Big win for Erik Källgren the other night, great that the 25-year-old Swedish rookie volunteered himself as the missing piece that completes the puzzle that is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltending situation, good night, good luck, see you in the Stanley Cup final.
Too much, too soon? Probably. No sense in getting ahead of ourselves, or the Leafs, maybe let’s just pause in the moment and say that Källgren looked good in his first NHL start as he made 35 saves to secure Toronto’s 4-0 home win over the Dallas Stars, careful, craftful, calm when he needed to be, hasty when haste was called for, agile, pliant, just lucky enough. He shouldn’t have had to explain himself once his work was done, but of course he was asked to, because that’s what TV demands.
“Ah, I mean,” Källgren gamely told TSN’s Mark Masters, “it’s a lot to take in right now, but obviously I’m really happy, and happy for the win, and how the guys played in front of me was unreal. So a lot of emotions right now but of course very happy.”
Gladdening the hearts of fans of historical significance, the NHL was quick to chime in on the evening’s historical resonances. This was the 100th regular-season win of Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe’s tenure, in his 163rd game behind the bench, which makes him the quickest Leaf to that milestone: Pat Quinn and Dick Irvin each took 184 games to reach 100 wins.
The NHL also tagged Källgren’s performance as the fourth in club history in which a Leaf goaltender had earned a shutout in his first game as a starter:
Notable. Sorry to say that that infographic is only partly true. Fans of historical nitpickery soon discovered that, with minimal due diligence. When it comes to Benny Grant, the actual fact of what happened in 1929 is stranger and altogether more interesting than the version the NHL boxed up this week for social media.
Benny Grant hailed from Owen Sound, up on the Georgian Bay shore. In 1927, he helped the Owen Sound Greys win the Memorial Cup, Canada’s junior championship. After a year with Bert Corbeau’s Canadian Professional Hockey League London Panthers, he signed with the Maple Leafs, where Conn Smythe was coach and manager, and another Owen Sounder, Hap Day, was the captain.
Grant was 20 years in the fall of 1928. Not every NHL team employed a back-up goaltender in those years, but Toronto did, maybe because the man slated to start for the Leafs that year was coming off a grievous injury that had almost cost him an eye in the previous spring’s playoffs. After two years with the Rangers, Lorne Chabot, 28, had arrived in Toronto in an exchange that sent John Ross Roach and $10,000 to New York.
Chabot’s health wasn’t a worry, though, as it turned out: he was fine. He ended up playing in every one of the Leafs’ regular-season games that season, along with all four playoff games. When Grant saw action, it was almost always in relief: he appeared in five games through the season (none in the playoffs).
In Chabot’s case, NHL records only have him playing 43 games through the 1928-29 regular season. Most other standard hockey references say the same. (The Society for International Hockey Research, in its wisdom, does credit Chabot with his full and rightful 44 games.)
A sliver of an oversight, yes? Maybe so.
Still, significant enough that it shifts the meaning of the very record that the NHL claimed last night for Benny Grant. The game that Chabot played that the NHL is missing is the one on Saturday, March 9, 1929 — Benny Grant’s first NHL start (against the Detroit Cougars), when he’s supposed to have recorded his first NHL shutout. But Chabot played in that game, too, so he shared in the effort to deny the Detroit Cougars a goal. Benny Grant’s first start, as it turns out, wasn’t quite the same as Erik Källgren’s week: in 1929, Grant had help. Should he get credit for in the record books? It’s not up to me to add or subtract official shutouts, but I will note that the same situation occurred five days later that March, with Chabot and Grant combining to blank the New York Americans, and neither one of them is credited in the official records as having recorded a shutout.
Got that? It’s all very arcane … as statistics are. Here’s where the story of Benny Grant’s NHL debut gets interesting, and a little strange. Unheralded as it is, that night at Toronto’s Arena Gardens is notable for a tactical innovation that Conn Smythe seems to have introduced that night.
Unless, of course, the Leafs were just fooling around, having some fun as the season wound down before the playoffs.
Toronto was in: with just four games remaining in the regular schedule, there was no danger, by then, of the Montreal Maroons catching them in the standings. Toronto’s first-round opponent, in fact, would be the same Detroit Cougars they were meeting on March 9.
