congratulations to all — and for aurèle joliat, a big black cat

Rocket-Watcher: Ray Getliffe was a Bruin first, but after four seasons in Boston, he joined Montreal in 1939. He played six seasons for the Canadiens, including 1942-43, when his teammates (see below) deemed him to be one of their most effective penalty-killers. Born in Galt, Ontario, this very week in 1914, he died in 2008, aged 94. Another claim for his fame? He’s the man credited with coining one of hockey’s most enduring nicknames. In 1942, the story goes, he commented that teammate Maurice Richard skated like, yes, a rocket.

No more will Canadiens play in Montreal this season: it’s all over there for another year. The team does have one last road game, in Toronto on Saturday, but at the Bell Centre, it’s all over, now, but the raw, animal moaning.

Amid the disappointment of a inferior year, the team did find some achievement to celebrate this week, and there was silverware to go with. Brendan Gallagher was named winner of this year’s Molson Cup, team’s de facto Player of the Year award, as measured by three-star selections.

Paul Byron got the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy, by which local media celebrate a player whose exploits have gone otherwise unsung — or, as the team phrases it, the member of the team who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honour.

The Molson dates back to 1973, when Ken Dryden won it. Since then, it’s been awarded to many likely achievers (Guy Lafleur and Carey Price, seven times each one) along with some others who qualify as lesser lights — Wayne Thomas, Steve Penney, Cristobal Huet.

Named for the venerable newspaperman who worked his words in both Montreal-Matinand Le Journal de Montreal, the Beauchamp was established in the 1981-82 season, when Doug Jarvis was the inaugural winner. Others who followed him have included the quietly contributing likes of Craig Ludwig, Lyle Odelein, Jan Bulis, and Steve Begin.

Further back in Canadiens history? The Montreal branch of Mappin and Webb, jewelers and silversmiths, does seem to have donated trophies on the Molson model in the 1920s with a notion of recognizing local excellence. Details are sketchy, but the lost, lamented Maroons seem have embraced this more than Canadiens. Babe Siebert won the Maroons’ Mappin and Webb Trophy as team  MVP in 1928, while Jimmy Ward was the man for the Maroons in 1931.

The only instance of Canadiens awarding a Mappin and Webb Trophy that I can trace is at the end of the 1927-28 season. Ahead of their last regular-season game at the Forum, before they went out and whupped Ottawa 4-0, Canadiens paraded the year’s haul of hardware — and pets.

NHL President Frank Calder handed over the O’Brien Cup, still the prize in those years for the NHL team finishing first overall. As the league’s top goaltender, George Hainsworth collected his second consecutive Vézina Memorial Trophy. In reporting that Howie Morenz got the Mappin and Webb, the Gazette noted that it specifically recognized his MVPlaying during the team’s homegames.

Also, that the crowd at the Forum was pleased to see Morenz acknowledged, giving him “a stirring ovation.” La Patrie: “une immense acclamation salua ce geste.”

The fans had further tributes to offer. In those earliest NHL decades, the die-hardest of the Canadiens’ faithful occupied the 50-cent seats in the upper gallery of the Forum’s north-end. They were, largely, French-speaking and working-class, and they proudly identified as the Millionaires.

Apart from devotedly hailing their heroes, these fans often rewarded the Montreal players, as they did on this night in 1928. George Hainsworth was the pre-game recipient of four-leaf clover, described in the papers as both “massive” and “metallic.”

Better yet was what the fans had in store for Morenz’s linemate Aurèle Joliat.

He, delightfully, was presented with a black cat, on a string. The Gazettereported that giftand giftee “immediately got into a scratching battle.” La Patrie said nothing of that, describing the cat (in translation) as “big” with“nice, smooth fur,” an altogether “beautiful beast.” Also: “Joliat, a little surprised at the gift at first, accepted it with good humor and offered to take good care of it.”

