hailing howie

Son of the Father: Ten-year-old Howie Morenz Jr. stands by Canadiens’ captain Babe Siebert on the night of November 2, 1937, when NHLers paid tribute to young Howie’s late father and namesake in the Howie Morenz Memorial Game. Morenz’s sweater, skates, and stick were auctioned off in aid of the effort to raise money for the Morenz family. Second from left is Maroons’ GM Tommy Gorman. Second from the right is Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart with (I think) Maroons’ winger Earl Robinson next to him. (Image: BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

“No tone of mourning attended the game,” Ralph Adams wrote next morning in the Montreal Daily Star. “True, a sad feeling filled he heart as Howie Morenz Jr. skated about the ice prior to the match. The image of his father, young Howie gave an indication he may carry on his father’s great talents on the ice.”

It was 85 years ago today, on Tuesday, November 2, 1937 that the Howie Morenz Memorial Game was played at Montreal’s Forum in memory of the Stratford Streak, who’d died eight months earlier at the age of 34.

A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team that mixed Maroons and Canadiens: 6-5 was the final on the night. The winners got goals from Charlie Conacher (Toronto), Dit Clapper (Boston), Cecil Dillon (Rangers), Sweeney Schriner (Americans), Johnny Gottselig (Chicago), and Marty Barry (Detroit). Scoring for the Montrealers were Morenz’s old linemate Johnny Gagnon with a pair, along with Canadiens’ captain Babe Siebert and Habs Paul Haynes and Pit Lepine. Normie Smith (Detroit) and Tiny Thompson (Boston) shared the All-Stars’ net, while Wilf Cude (Canadiens) and Bill Beveridge (Maroons) handled the gosling for the Montreals.

The only penalty of the game was called on Toronto defenceman Red Horner, for a hook on Pit Lepine. Former Canadiens d-man Battleship Leduc had taken up as referee and made the call; when Horner was in the box, Leduc apologized, saying that he’d actually intended to sanction Schriner.

“In the heat of the grand display where speed, speed, and more speed gave the game all the excitement of a regular game, no one forgot Howie,” Ralph Adams wrote. “He was there. He was in the thick of the fastest rush, in the wildest scramble in front of the goals. All that Howie represented in hockey was in the game.”

Towards the end of November, it was announced that a total of $26,595 had been raised for the Morenz family.

All The Excitement of a Regular Game: That’s Detroit goaltender Normie Smith on the deck, defending the goal of the NHL All-Stars at the Morenz Memorial game on November 2, 1937. As for his teammates in white, it’s hard to tell who that is at far left, but closer in is (crouched) Toronto’s Hap Day and (possibly) Art Chapman of the NY Americans. Obscured is #6, Boston’s Dit Clapper. For the Montrealers, #10 is Earl Robinson (Maroons) and (helmeted, #8) Pit Lepine. (Image: Fonds Conrad Poirier, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

gaoledtenders: a short history of time served

Box Seats: Chicago’s Mike Karakas was the last NHL goaltender to serve out a penalty, in New York in 1936. That’s Rangers’ trainer Harry Westerby standing by and, in the hat, Ranger coach and GM Lester Patrick.

Clint Benedict’s violations were out in the open, many of them, whether he was upsetting Corb Denneny behind the net or (another time) dropping Toronto captain Frank Heffernan “with a clout on the dome.”

In the decisive game of the 1923 Stanley Cup finals, with Benedict’s Ottawa Senators on the way to beating the WCHL-champion Edmonton Eskimos to claim hockey’s ultimate trophy, referee Mickey Ion sanctioned the goaltender for a first-period slash on Edmonton defenceman Joe Simpson. “Benedict tried to separate Joe from his legs behind the goal,” Andy Lyle wrote in the Edmonton Journal. This particular game was being played under eastern (NHL) rules, so Benedict headed for the penalty bench.

Foul but no harm: with Ottawa nursing a 1-0, Benedict’s teammates were able to defend the lead without their goaltender’s help. This was at the end of the famous series during which Senators defenceman King Clancy ended  playing defence, forward, and goal. In a 1997 memoir written with Brian McFarlane, Clancy describes the moment that he headed for the latter: Benedict chucked over his goalstick and said, “You take care of this place ’til I get back.”

After that, Clancy’s time was mostly an exercise in standing around, though not entirely. In the memoir, Clancy recalls that when, at one point, he smothered the puck near the net, Ion threatened him with a penalty.

But while Clancy says that he didn’t face a single Edmonton shot, contemporary accounts tell a different tale. By Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman’s account, Clancy faced down two Edmonton shots. “Once Joe Simpson whipped in a long one,” he wrote, “whereupon ‘King’ dropped his stick, caught the puck with the skill of a baseball catcher, and tossed it aside while the crowd roared its approval.”

Count it, I guess, as the first shared shutout in Stanley Cup history.

Nowadays, when it comes to penalties for goalies, the NHL rule book gets right to the point with Rule 27:

Minor Penalty to Goalkeeper — A goalkeeper shall not be sent to the penalty bench for an offense which incurs a minor penalty, but instead, the minor penalty shall be served by another member of his team who was on the ice when the offense was committed. This player is to be designated by the Coach of the offending team through the playing Captain and such substitute shall not be changed.

But for the first three decades of NHL history — in the regular season as well as in Stanley Cup play— goaltenders themselves served the penalties they were assessed, departing the ice while a teammate did his best to fill in.

This happened more than a dozen times in those early years, and was cause for considerable chaos and excitement. In the 1920s, