sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose

If many of the standard online references (including NHL.com) list Eddie Shore’s birthdate as November 25, 1902, the facts favour a Sunday of this date in 1902. So happy birthday to the man they called the Edmonton Express. The photo here shows him when he was 36, in 1939, playing out the last few years of his spectacular career as a defenceman for the Boston Bruins. He was playing in his 13th and penultimate season for Boston that year, making a salary of $7,000 (the league maximum), which works out to about $130,000 in today’s dollars. In the spring of the year, he’d help the Bruins win their second Stanley Cup, their first since 1929. This day in that year, it so happens, is the infamous one on which the Montreal Maroons stopped short of killing Shore.

Almost a decade later, Shore’s brand of hockey was as physical and unyielding as ever. He was, as ever, a punishing and occasionally vicious opponent. He suffered, too, for his sins; the story of the bandaging seen here attests to that. It dates to March of ’39, when the Bruins were battling the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup semi-final series.

Having topped the NHL’s regular-season standings, the Bruins only played a single playoff series that year on the way to the championship round. Under the league’s quirky playoff format, they rode a bye to the semi-final against the second-place Rangers while four teams that had finished lower down in the table battled through two rounds on the other side of the bracket. Dispensing with the Rangers, Boston went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn the Cup.

But that was later. The Bruins/Rangers series was the first in the NHL’s 22-year history to go to seven games. It’s the fourth game we’re concerned with here, played on Tuesday, March 28, 1939, at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The Rangers prevailed on the night by a score of 2-1, with left winger Lynn Patrick scoring the winner shorthanded in the second period.

In those years, the Rangers featured a plurality of Patricks. Father Lester was still coaching and GM’ing a team while he counted on Lynn, 25, and his defence-playing brother, 23-year-old Murray — a.k.a. Muzz — in his line-up.

It was Muzz who featured in the game’s first period, along with Shore, when the hockey gave way to chaos.

Newspaper accounts trot out all the old epithets: meleepitched battle, and free-for-all. Canadian Press called it a “five-star punching bee,” while the Associated Press went with “one of the largest and bloodiest fights in a good many years. The New York Times settled on “the mass fist-fight.”

To sum up: it was just another old-time instance of hockey players swinging sticks and fists to concuss one another, after which a few penalties were called, repairs more or rendered, and everybody carried on despite the damage done.

Melee: The fracas unfolds. Shore is number 2, with Muzz Patrick in front of him. Number 8 is Jack Portland, 16 is Red Hamill. Boston goaltender Frank Brimsek stands alongside referee Mickey Ion.

It all got going halfway through the period, when the score was tied 1-1. Joseph Nichols from the Times testified that the situation began mildly enough with Bruins’ defenceman Portland meeting pesky Rangers forward Phil Watson in a corner back of the Bruins’ net. But let’s go to the eyewitness account that Lynn Patrick gave many years later:

I can see it now: Jack Portland and Phil Watson got into a high-sticking duel down in the 49th Street — 8th Avenue corner of the rink.

Shore, who never liked Watson anyway, went charging into it. As soon as Muzz saw that, he went in and pulled Shore off. As he did, Eddie swung at him. Muzz let his big one go … booooom. Shore was out for the rest of the period, but he came back wearing a lot of plaster across his face.

Victor Jones of the Boston Globe saw it from a different perspective. His account went like this:

… there’s no doubt that the Rangers started the jam and that they concentrated their best efforts on Shore.

The original battlers were Jack Portland and Phil Watson, who engaged in a bumping and high-sticking duel in the corner.

That blew over and Portland was skating away when [Bryan] Hextall climbed up his back. Shore then went over to aid Portland in his affair with the two Ranger forwards and this was the signal for Murray Patrick and Art Coulter, the Ranger defence pair, to skate the length of the ice and gang up on Shore.

Eddie of course got all the worst of it. He’s no match for Murray Patrick, former Canadian boxing champion, with his fists. He was outweighed 20 or 30 pounds and for a while seemed to be fighting the whole team single-handed.

Mickey Ion was the referee. He fell to the ice, or was knocked down, twice before the fracas was over. Restored to his skates, Ion assigned six major penalties, to Shore, Jack Portland, and Gord Pettinger of the Bruins, as well as to New York’s Phil Watson, Muzz Patrick, and Dutch Hiller.

Shore went to the dressing room for medical attention, so Ray Getliffe sat on the penalty bench in his stead.

Muzz Patrick in 1935, when he won the Dominion Heavyweight boxing title.

As mentioned, Patrick did have a particular punching pedigree: in 1935, in Edmonton, he boxed his way to the Dominion Heavyweight crown with an upset TKO of Tommy Osborne, the challenger from Quebec. A contemporary account of the championship bout is as instructive as it is dispiriting, an historical case study for retrospective concussion spotters and students of punch-drunk syndrome alike.

Four years later, in New York in ’39, Shore was almost certainly concussed when he returned to the ice midway through the second period. “I told him not to play any more after it happened,” Boston coach Art Ross later said. “But he insisted on getting out there again. He was fighting mad.”

Edmonton Eddie’s dented and bent prow was Harold Parrott’s jovial description in the next morning’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It was smeared over on the right side of Eddie’s face by three Muzz Patrick punches, and only a band of adhesive tape held it back in place when Shore returned to the wars.

Papers in New York, Boston, and beyond would spend the next several days cultivating a discussion of just how Shore had sustained his damage. “Patrick didn’t do that,” the man himself told Parrott, gesturing to his nose, which he said had been shattered “for about the tenth time.”

“Watson hit me with the butt-end of his stick even before the scrapping started.”

But Muzz Patrick was adamant. “I hit him three clean shots. I felt his nose give way.”

Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Globe later got Patrick on the record regarding his erstwhile boxing career. He tracked him down in the coffee shop of the Manger Hotel, next to Boston Garden, where Patrick started off by saying, “I’m a hockey player, not a fighter.”

“Sure,” he said, “I used to box as an amateur, but I haven’t fought since 1935, and the fight the other night was the first I’ve had since I quit boxing.”

Following up his Canadian heavyweight crown with several other titles, he’d considered trying to represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was having trouble with his own nose, though, and underwent surgery for a deviated septum.

So that was what ended his career in the ring?

“Oh, no,” Muzz Patrick told Hurwitz, “my mother was against it. She never liked it from the start. It was all right for me to come home from a hockey game with seven stitches in my head, but if I ever came home from a fight with a little black eye, it was terrible. I gave it up for her.”

Aftermath: Shore adjusts his helmet next to referee Ion. That’s Ranger goaltender Bert Gardiner restraining (I think) Brimsek. The Rangers in front of him include Muzz Patrick, whom Boston number 11, Gord Pettinger, is about to punch. Jack Portland, number 8, is all done.

(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.)

lionel conacher at the 1921 grey cup: great that we’re winning, gotta get to the rink

Train Stop: Lionel Conacher spent only one of his 13 NHL seasons in Chicago, 1933-34, but it was long enough to help the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup.

The snow was deeper at this year’s Grey Cup in Ottawa than it was in 1921, when the game was played at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, but the outcome was the same: Argooooooooooos.

In ’21 the game played out on December 3, with the Argos prevailing 23-0 over a different Alberta team, the Eskimos of Edmonton. A hockey fan’s view of the afternoon’s proceedings might focus on 21-year-old Argo halfback Lionel Conacher. He was, The Ottawa Journal’s correspondent reported, “the greatest ground gainer” on the day. He scored a touchdown in the first quarter and another in the second, and maybe would have had a third if he hadn’t been tripped. He also contributed a drop-kick field goal.

“Conacher has the happy faculty of being able to take a pass while at full speed and some of his catches on Saturday were sensational,” the Journal continued. Also of note: the Daily Star recorded that Conacher was “shaken up several times and forced to retire.” So, concussed? Maybe. Doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.

Also of hockey note: another Argo, 27-year-old middleback Alex Romeril, would in later years serve (if only briefly) as coach of the Maple Leafs when they turned in 1927 from St. Patricks. He later served as an NHL referee. Romeril’s Grey Cup was hindered somewhat by a charley horse, though (said the Star) “he tried hard all the way.”

On that triumphant Saturday in 1921, Romeril’s sporting day didn’t end on the football field. Like Conacher, he still had a senior hockey game to play that night. The two Argo teammates may actually have left the Grey Cup game early to make it to the ice. There, at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, they lined up as rivals as Romeril’s Toronto Granites took on Conacher’s Aura Lee in an early-round game for the annual Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association Trophy.

Aura Lee had another future NHL star in the line-up that night in Billy Burch. Conacher scored a goal, but it wasn’t enough. With NHLer-to-be John Ross Roach starring in the net and the future Olympic and Montreal Maroons stand-out Dunc Munro on defence, Romeril’s Granites carried the day by a score of 4-2.

Conacher would have to wait to add his name to the Stanley Cup: it was 1934 before he helped Chicago win the championship. He did it again with the Montreal Maroons in 1935. The only other man to achieve that fairly incredible double is Carl Voss. He won the Grey Cup with Queen’s University in 1924 before gaining the Stanley Cup, also with Chicago, in 1938.

Conacher, of course, would continue to share his efforts between sports. All of them, just about. He wrestled and, also in 1921, boxed heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in an exhibition.  Coancher continued to play football, lacrosse, and baseball up to and beyond time he finally decided to give the NHL a go. He got his start there with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925. He was also a New York American in his time, before retiring, in 1937, a Maroon.

Splendor In The Grass: Conacher is fêted (that must be what’s going on here, no?) as a member of Toronto’s Hillcrest baseball team, circa 1920.

 

and a fighter by his trade

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The Boston Bruins’ 32-year-old defenceman Hal Laycoe (above left) hangs out with boxer Jimmy Carter, lightweight champion of the world, at Boston’s Ye Garden Café in May of 1955. Carter, 31, was gearing up to defend his title that spring: in June, he’d meet the challenger, Wallace “Bud” Smith at Boston Garden. He lost that bout in the late rounds — a stiff right in the 10th from the underdog Smith seems to have turned the tide, followed by a sweeping left to Carter’s eye. The two fighters met again that fall, in Cincinnati, but Carter couldn’t reclaim his crown.

And Laycoe? This day that same year (March 16 was a Wednesday in 1955, too), he caught an early plane in Boston and flew north to Montreal. “Shortly after arriving there,” wrote an anticipatory Tom Fitzgerald The Boston Daily Globe’s, “Hal will appear before NHL Pres. Clarence Campbell to tell his version of the hectic happenings in the Garden Sunday night when Laycoe was involved in a brawl with Maurice Richard, the noted wood-chopper.”

The season was almost over; another week and the playoffs would be underway. Montreal was battling with Detroit for first place overall; the Rocket was duelling with teammate Boom-Boom Geoffrion for the league’s scoring lead.

In Boston what had happened was that Canadiens were losing 4-1 with about seven minutes left in the game. With Boston’s Warren Godfrey in the penalty box, Montreal coach Dick Irvin pulled his goaltender, Jacques Plante. What happened next was not, perhaps, what the coach (or anyone) had hoped for.

Richard carried the puck toward the Boston net. Laycoe’s raised stick caught him on the side of the head. Referee Frank Udvari called a high-sticking penalty. Fitzgerald:

Richard raised a hand to his head where Laycoe’s stick landed. When the hand came down crimson-covered, Rocket waved it at referee Udvari, then he went berserk.

“Richard rushed at Laycoe and swung his stick,” was The Associated Press version of it: “Laycoe parried the blow, dropped his stick, eye-glasses and gloves and went after Richard. Richard hit Laycoe on the shoulder with his stick.”

Fleming Mackell retrieved Laycoe’s stick for him. Linesman Sam Babcock tried to separate the belligerents, in vain. They wrestled and fell to the ice. A Richard uppercut cut Laycoe under the eye.

The other linesman, Cliff Thompson eventually pinned Richard to the boards. Richard hit him under the eye; Thompson tried to hit him back, but missed. Richard then got his stick back and, said the AP, “whacked Laycoe a solid blow on the head.”

After the game, Boston Police Lieutenant Frank Gannon was ready to arrest Richard — Dick Irvin, too, when he raised a fuss. Bruins’ president Walter Brown dissuaded him, though, and the policeman had to be satisfied with a stern warning: next time.

So it was up to Clarence Campbell to decide on punishments. The hearing was set for 10.30 a.m. on the Wednesday. Laycoe planned to say his piece and head straight back to the airport to catch a 1:15 flight back to Boston. I guess he wasn’t expecting a suspension: his aim was to get back in time for the Bruins’ game that night with the Red Wings.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)