“Ching Johnson, heaviest and oldest player in major league hockey, has spent 29 weeks of his career in hospitals.”
• Norman Thomas, “Ye Sport Sandwich,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 16, 1937
I’m not going to catalogue all of Ivan Johnson’s hockey ailments here — this isn’t the time for that, and it isn’t the place. Regarding that introductory tally of Norman Thomas’, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny his calendar calculation for the Hall-of-Fame defenceman better known as Ching. What I can confide is what a newspaper aside dating to 1926 alleged, just as Johnson was just starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers: that the hockey he’d played to that point had conferred “27 scars.” That’s a number that — maybe it’s just coincidence — recurs in a 1938 edition of Time: “in twelve seasons of big-league of big-league hockey he has had bones broken in 27 different parts of his body.”
Hockey hurt more in the early years of the NHL: the game was sharper, blunter, more broadly brutal in the damage it inflicted on the professionals who played it. That’s part of the Ching Johnson story. The abandon he played with had something to do with his hospital tenancy, too. He enjoyed throwing his body at oncoming forwards. Frisky was one of his adjectives, and bumptious was another. He was tall, 5’11”, and what contemporary newspapers liked to call husky and/or burly — paired as he often was in his first years as a Ranger with Taffy Abel, he was half of what The New York Times called “the beefiest combination defense in the game,” a blueline bulwark that brought some 461 pounds to bear (at least 210 of them were Johnson’s).
Sounds like a brute, I know. But Johnson was fast, too, and if we loiter, for a moment, on the skill that went with his physical dynamism, we can find his boss in New York, Lester Patrick, likening him to Babe Ruth. “Great boy, Ching!” he gushed to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1928. “He has only one superior as a stick-handling defenceman and that is Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins.” Ten years later, a Ranger teammate, Bill Cook, classed Johnson as the greatest hockey player he’d ever seen.
But. Hospitals. There is one in particular I’m heading for, though not before a few more paragraphs to gather momentum. Maybe, to start, a sampling of vintage newspaper headlines from the Ching Johnson Injury Archive:
Johnson Injured In Hockey Clash
Blesse Dangereusement Samedi Soir
Johnson Unable To Rejoin Ranger Sextet This Season
Injured, He Stars
If he was a hockey Babe Ruth, it’s also the fact that there were oft-hurt ballplayers — Del Bissonette was one — who were referred to as the Ching Johnson of baseball, as in much-mended.
Ching Johnson injuries we’re not going to discuss, too much:
• the collarbone he broke in a collision with Charlie Langlois of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke in 1926;
• three of his ribs, damaged when he tripped Herb Drury of the Pirates in 1928 and (as The Pittsburgh Press had it) Drury’s “feet flew up and crashed into Johnson’s side;”
• the jaw Dit Clapper’s shoulder smashed in 1930, causing a dislocation and compound fracture that attending doctors (according to Ranger publicist Jersey Jones) used 80 inches of copper wire to repair;
• the forehead that Detroit’s Ebbie Goodfellow clipped with his stick in the playoffs in 1933 which left him, Johnson, “looking as though a horse had kicked him in the forehead” (said The Associated Press), leaving a scar that carved “in a livid crescent from the top of his nose to near his left eyebrow” in which five stitches could be counted.
Something else we’re not really going to get into: Johnson’s many stitchings, other than to say he himself denied having taken on 1,000 in his career, as was sometimes claimed by others on his behalf. “Where could they put them?” he said in 1937. “I’ve had only 374.”
His lack of meanness is important to emphasize, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been any spite in him. “Johnson,” wrote Horace Lavigne in La Patrie, “is a gentleman on the ice and he never abuses his strength or his bulk.” He bodychecked with bonhomie, sometimes helping those he’d knocked down back to their feet. When he rushed the puck, Lavigne went on, it was “with the impetuosity of an overflowing torrent.”
If you study the Ching Johnson literature you come across many sentences regarding his good nature and perpetual smile, which was said to grow as the going got rougher. “Often,” said his 1979 obituary in The New York Times, “when Mr. Johnson was knocked down, he would flash a grin that bespoke his delight at the contact.” A 1932 Le Canada dispatch almost scans as poetry:
Haynes et Johnson en collision;
Ching n’en perd pas son sourire,
Haynes non plus. Mais,
de l’équilibre, c’est autre affaire.
Johnson was about to turn 30 in early December of 1928, when he took to the ice at the Montreal Forum. The new NHL season was just six games old and the Rangers were in town to take on the local Maroons. When the two teams had faced each in the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring, it was the Rangers who’d prevailed. At 4-1-1, they were off to strong start in the new season, though it was the Maroons who’d handed them their lone loss so far.
Other game notes? Dave Trottier, star winger of Canada’s 1928 Olympic team, was making his home debut on the Maroons’ left wing.
Also in the house, front and centre in Forum crowd that numbered about 12,000: Su Alteza Real Don Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, cousin to King Alfonso XIII. With his wife, Infanta Doña Beatrice, and their son, Prince Alvaro, and a small retinue of retainers, Don Alfonso was on a North American tour when he stopped in Montreal. Mayor Camillien Houde met him at the train station, along with his host, Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, general manager of the Bank of Montreal.
The visitors spent a busy two-and-a-half days, touring the Royal Victoria Hospital and their host’s bank, attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica — and taking a pew at Saturday night’s hockey game, where the band opened the proceedings by playing of the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem.
On the ice, Maroons’ goaltender Clint Benedict was the star of the game, per The Gazette, “turning aside one drive after another with a brilliance that was uncanny.”
The game was fast. Also: rugged and robust and even peppery, but: not rough. Ching Johnson was a big part of this, and of the spectacle. “He is booed lustily by the fans,” The Gazette noted, “but they all admire him for a clean, hard playing, good natured defenceman, who smiles through fortune and adversity in hockey.”
The latter struck in the second period. With the game still goalless, Johnson took the puck and skated for the Montreal net, where a defenceman named Henry Hicks poke-checked him. The Gazette:
The Maroon defenceman started for the Ranger goal, and Johnson, somewhat off balance, kept on towards the corner behind the Maroon net. He could not get himself straightened out and crashed into the boards.
A later account described how the “pachydermic and bald defense ace” fell and slid feet first into the boards: “The weight of Johnson’s huge body carried such impetus that the ankle shattered under the strain.”
There were other Ranger casualties on the night: Taffy Abel didn’t return for the third period, and was reported to have suffered a gash from a skate to his left ankle, while left winger Butch Keeling went down with a (Montreal Gazette) “severely wrenched shoulder,” the right one. Torn ligaments, said the doctors later, when they looked.
Nels Stewart scored a goal for the Maroons before the second period ended, and he put another past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach early in the final period before Red Dutton made it 3-0.
That’s how it ended. The champions were beaten again. The Ottawa Journal rated Dave Trottier “fairly impressive,” particularly in the third; he also took two penalties. For Don Alfonso, well, he’d seen hockey before, in St. Moritz and Chamonix, but that was nothing like this.
“It is wonderful,” he said, “and we have all enjoyed every minute of the game.” He and his wife had both been touched to hear their anthem played. “We appreciated immensely the kindly touch and all that it meant.”
Johnson, meanwhile, was in a hospital that the Spaniards hadn’t seen, the western unit of Montreal General on what was then Dorchester Street. X-rays confirmed that his ankle, the left one, was indeed broken.
He wouldn’t be back playing for most of the rest of the season, The New York Times reported subsequently, and with Taffy Abel said to be gone for ten days, Rangers coach and GM Lester Patrick’s line-up was down to two defensemen, Leo Bourgeault and Myles Lane. For their next game, in Boston, the Rangers played with a reduced roster, 11 men. Abel’s and Keeling’s names were noted in the boxscores, though I don’t think either one of them got on the ice. The Bruins won that one, 2-0.
Johnson stayed in Montreal, resting his enplastered leg. The day after his teammates took on Boston, a photographer from La Patrie found the patient in his bed and pointed his camera. That’s it, above: Johnson looks comfortable, if a little unfocussed.
Later the same day, when the hospital caught fire, he’d be on the run. Continue reading
As the New York Rangers prepare to face the Montreal Canadiens in their NHL conference final, maybe there’s just time for a quick look in, via British Pathé, on a 1936 meeting between the two teams packaged for European viewers. Home at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won this December 21 meeting at by a score of 5-3, thanks to an (unsudden-death) overtime. A few glosses on the game:
• The Canadiens (8-6-2) were top of the Canadian section of the eight-team NHL (Montreal Maroons and New York Americans were still alive, that year) while the Rangers’ comparable record (8-5-3) had them second to Detroit on the American side. When the playoffs rolled around, the following March, it was the Red Wings who prevailed, beating Montreal and then the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.
• Starting this night for Montreal were 41-year-old George Hainsworth in goal (in for Wilf Cude) with Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert on defence. Howie Morenz was at centre between right winger Johnny Gagnon (second in NHL scoring) and, on the left, Aurele Joliat. Among the spares were Pit Lepine and Georges Mantha. Cecil Hart was the coach.
