“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. Howie’s linemates, in fact, were even more diminutive than he was: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, nicknamed the Black Cat for his speed and his coiffure, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”

Widen your eyes, if you would, then, for Gagnon, whose birthday falls today: born in Chicoutimi on a Saturday of this date in 1905, he was a Canadien for ten years through the 1930s, which means that he was in on Montreal’s 1931 Stanley Cup. He also saw duty, briefly, for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Goalswise, he had his best year, notching 20, the season of Morenz’s untimely death, 1936-37. 

Gagnon went on, later, to serve as a scout for the New York Rangers. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.

Back to the ’30s and his gig as a flyweight partner to Howie Morenz. Here’s Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January of 1931 about the Stratford Streak’s wingers and the rivalry (possibly exaggerated) around what they displaced:

Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.

It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.

“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.

 “Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.

So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.

“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.

A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.

“One hundred and thirty-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.

Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the description of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”

In A Minor Key: Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat.

farewell the forum

Castle On Cabot Square: An architectural rendering of the Forum’s 1960s-era renovation.

It was 25 years ago, on a Monday of this date in 1996, that Montreal’s Canadiens took a final turn on the ice of the famous Forum. They beat the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1, for the record, though the game itself was truly the undercard for the pre- and post-game ceremonies by which Canadiens bade farewell to the arena that was their home for 72 years and some 3,500 games. A crowd of former Canadiens was on hand that night, including 20 Hall-of-Famers. Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau were on hand for the game’s ceremonial opening face-off, and when Maurice Richard joined them at centre ice, the crowd stood and cheered for ten glorious minutes.

I was there that night, high up at the north end, Section 601, with the overflow press, near where they used to keep the ghosts. I won’t say that I was there under false pretenses, though it’s true that I may have stretched those same pretenses to accommodate my powerful need to witness and distill the history unfolding … I mean, Émile Bouchard was out there on the ice, for Gump Worsley’s sake — and of course Gump was there, too. Both Butches Bouchard, in fact, father and son!! Mahovliches, major and minor! Lach and Reardon and Moore, Henri Richard, Savard and Lapointe, Ferguson, Shutt, Dryden, Cournoyer! It was unbelievable.

I was freelancing for The Financial Post in those years, reporting for the paper’s arts section from several non-fiscal sectors — that is, I wrote book and movie reviews, travel features. The Post didn’t need me covering a hockey game, even a historic one, but I was able to convince my editor that the auction on the day after that Forum finale was enough of a business story to demand my presence. The Canadiens didn’t mind accommodating me — or if they did, they didn’t mention it. (The feature I filed is here.)

Ezra Soiferman was at the Forum that night, too, and he was toiling harder than I was. It may be that we passed one another in the halls as the old arena’s time as the home of the Habs expired; it’s possible. A Montreal filmmaker and photographer, he attended the game as a guest of Forum anthem-singer André Ouellet.

Soiferman took some 250 images as he wandered the arena that night. It wasn’t until 2016 that he collected some of them into a book, which he published privately to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Canadiens’ departure for the Molson (now Bell) Centre. Other than the cover image, below, and a photo of a Guy Lafleur greeting Ouellet, there’s nary a hockey player in it: this particular album is filled with last glimpses of fans and ushers, custodians and purveyors of chiens chauds, security guards, corridors, stairwells, seats, doorways, escalators, grey girders, and — yes — urinals. It’s an odd, honest, altogether charming chronicle of a venerable old arena on one night at the end of an era.

le fameux numéro 7

Forum Lament: Canadiens coach Cecil Hart and his faithful left winger, Aurèle Joliat, contemplate Howie Morenz’s Forum locker in the days after his shocking death in March of 1937.

“I can’t talk about it,” said Cecil Hart, coach of the Canadiens. “It is terrible — a thunderbolt.”

It was 84 years ago, late on another Monday night of this date, that the great Howie Morenz died at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc of complications after he fractured his left leg in an accident at the Forum in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of January. He was 34.

Funeral services were held at the Forum three days later. Ten thousand mourners were on hand in the arena, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 thronged the route as the cortege made its way to Mount Royal Cemetery for the burial.

Two days earlier, on Tuesday, March 9, Morenz’s teammates somehow managed to get through their scheduled game against the Montreal Maroons. (The Maroons prevailed by a score of 4-1.) Aurèle Joliat, Morenz’s loyal left winger and his fast friend, was out of the line-up on the night with a leg injury, but he was back for Montreal’s Saturday-night meeting with the New York Rangers, wherein Canadiens prevailed 1-0 on a goal from Morenz’s long-time right winger, Johnny Gagnon.

That’s the night that the photograph above may well have been posed, showing Joliat and coach Hart gazing on Morenz’s forlorn gear. “The wait is in vain, the Meteor is extinguished,” read the caption above a version that ran on the Sunday in Le Petit Journal.

Leo Dandurand would tell the story that he’d been the one to put the 7 on Morenz’s sweater back when the Stratford Streak first signed on to play with Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. “Remembering that Morenz’ contract was dated July 7, 1923 (which was also my birthday),” the Montreal owner, manager, and sometime coach later wrote, “I assigned him sweater number seven the first day he reported to Canadiens.”

A whole constellation of early Canadiens stars had worn the number seven going back to the beginnings of the team in 1910, including Jack Laviolette, Jimmy Gardner, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Malone, Howard McNamara, and (the last before Morenz) Odie Cleghorn.

When Morenz departed Montreal for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934, Dandurand declared that no other Canadien would wear the number again. As Dandurand told it in 1953, he meant forever, though at least one contemporary newspaper account from the fall of ’34 suggests that the understanding at the time was that it would go unworn as long as Morenz continued playing in the NHL. Either way, by various accounts, sweater number seven remained hanging in the Montreal dressing room for the duration of Morenz’s two-year odyssey to Chicago and then New York.

He reclaimed it when he (and Cecil Hart) rejoined Montreal in the fall of 1936. When he was injured in January, it returned to its hook when he departed the Forum on his way to hospital.

In the wake of his death, Canadiens immediately declared that his number would be worn no more, making Montreal’s seven the third NHL number to be retired, after Ace Bailey’s Toronto six and Lionel Hitchman’s Boston three, both of which were so honoured in the same week (Bailey first) in February of 1934.

In November of 1937, Canadiens did amend their numerical position, slightly, making clear that when Howie Morenz Jr. ascended to play for the team, he would inherit his father’s number.

Howie Jr. had celebrated his tenth birthday that year. He did, it’s true, show promise as a centerman in later years, skating with the Montreal Junior Canadiens as well as the USHL Dallas Texans before a degenerative eye condition put an effective end to his chances of reaching the NHL.

November of ’37 saw the NHL stage the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at the Forum. A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team combing Maroons and Canadiens by a score of 6-5 in front of a crowd of 8,683 fans. Some $20,000 was raised on the night for the Morenz family. Former Canadiens owner (and goaltender) Joe Cattarinich paid $500 for the Morenz’ equipment and sweater, which he then handed over to Howie Jr.

The program for that Memorial evening included this photograph, just above,  purported to be the only one in existence to have caught Morenz from the back while he wore his celebrated seven. It’s a good image, even if it isn’t, in fact, so very exclusive — I’ve seen Morenz showing his back in other photographs going back to the ’20s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

howie morenz, 1937: father time easily overhauls the fastest mortals

Hab Down: Howie Morenz hits the ice at Madison Square Garden in March of 1934, not quite three years before his death. His collision here was with New York Americans’ defenceman, number 3, Bill Bridge. Looking on is New York forward Bob Gracie.

It was on a Thursday night of this date 84 years ago that the great Howie Morenz broke his left leg in a game at Montreal’s Forum pitting Morenz’s Canadiens against the Chicago Black Hawks. Removed to Hôpital Saint-Luc, Morenz spent a little over a month in treatment before he died on March 8, 1937, of pulmonary embolism. Adapted from my 2014 book Puckstruck, here’s an accounting of his January 28 injury.

Morenz sobbed when Leo Dandurand traded him, in 1934, to Chicago. He was supposed to be slipping, and the coach had replaced him between linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, the fans were booing.

He was pretty good in Chicago, but he didn’t get along with the owner. At about this time, in March of 1935, he turned again to freelance journalism. Back in Montreal he and Joliat had contributed columns to La Patrie, but now Morenz addressed a bigger, manlier audience by way of Esquire.

We’ll accept that Morenz was moved to write the piece himself, no ghostwriters to mediate his positively chipper tone, and that when he talked about himself in the third person, he meant it. The big news he had to deliver is a surprise: having lost all three fights he started the year before, Morenz has decided to give up fighting. “Yes, from now on I’m a pacifist, a hold-backer.” By the way, for those of you out there who thought that the fighting was a fake, “part of the show, fancy embroidery,” well, hold on just one minute, buster. He makes it all sound so jolly, so much fun, even the scene when the fleet winger meets the defenseman’s “solid, unlovely hip” and “the forward’s breath leaves his body with a ‘woof’, as he goes buckety-buck-buck and crashes into the boards.” On he prattles, and on, tickled as can be to be talking hockey, even when it’s to acknowledge that “Father Time easily overhauls the fastest mortals.”

A year later Chicago traded him to the Rangers — another sad step down, it looked like, on the staircase out of hockey. But then the Canadiens brought him back in September of 1936. He was 34. Cecil Hart was in again as the coach, his old friend, and he reunited Morenz with Joliat and Gagnon. By Christmas the Canadiens were at the top of the league, with Morenz one of the leading scorers. “I’m going the limit right now,” Morenz himself said. “I’m giving the fans everything I’ve got. The end may be in sight but the heart is still sound. You know what I mean.”

If you were writing this as fiction, you’d never write it so starkly obvious. He’s supposed to have told Frank Selke that he was quitting. “It’s getting too tough.”

Montreal played in Chicago on Sunday, January 24, 1937. Hobbled by a knee injury, he still managed to star, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 decision for Montreal. “Siebert’s got his knee strapped up,” Morenz said of teammate Babe Siebert before the game, “and I got me a new knee put on for the winter, but we’ll win.”

Two nights later, the Canadiens beat Toronto 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “The Canadiens had the upper hand when they had Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Johnny Gagnon on the ice,” the Gazette reported. Joliat scored a pair of goals, with Morenz assisting on both. Babe Siebert said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen Morenz play. “The Morenz-Joliat-Gagnon line was the whole show, and we defencemen hardly got up a sweat so well were the forward lines going.”

News of Morenz’s injury from January 29, 1937.

On the Thursday, the Canadiens were back home to host Chicago. Morenz’s knee was heavily bandaged. In the first period, he was down at the south end of the Forum, towards St. Catherines Street. Nowadays there’s a rule to stipulate that the boards shall be constructed in such a manner that the surface facing the ice shall be smooth and free of any obstruction or any object that could cause injury to players. In those years, though, it was more of a tongue-in-groove design, as seen in the photograph above, and therein lay the danger.

As Montreal winger Toe Blake saw it from the Montreal bench, Morenz went looping behind the Black Hawks net when he lost his balance and fell into the boards where Chicago’s Earl Seibert “kinda fell on him.” The Montreal sportswriter Andy O’Brien saw one of Morenz’s skates dig into the boards, then he rolled over and the leg snapped. Joliat was on the ice: as he saw it, Morenz lost his footing, went down, put his feet up as he slid into the boards, the heels of his skates stuck in the boards. Somebody checked Earl Seibert, who fell on Morenz’s legs, which broke the left one.

Clarence Campbell was the referee that night. The way the future NHL president described it, Seibert dove headlong at Morenz, knocking him down, skate stuck, buckety-buck-buck.

There was a novelist in the house, too, on the night, Hugh MacLennan: he remembered (as a novelist might) a little smile on Morenz’s lips. “But once too often he charged into the corner relying on his ability to turn on a dime and come out with the puck. The point of his skate impaled itself in the boards. A defenseman, big Earl Seibert, accidentally crashed over the extended leg and broke it.”

MacLennan added another detail: “Howie’s head hit the ice with a sickening crack and he was carried out.” Unless Joliat and Gagnon helped him up and off. That’s another version that’s out there.

In the dressing room, there was a scene so stylized that somebody should paint it to hang up alongside Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.” Morenz was, apparently, a little more lucid than the general. He lay on the rubbing table, smoking a cigarette. “I’m all through,” he’s supposed to have muttered, “all finished.” Don’t blame Seibert, he said. “It was an accident. My skate caught.” Joliat thought it was his wonky right knee that had betrayed him. Johnny Gagnon had tears in his eyes. Babe Siebert kept saying, “Hang on, Howie, hang on, Howie.” Small boys wept in the Forum corridor as they took Morenz out, and though he was crying too, he gave a cheery way on his way to the ambulance that took him to Hôpital Saint-Luc.

His ankle was cracked and he had four broken bones in the leg. Or it was a compound fracture with the bones shattered in two places slightly above the ankle and below the knee. The papers had differing reports, and it must have been hard to make sense of it all, which may be why La Patrie saw fit to publish x-rays of Morenz’s fractures.

Were there two, four, five? It still wasn’t entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.”

Two days after the crash, the rest of the Canadiens travelled to New York and Boston, where they beat the Americans and the Bruins, which Howie appreciated. Gagnon and Joliat wrote to him every day they were away and when they got back to Montreal, they went to visit. Dr. Forgues was satisfied with the progress of his patient’s recovery, Joliat reported in his La Patrie column. “Howie is most enthusiastic,” he wrote.

The Winnipeg Tribune added an unsettling Forum update that same week. “An X marks the spot that performers in the Montreal Forum are avoiding,” ran the unbylined item. “A member of the Forum’s ice-sweeping staff put a mark on the boards where Howie Morenz’s skate dug into the wood when the Canadien veteran broke his leg. … A few nights later, Cam Dickson, a Montreal Senior Group player, hit the identical spot and broke his arm.”

 

all the montreals

3Ms: Lining up, probably at the Forum, from the left, these are Maroons Reg Noble, Clint Benedict, and Dunc Munro, the Canadian Olympic star who was named the team’s first captain in November of 1924. This photograph probably does to the Maroons’ second season, given the sweaters that Noble and Munro are sporting: during their inaugural campaign, the sweater that Benedict has on is the one they wore, with “Montreal” across the chest.

Eventually there would be a trophy they’d battle for, the Kennedy Cup, for the winner to brandish and brag of supremacy over the city, but that wasn’t yet in place on this date in 1924, a Wednesday in Montreal as elsewhere, when the city’s two NHL teams met on the ice for the very first time.

Canadiens were the defending Stanley Cup champions that year. The expansion team they faced on the night would come to be known as the Maroons, reflecting the colour of their sweaters, but that name was still in the future: this first season, they were still known as the Montreals. The setting was the Mount Royal Arena, which was still then home to Canadiens.

A crowd of 6,000 was on hand to see the senior Montreals beat the newcomers 5-0. Canadiens’ 23-year-old winger Aurèle Joliat was the star of the show. “He scored four of the five goals,” the Gazettenoted next day, “largely on his own individual prowess, and generally scintillated on the ice in a manner that drew round after round of applause and cheers from a highly-entertained gathering of hockey fans.” To round out the night, he also got up close and personal with an opposing centreman, Chuck Dinsmore: “the pair became embroiled in a minor affair of fisticuffs,” for which referee Cooper Smeaton accordingly assessed them minor penalties.

Billy Boucher also scored for Canadiens. It’s worth noting that the champions had just nine players in their line-up that night, so just three on the bench to relieve the starters. Their opponents had a fuller complement, with a roster of 12. Among those was the team’s newest acquisition, the veteran 27-year-old centre Reg Noble, whom manager Cecil Hart had bought that very week from the Toronto St. Patricks for $8,000 cash.

The Maroons would play 14 NHL seasons (winning two Stanley Cups) before their demise in 1938. In that time, they would play Canadiens in 92 regular-season games, compiling a record of 35-40-17. The teams met four more times in the playoffs, wherein the Maroons record stands at 0-1-3.

hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.

He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.

Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.

Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.

It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.

Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.

Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.

Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.

Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.

 

 

jean le valiant, riot of the ranks

Portrait Gallery: After a short stint with the Boston Bruins in 1934-35, Jean Pusie was traded back to Montreal, for whom he’d started his NHL career in 1931. Back at Boston Garden, Pusie and his Canadiens teammates posed with a portrait of Pusie in a Bruins uniform. I don’t know who everybody is here, but starting at left at the back we’re seeing: not sure, not sure, Paul Runge, Wilf Cude, Jack McGill, Aurèle Joliat, Pit Lepine. Middle, from left, not sure, not sure maybe Jean Bourcier, Johnny Gagnon, Pusie portrait, Leroy Goldsworthy, Wildor Larochelle. Front, from left: Sylvio Mantha, Art Lesieur, Joffre Desilets’ head, Pusie himself, Walt Buswell. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

A player of small abilities is something they used to call Jean Pusie, back in the far-off 1930s, that and very popular. He was said to fool around a lot, which may have pleased the people in the stands but eventually wore out the welcome of coaches and managers, of league administrators, of referees (not necessarily in that order). Sort of like Sean Avery, then, except for widely beloved and altogether a sunnier spirit? Maybe more of an Eddie Shack. Hockey historian Andrew Podnieks, for one, is not impressed: Pusie was a man, he wrote in Players, his voluminous 2003 gazetteer of all-time NHLers, “who made such a bizarre ass of himself on the ice that he is as much myth as man, as much comic as player.”

Born in Montreal  on Saturday, October 15, 1910, Pusie played defence for more 26 different teams between 1927 and 1947, most of them in minor leagues, Castors and Panthers, Cubs, Arrows, Renards, Monarchs, Tecumsehs.

I don’t know, though. Does he really deserve such an outright dismissal? There were also Rangers and Bruins and Canadiens in there, too. Pusie’s NHL career amounted to just 68 games in all, scattered across a 17-year horizon, but he could play. In 1931 he did duty in three of the five games that won Montreal the Stanley Cup. In 1934, Boston coach Frank Patrick was talking him up as “one of the most dangerous players in the game, with an extraordinarily fast and accurate shot.” And while Pusie managed just a single NHL goal over the years, he knew how to put the puck in the net. In 1933, he scored 30 goals to lead the WCHL.

He was a good lacrosse player, too, and a boxer. In 1933, not long after the Rangers signed him, Pusie made his debut as a professional wrestler, taking on a New York rival, Harvey Blackstone, and taking him down, mostly by way of (and I quote) terrific flying tackles.

Back in a hockey context,anticsis a word you often see nearby his name, which was often rolled out to full length, especially in American papers, Jean Baptiste Pusie.

Sometimes, too, they called him Gene in the U.S., where the sportswriters also had their brazen fun with his Quebec accent, to the point where (in 1939) it was deemed appropriate for The St. Louis Star and Times to render an answer he gave a reporter this way:

“I weel tell de troot. In de pazz, I have fight the referee; I have hit de fan; I have go home to Canada, for all of which I am verra sor-ree.”

Some of the other phrases associated, adjectivally, with his name over the years include:

  • a versatile athlete who goes in for wrestling on the side (1933)
  • giant defence player (1934)
  • huge rookie for the Rangers (1934)
  • the bristling and the pugilistic (1934)
  • the riot of the Canam ranks (1935)
  • Jean The Valiant (1936)
  • a swashbuckling Frenchman (1939)
  • hockey “bad boy” (1939)
  • the rogue of the American Association (1939)
  • Le Grand Jean (1943)
  • the most colourful clown in all hockey history (1953)
  • the bounce-’em-hard type (1956)
  • a 75-carat kook; a jokester and superb showman (1980)
  • an amusing fellow from Chambly (1992)

The unpredictable Jean Pusie dates to a 1940 report that details his refusal to pay a fine of $50. “Never have I paid a fine before,” Pusie declared. “There is no need to start now.” He was in the employ of the Vancouver Lions by then, in the PCHL, where Cyclone Taylor was president — he was the one to sanction Pusie, and suspend him for a game, after a fight. The Lions paid the fine, in the end, deducting it from Pusie’s wages.

Sportswriter Jim Coleman was someone who admired Pusie’s performance artistry. Called on to take a penalty shot, as he sometimes was, Pusie would preface his attempt by shaking hands with every member of his own team as well as the goaltender he was about to shoot on. “He’d circle the entire rink TWICE at high speed,” Coleman wrote, “pick up the puck and blast it at the goalie from 20-foot range. If he scored, Jean would circle the rink, waving his stick triumphantly at the crowd.”

“Pusie was at his best in his early days of pro hockey,” Bill Roche wrote in 1953, “when all his stuff was spontaneous. Later on, it got to be an act, and he turned into something of a showboat. A smart lad, despite his tomfoolery Jean Baptiste soon realized that his comedy could be developed produce more publicity than his straight hockey ability, in which he was lacking. He finally carried things too far, got into trouble more than once by tangling with cash customers and the police, and thus he disappeared from the hockey scene.”

That’s a reference, the last part, to Pusie’s stint in St. Louis in 1939. He was 27 by that time, and the Flyers there, then, were a good team, the reigning AHA champions, with Joe Matte in the line-up, and also Fido Purpur.

Carried things too far is one way of describing Pusie’s post-Christmas adventures that season. The question that nobody seems to have raised at the time is, even if he didn’t find himself in court in December, how did he avoid it in February and/or March?

Sorry; to be fair, he did go to jail, in Wichita, Kansas, just briefly. And his case did surface in court, too, though Pusie himself was absent. That was in February.

But first things first: a month earlier, he got into a fight with the Tulsa Oilers goaltender, Porky Levine, during which he spent some time kicking Levine. On the way to the penalty box, Pusie tripped the referee, Davey Davidson, punched him in the head. The league fined Pusie $100 for that — he paid, or his team did — and suspended him for 10 days.

In Wichita, in February, the Flyers were in to play the local Skyhawks, and a fan — or fans — threw a steel chair — maybe several chairs. One of them hit Pusie, on the head. Pusie counterattacked, with his stick. Hit a fan, on the head. Zola Moore was the fan’s name. He was 23. He ended up suing Pusie, the Flyers, and Wichita under Kansas’ mob law, seeking $5,000 in damages. (I can’t find a record of the outcome.) On the ice, there was no penalty on the play; when order was restored, Pusie finished the game. The team from Wichita lodged a protest about that, but by then Detective Captain Le Roy Bowery of the Wichita police had already arrested Pusie, charged him with aggravated assault. Flyers coach John McKinnon posted a $500 bond to spring him from jail.

There was no suspension this time, though Pusie did remove himself from the line-up, his team, the country, headed for his home in Chambly, Quebec, south of Montreal — all because, he declared, in that same game, his own goaltender, Hub Nelson, had reprimanded him for failing to stymie a Wichita rush.

Back home, he stewed in his snit for a bit. While he was gone, Judge John Hurley heard his case in Wichita’s Police Court. A local lawyer entered a guilty plea on his behalf and Judge Hurley fined him $450 plus $1.90 in court costs. That came out of the money that his coach had put up originally, as far as I can tell.

It’s hard to gauge how people felt about all this, people who were paying attention, whether they were appalled, wondered if hockey had a problem that was larger than Pusie, puzzled over the conundrum of how hockey assaults so rarely seemed to be considered actual assaults. There was a certain measure of outrage at hockey’s violent excesses that echoed in St. Louis in and around these events in ’39, if not much specific surprise when someone like Jean Pusie carried things too far, and farther. In Canada, news of Pusie running amok was often reported in a wry he’s-at-it-again tone, raising no alarms.

In the wake of Pusie’s first game back with the Flyers at the end of February, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a photo showing him being restrained by the president of the team and a member of the St. Louis Police Department’s Mounted Division, to keep him out of a melee that other players had started.

They couldn’t contain him for long. He was in a fight the next game, against the St. Paul Saints.

His next outburst was his final one that year in St. Louis. It came at the end of March, when the Flyers were facing the Tulsa Oilers in the finals. The second game, in Oklahoma, is the one we’re focussed on here. In the first period, referee Stan Swain called Pusie for slashing. To say that Pusie objected doesn’t quite capture the moment insofar as his objection involved knocking Swain to the ice. “This precipitated a near riot,” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “and grave trouble might have occurred had not Swain recovered after being unconscious on the ice for five minutes and resumed his duties as official.”

For knocking a referee out cold, Pusie was assessed a match penalty. And while Tulsa police did escort him from the arena, it was to protect him from local fans — he wasn’t, this time, charged for his assault. Pusie was subsequently suspended, despite his protests of innocence. “But I do not attack heem,” the St. Louis Star and Times heard from the accused. “Do not say Jean Pusie heet heem, he only poosh heem, an’ he fall.”

He appealed the suspension. His appeal was rejected, with emphasis: Pusie was, the AHA made clear, banned from the league for life.

And so, while his Flyers teammates got down to wrapping up the championship, Pusie changed gears, announcing that he’d signed up for a series of wrestling bouts across the U.S. Midwest.  He only ended up in a single match, as it turned out, conquering Young Joe Stecher from Boston at the St. Louis Coliseum. The Star and Times was only too pleased to hear him philosophize after it was all over. “I do not like to fight rough in the razzle reeng,” Pusie said, in reporter Ray Gillespie’s rendering. “Why should I try to hurt de odder fellow for only one hundred books. We both moost make a leeving.”

Otherwise, that pre-war summer of ’39, Pusie was in the news for familiar reasons: in June, playing in Quebec’s Provincial Lacrosse League, he was tossed out of a game for pushing referee Paul Jacobs. (Jacobs, it’s worth mentioning in passing, was a hockey player, too, and may have been, though probably not, the first Indigenous player to skate in the NHL.)

With the fall came news that St. Louis had traded Pusie to Vancouver of the PCHL. He fought there, incurred more fines, as detailed above, and generally carried with his brand of carrying things too far. He still had seven more years of pro hockey in him, at this point. He even got back to St. Louis: in 1941, in light of wartime manpower shortages, an AHA pardon paved the way for a return to the Flyers. Jean Pusie died at the age of 45 in Montreal in 1956.

One more detour, around one other loop, before we leave him. This is going back to 1931, when he made his debut in Canadiens colours at the age of 20. He’d been in the Montreal stable for a couple of seasons, but it wasn’t until December of 1930 that he made his first NHL appearance. He played six regular-season games that season while seeing regular duty with the Galt Terriers of the Ontario Professional Hockey League.

Montreal recalled him in early April to bolster their defence as they took on the Chicago Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup finals. The Canadiens were, of course, successful in defending their title, dispensing with the Black Hawks in five games. Pusie dressed for three of those — and yet his name wasn’t one of the 28 that would end up being stamped on the Cup itself.

I wondered about that. Why didn’t Pusie rate the recognition along with teammates Howie Morenz, George Hainsworth, Wildor Larochelle, and the rest? Right winger Bert McCaffrey was the other Canadien whose name was left off the Cup that year, but then he’d only played in the regular season, and wasn’t called on for any of Montreal’s ten post-season games, so there’s a trace of logic there.

I checked in with Craig Campbell, manager of the Doc Seaman Resource Centre and Archives at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which is where the Cup is at home when it’s not out and about with the current champions. No, he confirmed, Pusie’s name is not on silver band that enumerates the ’30-31 winners. Furthermore, the Hall has no documentation noting why he might have been left off. “It’s a mystery,” Campbell e-mailed.

Mining the archives, I may have found an explanation. It doesn’t seem fair, but it could just be the reason Pusie’s effort in showing up and getting into his gear for 60 per cent of Canadiens’ successful campaign in ’31 wasn’t rewarded: he never got on the ice.

Heading into the Cup finals after a five-game semi-final against the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens were a battered bunch. Winger Armand Mondou was in hospital with what the AP described as “wrenched chest muscles,” while Battleship Leduc, stalwart defender, was out with what they were still calling a “brain concussion:” he’d collided with Dit Clapper and hit his head on the ice.

And so when the series opened at Chicago Stadium on a Friday, April 3, Pusie was one of five defencemen in the 13-man Canadiens line-up. Coach Cecil Hart mostly went with just three of them to secure Montreal’s 2-1 win, relying on the Mantha brothers, Sylvio and Georges, and Marty Burke. “Arthur Lesieur was on the ice only for a few minutes altogether,” the Ottawa Journal reported. As for Pusie, Hart “hesitated to try the youngster.”

Two days later, when the Black Hawks evened the series in a game that went into double overtime. Pusie was again in the line-up; La Patrie subsequently noted that “management did not use him.”

Back in Montreal, the teams went to three overtimes before Chicago’s Cy Wentworth settled the matter in the Black Hawks’ favour. At one point, with Lesieur and Sylvio Mantha both serving penalties, coach Hart deployed forwards AurèleJoliat and Pit Lepine alongside Burke rather than blood Pusie. “Although in uniform,” La Patrie recounted next day, he “never had the opportunity to take the ice.”

He never got another chance. Though Battleship Leduc had, according to the Gazette, spent more than two weeks in hospital, he and his rattled brain returned to the line-up for the fourth game of the series and the fifth, both of which Montreal won to claim the Cup.

Pusie appeared in just a single game for Canadiens the following year. He’d wait two years after that before making his return to the NHL ice as a New York Ranger.

Le Grand Jean: Pusie and friend at Boston Garden. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)