severely jarred, badly wrenched: the life and sore times of howie morenz

A unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:

I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?

Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.

In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.

That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?

Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:

His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.

(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)

Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.

In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.

The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”

Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,

Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.

In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.

Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.

In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,

Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.

The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.

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entente cordiale

Babe Siebert and Eddie Shore had their battles — in 1929, famously, Siebert was one of the more vicious of the Montreal Maroons who helped send Shore to hospital — but in 1933, the two future Hall-of-Famers became teammates in Boston. It was early in December of that year that Shore put an end to the career of Toronto’s star winger Ace Bailey with some viciousness of his own at Boston Garden. After Shore was duly suspended, Bruins supremo Art Ross filled the gap on Boston’s defence by sending centreman Vic Ripley to the New York Rangers in exchange for Siebert. Shore served a 16-game suspension before making his return to the ice in February of 1934. There, helmet in hand and eventually on head, Shore, at some point, made his peace with Siebert, and the two men shook hands. That’s forward George Patterson presiding — or maybe he was just caught in the middle.

 

on le maltraite: eddie shore mauled by maroons, 1929

Rematch: Bruins and Maroons line up at Boston Garden. Quite probably this is the November 26, 1929 game in which the teams met again three days after the mayhem at the Forum. The line-ups depicted here match up with the ones that took the ice that night. Eddie Shore is notably absent, as he was; Lionel Hitchman wears a plaster to protect the eye he’d had damaged in Montreal. Cooper Smeaton is the rear referee; Babe Siebert is ahead of him to his left, slightly obscured by a teammate. Yes, I’ve scoured the stands for Shore and his wife Kate; no, I can’t be sure I’ve picked them out, though I wonder about the couple by the door in the boards on the right side of the scene. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Every year it declares itself, as November ebbs away, sure as U.S. Thanksgiving, and this year was no different.

If you’re on Twitter and you have a taste for hockey history, then it may be that on Friday last, amid the day’s holiday leftovers, you saw a reference to the Legend of Eddie Shore’s Five Fighting Majors (An NHL Record). Maybe you also took in some of the replies and comments that attended the observance of the supposed anniversary: many of them, if you missed out, contained lusty endorsements of old-time hockey and its glorious bygone bad-assery.

The focus of all this is a game that the Boston Bruins played on November 23, 1929 against the Montreal Maroons at the old Forum. Although Shore didn’t, that night, accrue five majors or drop his gloves to fight five separate opponents, this was an exceedingly violent game. If it’s worth studying, it may be as an exemplar of the NHL’s troubling tendency (a big one in the 1920s) to veer into violence above and beyond the business-as-usual shoving and punching and grievous hacking and swinging of sticks that the league and its fans were more or less used to. It might have offered a chance for professional hockey to look itself in the eye and think about effecting real change. Instead, the NHL followed in a tradition it holds dear, one that’s still cherished to this day: it did nothing.

What’s not in doubt, looking back at what happened that night 89 years ago — well, several things. The game — and in particular, the third period — was vicious. Whether the malice was aforethought or of the moment, the Maroons do seem to have been intent on forcing Shore from the ice in the direction of a hospital. It’s true, too, that the referees charged with keeping the peace and reproving those who disturbed it failed in their work.

Veteran Maroons’ defenceman Buck Boucher later said it was the roughest game he’d ever played in. Fist-fighting doesn’t seem to have featured in the mayhem, so far as the written record shows. Mostly, the antagonists appear to have held onto their sticks and used them to do the damage they meant to do. Montreal trainer Bill O’Brien had been handling hockey teams for 27 years — as long as Eddie Shore had been alive at that point— and he said that never had he seen players so battered by butt-ends as on this November night.

So far as records being set? Shore took three minor penalties on the night, but didn’t incur one fighting major, let alone five. Indeed, for all the game’s turmoil, referees George Mallinson and Leo Heffernan assessed not a single major that night.

A visit to the NHL’s archive of historical game data at NHL.com confirms that (here). A review of contemporary newspaper accounts — what men who were at the game wrote and published in its immediate aftermath — doesn’t support the idea that’s so dear to the hearts of hockey-fight enthusiasts, viz. that Eddie Shore fought — i.e. dropped the gloves + exchanged punches with, or used sticks to fence against — five different Maroons on the night, thereby setting some kind of shining standard of bellicose derring-do.

•••

Eddie Shore was many things as a hockey player. He was only in his fourth season with the Bruins in 1929, but already it was clear that he was a superstar, one of the NHL’s first. His talents, I guess, had limits, but those were far beyond most of his contemporaries. He also had a temper and a lack of fear that all these years later strike you at times — well, me — as almost monstrous. Reading about his exploits on the ice in the 1920s and ’30s conjures the image of a swiftly skating mean streak. All of which is to say that when it comes to hockey’s violent side, Shore was usually front and centre. “He is 185 pounds of rather husky bone, muscle and sinew,” wrote Ralph Clifford in The Boston Traveler, “and is willing to trade bumps, legal and illegal, with anyone on skates.”

He was, in a word, game. Maybe that qualifies the events we’re talking about here, but it doesn’t really explain them. “It was a whole clan against one man,” Le Canada reported, “and that’s what made the whole affair revolting. It was obvious that it was no longer hockey but a program to get rid of Shore.”

Shore’s injuries were widely reported: along with various facial cuts and what La Pressecalled “painful but non-serious bruises,” he suffered (from the Gazette) “a broken nose, the loss of four teeth that had been originally on a bridge, and a slight concussion.”

Also injured in the game were two of the other leading men: Babe Siebert, playing wing for Maroons, ended up with a broken toe, a bruised rib, and a blackened eye (swollen “just about closed”). Montreal’s Dave Trottier also came away in some distress, which the Montreal Gazette later specified with this (possibly non-clinical) diagnosis: a butt-end administered by Shore “shoved a bone in on his lungs which resulted in the Maroon winger having a hemorrhage after the game. Trottier was still spitting up blood yesterday.”

Boston captain Lionel Hitchman took a stick to the head in the first period, resulting in a cut near an eye. All but unremarked amid the uproar surrounding Shore is the possibility that both goaltenders — Boston’s Tiny Thompson and Clint Benedict of Montreal — suffered concussions during the game. Both men, of course, continued on after their brief respective respites, because that’s what you did as an NHL goaltender in 1929, until you no longer could.

Sketchy: An artist for a Montreal newspaper bore witness to the chaotic events that filled the Forum on the night of November 23, 1929. His rendering includes two depictions of Shore. The caption attending the one in the middle on the left reads: “Shore was comforted by his manager, before preparing to play and after he was injured.” Above that, to the right, Shore is shown prone, dreaming of a kicking mule. That one’s captioned: “The game must have been really rough for Shore to be put out of action.”

The two teams did have a busy history of enmity. A mean-spirited game in January of 1928, for example, featured Boston defenceman Sprague Cleghorn butt-ending Maroons’ forward Hooley Smith (no penalty was called). Shore and Siebert feuded the night away, too: by the Montreal Gazette’s telling, one of their clashes in the third period saw Siebert apply stick and glove to Shore’s face. “Referee [Dr. Eddie] O’Leary waved Siebert off for a minor. Shore went to the ice as if badly injured. Referee-in-Chief Cooper Smeaton, who officiated when Alex Romeril was held up by a late train, took command and booted Siebert’s penalty to a major. Shore got up and continued in the play.”

NHL President Frank Calder had already suspended Siebert once that season, ten days for attacking Billy Boucher of the New York Americans with his stick; now, having incurred his third major of the season, Siebert faced a further one-game suspension for (as wire report put it) “belting Shore across the face with the flat of his stick.”

Another Bruins-Maroons meeting in February of 1929 was noteworthy (said the Gazette) for cross-checks, butt-ends, and “indifferent” refereeing. Hooley Smith served two minors, Shore four. Shore was Smith’s “old pet aversion,” said The Ottawa Journal; The Canadian Press recounted that the two of men were involved in “a private feud” all game. “In fact, Shore, reputed to be one of the most brilliant hockeyists in the game today, was a marked man throughout, and Smith was not the only Maroon player that paid special attention to the big fellow.”

The Gazette did on this occasion log Shore’s habit for playing “possum every chance he got.” Sometimes it helped his cause, but not always. “It looked pretty bad when the referees didn’t fall for his little spasms of emotional acting.”

•••

The season was still young when the Bruins travelled to Montreal towards the end of November of 1929. The defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston had won all three of their games to begin the campaign, while the Maroons had a record of 2-2. Art Ross’ roster, coming into Montreal, was a diminished one, with Harry Oliver laid low with the grippe and George Owen left behind in Boston: a former Harvard University football star, he had a gig writing up his old team’s big game with Yale for the Boston Globe. So it was with just two defencemen that Boston lined up at the Forum, meaning Shore and Lionel Hitchman played every minute — save those, of course, when they were sitting on the penalty bench or lying bleeding in the dressing room, about to depart for the hospital.

Contemporary newspaper accounts don’t illuminate the game in anything approaching complete its colour and detail, but they’re what we have to guide us. My review of what did and didn’t happen relies on accounts from six main Montreal newspapers: the English-language Gazette and Herald as well as, in French, Le Canada, La PresseLa Patrie, and Le Devoir. These are fairly substantial reports, if not exactly consistent. Three of these were bylined: the Herald (Baz O’Meara), La Patrie (Horace Lavigne), and Le Devoir (X.E. Narbonne).

The Boston papers I’ve examined include issues of The Boston Traveler,The Evening Transcript, and The Daily Boston Globe, none of which seems to have had a correspondent of their own in Montreal at the Forum. The Globe, for example, relied on an Associated Press account of the action. Other prominent Canadian papers (Ottawa’s Citizen and Journal; the Toronto Globe and Star) ran short wire reports from the Canadian Press.Beyond those, you’ll find that accounts appearing in farther flung newspapers keep it short and distilled. Précised in Monday’s Winnipeg Tribune, the game that Manitobans read about was merely “thrilling” and “hard-hitting.”

For two periods, the teams battled (as the Gazette told it) like bulldogs, at lightning speed. That Boston won the game 4-3 was the least of the news when it was all over. “As hectic a struggle as Forum ice has witnessed in many a moon,” was the word from Montreal’s Gazette next day, under this vivid subhead:

Contest Stopped in Third
Period While Blood Is
Scraped From Ice.

Most of the havoc occurred in the third period. But most of the penalties — six of the game’s 12 minors — were handed out in the second. The NHL’s database is not so helpful that it names the infractions involved, and newspaper summaries aren’t any help either. One of the French-language chronicles helps out somewhat on this count. Shore’s two second-period penalties were called, respectively, when he “brought down” right winger Merlyn Phillips and then Hooley Smith. In the third: “Shore shoved Trottier and was banished.”

Was this last penalty roughing, maybe, or interference? I can’t say. The French verb used here is an excellent one, bousculer. What seems clear is that Shore’s third-period bousculade followed some that both Smith and Trottier visited on him without being penalized.

Smith was first. Here, translated, is how Le Canada saw that exchange:

Smith knocked over Shore and gave him a cross-check. He escaped without punishment. Art Ross tried to pull him back but he insisted on continuing. He was all bloody. Smith charged Shore again and again withdrew without punishment.

Cut though he was, Shore carried on. “His injuries,” Le Canada was convinced at this point, “were insignificant.”

Trottier came at him next. Le Canada describes “a strong cross-check” that wounded Shore above the eye.

La Patrie’s version of this:

Towards the middle of the third period, Trottier planted his stick in Shore’s face, cutting him deeply over the eye. It took a minute for the referees to stop the game, and Shore’s face was dripping with blood.

La Presse saw this intervention as somewhat more forceful. Near Montreal’s net, Trottier struck Shore “with a blow of the stick that would have felled an ox.”

This heinous assault was carried out under the eyes of referee Leo Heffernan and he did not even make a comment to the attacker. It is hard to believe that the blow was accidentally struck.

Along with these individual attacks, Smith and Trottier may also to have teamed up for more Shore-mauling. Baz O’Meara of The Montreal Star saw this:

Smith and Trottier sandwiched Shore and gave him plenty of butt end. He was sent reeling and was groggy when he came up. He was taken out by Art Ross and blood was streaming from his eyes as he went to the side for repairs.

The correspondent from La Presse couldn’t understand why Boston’s marquee defenceman remained in the game. “From the reporters’ gallery,” he wrote, “as from any prominent spot in the rink, you could see that Shore was barely standing on his legs.” Others noted that Ross’ efforts to pull Shore from the game were met by the defenceman’s refusal to withdraw.

It was almost over — so close. Under the heading “Siebert’s Villainous Act,” La Patrie told of the game’s furious finale. With a minute to play, down by a goal, “the Maroons were making unheard of efforts to equal the score.” There’s a lively shifting of tenses here on the page, past to present, present back to past:

Shore is everywhere, multiplying himself to stop his opponents. Suddenly, Siebert goes up the centre of the ice and Shore goes to meet him and blocks him. For an answer, Siebert raises his stick and hits Shore on the nose. The Bruins’ defense player bleeds in abundance, and even falls on the ice. The blow was struck under Mallinson’s gaze, five feet from him, and the least that the culprit should have had was a major punishment. But then the game was stopped several seconds later, when it was apparent that Shore was not getting up again. When he was helped to his feet, a pool of blood marked the ice, and it had to be scraped to remove it.

That’s the lengthiest of the accounts I’ve looked at describing the incident that ended the night. Others feature what seems to be conflicting information — did Shore make it off the ice on his own or was he borne? These include:

• La Presse’s, wherein Siebert “pitilessly” cross-checked Shore’s nose. “The victim collapsed to the ice in a pool of blood and his teammates then carried him to their dressing room.”

• Le Canada: “There was a melee and Shore was seriously injured. Siebert gave him a cross-check to his face. The game ended a few seconds later.”

• Le Devoir: “Siebert was especially distinguished by his wild action in the final minutes of the game as he deliberately attacked Eddie Shore, applying a cross-check full in the face with the result that the defence player’s nose was broken and he lost a large amount of blood.”

• The Gazette says only that “Shore was cut down and so beaten that he lay prone on the ice.” (An accompanying aside asserts that Shore had, earlier in the game, gone unpunished when he “smack[ed] Siebert over the Adam’s apple when he lay prone on the ice behind the Boston cage.”)

• The Montreal Star: “Then in the final couple of minutes of the third period, Shore was victim to a high stick and was knocked down again. Siebert delivered the wallop. Shore was given a great hand as he went over to get attention. The ice was smeared with blood. He had another bad cut over his eyes. Siebert escaped without a penalty.”

• The Boston Globe’s AP report leaves it at “Siebert checked Shore heavily and the Bruin defense man was assisted off the ice by his teammates, leaving the ice stained with blood where he fell.”

Shore was eventually taken to Western General Hospital, where he stayed overnight. He was released in the morning in time to join the rest of the Bruins for their train trip back to Boston.

While the hockey players travelled, the newspapermen prepared their columns for Monday morning’s editions. For Shore, the local papers had praise and commiseration: “the courageous athlete,” they called him, “brave” and “intrepid,” “a fortress in front of [Tiny] Thompson,” even “poor Shore.”

But this was mostly secondary: they had blame to lay. Montreal’s French-language press was particularly scathing when it came to calling out those deemed responsible for what La Pressecalled the “revolting butchery” and a “slaughter.” Le Canada’s writer was likewise sickened: he’d seen many “regrettable scenes” in the 20 years he’d been watching hockey, but none that surpassed what he’d viewed on this night.

A plurality of fans leaving the Forum were, from what X.E. Narbonne of Le Devoir could tell, “disgusted” with the “treacherous, anti-sporting, and repugnant tactics” practiced by members of the team they supported. Several spectators were reported to have sought out Boston coach Art Ross after the game to volunteer to testify about the attacks on Shore, if witnesses were needed for prosecutions. A pair of Boston city councillors who happened to be attending the game also stepped up to offer testimony on Shore’s behalf.

The papers reserved most of their disgust for referees Mallinson and Heffernan for allowing the violence to escalate. La Presse spoke of their “unspeakable indifference.” Ralph Clifford of The Boston Traveler described how, usually, two capable referees would split the work on the ice, with one man watching the puck and the other the players. “In this case,” he declared, “both must have been watching the puck, for Shore did not have the puck at any time that he was slashed or butted.”

“As the duel developed and personal feuds kindled into flame,” the Gazette would say, “practically everything went, including cross checking and open butt ends in opponents’ eyes, yet no penalties were given.”

“Both clubs agree,” Clifford offered, “that had officials been prompt in putting down the high sticks and other cute little innuendoes which virile hockey players sometimes inject into a red hot game, that no injury would have been done to any player.”

NHL supremo Frank Calder deserved some scorn, too — the man paid $12,500 to run the NHL certainly had to answer, La Presse said, for “culpable negligence” in appointing such terrible referees.

The papers didn’t spare the Maroons: La Patrie decried Trottier’s and Siebert’s “brainless” behaviour, La Presse their “wild acts of savagery.” The latter delineated the dishonour and shame they’d brought down on themselves and their team. There was much speculation regarding how long Siebert would be suspended, and whether it might be for life. Trottier deserved some kind of sentence, too, probably. Both men would, La Presse said, have ample opportunity while they sat out to “meditate on their inhumane acts.”

Also brutal (“to a lesser degree, certainly”): Nels Stewart, Red Dutton, Merlyn Phillips, and Hooley Smith.

Ross was livid. I’ve seen reference to a heated radio interview he gave when he got back to Boston, but I don’t know what he said there. Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam quotes his outrage without sourcing it: “The hockey displayed by the Maroons was a crime. It was brutal. Eddie Shore was knocked out four times.” As in unconscious? I don’t think that’s his meaning here: a Boston Globe write-up about Ross’ ire doesn’t quote him directly but says that it stemmed from “the fact that Shore was hurt four times and that he finally had to be carried from the ice.”

Ross made his report to Bruins’ owner and president Charles F. Adams, who duly submitted a formal protest to Frank Calder specifically citing Babe Siebert’s conduct. There was some urgency to the matter: the two teams were due to meet again on Tuesday, November 26, just three days after the hurly-burly at the Forum.

As for the Maroons, it should be noted that the Montrealers had their own narrative of what happened at the Forum. Here’s Ralph Clifford in November 26’s Boston Traveler:

The Maroons are peeved at being called vicious, or perpetrators of frightfulness. They declare that they are as much sinned against as sinning and that if certain of the Bruins were hurt it is because they were beaten to the punch. To a man they indignantly deny that there was any attempt to “get” Shore or any other member of the Bruins and whatever Shore or any other player got was merely what he was attempting to hand out to the Maroon players.

Would Siebert play? What about Smith and Trottier? All three did, in fact, line up for the Boston re-match, tender lungs and all. Frank Calder decided against suspending Siebert: as he explained it to Adams, “statements of the Shore-Siebert clash were so highly contradictory that the Montreal player was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.”

Eddie Shore hoped to skate in the rematch. He was home all day Monday, under the care of Bruins’ physician Dr. Martin Crotty. Shore wasn’t talking, but The Evening Transcript reported Tuesday morning that he was ready to go. “The only drawback out of his injuries is that the broken nose impairs his breathing.” If he did skate, it would be with a football helmet (“equipped with a nose protection”) borrowed from the Harvard University team.

Ralph Clifford noted Shore’s silence in Tuesday’s Traveler:

He has not uttered a single chirp about last Saturday’s game. He won’t even admit that he played. Surely the player who took such a beating as he got and won’t squawk to offer the tiniest alibi or make any statement is deserving of admiration. There are not many in the game who would let an opportunity like this go by without making a bid for sympathy, but the Edmonton Express is as mum as the Sphinx over the whole matter.

In the event, Shore only made it as far as the stands at Boston Garden, watching from a box with his wife, Kate, as the teams took the ice. George Owen took his place on defence. Anticipating that the 15,000 home fans on hand might try to take revenge on the Maroons in Shore’s name, the Bruins brought in extra police to keep the peace. As for Shore’s teammates, A. Linde Fowler reported in The Evening Transcript that Adams and Ross would “send their players on the ice with strict orders to play straight legitimate hockey, with no attempts at retaliation for what happened in Montreal.”

There was a local view, too, that the visitors weren’t to be feared. “When playing away from the Forum,” Fowler reflected, “the Maroons do not put on their rough stuff. In fact, they are about as meek an outfit as there is in the NHL while playing abroad.”

Just in case, Calder assigned head NHL referee Cooper Smeaton to work the game alongside George Mallinson. Smeaton started the night by assembling the teams at centre-ice to (the Globe) “read the riot act amid the hoots and jeers of the capacity crowd.” Whatever fireworks were expected, this second Maroons-Bruins summit “was devoid of real rough work.” Babe Siebert was booed, and “came in for much razzing,” but “attended to his knitting,” contributing an assist on Nels Stewart’s first-period goal.

The thermometer in the Garden didn’t help the home team, the Globe reported: the heat in the rink was “almost depressing,” and may have contributed to the Bruins’ lethargy. When it was over, Boston had lost its first game of the young season by a score of 6-1.

They righted themselves four days later in Pittsburgh. With Shore back in the line-up and scoring a goal, the Bruins beat the Pirates 6-2 .

The other news of the week was that Bruins’ president Charles F. Adams presented his hardy defenceman with a cheque for $500. This much-reported gift was said to be based on an admiring calculation of “$100 for each scar received,” according to Boston’s Globe. In an accompanying letter, Adams “spoke of the untiring efforts and high sportsmanship of the star since he joined the Bruins.”

Shore promptly cashed the cheque and shared the money among his teammates, “believing that every one of them was subjected to the same treatment” he’d suffered.

Forgive, Forget: A 1933 trade sent Babe Siebert to the Boston Bruins, where he played three seasons before moving on to Montreal’s other team, the Canadiens. Here he poses peaceably with, left, former foe Eddie Shore and, right, Bruins’ goaltender Tiny Thompson. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

That’s almost all. In Boston if not anywhere else speculation lingered that the league might yet take action against Babe Siebert and/or make change rules to check the violence that seemed to be on the rise — or perhaps just look into improving the quality of the referees. The league’s Board of Governors met in Chicago in December of 1929 and there was some conjecture that the events of November 23 might be on the agenda. Maybe they were; nothing came of it.

A coda: after all his years with Montreal followed by a short stint with the New York Rangers, Babe Siebert was traded to Boston in December of 1933. For the Bruins, it was a bit of an emergency measure. With Eddie Shore’s indefinite suspension that month for his attack on Toronto’s Ace Bailey, the Bruins found themselves short on manpower.

••

So that’s what happened, back in November of 1929.

As for what didn’t, I can’t say where the apparently immortal myth of Shore’s five fighting majors first bloomed, just that it weeds Twitter every November 23, as it probably will again next year.

The fable of five fights seems to be seeded in, and mutated from, a lively description of the November 23 game that appears on page 69 of Liam Maguire’s 2001 book What’s The Score? A One-of-a-Kind Compendium of Hockey Lore, Legend, History, Facts, Stats. This account includes many of the same scenes and circumstances mentioned above, along with several that don’t show up in any of the contemporary accounts I’ve considered. What’s The Score? doesn’t cite sources, so it’s not clear where the outlier incidents originated.

Maguire doesn’t, to be clear, mention major penalties. His original claim for November 23, 1929 is that “Shore made hockey history with five separate fights in one game.” To wit: he exchanged punches with (in order) Maroons Buck Boucher, Dave Trottier, Hooley Smith, Red Dutton, and Babe Siebert.

Maguire has written elsewhere that it was no less of an authority than Aurèle Joliat who got him going on this in the first place. They were friends back in the 1980s and one night — December 12, 1985, in fact —the conversation turned to Sprague Cleghorn. Joliat declared that Eddie Shore was not only a better fighter than old Sprague, but had once, long ago, taken on five Maroons in a single raucous game. Maguire was surprised, and intrigued. “There was no record of this, no way to check it up. Seemed impossible.”

He duly dug up the details, he says, by consulting the second volume of Charles Coleman’s Trail of the Stanley Cup (1969), wherein he eventually came across the potted account of the 1929 game — this one — that seemed to fit the bill he was after.

It was at Ottawa’s public library, trawling microfiche, that Maguire subsequently turned up an account in a Montreal newspaper that backed up and fleshed out the story. He can’t recall which one it was, just that it confirmed the Maroons’ mandate to put Shore out of the game. And: “The story also detailed the incidents with Boucher, Smith, Siebert, Trottier, and Dutton.”

And the fact that so many Montreal newspapers that took a deep and even passionate interest in this game, along with others from Boston and beyond, don’t offer any evidence of this?

Doesn’t matter.

“It’s my contention,” Maguire says, “that Shore dropped the gloves in all five of those confrontations.”

That last assertion dates back a couple of years, to another late November, when Twitter was once again minorly abuzz with the spurious anniversary. I took the bait, bit, ended up, eventually, in a back- and-forth with Maguire that was exactly as edifying as any social-media back-and-forth ever is. I suggested that notwithstanding my admiration for Aurèle Joliat, I was having difficulty getting past the, well, history of the thing, and how primary accounts from 1929 failed to corroborate what Maguire was telling me and Twitter.

“Gotta go with the Trailand what I read,” was one response Maguire posted as a closing argument. Also: “You may choose to disagree.” Charles Coleman, he felt, still proves out his dream of Eddie Shore’s quintuple fight-night. “They were altercations. Violent. Sticks involved. For me, fights.”

I was back on the case on Twitter last Friday, as was Maguire. He’s sticking to his story:

sammy rothschild: very speedy, with a whistling shot — lacks poundage

Any chance of a professional sporting career was supposed to have vanished for Sammy Rothschild on a baseball diamond in 1923. Sliding into second, he broke a leg, and that was supposed to be it for young Rothschild, who was already making a name for himself on ice as well as grass and basepaths.

No-one told Rothschild, apparently. Born on this date in 1900 in Sudbury, Ontario, his budding hockey career had, by the time of this injury, seen him star with the junior Sudbury Wolves and for McGill University. In the fall of 1924, Rothschild was among the first players signed by manager Cecil Hart when he was building an expansion team in Montreal. It took a while for them to take on the name Maroons; when Rothschild joined the team that October, there was still some thought that they might be a second band of NHL Wanderers. Starting out, they went mostly by Montreals.

The 24-year-old rookie left winger who happened to be the NHL’s first Jewish player skated out for the team’s inaugural game in Boston against the league’s other newcomers on December 1. Clint Benedict was the Montreal goaltender, with Dunc Munro and Dutch Cain on the defence; the forward line also featured veterans Punch Broadbent and Louis Berlinguette, winners of Stanley Cups, respectively, with Ottawa’s original Senators and the senior Montreal team, Canadiens. The Bruins prevailed, on that opening night, edging their visitors by a score of 2-1.

Rothschild scored for the first time in the NHL the next time the teams met, on December 17, when he notched two goals and added three assists in a 6-2 Montreal victory. The team had, by then, recruited another old Stanley-Cup-winning hand, Reg Noble. He and Broadbent were most of Montreal’s offense that year, sharing the team’s scoring lead with 20 points each by the time they’d finished their 30-game regular-season schedule. Rothschild was next in line, accumulating five goals and nine points as the team finished fifth in the six-team league, ahead of Boston if not quite in the playoffs.

The Maroons upped their game for their second season. With Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert added to the roster, they topped Ottawa in the NHL finals before going on to beat the Victoria Cougars of the PCHL to win the Stanley Cup. Rothschild was a modest contributor that year, statistically, scoring two regular-season goals (both of them game-winning) and four points. He played all four Stanley Cup games in 1926 without getting on the scoresheet. With a championship in hand, details like that may not registered so blankly to the Maroons and their fans. It’s also the case that each of the Maroons’ 11 players earned upwards of $3,000 each in bonus money for their Cup win.

Rothschild played another season in Montreal before coming to a crossroads in the fall of 1927. Maroons waived him, making him a free agent, and he thought about quitting the game, then, to go into the insurance business with teammate Nels Stewart. Montreal’s Gazette felt that he had plenty still to offer on the ice:

He is a brainy player with a whistling shot that is always dead to the corner and would be a valuable man to any club, major or minor.

Several teams were said to be pursuing his services before Odie Cleghorn signed him to play for his Pittsburgh Pirates, heading into their third season in the NHL. The local Pittsburgh Press approved:

The acquisition of Sammy Rothschild …, the only Jewish lad playing professional hockey, is expected to solve the center problem, and with a little more strength on the defense the Pirate pilot believes his club will get up in the running.

The Pirates did, it’s true, would make a return to the playoffs that season, though the Rangers stopped them there early on. Rothschild didn’t play much of a Pirate part at all, as it turned out. Just as the season was getting going he went down with what the Press diagnosed as “a slight attack of appendicitis.” Not long after that, the team suspended him for lacking condition and “violating club training rules.” The latter, in the NHL of the 1920s, tended to be a catch-all euphemism for living large and (often) bibulously, but back in Montreal the Gazette took up Rothschild’s defence.

The suspension was a surprise to all who’d encountered him in Montreal,

where Rothschild is popular and regarded as a player with an excellent club spirit. The report left an inference which no-one here who knows Rothschild would accept as the little forward player is noted as a clean-living lad whose habits are above reproach.

More likely: the problem lay with upper management, who weren’t providing the resources Odie Cleghorn needed to build a strong team, and that was leading to dissension within. Whatever the truth, Rothschild didn’t last: by the end of December, the Pirates released him unconditionally.

Within a week he’d found a new hockey home with the New York Americans. His Sudburiness likely figured in here: the coach in New York was his old Sudbury Wolves teammate Shorty Green, whose brother, Red, another former Wolf, played the left wing. Right winger Alex MacKinnon was said to have grown up next door.

“Very speedy and a clever stickhandler,” the Ottawa Citizen assessed Rothschild as he headed to his new team, standing 5’6” and weighing in at 145 lbs.; “lacks poundage.”

In New York, the newspapers scouting the Amerks’ new acquisition took an interest (in a way that the Canadian press never really seems to have) in Rothschild’s Jewishness. In announcing his home debut in early January of 1928, a column in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Madison Square Garden crowd would be filled with “American rooters and Sammy’s compatriots of the Jewish race.” To aid, perhaps, in drawing just such a crowd, the columnist cited this tantalizing (and almost certainly spurious) family history:

Sammy is a descendant of the Baron de Rothschild, Jewish international banker, perhaps the most famous in the world over. The story of the de Rothschild family is very interesting. The banking family originated centuries ago in Germany, but is now Parisian. The title is Austrian. Branches of the family are scattered all over the world. Sammy represents the British line in Canada.

The Daily News went with a more direct appeal, headlining its game-day coverage this way:

HEY! HEY! JEWISH SKATER JOINS AMERICANS TONIGHT

It was in the fall of 1926, little more than a year earlier, that the Americans’ MSG neighbours and rivals had launched their bizarre campaign to attract Jewish fans to their games. A press agent working for the Rangers, Johnny Bruno, was the brains of that short-lived operation, which involved pretending that goaltender Lorne Chabot (a Catholic) was, in fact, the NHL’s first Jewish player, variously identified in the local papers as Leopold Shabotsky/Shavatsky/Chabotsky. Before newspapermen back in Canada pointed out that no, Chabot wasn’t, Bruno also tried to pass off Rangers’ winger Ollie Reinikka — his actual background in British Columbia was Finnish — as an Italian named Ollie Rocco.

On the ice for the star-spangled Americans, Rothschild seems to have made a good early impression in New York. He does seem to have sickened again that winter, which kept him out of the line-up; there’s also mention of a bad knee, presumably the one he’d injured running the bases back in ’23. Nevertheless, some columnists felt, he was destined to become one of the most popular players in Manhattan, “a Hebrew athlete never fails to draw crowds to the gate.”

It didn’t work out. Rothschild couldn’t score in the 11 games he played for the Americans that winter, or didn’t, and by mid-February he was out of the line-up. I’ve seen it suggested that his aching knee forced him to quit, though nothing conclusive. Rothschild’s professional demise was as thorough as it was quick, to the point that the next NHL reference I can see in the newspaper archives is from 1931 when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenceman Alex Levinsky. He was going to be good, opined The Ottawa Citizen at that time, and if he was, well, one of the New York teams would surely try to lure him to Madison Square Garden. “Gotham has been on the lookout for a Jewish hockey star for years,” the feeling was. “Though he is very popular in Toronto, New York would open him with open arms.”

After the NHL, Sammy Rothschild returned to Sudbury. He was a referee and then a coach, taking to the bench of his old team, the junior Wolves, and steering them to a 1932 Memorial Cup championship. He was a curler, too, and served as president of the Dominion Curling Association. Away from the ice, he prospered as a clothier, a Montreal Gazette obituary relates, “one of the city’s most prominent businessmen.” He served as a city alderman and, in 1963, ran without success for mayor. Sam Rothschild died in 1987 at the age of 87.

Of his NHL days, Stanley-Cup-winning though they might have been, he once said this:“I was only a player, never a star. Some think that anyone who played in the NHL at that time must have been a star. But it just wasn’t so — especially in my case.”

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.

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.”

 

mars fatal

mars fatalHowie Morenz died late on the night of Monday, March 8, 1937, in his hospital room at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. Many Montrealers would have first known the shocking news next morning through the pages of Tuesday’s morning paper, The Gazette, Le Canada, La Patrie. None of them had much light to cast on just what had happened, how the leg Morenz had fractured in late January on the ice at the Forum could now have killed him. His doctor reported that his heart and his pulse had been normal on Monday, according to La Patrie, and yet he’d died in his sleep.

Amid the many tributes and reviews of Morenz’s career, La Patrie also saw fit to remind readers that there’s no more mournful month in Montreal Canadiens’ history than March. It was just 11 years, after all, since legendary goaltender Georges Vézina had died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, four months after opening the 1925-26 season in the Montreal net. Seven years before that, Canadiens’ notorious 37-year-old defenceman Joe Hall had succumbed to pneumonia he’d contracted while suffering from Spanish influenza.

A terrible thing that was, of course, if not entirely fair to March. La Patrie had a key detail wrong: Hall actually died on April 5, 1919.

Back on March 19, he was still resting in his room in Seattle’s Georgian Hotel, one of several Canadiens to have sickened while the team was battling the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup. Transferred to the Providence Hospital in early April, Hall was saidto be improving, his temperature a steady 103. With five games of the six-game Stanley Cup series in the books, the ravaging flu had by then forced Montreal to forfeit the deciding game on April 1. When Seattle manager Pete Muldoon refused to accept the forfeit, the championship was abandoned.

On April 3, Montreal manager George Kennedy announced that his players were not all, as rumour had it in Eastern Canada, on the verge of death. Hall’s condition had, however, worsened. “He still has a chance for his life,” The Vancouver Daily World wrote the day before he died, “and he is fighting hard.”

In 1937, Canadiens were scheduled to play the Maroons the night after Howie Morenz died. The team planned to cancel, but Mary Morenz insisted that her husband would have wanted the game to go on. Two days later, on Thursday, his body would lie in state at centre ice in the Forum, but on Tuesday it was hockey night.

The referees and players on both teams wore arm-bands; ushers and program-sellers had black ribbons pinned to their jackets.

Canadiens president Ernest Savard spoke to the crowd of 10,000. “It is with sincere regret and deep emotion that we announce the death last night of the one and only Howie Morenz,” he said. “He was a gentleman and the finest hockey player ever known.”

Two minutes of silence followed his words. “The monotonous whirling of the ventilating fans alone broke the stillness,” The Canadian Press reported, “until the drums of the Victoria Rifles began to roll. Then, the bugles sounded Last Post.”

Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude cried, The Gazette noted, “unashamedly,” and defencemen Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert “had to skate to his side and talk to him.”

In the dressing room, coach Cecil Hart said, “You know, boys, there is little I can say on an occasion like this.” He told them to “forget all your troubles, to go out there and play — play as Howie would have played if he were here.”

“The game that followed helped make those in the Forum a bit forgetful of the tragedy of the night before,” was the way The Gazette described it. “A fighting Canadien team saddened by the loss and minus two regulars, Aurel Joliat and Toe Blake, hurled itself at Maroons.” They couldn’t overcome: the final score was Maroons 4, Canadiens 1.