sammy rothschild: very speedy, with a whistling shot — lacks poundage

Any chance of a professional sporting career was supposed to have vanished for Sammy Rothschild on a baseball diamond in 1923. Sliding into second, he broke a leg, and that was supposed to be it for young Rothschild, who was already making a name for himself on ice as well as grass and basepaths.

No-one told Rothschild, apparently. Born on this date in 1900 in Sudbury, Ontario, his budding hockey career had, by the time of this injury, seen him star with the junior Sudbury Wolves and for McGill University. In the fall of 1924, Rothschild was among the first players signed by manager Cecil Hart when he was building an expansion team in Montreal. It took a while for them to take on the name Maroons; when Rothschild joined the team that October, there was still some thought that they might be a second band of NHL Wanderers. Starting out, they went mostly by Montreals.

The 24-year-old rookie left winger who happened to be the NHL’s first Jewish player skated out for the team’s inaugural game in Boston against the league’s other newcomers on December 1. Clint Benedict was the Montreal goaltender, with Dunc Munro and Dutch Cain on the defence; the forward line also featured veterans Punch Broadbent and Louis Berlinguette, winners of Stanley Cups, respectively, with Ottawa’s original Senators and the senior Montreal team, Canadiens. The Bruins prevailed, on that opening night, edging their visitors by a score of 2-1.

Rothschild scored for the first time in the NHL the next time the teams met, on December 17, when he notched two goals and added three assists in a 6-2 Montreal victory. The team had, by then, recruited another old Stanley-Cup-winning hand, Reg Noble. He and Broadbent were most of Montreal’s offense that year, sharing the team’s scoring lead with 20 points each by the time they’d finished their 30-game regular-season schedule. Rothschild was next in line, accumulating five goals and nine points as the team finished fifth in the six-team league, ahead of Boston if not quite in the playoffs.

The Maroons upped their game for their second season. With Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert added to the roster, they topped Ottawa in the NHL finals before going on to beat the Victoria Cougars of the PCHL to win the Stanley Cup. Rothschild was a modest contributor that year, statistically, scoring two regular-season goals (both of them game-winning) and four points. He played all four Stanley Cup games in 1926 without getting on the scoresheet. With a championship in hand, details like that may not registered so blankly to the Maroons and their fans. It’s also the case that each of the Maroons’ 11 players earned upwards of $3,000 each in bonus money for their Cup win.

Rothschild played another season in Montreal before coming to a crossroads in the fall of 1927. Maroons waived him, making him a free agent, and he thought about quitting the game, then, to go into the insurance business with teammate Nels Stewart. Montreal’s Gazette felt that he had plenty still to offer on the ice:

He is a brainy player with a whistling shot that is always dead to the corner and would be a valuable man to any club, major or minor.

Several teams were said to be pursuing his services before Odie Cleghorn signed him to play for his Pittsburgh Pirates, heading into their third season in the NHL. The local Pittsburgh Press approved:

The acquisition of Sammy Rothschild …, the only Jewish lad playing professional hockey, is expected to solve the center problem, and with a little more strength on the defense the Pirate pilot believes his club will get up in the running.

The Pirates did, it’s true, would make a return to the playoffs that season, though the Rangers stopped them there early on. Rothschild didn’t play much of a Pirate part at all, as it turned out. Just as the season was getting going he went down with what the Press diagnosed as “a slight attack of appendicitis.” Not long after that, the team suspended him for lacking condition and “violating club training rules.” The latter, in the NHL of the 1920s, tended to be a catch-all euphemism for living large and (often) bibulously, but back in Montreal the Gazette took up Rothschild’s defence.

The suspension was a surprise to all who’d encountered him in Montreal,

where Rothschild is popular and regarded as a player with an excellent club spirit. The report left an inference which no-one here who knows Rothschild would accept as the little forward player is noted as a clean-living lad whose habits are above reproach.

More likely: the problem lay with upper management, who weren’t providing the resources Odie Cleghorn needed to build a strong team, and that was leading to dissension within. Whatever the truth, Rothschild didn’t last: by the end of December, the Pirates released him unconditionally.

Within a week he’d found a new hockey home with the New York Americans. His Sudburiness likely figured in here: the coach in New York was his old Sudbury Wolves teammate Shorty Green, whose brother, Red, another former Wolf, played the left wing. Right winger Alex MacKinnon was said to have grown up next door.

“Very speedy and a clever stickhandler,” the Ottawa Citizen assessed Rothschild as he headed to his new team, standing 5’6” and weighing in at 145 lbs.; “lacks poundage.”

In New York, the newspapers scouting the Amerks’ new acquisition took an interest (in a way that the Canadian press never really seems to have) in Rothschild’s Jewishness. In announcing his home debut in early January of 1928, a column in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Madison Square Garden crowd would be filled with “American rooters and Sammy’s compatriots of the Jewish race.” To aid, perhaps, in drawing just such a crowd, the columnist cited this tantalizing (and almost certainly spurious) family history:

Sammy is a descendant of the Baron de Rothschild, Jewish international banker, perhaps the most famous in the world over. The story of the de Rothschild family is very interesting. The banking family originated centuries ago in Germany, but is now Parisian. The title is Austrian. Branches of the family are scattered all over the world. Sammy represents the British line in Canada.

The Daily News went with a more direct appeal, headlining its game-day coverage this way:

HEY! HEY! JEWISH SKATER JOINS AMERICANS TONIGHT

It was in the fall of 1926, little more than a year earlier, that the Americans’ MSG neighbours and rivals had launched their bizarre campaign to attract Jewish fans to their games. A press agent working for the Rangers, Johnny Bruno, was the brains of that short-lived operation, which involved pretending that goaltender Lorne Chabot (a Catholic) was, in fact, the NHL’s first Jewish player, variously identified in the local papers as Leopold Shabotsky/Shavatsky/Chabotsky. Before newspapermen back in Canada pointed out that no, Chabot wasn’t, Bruno also tried to pass off Rangers’ winger Ollie Reinikka — his actual background in British Columbia was Finnish — as an Italian named Ollie Rocco.

On the ice for the star-spangled Americans, Rothschild seems to have made a good early impression in New York. He does seem to have sickened again that winter, which kept him out of the line-up; there’s also mention of a bad knee, presumably the one he’d injured running the bases back in ’23. Nevertheless, some columnists felt, he was destined to become one of the most popular players in Manhattan, “a Hebrew athlete never fails to draw crowds to the gate.”

It didn’t work out. Rothschild couldn’t score in the 11 games he played for the Americans that winter, or didn’t, and by mid-February he was out of the line-up. I’ve seen it suggested that his aching knee forced him to quit, though nothing conclusive. Rothschild’s professional demise was as thorough as it was quick, to the point that the next NHL reference I can see in the newspaper archives is from 1931 when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenceman Alex Levinsky. He was going to be good, opined The Ottawa Citizen at that time, and if he was, well, one of the New York teams would surely try to lure him to Madison Square Garden. “Gotham has been on the lookout for a Jewish hockey star for years,” the feeling was. “Though he is very popular in Toronto, New York would open him with open arms.”

After the NHL, Sammy Rothschild returned to Sudbury. He was a referee and then a coach, taking to the bench of his old team, the junior Wolves, and steering them to a 1932 Memorial Cup championship. He was a curler, too, and served as president of the Dominion Curling Association. Away from the ice, he prospered as a clothier, a Montreal Gazette obituary relates, “one of the city’s most prominent businessmen.” He served as a city alderman and, in 1963, ran without success for mayor. Sam Rothschild died in 1987 at the age of 87.

Of his NHL days, Stanley-Cup-winning though they might have been, he once said this:“I was only a player, never a star. Some think that anyone who played in the NHL at that time must have been a star. But it just wasn’t so — especially in my case.”

on a night like this, in 1918: montreal 11, toronto 2

Tor Stars: The Toronto Hockey Club, as it lined up in January of 1918. Back row, left to right: Harry Cameron, Alf Skinner, coach Dick Carroll, Harry Mummery, Reg Noble, captain Ken Randall. Front: Hap Holmes, Harry Meeking, coach Charlie Querrie, Corb Denneny, Sammy Hebert.

Toronto’s latter-day Leafs are feeling fine, having handily beaten New York Islanders and Rangers on Wednesday and Thursday this week to strengthen both their confidence and the chances that they’ll be playing playoff hockey in a couple of months.

Would it be muddying the mood if we were to cast back a hundred years to summon up a colossal loss from this day in 1918, during the franchise’s original season? Yes? Sorry.

The NHL schedule was divided in halves that first NHL year. Only three of the four teams that had started the season in December were still standing by this point in 1918: with the Montreal Wanderers having withdrawn in early January, it was the Toronto Hockey Club, Montreal Canadiens, and Ottawa Senators left in the loop. February 2, a Saturday, had Toronto meeting Canadiens in Montreal. Two days later, on Monday, Toronto would host Ottawa, wrapping up the league’s tumultuous first demi-season. The second half would get going the following Wednesday. That would a shorter schedule, eight games for each team as opposed to the 14 the survivors had played in the opening section. In March, the winner of an NHL championship series would then play the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

Going into the February 2 game, Charlie Querrie’s Toronto squad still had a shot at overtaking Canadiens at the top of the standings. The Ottawa Journal was good enough to do the math for the Torontos: all they needed to do to overhaul Montreal was (a) win both of their final two games and (b) score 32 goals in so doing.

The weather that weekend in Montreal was February cold, with northwest winds and snow expected. The news was warlike: from France, tidings of hostile artillery at the front near Lens; in Russia, Bolshevik gains at Odessa. The latest casualty lists just in from Ottawa counted 97 Canadians, including 15 killed in action; seven died of wounds; one accidentally killed; one presumed dead. None of them were Montrealers, though five of the wounded were. Draftees, meanwhile, were streaming in from outside the city, many of them English-speaking, and headed for the Guy Street barracks, where they were being enlisted to the Army’s 1st Depot Battalion. Egg authorities were reporting that the city’s supply was waning, and could run short within two weeks; butter was also wanting. At Recorder’s Court, Nellie O’Hara was fined $500 for “having cocaine in her possession for other than medical purposes;” she had been trying to sell it to passersby on De la Gauchetière Street when Constable Blanchette arrested her.

At the Jubilee Rink at the corner of Saint-Catherine and Marlborough, the Torontos didn’t quite get the job done that needed doing. The game “was free from roughness,” The Globe chronicled, but “too one-sided to be exciting.” “Listless” was the adjective the paper hoisted to its headline; Montreal’s Gazette bannered its column on the evening’s proceedings with the subhead “Uninteresting Game.” The crowd was small, the drubbing (of Toronto) outright. For Montreal, it was (as The Ottawa Journal framed it) “a common canter.”

Final score: Canadiens 11, Torontos 2.

The fact that Montreal was missing Newsy Lalonde, fourth in NHL goal-scoring to that point, didn’t matter. Joe Malone was leading the league, and he scored four Canadiens’ goals, with Didier Pitre adding a further three. The Journal appreciated Malone’s stickhandling as “wizardry that hasn’t been equalled on Montreal ice this season.”

For all the humdrum headlines, it wasn’t a night entirely lacking for excitements. Earlier in the week, when the teams met in Toronto, Montreal defenceman Joe Hall and Toronto winger Alf Skinner had ended the game under arrest, charged by police for common assault after a stick-fight left Skinner unconscious on the ice. Subsequently released under suspended sentence by Magistrate Ellis, the two players started Saturday’s game by making a show of meeting at centre ice to shake hands.

Not everybody endorsed the peace: during the second period, amid calls from the gallery for Hall to re-punish Skinner, the game was interrupted. As the Journal’s man on the scene saw it:

Some plutocrat in the gallery had brought with him a large-sized bottle of gin. When the expensive beverage had been disposed of, the owner either let the bottle fall or threw it out on the ice and it went whizzing past the head of Alf Skinner, missing him only by a couple of inches, and smashing to pieces on the ice. The game was stopped and a dozen policemen rushed to the scene. Didier Pitre had a friend in the gallery who pointed out the party alleged to have thrown or dropped the bottle and Pitre in turn pointed him out to the police. The man was hauled out of his seat without ceremony and hustled from the rink, after which the game proceeded.

Also of note on the night: Montreal defenceman Billy Coutu got a major for speaking unkind words to referee Tom Melville.

For Toronto, I think it’s worth excusing goaltender Hap Holmes. He faced Montreal’s barrage “valiantly;” several of his stops were rated by the Journal critic as “spectacular.” One of the defencemen in front of him, Harry Mummery, hurt his knee falling into the boards early on, and he wasn’t much use after that.

And Toronto did only have two extra players on the bench on the night. Three if you want to count Reg Noble, Toronto’s leading goal-scorer, who sat there for the entire game in his uniform without playing. Coach Querrie was already peeved at him for, quote, breaking training rules. When Noble showed up late at the rink for the game, Querrie sat him out for the first two periods. The coach relented, apparently, in the third, and wanted Noble out there on the ice. This time, it was the player who refused to play. Querrie threatened to fine him $100, but he refused to budge. As the man in the newspaper said, “the blues had to struggle along without him.”