Time (I guess) for the Leafs to cut loose, just a little.
As has been noted before, Dick Irvin experimented with the idea of platooning goaltenders when he was coaching the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the NHL’s 1940-41 season. That was in March, too, with the end of the season in sight. Goaltenders worked hard, wore heavy pads, and like everybody else, they tired: why not, Irvin wondered, dress a pair of goaltenders and shift them on and off just like regular skaters?
“If we’d had an extra goalie,” he mused after a Canadiens loss in New York to the Rangers, “we might have used him along with the regular goalie in an effort to improve the situation. Those Rangers really were boring in and sure kept little Wilf Cude busy.”
Later that month, in Montreal’s final regular-season game, Irvin gave it a go. With the New York Americans visiting the Forum, Bert Gardiner started the game in the Canadiens’ net, with Paul Bibeault replacing him halfway through. The experiment was a success, I suppose, unless you’re a stickler for stats: though Montreal won 6-0, the NHL seems to have been unable to compute the shared shutout, so while Gardiner got the win, neither goaltender was credited with a shutout.
Twelve years earlier, lining up against Detroit in March of 1929, Conn Smythe’s version of doubling up his goaltenders added a fun twist — he “introduced another of his popular innovations,” as the Toronto Daily Star framed it. With a line-up of 12 players at his disposal, Smythe “used two complete teams and changed them completely every five minutes. The teams were known as the married men’s team and the single men’s team ….”
Bachelor Benny Grant got the start: he and Phyllis Banks wouldn’t marry until 1934. In front of him Grant had Hap Day and Red Horner on defence and a front line of Danny Cox, Andy Blair, and Ace Bailey. Marital status wasn’t so strictly enforced: Cox was married, while in the connubial substitute line-up of Chabot in goal, Arts Duncan and Smith on d, and Shorty Horne, Baldy Cotton, and Eric Pettinger at forward, Smith and Horne were single men. (Chabot, for the record, had married Elizabeth Money in 1927.)
Again, the two shifts operated as complete units: “When substitutions were made,” the Globe noted, “all six players left the ice and the other six replaced them.”
According to the Star, the Leafs made it even more interesting for themselves. “It was agreed before the game that the squad scoring [sic] most goals should be provided with new hats and it remained for a married man to help out the single men’s cause as Danny Cox, assisted by Andy Blair, got two of the goals. The other one, secured for the married men, went to Shorty Horne, with an assist from Harold Cotton.
And so the Leafs prevailed, 3-0. Grant had relieved Chabot earlier in the season in a game in New York against the Americans, but this was his first outing on Toronto ice. “He upheld his end nobly,” the Star judged. “As a matter of fact he had a great deal more work to do than Chabot, the regular goalie.”
So much so, it seems, that Chabot’s contribution was ignored entirely by whoever was keeping records for the NHL. To this date, while the official online boxscore includes Chabot in Toronto’s line-up, it credits Grant with having played all 60 minutes of the game and collecting the win and the shutout.
What happened? Who knows. With the goaltenders switching out every five minutes, maybe it was just too much bother to keep track of them on the night. Even so, Chabot does deserve credit for his involvement in the game and (I’d argue) a share of the shutout that’s on Benny Grant’s record.
Chabot and Grant continued to share Toronto’s net for the rest of the regular season: in all three of Toronto’s three remaining games, Smythe used both goaltenders as the Leafs went 1-2 to finish the season, though it doesn’t seem that Smythe shifted his netminders quite so aggressively in these games. Records for all three of these games reflect the participation of both, even if (as mentioned) the shutout Grant and Chabot crafted in the penultimate game, a 5-0 home win over the Americans, was credited to neither man.
Former Toronto owner/coach/manager Charlie Querrie was writing a popular column in the Star in 1929. As he saw it, Smythe’s hasty goaling shifts were all for the show. “It is hard to create excitement,” he wrote, “with nothing at stake, but the Leafs did all they could to please the spectators, and the evening was worthwhile. It showed that the Leafs have plenty of good material and a round dozen players who can give a good account of themselves.”
As for the hats, the Globe’s Bert Perry delivered the goods on those. “The Maple Leafs will flash some Easter millinery this week,” he duly reported on the Monday following the Detroit win. That is, all the players got new hats, courtesy of management. “Ace Bailey,” he jibed, “will now be able to turn in his 1925 model for something modern.” The deal, Perry said, was that if the Leafs had lost to Detroit, the players would have been buying headgear for the team’s directors.
“Despite their recent successes,” Perry concluded, “the hat sizes of the Leafs have not changed since last fall. A more unassuming aggregation of athletes would be hard to find.”
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.
One wintry meeting between Leafs and Bruins deserves another, so here’s this scene from 88 years ago or so, when the two teams clashed at Boston Garden during the 1930-31 season. What I can’t say with complete certainty is which Leaf visit this was, of the two they paid their old Massachusetts rivals that year. Guessing, I’d have to go with the second game (March 10, 1931) over the first (December 2, 1930), if only because Benny Grant tended the Leafs’ goal in the latter while in the former it was Lorne Chabot who, to my squinted eye, seems to be the man in the net in the photograph here.
Other Leafs? Battling for the puck behind the net is Toronto’s number 4, Hap Day. Out in front — well, Day’s usual partner in those years was King Clancy, though I don’t think that’s him, so it’s either Red Horner or Alex Levinsky. Skating for centre is surely Ace Bailey, whose linemates that year tended to be Baldy Cotton and Andy Blair. As for the Bruins, wearing number 7 is Cooney Weiland with Dit Clapper (5) hovering nearby. Together with centre Dutch Gainor those two played on Boston’s “Dynamite Line” around this time, so let’s say that’s Gainor digging for the puck with Day.
The game (if it is the second one) ended in a 3-3 tie that overtime couldn’t change. Bailey and Blair scored for the Leafs, as did Charlie Conacher; Weiland got two of the Bruins’ goals, with George Owen adding the third.
Other notes of interest: according to the Boston Globe, the game was a high-spirited affair, on the ice and off. In overtime, King Clancy “tried to punch a spectator through the wire screen behind the Toronto goal, something which one would not expect such a brainy person to do.”
At the end of the first period, Art Ross, the Bruin manager, and Connie Smythe, the chief moving spirit behind the Leafs, had a verbal altercation in the lobby, with Ross swinging but missing the jaw of Smythe. This drama was repeated at the end of the second stanza, when Smythe ventured to inquire how Ross liked being behind.
(Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
When last we visited with him, Lorne Chabot, goaltender extraordinaire for the 1935 Chicago Black Hawks, was assaulting goal judges and getting sued for it. Turns out there’s more to the story than originally advertised.
First thing: this wasn’t Chabot’s first onslaught on the NHL’s goal-judiciary.
In February of 1932, when he was keeping the goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game in Detroit, Chabot felt that a puck shot by Herbie Lewis of the local Falcons hadn’t passed him and ended up in the net, despite what goal judge Duke Kennedy said. The Leafs’ outraged manager Conn Smythe lobbied successfully to have Kennedy ousted from his post, though the goal was not rescinded.
In taking issue with Kennedy’s finding, which helped Detroit win the game 2-1, Chabot was alleged to have punched the goal judge, (1) loosening a tooth and (2) dislodging a filling. Kennedy filed a complaint with NHL President Frank Calder, as did Smythe. Calder found for the goal judge, suspending Chabot for the Leafs’ next game. Toronto called up Benny Grant from Syracuse to stand in, which he did in style, shutting out the Montreal Maroons 6-0. Smythe’s consolation, such as it was: Calder promised that Duke Kennedy wouldn’t, in future, work any more games in Detroit that involved Toronto.
The story from 1935 went like this: Chicago was in New York playing the Rangers one January’s eve at Madison Square Garden. The game ended 3-3. The Rangers actually scored four goals on the night, but just before Frank Boucher put the puck in the net in the first period his teammate Earl Seibert slid into the Chicago net with (per New York’s Daily News) “three Hawks piled on his person.” Goal judge Dick Williams triggered the red light — only to have referee Eusebe Daigneault overrule him.
“Seibert’s presence in the net, however involuntary, outlawed the tally,” explained The Daily News.
Score one for goaltenders, if nought for the Rangers. And yet despite the goal’s having been annulled, Lorne Chabot was still irate to the point of taking the fight, once again, to the goal judge.
Dick Williams was his name this time. Joseph Nichols of The New York Times thought nothing of the incident, or at least not enough to include it in his dispatch from the Garden. Same went for the Associated Press report that found its way into the pages of Toronto’s Globe.
The Chicago Tribune described the melee surrounding the disallowed goal like this:
Chabot resented the argument which followed so much that he skated around the cage and jabbed his stick through it at Goal Umpire Dick Williams.
Leave it to Harold Parrott from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle to file comprehensive coverage of the entire proceedings. By his account, the puck bounced out of the net after Boucher put it in, whereupon referee Daigneault scooped it up and carried it with him on his visit to Williams. Parrott:
Chabot skated in, too, jabbing the wicked butt end of his stick through the wire mesh to raise two gashes on the goal judge’s face, and loosen two teeth.
Then, unaccountably, Referee Daigneault said, “No goal!”
Colonel John Hammond, president of the Rangers, was quick to fire off a letter to Frank Calder. Why hadn’t Daigneault allowed Boucher’s goal when the goal judge indicated it was in? As for Chabot, why wasn’t he ejected from the game? Colonel Hammond wanted to know.
Replying to the latter question, Daigneault said that he hadn’t seen the attack on Williams. Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick had an answer for that. “It’s not necessary to see the blow when Williams’ nose and cut lip drip blood. Do you think those injuries grew there?”
Not according to The Daily News, which had salient details to add:
Skating behind the net, [Chabot] signaled Williams to draw close to the wire fencing the rink. Williams, apparently expecting a whispered confidence, placed his face to the wire, whereat Chabot jabbed him cruelly with his stick. Williams suffered a split lip and a bloodied nose and required the attentions of a doctor.
Calder doesn’t seem to have acted on Hammond’s protest; in time, Williams did (though maybe not). The following week is when word got out that goal judge was pursuing legal remedies. It wasn’t exactly explicit: the press reported that his suit for $10,000 in damages was “underway.” His claim seemed to be against the Hawks rather than Chabot himself. Poked was the operative verb that Montreal’s Gazette (among others) employed to describe the attack; regarding Williams’ injuries, there was this:
Later Williams was treated for slight facial contusions. He charges, however, that he subsequently discovered the inside of his mouth was seriously injured and teeth were loosened. He added that he hasn’t been able to eat since.
There was news, next, that Chabot had apologized; Williams, nevertheless, was said to be pressing his suit.
Except that … he wasn’t. Never had been, Williams declared in early February. “It’s a lot of hooey,” the goal judge protested, and I quote. “Imagine a league official suing a club member. That sock of Chabot’s did hurt, though.”
That’s almost that, but for this: in 1951, columnist Jimmy Powers from The Daily Newsgot Williams shooting the breeze about what happened that night in ’36. Williams was still working at the Garden, flashing the goal-lights when he thought he spied a goal. He was, by then, in his 25thyear on the job at the Garden. The job, mark you, was unpaid — Williams flashed his light and took whatever abuse came his way entirely as a volunteer. The Chabot incident? Oh, he remembered it well — if not, maybe, entirely the way it actually happened. For one thing, his chronology seems to have warped slightly over time.
Sixteen years later, Williams told Powers that Chabot had loosened four teeth rather than the original two. Also: Chabot was a pal of his, presumably dating back to the goaltender’s early NHL years as a Ranger. Williams’ explanation of what went down that night started in the first period:
“Chabot’s feelings were ruffled when the goal judge at the other end called one [goal] against him.
“In the second period Chabot made a beautiful stop but he caught the puck with his gloved hand inside the cage. I kept flashing the light. Chabot blew his top. He thought he caught the rubber outside the cage and he thought I was the same judge who called the first goal against him. He forgot he had changed goals. He charged back and rammed the butt end of his stick into my face.
“Chabot and I were really good friends. When he discovered his error, he pleaded with me to forgive him. Today we have glass partitions instead of the old-type chicken-wire.”
A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.
A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.
The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.
“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.
Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.
“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”
The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.
Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”
In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.
Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.
Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:
Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.
Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.
Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.
December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.
Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.
Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:
Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.
Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.
Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.
There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.
Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.
The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.
Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.
“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”
The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”
Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.
And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.
Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.
First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.
Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.
For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.
Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.
As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?
Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.
The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading