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).

dear ottawa senators: wash your pants

How to solve a problem like the Ottawa Senators? A hundred years ago, as the NHL headed into its third season, a helpful fan of the city’s original Sens thought he’d share his blueprint by way of his local newspaper. The he is a guess, based on this is 1919 we’re talking about and, also, because men.

Some notes for the margins: the league was a four-team affair that year, with a 24-game schedule that faced-off late in December. Pete Green was Ottawa’s new coach for 1919-20, insofar as this was his first season steering in the team in the young league: in the team’s pre-NHL days, he’d been involved with seven Stanley Cup-winning teams as trainer and coach going back to 1903.

Jack Darragh, a winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, had been playing for Ottawa since 1910, but now, at 29, he was negotiating a new contract by talking about retiring. He signed just before the season got underway. Darragh, who played all but one game that season, at home and away, finished fifth in NHL scoring.

The Senators were in the market for another defenceman: by mid-December, Coach Green was looking to add a man on the line to aid captain Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn. He didn’t, in the end, electing to move a forward back to help out, Georges Boucher.

I can’t speak to the state of the roof at Dey’s Arena, which stood on what is today Laurier Avenue on the site of Confederation Park. I can report that in April of 1920, the Senators did win their first NHL Stanley Cup beneath it, defeating the PCHL’s Seattle Metropolitans in five games. Jack Darragh decided it in the last of those: his game-winning goal was one of three he scored in a 6-1 Senators’ romp. I don’t have good information on whether or not his pants had been recently laundered.

playing hurt: I’m getting back into that game if it kills me

Special Ed: Eddie Gerard in 1914, when he first joined the Ottawa Senators. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / e003525294)

So the Boston Bruins’ 42-year-old captain Zdeno Chara is in tonight, leading his team into the fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues despite that jaw of his that a puck broke two nights ago and (as Ron MacLean reported just before puck-drop) “we believe to be wired shut.”

Chara got medical clearance to play this afternoon, we’re told, whereupon he himself made the decision to play. Much of the coverage through the day focussed on Chara, watching him at the Bruins’ optional skate, imaging his discomfort. Much of the punditry heading into the game toggled between expressions of amazement at Chara’s pain-threshold/courage and reminders that he is, after all, a hockey player.

Along with frontline dispatches from Boston came historical reviews of other ghastly injuries suffered by other stout NHLers who gamely played on. None of those reached back to the 1923 Stanley Cup, so maybe that’s our duty here. A comparable case? Maybe not exactly, but here it is nonetheless.

Eddie Gerard is the man in question, captain of the (original) Ottawa Senators as they won their third Stanley Cup in four years. Coached throughout those years by Pete Green, this is a team (it’s worth mentioning) that has been called one of the finest in NHL history. Just because that’s impossible to verify doesn’t make it untrue. In its 1923 edition, the team’s 10-man line-up included eight future Hall-of-Famers, including Frank Nighbor, King Clancy, Clint Benedict, and Cy Denneny. A ninth player, defenceman Lionel Hitchman probably should be in the Hall, which leaves another blueliner, poor Harry Helman, as the odd man out.

Gerard, for his part, was one of the original nine players to be chosen for the Hall’s inaugural class in 1945, joining the likes of Howie Morenz, Hobey Baker, and Georges Vézina in that auspicious cohort.

In 1923, aged 33, he was still a dominant defenceman in the league, which the Senators duly topped. By beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on aggregate in a two-game playoff, Ottawa earned the right to represent the NHL in a three-team Stanley Cup tournament played in Vancouver. The Senators had to dispense with the Vancouver Maroons to make it to the finals, which they did, setting up a two-game sweep of the Edmonton Eskimos that won them the Cup.

It was in the final game against Vancouver, a 5-1 Ottawa win at the Denman Street Arena, that Gerard was hurt, Monday, March 26. He was rushing for goal, as Ottawa’s Journal had it, when he collided with Eskimos’ centre Corb Denneny, Cy’s brother. Gerrard ended up on the ice with his left shoulder dislocated and an injured knee. Helped off, he spent the third period on the bench with his arm in a sling, “shouting and coaching his players,” according to the eyewitness account of Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman, who was beside him, and would later write the game up for the front page of the Ottawa Evening Citizen.

“Twice he begged me to let him get back on the ice,” Gorman reported. “‘I can hold my arm up,’ he kept saying. ‘Let me on and they’ll never get in.’”

Gorman demurred; Gerard stayed put. The following day, the latter wrote, “the gallant Ottawa captain” lay in hotel room “smiling in the face of his pain and assuring his teammates that they’ll beat Edmonton without him.”

“There is,” Gorman concluded, “only one Eddie Gerard.”

A visit to a Vancouver hospital revealed that his injury wasn’t so singular: “Eddie suffered a double fracture,” the Journal noted, “and his shoulder ligaments are torn.” Gerard’s optimism was page-one news back home in the Citizen: he now said he expected to join his teammates when they took the ice Thursday night.

Gorman wasn’t so sure. By Wednesday, a compromise seems to have been reached. The shoulder was responding to treatment and Gerard would dress, though he would most likely stay on the bench. “If he should get into the game it will be for a few minutes at a time,” the Citizen’s correspondent wrote, “just to relieve George Boucher or Frank Clancy.” With defenceman Harry Helman ruled out entirely due to a cut on a foot and Lionel Hitchman (broken nose) uncertain, the Senators were looking at going into the game with (Gerard aside) a grand total of five skaters out in front of goaltender Clint Benedict.

Hitchman did play, in the end, scoring Ottawa’s first goal; Gerard remained for the entire game on the bench, even after yet another defenceman, George Boucher, hurt a foot. Despite a line-up that featuring the legendary likes of Duke Keats and Bullet Joe Simpson, the Eskimos (to the slightly impartial eye of the Citizen) “looked like an ordinary hockey team.” Cy Denneny decided it in Ottawa’s favour when he scored in overtime.

Ahead of the second game, played on Saturday, March 31, the word again that Gerard would be dressed, though it wasn’t clear how much he would play. George Boucher’s ankle was swollen to twice its usual size, but he too would be in the line-up. In event, it was Boucher who kept to the bench the whole game while Gerard made his return.

Ottawa’s victory was a narrow one: Punch Broadbent scored in the first period and they held on from there to claim the tenth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Gerard’s part in the piece was duly recognized. As Citizen sports editor Ed Baker saw it, the captain’s mere presence on the ice was an “exhibition of courage rarely witnessed in any form of sport.”

“He was unable to raise his lift arm as high as his chin at any time since he was injured,” Baker wrote, “but knew the serious position the Senators were in and went into the game more for the moral effect it would have on his teammates than with any expectation of playing up to his usual form.”

He mainly kept to coaching his teammates, Baker noted, though there were a couple of occasions on which he couldn’t resist a rush into Edmonton territory. In the second period, he fell badly, had to be helped from the ice — “but pluckily returned to the fray.”

Tommy Gorman filed his view from the Ottawa bench:

Eddie Gerard actually played for the greater part of the game, notwithstanding his injuries. Twice he went down with a crash and three times with the  shoulder, and after each occasion he skated over to the bench groaning under the pain, but refusing to retire. “Pull that shoulder back,” he would shout to Trainer [Cozy] Dolan. “I’m getting back into that game if it kills me.”

With Hitchman fading in the third, Gerard insisted on relieving him. “It was a physical torture to skate and could not shoot or handle the stick,” Gorman attested, “yet he blocked with all his old-time effectiveness, and steadied his team at critical moments. The Ottawa captain gave the greatest exhibition of pluck and endurance ever seen in Vancouver.”

For Gerard and Gorman alike, 21-year-old King Clancy was the pick of Ottawa’s litter. Gorman:

In the last period Clancy outskated every other man on the ice. With Gerard unable to carry the puck, and Hitchman hardly able to move, Clancy bore the brunt. “Heavens!” Eddie Gerard once ejaculated through his pain-racked [sic] body, “look at Clancy playing the whole Edmonton team. He’s the greatest kid in the world.”

Clancy stood out in this game for another reason: in the second period, when Clint Benedict was called for slashing Joe Simpson, the Ottawa goaltender (as one did in those years) headed to the penalty bench to serve his sentence. “King Clancy then went into net,” Ed Baker wrote, “and that gave the youngster unprecedented distinction of having played every position on the line-up during the present tour. He had previously subbed in both defence positions, center, and on right and left wing.”

The Senators enjoyed their victory — and nursed their wounds. “Eddie Gerard and George Boucher lie in their rooms smarting under injuries,” Gorman wrote, “but smiling and happy.”

The team enjoyed their triumphant cross-country train trip home. Ed Baker was aboard. From Moose Jaw he sent word that Gerard and Boucher were “both doing nicely and picking up more as every mile is reeled off.” Gerard (a.k.a. The Duke of Rockcliffe) was “getting the injured shoulder back to a working basis again” while Boucher hobbled his way around with increasing dexterity.

When the team’s train arrived in Ottawa on the morning of Friday, April 6, it was met by a crowd of thousands. There was a parade, and there were speeches, a lunch at the Chateau Laurier. “Men,” declaimed Mayor Frank Plant, “we are glad and proud to welcome you back home after your splendid victory. Ottawa is proud of you.”

The Citizen took one more survey of the cost of victory:

Many of the players bore evidence of their honorable scars. Eddie Gerard shoulder was bothering him and George Boucher walked lame from the effect of the bad smash he got in the West. Others had pieces of skin missing, but all were cheerful and smiling.

The Senators spent the summer months recovering their health. For Eddie Gerard, though, there would be no return to NHL ice. Though shoulder was recovered in time for the start of the new campaign, he fell ill in October with throat and respiratory problems that would keep him out of the line-up for the entire 1923-24 season. He spent the year helping coach the team before finally retiring in 1924 to sign on to coach the expansion Montreal Maroons.

Stanley Cup Sens: Ottawa’s 1923 line-up, showing (back row, left to right) Owner Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Pete Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, and Harry Helman.

 

st. louis whos?

Flyboys: In the end, the deal that transplanted the original Ottawa Senators to St. Louis in 1934 didn’t work out for either city: both were out of the NHL by the fall of ’35. An erstwhile legend of the Senators’ defence started off steering the St. Louis Eagles in their only NHL campaign, but Eddie Gerard was gone before Christmas that 1934-35 season, replaced by an old Ottawa teammate, Buck Boucher. The Eagles’ struggles continued and by the end of the season they were mired at the bottom of the NHL standings, five points adrift of the New York Americans, who also avoided the playoffs. Doubts about the future of the St. Louis franchise continued through the summer of 1935. When a new owner couldn’t be found, the NHL took over the operation, scuttling the ship in October, and dispersing the players. Pictured above on a brighter day in the fall of ’34, some of them were (back row, left to right) coach Gerard, Earl Roche, Jeff Kalbfleisch, Gerry Shannon, Max Kaminsky, Irv Frew, Burr Williams, Vern Ayers, Scotty Bowman, Bill Beveride. Front: Abbie Cox, Frank Finnigan, Glenn Brydson, Carl Voss, Bud Cook, Syd Howe, Des Roche, Bill Cowley, Mickey Blake.

billy (of the bouchers) at the montreal forum

Among NHL Bouchers, Billy wasn’t as celebrated as his younger brother Frank, who won all those Lady Byng trophies. And unlike his elder brother, Buck, he never captained the mighty mark-one Ottawa Senators when they were glorious in the 1920s. Billy Boucher didn’t make it to hockey’s Hall of Fame, either, as both Frank and Buck did. Make no mistake, though, Billy was a player, as those Bouchers tended to be (a fourth brother, Bobby, played in the league, too). Billy, who died on this date in 1958, played eight seasons at speedy right wing, most of them for the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he twice won the Stanley Cup, though he was also a Boston Bruin and a New York American.

Ottawa-born, as those Bouchers also tended to be, Billy was the man who scored the first goal at the Montreal Forum the night it opened in November of 1924. He was 25, in his fourth season with Canadiens, skating on a line with Howie Morenz at centre and his old Ottawa teammate Aurèle Joliat over on left. Actually, Boucher scored the first three goals in the Forum’s NHL history, collecting a natural hat trick in Canadiens’ 7-1 opening-night win over the Toronto St. Patricks. Defenceman Sprague Cleghorn passed him the puck for the first goal, which came in the first minute of the game; the second and third both came when Boucher picked up and netted rebounds of shots of Howie Morenz’s.

Boucher had played centre until he arrived in Montreal and in the pre-season of 1921 he battled Canadiens’ veteran Newsy Lalonde to stay in the middle. It was only after the two of them ended up in a fistfight at practice that coach Leo Dandurand sent the rookie to the wing.

On another night, not so proud, perhaps, as that Forum debut, Boucher featured in a contentious game when his Canadiens met the Maroons in December of 1925.

In the first period, Joliat thought he’d scored a goal on Clint Benedict, though the goal judge didn’t see it that way; play went on. The arbiter in question was Ernie Russell, a former centreman himself, a one-time star of the Montreal Wanderers who would later be elevated to the Hall of Fame. When play stopped, Joliat skated at Russell with his stick held high, as if to chop a reversal out of him. “Then,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the action started.”

Policemen were standing nearby, apparently, but they just watched as an incensed spectator opened the door of Russell’s cage and pinned his arms. The Gazette:

Billy Boucher swept in from a distance of forty feet and while Russell was unable to defend himself, cracked the official across the face with his stick. Players intervened and tore Joliat and Boucher and Russell was free to defend himself against the rabid spectator. This he did to his own satisfaction, the fan beating a hasty retreat under the barrage of fists that were coming his way. He ran into the arms of policemen and was escorted to the Forum office where his name and address were taken and verified and he was let go with the understanding that a warrant would be sworn out against him …, the Forum management stating that they are determined to put a stop to this sort of thing from the first and as an example to others who may be tempted to act in this way.

Referee Jerry Laflamme missed the melee, reportedly; no penalties were imposed. As far as I can tell, Ernie Russell went back to work, as did Canadiens, racking up a 7-4 win.

NHL President Frank Calder did intervene, eventually. As Canadiens prepared to play their next game in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, Joliat learned that he’d been fined $50. Billy Boucher, Calder announced, was suspended indefinitely. Actually, that wasn’t quite the wording — Boucher would be out “until sufficiently punished,” Calder said.

Boucher was suitably remorseful, wiring Ernie Russell from Pittsburgh to express his regrets. They were “sincere,” it was reported, though the note was of a private nature, and not “an official apology.”

There was a rumour that Leo Dandurand hoped to fill the Billy-Boucher-shaped gap in his line-up by buying Babe Dye, Toronto’s leading scorer. He offered $20,000, but Toronto wasn’t interested. Instead, Dandurand shifted rookie Pit Lepine onto the wing with Morenz and Joliat, and that seemed to work: he scored the winning goal against Pittsburgh. Montreal also won the second game that Billy Boucher missed without learning how long he’d be in limbo. Frank Calder relented a couple of days later, and Boucher was back in the line-up for Montreal’s next game, a loss to the New York Americans.