montreal’s original canadien

Canadien No. 1: Jack Laviolette’s likeness is enshrined along with other famous Canadiens in the lobby of the Bell Centre.

Born in Belleville, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date in 1879, Jack Laviolette became the very first Montreal Canadien in December of 1909, after Ambrose O’Brien founded the team in room 129 of the city’s Windsor Hotel and handed the 30-year-old defenceman the keys to the kingdom as captain and manager. One of Laviolette’s first signings was his old friend, teammate, and future fellow Hall-of-Famer Didier Pitre. While there was a famous court case over that, the two did eventually line up together that inaugural year, alongside the likes of Skinner Poulin, Art Bernier, and Newsy Lalonde, all of them garbed in the blue-and-white sweater shown here. (Canadiens went bleu-blanc-et-rouge the following year.)

An April report from Radio-Canada noted the recent unearthing of a fascinating photograph from that era. It shows the café that Laviolette owned at the time in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood and is apparently annotated in Laviolette’s own hand: “This is wer [sic] I made the first Canadian hockey club.” (You can find reporter Olivier Tremblay’s report, in French, here.)

I’m not clear on what happened to Jack’s Café, which occupied a corner at rue Notre-Dame Ouest and chemin de la Côte-Saint-Paul, but it’s worth noting that Laviolette was still in the hospitality business in 1917, which turned out to be his final year in professional hockey. That year was the NHL’s first, of course, and even as Laviolette was suiting up that December for duty with Canadiens, he was taking over the management of the Joffre Café, in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, just east of where the Olympic Stadium looms today.

Laviolette, who was a distinguished lacrosse player, too, in his time, and a renowned racer of fast cars, saw his sporting career come to an end in May of 1918 after he was involved in a traffic accident near the latter café, and surgeons had to amputate his right leg below the knee. There was talk that fall of Laviolette succeeding Lalonde as coach of the Canadiens, but it didn’t work out. Jack Laviolette died in 1960 at the age of 80. He was inducted into the Hall of hockey Fame in 1963.

alcoholic drinks? the best they can do is ruin your health

Tabletop: Red Wings defenceman Black Jack Stewart catches up on the day’s news in the Detroit dressing room during a rubdown from team trainer Honey Walker, circa 1946.

When Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. I’ll let Stewart tell you where he got his nickname:

I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.

He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings of the tale, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the Hall of hockey’s fame, to which he was inducted in 1964. His online bio there also includes the words: complete packagerock-solid, poise, work ethicexcellent staminabrute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He played a dozen NHL seasons in all, the first ten for Detroit, then the final two for the Chicago Black Hawks, where he was the captain. He won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings; three times he was a First Team All-Star.

Best-Dressed: Stewart featured in a three-page fashion spread in the February, 1948 edition of Sport magazine. “In picking out the leisure wardrobe he is wearing on these pages,” readers were advised, “Jack looked for about the same things most men want in their Winter garments. He kept his eyes open warmth, comfort, and up-to-date styling.”

He never argued with referees. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s. People remembered his bodychecks in Detroit for years after he was gone: when Howie Young played there a decade later, they said he hits almost as hard as Black Jack Stewart. Stewart’s philosophy? He said this:

A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.

Some dates: born in 1917, died 1983, on a Wednesday of this date, when he was 66. The love he had of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. He went back home to work on the farm in the off-season when he was in the NHL. Later, after he’d hung up his skates, when he was making a living as a salesman for a Detroit lithograph firm, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association.

He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up in Detroit in the later ’40s, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said, looking back:

He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.

There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone who knew from trying said. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins: so he said himself. Something else Stewart said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.

Here’s a story, from ’48, about another Red Wing rookie, the great Red Kelly, who was in his first year in the NHL, a 20-year-old fledgling. That January, driving in downtown Detroit, Kelly made an illegal left turn and hit a car belonging to one John A. Watson. Summoned to traffic court, Kelly appeared before Judge John D. Watts with his teammate Stewart standing by him to argue his defence.

Kelly’s license, it turned out, was Canadian, as was his insurance. Convicted for the improper turn, Judge Watts gave him a suspended sentence and told him to pay $52 in damages to Watson.

“You had better get another attorney before you go to jail,” the magistrate was reported to have told Kelly regarding Stewart’s courtroom efforts. “This man sounds more like a prosecutor.”

Watts did ask Stewart to make sure that his teammate paid the damages and secured a Michigan license. “I’ll see that he does both,” Stewart is said to have promised, “if I have to break his neck.”

The proceedings came to jocular end. “I fine you two goals,” Judge Watts told Kelly, (laughingly, according the Detroit Free Press), “and you’d better deliver them tonight or I’ll have you back in court tomorrow.”

Stepping Out: Stewart’s wool overcoat (with zip-out lining) would have set you back $55 in 1948. His imported capeskin gloves? A mere $7.

Detroit did dispense with the New York Rangers at the Olympia that night, by a score of 6-0, but Kelly wasn’t on the scoresheet. The team, the Free Press noted, “left for Canada shortly after the game.”

Alertness on face-offs was, to Stewart, a cardinal rule. That’s what he said in 1949, when he and his fellow All-Stars were asked to share their hockey insights.

When it came to off-ice conditioning, Stewart said he tried to go walking as much as he could. “I eat foods,” he added, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.”

Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday,” Black Jack Stewart said.

developing muscles, improving wind: a short history of the leafs in pre-season

Leafs in Fall: Getting ready for the season in 1931 are (1) a beslinged Harvey Jackson recovers from a car accident; (2) Harold Cotton, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day on course; and (3) Ace Bailey unleashes a 200-years drive.

Leafs in Fall: Getting ready for the season in 1931 are (1) a beslung Harvey Jackson in recovery from his car accident; (2) Harold Cotton, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day on the lacrosse field; and (3) Ace Bailey unleashes a 200-yard drive.

In 1929 the Leafs took a pair of boxers with them to training camp, and my thought there was that Conn Smythe must have decided it was time for the team to learn proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. Turns out, no, though: seems, instead, that Frenchy Belanger and Billy Ayrton were there for their own benefit, taking advantage of the Leafs’ pre-season regimen. Though they did put on a punching exhibition for the team before they had to leave on a hunting trip. Ayrton was a bantamweight, Belanger a former world flyweight champion.

It was raining when the Leafs got off the train in Port Elgin that October, and the players were hungry, and went straight in to eat. Camp ended with a lunch a couple of weeks later, as it happens: when they got back to Toronto, they headed over to the Royal York for a welcome-back feed. Twenty players were on hand at the post-camp lunch, and the papers reported that they all looked fit. Everybody but goaltender Lorne Chabot had put on weight. They were eager to hit the ice.

On their Lake Huron retreat, they’d drilled under the eye of Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR. They’d golfed, too, including the day they got in 27 holes and (as The Globe put it) Ace Bailey, Danny Cox, and Chabot “gave ‘old man par’ a stern argument.” Harold Cotton won the team tournament, with Cox and Ayrton tied for second place.

Andy Blair proved himself the team’s fastest sprinter, covering 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. Smythe and Cox teamed up to outduel Red Horner and Gordie Brydson at the horseshoe pit. In a softball doubleheader, the Leafs beat the Port Elgin Fraserites 26-4 (Brydson and Blair pitched) before dispensing with (Brydson was on the mound again) the Perkinites, 10-3. They beat a local team at basketball, too, 52-46.

Leafs’ manager Frank Selke said he’d never seen a more determined band of athletes. They went into everything with an aggressiveness and spirit that marked their play on the ice and they weren’t content unless they were going full out, according to him.

The 1929-30 Leafs, with Corporal Joe Coyne in the middle row, second from the right, between Frank Selke and Lorne Chabot.

The 1929-30 Leafs, with Corporal Joe Coyne in the middle row, second from the right, between Frank Selke and Lorne Chabot.

Continue reading