down and out with tiny thompson

Bobby Bauer shot the puck, backhanded, and Tiny Thompson stopped it, with his eyebrow.

Without that errant puck, hoisted by a teammate, and the damage it caused (that’s it, above), who knows how the fortunes of the Boston Bruins might have turned out in 1938? If he’d stayed intact, Tiny Thompson might have kept the Boston net, as planned, rather than ceding it to young Frank Brimsek. Of course, if that had happened, would the Bruins have gone to win the Stanley Cup the following spring?

This is a story that doesn’t answer that question, because it can’t. All it really aims to navigate is what happened to Tiny Thompson, who was born this week in 1903 in Sandon, British Columbia, in the first weeks of the 1938-39 NHL season. Also? How his circumstances coincided — collided? — with those of another distinguished goaltender, Normie Smith, who decided, in the end, that maybe he didn’t want to be a goaltender after all.

At the end of October that year, with the new season was a week away, Art Ross’ Boston Bruins were preparing for the campaign ahead as the consensus favourites to win the Stanley Cup. They’d come close in the spring, but not close enough, losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoff semi-finals. Chicago had taken the Stanley Cup.

Manager Ross hadn’t had to do much in the way of reloading. The veterans of his line-up included captain Cooney Weiland and defencemen Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore, and the young forwards of the Sauerkraut line were back, Bauer, Milt Schmidt, and Woody Dumart.

In goal, Thompson, who was 35, had been defending the Bruin net for ten years. He was up at the top of his game, having just won his fourth Vézina Trophy, the only goaltender in NHL history at that point to have won so many. Asked that very fall to name a team of the best NHLers he’d ever seen, New York Americans’ manager Red Dutton chose Thompson as his goaltender — the only active player in an elective line-up that included forwards Bill Cook, Dick Irvin, and Aurèle Joliat along with defencemen Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn.

Other Thompson claims to fame: he was the first NHL goaltender to have been pulled for an extra attacker (in 1931) as well as the pullee of record (probably) when the trick actually work out for the first time and a goal was scored (in 1937).

Back to 1938. For all the veterans in his line-up, Ross wasin the renewal business, as hockey managers have to be. He liked what he was seeing from young forwards Mel Hill, Pat McReavy, and Roy Conacher. Towards the end of training camp, he also acquired right winger Harry Frost, who’d led the U.S. amateur champion Hershey Bears in scoring a year earlier.

In goal, Ross had Frank Brimsek standing by. Just turning 23, he’d been serving his apprenticeship in the Internal-American Hockey League. Now he seemed ready enough for the big stage to spark a rumour that Ross was going to trade Thompson to Toronto in exchange for defenceman Red Horner. Ross did no such thing: with the season approaching, he made clear that Thompson would be the Bruins’ first-choice backstop, with Brimsek minding the nets for the IAHL Providence Reds, while also spelling off Thompson through the season. The writing that seemed to be on the wall still seemed to be off in the distance: as The Pittsburgh Press reported it, just before the season got underway “Ross believes Brimsek will have Thompson’s job in the Bruin cage in another year.”

He barely had to wait a month, as it turned out — and that Bobby Bauer backhand was the start of it.

The Bruins were finishing up two weeks of preparation in Hershey, in Pennsylvania, as October drew to its end. From there they travelled to Pittsburgh for an exhibition game against the (Larry Aurie-coached) Hornets of the International-American League. Art Ross was feeling good, declaring that the Bruins had enjoyed “the best training season in history.”

“If we can just get past Pittsburgh without any mishaps,” he said, “Boston fans are going to see a Bruins team in the best shape it has ever been [sic] at this time of year.”

“We must have set some sort of record for this training season,” he went — making a point of knocking wood as he did so. “We didn’t have a single injury. Not a player missed a single practice session, and the results are apparent in the way the boys are flying. From Eddie Shore down to our new kids, every one of them is ready to go.”

The Bruins won in Pittsburgh, and handily, 8-2. Roy Conacher collected a hat trick and Milt Schmidt scored two of his own. That was the Saturday. Sunday they arrived back in Boston for a final exhibition game, this one at the Boston Garden against the amateur Boston Olympics.

The Bruins prevailed by a score of 7-2, with Porky Dumart collecting a hat trick. The coach’s son, 21-year-old Art Ross Jr., was vying for a place on the Olympics’ roster and he took the net for the third period, but that doesn’t appear to have fazed his father’s employees — Dumart put two by him and Jack Portland added another.

At the other end of the rink, Tiny Thompson came through okay — it was afterthe game that he was wounded. The Bruins stayed on the ice to scrimmage and that’s when the goaltender, sprawled on the ice, stopped Bobby Bauer’s backhand with his starboard eyebrow.

Bruins’ physician Dr. Marty Crotty sewed five stitches. His opinion? He didn’t think it would keep Thompson out of the season opener, Thursday in Toronto. “As a precaution, though,” Herb Ralby wrote in the morning-after Boston Daily Globe, “the Bruins will hold on to Frankie Brimsek.”

Monday: Thompson insisted on practicing with the team, though the eye was swollen almost shut. “Tiny may be ready to play by Thursday night,” Ross was saying, “but we won’t take the slightest chance of his hurting it again.” Brimsek wasn’t needed in Providence before the weekend. “So he may as well come along with us.”

Also going to Toronto would be Bruins’ new “Baby Line,” featuring Conacher, McReavy, and Hill. “There’s only one way to put the kids to the test,” said Ross, “and that’s out on the ice.”

Not wanted on the voyage — or at least not getting on the train at Boston’s South Station — was Eddie Shore. Having started training camp, Shore now stopped to make the point that he wasn’t satisfied with what the Bruins were paying him. A couple of years earlier, he’d been the NHL’s highest-paid player, making a reported $10,000 a year. Injured and not so effective, he’d taken a cut in pay the year before — possibly as much as $4,000. Now he wanted his old salary back — and refused to sign his contract until he got it.

So Art Ross called up Jack Crawford to take his place in Toronto.

Born and raised in Eveleth, Minnesota, Frank Brimsek had never yet played a game in Canada. He’d only ever travelled north of the border once before. Thursday night , Ross started him in net as the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Brimsek kept the net for the Bruins’ next game, in Detroit, and he was superbin Boston’s 4-1 win there in which Normie Smith guarded the Red Wing goal, bravely but in vain.

Thompson played his first game in New York, which ended with the Bruins losing to the Americans. Nothing to panic about, of course, though the first goal was one that Thompson, as they say, would have liked to have had back. Nappingwas a word that appeared in The Boston Daily Globe’s account of what Thompson may have been doing when Lorne Carr sent the puck at him from out by the blueline — “a slow, knee-high shot that found a place in the corner of the net.”

Thompson redeemed himself next a game in a 1-1 overtime tie in the Bruins’ home opener against Toronto, which he preserved with what the Globecalled “one of the most remarkable stops of his long career.” Eddie Shore was a spectator. Unable to make any headway with their star, Bruins’ management had put the matter in NHL President Frank Calder’s hands, but Shore still wasn’t signed.

With Thompson seeming to have claimed back his net, Boston beat Detroit and their new goaltender, Harvey Teno, 4-1. Thompson then beat the New York Rangers 4-2. With just a single loss in seven games, the Bruins seemed to be rolling, even without Shore in the fold. The fans hadn’t forgotten him: even as the Bruins piled up the wins, they were chanting his name.

Tiny Thompson was in goal again when Boston beat the New York Americans, 8-2. That was a Thursday, the last week of November. It was Thompson’s last game as a Bruin. By Monday, he’d been sold to Detroit, where the Red Wings had been living through a goaltending drama of their own. Normie Smith was their mainstay, had been for three years, during which he’d won a Vézina Trophy while helping his team win two Stanley Cups.

For all that past glory, the 1938 season had begun badly: the Red Wings lost their first four games. The Rangers were responsible for the last of those, in New York. Later that same night, Smith failed to return to his room at the Piccadilly Hotel and in the morning, when his teammates caught the train for Montreal, Smith missed that.

Adams fined him $150 and announced that he was calling up 24-year-old Harvey Teno from the IAHL Hornets. This was the first fine imposed on a Red Wing in years, Doc Holst of The Detroit Free Press explained:

Since 1935 Adams has had a strict rule on the club forbidding even one glass of beer. There is a $50 fine for its violation. The club now is the only one in the league that forbids players beer after hockey games. Serious trouble experienced by Adams players in the old days brought about the strict rule.

Not that he was suggesting anything in particular regarding Normie Smith: he, Holst insisted, had a reputation for “strict sobriety.”

Smith made it to Montreal in time to play. He explained that he’d been staying with friends on Staten Island and had simply overslept. Adams heard him out, but gave Teno the start. Smith watched from the stands as the Red Wings won 7-1. That made it easier, I suppose, for Adams to decide that he was sending to Smith to Pittsburgh to punish his peccadillos.

So Teno played in Boston, facing Tiny Thompson and Eddie Shore, too: he was back on defence after having agreed to what was reported to be a $12,000 contract. Returned to his perch as the NHL’s best-paid player, he sparked the Bruins to a 4-1 win. Thompson also starred.

That didn’t dampen the rumours. One of them reached Montreal’s Gazette, who had it that with (i) Brimsek’s ascendance and (ii) the fact that Thompson didn’t get along with Eddie Shore, Art Ross was (a) about to accept Jack Adams’ offer of $15,000 cash for Thompson, unless he (b) already had.

He hadn’t, though. Word from Boston was that fans were outraged at the notion of losing Thompson, and several sportswriters added their doubts to the debate.

The lobbying seems to have registered with Art Ross, if only up to a point. As Doc Holst told it, Ross had turned Adams down four times before changing his mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of Monday, November 28. With Eddie Shore’s new contract to pay for, Ross told Adams he’d take his $15,000, along with either Normie Smith or IAHL Pittsburgh goaltender Jimmy Franks.

“We regret that we were forced to dispose of Tiny,” Ross told reporters later on that morning. He was soon quelling an insurrection within his remaining roster. “First they took Marty Barry,” defenceman Dit Clapper was quoted as saying, “and now it’s Tiny. Well, I’m going to ask Art Ross to sell me, and I don’t care where I go.”

Clapper stayed, in the end. As for Thompson, Ross gave him a $1,000 “bonus” as he prepared to leave town. The goaltender was pleased, too, to be headed for a new opportunity, he said. “I should last a few more years there than I would in Boston.”

Boston had no choice but to cull their crowded crease, Jack Adams said. Brimsek, he felt, would be ensconced there now for 14 years. “Thompson,” he said, “should be good for five more years.”

It was a stint that Thompson started well, notching a 4-1 win with Detroit over the Stanley-Cup-champion Black Hawks. “Thompson,” went the Detroit Free Pressdispatch from Chicago, “did everything with grace and ease and directed the defence as calmly and coolly as though he had been in the Detroit nets his entire career.”

As for Normie Smith, he’d played a single penitent game with Pittsburgh for Larry Aurie’s Hornets, a 5-0 loss away to the Hershey Bears. The Pittsburgh Pressreported “a most amusing goal” that got by him:

Normie Smith had stopped Wally Kilrea’s shot at the goal mouth, and feeling that he had cleared sufficiently, he paid no more attention, leaning against his goal net and chewing gum. Sammy McManus, sparkplug of the Hershey Bears, coming up halfway between the face-off spot and the crease, flicked the puck in for Hershey’s fourth goal. The crowd laughed for more than half a minute.

That can’t have helped Smith’s mood, much less his confidence. That had been suffering for a while, according to Doc Holst. The Red Wings had had a rough 1937-38 season and with the poor start to the new season, the fans in Detroit had been booing the goaltender. “Smith, normally good natured and philosophical,” Holst noted, “has taken the criticism as the natural course of events until recently, when it was observed that it had begun to more than just get under his skin.”

After the Hershey loss, Smith returned to Detroit, where he and Teno both practiced with the team ahead of the Red Wings’ Thanksgiving game against Chicago. With Teno playing so well, Adams said, it was hard not to stick with him. Smith, he decided, would head back to Pittsburgh for at least one more game.

But Smith wasn’t having any of it. “I won’t play minor-league hockey,” he said. “I am either good enough to play for the Red Wings or not at all. I told Jack at the start of the season that when I had to play minor-league hockey, I was through. And I am. Detroit is my home and my living is here and I intend to stay.”

And so, aged 30, Normie Smith called it quits. He had a job — “a responsible position,” the Free Presssaid — at the Ford Motor Company, and so he dedicated himself to that. “I intend to keep in shape and if Jack ever needs me to play in the nets in an emergency, I will play. I want to be a Red Wing or nothing.”

He remained unmoved a few days later when he heard that he may have been traded to Boston. He wanted no part of them, either.

“I can’t make him go if he doesn’t want to,” Adams said. Jimmy Franks doesn’t seem to have made it to Boston, either — in the end, as far as I can determine, it was a straight cash deal.

Regarding the longevity of Adams’ new goaltender, his forecast was a little off. Thompson played just two seasons with Detroit before he was supplanted by Johnny Mowers. He left to coach the AHL Buffalo Bisons.

As for Brimsek, he began his Boston career by backstopping the Bruins to the 1938-39 Stanley Cup. He lasted five years with the team before signing up to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard for the duration. After the war, he returned for four more Bruin seasons before a final one in Chicago in 1949-50.

Normie Smith did make it back to the Red Wing net, eventually. After four years out of the NHL, he returned to the only team he ever wanted to play for, appearing in six games over two seasons from1943 through 1945.

 

(Top image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)

herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

Tuesday this week marked a birthday for Herb Gardiner, born in Winnipeg in 1891, whose stardom on the ice in Calgary and Montreal you may not have heard about. (He died in 1972, aged 80.) If you look Gardiner up at the Hockey Hall of Fame, whereinto he was inducted in 1958, you’ll see that his adjectives include stellar and two-way and consistent, and that one of his nouns is rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, along with the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is wrong, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract. He took the number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, and played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantrieshe exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and Montreal goaltender George Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy named for his coach’s father. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to comply, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first. As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September. The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Attestee: Herb Gardiner signs up to serve, c. 1915.

congratulations to all — and for aurèle joliat, a big black cat

Rocket-Watcher: Ray Getliffe was a Bruin first, but after four seasons in Boston, he joined Montreal in 1939. He played six seasons for the Canadiens, including 1942-43, when his teammates (see below) deemed him to be one of their most effective penalty-killers. Born in Galt, Ontario, this very week in 1914, he died in 2008, aged 94. Another claim for his fame? He’s the man credited with coining one of hockey’s most enduring nicknames. In 1942, the story goes, he commented that teammate Maurice Richard skated like, yes, a rocket.

No more will Canadiens play in Montreal this season: it’s all over there for another year. The team does have one last road game, in Toronto on Saturday, but at the Bell Centre, it’s all over, now, but the raw, animal moaning.

Amid the disappointment of a inferior year, the team did find some achievement to celebrate this week, and there was silverware to go with. Brendan Gallagher was named winner of this year’s Molson Cup, team’s de facto Player of the Year award, as measured by three-star selections.

Paul Byron got the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy, by which local media celebrate a player whose exploits have gone otherwise unsung — or, as the team phrases it, the member of the team who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honour.

The Molson dates back to 1973, when Ken Dryden won it. Since then, it’s been awarded to many likely achievers (Guy Lafleur and Carey Price, seven times each one) along with some others who qualify as lesser lights — Wayne Thomas, Steve Penney, Cristobal Huet.

Named for the venerable newspaperman who worked his words in both Montreal-Matinand Le Journal de Montreal, the Beauchamp was established in the 1981-82 season, when Doug Jarvis was the inaugural winner. Others who followed him have included the quietly contributing likes of Craig Ludwig, Lyle Odelein, Jan Bulis, and Steve Begin.

Further back in Canadiens history? The Montreal branch of Mappin and Webb, jewelers and silversmiths, does seem to have donated trophies on the Molson model in the 1920s with a notion of recognizing local excellence. Details are sketchy, but the lost, lamented Maroons seem have embraced this more than Canadiens. Babe Siebert won the Maroons’ Mappin and Webb Trophy as team  MVP in 1928, while Jimmy Ward was the man for the Maroons in 1931.

The only instance of Canadiens awarding a Mappin and Webb Trophy that I can trace is at the end of the 1927-28 season. Ahead of their last regular-season game at the Forum, before they went out and whupped Ottawa 4-0, Canadiens paraded the year’s haul of hardware — and pets.

NHL President Frank Calder handed over the O’Brien Cup, still the prize in those years for the NHL team finishing first overall. As the league’s top goaltender, George Hainsworth collected his second consecutive Vézina Memorial Trophy. In reporting that Howie Morenz got the Mappin and Webb, the Gazette noted that it specifically recognized his MVPlaying during the team’s homegames.

Also, that the crowd at the Forum was pleased to see Morenz acknowledged, giving him “a stirring ovation.” La Patrie: “une immense acclamation salua ce geste.”

The fans had further tributes to offer. In those earliest NHL decades, the die-hardest of the Canadiens’ faithful occupied the 50-cent seats in the upper gallery of the Forum’s north-end. They were, largely, French-speaking and working-class, and they proudly identified as the Millionaires.

Apart from devotedly hailing their heroes, these fans often rewarded the Montreal players, as they did on this night in 1928. George Hainsworth was the pre-game recipient of four-leaf clover, described in the papers as both “massive” and “metallic.”

Better yet was what the fans had in store for Morenz’s linemate Aurèle Joliat.

He, delightfully, was presented with a black cat, on a string. The Gazettereported that giftand giftee “immediately got into a scratching battle.” La Patrie said nothing of that, describing the cat (in translation) as “big” with“nice, smooth fur,” an altogether “beautiful beast.” Also: “Joliat, a little surprised at the gift at first, accepted it with good humor and offered to take good care of it.”

I’d be glad to know (a) the cat’s name, as well as (b) what became of it and (c) did anyone think that making such a fuss over a black cat boded ill for the team’s playoffs run? Please get in touch if you have leads. I can confirm that while Canadiens did pass on a bye to the semi-finals, they were eliminated there in two games by the Maroons, who in turn failed to beat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.

One last stop on a tour of in-house recognitions of old might take us to October of 1942. Canadiens had gone 11 years without a championship at that point, and would be waiting another two seasons before they found themselves raising the Cup again. Still, Dick Irvin’s players were apparently feeling loose and confident enough as their pre-season wound down to take a poll among themselves to predict at least some of what was to come in the campaign ahead.

This was, I think, an enterprise cooked up by a newspaperman (Dink Carroll, possibly) from the Gazette, where the results were published. The consensus among the players was that they’d finish the season with 56 points. Most of them, 10, thought that this would be good enough for third place in the six-team NHL, while four predicted they’d finish second. Just one was bold enough to say they’d come in first. (As it turned out, Canadiens finished the 50-game schedule with 50 points, good enough for fourth place and the last playoff spot.)

Individually, 11 of 15 players voted that goaltender Paul Bibeault would be the team’s outstanding player. (Winger Joe Benoit, with two, came second.) Bibeault did end up playing in all 50 games, finishing with a record of 19-19-12, which was good enough (I guess), though among his NHL peers, the only statistical categories he led at season’s end were the ones headed Most Losses(he tied with Toronto’s Turk Broda) and Goals Against.

Also in their pre-season poll, the players decided that Gordie Drillon, newly acquired from the Leafs, would lead the team in goals, with 23, followed by Benoit (22) and captain Toe Blake (21). (In fact, Benoit got 30, Drillon 28, and Blake 23.)

The players voted Jack Portland and Elmer Lach as the fastest skaters among them. Benoit was deemed best stickhandler, while Buddy O’Connor was the best puck-carrier. Rating penalty-killers, they couldn’t decide between Charlie Sands and Ray Getliffe, pictured here. They each collected seven votes.

same old same old: must be something very sick with those canadiens, 1933 edition

Bencher: Newsy Lalonde was Montreal’s man in charge in 1932-33, another trying year in Canadiens’ history.

“Cette année, c’est terminé.” That was Michel Bergeron writing last week at TVA Sports about — of course — the Montreal Canadiens and the dismal season they’ve been lurching through. With 28 games to go in the season, the likelihood of Montreal making the playoffs was a wretched two percent going into Saturday’s game against Nashville. By this morning, post-shootout-loss, it had drooped to 1.2.

The autopsying has been underway for a while now, which has to be painful for the patient. When Carey Price hasn’t been injured, he’s been — how to put this, so it’s polite? — not quite himself. Max Pacioretty has been someone else, too, which nobody would be complaining about if that someone were Steve Shutt or Toe Blake, but no, sorry, that hasn’t been the case, and so the talk is, as it has been, that is/should be/must certainly find himself traded away before the NHL’s February 26 trade deadline.

Jonathan Drouin, meanwhile, is still looking for his inner Pierre Larouche, while Joe Morrow’s Jacques Laperriereitude has been erratic at best. P.K. Subban has been P.K. Subban, it’s just that he’s been P.K. Subbaning it on Broadway in Nashville rather than more locally on Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal.

Columnists and commentators, pundits and podcasters — most of the Montreal chatterati has written the year off. For Bergeron, the worry now is the future. “L’an prochain,” he wonders, “les Canadiens feront-t-ils les séries? Très difficile de répondre oui à cette question.”

At the Montreal Gazette, Jack Todd is one who’s been gazing back. If only in 2003, then-GM Bob Gainey hadn’t drafted so cautiously, and/or known what we know now. The result of his bumbling back then?

Two appearances in an Eastern Conference final and a quarter-century without a parade. That was not the goal when Gainey took over and began his career by drafting Andrei Kostitsyn with the 10th pick overall, while Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, and Corey Perry were still on the table in the first round alone, then taking Cory Urquhart with Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber still out there.

Somehow, the Canadiens have to come out of the carnage of this season with a quality centre to fill that hole in the donut on the top line — and, somehow, they need to close the charisma gap.

Another Gazette writer thinks it’s time Canadiens did what they’re doing in New York. Maybe you saw the letter that Rangers’ president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton posted for fans of the team last week, the one that began, ominously if honestly enough, “We want to talk to you about the future.” It went on to outlining what may be coming in the way of tearing down a team that’s 23.6 percent headed for the playoffs.

Brendan Kelly wants a letter like that:

Team president Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin should take a page out of the New York Rangers’ playbook and come clean to their fans for the travesty that is the 2017-18 Habs. Better yet, they should concede that their plan has failed and that the time has come to rebuild this team.

It may be in the mail. In the meantime, can we consider that there’s nothing so new under Montreal’s cold winter sun? It won’t boost any playoff percentages, nor calm any restive hearts or keyboards to hear it, but Canadiens have been here before.

In February of 1933, for instance.

Leo Dandurand

Leo Dandurand was the man in charge back then. He co-owned the team, with partner Joseph Cattarinich, who’d once (way back) tended the Canadiens’ goal. Dandurand had coached the team in the early 1920s, and continued to manage the roster after he gave that up. Over the course of a decade, his Canadiens won three Stanley Cups. The last of those weren’t such ancient history in ’33, either: Dandurand’s teams were back-to-back champions in 1930 and ’31.

In ’32, they’d topped the standings during the regular season only to fail at the first fence they faced in the playoffs.

The team they iced the following year still had most of the winning timber intact

George Hainsworth was 37, sure, but he was still playing every game, and in ’31-32 he’d won more of them (25) than anyone else tending an NHL net. Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, and Battleship Leduc were stalwarts, still, on defence. Upfront, Canadiens had Howie Morenz, Aurele Joliat, and Johnny Gagnon as their leading line.

Hockey, of course, was only one of Dandurand’s guiding interests. He was heavily into horses that ran, owned race tracks, spent his winters, increasingly, in the southern U.S. In January of ’33, he was down in New Orleans, ensconced for the season at Jefferson Park.

Or maybe not. Canadiens were struggling in the early days of the new year, stuck in last place in the NHL, down at the bottom of the five-team Canadian Division.

Pundits like Walter Gilhooly of The Ottawa Journal were ready to pronounce that “the great Canadien comet that flared over the hockey firmament” had passed. Coach Newsy Lalonde wasn’t panicking, though. Following a 6-1 loss in Detroit, he was reported to be confident, quote, that the team would soon shake its losing ways. But: “If weaknesses are apparent anywhere in future, I will take immediate measures to remedy such a condition.”

Leo Gaudreault

Lalonde was shuffling his lines that month, extracting Morenz from the top line with Joliat and Gagnon, slotting in Pete Lepine. Dandurand was back in town, too, to monitor the situation. Canadiens won a couple of games, but they couldn’t keep it going. By the end of January they were looking to the Providence Reds of the lower-loop Can-Am League for a boost. Lalonde reportedly had designs on drafting in an entire line of theirs, the one featuring Gus Rivers, Hago Harrington, and Leo Murray.

Dandurand went two-thirds of the way, sending forwards Armand Mondou and Leo Gaudreault to Providence in exchange for Murray and Harrington.

The team continued its indifferent play into February. The situation wasn’t hopeless: with 20 games remaining in the 48-game schedule, Canadiens were level, now, with Ottawa, lurking just five points behind the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans. String some wins together and Canadiens would be right back into the thick of it.

It wasn’t happening, though. They lost, and badly, to the Americans and Maroons in succession. It was with the latter defeat that the team seemed to cross a line of Dandurand’s.

Time to for a change.

“To Dismantle/ Famous Team” was the couplet atop a photo of Dandurand in The Winnipeg Tribune. The word from Montreal was grim: he was ready to rid the roster of as many as five underperforming players, “asking waivers” in the parlance of the day, though he wasn’t yet naming names. Having lost 7-2 to their cross-town rivals, the players were reported to “gloomy, dispirited” when Dandurand came in to see them in the dressing room.

He’d watched, he told the players, waited, hoped the team could turn themselves around. Now, drastic measures were in order. “Dandurand stated he knew the weak spots on the team,” the Tribune reported, “and speedy action would ensue to strengthen these positions.”

You can see why the players’ emotions would be running strong: “one or two all but broke down.”

Dandurand announced that wasn’t going to fire Newsy Lalonde: the coach had his confidence. Rumours of imminent trades bustled around Montreal, involving … everybody, up to and including Howie Morenz, who’d been great to start the season but had tailed off in the new year.

The uproar in the press wasn’t what it is today, but that’s not to say the players weren’t scrutinized, one by one. Pit Lepine had been suspended, briefly, for “breaking training rules,” a euphemism you often see in early NHL days that sometimes alludes to hangovers, though it might just as well be that Lepine overslept. Either way, he was playing better now, as was Sylvio Mantha, who’d started the season slowly. The best you could say, apparently, for Gagnon and Joliat was that they’d been inconsistent. Battleship Leduc, too: spectacular in one game, he was ineffective the next.

Hainsworth had to shoulder some of the blame, too. I don’t know whether he was pleading his case or just mentioning the math he’d been doing in his spare time, but that desolate February the goaltender did mention to an attentive reporter that he estimated that since he’s started his career in 1912, he’d faced 18,500 shots.

At first, Dandurand’s dismantling involved another influx from Providence. He brought in defenceman Bob Trapp and forwards Art Alexandre and Gizzy Hart. The new-look Canadiens beat Toronto 2-0 after that, which was good, though they followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Chicago, after which Dandurand fined Johnny Gagnon $200 for not showing sufficient interest in the game he was playing.

A trade this week in 1933 saw veteran defenceman Marty Burke depart for Ottawa in exchange for blueliners Harold Starr and Leo Bourgeault.

With Gagnon rumoured to be the next one to move, Canadiens beat Detroit 6-2 and Ottawa 6-0. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on how that worked: “A few changes and a hair-raising string of forcible ejection threats, including sale by auction of more than one star, lifted Canadiens to peak from in jig-time.”

Down they crashed a week later. The verb smother featured in the stories from Boston that final week of February, along with the noun walloping, as the Bruins beat Montreal by a score of 10-0. Here’s Walter Gilhooly whooping it up in The Ottawa Journal:

Ten goals to noting is something that French ears will hardly be able to credit. Crapeau de mer, par bleu, and sacre nom d’un chien! There must be something very sick with those Canadiens. Maybe they are not getting enough pea sup. Perhaps they are getting too much, but something is very wrong with that team.

The other night when they defeated Ottawas they looked like a good bet for a play-off position. Now Leo Dandurand will be tearing what’s left of his hair and throwing it all over the dressing room floor. It’s nothing, however, to where he may throw some of his hockey players before another season comes.

In Montreal, the reviews rated it “almost unbelievable” and “about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” You had to cast back to 1920 for a debacle so dire, when Newsy Lalonde was in a Canadien uniform for an 11-3 drubbing at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa. (Canadiens suffered another 10-0 Ottawa schooling in 1921.)

It was the worst performance in Hainsworth’s history of bombardment, the third period in particular, when seven of the 17 shots that came his way passed him by.

Leo Dandurand showed a brave face. “It was just one of those bad games,” he said. “There are no excuses: the fault can be laid to no particular player’s door. Hainsworth was not to blame, he was given weak protection. The team as a whole played poorly. But it’s out of our systems. We have eight home games left and five away. I think we can gain points in the majority of them and I think we can still make the playoffs. And the team thinks so, too.”

Dandurand’s command of the schedule was a little off: Montreal, in fact, had six home games remaining, six on the road. He did get the part about the playoffs right: Montreal went 6-4-2 to pip the Americans and the Senators for the last post-season spot on the NHL’s Canadian side. Their exit was speedy: on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers dispensed with them in two games.

Leo Dandurand had another couple of years before he got out of the harrowing business of owning the Montreal Canadiens. He still had some adventures ahead of him before he sold the team two years later, of course, including threatening to move the team to Cleveland and, even more shocking insofar as it actually happened, trading away Howie Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks.

A syndicate headed by Ernest Savard eventually bought the team in the fall of 1935. The new coach was the old defenceman Sylvio Mantha, who planned to still play as he guided the team. It would be another ten years before Canadiens would raise the Stanley Cup in triumph again, but nobody knew that then, of course. Hopes were high, as they perennially are in Montreal, where Canadiens are and always have been the process of re-inventing themselves. We’ll end, why not, with a newspaper headline as the 1935-36 season got underway: “Make-Over in Ownership, Management and Personnel Expected to Transform Flying Frenchmen Into Dangerous NHL Contenders.”

 

rivalrousers: when habs and bruins meet

Boston’s surging Bruins play in Montreal tonight, where (in case you hadn’t heard) their old rivals the Canadiens continue their season of struggles. The two teams meet again next Wednesday before returning to Montreal to complete their mini-series a week from tonight.

The two teams have played 34 playoff series against one another since 1929, with Montreal having prevailed in 25 of those. Tonight’s game is the 739th regular-season meeting. Canadiens are ahead by (almost) a century on that count, with a won-lost-lost in overtime record 360-267-8 and 103 ties.

The first time the teams clashed was December 8, 1924, a Monday night, in Boston. That was the first year there were Bruins, of course, and in just the third game of their history, Canadiens spoiled the evening by beating them 4-3. The ice was a little soft at the Boston Arena; the crowd numbered 5,000. Aurèle Joliat notched a hattrick for the defending Stanley Cup champions from Montreal, with Howie Morenz adding a goal of his own. Scoring for Boston was Bobby Rowe and Carson Cooper, with a pair.

Is it fair to say that Tex Coulter caught the spirit of the rivalry in his 1959 painting of a couple of belligerents ignoring the referee? That’s one question. Another: who were his models? Fern Flaman and Leo Boivin were up atop the pile of leading Bruin penalty-takers that season, but Coulter’s Bostonian doesn’t look like either of them, to me. The haircut kind of suggests Jack Bionda. The Hab in question is numbered 2, which would make him Doug Harvey. I don’t see that, though, either. Could be 20, I guess, which was Phil Goyette. Ian Cushenan was 21 and Don Marshall 22 and … I don’t know. Safe to say it’s not Jean Béliveau. Let’s just leave it there. Game’s on.

 

the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and lacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

•••

The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not 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.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

pall

Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”