I’d be glad to know (a) the cat’s name, as well as (b) what became of it and (c) did anyone think that making such a fuss over a black cat boded ill for the team’s playoffs run? Please get in touch if you have leads. I can confirm that while Canadiens did pass on a bye to the semi-finals, they were eliminated there in two games by the Maroons, who in turn failed to beat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.

One last stop on a tour of in-house recognitions of old might take us to October of 1942. Canadiens had gone 11 years without a championship at that point, and would be waiting another two seasons before they found themselves raising the Cup again. Still, Dick Irvin’s players were apparently feeling loose and confident enough as their pre-season wound down to take a poll among themselves to predict at least some of what was to come in the campaign ahead.

This was, I think, an enterprise cooked up by a newspaperman (Dink Carroll, possibly) from the Gazette, where the results were published. The consensus among the players was that they’d finish the season with 56 points. Most of them, 10, thought that this would be good enough for third place in the six-team NHL, while four predicted they’d finish second. Just one was bold enough to say they’d come in first. (As it turned out, Canadiens finished the 50-game schedule with 50 points, good enough for fourth place and the last playoff spot.)

Individually, 11 of 15 players voted that goaltender Paul Bibeault would be the team’s outstanding player. (Winger Joe Benoit, with two, came second.) Bibeault did end up playing in all 50 games, finishing with a record of 19-19-12, which was good enough (I guess), though among his NHL peers, the only statistical categories he led at season’s end were the ones headed Most Losses(he tied with Toronto’s Turk Broda) and Goals Against.

Also in their pre-season poll, the players decided that Gordie Drillon, newly acquired from the Leafs, would lead the team in goals, with 23, followed by Benoit (22) and captain Toe Blake (21). (In fact, Benoit got 30, Drillon 28, and Blake 23.)

The players voted Jack Portland and Elmer Lach as the fastest skaters among them. Benoit was deemed best stickhandler, while Buddy O’Connor was the best puck-carrier. Rating penalty-killers, they couldn’t decide between Charlie Sands and Ray Getliffe, pictured here. They each collected seven votes.

montreal’s most

Montreal’s dismal season ends on Saturday, when they play in Toronto, just before the playoffs get going, Canadiens-free. As a gloomy season wraps up, the stories in the city’s sports pages are structured around phrases like “a boring — and losing — brand of hockey” and “empty seats at the Bell Centre.” Asked at practice in Brossard what he’d like to tell fans, coach Claude Julien said he’d have to go with “thank you.” The Gazette’s Stu Cowan was on hand for this, and if it sounds like Julien was in fact trying to say “sorry,” no, apparently not — he was just grateful fans didn’t jeer more than they did this season. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “we got booed a couple of times because we weren’t a good hockey club. But I think they’ve actually been pretty patient to come to the games and cheer us on. I think they’ve recognized a solid effort as far as guys working hard and competing hard and realizing that right now we’re not good enough and that’s why we’re not in the playoffs.”

On the brighter side, Carey Price is back in the net, and seems to be healthy. On Tuesday night, he was celebrated for his Montreal longevity: the Canadiens’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets saw him play in his 557th NHL regular-season game. With that, he surpassed Jacques Plante as the man who’s minded Montreal’s nets most since the league got going in 1917.

It’s no small achievement, even if Plante does (as should be noted) remain atop the statistical heap if you factor in playoff games: he played 90 of those for Canadiens, for a total of 646 games played, while Price’s 60 playoff games get him to 617.

Canadiens have looked to 83 men to guard their nets, all told, though a few — like Charlie Sands, Battleship Leduc, and Sprague Cleghorn — were skaters subbing in on a strictly emergency basis.

In terms of successes, Plante and Ken Dryden would have to top the pantheon, having each helped the team to six Stanley Cups. Plante is the winningest of Montreal goaltenders, (314 regular season + 59 in the playoffs = 373), followed by Patrick Roy (289 + 70 = 359) and Dryden (258 + 80 = 338), then Price (286 + 25 = 311). Among bona fide goalies, Price also rates fourth in scoring — his 12 all-time assists have him trailing Roy (32 points, season and playoffs), Dryden (23), and Michel Larocque (17).

Straying from statistics, I might just mention that I happened to be talking to Dryden in Toronto earlier this season. Two of his young grandsons are hockey players, goaltenders both. I asked their Hall-of-Fame, Calder-and-Conn-Smythe-winning, many-Vézina’d grandfather what numbers they wear, assuming there could be just one answer, 29.

I was wrong: for Ken Dryden’s grandsons, Carey Price is the incumbent in their imaginations, and it’s his 31 that both boys show on their sweaters.

(Image by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.davemurrayillustration.com)

the final days of georges vézina

Georges Vézina died in the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi, in the early morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926 — the hour was 1.20 a.m. by one report, six minutes later according to another. Greatest Goal Minder in Game of Hockey, read the headlines in the papers next morning, Canada’s Famous Hockey Player. He was 44 years old, or 38 — they had some trouble, the papers, with his age (he was 39) as well as with his progeny. Leo Dandurand’s toweringly tall story that Vézina and his wife, the former Marie Morin, had 22 children was still current, and widely repeated in the death notices — though The New York Times capped his brood at 17. (There were, in fact, two Vézina sons.)

He’d started the season in Montreal’s goal, back in November of 1925, at the Forum against Pittsburgh, but he was ailing even then, running a high temperature. Canadiens had a back-up standing by, Frenchy Lacroix, an American who’d tended the U.S. nets at the 1924 Olympics.

Vézina started the game, but he didn’t last. “He was pale and haggard-looking as he turned shots aside in the first period,” The Gazette reported the next day. “At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition, and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.” (Pittsburgh’s Tex White scored the game’s only goal in the third period; Lacroix was deemed not-to-blame.)

As the Gazette told it, Vézina’s condition grew steadily worse that November week. “After a few days [he] was informed that he was suffering from tuberculosis and would live but a month or two at the most. Georges quietly prepared to leave Montreal for his home in Chicoutimi. None of his teammates knew of his ailment until he had departed.”

“It was early December that Vézina went to Chicoutimi and for the past three months he has fought courageously, though knowing that the end was near and that there was no hope. He was resigned to his fate and calmly awaited death.”

Another Montreal paper published the photograph reproduced above on the Monday, the day before the goaltender’s funeral. “Vézina Couldn’t Hide His Anguish Before His Death” the heading reads; a caption dates it to March 7. The quality of the reproduction isn’t good, which seems like some kind mercy. In 1926, readers who opened up the sports pages and found themselves gazing on Vézina’s deathbed also got this narration: “This personality who maintained his composure and impassivity during hockey games could not hide his suffering and anguish during this ultimate and supreme struggle that he would finally lose. We see the tensing of his face, on which was already painted the seal of the Grim Reaper.”

The editors had held the photograph back while the goaltender remained alive. They did not want, they said, “to make any sadder the last moments of poor Georges by presenting him with a picture of his own suffering.”

durnan down

Close Action: A newswire photograph, helpfully captioned, from 1943-44 shows a fluster of Black Hawks in front of Montreal’s goal. From left, that’s Chicago’s Johnny Harms lined up with Canadiens Ray Getliffe and Mike McMahon, who are doing their best to aid goaltender Bill Durnan in his effort to smother the puck, while Hawks Doug Bentley (#7) and Clint Smith (#3) stand by in hope that he’ll fail.

same old same old: must be something very sick with those canadiens, 1933 edition

Bencher: Newsy Lalonde was Montreal’s man in charge in 1932-33, another trying year in Canadiens’ history.

“Cette année, c’est terminé.” That was Michel Bergeron writing last week at TVA Sports about — of course — the Montreal Canadiens and the dismal season they’ve been lurching through. With 28 games to go in the season, the likelihood of Montreal making the playoffs was a wretched two percent going into Saturday’s game against Nashville. By this morning, post-shootout-loss, it had drooped to 1.2.

The autopsying has been underway for a while now, which has to be painful for the patient. When Carey Price hasn’t been injured, he’s been — how to put this, so it’s polite? — not quite himself. Max Pacioretty has been someone else, too, which nobody would be complaining about if that someone were Steve Shutt or Toe Blake, but no, sorry, that hasn’t been the case, and so the talk is, as it has been, that is/should be/must certainly find himself traded away before the NHL’s February 26 trade deadline.

Jonathan Drouin, meanwhile, is still looking for his inner Pierre Larouche, while Joe Morrow’s Jacques Laperriereitude has been erratic at best. P.K. Subban has been P.K. Subban, it’s just that he’s been P.K. Subbaning it on Broadway in Nashville rather than more locally on Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal.

Columnists and commentators, pundits and podcasters — most of the Montreal chatterati has written the year off. For Bergeron, the worry now is the future. “L’an prochain,” he wonders, “les Canadiens feront-t-ils les séries? Très difficile de répondre oui à cette question.”

At the Montreal Gazette, Jack Todd is one who’s been gazing back. If only in 2003, then-GM Bob Gainey hadn’t drafted so cautiously, and/or known what we know now. The result of his bumbling back then?

Two appearances in an Eastern Conference final and a quarter-century without a parade. That was not the goal when Gainey took over and began his career by drafting Andrei Kostitsyn with the 10th pick overall, while Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, and Corey Perry were still on the table in the first round alone, then taking Cory Urquhart with Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber still out there.

Somehow, the Canadiens have to come out of the carnage of this season with a quality centre to fill that hole in the donut on the top line — and, somehow, they need to close the charisma gap.

Another Gazette writer thinks it’s time Canadiens did what they’re doing in New York. Maybe you saw the letter that Rangers’ president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton posted for fans of the team last week, the one that began, ominously if honestly enough, “We want to talk to you about the future.” It went on to outlining what may be coming in the way of tearing down a team that’s 23.6 percent headed for the playoffs.

Brendan Kelly wants a letter like that:

Team president Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin should take a page out of the New York Rangers’ playbook and come clean to their fans for the travesty that is the 2017-18 Habs. Better yet, they should concede that their plan has failed and that the time has come to rebuild this team.

It may be in the mail. In the meantime, can we consider that there’s nothing so new under Montreal’s cold winter sun? It won’t boost any playoff percentages, nor calm any restive hearts or keyboards to hear it, but Canadiens have been here before.

In February of 1933, for instance.

Leo Dandurand

Leo Dandurand was the man in charge back then. He co-owned the team, with partner Joseph Cattarinich, who’d once (way back) tended the Canadiens’ goal. Dandurand had coached the team in the early 1920s, and continued to manage the roster after he gave that up. Over the course of a decade, his Canadiens won three Stanley Cups. The last of those weren’t such ancient history in ’33, either: Dandurand’s teams were back-to-back champions in 1930 and ’31.

In ’32, they’d topped the standings during the regular season only to fail at the first fence they faced in the playoffs.

The team they iced the following year still had most of the winning timber intact

George Hainsworth was 37, sure, but he was still playing every game, and in ’31-32 he’d won more of them (25) than anyone else tending an NHL net. Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, and Battleship Leduc were stalwarts, still, on defence. Upfront, Canadiens had Howie Morenz, Aurele Joliat, and Johnny Gagnon as their leading line.

Hockey, of course, was only one of Dandurand’s guiding interests. He was heavily into horses that ran, owned race tracks, spent his winters, increasingly, in the southern U.S. In January of ’33, he was down in New Orleans, ensconced for the season at Jefferson Park.

Or maybe not. Canadiens were struggling in the early days of the new year, stuck in last place in the NHL, down at the bottom of the five-team Canadian Division.

Pundits like Walter Gilhooly of The Ottawa Journal were ready to pronounce that “the great Canadien comet that flared over the hockey firmament” had passed. Coach Newsy Lalonde wasn’t panicking, though. Following a 6-1 loss in Detroit, he was reported to be confident, quote, that the team would soon shake its losing ways. But: “If weaknesses are apparent anywhere in future, I will take immediate measures to remedy such a condition.”

Leo Gaudreault

Lalonde was shuffling his lines that month, extracting Morenz from the top line with Joliat and Gagnon, slotting in Pete Lepine. Dandurand was back in town, too, to monitor the situation. Canadiens won a couple of games, but they couldn’t keep it going. By the end of January they were looking to the Providence Reds of the lower-loop Can-Am League for a boost. Lalonde reportedly had designs on drafting in an entire line of theirs, the one featuring Gus Rivers, Hago Harrington, and Leo Murray.

Dandurand went two-thirds of the way, sending forwards Armand Mondou and Leo Gaudreault to Providence in exchange for Murray and Harrington.

The team continued its indifferent play into February. The situation wasn’t hopeless: with 20 games remaining in the 48-game schedule, Canadiens were level, now, with Ottawa, lurking just five points behind the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans. String some wins together and Canadiens would be right back into the thick of it.

It wasn’t happening, though. They lost, and badly, to the Americans and Maroons in succession. It was with the latter defeat that the team seemed to cross a line of Dandurand’s.

Time to for a change.

“To Dismantle/ Famous Team” was the couplet atop a photo of Dandurand in The Winnipeg Tribune. The word from Montreal was grim: he was ready to rid the roster of as many as five underperforming players, “asking waivers” in the parlance of the day, though he wasn’t yet naming names. Having lost 7-2 to their cross-town rivals, the players were reported to “gloomy, dispirited” when Dandurand came in to see them in the dressing room.

He’d watched, he told the players, waited, hoped the team could turn themselves around. Now, drastic measures were in order. “Dandurand stated he knew the weak spots on the team,” the Tribune reported, “and speedy action would ensue to strengthen these positions.”

You can see why the players’ emotions would be running strong: “one or two all but broke down.”

Dandurand announced that wasn’t going to fire Newsy Lalonde: the coach had his confidence. Rumours of imminent trades bustled around Montreal, involving … everybody, up to and including Howie Morenz, who’d been great to start the season but had tailed off in the new year.

The uproar in the press wasn’t what it is today, but that’s not to say the players weren’t scrutinized, one by one. Pit Lepine had been suspended, briefly, for “breaking training rules,” a euphemism you often see in early NHL days that sometimes alludes to hangovers, though it might just as well be that Lepine overslept. Either way, he was playing better now, as was Sylvio Mantha, who’d started the season slowly. The best you could say, apparently, for Gagnon and Joliat was that they’d been inconsistent. Battleship Leduc, too: spectacular in one game, he was ineffective the next.

Hainsworth had to shoulder some of the blame, too. I don’t know whether he was pleading his case or just mentioning the math he’d been doing in his spare time, but that desolate February the goaltender did mention to an attentive reporter that he estimated that since he’s started his career in 1912, he’d faced 18,500 shots.

At first, Dandurand’s dismantling involved another influx from Providence. He brought in defenceman Bob Trapp and forwards Art Alexandre and Gizzy Hart. The new-look Canadiens beat Toronto 2-0 after that, which was good, though they followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Chicago, after which Dandurand fined Johnny Gagnon $200 for not showing sufficient interest in the game he was playing.

A trade this week in 1933 saw veteran defenceman Marty Burke depart for Ottawa in exchange for blueliners Harold Starr and Leo Bourgeault.

With Gagnon rumoured to be the next one to move, Canadiens beat Detroit 6-2 and Ottawa 6-0. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on how that worked: “A few changes and a hair-raising string of forcible ejection threats, including sale by auction of more than one star, lifted Canadiens to peak from in jig-time.”

Down they crashed a week later. The verb smother featured in the stories from Boston that final week of February, along with the noun walloping, as the Bruins beat Montreal by a score of 10-0. Here’s Walter Gilhooly whooping it up in The Ottawa Journal:

Ten goals to noting is something that French ears will hardly be able to credit. Crapeau de mer, par bleu, and sacre nom d’un chien! There must be something very sick with those Canadiens. Maybe they are not getting enough pea sup. Perhaps they are getting too much, but something is very wrong with that team.

The other night when they defeated Ottawas they looked like a good bet for a play-off position. Now Leo Dandurand will be tearing what’s left of his hair and throwing it all over the dressing room floor. It’s nothing, however, to where he may throw some of his hockey players before another season comes.

In Montreal, the reviews rated it “almost unbelievable” and “about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” You had to cast back to 1920 for a debacle so dire, when Newsy Lalonde was in a Canadien uniform for an 11-3 drubbing at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa. (Canadiens suffered another 10-0 Ottawa schooling in 1921.)

It was the worst performance in Hainsworth’s history of bombardment, the third period in particular, when seven of the 17 shots that came his way passed him by.

Leo Dandurand showed a brave face. “It was just one of those bad games,” he said. “There are no excuses: the fault can be laid to no particular player’s door. Hainsworth was not to blame, he was given weak protection. The team as a whole played poorly. But it’s out of our systems. We have eight home games left and five away. I think we can gain points in the majority of them and I think we can still make the playoffs. And the team thinks so, too.”

Dandurand’s command of the schedule was a little off: Montreal, in fact, had six home games remaining, six on the road. He did get the part about the playoffs right: Montreal went 6-4-2 to pip the Americans and the Senators for the last post-season spot on the NHL’s Canadian side. Their exit was speedy: on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers dispensed with them in two games.

Leo Dandurand had another couple of years before he got out of the harrowing business of owning the Montreal Canadiens. He still had some adventures ahead of him before he sold the team two years later, of course, including threatening to move the team to Cleveland and, even more shocking insofar as it actually happened, trading away Howie Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks.

A syndicate headed by Ernest Savard eventually bought the team in the fall of 1935. The new coach was the old defenceman Sylvio Mantha, who planned to still play as he guided the team. It would be another ten years before Canadiens would raise the Stanley Cup in triumph again, but nobody knew that then, of course. Hopes were high, as they perennially are in Montreal, where Canadiens are and always have been the process of re-inventing themselves. We’ll end, why not, with a newspaper headline as the 1935-36 season got underway: “Make-Over in Ownership, Management and Personnel Expected to Transform Flying Frenchmen Into Dangerous NHL Contenders.”

 

all the maurice richards in red, white, and blue

So I was obliged to wear the Maple Leafs sweater. When I arrived on the rink, all the Maurice Richards in red, white, and blue came up, one by one, to take a look. When the referee blew his whistle I went to take my usual position. The captain came and warned me I’d be better to stay on the forward line. A few minutes later the second line was called; I jumped onto the ice. The Maple Leafs sweater weighed on my shoulders like a mountain. The captain came and told me to wait; he’d need me later, on defence. By the third period I still hadn’t played; one of the defencemen was hit in the nose with a stick and it was bleeding. I jumped on the ice; my moment had come! The referee blew his whistle; he gave me a penalty. He claimed I’d jumped on the ice when there were already five players. That was too much! It was unfair! It was persecution! It was because of my blue sweater! I struck my stick against the ice so hard it broke.

• from Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater,” The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories (1979)

(Images: The Hockey Sweater sculpture (c. 1989) by Jean Matras, from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, was part of the Canadian Museum of History’s 2017exhibition “Hockey in Canada: More Than Just a Game.”)

willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.

This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at  Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.

Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.

Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.

With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.

“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.

Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.

O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.

“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”

Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”

Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”

Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.

Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.

So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”

Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”

“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading