frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).

odie cleghorn had a shift that was deception itself

Descriptions of Odie Cleghorn from back when he was playing high-level hockey include relatively slow afoot, pudgy, and master showman. Phrases associated with his career, which saw him play ten NHL campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh’s long-gone Pirates, sometimes mention that no more gifted stickhandler ever graced the ice. He liked a short stick, and would nurse the puck close to his skates, I’ve learned. Also: he had a shift that was deception itself, as in a swerve.

Born on September 19 in 1891, James Albert Ogilvie Cleghorn debuted in Montreal to find an older brother  already in the house. That was Sprague, of course, who’d become the better-known hockey player, as much for his skill and leadership (momentous) as for his brutality and propensity for injuring opponents (legendary). Sprague, who played defence, is in the Hall of Fame, and Odie, almost always a forward, probably should be.

The brothers broke into professional hockey together, signing with the Renfrew Creamery Kings of the old NHA in 1910, where they played with Steve Vair and Skene Ronan and — imagine it! — Cyclone Taylor.

The brothers were with Sammy Lichtenheim’s Montreal Wanderers in 1912 when the team met Canadiens in an exhibition game in Toronto, the very first professional game in that fair city, at the Arena on Mutual Street, just before Christmas. Wanderers won, 4-3, but that was the least of the news. Canadiens’ Newsy Lalonde seems to have been in a bad mood on the night. He was warned by the referee for charging Wanderers’ goaltender Bert Cadotte, and fined, too, for cross-checking. This before he collided with Odie Cleghorn and cut his mouth badly while also going down to the ice himself. He was lying there, Lalonde, “prostrate on the ice,” in The Globe’s account, when Sprague skated up and with “utmost deliberation, dealt Newsy a terrible blow on the head with his stick” causing a wound (“gaping”) that bled (“freely”).

Sprague was fined $25 and suspended and called to court in Toronto; Lalonde took on ten stitches, Odie three. In court, Sprague’s defence lawyer read a letter from Lalonde in which he said, “Sprague saw his brother fall and saw that he was bleeding and apparently lost control of himself when he saw his brother was injured. As far as I am concerned, I do not hold any hard feelings against Sprague for having struck me, and I do not desire him to be punished further.”

The judge in the case liked this. “I am glad to see that amity has been restored between you and Lalonde,” he told Sprague, who pleaded guilty to assault and paid a further $50 fine. His hockey suspension was lifted within days.

When Odie joined Canadiens, now in the NHL, in 1918, Lalonde was the coach; Sprague signed on a few years later. The brothers Cleghorn won a Stanley Cup with Canadiens in 1924, though Lalonde was gone by then. That was Odie’s only Cup; Sprague was in on three. In 1925, Odie, then 34, went to Pittsburgh to become the playing coach of the expansion Pirates, and he got them to the playoffs in his second season, though they didn’t really prosper there — anyway, he stayed on in Pittsburgh until 1929. It’s worth noting that in Pittsburgh in 1926 he actually started a game in goal when Roy Worters, sidelined with grippe, couldn’t manage it. Started and finished and won, beating his old team, Canadiens, with a line-up that featured Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat, by a score of 3-2.

Later, he signed himself up as an NHL referee. He seems to have been a good one, though that doesn’t mean that Eddie Shore didn’t shoot a puck at his back in utter disgust in 1936 over a goal Shore believed the Leafs hadn’t scored, and it didn’t keep a gaggle of Canadiens chasing him off the ice at the Forum to protest a penalty he’d called against them and then having to be rescued by another referee, Billy Bell, when the Canadiens started to shove. That was in 1935. After Odie put away his whistle, in the late 1930s, he was appointed manager of Montreal’s Mount Royal Golf Club.

In 1915, still playing for the Wanderers in the NHA, Odie was out on Montreal’s mountain one December afternoon just before the season opened, taking a long walk by way of getting himself into shape for the campaign ahead. There was a military band and a boy on a horse, the story goes, and when the band struck up, the horse bolted. The boy dropped the reins to cling to the saddle while the horse fled. Cleghorn was able to seize the bridle and drag the horse to a halt not far from a row of carriages. “Odie Cleghorn in Hero Role” was the headline in the papers a couple of days later. The boy, described as “small,” name not known, was reported to have fainted promptly upon rescue.

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)