buddy o’connor: a hart, a byng, a razzle dazzle past

Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.

By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”

McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”

Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.

Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.

But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.

O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”

O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.

Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”

In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.

Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.

 

 

 

requiem for a rocket

L’Idole D’Un Peuple: It was 20 years ago today that the inimitable Maurice Richard died at the age of 78. “When he’s worked up,” long-time Canadiens GM Frank Selke said, “his eyes gleam like headlights. Not a glow, but a piercing intensity. Goalies have said he’s like a motorcar coming on you at night. He is terrifying. He is the greatest hockey player that ever lived. I can contradict myself by saying that 10 or 15 do the mechanics of play better. But it’s results that count. Others play well, build up, eventually get a goal. He is like a flash of lightning. It’s a fine summer day, suddenly.” (Image: “Maurice Richard et deux jeunes enfants, vers 1957,” Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94, Ed-33A)

mr. geniality: a serious canadien, louis berlinguette survived the spanish flu that shut down the 1919 stanley cup

Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde got most of the goals the Montreal Canadiens scored in their pursuit of the 1919 Stanley Cup, five of the ten they recorded in the five games they played against the Seattle Metropolitans in another plaguestruck spring, before the series was abandoned. But give Louis Berlinguette his due: on March 24, in the third period of the third game of the never-ended finals, the 31-year-old left winger took a pass from teammate Didier Pitre and fired the puck past Seattle goaltender Hap Holmes.

Born in Sainte-Angélique, Quebec, on a Thursday of this date in 1887, Berlinguette and his teammates played two more torrid games that week. It was on the following Monday that the series was suspended before a sixth game made it to the ice: like his captain, Lalonde, teammates Joe Hall, Jack McDonald, and Billy Coutu, as well as team manager George Kennedy, Berlinguette was confined to his bed at the Georgian Hotel, suffering from symptoms of Spanish flu.

On the Wednesday, the Canadiens were reported to be “resting easily,” with Lalonde, Coutu, Kennedy, and Berlinguette said to be only “slightly ill.”

“Their temperatures were reported normal last night,” one wire report noted, “and the doctor expects them to be up in a few days.”

Another dispatch that appeared across the continent went like this:

Two great overtime games have taxed the vitality of the players to such an extent that they are in poor shape, indeed, to fight off the effects of such a disease as influenza.

However, the Canadiens are being given the very best of care, nurses and physicians being in attendance at all times on them and every other attention is being shown the stricken players.

By Thursday, another Canadien, forward Odie Cleghorn, had taken sick, and manager Kennedy’s condition was worsening. McDonald and Hall were in Providence Hospital, the latter with a temperature of 103.

Friday, Kennedy was feeling better, while Coutu and Berlinguette were reported to be out of bed. But Hall had developed pneumonia; his condition was “causing doctors much concern.” He didn’t improve. He died that Sunday, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at the age of 38. Two days later, at his funeral in Vancouver, alongside Newsy Lalonde and Billy Coutu, Louis Berlinguette served as one of his pallbearers.

The news from Seattle on April 2, 1919, the day after the final game of the Stanley Cup finals was curtailed.

Didier Pitre and goaltender Georges Vézina had already, by then, taken a train back to Montreal. Jack McDonald’s brother had died in March, possibly of influenza, while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Siberia; Jack’s recovery kept him in hospital in Seattle until mid-April. After the funeral, Lalonde and Cleghorn and Coutu Berlinguette caught the Montreal train in Vancouver and travelled together, though Coutu got off in Sault Ste. Marie and Berlinguette in Mattawa, his off-season home.

While the NHL was only in its second season in 1919, Louis Berlinguette was a veteran of the Canadiens’ line-up. He was in his seventh season with the team, after starting his pro career in 1909 with the Haileybury Comets. There he played, if only briefly, with Art Ross and Paddy Moran, before moving on to play for Galt and the Moncton Victorias. With both those teams he played for (but didn’t win) the Stanley Cup. He joined Canadiens in 1912. In the ensuing years, before the league expired in 1917, no skater played more games in the National Hockey Association than Berlinguette.

He did win the Stanley Cup on his third shot at it: along with his 1919 teammates Vézina, Bert Corbeau, Pitre, and Lalonde, Berlinguette was in the Canadiens’ line-up that defeated the Portland Rosebuds for the 1916 championship.

Berlinguette was speedy on his skates, and know for his checking, which on at least one occasion earned him the epithet blanket: that’s what you’ll find if you fish into the archives. He wasn’t a prolific goalscorer: his best showing came in 1920-21, when he notched 12 goals and 21 points in 24 regular-season games, tying him for second in team scoring with Didier Pitre behind Newsy Lalonde.

A dowdy distinction that will always be his: in 1922, Berlinguette was responsible for the NHL’s very first automatic goal.

Canadiens were hosting the Hamilton Tigers at Mount Royal Arena on the night. In the first period, Hamilton defenceman Leo Reise swooped in and beat the Montreal defence in front of Vézina, “apparently destined for a certain goal,” as the Gazette saw it. Except, nu-uh:

Louis Berlinguette hurled his stick from the side, knocked the puck off Reise’s stick, and, in conformity with a rule passed four years ago, Tigers were awarded a goal by Referee [Cooper] Smeaton. This is the first time in the history of the NHL that such a ruling has been made.

Hamilton soon added another goal, but Berlinguette’s teammates eventually righted the ship: Newsy Lalonde and Odie Cleghorn, with a pair, saw to it that Montreal won the game, 3-2.

“He has been popular wherever he has played,” Montreal’s Gazette summed up in 1926, as Berlinguette’s playing days wound down. “Not a brilliant star, he was a hard-working, serious player who attended strictly to hockey, but with it always commanded the respect of players and crowd alike.”

Towards the end of his career, 1924-25, he spent a season with the fledgling Montreal Maroons, and the following year, his last in the NHL, he jumped to another expansion team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his old teammate Odie Cleghorn was the playing coach. While the Maroons’ Nels Stewart won the Hart Trophy that year as the league’s MVP, the Gazette acknowledged a nod to Berlinguette in the voting:

A striking tribute to his popularity was the action of one of the judges … who when filing his votes for the league’s most useful player, gave one for Berlinguette purely on his personality and the service he had rendered the Pittsburgh club on and off the ice through his geniality.

He signed on in the fall of 1926 as the playing coach of Les Castors de Quebec in the Can-Am League. He subsequently worked a whistle as an NHL referee, and later coached the Fredericton Millionaires in the New Brunswick Hockey League, though not for long. In 1930, he turned his efforts from hockey to work full-time for Ontario’s forestry service. Louis Berlinguette died in Noranda in 1959 at the age of 72.

Montreal’s 1918-19 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Manager George Kennedy, Didier Pitre, Louis Berlinguette, Billy Coutu, Jack McDonald, trainer A. Ouimet. Front row, from left: Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde, Odie Cleghorn, Bert Corbeau, Joe Hall, Georges Vézina.

taking it to the streets

Sunday Stroll: The Montreal Canadiens won the 14th Stanley Cup in franchise history on Thursday, May 5, 1966, dispensing with the Detroit Red Wings in six games after Henri Richard scored the decisive overtime goal in Game Six. Three days later, when the Canadiens went walkabout through the streets of Montreal, an estimated 600,000 citizens turned out to greet them. Above and below, captain Jean Béliveau and winger Bobby Rousseau make their way down Boulevard Saint-Joseph. (Images: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94, Ed28-16 and VM94,Ed28-1)

au lendemain d’une grande victoire

Boom-Boom Geoffrion had already scored once on a Sunday night of this date in 1958 when he borrowed the puck that Boston defenceman Leo Boivin had been playing with and skated in to score on Bruins’ goaltender Don Simmons in the last minute of the second period. Geoffrion’s Montreal Canadiens held on to win the game 5-3 at the Boston Garden. With that and a 4-2 series win, Montreal took charge of the Stanley Cup for a third straight year. They’d be back for more the following year, and the year after that, too, 1960, before the Chicago Black Hawks finally gave them a rest in ’61. In April of ’58, La Presse headlined their front-page coverage of Montreal’s victory “au lendemain d’une grande victoire”  — “in the aftermath of a great victory.” That’s the caption we’ll stamp on the photo below, wherein Montreal captain gazes into the Cup and likes what he sees there. With rueful respect, Tom Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe sent Montreal on their way home with this coda to his game report: “The Canadiens may not have been overconfident, but they sure were foresighted … they had a supply of champagne waiting for them on the train for a celebration.”

Embed from Getty Images

 

in the pressure of the moment

Save The Date: Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, Gerry McNeil stood up to the Boston Bruins this week in 1953, along with the rest of the Montreal Canadiens, to win the team’s seventh Stanley Cup. Having stopped a shot of Maurice Richard’s in practice earlier that April, McNeil played the final couple of games with his right ankle novocained and tightly taped. In the Montreal dressing room after Elmer Lach’s overtime goal clinched the Cup, coach Dick Irvin shook hands with all his players and then sat down next to McNeil. “Well, we finally put it on ice,” the Canadian Press reported him telling his goaltender. Columnist Dink Carroll was on hand, too. “Apparently tired now that the series has ended,” he wrote, “Irvin, who not long ago raised racing pigeons, puffed: ‘Coaching is strictly for the birds; I don’t want any more of it.’ Then he laughed and quickly changed the subject.” The ’53 win was the last of the four Cups Irvin won as a coach, though he did continue for two more years behind the bench in Montreal before taking on the Chicago Black Hawks for a final season, 1955-56.

sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

eastertide bunny

Stop Sign: Born in Hull, Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1952, Michel Larocque played a dozen seasons in the NHL, mostly under the nickname Bunny, largely for the Montreal Canadiens — though he also suited up for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, and St. Louis Blues. Backing up Ken Dryden in the Montreal nets in the 1970s, he helped the Canadiens win four Stanley Cups, and had a share in four Vézina trophies as well. Bunny Larocque died of brain cancer at the age of 40 in 1992.

 

the old firm

If Not Now: In another world, one unswept by pandemic, the NHL would have been wrapping up its regular season tonight with a schedule of 15 games, including one featuring old rivals Leafs and Canadiens meeting at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. The image here dates from 1951; if you can identify the artist, let me know.

callithumpian kenny: at madison square garden in new york, they had a hate reardon club

Bruising is an word you often see associated with Ken Reardon’s colourful stint as a defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens during the 1940s; others are rugged, rambunctious, pugnacious, and full of zeal. Beloved by Hab enthusiasts, he was known, as the Montreal Gazette noted in 1950, for stirring other teams’ fans into a dither. “At Madison Square Garden in New York,” the paper levelly recorded, “there is a Hate Reardon Club, whose members have dubbed the tough Irishman ‘HORSEFACE.’”

Born in Winnipeg on a Friday of this same date in 1921, Reardon had what Dink Carroll described in 1966, on the occasion of his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame, as a “brief but meteoric NHL career.” Debuting in 1940, he played two seasons in Montreal before enlisting in the war effort. The RCAF turned him down (for colour-blindness), but the Canadian Army took him. He won an Allan Cup with the Ottawa Commandos in 1943, then headed overseas, where his non-hockey service in Europe was rewarded in 1944 with a Commander-in-Chief’s Certificate for Gallantry, which he received from Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself. In ’66, Carroll recalled that Reardon’s dynamic on-ice stylings earned the nicknames The Locomotive and The Express. “He had a unique skating style — he ran rather than stroked — and bowled over anyone who was in his way.” The Wild Irishman was another moniker. It was this time of year in 1950 that Canadiens took on the Rangers in New York in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. After Reardon drew five penalties in a single game at MSG, he returned to Montreal as a newly minted 29-year-old to find birthday greetings from his sister in Regina awaiting him in a telegram addressed, simply enough, “Care of penalty box, Forum.”

It’s true that Reardon’s renown was built, too, on fights with fans (he and Montreal teammate Leo Gravelle were briefly jailed in Chicago in 1949) and tales of his vicious ongoing feud with Cal Gardner of the New York Rangers and, later, Toronto’s Maple Leafs. In 1950, after Reardon threatened vengeance on Gardner in a magazine interview, NHL president Clarence Campbell fined him $1,000. It wasn’t so much a penalty, Campbell said, as a personal cash bond to guarantee Reardon’s continuing good conduct. The money was returned when back injuries precipitated Reardon’s retirement in the fall of ’50. The New York Times carried the latter news by way of a CP article identifying Reardon as the bushy-browed basher. As a player, he’d helped Montreal win the 1946 Stanley Cup. Working in management — he served as Canadiens’ assistant GM and, later, as vice-president — he was aboard for five more Cups from 1956 through 1960. Ken Reardon died at the age of 86 in 2008.

bidding adieu: the night they sold the montreal forum, part, parcel, and hotdog grills

Pre-Sale Preview: My view of the Montreal Forum ice early on the night of Monday, March 11, 1996, hours before the hometown Canadiens played their last game there before upping nets and heading east for the brand-new Molson Centre. (Image: Stephen Smith)

What to make of the events of the last week? I can’t tell you that; I don’t know. We’re in trying times, and they’re frightening. Hold fast to the ones you love. That I can recommend. And: wash your hands. As for hockey, I’ll carry on telling its stories. Today’s recalls the week 24 years ago that the Montreal Canadiens took leave of the rink on Cabot Square that they’d called home for 72 years. It was on Monday dated March 11 that the Canadiens played their final game at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1. The late great Roger Doucet returned (via tape) to sing O Canada that night. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand, including 20 Hall-of-Famers, and the stirring pre-game ceremonies included a ten-minute ovation for Rocket Richard. I watched all this from high up in the rafters, where I was seated in the overflow press section, next to the man from The Jerusalem Post. He was working the game whereas I was just watching, and marvelling: the assignment for which I’d journeyed from Toronto was the next night, Tuesday. I’d convinced the features editor I worked with at The Financial Post that what he really needed, whether he knew it or not, were 1,800 words reporting on the public auction whereby the Canadiens sold off 145 Forum artifacts, some more historic than others. And so, having witnessed Monday’s game, I was back at the rink the following night to get my story. Four days later, as the Canadiens prepared to host the New York Rangers for the first game in their brand-new rink (then named for Molson’s, now known as the Bell Centre), my feature ran on page 22 of the weekend Post, up at the front of the FP Review section, under the headline “Bidding Farewell To The Forum.” It went like this:

MONTREAL — Bidder No. 99 was a man, fortyish, with a widened middle, glasses, and a diminished preserve of dark hair, strategically combed. For four hours on Tuesday night, while the Montreal Canadiens said so long to their beloved Forum by selling it off piece by selected piece at public auction, No. 99 sat in the front row, spending his money in amounts divisible by a thousand.

No. 99 turned out to be a computer consultant by the name of Marc Cooper, who’d come for his piece of the Forum from Manalapan, New Jersey. “I’m proud to be a Canadiens fan,” he said, like a politician speaking to voters whose backing he already had. “There’s only one team in sports like this.”

On the auction floor, Cooper sat within subtle-nodding distance of the auctioneer, Serge Belec, who ran the show at a frantic pace in two languages. Cooper didn’t look like a particularly happy man, but he seemed determined, and not uneasy with expenditure. A little later, it became clear just much how in earnest he was. If Guy Lafleur had wandered into, it’s entirely possible that Cooper would have stepped up with an offer to buy the legendary right winger to ornament his rec room. As it was, absent Lafleur, Tuesday’s was a C$75,000 night for Cooper. His wife, he said, was behind him all the way on this.

In all, about 1,000 people paid $35 to secure their bidding number and with it the chance to shell out for a souvenir of the most famous hockey there is. (Another 1,500 or so paid $5 each to watch these proceedings.) Mostly they were men; mostly they stayed out of the bidding once they learned what kind of money it was going to take to wrest a piece of history from the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine West.

The night before, a crowd of 17,959 had watched the Canadiens play the final game of their 72-year tenancy at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1 in the company of some of the greatest Canadiens ever to have worn the bleu, the blanc, the rouge. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand on Monday night, 20 Hall-of-Famers among them, including Maurice and Henri Richard, Butch Bouchard, Jean Béliveau, Elmer Lach, Frank Mahovlich, Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden.

Tuesday night, No. 99 moved his buying power to the forefront early and kept on reiterating it. For $31,000 he bought Lot 22, the banner that had previously hung high in the Forum rafters to commemorate the first Stanley Cup the team won in the NHL era in 1923-24. Another $20,000 got him the net the Canadiens had defended during the first period the night before. For a further $5,000, Cooper scored a sturdy post festooned with four goal-lights that had reached the end of their Forum career. He spent $3,400 on a pair of tall grey metal dressing-room lockers wherein Canadiens Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse had until very recently parked their shoes and hang their trousers while they were out pursuing pucks.

Alongside Cooper, there were a couple of other big spenders. A bar owner from Laval, Quebec, snapped up the most recent Stanley Cup banner, from 1992-93, for $32,000. Somebody else spent $900 on one of the Forum’s newly decommissioned hotdog grills. For $4.70 a go, most everybody else bought a Molson Export and drank it slowly.

•••

What was wrong with the venerable old Forum, which hosted 29 Stanley Cup finals over the years, 12 of which saw the Canadiens triumph, along with countless lesser glories, that the its end came nigh? After seven decades, it was still in good working order. Fatally, the Forum is an old rink in a new age that’s shaped largely along hard, profit-minded bottom lines. That’s why the Canadiens are moving not quite two kilometres to the east where a glimmering new rink, named Centre Molson for the owners of the team, awaits. Roomier than the Forum by 5,000 seats, it’s also more lucrative by a factor of several dozen additional corporate suites.

There’s no word yet on what’s become of the Forum now that the Canadiens are moving on. Optimists favour talk of a park that would preserve the ice-surface out-of-doors. Whatever happens, the building isn’t likely to survive. In recent weeks, some fans have made clear their willingness to help with the demolition: one handy devotee wrestled one of the Forum’s back-stiffening seats from its Section 111 moorings and carried it off — i.e. stole it — during a February 12 game.

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Hot Seat: The seat NHL president Clarence Campbell occupied the night of the Richard Riot in 1955 sold for $12,000.

The legal way to secure of the Forum’s 16,000-odd seats was to order one: starting in January, for prices ranging from $125 to $290 per seat (plus shipping), most of them went on sale, with delivery to follow in May. The rest of the Forum’s furniture — including oddments like the hot-dog grill and premium items like the seat from which then-NHL president Clarence Campbell watched the Richard Riot start to stir and explode in March of 1955 — was reserved for this week’s event.

Meanwhile, the official unmaking of the Forum by auction was sanctioned by Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey, with all proceeds to be divided between the United Way in Montreal and the association representing former Canadiens players.

In Montreal, some of the faithful bewailed the auction as soon as it was announced: wasn’t it bad enough crass commercialization had doomed the building itself without the sale of sacramental artifacts as the Stanley Cup banners that announced from the Forum’s rafters 24 Canadiens’ triumphs? Didn’t the tangibles of tradition mean anything? “We’d like to think those banners are more or less public property,” grumbled Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd, “given the amount of money and emotion Montrealers have invested in every one.”

“Now, thanks to Molson, any Westmount Trust Fund Baby can bid on the original 1944 Stanley Cup pennant.”

Sacred the banners may be, but Todd didn’t quite have it right: the ones lowered from on high to be auctioned date only to 1992, so whatever their sentimental value, there was nothing antique to them. In fact, the two-metre long pennants, none of which would sell fore less than $8,000 (the one from ’44 went for $10K), were the stuff of shower curtains: they were made, every one, from serviceable, ordinary plastic.

•••

It’s customary before auctions for the public to be offered estimates on what an object will sell for. In anticipation of the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in April in New York, for instance, Sotheby’s has issued a helpful shopping list advising prospective shoppers of the least they can expect to pay on a particular item: US$800 for a quiver of JFK’s golf clubs, a watercolour by John Singer Sargent for somewhere within shouting distance of $US125,000.

The catalogue for what the Canadiens called “The Forum’s Super Auction” offered no such guidelines, either because organizers wanted the market to establish its own boundaries on the night or because they had no standards against which to value most of what was on offer. There are experts to gauge the relative worth of a painting; there are even, apparently, some who can fix a price tag on a presidential putter. But how do you account for the value that true-heart fans will attach to otherwise everyday objects from a holy temple? What isa door to a players’ bench actually worth to the faithful? What price the puck that last Monday Canadiens’ winger Andrei Kovalenko scored the last-ever goal at the Forum?

Kitchen Classic: Yours — well, someone’s — for $900.

Pre-auction intelligence had it that prices were going to run high. That’s what Marc Cooper was hearing, anyway. He came prepared to spend $100,000, most of which, he suspected, would go towards a single plastic Stanley-Cup banner. Word had it, too, that he’d be in competition with several prominent former Canadiens. Ex-coach Pat Burns was said to be interested in the players’ bench behind which he used to patrol. Meanwhile, the bench from and door to a penalty box were reported to be coveted by former Habs’ hard-heads Chris Nilan and John Ferguson. Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy left Montreal left Montreal in a hurry and a snit this past December, but he was said to be in the market for a piece of his Montreal past: the banner from the Canadiens’ — and his own — last Stanley Cup championship in 1992-93. He was said to be dispatching a representative to the auction to do his bidding.

As it turned out, the only former Hab to successfully pay it backwards was Hall-of-Fame winger Dickie Moore, who spent $650 on a small rink clock. On each of the 144 lots available on the night, auctioneer Serge Belec kept the pace of Doug Harvey on a powerplay rush, leaving no room for the hesitant of heart or wallet. “Give me four thousand,” he proclaimed at one point via his headset microphone, “or get outta town.”

In quick succession as the selling got going as the hour struck seven, Belec peddled a vintage ice with a wide red blade ($800), a turnstile ($1,800), a stick and a sweater, both autographed by Canadiens’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault ($5,100), a Hab-branded lectern from the Forum press room ($8,000).

Rink Relic: A view of the Forum in 1966. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, 1966, VM94A0412001)

Pat Burns didn’t get his bench: after a short back-and-forth among dogged bidders, Montreal lawyer Louise Houle’s $6,000 won out. “I’ve got a little sports room in my basement,” she said afterwards. “It’s going straight in there. So far I’ve got Expos stuff. If I’m going to start in with hockey, I might as well start right.” She would be sitting on it, she said, along with “anyone who asks very politely.”

The door from the Canadiens’ dressing room fetched $11,500, Clarence Campbell’s red seat, $12,000.

Robert Vachon, a pharmacist from Valleyfield, Quebec, paid out a total of $25,000 for a clock and a banner he planned to raise in a bowling alley he was opening. Larry Harnish, a fisherman who’d made the journey from Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, came away having shelled out $2,000 for defenceman Lyle Odelein’s stick and sweater. He was going to display them, he said, on his living-room wall.

By night’s end, when Canadiens president Ronald Corey was proudly declaring a total take of $726,500, Marc Cooper figured that about ten percent of that was him. His Stanley Cup banner would be hanging — well, he wasn’t quite yet sure where it was going, he’d have to consult with his wife. The net with the glossy red goalposts? That would probably be headed for the basement back in New Jersey. His two sons, aged four and eight, were getting the lockers: they’d been asking for lockers.

Spending his $75,000 had left Cooper elated. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just dreamed of coming to the Forum. Now to have so much of this history in my house is just great.”

(Image: “Own A Piece of the Forum Forever,” Aislin, alias Terry Mosher, 1996, ink, felt pen and crayon on paper, M2000.79.28, © McCord Museum)

 

 

 

called off, 1919

With the NHL looking like it will today follow the NBA’s decision last night to suspend its season indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, a grim glance back to 1919 when the Stanley Cup Finals were abandoned in Seattle before a winner could be decided. As reported here in a Vancouver newspaper, on Tuesday, April 1 of that year, with the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans set to play a sixth and deciding game for hockey’s championship, the series was called off as an outbreak of the virulent Spanish flu sickened players from both teams. It was the first time since the Stanley Cup was inaugurated in 1893 that it went unwon. (The only other Cupless year — to date — was 2005, when a labor dispute wiped out the NHL season.) For Montreal defenceman Joe Hall, the outcome was as dire as it could have been — on April 5, 1919, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he died at Seattle’s Columbus Sanitarium.