of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

a good game of growl

September’s calendar in 1972 made a Friday of September 22, just like ours today. Back then, Canadians and Soviets were playing hockey again after a two-week hiatus. Maybe you remember: the upstart Communists had dominated the Canadian leg of the eight-game series, winning two, losing one, tying another. Home in Moscow, they scored five third-period goals in a 5-4 win at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports.

As many as 3,000 Canadians had travelled with the team to cheer them in Moscow. If you were back home watching in the rec room, you might have had in hand Hockey Canada’s Official Home TV Program. The 16-page brochure included handy summaries, line-ups, and stats from the series to date, along with uplifting messages from the likes of NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson and Team Canada coach Harry Sinden. “I’ll say this,” the latter assured fans on their couches: “I have complete confidence in the ability and determination of our players. I firmly believe they are the finest team ever assembled in the world. As we open the series in Moscow, I sincerely hope all Canadians share this confidence with me.”

Broadcasters also weighed in (above) on what they saw for the final four games. Johnny Esaw would, of course, be disappointed along all the rest of Canada: Bobby Orr wasn’t ready for any action, let alone lots of. Brian McFarlane got it just about right: Canada’s final edge could hardly have been sliced slighter. Most interesting, though, is Howie Meeker having his tetchy say. Nothing in here about winning. Ever the teacher, he just hoped for a Team Canada that would be returning home smarter about how to play the game we so desperately like to claim for our own. Hard to say, still, 45 years later, whether he got his wish.

curb appeal: the 1924 stanley cup by the side of the côte

Roadside Attraction: The Stanley Cup, circa 1930, was all grown up compared to the one that Sprague Cleghorn left by the side of the road six years earlier. The band that Léo Dandurand added to commemorate his ’24 champions is the bottom one. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM6, D1980-33-11-002)

After months of lay-off, the Stanley Cup reported back to work a week ago Sunday night. The routine wasn’t a whole lot different from last year, though the scene was Nashville this time instead of San Jose: up went the Cup, one more time, over Sidney Crosby’s happy head, as the Pittsburgh Penguins once more started off a summer’s-long celebration that will see members of the team show off hockey’s sacred silverware around the world while also taking time to fill it with cereal, champagne, and babies.

In September, the Cup goes to Montreal to meet with Louise St. Jacques. She’s the engraver whose solemn duty it is to hammer in new names next to older. As Ken Campbell noted recently in The Hockey News, some of those senior names will depart the Cup before next spring’s Cup presentation. In order to make room for future winners, as happens every 13 years, the topmost band of the five that encircle the base of the Cup will be removed to a display at the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a fresh blank.

It’s in this and other ways that the Cup has grown in physical stature since Lord Stanley donated the original bowl in 1892, shifting its shape through the years. The names of early winning teams were sometimes etched on the Cup, though sometimes they weren’t. The first NHL team to claim the Cup — Toronto, in 1918 — went unengraved at the time, as did the Ottawa Senators (champions in 1920, ’21, and ’23) and the Toronto St. Patricks (1922).

Léo Dandurand changed that. In 1924, his Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the second time in their brightening history. The following season, the coach and manager would add a globe to the team’s sweaters, reflecting their worldly hockey dominance. The Cup itself — one writer described it at that time as “a tureen resting on an ebony base” — Dandurand decided to annotate. As a result, to accommodate with the names of Canadiens’ players and members of management, the Cup gained a new band.

Global Express: A season after they’d won their Cup, wearing new sweaters to reflect their worldly excellence, Canadiens repeated as NHL champions before falling to the Victoria Cougars in the ’25 Stanley Cup finals. The squad included: Sylvio Mantha, Billy Boucher, Howie Morenz, Aurèle Joliat, Georges Vézina, Odie Cleghorn, Sprague Cleghorn, Fern Headley, Billy Coutu, Johnny Matz, and Léo Dandurand.

All of which winds us around to another feat with which Dandurand maintains a close association: ditching the Stanley Cup, if only briefly, by the side of a midtown Montreal street.

Eric Zweig was writing about this incident a little while ago in The New York Times — that’s what prompted all this, fore and aft. Stories involving indignities visited upon the various editions of the Cup over the years aren’t hard to come by, many involving drunken behaviour, others defecation. Zweig turned his focus on two of the best-known and most-repeated tales, staples both of hockey lore, in an effort to determine whether there might be any truth in them.

The first involves members of Ottawa’s Silver Seven, in 1905 (or maybe ’06?) punting the venerable Cup across (though possibly into) the capital’s Rideau Canal. Zweig’s conclusion, having weighed the available evidence: never happened.

The second Cup tale concerns Dandurand’s 1924 Canadiens. As Zweig details, the central source for this one is The Hockey Book, Bill Roche’s rich 1953 anthology of anecdotes, wherein Dandurand narrates the story himself. It’s a short and sweet and fairly straightforward account. The pertinent passage:

Georges Vézina, Sprague Cleghorn, Sylvio Mantha and I, got into a model T Ford to make the trip. The little lizzy stalled going up Côte St. Antoine Road in Westmount, and we all got out to push.

Cleghorn, who had been jealously carrying the hard-won Stanley Cup in his lap, deposited it on the curb at the roadside before he joined us in shoving the car up the hill. When we reached the top, we hopped back into the car and resumed our hockey chatter as we got going again.

Upon reaching my house, we all started in on a big bowl of punch which my wife had prepared. It wasn’t until she asked, “Well … where is this Stanley Cup you’ve been talking about?” that we realized that Cleghorn had left it on the side of the road.

Sprague and I drove hurriedly back to the spot almost an hour after we had pushed the car up the hill. There was the Cup, in all its shining majesty, still sitting on the curb of the busy street.

Zweig’s verdict on this one: probably true. Sprague Cleghorn himself is said to have vouched for its veracity. I’ll add a vote of confidence here, too, based on a further Dandurand account that adds further weight to the case, along with some finer — and occasionally divergent — detail.

•••

As is often the case in the canon of popular hockey lore, the original anecdote hasn’t quite kept its original shape through the years of repetition. Roche’s Hockey Book has the car stalling, and subsequent accounts (Stan Fischler’s 1970 book Strange But True Hockey Stories) stick to that. Elsewhere the version you’ll find is the one in Andrew Podnieks’ Lord Stanley’s Cup from 2004: it was a flat tire that waylaid Dandurand’s party, “and while they changed wheels they placed the Cup by the side of the road.” Other variations (see Brian McFarlane’s 2015 Golden Oldies) separate Cleghorn and Dandurand, with the former arriving chez latter sans Cup, whereupon the coach “ordered Sprague and his pals to go back and retrieve the trophy.”

Cup To The Curb: The 1924 anecdote is a familiar one in hockey folklore. Above, a Bill Reid illustration adorning Brian McFarlane’s Peter Puck and the Stolen Stanley Cup (1980).

We’ll get to the testimony back up Dandurand’s Hockey Book account — first, a pinch of background:

Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921, paying $11,000 with partners Joe Cattarinich and Louis Letourneau. Installed as managing director, Dandurand stepped in to guide the team from the bench that season after a dispute with his playing coach and team captain, Newsy Lalonde. Dandurand keep on with the coaching for another four seasons, none of which saw his Canadiens succeed as they did in the spring of 1924. That was the was the year they overcome Ottawa’s Senators to claim the NHL championship, Montreal then went on to beat the PCHA Vancouver Maroons for the right to play the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers for the Stanley Cup.

Montreal’s championship team featured Georges Vézina in goal and a defence anchored by Sprague Cleghorn and Sylvio Mantha. Up front: Joe Malone, Aurèle Joliat, Billy Boucher, and a promising rookie by the name of Howie Morenz. Calgary had Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner manning the defence, and Harry Oliver and Eddie Oatman at forward.

Montreal won the first game of the best-of-three series on home ice at the Mount Royal Arena in late March. Bad ice sent the teams to Ottawa’s Auditorium for the second game, where Canadiens prevailed again. That was on March 25, a Tuesday. They had to wait until the following Monday to lay hands on the actual Cup, when trustee William Foran made the presentation back in Montreal, at a Windsor Hotel banquet, April 1, organized by a committee of prominent Canadiens supporters.

Artist’s Impression: A La Patrie illustration highlighting distinguished guests — including, top, Dandurand and his Canadiens — at the Windsor Hotel banquet.

A crowd of 450 was on hand, with all the Canadiens ensconced at the head table, except for Vézina, who was back home in Chicoutimi. The goaltender did send along a humorous greeting, which was read aloud, along with congratulatory telegrams from Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy as well as, also, a concatenation of Canadiens’ fans in Grimsby, Ontario, where Montreal trained in the pre-season in those years.

There were toasts: to King George V, to the Canadiens, and to the NHL, as well as to “visitors” and the press.

Gifts were given, too: the team’s 11 players as well as trainer Ed Dufour received engraved gold watches. Dandurand got luggage: what the Montreal Gazette described as “a handsome travelling bag.”

When the time came for Dandurand to address the gathering, he started in French. In English, he said, “I am proud of the bulldog courage and tenacity which our English brothers revere so much and which our players exhibited so frequently throughout the season, no matter what the odds were against them. No matter what was said or done, it was understood that our players should go through the games like good, game sportsmen.”

College Fête: On a Thursday night in April of 1924, Canadiens and their newly own Stanley were head-table guests at a University of Montreal gala at the Monument National.

Thursday there was a further tribute, at a gala University of Montreal event at the Monument National theatre on Saint Laurent Boulevard. On a night on which U of M undergraduates were celebrating a season of sporting successes by some of their own accomplished fellows, the Canadiens once again occupied the head table. They got a cheer from the crowd of 1,500, of course, and more gifts: fountain pens and engraved gold pencils, by one account. Among the student athletes honoured were Leo “Kid” Roy, newly crowned Canadian featherweight boxing champion, and Germain McAvoy, who’d recently matched the national indoor record for dashing 60 yards.

After supper, the program included a display of fencing; three wrestling matches; and no fewer than eight bouts between boxers. There were musical performances, too, by the university orchestra and a jazz sextet.

And a repeat of the Cup presentation: the honorary president of the U of M’s Athletic Association, Dr. Edouard Montpetit, handed it to the Hon. Athanase David, Quebec’s provincial secretary who also served as Canadiens president. Amid (the Gazette) “mighty applause and cheering of the students,” David in turn passed it on to Dandurand.

The latter mentions this event in his 1953 Hockey Book account. “It is the only time in history,” he writes there, “that a professional hockey club has been so honoured by a major seat of learning.” He then proceeds to describe the fateful forgetting of the Cup.

Here’s where we can expand what we know of the waylaid Cup by just a bit. A year before the Hockey Book appeared, Dandurand told the story elsewhere in print. Because Rosaire Barratte’s biography, Léo Dandurand: Sportsman (1952), seems only ever to have been published in French, this somewhat more detailed version isn’t one that’s been widely disseminated. It is broadly similar, though it does include a few key variations.

Dandurand relates (again) that, following the U of M soirée, he and his wife, Emélia, were hosting a late-evening buffet for Canadiens players and management at their house, which, we learn, was in the west-end Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. A little more digging turns up the address: 3801 Avenue Northcliffe.

Dandurand was among the last to leave the Monument National, Barrette writes (in French; the translation is mine, Google-aided), “for he had to take home the Stanley Cup.”

So our happy companion jumped into Jos Cardinal’s car, an ancient model-T Ford with three seats, into which Sprague Cleghorn and Georges Vézina also climbed. Everything went well until the Côte-Saint-Antoine, where the old wreck [“bazou”] refused to climb the slope. Jos Cardinal begged his companions to get out of the car.

Cardinal was a Montreal theatre impresario, and a friend (we’ll assume) of Dandurand’s. No mention here of Sylvio Mantha — and no room for him in the car, either. Vézina could presumably returned from Chicoutimi for this second Cup event, and indeed the Gazette account of the U of M event speaks of the players “attending in body.” Although — hmm — other French-language dispatches make specific mention of Vézina’s absence from the banquet. So maybe Mantha was aboard?

But back to Jos Cardinal. “My car can go up backwards,” Barrette has him telling his passengers. “Meet me at the top.” That’s not how it went in The Hockey Book: all got out to push there, “shoving the car up the hill.”

The Barrette narrative continues:

Léo, Sprague and Georges did as they were asked. On the pavement, Cleghorn put down the Stanley Cup at the foot of a streetlamp, and the three of them lit cigarettes. When Cardinal called them, after having accomplished his tour de force, our friends hurried up and took their places in the vehicle. But they forgot the famous trophy on the Côte-Saint-Antoine.

This is not a neighbourhood I know myself. Spying in with Google’s help doesn’t really clarify anything. This weekend, I happened to be visiting Montreal with my son Zac, so on a Sunday morning that had already started to swelter, we drove along Sherbrooke Ouest, as the Stanley Cup might have on a spring night 93 years ago. I was telling Zac the story as we turned onto Avenue Argyle, which you have to do to get to Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, taking the first left by the Westmount Hôtel de Ville.

Past Metcalfe, past Mount Stephen. The road starts to rise. The steepest stretch gets going just past Strathcona. It doesn’t last long: the serious part of the hill tops out at Arlington. This is guesswork, but I’m willing to take a stand here and now and declare that if Dandurand and Cleghorn did forsake the Cup one night in April of 1924, it was here.

I pulled over and parked. The leafy green expanse of King George Park is on the right and then there’s a stone wall that starts. A few paces up the hill and the wall opens to the house at 331. There’s a streetlamp there. Does it date back (almost) a century? I don’t know. It looks … elderly. As I told Zac, given what’s documented, I’m nominating it as the one whereby Jos Cardinal’s Model-T faltered and everybody bailed out and Sprague Cleghorn laid down the Stanley Cup. I took a bunch of photographs while Zac, to be funny, photographed me.

Site Visit: The hill on the Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, as it looks today. On the right is the streetlamp where (best guess) Sprague Cleghorn forgot the Stanley Cup in 1924.

Northcliffe isn’t far, a four-minute drive on a modern-day Sunday in June. I don’t know if the modest two-story semi-detached house at 3801 is the same one that the Dandurands occupied before they moved in 1940 to a mansion in Beaconsfield — it could be a later replacement.

Back to 1924, and back to Barrette: Madame Dandurand had prepared a punch. With her husband and his companions arriving from their gala supper, the hostess wanted (naturally enough) to be serving her brew from the Stanley Cup.

Which, of course, wasn’t there. Dandurand froze.

O wonder! O calamity! The magnate believed that his heart was caught between a hammer and an anvil. He came out of the house like a whirlwind and hailed a taxi that broke all speed records. Léo devoted himself to all the divinities and made all promises imaginable to good Saint Anthony.

Can the celestial joys be compared to that which the terrified manager experienced when he found the treasure at the same place or Sprague Cleghorn had left it?

•••

“Léo Dandurand wasn’t above stretching the truth,” Eric Zweig wrote in the Times, citing the myth he crafted concerning the score of children Georges Vézina was supposed to have fathered. Still, Zweig says, his 1924 Stanley Cup mostly holds up. Rosaire Barratte’s account only adds ballast to that conclusion.

It doesn’t, of course, answer all the questions it raises. There was a taxi cruising Northcliffe late on a Thursday night?

A further clockly note might be in order here, too. In The Hockey Book, Dandurand writes that the Cup was stranded for “almost an hour.” With the evening’s slate of gala events starting at 8 p.m., the proceedings can’t have wrapped much before midnight, can they? (I’m assuming that the team and its trophy stayed until the end.) The journey to and through Westmount would have taken a little time, followed by the delay before the rescue. If that’s the case, is it fair to suppose that events in question unfolded in/around/after 1 a.m.? A nocturnal setting doesn’t forgive the forgetfulness; the context of the whole episode taking place on a slumbering residential street does, however, slightly undercut the end of Dandurand’s English account in which he refers to retrieving the Cup from “the curb of the busy street.”

Whatever the hour, there’s no doubting Dandurand’s relief. With the Cup safe, he took home a bright anecdote. Many years later, he wondered how, if things had turned out differently, how he would have explained the disappearance of “a trophy that has no price and which represents the most important emblem of the universe!” The evening’s events remained, he told Barrette, a “hallucinatory adventure.”

“There was surely,” he firmly felt, “a little Infant Jesus of Prague who protected me, as always!”

tell all the people of ottawa that I’ll never forget them

king-c-pkstrk

King Comes To Town: Clancy shows off his new Leaf togs at training camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, in October of 1930.

Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.

Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.

There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.

Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.

The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.

Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.

“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”

The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”

Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.

And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.

Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.

First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.

Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.

For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.

Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.

Clancy agreed.

As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?

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Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.

The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading