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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

roy story

It’s all over but the shouting here: the puck, you can see, is already in the back of the net, despite Roy Worters’ best effort to flop into its path. It was 85 years today, on a Thursday of this, that this photograph was taken, and that Worters, goaltender for the long-gone New York Americans, failed to thwart Paul Thompson’s second-period game-winning goal for the Chicago Black Hawks.

This was opening night for the NHL in 1935, with the league heading into its 17th season. It was an eight-team loop in those years; another now-extinct team, Montreal’s Maroons, were the defending Stanley Cup champions. On this night, with Worters’ Americans in at the Chicago Stadium to start the proceedings, the home team won by a score of 3-1. Paul Thompson is the Hawk on the ice at right; aiding his effort are (numbered 12) Chicago centre Doc Romnes and an identified teammate — maybe Don McFadyen, who assisted on the goal? Vainly defending Worters’ net: I don’t know who it is in the background, but it might be defenceman Bill Brydge nearest the net. And down on the ice with Thompson? Looks to me like Red Dutton.

Other notes from the night:

Howie Morenz was starting his second season with Chicago, though he wouldn’t last the year. In January of ’36, his slow journey back to the Montreal Canadiens continued as he was traded to the New York Rangers. Morenz was slowed that opening week by a strained back muscle, and was doubtful for the New York game until he wasn’t: he played.

Chicago goaltender Lorne Chabot didn’t: he’d injured a knee in practice was only seen on crutches before the game, making his way to centre-ice to receive the Vézina Trophy from NHL president Frank Calder. Mike Karakas started in his place in the Black Hawks’ goal.

Chicago mayor Edward Kelly dropped a ceremonial puck; it was for the best, the Tribune said, that he’d decided not to do it on skates. Attendance was given as 13,500.

Along with his game-winning goal, Chicago winger Paul Thompson added an assist: he aided in Lou Trudel’s opening goal for the Hawks. Romnes added an insurance goal in the third. New York’s only goal came from Harry Oliver, shorthanded, in the first. Thompson also found the time and the choler for a fight, engaging with New York winger Baldy Cotton in the second period.

The Black Hawks, it’s worth mentioning, were wearing brand-new uniforms this night, debuting a new livery that abandoned the black-and-white colouring scheme the team had affected since their arrival in the league in 1926. That original design was said to have been overseen by Irene Castle McLaughlin, wife of Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin, and that may well be the case. Without a doubt she had a hand in the new design, displayed here.

“Ever since they were organized the Hawks have clung to black and white unies,” the Tribune’s Edward Burns had written earlier that fall. “The stripes from time to time would be varied, but always they gave a chance for scoffers to make cracks about convicts and chain gangs. But ah, how different it will be this year!”

“The shoulders are black,” he continued, “but with no white stripes. The torso and arms are circled with three wide stripes, the outside ones red and the middle one buckskin. The color scheme, with Indian embellishments, has been used in the design of the panties [sic] and the socks. The socks have diagonal stripes rather than the Joliet solitary confinement motif.”

“The gloves are uniform for the first time. The three-color idea is carried out on these flashing gloves and fringe on the gauntlets give that Indian touch.”

Back, finally, to Roy Worters. It was 22 years to the day after this game, and this photograph, that he died, on a Thursday of this date in 1957, of throat cancer. He was 57.

Show-Off: Chicago winger Mush March, on the left, joins coach Clem Loughlin in displaying the new uniforms that the Black Hawks donned for the 1935-36 season. Note the fringed glove March is wearing.

 

the almost leafs

The Toronto St. Patricks team up in 1926-27, the season they turned into the Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: coach (short-lived) Mike Rodden, unknown. Middle: Bert McCaffrey, Ace Bailey, Bill Brydge, Danny Cox, coach and manager Charlie Querrie, John Ross Roach, Butch Keeling, trainer Tim Daly, unknown. Front: Bill Carson, Pete Bellefeuille, Hap Day, Bert Corbeau, Corb Denneny, Leo Bourgault.

leaflet: george patterson scores a goal

g-pattersonWho scored the first Leaf goal? If you answered Tyler Bozak, well, yes, true enough, last night against the Florida Panthers he did do just that — but what about the first goal ever by a Leaf? Not this month, not this season — we’re talking here about 1927, when Conn Smythe and friends bought the team mid-season, transforming the club from one February day to the next from the St. Patricks they were to Maple Leafs we know today. If the name George Patterson doesn’t leap to mind — well, exactly.

Let’s review: the St. Patricks were 30 games into their 44-game schedule in mid-February of 1927 when Smythe did the deal that changed the complexion of hockey in Toronto. The Irish, as they were sometimes called, went to Detroit for their final game, which they lost by a score of 5-1 to the (pre-Red Wing) Cougars. It wasn’t much to see, judging by contemporary dispatches. Corb Denneny scored the St. Pats’ goal that night, the last in their history, in what sounds like an all-around dismal showing by both teams.

Other Toronto high(ish)lights: (1) Ace Bailey’s ongoing feud with Detroit’s Duke Keats was finally broken up by policemen on the penalty bench and (2) a winger by the name of George Patterson almost scored on a long shot at Cougar goalkeep Herb Stuart before stickhandling through to very nearly score another.

If Bailey remains a Maple Leaf legend, the same can’t be said of Patterson. Kingston, Ontario filmmaker Dale Morrisey is looking to change that with a new documentary, Hockey’s Lost Boy, which is just now making its way into wide release.

Patterson, who was 20 that winter and a Kingston boy himself, was in the first year of what would turn out to be a modest if incident-filled NHL career. His main claim on fame came two days after that dismal loss in Detroit when the newly minted Maple Leafs stepped out on home ice to take on the New York Americans.

In new duds, The Toronto Daily Star’s Bob Hayes wrote, “they looked like a lot of galloping ghosts in white;” more important, the home team didn’t let an early New York goal get them down, roaring back to win the game by a score of 4-1. And the very first Leaf goal, the one that started both the comeback on the night and a new era in Toronto hockey? George Patterson scored it, on a pass from Bill Brydge. “Lovely,” The Star rated it, with The Globe going a little deeper: Patterson’s “drive on the goal was so fast and well placed that [goaltender Jakie] Forbes hardly saw it.”

Morrisey’s thorough accounting of Patterson’s life and times includes interviews with former Leafs Doug Gilmour and Jim Dorey along with a host of distinguished hockey historians, including Bill Fitsell, Kevin Shea, Paul Patskou, and Mike Wilson. For more on Hockey’s Lost Boy, there’s a Facebook page, here.

the helmet debate, 1933: all for a jockey cap lined with rubber

helmets 1937

Poison Control: A few years after Ace Bailey’s grievous head injury, the Detroit Red Wings paid a visit to Madison Square Garden to play the hometown New York Americans. The Amerks won, 3-2, though this wasn’t one of their goals. Detroit’s becapped goaltender is Normie Smith, with Nels Stewart coming at him. Late to the party is Red Wing forward Gord Pettinger. (Photo: International News)

Ace Bailey’s career as a fleet Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger came to a stop on the night of December 13, 1933, when Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice, which his head hit with a sickening sound. Bailey, 30, wasn’t expected to live that night. He did recover, but never played hockey again.

 Pre-Bailey, NHL players seldom wore helmets. They started to think differently, some of them, in the aftermath. A week after the accident, Harold C. Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle polled members of the New York Americans and Detroit Red Wings to get their thoughts on covering their heads. Their answers:

Red Dutton (New York Americans, defence)

I wouldn’t wear one of the things for anybody. If I had one of those contraptions on my head I couldn’t see a forward heaving at me. There has only been one previous accident like Bailey’s. The modern hockey player won’t be able to move if you load him down with any more dead weight.

Cooney Weiland (Detroit Red Wings, centre)

All depends on the individual player. It’s a new suggestion and might work out fine.

Rabbit McVeigh (New York Americans, right wing)

I’d be all for a jockey cap lined with rubber.

Johnny Sorrell (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)

I imagine nothing could be done to prevent the sweat running down in to the eyes. And that would make you tire more quickly.

Normie Himes (New York Americans, centre)

Helmets wouldn’t be popular with the players. The agitation was started once before in Canada.

Roy Worters (New York Americans, goal)

It’s a good idea — if you could design some kind of light fibre cap. I wouldn’t want to be seen dead in front of my nets in one myself. But then goalies would have more need of a baseball mask.

Joe Simpson (New York Americans, coach)

What happened to poor Ace wouldn’t happen again in ten years. I don’t believe that you could get any of the fellows to wear ’em.

John Ross Roach (Detroit Red Wings, goal)

It would be a protector against any repetition of the Boston tragedy. The goalie could wear it easier than anybody else on the ice. It wouldn’t feel so hot on his head.

Bill Brydge (New York Americans, defence)

It’s a good idea, if the helmet wasn’t too heavy. Of course, a football headgear would be out. I wear a cap now to lessen the shock of the blows. I was hit in the eye in practice this fall, and that’s why I’m sporting a longer peak to my cap, if you’ve noticed.

Hap Emms (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)

No good. Hockey players lose nearly all their teeth as it is. This way, it wouldn’t be a month before all their hair started falling out, too.

 

 

 

balls and strikes and stanley cups

bill stewart

On the Tuesday, he coached the underdog Chicago Black Hawks to their second Stanley Cup win, and his players carried him on their shoulders — by Saturday, he was just another major-league umpire calling strikes on the grass at Boston’s Fenway Park.

That’s how it went for 43-year-old Bill Stewart, pictured above in April of 1938, at the busy end of his first and only full season as an NHL coach. Thursday he left Chicago with a smile on his face. “My contract with the Hawks runs another year,” he told the newspapermen, “and we’ll be out to repeat again next year.”

No-one had expected the Black Hawks to prevail that year. Here’s the Daily Boston Globe summing up the situation:

Accorded little chances of entering the playoffs, the Hawks, with an odd assortment of rookies and old-timers, responded to Stewart’s fiery leadership to upset one favored club after the other, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, champions of the National Hockey League.

The miracle man of hockey, Montreal’s Gazette called him. Some other adjectives that the newspapermen of the day applied to Stewart: chunky (Montreal Gazette); plumpish, partly bald (The Day); bald-headed pilot (Boston Globe); big-time ice pilot (ibid.); pudgy, bald sports veteran (ibid.); the Little General (Boston Globe); bald-headed William (Gazette); ordinarily soft-spoken little man (ibid.).

It wasn’t true, what was sometimes said of him: that he’d never coached a hockey team before he was hired by Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin. In fact, though he’d only ever played the game on shinny rinks, he had coached high-school hockey in his hometown, Boston, going on to steer the hockey team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for seven seasons. He’d played some serious ball, too, including stints with the Montreal Royals and the Chicago White Sox.

b stewart

He started his umpiring in 1930, graduating to the majors in 1933. By the time he retired in 1955, be was considered the dean of National League arbiters. He took part in four All-Star games and five World Series.

Starting in 1928, he also served as an NHL referee. His reviews there were, predictably enough, good and bad. In 1936, The Ottawa Citizen deemed him undoubtedly high class: “He knows the hockey code and rules accordingly in a fearless manner.” Then again, in 1931, a player from the New York Americans, possibly Bill Brydge, saw fit to write a mid-season letter to the Toronto Star declaring Stewart’s “special wretchedness.” It was a long missive, with specific complaints, but we can boil it down to a single extract: “He is absolutely rank.”

Stewart did, memorably, forfeit a game in Boston’s favour in 1933 after one of Stewart’s predecessors as Chicago coach, Tommy Gorman, (1) punched him and (2) took his team off the ice to protest a tying Bruin goal.

In 1935, Stewart brought (as Montreal’s Gazette put it) “his methods of authority on the diamond into the Forum.” The Leafs were in town and ended up routing the Canadiens by a score of 10-3. In the first period, when Stewart got into an argument with Montreal coach Léo Dandurand, he did what came naturally: tossed his antagonist out of the game. When Dandurand wouldn’t go, the referee sought a policemen to enforce his order. There was a delay. The Gazette:

No officer of the law appeared, however, and Stewart returned to the Canadien bench and after a heated dispute with Dandurand, the latter finally rose from his seat, went behind the bench and stood there, continuing to direct his team without any undue inconvenience. And at the start of the second period Leo was back on the bench and stayed there for the rest of the game.

That’s the first I’ve heard of NHL coaches sharing the players’ seating, but I guess that’s how it worked then. (Is there enough evidence here to credit Stewart with the innovation of upright, ambulatory coaches? I don’t suppose so.) Also worth a mention: this wasn’t the first time Stewart had ejected a coach in the Forum: earlier that year, he’d tossed Chicago’s Clem Loughlin — the man he’d eventually succeed as coach of the Black Hawks.

Hockey refereeing was harder than baseball umpiring, Stewart said in 1937. In the latter, “it’s either a strike or a ball,” while hockey involved monitoring not only the puck but the behaviour of 12 speeding men. A referee’s most important function on the ice? Watching the blueline for offsides.

“If you miss a trip or a bit of scragging or interference,” he said, “you can depend on the players to even it up among themselves, but if you miss a blue line offside and a goal results you can’t call back that goal, and it may mean the game. But no matter what you do, you can’t be right in everybody’s opinion.” Continue reading