montreal, 1920: beyond the shadow of a drought

New Digs: All was ready for the opening of the Montreal Canadiens new arena in January of 1920 … until a municipal strike cut the city’s water supply.

Montreal Mayor Médéric Martin asked that the waterworkers wait until after the holidays to walk off the job, but on New Year’s Eve of 1919, at 7 p.m., the unhappy municipal employees telephoned to say that they could delay their strike no longer.

So began what local newspapers would soon be calling Montreal’s “water famine,” a mid-winter crisis that quickly dried out Canada’s largest city and turned things desperate as hospitals, firehouses, homes, and businesses turned their taps in vain. In 1920 as now, hockey was no essential service, but it’s why we’re here, so it’s my duty to report the collateral damage: on this day 102 years ago, the Montreal Canadiens postponed the game they were scheduled to play against the Toronto St. Patricks, thereby delaying (again) the NHL debut of Canadiens’ brand-new arena.

Going into the league’s third season, the Canadiens were already on the third arena of their short NHL tenure. Water was only secondarily involved in the demise of the first two, which both burned down.

In early 1918, fire had razed the Westmount Arena, incinerating most of the Canadiens’ equipment in the process — their skates were spared, having been sent out for sharpening. The destruction of the arena at the corner of Saint-Catherine Street West and Wood Avenue (about two kilometres, or a 26-minute walk from Canadiens’ present-day home at the Bell Centre) also spelled the end for Montreal’s other original NHL team: after just four games, Sam Lichtenhein’s Wanderers folded that first winter.

The cause of that fire was deemed to be faulty wiring in the Wanderers’ dressing room.

For their part, the Canadiens made a move east to the arena where they’d started, in 1909: the Jubilee, a distance of just over five kilometres from the Bell Centre, at the corner of Saint-Catherine East and what’s now rue Alphonse-D. Roy. While the Westmount could accommodate some 4,300 spectators, the Jubilee only had room for about 3,000.

It was at the Jubilee that the Canadiens wrapped up an NHL championship in March of 1919, defeating the Ottawa Senators 4-2 to clinch the title in five games. Four days later, George Kennedy and his team boarded a train at Montreal’s Windsor Station, bound for Seattle (by way of Vancouver) and that year’s fatal, unfinished Stanley Cup finals.

It was later that same April that the Jubilee caught fire. The Gazette had the story next day. “Sweeping from St. Catherine street to Notre Dame street, the flames soon ate their way through the entire structure, which was of wood supported by iron beams. The beams soon crumpled under the heat and the building collapsed.”

The cause wasn’t immediately known. Police detectives interviewed striking carters who’d been loitering around the nearby Canadian Northern Railway station, but they were soon cleared of suspicion. The Montreal Star noted that another fire, earlier in the year, at the arena’s bandstand, was the fault of “irresponsible boys who had managed to get in the rink and had set the fire while playing with matches or cigarettes.”

This time around, survivors of the conflagration apparently included a pair of nets.

Canadiens owner and manager George Kennedy was 39 when he died in October of 1921, two-and-a-half years after his 1919 bout with Spanish flu.

Canadiens’ owner and manager George Kennedy had been hit hard in the Seattle outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall, and lingering of effects of his April illness would factor into his death at the age of just 39 in 1921. But by autumn of 1919, he was well enough to be preparing for a new NHL season, mailing out contracts to his players and working on finding them a new home.

One possibility had evaporated in September when the backers of a project at a familiar address decided to postpone their plan build on Atwater at Saint-Catherine Street West — i.e. directly adjoining the site of the roller rink and outdoor skating rink that had been operating since 1908 as the Forum. I’m not sure that much has been made of this aborted effort that might have seen the Canadiens make their home at Cabot Square five years before the new Forum was built with an original capacity of 9,300.

As it is, of course, it would be 1926 before the team moved to its most famous home, a mere 1.6 kilometres from today’s Bell Centre.

Another prospective arena was said to be in the works at a site east of the Forum. There was also word that the Canadiens might be considering playing at least part of the upcoming season elsewhere, out of town.

In November of 1919, as the NHL’s annual meetings got underway at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, the Gazette noted that Kennedy was busy negotiating terms with the management of the new (still under-construction) Mount Royal Arena. This was horse-racing promoter Tom Duggan’s project, situated on the south side of Mont-Royal avenue between Clark and St. Urbain Streets, on the site of former exhibition grounds and lacrosse fields — a journey on foot of 3.6 kilometres from the Bell Centre.

Duggan was eager to secure an NHL team of his own. When he couldn’t land one in Montreal, he eventually acquired rights for teams in Boston and New York. The former he sold to grocery magnate Charles F. Adams, who parlayed them into the Bruins; retaining the latter for himself, he pitched in with bootlegger Bill Dwyer to launch the New York Americans.

Canadiens eventually signed up for a five-year residency upon the natural ice of the Mount Royal Arena, though as of late November there were still rumblings that the new facility wouldn’t be ready and that Canadiens might be forced to go into hibernation for a year.

George Kennedy put those to rest: he insisted that the new arena would be ready for service by Christmas Day. With Montreal’s 1919-20 home season due to open on Saturday, December 27 against the Ottawa Senators, it would be a near run thing, and so it wasn’t such a surprise when, in mid-December, Kennedy asked that the game be switched to Ottawa’s Arena, which it duly was.

The new date for Montreal’s home opener was set for Saturday, January 3. “Contractors are rushing work on the rink, and flooding as started yesterday,” Ottawa’s Citizen reported on the last day of the old year. “All the seats are in and the electrical fixtures are now being installed.”

The Mount Royal would have room for 6,000 or so; in George Kennedy’s cheerful telling that fall, its only shortcoming was that it would never accommodate all the fans who so dearly loved his team.

As work on the building went on, the January 3 game, too, was pushed off, re-scheduled for the following Monday.

That was the game that the water strike nixed. This was a long-burbling wage dispute that came to a boil on New Year’s Eve: it was after the city administration told employees in the aqueduct department that they should accept the city’s latest offer or resign, about 100 engineers, firemen, oilers, coal passers had walked off the job.

While city officials claimed that Montreal’s water supply would not be affected, they were wrong. In the chaos of the early hours of the strike, boilers cooled, steam stopped, turbines slowed, pistons broke, reservoirs emptied. “The pumping stations were abandoned,” as a miffed editorial in the Gazette told it, “part of the city was deprived of water, and all the city was put in danger from fire.”

It would be almost a week before the sides settled and Montreal’s water levels returned to normal. The Canadiens were just another local business caught up in the crisis. On Monday, Tom Duggan explained that, given the situation, the Mount Royal Arena couldn’t get its ice ready for NHL hockey. With no water coming in from the city’s reservoirs, the Arena was relying on the private Montreal Water and Power Company for its flooding supply, and that was only available between three and five in the morning. With that, while the surface might be playable — and indeed, for several amateur leagues was, all that week — George Kennedy decided that it wasn’t up to professional snuff.

“The reason we did not play yesterday,” he explained as the week went on, “was that the ice was too rough then to risk valuable players on.”

That’s mostly all. When the Canadiens did finally play their home opener on the following Saturday, January 10, 1920, they did it with aplomb, before a full house, trouncing the Toronto St. Patricks by a score of 14-7. Canadiens’ winger Didier Pitre had the distinction of scoring the first goal in Mount Royal Arena history, while Newsy Lalonde, his coach and captain, ended the night with six goals.

Newsy Flash: Canadiens’ coach and captain Newsy Lalonde inaugurated the Mount Royal Arena in January of 1920 with a six-goal performance against the Toronto St. Patricks.

“Montreal once more has an adequate arena for hockey,” was the dry estimation of the Montreal Daily Star. “The seats are piled more steeply upon one another than they were in the old Westmount Arena, but they afford an obstructed view of the ice. The principal weakness is the backs, which circus-like are too low, but this it is said was due to a misunderstanding and will be remedied as soon as possible.”

“The ice surface is somewhat smaller than that of the Westmount Arena.”

“Under the prevailing conditions,” the Gazette decided, “the arena management furnished a good sheet of ice.”

The Canadiens made up their postponed game against the Quebec Bulldogs the following Monday, adding a 7-3 win to their account.

It’s with Montreal’s next home game that we’ll end, on Saturday, January 17, 1920, when the Ottawa Senators were in town. Riding a three-game winning streak, Canadiens made it four that night with a 3-2 win. Their new home, unhappily, didn’t perform as well as it might have.

The Montreal newspapers didn’t pay it much due, or seem too concerned; it was bigger news in Ottawa.

“People got a lot of excitement,” as the Ottawa Citizen framed it, “that was not on the program.”

In the second period, Ottawa’s star defenceman Eddie Gerard picked up the puck, rushed Georges Vézina’s net, unleashed a shot. The Citizen:

There was a squeak of splintering wood as hundreds in the ‘bleachers’ crammed forward to see where the puck had gone, then someone began to scream and about a hundred wild-eyed hockey fans were precipitated when the balcony railing gave way down into the pit of the rink. Weight on the floor when the railing cracked, caused a portion of the stand itself to collapse, whereupon more of the spectators tumbled down about fifteen feet. Women began to scream, fearing that the whole rink was giving in, and Referee [Lou] Marsh stopped the play while police appeared from many corners and rushed out on the ice. Officials, players, and the police, as well as rink management showed a cool headed judgment, and within a few minutes it was seen that nobody had been injured, though it was miraculous that many were not seriously hurt. Fortunately, however, there was no panic of any kind, though many rushed for the exits, but there were a large number of nerve-racked women, several of whom had to be assisted out of the rink. These were sitting in the East end when the floor above them gave way, to send nearly a hundred boys and men head over heels upon them. After about ten minutes, order was restored and play resumed and there appeared no further difficulty. The police lined up in front of the portion that had loosened and managed to keep the crowd back. Doctors were on hand but they were not needed.

The Montreal Gazette offered a few more piquant details along with a slightly different damage report. No mention in the Gazette of any of the stand collapsing, only that “fifty feet of light wooden railing” gave way, causing spectators to tumble. The wire netting that protected fans from stray pucks broke their plunge.

The spectators, after the surprise of their fall, climbed back good humouredly into their seats and pulled up the railing with them, placing it in such a position that it would not fall again. None of them, however, jumped to their feet again during the game.

As for casualties, the Gazette enumerated a pair of broken eyeglasses and a single torn overcoat.

Officials and policemen did, in the Montreal version, make sure that nobody was injured.

Two women, however, preferred to leave, and Referee Marsh escorted them across the ice before resuming the game. The damage done to the gallery was slight.

Not Quite: Canadiens and Bulldogs didn’t get on the ice on January 5, 1920, despite the ads touting the game in Montreal newspapers. When the postponed game was played a week later, Montreal prevailed by a score of 7-3.

 

doug harvey: cool, can think, and lift a team

Born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1924, Doug Harvey was a defenceman whose dominance helped the Montreal Canadiens win six Stanley Cup championships between 1953 and 1960. Seven times he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best blueliner, the last of those after his move to the New York Rangers. He’s wrangling here with Lorne Ferguson, winger for Detroit in the later ’50s; the spectacled defenceman in the background is Al Arbour.

In 1958, Montreal Gazette columnist Dink Carroll deemed Harvey and the Boston Bruin’s dauntless Eddie Shore to be the best blueliners in NHL history. “Harvey is the best I’ve ever seen,” Shore himself said. “He’s cool, he can think, and he can lift a team.” Toe Blake, Harvey’s coach with Montreal, was asked to weigh in. He, of course, had played against Shore in the 1930s, when Blake was a winger for the Maroons and Canadiens. “Yes, he’s ahead of Shore,” Blake said. “He can do more things — when he wants to.”

non-fungible number 9

Elbow Room: “Gordie ‘Pow!'” by Detroit artist Zelley was offered for sale as an NFT earlier this fall by the Hoe Foundation. (Image: Howe Foundation)

I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.

I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.

Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.

Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.

It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”

Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.

But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.

Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.

In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.

Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:

Gordie “Pow!”

“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe

With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”

Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.

Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?

I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?

It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.

Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.

Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”

The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.

“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”

It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.

“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”

Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,

it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.

I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.

The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.

I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:

They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.

It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.

“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …

“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.

“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”

So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?

Howe leans in close.

“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.

A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.

The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.

Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.

Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)

That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:

Howe v. Richard: An undated photo of Detroit’s number 9 and Montreal’s. That’s Red Wing Marty Pavelich sitting atop the boards, which suggests that the photo was taken in 1956 or earlier.

However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.

Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:

He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.

That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”

The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?

Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.

In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”

Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:

THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.

GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.

Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.

This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”

Back to Howe’s telling:

There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.

Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”

Full Count: Zelley’s “1,071 Pucks,” another NFT that went up for sale earlier this fall, with the number recognizing the goals Howe scored in the NHL and WHA.(Image: Howe Foundation)

roy story

Moneyman: Serge Chapleau’s 1990 depiction of Patrick Roy, watercolour and graphite on paper. (Image: ©McCord Museum)

Stu Cowan at Montreal’s Gazette doesn’t think that Patrick Roy will be the Canadiens’ next GM: Mathieu Darche and Daniel Brière look like the leading candidates to him.

And Roy himself? He’s made his interest in the job abundantly clear. “What do they have to lose by trying me?” he wondered, possibly rhetorically, a few days ago. “Since 1993, the club has been going in circles,” the former Colorado Avalanche coach elaborated. “What do they have to lose by giving me the chance to see what I can do with this club? At the same time, I understand the situation. The club is owned by Geoff Molson and he’s the one pulling the strings. It’s his team and at the end of the day I might not be the guy for him. I accept that.”

We’ll see what happens. But even if Roy’s arrival onto the Montreal job scene isn’t imminent, we can, in these early days of December, clang a bell to mark the 26th anniversary of Roy’s departure from the club.

Roy, of course, steered Montreal to a pair of Cup championships in the salady days of 1986 and ’93. Those wilted significantly on a Saturday night in December of ’95. Canadiens were hosting the Detroit Red Wings, if that’s the verb: the visitors pumped nine goals past Roy on 26 shots on their way to an 11-1 whupping.

“Nobody died,” then-Gazette sports editor Red Fisher autopsied the next day, “but this was, truly, a night in hell for the Canadiens, as a team, and for Roy in particular.”

Pulled by coach Mario Tremblay in the second period, an infuriated Roy made a beeline for Canadiens president Ronald Corey, perched in his seat just behind the team’s bench, to purge his soul, pronounce his truth, predict his future. “This,” Roy seethed, “is my last game in Montreal.”

And so it was. Four days later Roy was headed to Colorado in the best hasty deal that GM Réjean Houle could scrabble together, joining captain Mike Keane on a rail out of town that led to Colorado. Some in Montreal might need reminding that it was Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky, and Jocelyn Thibault who came back the other way. Most Canadiens fans won’t have forgotten that it was just a year later the Avalanche (and Roy) won a Stanley Cup championship.

 

 

defence force

Tall Order: Born in Béarn, Quebec, on a Saturday of this date in 1941, Hall-of-Fame defenceman Jacques Laperrière is 80 today, so here’s a salute to him. He played a dozen seasons on the Montreal blueline, aiding and abetting the Canadiens in six Stanley Cup championships. As a rookie in 1964, he won the Calder Trophy, pipping two of his teammates, John Ferguson and Terry Harper at the post. He was fourth in the voting that year for the Norris Trophy, as the league’s best defenceman, behind Chicago’s Pierre Pilote. He got his Norris two seasons later, outsripping Pilote and a Chicago teammate of his, Pat Stapleton, in the balloting. After his playing days ended, Laperrière was an assistant coach in Montreal, and partook of two more Cup chmapionships, in 1986 and ’93. He later worked for the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and New Jersey Devils. (Image: Fonds Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

making waves on the montreal blueline

Born in 1902 in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield in Quebec on a Saturday of this date, Albert Leduc was a pillar of the Montreal defence for nine years, starting in the mid-1920s, winning two Cups with Canadiens along the way. (He also played short stints with the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers.) Accounts of his antics on the ice sometimes included the phrases “his legs working like pistons, Albert dashes down and swerves at no defence” (1931) and “crashed Paul Thompson into the fence so hard in the first period that said fence was broken” (1933). As a 23-year-old rookie, he scored ten goals in 1925-26, second among all NHL defencemen that year, outscoring Lionel Conacher, King Clancy, and Sprague Cleghorn.

The first money he was ever paid for playing hockey? Leduc had a story he told about that in 1935, by which time he was coaching in the Can-Am league. Back in his teenaged years, while he was still a schoolboy during the First World War, Leduc was a bright enough hockey prospect to be invited to play in an exhibition game against the NHA’s barnstorming Montreal Wanderers. The venue was Ormstown, Quebec, about 20 kilometres from home. It was a big opportunity that young Leduc didn’t mean to miss, and so to get to the game, he hired a horse on credit, counting on being paid for his hockey efforts. But: when he arrived, he was told his talents weren’t needed.

“I am stricken,” Leduc recounted in the ’30s, as told in a contemporary newspaper reporter’s rendering of Leduc’s diction, “I protest. I cry out. I cry out so loud that the great Arthur Ross come along and say, ‘Hey, what is all this?’”

A powerhouse defenceman in his own right long before he started with the Boston Bruins, Ross, the Wanderer captain for many of those wartime years, listened to Leduc’s tale of woe and unpaid horse-rental.

“The great Mr. Ross, he tell me: ‘O.K. for the ’orse. Cry no more but shut up. You play for us. We need a guy with a ’orse and maybe you better bring the ’orse on the ice with you.’ But I think he joke, though Mr. Ross always look very stern.”

So Leduc played for the Wanderers in Ormstown, scored a goal, even. “After the game, the great Mr. Ross comes to me and he says: ‘How much for the ’orse?’”

“I say: ‘Five dollar fix everything,’ and what do you think now? The great Mr. Ross say: ‘Here, kid, give those ’orse a few oats,’ and he hand me fifteen dollar. I am broke down at such kindness. I pay for my ’orse, I have a profit.”

a husky healthy lot: a vaccination mandate for the nhl — in 1920 

Benny And The Vax: An arm swollen to twice its regular size didn’t keep Ottawa goaltender Clint Benedict from the ice in 1920.

Winter was on the way, but cases were on the rise, too, and as concerns over the spread of disease mounted, players in the National Hockey League did what they had to do and took a needle to make sure that the hockey season could proceed.

If the scenario sounds as familiar and up-to-the-moment as today’s (online) edition of your daily newspaper, the case at hand comes to us as 100-year-old history. Twenty months into our 21st-century pandemic, in a week in which the NHL’s modern-day Ottawa Senators have seen their schedule suspended under a weight of Covid-19 protocols, we’re casting back here to the fall of 1919 here.

Back then, in the wake of a world war, another devastating pandemic still wasn’t finished its dreadful work, but this isn’t a Spanish flu story. Seven months after that virulent virus shut down the Stanley Cup finals in Seattle, sickening most of the Montreal Canadiens’ line-up and killing defenceman Joe Hall, it was smallpox that was on the loose across Ontario.

 News of a “mild” epidemic in Toronto made news in Ottawa at the beginning of November. “Fifteen cases are in the smallpox hospital,” the Journal advised, “but no deaths have been reported. All teaching institutions, included colleges, are ordered vaccinated. The City Council is to be asked to issue a proclamation ordering everybody to be vaccinated.”

By mid-month, the case count in the provincial capital was at 361, with 1,000 people in the city under quarantine. (Across the rest of Ontario, 541 cases were reported.) But Dr. Charles Hastings, the city’s medical officer of health, estimated that the actual number of infected Torontonians to be between 2,000 and 3,000. The smallpox vaccine was the first to have been developed against a contagious disease, going back to the end of the 18th century, and in Toronto that fall, the effort to vaccinate city’s population was working well, Dr. Hastings felt: in a city of some 520,000, as many as 100,000 had been inoculated by mid-November, “including a large proportion of schoolchildren.” Still, urgency was required: he sought compulsory vaccinations for all Torontonians.

The fact that Mayor Tommy Church and a majority of city councillors didn’t agree meant this was anything but a straightforward matter. Mayor Church declared his belief in vaccines; he just didn’t think the people of his city should be compelled to get them. Ontario’s Board of Health sent a letter requesting that the city issue a mandate; Council declined to issue one. Dr. John McCullough was the province’s top doctor: he reminded the Mayor and his stubborn councillors that any of them (as the Globe noted) “to whom responsibility for failure to issue this proclamation may attach will be liable to a penalty under the Vaccination Act.” There was talk of fines, of indictments under a grand jury, of jail sentences.

As Christmas approached — and cases increased — the struggle between the politicians and the doctors intensified. While the politicians refused to give ground, the local Board of Health saw to it that unvaccinated children were barred from city schools: on December 4, more than 1,000 were sent home. But it was politicians who manned the Toronto Board and by early January dissenting councillors had the upper hand, such that the city’s BOH not only refused to cooperate with the Ontario Board in its effort to enforce general vaccination, but suspended its earlier exclusion of unvaccinated schoolchildren.

The Ontario Board kept up its pressure on Toronto’s council, warning of lawsuits that would surely follow as a result of the city’s neglect and noting that smallpox outbreaks in the rest of the province were all traceable to Toronto. By early January, the Globe was reporting the epidemic’s first two Toronto deaths, a baby girl of 17 months and a man of 66.

Ontario’s neighbours were watching, and worrying. In November, the United States Public Health Service announced that all travellers crossing from the province into Michigan at Detroit would need to show proof of vaccination to enter; similar rules applied at Buffalo and other New York ports of entry. On December 20, Manitoba imposed a similar restriction. By January, Quebec was ready to follow suit, imposing “one of the most severe and sweeping health protection measures in years,” and extending an order already in place in Montreal requiring all visitors from Ontario be vaccinated was extended to include the entire province. “Quebec,” declared Dr. Hector Palardy, district health officer for Montreal, “has no smallpox whatever, and does not want any.”

It’s here that we circle back to the ice. Papers across the country carried the news as the old year shifted into a new one:

Needle News: Word of NHL vaccinations went on the wires across Canada in early 1920.

By then, the NHL’s third season had been underway for a week. It was a four-team loop that year, with Quebec having joined in with Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. The Senators would end up winning the league championship and the Stanley Cup by the time it was all over. With a line-up that included Clint Benedict, Eddie Gerard, Punch Broadbent, and Frank Nighbor, they were already working with a formula that would bring home two more Cups over the course of the next three seasons.

“None of the boys reported sore arms,” the Ottawa Citizen reported in the wake of Dr. Graham’s needling, “but they are liable to develop in a day or two and may handicap the club considerably in the championship race.”

Still: “As a husky healthy lot, Dr. Graham does not believe that any of the men will be disabled.”

Frank Nighbor wasn’t so sure. Along with teammates Broadbent, Jack MacKell, and Morley Bruce, he’d been previously vaccinated against smallpox while on military service during the war. Lacking certificates to prove it, all four had submitted to repeats from Dr. Graham. Nighbor hadn’t forgotten the first time: “he says he was a very sick boy when the Flying Corps surgeon jabbed him at Toronto.”

Frank Nighbor

Several of Nighbor’s teammates did suffer in the days that followed. On January 3, before they hit the road for Quebec, the Senators traveled to Toronto to take on the St. Patricks. It was a rough game, with the home team prevailing, 4-3. Ottawa defenceman Sprague Cleghorn did score his team’s second goal, but the Citizen asked for some sympathy on his behalf: “Cleghorn went into the game so sick that he could hardly stand.” A week after Dr. Graham’s visit to the dressing room, he was still suffering. “His left arm was swollen,” the Citizen explained, “and he complained of pains and dizziness in his head. Yet Cleghorn insisted on playing.”

Ahead of Ottawa’s next game, at home to Montreal, the Citizen later revealed, a couple of Senators were ailing: while Punch Broadbent had a case of pleurisy, goaltender Clint Benedict’s “vaccinated arm was swollen was swollen twice its normal size.” Both insisted on playing in what turned out as a 4-3 Senators win; Broadbent scored a hattrick and added an assist.

It’s not clear whether or not Ottawa’s players were still feeling any side effects by the time they finally got to Quebec in mid-January. We do know that the road trip east yielded a split: after beating Quebec 2-1, they lost to Montreal by a score of 3-2.

NHL notes from January of 1920.

When Toronto’s players got their vaccinations in early January, the news was that “several of the players were laid up with sore arms.” As for players from Montreal and Quebec — I’ve seen no mention in contemporary accounts of them getting their needles, though I assume that if they were travelling to Toronto and back home again, Quebec’s mandate must have caused them to be vaccinated, too.

Ontario’s Board of Health gave up its fight for a city-wide Toronto mandate in early January of 1920 after the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled that the board didn’t have the power to tell the city what to do. “The Provincial Board of Health has done its utmost to protect Ontario and others from the peril of smallpox,” Dr. McCullough said. “Owing to the opposition of the Toronto City Council, we have not been completely successful.”

Case numbers did begin to drop, even if Dr. McCullough didn’t soften his tone as the weeks went on. Addressing Windsor’s Chamber of Commerce at the end of January, 1920, he charged that “the city of Toronto has been guilty of spreading smallpox all over the province of Ontario and would have spread it all over the continent had not the Americans taken steps to prevent it.”

He was referring, of course, to U.S. border restrictions, but let’s not diminish Quebec’s efforts. After that province lifted its restrictions on Ontario travellers in early March, health officials went to the trouble of releasing a bevy of impressive analytics. In the two months of monitoring railway traffic from Ontario, Quebec inspectors had boarded 1,501 trains carrying 89,275 passengers. Of these, 69,933 were found to have vaccination certificates (“which were examined and stamped,” the Montreal Gazette divulged) while a further 12,549 rolled up sleeves to show vaccination marks (“which were verified”). Another 6,639 passengers who had neither certificates nor vaccination marks submitted to vaccinations on the spot.

And those who refused a frontier shot? There were 154 of them. “The inspectors were adamant,” the Gazette noted; “that number was turned back and prevented from crossing into this province.”

Playing Hurt: Punch Broadbent scored a January hattrick for his Ottawa Senators in 1920, pleurisy notwithstanding.

 

 

gawky gus rivers: singer of songs, poison to rangers

Gus Rivers only played parts of three campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens — a total of 104 games, regular-season and playoffs — but you have to credit his timing: at the end of two of those seasons, 1930 and ’31, he helped the Canadiens to win Stanley Cup championships.

A Winnipegger, Rivers was, we know, born on this date, November 19 — but was it 1909, as many of the standard references record, or a year earlier? I’ll tend towards the latter: birth records from Manitoba and his U.S. military draft registration have Rivers originating in 1908. His hockey lineage isn’t in doubt: before he got to the NHL, Rivers played for the Elmwood Millionaires, the University of Manitoba, and the perfectly named Winnipeg Winnipegs. He was 22 in January of 1930 when the Canadiens signed him.

He’d started as a forward in Manitoba, before shifting back to defence; Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart put him to work on the wing when he got to Montreal. Upon his arrival, it was noted in the local Gazette that his “real name” was Gustave Desrivieres, though there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond anecdotal evidence that this was the case — it’s possibly that this was purely a fiction perpetrated by the Canadiens for the interest of their French-Canadian fans, in the tradition of declaring Howie Morenz’s background as Swiss. A year later, in the wake of another Stanley Cup triumph, the Gazette included this in their biographical round-up of the victors:

Gus was born in Winnipeg and played amateur hockey from 1924 to 1930 when he was recommended to Canadiens and signed by them. He came here under the name of Gustave Desrivieres and for a time he was thought to be French. Some of the American hockey writes still think so.

Rivers scored his first NHL goal on the last night the 1930 regular-season schedule, when the Canadiens dispatched the New York Americans by a score of 8-3. Teammate Howie Morenz scored five that night, so the fact that Rivers’ landmark tally didn’t get a whole lot of play in the press next day maybe isn’t so surprising. His second goal was more of a headliner: later that same month, Rivers scored the overtime winner that put an end to what to that date the longest game in NHL history, capping 68 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death hockey as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to open their Stanley Cup semi-final. Here’s the Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro describing how it went down:

Signed by Canadiens this season, Gus Rivers watched almost every game from the bench. He’d never got his chance to play. A shy, retiring chap, his favorite occupation on the team’s journeys was to sit in a corner of the car all alone and render the popular ditties to himself with feeling. Between times he received the joshing of all members of the team with a broad, good-natured smile.

It was this youngster that Manager Cecil Hart, of the Canadiens, put on the ice in the overtime session after all of the Flying Frenchmen were tottering on their feet. Rivers dashed out on the ice, ran the Rangers ragged for a while, then when Aurele Joliat and Sylvio Mantha struggled up the ice, he skated in front of the Rangers net. The rubber came his way from Mantha’s stick, and after 128 minutes of battling, the game was finally settled when Rivers slammed that puck past John Ross Roach.

The applause from a nerve-wracked crowd was deafening. But more significant was the fact that the Canadiens, exhausted and tottering, lifted the gawky youngster on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room, Gus Rivers had achieved recognition at last.

Rivers didn’t have too many more NHL goals in him — he only score four more in his career — but he did sink another overtime winner past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach, this one at Madison Square Garden in January of 1931.

In the wake of Montreal second successive Cup that spring, L.S.B Shapiro projected a big future for Rivers. “Gus possesses a neat poke check. He breaks fast and is dangerous around the goals.”

“From present indication,” the Gazette’s man gushed, “he will stand among the Morenzes and the [Pit] Lepines before many years have passed.”

As it turned out, while Rivers started the following season with Montreal, he finished it with the Providence Reds of the Can-Am League. He never made it back to NHL ice and after five further seasons with the Reds, he stowed his skates as a pro. Gus Rivers stayed on in Rhode lsland after his hockey career ended and, in 1985, that’s where he died. He was 75.

paint the town bleu-blanc-rouge

A new mural got some finishing touches this morning on the north face of Montreal’s Bell Centre ahead of tonight’s meeting between the hometown Canadiens and Pittsburgh’s Penguins. The painting is part of a project the Canadiens will officially unveil tomorrow, November 19, in partnership with Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce and the Quebec government.

 

(Images: Stephen Smith)

 

fix you

Pause For Patchwork: That’s Gump Worsley’s eyebrow we’re seeing here, after the Montreal Canadiens’ long-suffering goaltender took a puck just below his (unmasked) eye in the third period of a game at Montreal’s Forum on Saturday, December 23, 1967. It was a battle of last-place teams, with Canadiens dwelling in the cellar of the NHL’s East Division while the visiting Oakland Seals anchored the West. With Worsley here is Canadiens defenceman (#3) J.C. Tremblay with (probably) team medic Dr. Doug Kinnear ministering and (possibly) trainer Larry Aubut standing by — unless it’s Montreal’s other trainer, Eddie Palchak. Off in the middle distance is Oakland defenceman Ron Harris. Worsley stayed in the game, despite his wounds, seeing out Montreal’s 4-2 win. (Image: Pierre McCann, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

boston mass

When the modern-day Montreal Canadiens skate into Boston’s TD Garden tonight to meet the contemporaneous Bruins, it will be the 751st regular-season meeting between the two teams since 1924, when Boston joined the NHL. Canadiens won their first encounter 4-3 at the old Boston Garden, on Monday, December 8 of that year, with Montreal winger Aurèle Joliat putting the winner past Boston goaltender Hec Fowler. Overall, Montreal has the better record, with 363 wins/274 losses/103 ties/10 OT losses entered into the books; Canadiens have a record of 106-71 in the 177 playoff games the teams have played. The last time they met (below) was February 12, 2020, in Boston, with the Bruins prevailing by a score of 4-1 on the strength of a David Pastrnak hattrick. Above, a postcard view of the old rivals at the original Boston Garden in the 1930s.

 

 

joe canadien

Born in Quebec City on a Sunday of this date in 1881, Joe Cattarinich was 29 in 1909 when he signed up to play goal for Montreal’s newest hockey outfit, Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien, in the newly hatched NHA. A month later, on January 5, 1910, he skated out on the ice of the Jubilee Arena to stop the first pucks in the history of Montreal’s mightiest franchise, ending up a winner in overtime, as the Canadiens beat the Cobalt Silver Kings 7-6. The Gazette reported next morning: “The deciding goal in the overtime was scored by [Skinner] Poulin after Cattaranich [sic] had made two good stops at Canadiens end of the rink.” Ructions in the birth of the new league resulted in this game being nullified, and the season re-started. Montreal’s second debut wasn’t so inspiring: in Renfrew, powered by Lester and Frank Patrick and Cyclone Taylor, the local Creamery Kings beat Cattarinich and his mates by a score of 9-4.

Cattarinich’s Canadiens career lasted just two more games after that, losses both at the sticks of the Ottawa Hockey Club. Teddy Groulx took over after that; by the following season, Montreal had drafted in Georges Vézina to take good care of the goaltending, which he did for the next 16+ years.

When he wasn’t stopping pucks, Cattarinich was a successful businessman, starting as as a hotel manager in Lévis, then prospering as a tobacco wholesaler. A busy sports promoter, he was an owner of racing tracks and many of the horses who ran them in Montreal, Cleveland, Chicago, and New Orleans. Leo Dandurand was a partner in some of those equine ventures, and it was with him (and Louis Letourneau) that Cattarinich bought the Canadiens for $11,000 in 1921, following George Kennedy’s death. When the partners sold the team in 1935 to other Montreal interests, the price was $165,000.

“During their ownership,” the Gazette noted in 1938, following Cattarinich’s death at the age of 57, “the Canadiens thrice won the Stanley Cup and during that period some of the players never signed a contract at a stated figure, depending on Cattarinich to pay them a just salary, and in each case that player finished the season more than satisfied with his treatment.”

Origin Story: The Gazette reports on the beginnings of Montreal’s (eventually) mighty Canadiens in December of 1909.