Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.
Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.
With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.
I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.
Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.
Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.
That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.
One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.
That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?
Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.
I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”
Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.
Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.
Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”
The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.
By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.
Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.
Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.
“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”
“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”
“In other words … it was a great game!”
For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.
January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”
Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.
The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.
“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.
Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.
Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”
Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”
Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.
“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.
Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12.
Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.
So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.
Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy + the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman (both 1929).
In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal, sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.
Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:
He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.
He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:
The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.
Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:
Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.
Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.
He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.
This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”
The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:
Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.
No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.
The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.
Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.
Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.
The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.
In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.
Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.
That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.
Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.
A glorious episode for the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night — unless, possibly, was it was the most embarrassing loss in the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Either way, Carolina’s 6-3 win over the faltering Leafs at Scotiabank Arena was a memorable night for 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver) David Ayres, who stepped in to make eight saves and earn the win after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.
Ayres’ achievement was roundly celebrated, and rightly so. In the giddy aftermath, some of the history surrounding emergency goaltenders in the NHL was trundled out, in TV studios and on social media. The league’s PR account was quick to proclaim Ayres’ debut as the most elderly in all the (regular-season) annals … before posting an update a few minutes later, recognizing Lester Patrick aged playoff appearance … before deleting the Patrick amendment.
On the embarrassment side of the ledger, there was mention, too, that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to lose to an EBUG — an emergency back-up goaltender.
Not so. Neither is Ayres the first emergency goaltender to win an NHL game, as has been reported.
While the acronym didn’t exist nine decades ago, the tendency for goaltenders to fall to injury goes back (of course) to the earliest days of the NHL. In those early years, of course, teams carried but a single goaltender. So when your mainstay took a puck to the face, say, as Lorne Chabot did in the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, while facing the Montreal Maroons the Stanley Cup Finals, quick decisions were called for.
In that case, when Chabot couldn’t continue, it was the aforementioned Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach and GM, who stepped into the breach. He’d previously subbed in on the Rangers’ defence, but this was his goaling debut in the NHL. He won it, 2-1, which meant that the Maroons lost.
But before that, Montreal lamented Maroons had already lost, previously, in the regular season, to an emergency goaltender.
And as compelling as David Ayres’ story may be, Moe Roberts’ may be more remarkable still.
Actually, I don’t know about that — just seeing now that in addition to being a Zamboni driver whose last competitive service was (per The Hockey News) “an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record.” And, also, he’s a kidney transplant survivor.
Roberts’ is a pretty good chronicle all the same, starting with his 1925 journey (as rendered in the Boston Post) “from obscurity to the glare of the calcium in the short space of 28 minutes.”
Identified, generally, at the time we’re talking here as Maurice, he seems actually to have been born Morris— so maybe we’ll just go with Moe, the diminutive he’d go by later in life. One of the first Jewish players to skate in the NHL, he was about to turn 20 in December of 1925, a son of Waterbury, Connecticut, who’d attended high school in the Boston suburb of Somerville, played goal for the hockey team, the Highlanders. He’d worn the pads, too, during the 1924-25 season for the Boston Athletic Association, backing up Frenchy Lacroix, who’d later find himself stepping into the Montreal Canadiens net vacated by Georges Vézina.
NHL teams mostly carried just a single goaltender in those years, of course, though spares and back-ups did start to become more common toward the end of the decade. Wilf Cude would eventually be designated league back-up, available to any team that needed an emergency replacement, but that was still several years in the future, and wouldn’t really have helped in the Boston Arena this night in any case. Whether Roberts was on hand at the rink on Tuesday, December 8, or had to be summoned in a hurry — I don’t know. He seems to have been unaffiliated at this point — one contemporary account styles him as the Boston A.A.’s former “substitute and inactive goalie.”
Either way, the NHL’s two newest teams were playing that night, early on in their second campaign. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Maroons’ winger Babe Siebert collided with the Bruins’ goaltender, Charlie Stewart, who was also a dentist and so, inevitably, nicknamed Doc. Here’s the Boston Globe’s view of the matter:
Dr. Stewart in stopping a shot by Seibert [sic], was bumped by the latter as he raced in for the rebound. The two players went down in a pile. Dr. Stewart was unable to get up. After a long delay it was discovered that he had been so badly injured he would be out for the rest of the game and possibly for some time. Young Roberts was found and did yeoman work.
Montreal’s Gazette diagnosed Stewart’s trouble: “Doc Stewart was led off the ice with his left leg hanging limp. Later it became known that he had a bad cut, requiring several stitches ….”
Roberts got “a big hand” as he warmed up, the Gazette reported, “with all the Bruins firing testing shots at him.” The first hostile shot he faced was a long one from the stick of Maroons’ centre Reg Noble, and the stop “met with loud acclaim.”
There’s no record of how many shots Roberts faced in his period-and-a-bit of relief work — the Gazette has him “under bombardment” in the third — just that he deterred them all. Winger Jimmy Herberts scored for the Bruins, making Roberts a winner in his emergency debut.
His luck didn’t last. With Stewart unable to play, Roberts started Boston’s next game, three days later, in Pittsburgh, when the local Pirates overwhelmed him by a score of 5-3.
With Doc Stewart declaring himself ready to go for Boston’s next game, Roberts’ NHL career might have ended there and then. On the contrary, it still had a distance to go — across three more decades.
Moe Roberts eventually caught on with teams in the minor Can-Am Hockey League, guarding goals for Eagles in New Haven and Arrows in Philadelphia through the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s. Towards the end of the 1931-32 NHL season, when the New York Americans were visiting Montreal, when regular goaltender Roy Worters fell ill, the Amerks borrowed the Maroons’ spare netminder, Dave Kerr, for their meeting with (and 6-1 loss to) the Canadiens.
Worters still wasn’t available two days later when the Amerks met their New York rivals, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden, so they called up 26-year-old Roberts from New Haven. Maury and also Morrie the papers were calling him by now, and he was brilliant, stepping into Worters’ skates. From the Brooklyn Times Union:
He filled them capably at all times, sensationally at some, bringing down volleys of applause from the assemblage during the play and receiving ovations when he came on the ice for the second and third periods.
The Americans won the game 5-1.
While Roberts didn’t see any more NHL action that season, he did return to the Americans’ net the following year, starting five games in relief after Roy Worters broke his hand, and recording his third career win.
That still wasn’t quite the end of Roberts’ NHL story. Flip forward to 1951. Five years had passed since Roberts had played in a competitive game, in the EAHL, and he was working, now, as an assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks.
When the Detroit Red Wings came to town that November, Harry Lumley took the Chicago net to face Terry Sawchuk down at the far end. Neither man had been born when Roberts played in that first NHL game of his in 1925. Now, 26 years later, he was about to take shots in his ninth (and finally final) big-league game.
Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had put pucks past Lumley by the end of the second period; the score was 5-2 for the Red Wings. Suffering from a bruised left knee, the Black Hawks’ goaltender stayed put in the third, ceding his net to Moe Roberts. Chicago continued to lose right up until the end — but Roberts stopped every shot he faced.
At 45, Roberts was making history, then and there, as the oldest player ever to have suited up for an NHL game, exceeding Lester Patrick’s record of having played for the New York Rangers in a famous 1928 playoff game in 1928. Roberts, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, remains the oldest man to have played goal in NHL history, ahead of Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley, though a couple of skaters have surpassed him since 1951: Chris Chelios played at 48 and Gordie Howe at 52.
Before he got going on a 17-year NHL career that would see him elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Smith was the youngest member of the Canadian team that brought back hockey gold from the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France, and one of its leading scorers. Aged 21, he netted an impressive 18 goals in five games. Of course, Canada’s schedule did include a 33-0 drubbing of Switzerland and a 30-0 squeaker over Czechoslovakia, and Smith’s bounty of goals was only half as many as that of his teammate Harry Watson — but still, gold is golden, and when Smith got home to Toronto that March, the neighbourhood where he’d grown up fêted him on a scale — well, I’m not sure that any local hockey player has seen the likes of the welcome that the Beach organized for Smith.
Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1903, Smith started out under the name Reginald. As a toddler, the story goes, he had a thing where he navigated the family backyard with a tin can balanced on his head, just like the namesake of the popular American cartoon The Happy Hooligan, which is how his father started calling him Hooligan which, soon enough, diminished to Hooley.
Out on the ice, it was as a centreman that Smith helped the Toronto Granites win the 1923 Allan Cup, which is how they ended up representing Canada at the Olympics in ’24. Arriving home triumphant in Toronto a month after vanquishing the United States for gold, the team climbed aboard a bus that paraded them from Union Station up Yonge Street to City Hall. Mayor W.W. Hiltz was one of the speechifyers there: paying his tribute, the Star reported, he mentioned “fine calibre of young manhood which composed the team” and “the manly attributes of the Canadian athlete” before expressing “hopes of continued success.” Engraved gold cufflinks were the gift the city gave the players. Before they were released, they also received three cheers and a couple of anthems, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save The King,” for their troubles.
Later, at a winter carnival in the city’s east-end Kew Gardens, Smith was honoured with displays of fancy skating and fireworks. His appreciative neighbours also unveiled a 400-ton likeness of their hockey hero that they’d sculpted out of ice and illuminated with coloured lights. One of my dearest new year’s wishes is to find a photograph of that — I’m still looking.
NHL clubs were eager, post-Olympics and ice-statue, to sign Smith to a pro contract. The Montreal Canadiens maintained that he’d agreed to join them, and the Toronto St. Patricks were eager to lure him, too, but in the end he chose Ottawa’s Senators. He played three seasons in Canada’s capital, where he learned how to hook-check from the maestro himself, Frank Nighbor, while helping the team win a Stanley Cup in 1927. He subsequently joined the Montreal Maroons, for whom he played nine seasons, captaining the team to a Cup in 1935. It was as a Maroon that Smith played on the famous S line alongside Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert. After a single season with the Boston Bruins, Smith played his final four seasons in the NHL as a New York American. Hooley Smith died in 1963 at the age of 60.
I think that just about covers it, though maybe is it worth mentioning also his gift for, well, getting gifts? When he played for the Senators, Ottawa owner Frank Ahearn gave him a fur coat. I’ve seen it reported that as a Maroon he was given a Rolls Royce and a yacht. Because he wasn’t a sailor, he’s supposed to have returned the yacht in exchange for a farm. Kenneth Dawes might have been the generous donor in question in both these cases, though I can’t confirm that. What I do know is that Dawes, a brewing magnate who served on the Maroons’ executive committee, did promise Smith a horse if the team won the Stanley Cup, which it duly did. The presentation of the black Percheron went ahead in Montreal in April of 1935 in front of a crowd of some 3,000. Smith got the horse, but it was Maroons’ coach Tommy Gorman who climbed aboard to take the first ride.
An 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.
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.
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.
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 Presse, La 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.”
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.
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?
“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:
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.”
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Howie 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.