best in show

The promise the cover seems to make doesn’t quite pan out — Liberty’s slate of picks of the best of the NHL’s best doesn’t, in fact, include a single Montreal Maroon. One does feature in the jury the magazine convened in 1936 to do the selecting, so maybe that counts for something — Maroons’ captain Cy Wentworth joined a distinguished panel that also included coaches Clem Loughlin (Chicago Black Hawks); Red Dutton (New York Americans); Sylvio Mantha (Montreal Canadiens); and Frank Patrick (Boston Bruins); along with fellow captains Hap Day (Toronto Maple Leafs); Doug Young (Detroit Red Wings); and Bill Cook (New York Rangers). In a feature article that advises under the headline that it’s going to cost you 12 minutes and 35 seconds to read, their picks are revealed. Allowing itself a little latitude on left wing, the jury decided this way:

Goal
Tiny Thompson (Boston)

Defence
Eddie Shore (Boston)
Ching Johnson (Rangers)

Centre
Frank Boucher (Rangers)

Left Wing
Paul Thompson (Chicago) or Busher Jackson (Toronto)

Right Wing
Charlie Conacher (Toronto)

About the Charlie Chaplin Jinx, fyi: in a mere seven-and-a-half minutes I learned that a couple of Liberty’s writers had a theory on why several actresses who’d starred in movies with and/or got married to Chaplin didn’t end up succeeding in Hollywood. It wasn’ta jinx at all, they felt: “a much more likely explanation of why Chaplin’s leading ladies have not gone farther is that he doesn’t pick them for their acting ability.”

going nowhere: twelve blockbusting nhl deals that almost were (but not quite)

Here’s Your Hat:  With 23-year-old rookie Frank Brimsek having made the Boston net his own in October of 1938, the Bruins were looking to move their 35-year-old veteran Tiny Thompson. The buzz was that Toronto might swap him for defenceman Red Horner, though both teams denied it. In November, Thompson did pack his suitcase and bid Boston bye-bye, headed for Detroit in a deal that brought back from the Red Wings goaltender Normie Smith and US$15,000 cash.

Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.  

October, 1983

It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”

Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.

August, 1980

The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.

In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”

Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).

May, 1973

Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.

Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”

Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.

April, 1970

Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.

This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.

And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”

A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”

Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”

And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”

May, 1963

It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.

That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.

For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.

“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”

Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”

At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.

February, 1952

Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.

That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.

January, 1950

Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.

February, 1949

Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.

Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”

Dream On: While it lasted, Toronto newspapers enjoyed the idea that Richard might be lured to the blue-and-white.

He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”

Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.

“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”

Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”

November, 1947

The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.

October, 1933

The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”

April, 1929

Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”

He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.

A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.

January, 1929

Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:

It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.

A great cheer went up at this statement.

It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.

victory lap: in 1942, the nhl’s aged all-stars lined up in boston

Elder Flair: The NHL All-Stars who lined up to play the Bostons Bruins on Friday, February 6, 1942 in support of the U.S. Army Relief Society: Back row, left to right: Boston Olympics trainer Red Linskey, Marty Barry, Frank Boucher, Bill Cook, Tiny Thompson, Bun Cook, Ching Johnson, Major-General Thomas A. Terry, George Owen, Cy Wentworth, Red Horner. Front: Busher Jackson, Charlie Conacher, Hooley Smith, Herbie Lewis, Larry Aurie, Joe Primeau, Eddie Shore.

The NHL didn’t play its first official All-Star Game until 1947, in Toronto, though the league’s marquee players were involved in a little-remembered all-star series in Cleveland in 1918 at the end of the NHL’s very first campaign. Between those dates, the best of the NHL’s best did also convene for several benefit games — in 1934, for one, after Toronto’s Ace Bailey had his career ended by Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins, and in 1937 and ’39 (for two more) after the sudden, shocking respective deaths of Howie Morenz and Babe Siebert.

The wartime winter of 1942 saw another gathering of premier players — though in this case, many of them were retired from regular NHL duty. Then again, at the Boston Garden on that Friday, February 6, the stars who turned out to play when the senescent All-Stars met the (not-yet-retired) Boston Bruins were only asked to play two 15-minute periods mixed into a regular-season game the Bruins’ farm team, the EAHL Boston Olympics, were playing against the Johnstown Bluebirds. A crowd of 14, 662 showed to see the evening’s program, which raised more than US$14,000 for military widows and orphans supported by the U.S. Army Relief Society.

Major-General Thomas Terry the evening’s military patron, a man who, for his day job, was in command of what was known as the First Corps Area, and thereby largely in charge of defending New England against enemy invasion. Meeting in January of ’42 with Boston sportswriters to announce the All-Star exhibition, he explained the good work that the Army Relief Society did and thanked the Bruins for supporting the cause. To those who wondered whether the NHL and other sporting organizations might be forced to suspend operations because of the war, his message was … equal parts mildly reassuring and grimly ominous.

“Go ahead and plan your sports as you have before,” General Terry said. “Go along until something happens to cause a curtailment. There is no reason to get panicky, but take reasonable precautions at all times. If it does become necessary for a curtailment, it will be apparent to all of us.”

To the Bruins that NHL mid-season, what might have seemed apparent was that their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions had already been all but suspended. They were still lodged in second place in the seven-team standings, behind the New York Rangers, but there was a sense that winter that health and international hostilities were working against them.

Centre Bill Cowley was out with a broken jaw and goaltender Frank Brimsek had just missed a game with a broken nose. The week of the Army benefit the Bruins went north to play the Maple Leafs, and did beat them — but left two forwards behind in Toronto General Hospital, Herb Cain and Dit Clapper, to be tended for a fractured cheek and a badly cut ankle, respectively.

Adding induction to injury, Bruins’ manager Art Ross was about to lose his top line, the famous Krauts, to the war effort: after Friday’s benefit, Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer would play one more NHL game, against Montreal on February 10, before departing the ice to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.

For all that, the abridged All-Star exhibition of February, 1942, was a success. A few notes on the night, which ended in a 4-4 tie, might include these:

• The referee on the night, Bill Stewart, had retired from NHL whistleblowing, but he was glad to partake. “I was in the Navy in the last war,” he said, “and I stand ready to do anything I can to help a cause which benefits any servicemen.”

• Tickets for the best seats — in the boxes, on the promenade, and some along the sides —were priced at $2.50 each. Lower-stadium and first-balcony tickets went for $1.65 and $1.10. An unreserved place in the upper balcony would set you back 55 cents.

• The Garden was dark for the introductions, except for a pair of spotlights that followed the players as they skated out to the blueline accompanied (the Boston Globe recorded) by “a fanfare of drums.”

Eddie Shore, who appeared last, got a two-minute ovation, and gave a little speech. “Everyone has special thrills in their lives,” he told the faithful, “but none of you know how much I appreciate this welcome or how I feel this evening. It’s like a fellow whom you haven’t seen for a long time walking up to you, holding out his hand, and slapping you on the shoulder. Then he says, ‘Gee, it’s nice to see you.’ That’s how I feel tonight, and thank you very much.”

• Also warmly received: former Bruins Tiny Thompson and Cooney Weiland along with Charlie Conacher and Ching Johnson, “whose bald dome glistened beautifully under the klieg lights.” Former Leaf Red Horner got cheers and boos — “and the big redhead showed the combination made him feel right at home by breaking out with a broad smile.”

• At 39, Shore was still skating professionally, the playing coach for his own AHL Springfield Indians. Busher Jackson, 31, was the only other active player on the All-Star roster — he was a serving Bruin. Both Shore and Jackson had, incidentally, played in all four benefit games cited above — the Bailey, Morenz, Siebert, and Army Relief.

• Jackson reunited with his old Maple Leaf Kid Line linemates on the night, Charlie Conacher, 32, and Joe Primeau, 36. Oldest man in the game was Bill Cook, 46, who lined up with his old New York Ranger linemates, brother Bun (44) and Frank Boucher (40). For some reason, no Montreal Canadiens alumni appeared in the game. The lack didn’t go unnoticed: a letter from a hockey purist published in the Globe that week complained that organizing a game like this without Aurèle Joliat or any Hab greats was like “having an American League old-timers’ game without including Ty Cobb or the New York Yankees.”

• Marty Barry and Larry Aurie said they hadn’t skated in, oh, a year. The Globe: “Large Charlie Conacher weighed in at 245 pounds for the affair, although Marty Barry looked plenty hefty at the 215 to which he admitted.”

• Warming up, the veterans all wore sweaters of the teams they’d last played for in the NHL — except for Shore, who showed up in his Springfield duds. For the game, the whole team wore the bestarred V (for Victory) sweaters shown in the photograph. Hooley Smith was pleased to learn he could keep his: in all his 17 years in the NHL, he said, he’d never kept any of his sweaters.

• Just before the opening puck-drop, as they’d always done in their Boston years together, Weiland and Thompson “went through their old Bruins’ custom of having Cooney put the last practice puck past Tiny.”

• “Believe it or not,” The Globe noted, “the old-timers actually had a wide territorial edge during the first period.”

• Injured Bill Cowley was called on to coach the Bruins, while Cooney Weiland took charge of the All-Stars. To start the second period, he put out five defencemen: Horner at centre between Cy Wentworth and George Owen, Shore and Johnson backing them on the blueline.

• Globe reporter Gerry Moore: “While truthful reporting demands the information that the glamorous old-timers were aided by some lenient officiating and no bodychecking from the Bruins in pulling off their garrison finish, the All-Stars displayed enough of their form from glory days to make the night not only the best financially of any single event staged for the Army Relief Fund, but one of the most interesting presentations ever offered in the Hub.”

• The Bruins went up 3-0 in the first half, on a pair goals from Bobby Bauer and one by rookie Gordie Bruce. In the second, the All-Stars went on a run, with Bill Cook twice beating Frank Brimsek and George Owen and Busher Jackson following his example.

• With “the rallying old men” ahead by 4-3, the game … failed to end. “At 15:56, or 56 seconds after the final gong should have been sounded,” Bruce again beat Tiny Thompson to tie the score. Allthe players hit the ice after that, with all 32 players playing “shinny in an effort to break the stalemate without success.”

• Eddie Shore was deemed the star of the night. “The crowd yelled for the Edmonton Express to pull off one of his patented rushes, but Eddie played cagily in the opening session.” Eventually he gave the people what they wanted, though he didn’t score. Thompson, too, was a stand-out.

And: “Bald Beaned Ching Johnson also came up with several thrilling gallops,” Gerry Moore wrote.

chicago stadium, 1929: maple leafs forever

The Chicago Black Hawks played their second game at the new-built Chicago Stadium on the night of Sunday, December 29, 1929. The team had just returned from a middling (2-3) five-game road trip. Up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hawks ended up on the losing end of a 4-3 decision, with the Leafs’ Charlie Conacher scoring the winning goal. The Chicago Tribune’s man on the scene opened his dispatch by noting a “prophetic” pre-game anthem “faux pas” by the Stadium organist, who played “The Maple Leaf Forever” before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Harold Rohm doesn’t name him, but I think the man at the keys must have been Al Melgard who, so far as I can tell, was on the job at the Stadium’s enormous instrument right from the start. He continued at it for 45 years, retiring in 1974.

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

bruins + leafs, 1931: swing and a miss

One wintry meeting between Leafs and Bruins deserves another, so here’s this scene from 88 years ago or so, when the two teams clashed at Boston Garden during the 1930-31 season. What I can’t say with complete certainty is which Leaf visit this was, of the two they paid their old Massachusetts rivals that year. Guessing, I’d have to go with the second game (March 10, 1931) over the first (December 2, 1930), if only because Benny Grant tended the Leafs’ goal in the latter while in the former it was Lorne Chabot who, to my squinted eye, seems to be the man in the net in the photograph here.

Other Leafs? Battling for the puck behind the net is Toronto’s number 4, Hap Day. Out in front — well, Day’s usual partner in those years was King Clancy, though I don’t think that’s him, so it’s either Red Horner or Alex Levinsky. Skating for centre is surely Ace Bailey, whose linemates that year tended to be Baldy Cotton and Andy Blair. As for the Bruins, wearing number 7 is Cooney Weiland with Dit Clapper (5) hovering nearby. Together with centre Dutch Gainor those two played on Boston’s “Dynamite Line” around this time, so let’s say that’s Gainor digging for the puck with Day.

The game (if it is the second one) ended in a 3-3 tie that overtime couldn’t change. Bailey and Blair scored for the Leafs, as did Charlie Conacher; Weiland got two of the Bruins’ goals, with George Owen adding the third.

Other notes of interest: according to the Boston Globe, the game was a high-spirited affair, on the ice and off. In overtime, King Clancy “tried to punch a spectator through the wire screen behind the Toronto goal, something which one would not expect such a brainy person to do.”

Before that:

At the end of the first period, Art Ross, the Bruin manager, and Connie Smythe, the chief moving spirit behind the Leafs, had a verbal altercation in the lobby, with Ross swinging but missing the jaw of Smythe. This drama was repeated at the end of the second stanza, when Smythe ventured to inquire how Ross liked being behind.

(Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

danny lewicki, 1931—2018

Head Leaf honcho Conn Smythe liked the look of the young left winger he was watching at Toronto’s training camp in September of 1949. Eighteen-year-old Danny Lewicki was fast, impossible to hit, a great stickhandler. “He looks to me,” the Leafs’ managing director said, “more like Aurèle Joliat than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Born in what was then Fort William, Lewicki died in Toronto on Monday. He was 87. His NHL career, which spanned nine seasons, included stints with the Leafs, the New York Rangers, and Chicago’s Black Hawks. There’s memorial news of that here and here, though not all of it entirely accurate. The assertion that Lewicki was the last surviving member of the Toronto team that won the 1951 Stanley Cup will be news to 95-year-old Howie Meeker. (Update, September 26: CBC.ca has amended its story to acknowledge Meeker’s survival.)

Working on a training-camp line, in 1949, with another young junior star, George Armstrong, Lewicki had Smythe thinking of some great old Leafs, too. “They’re the best pair I’ve seen together since Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson,” he said.

All of which boded well for the here-and-now Leafs, but for one small catch: Lewicki had no interest in playing for the Leafs. He had, it’s true, signed a contract as a 16-year-old indenturing himself to the team, but as he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks To The NHL, Lewicki felt he’d been duped. Rather than report to the Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros as the Leafs wanted, Lewicki preferred to return to the team in Stratford where he’d played previously. “I don’t like Toronto,” he told reporters. “It’s too big.”

Smythe stood fast: Lewicki could either play in Toronto or he could play nowhere at all. He eventually did join the Marlboros in time to help them win the 1950 Allan Cup.

Graduating to the Leafs the following year, he skated on a line with Joe Klukay and centre Max Bentley. Bentley told him that it was the second-best line he ever played on, next to the so-called Pony Line on which Bentley had previously prospered in Chicago alongside brother Doug and Bill Mosienko. Lewicki finished third in the voting that year for the Calder Trophy for best newcomer, behind Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk and teammate Al Rollins. And then there was, too, of that Stanley Cup the Leafs won in the spring of ’51, beating Montreal in five games. Not a bad way to start an NHL career in the city he’d done his best to shun.

No Go: As this (slightly gleeful?) headline from Winnipeg recalls, Lewicki’s dispute with the Leafs was national news in September of 1949.