just play the game

Slapper: Born in 1941 on a Friday of this date in Big River, Saskatchewan, Jim Neilson made the switch from left wing to defence as a junior in Prince Albert. Loosing a shot here in 1971, when he was a veteran of 30, Neilson made his debut with the Rangers in 1962, and manned the blue line in New York for 12 years before joining the California Golden Seals for the 1974-75 season. He was captain in California and for the Cleveland Barons, too, after the Seals moved north. He finished his career with a season in the WHA with the Edmonton Oilers. “I’m an easygoing guy,” he said in the ’80s, looking back on his career. “I never look far ahead and I’ve used that philosophy all my life. I just play the game. It’s over, and there’ll probably be one again tomorrow.” Jim Neilson died on November 6, 2020, at the age of 78.

chicago’s opening act, 1926: the going was sticky

A crowd of 7,000 was on hand at Chicago’s Coliseum on a night like this 96 years ago as the Chicago Black Hawks made their NHL debut on Wednesday, November 17, 1926 against the Toronto St. Patricks. The two captains shook on it before the game got going: that’s Chicago centreman (and future NHL coaching great) Dick Irvin on the left along with Toronto’s Bert Corbeau. “The Chicago team showed better combination and condition than their opponents,” was the report wired back to Toronto’s Globe after the expansion Black Hawks had prevailed by a score of 4-1.

Hughie Lehman was manning the Chicago net that night; the goals came from George Hay, Irvin, Gord Fraser, and Rabbit McVeigh. John Ross Roach did his best between the Toronto pipes. Scoring for the St. Pats was another coach-to-be, Hap Day, playing the right wing as he did in those days before he dropped back to the defence.

“The ice in the second period started to melt a bit,” the Chicago Tribune noted, “and the going was sticky and the puck jumped and rolled frequently making shots difficult and accuracy in passing almost impossible.” Trib correspondent Frank Schreiber wasn’t overly impressed by either aggregation, all in all. “Both teams fought hard,” he wrote, “but neither displayed more than an average attack or defence.”

leading from the crease

Cord Captain: Born in Edinburgh, in Scotland, Charlie Gardiner was raised in Winnipeg. Pictured here in an illustration for La Presse from 1932, he was 28 in October of 1933, going into his seventh — and final — season with Chicago, when he was named captain of the Black Hawks, the fifth goaltender, at that point, to be appointed skip in NHL history. Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin, for one, had high hopes. “Never have I made such a pre-season prophecy as I’m about to make now,” he said. “I am confident that this team will bring Chicago its first Stanley Cup.” And he was right.

that’s y

Motor-City Wonder: A birthday for Steve Yzerman, who’s 57 today: here’s a waggle of an upraised right-handed Victoriaville 9050 APT stick to him. Born in 1965 on a Sunday of this date in Cranbrook, B.C., Yzerman played 22 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, which yielded three Stanley Cup championships, as well as a Conn Smythe, a Selke, and a Masterton Trophy. He captained the Wings for 19 of those seasons and was a shoo-in when it came to the Hall of Fame, to which he was elevated in 2009. In 2016, Canada Post put Yzerman, who’s now the GM of the Red Wings, on a stamp, as part of a postal series featuring a distinguished cadre of other masterly modern-day goalscorers, including Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Mark Messier, and Sidney Crosby.

stretcher case

Built to endure, Dit Clapper was the first NHLer to play 20 seasons, and he was every bit a Boston Bruin for all of them. Born in Newmarket, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1907, he distinguished himself early on a right winger, joining Cooney Weiland and Dutch Gainor on the Dynamite Line before switching back to work on defence in later years. More firsts: Clapper was the original NHLer to be selected an All-Star at both forward and defence, and when he was elevated in 1947 to the Hockey Hall, he was the first for whom the Hall waived its standard waiting period. He was a Bruin captain and served as both a playing assistant coach and coach for Boston in the 1940s. He was in on three Bruin Stanley Cups as a player, in 1929, 1939, and 1941. The team retired his number 5 in 1947.

The photos here date to later on in 1941, when Clapper was 34. That’s (a bandaged) Bruin teammate with him, 29-year-old Bill Cowley, on the right in both cases. The woman, whose name has gone missing over the years, was part of a promotional campaign that swept into Boston that November and enlisted these Bruins stars to the cause of raising funds for medical supplies to be sent to the United Kingdom to aid in the war effort against Germany and its allies. In another month, of course, the United States would be joining the fight.

 

(Images: © Richard Merrill, CC BY-NC-ND)

et al

Isle Remember You: Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1932, Al Arbour was a largely dauntless (and bespectacled) defenceman (+ an eager shot-blocker) for four NHL teams over the course of 16 seasons, helping the Detroit Red Wings (1954), the Chicago Black Hawks (1961), and Toronto Maple Leafs (1962 and 1964) win Stanley Cup championships. He served as the very first captain of the St. Louis Blues. He coached the Blues, too, before moving on to the New York Islanders, where (of course), he won more Stanley Cups, four of them all in a row, from 1980 to 1983. This card dates to 1974. “He’s soft spoken and quiet,” it reads on the flip side, “but Al has proven to be a consistent man behind the bench.” Al Arbour died in 2015 at the age of 82.

smokey smith at centre ice

War over, time for some hockey.

Not that the NHL had paused any of its winter maneuvers during the early 1940s as the Second World War roiled, though there were annual discussions, early on, about whether it might be right for the league to suspend operations for the duration.

Now, hostilities among nations having ceased, there was, in 1945, a sense that real hockey was back for the first time in years.

“We’re in for our greatest season,” NHL president Red Dutton was enthusing 76 years ago this very week.” The boys are playing for keeps this season. It’s something we’ve never experienced before. You have a rugged bunch of boys back from the services, bent on proving they’re still the best hockey players in the world. You have another bunch of wartime-developed boys battling to prove they’re as good as the veterans. And you have some ambitious youngsters that don’t see any reason why they can’t keep pace with the older ones.”

On a Saturday of this date that October, Boston’s Bruins were in Toronto to open the first season of the new peace at Maple Leaf Gardens. It ended up a good one, for the Leafs, the season: the following April, they were Stanley Cup champions again, claiming their first title since 1942.

 For opening night, along with the traditional appearance by the massed brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs had arranged to host six of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have been recognized during the war with the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, conferred for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

That’s one of the distinguished guests here, the man who dropped a ceremonial to kick off the new season: 30-year-old Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith, a son of New Westminster, B.C., the only Canadian enlisted soldier to have won a V.C. during the Second World War. (More on Smith and his colleagues at MLG here.)

With Smith here, from the right, that’s Boston Bruins’ captain Jack Crawford (last seen in yesterday’s post) and Leafs’ chairman J.P. Bickell. Bob Davidson is the Leaf at left. In 1943, when Toronto captain Syl Apps went to war, Davidson assumed command of the hockey team. After two years, Apps was back with the Leafs, and early that October week, the Globe reported Davidson’s greeting to the team’s star centreman: “Welcome back, Syl, and I’m officially turning the team captaincy back to you.”

Apps was excused, however, from this Leafs’ opener. During one of the final preparatory scrimmages that week, he’d suffered a broken nose and a bad cut. The Toronto Daily Star’s Joe Perlove filed a report from the Gardens:

He was the same cyclonic Apps of pre-war days, if slightly breathless. He was still hammering away three minutes before game’s end when hit on the nose by Gaye Stewart’s stick which flew out of the latter’s hand as he was heavily bodied by Elwyn Morris.

X-rays disclose Apps suffered a broken nose. He needed a stitch to close a slash under his right eye. The classic Appsian schnozzle was not badly dented and he will still take fine pictures from either side.

Without him, the Leafs skated to a 1-1 tie. A crowd of 14,608 saw Bill Shill score for Boston; Davidson countered for the Leafs.

 

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7084)

 

leo boivin, 1931—2021

Happy to oblige photographer Louis Jaques, captain Leo Boivin smiled for his camera at the end of December, 1963, but the truth is that his Boston Bruins were in a bad patch, losers of five games in a row.

Saddened to hear of Boivin’s death today, at the age of 90. Born in Prescott, Ontario, in August of 1931, he went on to play 19 seasons as an NHL defenceman, serving time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota North Stars as well as with the Bruins. Appointed Boston’s 17th captain in ’63, he wore the Bruin C for three seasons. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986. As a coach Leo Boivin steered the St. Louis Blues for parts of two seasons in the 1970s.

That winter of ’63, the Bruins’ five-game spiral included two losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs, starting with a Christmas-Day rout, 5-1, at the Boston Garden in a game in which Frank Mahovlich scored two goals.

In Toronto on the 28th, Johnny Bower shut them out 2-0. Bruins coach Milt Schmidt wasn’t pleased, of course. He was giving speeches behind closed doors and, in the press, looking to players like Johnny Bucyk to step up. “Bucyk is a guy who could do a lot for us, if he puts his mind to it,” Schmidt was saying. “He just has to go out there and punish himself. He has to work harder and quit taking that big skate. A forward has to take it out of himself with stops and starts to get anywhere. There’s no easy way.”

After Toronto, the Bruins went to Detroit where Schmidt moved Boivin from the defence onto Bucyk’s wing in an effort to keep Gordie Howe under wraps. The Bruins lost again. “We’re hitting a lot of posts,” Schmidt said, “but we’re not scoring those goals.” The new year brought some respite: on January 1, back home, they managed a 3-3 tie with the Montreal Canadiens. No goals for Bucyk, and no game for Leo Boivin: he was out of the line-up with strep throat.

(Photo: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e002343751)

 

lapses in the legacy: checking in on boston’s still-forgotten captains

Special Ed: The epic Eddie Shore, as seen in a Boston Garden program from March of 1936.

If the measure of NHL success is whether or not your team hoists the Stanley Cup to finish a given season, then Patrice Bergeron’s first campaign as captain of the Boston Bruins was a flop.

The season itself wasn’t so dire. The Bruins, you’ll recall, finished third in their division, the old MassMutual East, accumulating 73 points, which was good enough for tenth overall in the NHL’s regular-season standings — just three points behind the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Boston won their first-round playoff series, dismissing the Washington Capitals in five games. Then, of course, they faltered, losing out in six to the frisky New York Islanders.  

Historically, in the annals of Bruinly seasons going back to the team’s founding in 1924, Bergeron’s first as captain rates … fairly well. Measured by the percentage of points earned during the regular season, Bergeron’s Bruins (who went 33-16-7 in wins/losses/overtime losses) come in at .652, which ties them for 21st on the chart showing 96 seasons played to date. 

That’s well behind the Bruins best season, 1929-30, when the team compiled a .875 record in Lionel Hitchman’s second year as captain. But it’s better than a whole raft of other Boston seasons, including those in which some of the greatest names in team history took over as captain. 

Nels Stewart’s 1934-35 Bruins registered a .604 record before departing the playoffs in the semi-finals. Red Beattie’s 1936-37 team put together a .552 record, losing out in the quarter-finals. Bobby Bauer oversaw a .525 Bruins season in 1946-47; his Bruins lost in the semi-finals. Eddie Shore? He led Boston to a .521 record in 1935-36 and then out of the post-season in the quarter-finals. Marty Barry and Bill Cowley fared worse still: their respective teams, from 1933-34 and 1944-45 respectively, show points percentages of .427 and .350. Cowley’s team failed to get through the semi-finals; Barry’s missed the playoffs altogether.

Six times the Bruins have won the Stanley Cup in their history; it’s not unreasonable to imagine Patrice Bergeron raising a seventh during his tenure as Boston captain. Until that happens, he can take solace (maybe?) in the fact that the team he plays for actually acknowledges his captaincy.

It’s the least the Bruins could do, of course, though not (for the Bruins) so straightforward as you might think. Because while Boston does celebrate (and proudly) Bergeron’s role as team captain, the team still doesn’t allow that Barry, Stewart, Shore, Beattie, Cowley, and Bauer preceded him in the role. 

Yes, it’s back to that refrain again, which is to say, this one

To sum up, quick-like: at some point in the Bruins’ 97-year history, the team has mislaid a prominent chunk of that history, somehow overlooking the captaincies of at least six of their most famous players. Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Bruins, as the team is content to claim: he’s the 26th (or possibly the 28th).  

Red Beattie captained the Bruins in 1936-37, as noted in a Garden program from that season; according to the team’s erring record, it was Dit Clapper.

It’s not clear when exactly the forgetting originated, just that it’s well-entrenched and, now, widespread: the team’s erroneous record-keeping has become the standard for a bevy of (mostly otherwise) reputable online registers of hockey history. I could go on (and have) about the team’s carelessness when it comes to its own rich past. I took an interest in Bobby Bauer’s unacknowledged captaincy in 2019, following where others, like Bruins historian Kevin Vautour, have gone before. Finding evidence of Bauer’s tenure wasn’t hard, and before long I happened on references to all the others — Barry, Beattie, Shore, Cowley, et al — who’ve been ignored. 

I first contacted the Bruins in December of 2019 to ask about this and (politely) to offer to share my files. I’ve previously quoted the response I got, but it’s worth repeating here. It was Heidi Holland I heard back from, the Bruins’ the team’s director of publications and information, and thereby the gatekeeper of the team’s history, statistical and otherwise, as enshrined in the team’s annual Guide & Record Book.

Focussing on Bobby Bauer’s claim, she wrote:

This question has come up a couple of times over the past several years but unfortunately, I have no way of confirming it. The list of captains from earlier media guides lists John Crawford as captain in that season. The earliest media guide that I have is 1947-48 and Crawford’s bio in that book only says that he has “been captain or assistant captain of the Bruins in recent seasons.” Bauer does not have a bio in that guide.

When the subject first came up, I asked Milt Schmidt (as the only person who was active at that time) if he remembered Bobby being named Boston’s captain and he did not have any recollection that he did.

Fair enough, I guess … if also fairly dismissive of the idea that there just might be proofs out there that go beyond Milt Schmidt’s memory.

News of Bobby Bauer’s appointment reached the pages of Herb Ralby’s Boston’s Globe on October 17 of 1946.

Evidence of the overlooked captains has been out there, of course, for going on 90 years, available for the finding by anyone, including club employees, willing to bother to take the initiative to look for it. I keep coming across references in my archival wanderings, as do others, like Kevin Vautour and Jeff Miclash, a researcher in Burlington, Ontario, who’s working on a book about the Bruins in the 1930s. At this point, we have a regular online marketplace going where we gather to share newfound references to the snubbed captains and roll digital eyes at the Bruins’ ongoing oblivion. It was this past January, as Patrice Bergeron inherited the C, that I piled up the evidence and made my case in that puckstruck.com post of mine. I cc’d that to Heidi Holland and several other interested parties attached to the team without hearing anything back. At the risk of annoying these same people, I got back in touch in July, in the quietude of Boston’s post-season, in the interest of getting the record straightened out in time for the upcoming season. The response, again, was … none. 

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Bruins are doubling down on the institutional inattention to detail that’s prevailed to this point. The end of their willful neglect of this history of theirs might well be on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet, or access it on our browsers. 

Because here’s the thing: as a new NHL season approaches, the Bruins will be, in the next few weeks, unveiling their 2021-22 Guide & Record Book. It’s entirely possible that the team has tidied up the register of captains altogether quietly, on their own, righting the record that’s been wrong.

I’ll be happy to see it; I’ll salute their diligence. Meet me back here when — if — that happens. 

Meantime, I’m happy to barge back into the question of just how the Bruins came to not remember that Bobby Bauer and Eddie Shore et al. served the team as captains. The answer is probably lost for good, actually — but maybe can we narrow in to take a look at the timeline of the neglect?   

In that e-mail of hers, Heidi Holland mentioned the 1947-48 Bruins guide as the earliest edition she’s seen. That’s the one with Milt Schmidt on the cover, proudly wearing his C in the centre of his sweater. I haven’t tracked down a copy of that one, but I do have in hand the guide published ahead of the previous season, 1946-47 — that is, the one over which Bobby Bauer presided as captain. 

It’s hard to discern just how involved the team was in this producing this 64-page booklet that bears the subtitle “The complete story of a great hockey team” on its opening page. Compiled by a pair of Boston Globe sportswriters, Harold Kaese and Herb Ralby, it was promoted and sold through the paper (35 cents a copy, plus another five for postage), I’m surmising that it was a Bruin production through and through. I think it may be the very first Bruin guide to have been published, though I can’t confirm that. It’s packed with player profiles, historical rosters, team records — all the usual fodder you’d expect, if not (notably) a comprehensive listing of team captains. 

There’s no mention, in fact, of any captain in this ’46-47 guide. As the Bruins erringly tell it, defenceman John (a.k.a. Jack) Crawford skippered the team that season, continuing in the role he’d had the previous year. As I’ve noted before, Bauer had changed his mind about retiring in the fall of 1946, rejoining the team for one more campaign. On October 16, he was named captain of the team.

The Bruins guidebook pictured above was published a month later, on November 13. I’m speculating here, but my guess is that it was already in production when Bauer was crowned. That would explain why his captaincy isn’t mentioned.

Game for a little more esoterica? I thought so. The NHL had an official guide of its own in the 1940s. Overseen by a former newspaperman from Vancouver, Jim Hendy, it had been keeping scores and stats since the early 1930s. By the start of the 1947-48 season, it had split into two publications: Who’s Who In Hockey, which compiled active player data, and the Official Guide and Record Book, overseeing the NHL as a whole as well as minor and amateur leagues. 

It’s the latter of these booklets that’s of interest here: specifically, the write-up on page 37 and the photograph following on page 56. The former commemorates the winner of the 1947 Lady Byng Trophy: “Bobby Bauer, Boston Bruins’ great little captain.” 

The latter, reproduced here, shows Bauer front and centre, proudly wearing the C denoting his rank between the 1 and the 7 on his sweater. As previously noted, the 1946-47 season was the first in which letters were added to NHL sweaters to denote captains and their alternates. Bauer’s deputies show their As here: Murray Henderson standing tall beside coach Dit Clapper and, seated three places to Bauer’s left, then-former captain Jack Crawford. 

One last (for now) thread from the fabric. Fast-forwarding through the decades, we find the Bruins heading into the NHL’s 1973-74 season looking forward to their 50th anniversary. This is duly noted on the cover of the team guide they published that fall:

A gallery of remarkable hockey players on that cover, you’ll agree. Of the 11 depicted, all but four (goaltenders Frank Brimsek and Tiny Thompson, along with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito) served with distinction as Bruin captains.

And yet two of them shown here — Bill Cowley and Eddie Shore — are still (then as now) missing from the historical record.

Their captaincies, along with those of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Red Beattie, and Bobby Bauer, are plain facts, despite what the Bruins recall. What the ’73-74 guide tells us is that the neglect that still seems to be in place goes back at least 48 years. The proof that the team was getting it as wrong in 1973 as it was in 2021 is on page 38:

Error Page: Boston’s overlooked captains have been missing from the record for at least 48 years, dating back to the team’s 1973-74 Official Guide.

What this may also illuminate is the how — and the who — of just what happened here. I don’t mean to be casting blame, or getting anybody into historical trouble, but, well, um, the man in charge of the ’73-74 guide was, somewhat remarkably, one of the men who’d collaborated on that ’46-47 edition, 27 years earlier. 

Herb Ralby was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe starting in the 1930s, when he was in his early 20s, and he was on the job until 1970, when he left journalism to join the Bruins full-time as the team’s director of publicity. (He died in 1994 at the age of 81.) Ralby was on the scene, that’s to say, going back all the way to the time Eddie Shore’s tenure as captain, and even reported on Bobby Bauer’s tenure (below), well before he took charge of — and didn’t repair — the Bruins’ not-so-well-tended history that nobody since has bothered to set right.  

Stitches In Time: News you can use from a Herb Ralby column in the Boston Globe from November of 1946, a quarter century before he became the Bruins’ director of publicity.

 

slip kid

It was in Smiths Falls, Ontario, that Don McKenney was born on this date in 1934 — a Monday, then — which means that the former centreman is 87 today. He made his entrance to the NHL with the Boston Bruins in the 1954-55 season as a 20-year-old, finishing second that year in the voting for the Calder Trophy behind Eddie Litzenberger, who’d split his season between Montreal and the Chicago Black Hawks. McKenney scored 20 or more goals for the Bruins in six consecutive seasons, and that was the source of his nickname, Slip, which the Boston Globe clarified in 1960 referenced his ability to slide pucks past goaltenders. For goals and good graces, he won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1960. McKenney served as the team’s captain for two seasons in the early 1960s. He was the 16th captain in club history, for the record — not, as the Bruins’ faultily maintain, the tenth. His 13 NHL seasons also included stints with the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues. 

harvard yardage

College Tryer: The third man to captain the Boston Bruins, George Owen died in 1986 on a Tuesday of this date at the age of 84. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, he grew up in Massachusetts, starring at Harvard in football, baseball, and hockey, and winning the college’s prestigious Wingate Cup for all-around athletic prowess. He worked as broker after he graduated, eventually  joining the Bruins’ defence in 1928 as  a 27-year-old rookie. This month in 1929, he helped  Boston win its first Stanley Cup. This La Presse illustration dates to 1932, the year he served as Boston captain, having succeeded Lionel Hitchman. Owen played five NHL seasons in all. He was subsequently elevated to both the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.

george armstrong, 1930—2021

Friendly Giant: A triumphant George Armstrong towers over grateful fans on the cover of the 1962-63 Leafs media guide.

Twenty-one NHL seasons George Armstrong played, all of them in the blue and the white of Toronto’s Maple Leafs. The sombre news from the team today is of Armstong’s death at the age of 90. Born in Skead, Ontario, northeast of Sudbury, he would grow up to captain the Leafs for 12 seasons, the longest tenure of any leader in team history. He played 1,298 games for Toronto, regular season and playoffs, collecting 322 goals and 773 points. Winner of an Allan Cup in 1950 with the Toronto Marlboros, he led the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, in 1962, 1963, 1964, as well as that long-ago last one in1967. As a coach, he steered the Marlboros to two Memorial Cups, in 1973 and 1975. He coached the Leafs, too, in 1988 and into ’89, when he held the fort between the John Brophy and Doug Carpenter eras. George Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.