• For the Rangers, coached by Lester Patrick, it was Dave Kerr in goal with Art Coulter and Ott Heller on the blueline, fronted by Neil Colville with his brother Mac to the right and Alex Shibicky on the left. Spares included Frank Boucher, Phil Watson, and Cecil Dillon.
• Odie Cleghorn and Babe Dye were the referees. With the tie, the teams completed a ten-minute overtime.
• The New York Times:
The game was a speedy, smashing battle in which many penalties occurred, and the crowd of 14,000 hockey fans followed the action with unbounded enthusiasm.
• Watch the face-offs (right at the start of the reel and at 0:41) with the centres lined up sidelong.
• The Flying Frenchman (in the Times’ styling) went up 2-0 but the Patrickmen stormed back in the third.
• “We should have won 2-1,” Cecil Hart carped afterwards, “for Lynn Patrick was in the crease when he scored that last-minute tying goal. It should never have been allowed.”
• Montreal’s Joffre Desilets opened the scoring in the second (1:04). “A hard shot,” reported Harold Parrott in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though you can’t really see that in the footage. British Pathé’s commentator does his best: “Canadiens’ Desilets gets the ball and streaking forward — shoots!” Note the lack of congratulatory celebration after the goal — just the goalscorer skating almost bashfully away. There’s a fleeting view, too, of Morenz.
• Stratford’s famous Streak was back that season with the Habs after a sad two-year odyssey that took him to Chicago and then, briefly, to these very Rangers. Back in Montreal, he may have lost a step or two of speed, but as of this late-December night, he stood eighth in the league in scoring with a goal and 10 assists in 16 games. A little more than a month later, he went down in home game against Chicago with his left leg fractured in four places. Just over a month after that, he died in Montreal’s Hôpital St-Luc.
• The Daily Eagle on Joliat’s goal (1:22): “A characteristic solo by [sic] Aurel Joliat, the ageless little wonder in the black hat, made it 2-0 in 18:24 of that same second period.” The Times: “The Habitant mite was in the thick of every play while he was on the ice, and his expert poke checking saved Hainsworth a lot of work in goal.”
• You can’t really see the legendary black hat — I can’t. There’s a quick glimpse of Montreal Babe Siebert wearing a helmet (1:25) — along with, on the back of his sweater, the number one. At 32, he was in his first year with the Canadiens. After a stellar, scoring career as a left winger with the Maroons and Rangers, he went to Boston where Art Ross shifted him to defence. He played three seasons paired mostly with Eddie Shore, though the two of them supposedly never talked, on or off the ice, because of a longstanding feud. Traded to Montreal when Ross decided he was past his due date, he ended the season as a first-team All-Star and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP. Continue reading
Detroit was up on top of the American Division in the first week of January, 1936, ahead of the Rangers by a point when they went to New York to play. Ten thousand were there to watch. Despite the Red Wings’ tendency to defend, the clash was exciting enough. That’s what Joseph C. Nichols wrote in The New York Times: clash, exciting, enough. He said that Ching Johnson, from Winnipeg, was sterling on defence for the home team, and in attack, too, and came within an ace of tying it. But that was late in the third period. First, earlier, Pete Kelly from St. Vital, Manitoba, scored for Detroit. The Blue Shirts were pressing — charged without stint. Frank Boucher, from Kemptville, Ontario, was in on this, with Cook brothers on the wings, Bun and Bill, from Kingston. They couldn’t break down Detroit’s Normie Smith (Toronto): he wouldn’t break. Herb Lewis (Calgary) added a second goal for the Red Wings with Johnson on the penalty bench for hooking. This was the second period now. Then, this: Ranger Butch Keeling dashed in across the Detroit line. He was from Owen Sound; that’s him, above, with the part in his hair and the stripy-taped stick. Pete Kelly is with him. Caught by a camera called a magic-eye, this whole sequence lasted just a few seconds. Mixup is the word in the original caption for what happened: Kelly barged Keeling into the net, Normie Smith, in his cap, got the puck. I’m pretty sure that’s a young Bucko McDonald from Fergus, Ontario, in the last frame, with the helmet. Kelly went off for holding. Nichols:
The Rangers moved all their skaters forward. After several futile thrusts had been directed at the net, Johnson took Brydson’s pass and scored in 11.29.
Glen Brydson that would be, from Swansea, Ontario. 2-1. In the third, the Red Wings iced the puck when they could, which worked. The Rangers had some chances: Johnson by the post; Keeling on a long drive; a couple of hard raps from Bill Cook. That’s all, though.
In April, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, beating Toronto three games to one. Pete Kelly scored the winning goal.