charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57thbirthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58thbirthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported. All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

buddy maracle, in 1931: swept through everybody to leave cude helpless with a wicked shot

Lestermen: The New York Rangers line up in 1931. Back row, from left they are: Bill Cook, Butch Keeling, Frank Peters, coach Lester Patrick, Ching Johnson, Buddy Maracle, Joe Jerwa, Bill Regan. Front, from left: Bun Cook, Paul Thompson, Murray Murdoch, Cecil Dillon, Frank Boucher, John Ross Roach.

Out now in The Hockey Newsonline and at the newsstand, paywalled in both places — my profile of Buddy Maracle and the case for recognizing him as the NHL’s first Indigenous player. He was 27 and a minor-league veteran when the New York Rangers called him up from the Springfield Indians. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” a column in The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.” Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit on February 12, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night, and also failed to score in New York’s next two games. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on February 22, the Rangers cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period; in the third, Dillon returned the favour when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone major-league goal. One newspaper accounts rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

He would notch two more NHL assists. In a March 3 game against Boston, he abetted Bill Regan on a third-period goal, the only one the Rangers scored in a 4-1 loss. March 17, he helped on another Dillon goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. In four playoff games that year, Maracle registered no points, took no penalties.

Not all of his achievements were logged for the statistical archives. In a March 7 game against the Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, his penalty-killing caught the fancy of the local cognoscenti. By Bert Perry’s account in The Globe, Maracle “gave quite an exhibition of ragging the puck while [Ching] Johnson was off, displaying stick-handling of a high order that merited the applause of the fans.”

(Image: New York Rangers)

how I spent my summer vacation: ching johnson

Oil Change: In the summer of 1930, Ching Johnson (right) repaired to California to work in the oilfields he owned in Inglewood, near Los Angeles. That’s his father looking on; Johnson is busy (and I quote) “hoisting out a stop block on a drilling table.”

Ching Johnson began the 1929-30 NHL season, his fourth as a defenceman with the New York Rangers, refusing to man the blueline. It was the old story, and the newer one, too: the man who was gaining more and more reputation as one of the game’s best and hardest-hitting defencemen wanted more money. High praise for hockey players was often expressed in the United States in ballpark terms: along with Boston’s Eddie Shore, Johnson was in those years often touted as a hockey Babe Ruth.

When the Rangers’ president, Colonel John Hammond, mailed Johnson a contract to sign in the summer of 1929, it took a while to find him. With the season set to open early in November, late October came on without any word back from Johnson, and that launched a rumour that he was giving up hockey at the age of 31. Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick had the rest of his team training in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he said he’d make do without Johnson on defence — he was thinking about dropping Bill Cook back to help on defence.

Johnson’s mail finally found him in Minneapolis. He wrote Colonel Hammond to say that he wasn’t ignoring him, but he was negotiating. I don’t know how much Johnson was making before, but word that fall was that he wanted $8,500 a season. Hammond was offering $7,500. Either way, he’d be getting less that half what Shore, the NHL’s best-paid player, was taking in. When Johnson got to New York early in November, he and Hammond met and dickered and parted ways on the understanding they’d meet again.

A rumour had the Rangers trading him, possibly to the Montreal Maroons. Then, next, the retirement story was back, substantiated this time by the principals themselves.

“Ching demands a salary beyond anything we can pay,” Colonel Hammond lamented. “We have removed him from our plans for this season.”

For his part, Johnson said he was just as happy devoting himself to the oilfields he’d recently bought out in California.

Within a few days, though, the two men had hammered out a deal. Johnson’s new contract was three years. One “authentic” report said he’d settled for $10,000 a year; big, if true.

Johnson didn’t skate in New York’s opening game in Montreal against the Maroons. For his debut a few days later, he did play 68 of 70 minutes in a 5-5 overtime tie with the Detroit Cougars, resting only to serve a minor penalty.

The following February, a crash involving Boston’s Dit Clapper broke Johnson’s jaw in three places. He was out of action for a month; when he returned it was with a custom-rigged leather jaw protector that one wag said gave him a certain Abraham Lincoln air.

After Montreal’s Canadiens ousted New York from the playoffs in 1930, Johnson headed for his California oil patch, in Inglewood, where he also seems to have owned fruit farm. It was October again when he motored north for another season of hockey with New York. Lester Patrick convened his training camp in Toronto this time, centred on the west-end rink at Ravina Gardens. By the time it broke in early November, Patrick was thinking Johnson and Leo Bourgeault would serve as the Rangers’ frontline defensive tandem.

A little while later, Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught up with Johnson as the Rangers arrived at New York’s Penn Station en route to Philadelphia to open the season against the newly minted Quakers. Johnson looked “very fit and cool in a blue suit, gray soft hat and no overcoat.”

Johnson took off some 37 pounds during the summer and is down to 200 pounds, just a nifty weight for a defense man.

“I didn’t eat,” said Johnson, explaining the phenomenon.

Ching, once a cook in a lumber camp as a vacation lark, is said to like his chow reasonably well. He didn’t go on a diet because his broken jaw hurt when he started the mastication of a beefsteak, but to get into hockey trim. The jaw, broken in the service of Colonel Hammond last winter, hasn’t given him any trouble. Perhaps the California sunshine did it.

down and out with tiny thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normie Smith did make it back to the Red Wing net, eventually. After four years out of the NHL, he returned to the only team he ever wanted to play for, appearing in six games over two seasons from 1943 through 1945.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh