the waiting is the hardest part: the leafs won in 1947, but the stanley cup took its time getting to toronto

The Cup Shows Up: The new Cup champions pose on Monday, April 21, 1947. Back row, from left, they are: Howie Meeker, Vic Lynn, Jim Thomson, Garth Boesch, Gus Mortson, Joe Klukay, Bill Barilko. Middle row, left to right: Cliff Keyland (assistant trainer), Bill Ezinicki, Wally Stanowski, Harry Watson, Turk Broda, Bob Goldham, Bud Poile, Gus Bodnar, Tim Daly (trainer). Front, from the left: Gaye Stewart, Ted Kennedy, Conn Smythe (GM), Hap Day (coach), Syl Apps (captain), E.W. Bickle (president). W.A.H MacBrien (vice-president), Nick Metz, Don Metz.

“We want the Cup,” the crowd of 14,546 chanted at Maple Leaf Gardens on a Saturday night of this date in 1947, as was their due: their hometown team had just beaten the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 2-1 to relieve the defending champions of Lord Stanley’s famous trophy in six games. Montreal’s Buddy O’Connor opened the scoring, but the Leafs sealed the deal with goals from Vic Lynn and Ted Kennedy, backed by Turk Broda’s superior goaltending.

Montreal’s Gazette eyed the immediate aftermath: “the big crowd went into a delirium of noisy jubilation and refused to leave the rink.” But their chanting was in vain. The Stanley Cup wasn’t in the city that night, 74 years ago, let alone the building: instead of whooping it up with the Leafs, the Cup spent a lonely Saturday night in Montreal. It was Monday before it arrived in Toronto, just in time to be included in the photograph above, which the Leafs posed for on Monday at noon.

“Canadiens did not, as many thought, leave the Cup behind intentionally,” Jim Vipond clarified in The Globe and Mail. “It was the Toronto club’s idea. Conn Smythe, revealing a superstitious nature, asked NHL prexy [Clarence] Campbell to leave the Cup where it was until it was won.”

There was no parade that year for the champions. After Nat Turofsky got his photos Monday midday, Maple Leaf players and staff gathered in the press room at the Gardens for speeches and celebrations.

Tuesday, the Leafs ate.

First up, the team was rewarded with a turkey lunch by restaurateur Sam Shopsowitz at his famous delicatessen at 295 Spadina Avenue, just north of Dundas Street West.

That same evening the champions were fêted at a supper hosted by Ontario Premier George Drew. Toronto Mayor Robert Saunders was on hand, along with 125 invited guests. The premier was particular in his praise of the Leafs’ sportsmanship. “What you have accomplished is a demonstration of what Canadians really stand for in a sport that is essentially Canadian,” he said. The venue as the old Toronto Normal School, downtown on Gould Street, which had been revamped as a “training and re-establishment centre” for war veterans. Some of them cooked the meal; afterwards (as the Globe reported), “three veterans stepped forward and presented Syl Apps with a cake they had baked. It represented a hockey rink with goal nets at each end and a puck and crossed hockey sticks in the centre.”

In between meals, Leafs left winger Harry Watson went on a mercy mission to Toronto General Hospital. He’d played the previous season for the Detroit Red Wings, and a couple of his former teammates were registered there, Hal Jackson and a 19-year-old rookie by the name of Gordon Howe. Both were having post-season work done on damaged cartilage, so Watson stopped by to deliver some turkey leftovers from Shopsy’s.

a cup for the canadiens, 1931: busses from battleship

Back-To-Back: George Hainsworth pitched the shutout, Johnny Gagnon scored the decisive goal, and just like that, on a Tuesday night of this date in 1931, the Montreal Canadiens claimed their second consecutive Stanley Cup by defeating the Chicago Black Hawks 2-0 at the Forum. “This is a marvellous team,” said coach Cecil Hart in the aftermath. Howie Morenz scored Montreal’s insurance goal on the night, and both he and Gagnon were rewarded for their efforts by teammate Albert (a.k.a. Battleship) Leduc: as the Gazette reported, the bulky defenceman “embarrasses his mates with his spontaneous gestures whenever a goal is scored. Gagnon and Morenz each received hearty kisses from the Battleship after they got their tallies.”

down + out with kenny reardon

Downfall: Ken Reardon dislocated his left shoulder on the night of April 1, 1950, in Montreal’s 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers at the Forum. It turned out to be the last game of his NHL career. Attending the patient are, from left, Montreal’s Glen Harmon, possibly Kenny Mosdell, unknown, New York goaltender Charlie Rayner, Floyd Curry, and Ranger defenceman Gus Kyle. The trainer is (I think) Bill Head; don’t know the name of the Forum rink attendant.

The game was all but over at the Montreal Forum, and the score was a sour one for the local team on this night, 71 years ago, with the visiting New York Rangers nursing a 3-2 lead. The loss, which would put the Canadiens down two games in their opening-round series against the Rangers, would prove costlier still: as the third-period clock ticked down, Montreal’s Ken Reardon went down in the New York zone.

It happened to be the All-Star defenceman’s 29th birthday. Born in Winnipeg on Friday, April 1, 1929, the future Hall of Famer had earlier in the evening assisted on Norm Dussault’s first-period goal.

That was the very last point of Reardon’s seven-year NHL career — insofar as it turned out to be Reardon’s very last NHL game.

“Canadiens were engaged in an all-out drive on the New York nets when the crash came,” Vern DeGeer reported in the pages of the Gazette. Following a face-off in the Ranger zone, Reardon went after a straying puck. “He was ridden into the boards by big Gus Kyle and collapsed in a heap.”

X-rays taken later that night at Montreal’s Western Hospital told the tale: Reardon’s left shoulder was dislocated. It was the same one he’d hurt a year earlier in a game against Toronto.

With Reardon out of the line-up, Montreal fell to the Rangers in five games. In the opinion of New York coach Lynn Patrick, Reardon’s absence was a key to the Rangers’ success: Montreal just couldn’t replace his drive, rugged defensive play, and capacity to rally a faltering team.

Reardon seems to have been aiming to return to the Montreal roster in the fall of 1950. He rehabilitated his shoulder that summer, even played some baseball with his Canadiens teammates. But by September, with training camp approaching, the shoulder and a longer-term back problem was enough to persuade him that the time was right to retire.

“Reardon is convinced that he should withdraw from active play while he is still in one piece,” was the message to the press from Frank Selke, Montreal’s managing director.

And so, that fall, Reardon started his new job for the Canadiens, as what Selke described as an ambassador of good will. He later served as assistant GM as well as vice-president of the team, playing a part in six Stanley Cup championships in all as a player, manager, and executive.

Also in 1950: the former defenceman got married, in December, to Suzanne Raymond, daughter of Canadiens president Senator Donat Raymond. As Montreal’s playing staff worked on their Stanley Cup project, the happy couple honeymooned in Montego Bay in Jamaica.

outdistanced, outpaced, outclassed: on this day in 1917, montreal’s shortwinded canadiens yielded the stanley cup to seattle’s mets

Scoring Star: Seatte’s Bernie Morris scored six goals in his team’s 9-1 win over Montreal in the game that clinched the 1917 Stanley Cup, collecting 14 in all in the four games of the finals.

“About all that needs to be said is that Seattle took the puck at the face-off in the first period, and kept it practically all the rest of the game with the exception of a few intervals when they loaned it to the Montreals.”

On this night, 104 years ago, a Monday on the west coast, the Seattle Metropolitans dismissed the Montreal Canadiens to become the first American team to claim the Stanley Cup. It was the fourth game of the best-of-five series and, as abridged by the Seattle Star, the Metropolitans did it in dominant style, running the score to 9-1 on their way to wresting the Cup from the defending champions.

Seattle’s Bernie Morris was the star of the game, slotting six goals past Montreal’s Georges Vézina. A centreman and son of Brandon, Manitoba, Morris had led the PCHL in scoring through the 1916-17 season, and didn’t let up in the championship series, in which he scored a total of 14 goals in four games. A fascinating figure, Morris: when Seattle and Montreal reconvened for the ill-fated (never-completed) 1919 Cup finals, Morris was in U.S. military custody, charged with dodging his draft registration, and soon to be sentenced to two years in prison. He served his sentence on San Francisco’s notorious Alcatraz Island, from which he seems to have been discharged early. He was free and clear, in any case, this month in 1920, and returned to the ice when the Mets went to Ottawa at the end of March to take on the Senators for that year’s edition of the Stanley Cup.

Seattle had a strong team in 1917, featuring Hap Holmes in goal, with Frank Foyston, Bobby Rowe, and the inimitable Jack Walker working on the frontlines with Morris. They did line up one American: defenceman Ed Carpenter was from Hartford, Michigan. Otherwise, the Mets were mostly from middle-Canada, with five of the nine players on the roster Ontario-born, and coach Pete Muldoon, too. At 29, Muldoon was then ¾ and remains ¾ the youngest coach to win the Cup.

What was Montreal’s problem? The Canadiens themselves might have (and did) complain about the refereeing, and they were stymied again and again by Jack Walker’s relentless hook-checking. The Montreal line-up was impressive in its own right, with Newsy Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Jack Laviolette arrayed in front of Vézina. To be fair, George Kennedy’s Canadiens did have to cross continent to play, and while they did take the first game of the series by a score of 8-4, they flagged in the final three. As the Calgary Herald’s correspondent wrote after the final drubbing, Seattle “outdistanced and outpaced the shortwinded Canadiens.”

The only exception? “Jack Laviolette, the veteran star of the eastern club, who played like a whole team himself, saving the Canadiens’ goal from distress time and time again, and making all the big rushes for the Red Shirts. Pitre never got into his stride … till late in the game, and he was puffed out then. Lalonde was not there at all. [Harry] Mummery could not stand on his feet, and [Bert] Corbeau couldn’t hang onto the puck.”

The Seattle Star was pleased to report George Kennedy’s declaration that the final game “was the most wonderful exhibition of the ice game he had ever witnessed” while confirming that “he has seen many.”

“We were outclassed,” Kennedy admitted in the pages of the Vancouver Sun, “and you can say for me that Seattle deserved to win the Cup.”

Pete Muldoon agreed, no doubt, but he was gracious. “The Canadiens were worthy opponents,” he said. While we did defeat them, I believe that the fact that they were playing under strange conditions and in a different climate had a lot to do with their being so decisively beaten. We are glad to have won the coveted honour for the Pacific coast.”

farewell the forum

Castle On Cabot Square: An architectural rendering of the Forum’s 1960s-era renovation.

It was 25 years ago, on a Monday of this date in 1996, that Montreal’s Canadiens took a final turn on the ice of the famous Forum. They beat the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1, for the record, though the game itself was truly the undercard for the pre- and post-game ceremonies by which Canadiens bade farewell to the arena that was their home for 72 years and some 3,500 games. A crowd of former Canadiens was on hand that night, including 20 Hall-of-Famers. Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau were on hand for the game’s ceremonial opening face-off, and when Maurice Richard joined them at centre ice, the crowd stood and cheered for ten glorious minutes.

I was there that night, high up at the north end, Section 601, with the overflow press, near where they used to keep the ghosts. I won’t say that I was there under false pretenses, though it’s true that I may have stretched those same pretenses to accommodate my powerful need to witness and distill the history unfolding … I mean, Émile Bouchard was out there on the ice, for Gump Worsley’s sake — and of course Gump was there, too. Both Butches Bouchard, in fact, father and son!! Mahovliches, major and minor! Lach and Reardon and Moore, Henri Richard, Savard and Lapointe, Ferguson, Shutt, Dryden, Cournoyer! It was unbelievable.

I was freelancing for The Financial Post in those years, reporting for the paper’s arts section from several non-fiscal sectors — that is, I wrote book and movie reviews, travel features. The Post didn’t need me covering a hockey game, even a historic one, but I was able to convince my editor that the auction on the day after that Forum finale was enough of a business story to demand my presence. The Canadiens didn’t mind accommodating me — or if they did, they didn’t mention it. (The feature I filed is here.)

Ezra Soiferman was at the Forum that night, too, and he was toiling harder than I was. It may be that we passed one another in the halls as the old arena’s time as the home of the Habs expired; it’s possible. A Montreal filmmaker and photographer, he attended the game as a guest of Forum anthem-singer André Ouellet.

Soiferman took some 250 images as he wandered the arena that night. It wasn’t until 2016 that he collected some of them into a book, which he published privately to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Canadiens’ departure for the Molson (now Bell) Centre. Other than the cover image, below, and a photo of a Guy Lafleur greeting Ouellet, there’s nary a hockey player in it: this particular album is filled with last glimpses of fans and ushers, custodians and purveyors of chiens chauds, security guards, corridors, stairwells, seats, doorways, escalators, grey girders, and — yes — urinals. It’s an odd, honest, altogether charming chronicle of a venerable old arena on one night at the end of an era.

joe benoit: pacing a punch line in montreal, scoring a scad across pre-war europe

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before war interceded. After serving with Canada’s armed forces,  he returned to the Canadiens in 1945.

The Montreal Canadiens headed into the 1940 NHL season with optimism — though, of course, what else were they going to embrace, having finished the previous campaign plumb last in the seven-team NHL?

They did have a new coach at the helm, the great Dick Irvin, and as the team’s training camp wound down towards the start of the new season, he was talking … well, he sounded a little defensive, to be honest. “We’ll have a team by November 3,” he said; “we won’t be any pushovers.”

He did have an impressive rookie class at his disposal. That fall, Canadiens added 20-year-old centre Johnny Quilty, who end up winning the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, along with a few other quality assets (and future Hall-of-Famers) in centre 23-year-old Elmer Lach, defenceman Ken Reardon, 19. Also making his debut: 24-year-old right winger Joe Benoit, who was born on a Sunday of today’s date in 1916.

With Irvin at the helm, Montreal did improve that year, clambering into the playoffs … before clattering out, in the first round, at the hands of the Chicago Black Hawks. Quilty finished as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals and 34 points in 48 games, just ahead of the veteran captain Toe Blake (12 goals, 32 points) and Benoit (16 goals, 32 points).

As one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players, Benoit deserves more recognition than he’s been accorded to date. If we’re talking about the league itself, that recognition is — well, non-existent. At this late date, the NHL still, for some reason, chooses to ignore the stories of trailblazers like Buddy Maracle, Jim Jamieson, Johnny Harms, and Benoit.

His story, Joe Benoit’s, seems to have started in the northern Alberta community of Egg Lake, though he grew up (like Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla) in St. Albert, to Edmonton’s north. The records I’ve reviewed aren’t entirely clear on his family’s history.  His father’s mother was Métis. In 1921, when Joe was four, the Census of Canada lists his father’s “origin” as French and the rest of the family (his mother and four siblings) as Cree.

Later, the story of young Joe’s hockey origins was told this way: with no arena in St. Albert or even an outdoor rink, he puckhandled through the streets. “Benoit learned his hockey with a homemade stick and a piece of ice as a puck, stickhandling his way up and down the main street of the tiny western hamlet. He developed his stickhandling wizardry by flipping the pieces of ice out of reach of paws and jaws of two gambolling dogs. This was Joe’s only opposition until he went to the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in 1935, where he had his first taste of team play.”

That’s from 1943. No telling now how romanticized a scene-setting that is. There’s no explicit mention, you’ll note, of skates, though subsequent retellings added those, too.

Benoit’s NHL career was noteworthy, interrupted as it was by war and service (and hockey) with the Canadian armed forces. He played just five seasons in the big league, all of them with Montreal. He was the original right winger for the Canadiens’ top line in the early ’40s, skating with Lach and Toe Blake on the original Punch Line, before a bright young prospect by the name of Maurice Richard took his place. Benoit’s best season was 1942-43, which he finished with 30 goals and 57 points. The year he returned to the NHL, 1945-46, Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but a back injury kept him out of the playoffs, and his name wasn’t among those stamped in the silverware.

Back between his street-skating years in St. Albert and his first turn on Montreal Forum ice, Benoit, who died at the age of 65 in 1981, did win a couple of notable championships. In 1938, his Trail Smoke Eaters burst out of B.C. Western Kootenay Hockey League to win the Allan Cup, the national senior title.

That earned the team the right to represent Canada the following year at the World Championships, which they did, embarking on a truly remarkable odyssey through Europe on the brink of the war.

Sailing from Halifax aboard the Duchess of York in mid-December of 1938, the Smokies eventually made their way to Switzerland in the new year, where they defended the world title won the previous year by the Sudbury Wolves and by the Kimberley Dynamiters the year before that. In 1939, Trail went undefeated in eight games, beating Germany, Czechoslovakia (twice), and the United States along the way.

Glory to that, but that’s not the remarkable part. Before they set sail for Canada on the Duchess of Richmond in April of 1939, the Smoke Eaters barnstormed their way around Europe, playing 70 games in three-and-a-half months. In Scotland and England they skated, and through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

Along the way, they compiled a record of 67-1-2, with their only loss coming by a score of 4-1 in London against an all-Canadian team, the Wembley All-Stars.

Joe Benoit counted the only goal for Trail that night. All told, he scored some 60 goals on the tour, leading all the Smoke Eaters in scoring, including a couple of other future NHLers in left winger Bunny Dame, who’d join Benoit in Montreal, and right winger Johnny McCreedy, who served a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mere months from the outbreak of war, the hockey players returned to Canada happy but tired, with tales to tell. “The players criticized the food in Germany,” the Regina Leader-Post noted, “where they said a lack of butter, white bread, and meat existed.”

“The players had never seen so many soldiers before,” reported Vancouver’s Province, quoting an unnamed player: “It was terrible in Germany — soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.”

“The streets were full of the them,” the Province continued, “and windows full of uniforms. England was busy digging tunnels as a precaution against air-raids and gas attacks.”

Our Joe: An Edmonton report on the European adventures of Benoit and the Smokies from January of 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

in harmony: in 1923, eddie gerard led ottawa’s original senators in song, all the way to a stanley cup

Ottawa’s Musical Ride, 1923: Posing in front of their CPR carriage “Neptune,” Ottawa’s Senators arrive in Vancouver in March of 1923, on their way to claiming the Stanley Cup. They ( and their friends) are, from left: Baz O’Meara (Montreal Star), Ed Baker (Ottawa Citizen), owner Ted Dey, manager (and stand-in coach) Tommy Gorman, Cy Denneny, Clint Benedict, Punch Broadbent, Harry Helman, Lionel Hitchman, King Clancy, captain Eddie Gerard, Billy Boucher, Buck Boucher, Frank Nighbor, trainer Cozy Dolan.

There was no better team in hockey through the 1920s than the Ottawa Senators, who won four Stanley Cups in eight years with a line-up stacked with future Hall-of-Famers. Coached by the brilliant (and sadly undersung) Pete Green through the first years of the NHL’s first decade, the Senators counted on a core of supremely skilled players in those years that included Clint Benedict in goal, King Clancy and Lionel Hitchman on defence, and Cy Denneny, Frank Nighbor, and Jack Darragh on the forward line.

Captaining the team through those first three championships was the anchorman of the defence, Eddie Gerard. Born in Ottawa on a Saturday of this date in 1890, Gerard deserves a bigger fame, better broadcast, than he has nowadays. The modern-day Senators could get things going — and should — by retiring his number 2 and raising it to the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre. Then again, according to me, they ought to be hoisting a whole wardrobe’s worth of sweaters to honour that golden age, including Nighbor’s number 6, Cy Denneny’s 5, and Darragh’s 7, just for a start.

Gerard played his last NHL season in 1923, when, aged 33, he steered the Senators their third Cup in four years. (He actually got his name on four straight Cups, but that’s a tale for another day.) It was early March when the Senators beat the Montreal Canadiens in two games to take the NHL title, whereupon the team boarded a CPR train for Vancouver.

On arrival to the coast, Ottawa surpassed the PCHL Vancouver Maroons in four games to earn the right to meet the Edmonton Eskimos in for the Stanley Cup, which they collected by way of a two-game sweep of the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos.

On the rails heading west, the Senators were accommodated in a special carriage, the “Neptune.” It’s worth noting that they left two prominent members of their team behind in the capital: winger Jack Darragh and coach Pete Green were both unable to make the trip west. Canadiens winger Billy Boucher did join the Senators for their Stanley Cup swing — he was from Ottawa, after all, a brother to Senators’ defenceman Buck Boucher — but didn’t, in the end, play a single game on the coast. So Ottawa had just nine players available for the six games they played on their way to winning the Cup.

It wasn’t easy. During the finals, Harry Helman cut his foot and was unable to play. Buck Boucher and Lionel Hitchman played through injuries, while Eddie Gerard suited up for the last two games despite torn ligaments in a shoulder that was also doubly fractured. In the deciding game, after Clint Benedict was penalized for chopping at Joe Simpson’s skates, 20-year-old Ottawa defenceman King Clancy took a turn in goal, proving himself to be uniquely versatile — earlier in Ottawa’s undermanned visit to the coast, he’d also taken turns at centre and on both wings as well as doing his regular duty as a defender.

Back in Ottawa that April, Eddie Gerard was invited to address the regular Wednesday-night meeting of the youngsters of the Canuck Club at the YMCA. His young audience sat on the gym floor to listen to the Senator captain tell them (as the Ottawa Citizen reported it) “that the first man signed on by the Ottawa players before starting out West was ‘Mr. Harmony,’ and he said that without harmony nothing could succeed.”

His message was, of course, about playing as a team, with a shared purpose — but it was also about, well, harmonies.

Turns out that the Senators packed a small piano for their train journey west, with Gerard and trainer Cozy Dolan as principal performers, ably accompanied by Lionel Hitchman on violin, Clancy on harmonica, and Helman on drums. “This might appear on paper as a joke orchestra,” Citizen sports editor Ed Baker wrote, “but it is not. It’s a real honest to goodness band.”

Gerard recalled this a decade later, when he was coaching the New York Americans. “Harmony on a hockey club,” he told Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1931, “is half the battle. And one kind of harmony brings another. I like to sign singing players. If they knock around together off the ice, they’re liable to fight for another on it. Conversely, the player who curses his teammate in the hotel and on the trains isn’t going to pass him in front of the goal when he should.”

That’s when he remembered the musical rides of the ’20s. The Senators had shunted west in 1921, too, also (I guess) with a piano aboard? “All the fellows could sing,” Gerard testified in 1931, “but I think Sprague Cleghorn had the best voice. Our trainer, Cozy Dolan, could play anything from the big drum to the little piccolo.”

One more (non-musical note), on a matter of historical housekeeping: shouldn’t Tommy Gorman get the credit for coaching the Senators to that 1923 Cup? With Pete Green staying home in Ottawa, manager Gorman does seem to have taken charge on the Ottawa bench for those western playoff games that year. And yet in most of the standard records, Gorman’s coaching career is listed as beginning in 1925, when he took over the New York Americans. Seems like deserves the credit for the work he did in that regard for the Senators, too, in claiming that Stanley Cup.

 

 

 

 

leafs + canadiens, 1938: laying on a licking, avoiding a sand trap

Net Work: Canadiens threaten the Leaf net on the Sunday night of March 6, 1938, with Leaf goaltender Turk Broda down at left with teammate Gordie Drillon (#12) at hand. That’s Montreal’s Toe Blake with his back to the goal, while Toronto’s Red Horner reaches in with his stick. Canadiens Johnny Gagnon (deep centre0 and Paul Haynes are following up, along with an unidentified Leaf. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

The Maple Leafs meet the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, which is as good a prompt as any to cast back to a Sunday night in 1938, March 6, to revisit another meeting of the two old rivals.

The NHL was an eight-team affair then. That year, like this one, there was a Canadian division, though for balance it included the New York Americans as well as the Leafs, Canadiens, and Montreal Maroons. Toronto was top of the section at that late-season juncture, with Montreal in second. Saturday night the Leafs beat the Maroons 2-0 at the Forum, with Turk Broda getting the shutout. The goals came from rookie winger George Parsons and centre Syl Apps.

Sunday night the Leafs and Canadiens played to the biggest crowd to gather that season at the Forum: “11,000 fans banked solidly up the Forum’s sloping sides,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil reported, and as seen in the photographs here.

McNeil wasn’t so impressed by the Canadiens. To his eye, they came up with “one of their shoddiest and most impotent displays of the campaign.” The Leafs licked them 6-3, in the end; “to make matters worse they didn’t even score a goal until the game had been hopelessly lost, 6-0.”

The Leafs were led by winger Gordie Drillon, who scored a pair of goals, and would end up as the NHL’s top scorer by season’s end. App, who finished second in league scoring, had a goal on the night, along with Bob Davidson, Busher Jackson, and Buzz Boll. Scoring for Montreal were Toe Blake, Pit Lepine, and Don Wilson. Wilf Cude was in the Canadiens’ net.

Other highlights of the night:

• Toronto scored four goals in the second period to pad their lead, but the game was also delayed four times while (as Marc McNeil told it) “sand, thrown on the ice in small bags which burst, was scraped from the surface.”
• A Montreal fan tried to make his way to the ice. Identified as “head of the Millionaires,” the devoted followers who occupied the rush seats in the Forum’s north end, this would-be interloper was apparently intent on making a case to referees John Mitchell and Mickey Ion. He was stopped before he got to the ice — by none other than Frank Calder, who was aided by several ushers in apprehending him as he passed near the NHL president’s rinkside seat.
• Late in the third period, Montreal’s Georges Mantha lost his helmet in the Toronto end. “He finished the contest without it,” McNeil noted, “because Turk Broda picked it up and wore it for the rest of the game. Afterwards, the Toronto goalie returned it to the speedy left-winger.”

Banked Solidly Up The Forum’s Sloping Sides: A look at Wilf Cude in the Montreal goal on March 6, 1938, with Toe Blake (#6) chasing Toronto’s Gordie Drillon (#12) into the far corner. A good view here of the Forum’s seating here. Notice, too, the goal judge caged behind Cude. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

 

 

 

penetanguishene’s pig iron

For The Defence: Bert Corbeau was born on a Friday of this date in 1894 in Penetanguishene, Ontario. I don’t have good information on the origins of his nickname, Old Pig Iron, other than to propose that it related to the remorselessness of the defending he did on behalf of the Montreal Canadiens, Hamilton Tigers, and Toronto St. Patricks in the early days of the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup with Montreal when they played in the NHA in 1916. I wish I had more to say about the Canadiens’ uniform he’s wearing here. My guess is that it’s a practice-version rather than an official game-worn get-up.

ralph backstrom, 1937—2021

Sad news tonight that Ralph Backstrom has died at the age of 83. A son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he played parts of 13 seasons at centre for the Montreal Canadiens starting in the late 1950s and on through the ’60s, winning six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy along the way. He skated for the Los Angeles Kings, too, and the Blackhawks in Chicago. In the WHA, he played for Chicago’s Cougars as well as the Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics, and the New England Whalers. He later coached at the University of Denver and with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. He was a founder, too, of the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.

Dave Stubbs has a good look at Backstrom’s memorable career at NHL.com, here.

(Top Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada)

must be some misunderstanding

Twenty-Two: The Boston Bruins will retire Willie O’Ree’s number 22 on February 18.

“Sure, I was nervous,” said the 23-year-old rookie, “but it was the greatest thrill of my life.”

It was on a Saturday night in Montreal, January 18, 1958, that Fredericton, New Brunswick’s own Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut at the Forum, manning the left wing for the Boston Bruins and becoming, as he did so, the first Black player in the league’s then-40-year-old history.

The NHL observed the anniversary of O’Ree’s historic breakthrough this January past with decals on helmets that players across the league started wearing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. “Celebrating Equality,” they read; they’ll be on display through the end of February, which is Black History Month across North America.

O’Ree, who’s now 85, will be further honoured on February 18, when the Bruins plan to raise his number, 22, to the rafters of TD Garden ahead of a game with the New Jersey Devils.

That was the number he eventually wore. For his debut in January of ’58, O’Ree was on call-up duty, summoned from the QHL Quebec Aces to replace a flu-bitten Leo Labine in the Boston line-up for a home-and-home weekend series.

For those games, O’Ree sported number 18.

At the Forum, he skated on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini. The Bruins won that first of them 3-0, with Johnny Bucyk putting the winner past Jacques Plante. Sunday night in Boston, Bernie Geoffrion collected a pair of goals and a brace of assists as Montreal roared back with a 6-2 win.

O’Ree had a respectable 13 goals and 32 points that year with Quebec, but this initial stint of his in the NHL yielded nothing in the way of statistics. It would be another few years before he got a steady chance to play in the NHL, 1960-61, during which he donned number 22 in 43 games for Boston, notching four goals and 14 points.

Can we talk about this? Not the numbers O’Ree wore on his various sweaters, or the stats he registered, but his debut, how it was received, the idea of a “colour line” in hockey, and the fictions by which the sport’s establishment (including the press) deluded itself? Also, for good measure, maybe we’d continue a little further along, back a few years before 1958, and consider the odd instance of Herb Carnegie’s not-quite chance at playing in the NHL.

When Willie O’Ree first skated for the Bruins 63 years ago, note was taken, though the debut wasn’t universally hailed as a long-due turning point.

Many press reports noted the occasion as they did most matters of movements of NHL personnel, which is to say, in passing. Bill O’Ree, a couple of them called him; a United Press dispatch helpfully noted that he went by both names, Willie and Bill, and that his christened name was William Eldon O’Ree.

Montreal’s La Presse rolled out an eight-column headline across its sports page:

Pour La Première Fois, Un Joueur Noir Évoluera Dans La NHL Ce Soir.

The English-language Gazette wasn’t so certain — they only “believed” that O’Ree was the first Black player in the NHL, reminding readers (in case they hadn’t noticed) that there had been, to date, “comparatively few” Black players in hockey.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star both headlined O’Ree’s achievement in their sports sections.

The Boston Globe’s coverage was initially more muted: a United Press game report that ran on Sunday, January 19 highlighted O’Ree’s historic debut while rating his performance “undistinguished, as Boston coach played him only half a turn a time, alternating him with veteran Johnny Peirson.”

Columnist Tom Fitzgerald followed after Sunday’s game with a friendly, first-hand piece. “Boston fans constantly shouted encouragement to O’Ree on his appearances last night,” he wrote, “although he did not see much action in the later stages.”

“He’s a very fast skater,” Bruins GM Lynn Patrick observed, “but there are some things he naturally has to learn yet.”

Fitzgerald noted that the Bruins were hoping that Stan Maxwell, a centre from Truro, Nova Scotia, who was a teammate of O’Ree’s in Quebec and also Black, would soon be making his NHL debut. (Update: he never did.)

If this was a time, the opportunity ripe, for the NHL and the hockey establishment supporting it to reckon with questions of race, accessibility, systemic racism … well, no, there’s no evidence that any such discussion (let alone introspection) occurred.

It was ever thus. Those subjects just don’t figure in the recorded history of the early NHL. A 1928 comment attributed to Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, qualifies an outright rarity:  unlike major-league baseball, he was indirectly said to have suggested,  his league drew no colour line, nor was it  likely to do so.

True: no such prohibition appeared in the NHL’s Constitution or By-Laws. But: it was also one of Calder’s owners, Conn Smythe of Toronto Maple Leafs, who’s alleged to have watched 19-year-old junior star Herb Carnegie (who was Black) skate at Maple Leafs Gardens in 1938, telling Carnegie’s coach that he, Smythe, would sign Carnegie in a minute for the NHL — if only he were white. (In another version, Smythe is supposed to have said he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could “turn Carnegie white.”)

No-one was talking about that in 1958. Another United Press wire story out of Montreal that January weekend did venture to mention Willie O’Ree debut in the context of “the lowering of the last colour line among major sports in North America” … even as reporter Dick Bacon ramped up to a ready rationale that the problem actually resided with Black players themselves: they just weren’t good enough.

“Most hockey observers point out,” he blithely concluded, “that the only reason a ‘colour line’ existed was that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make the National Hockey League.”

Lest anyone have trouble interpreting that view, The Hockey News made sure to boost the signal a couple of weeks later. In the edition dated February 1, 1958, writer Len Bramson kicked off THN’s coverage of Willie O’Ree’s arrival in the NHL with this astonishing take:

Willie O’Ree became the first Negro to play in the National Hockey League, but his presence on the NHL scene didn’t mean that a barrier had been broken, as was the case of Jackie Robinson, the first Negro ever to break into the major leagues. The fact that there has never been a Negro in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself. No Negro, until O’Ree came along had the ability to play in the big time.

NHL owners have never discriminated against race colour or creed. All they have ever asked for was ability on skates.

Just in case he wasn’t clear enough with this, Bramson saw fit, midway through this THNpiece, to fold in Dick Bacon and his previous United Press reporting on O’Ree — including, verbatim, Bacon’s own observation about the mysterious lack of Black players of NHL quality.

Otherwise, following his own mention of ability on skates, Bramson went on to cite Herb Carnegie and his older brother, Ossie, from Toronto, both of whom had retired in the mid-1950s after long minor-league careers.

Of course, neither of them ever did play on NHL ice — while Herb was invited to attend the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1948, he turned down several of the team’s offers for minor-league contracts, opting to return to play for the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Provincial Senior League.

“There was no doubt in my mind, then or now,” Carnegie wrote in his 1997 memoir, “that I was every bit as good as the most talented player on that team. Except that I had once more been stopped by the colour barrier. The Rangers and its [sic] management were unable to look beyond the colour of my skin.”

Which gets us back to the matter, mentioned a little way back, of a slightly earlier time in the younger Carnegie’s career, another chance at breaking through to the NHL that actually seems to have been … an illusion?

It’s a decidedly odd episode that I haven’t seen mentioned before: it’s not in that memoir of Carnegie’s, A Fly In A Pail of Milk (which appeared in a new edition in 2019), nor does it surface in Cecil Harris’ Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (2007).

March of 1947 this was. As a point of pertinent context, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson made his big-league baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of that year, having spent the previous season with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate.

Herb Carnegie was 27 that spring. He and Ossie, who was 29, were both playing in the QPSHL for the Sherbrooke Saint-François (as they were called that year), playing on a line with Manny McIntyre, from Gagetown, New Brunswick, who was also Black. Herb would lead the team in scoring that season, collecting 33 goals and 83 points, and for the second year in a row he’d be named league MVP.

So it’s not so surprising that the Montreal Canadiens wanted to sign him — if they did.

Did they?

Herb Carnegie and his imminent NHL debut make the news in Muncie, Indiana, in March of 1947.

As March was winding down, so too was the NHL’s regular season. Looking forward to defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in 1946, Montreal was cruising towards the playoffs in first place, ten points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But. Injuries were starting to mount. Star centre Elmer Lach had been out three months with a broken cheek-bone. In mid-March, they lost the man who’d taken his place on the first-line, Buddy O’Connor: he broke his cheek in a particularly raucous game against the Rangers in New York. Defenceman Ken Reardon and winger George Allen were also banged up, and while it looked like they would be ready for the post-season, O’Connor’s status remained iffy.

And so, according to Montreal broadcaster Larry O’Brien, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin was looking to call in Herb Carnegie. He’d discussed it with club officials, declaring himself “most impressed” by the Sherbrooke centre’s skills.

O’Brien is an interesting figure. He was a crime reporter for The Montreal Staras well as a broadcaster, calling Canadiens hockey on the radio and Royals ballgames, too. He also stood in as a regular batting-practice pitcher for the Royals, and as such had thrown to Jackie Robinson in ’46. That was one of O’Brien’s proudest memories, he later said. He also ended up helping Robinson and his wife, Rachel, find an apartment. O’Brien would call the first TV broadcast of a sporting event in Canada, a Royals game in 1952, and later worked Grey Cup games and Stanley Cup finals. He went on to run the Canadian Open golf tournament for a decade, and spent years, subsequently, as Jack Nicklaus’ publicist.

In March of ’47, O’Brien seems to have been in New York for the CBC in his role as Canadiens broadcaster. The NHL’s board of governor’s was meeting in Manhattan, too, on Monday, March 17, and that’s where O’Brien said he got his scoop that Carnegie and the Canadiens were about to make history.

The news rippled across North America. Most of the headlines, it’s true, were tentative, touting Carnegie’s promotion to the NHL as a possibility. Someone saw fit to ask Boston Bruins president Weston Adams about the whole situation — I guess because Montreal was due to meet Boston in the playoffs? Anyway, Adams’ strange sign-off, declaration of permission, blessing — whatever it was, it was duly broadcast around the continent as well.

“It makes no difference to us what race or creed a player is,” Adams said. “If he’s a good player and can help the Canadiens that’s all the interest we have in the matter.”

Montreal’s interest, as it turned out, was not so much. Dick Irvin was quickly on record saying that the whole thing was a “misunderstanding.” How so? He made clear that there would be no other comment: it was just a misunderstanding.

O’Brien, for his part, stood fast, insisting that his information was correct.

And Carnegie … stayed where he was. Instead of joining Montreal for their Wednesday loss in Toronto or the following Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Chicago, Carnegie suited up for Sherbrooke as they launched into the provincial-league finals against the Lachine Rapides. On Thursday, March 20, he scored a pair of goals in his team’s 7-2 win. Going on to win the title in six games, Sherbrooke carried on to the Allan Cup playoffs, which they departed in April, losing out to the Montreal (hockey) Royals.

Making do without Carnegie, meanwhile, Canadiens called on utility forwards Hub Macey and Bobby Fillion to fill the holes in their line-up, along with rookie Leo Gravelle. Buddy O’Connor made it back to the ice for the end of Montreal’s successful first-round series against Boston and played in the finals, too, which saw the Canadiens surrender the Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What exactly happened with Carnegie’s call-up-that-never-was? Why wasn’t he the NHL’s first Black player, eleven years before Willie O’Ree, a month ahead of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball?

It’s not entirely clear. Since the principals of the piece — Carnegie, Irvin, O’Brien — are all now gone, we only have what’s on paper. Montreal’s French-language dailies were pretty categorical: Irvin was joking, O’Brien took him seriously. As Le Canada put it (translation Google’s):

Dick Irvin didn’t believe Larry O’Brien would take him seriously when he asked him if black player Herb Carnegie would be as strong a draw in hockey as Jackie Robinson in baseball.

What Toronto Daily Star sports editor Andy Lytle put on the page at the tail of one of his columns that week in March of ’47 might be as detailed an explanation as we’re ever going to get on the whole sorry business.

Lafayette, Indiana, gets news of Carnegie and the Canadiens in March of 1947, before Dick Irvin gets  a chance to explain.

Lytle and his departmental copy editors got a few basics wrong — naming Ossiewhen he meant Herb, calling Larry O’Brien Andy — but Canadiens GM Frank Selke was Lytle’s source, so his information is worth weighing.

“It’s the Robinson thing which stirs up Montreal writers,” Selke told Lytle. “Dick [Irvin] happened to say to [Larry] O’Brien if Robinson was only a hockey player, that would solve our troubles. That was enough. O’Brien decided we should use Carnegie and we weren’t even consulted. The idea, of course, is ridiculous.”

If only Lytle had pressed there — ridiculous? what, exactly, was ridiculous? — but Lytle didn’t press. Selke trundled on.

“We’re not too bad,” he said. “We finished on top and we have some hockey players left.”

Getting to the end of that update in the Star, readers might have let their attention drift to the top of the page, which featured a photograph of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and their baby, Jackie Jr.

The baseball pioneer’s future was still not decided. In that baseball pre-season, he remained a Montreal Royal, with Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey telling reporters that he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Robinson had earned a spot with the Dodgers. Rickey had a couple of weeks before the season got underway to make his mind up, the Starstory said, and Rickey suggested he’d make full use of that time.

“Robinson’s record with Montreal Royals last season would have automatically sent him to the Dodgers,” the Star piously opined on the very day that the possibility of Carnegie’s NHL debut tagged as a jest, “except for that unadmitted bar, the old American one of prejudice against colour.”

Note: While press style of the 1940s and ’50s consistently has newspapers Canadian and otherwise going with the American spelling of color, it has been rendered here throughout as colour.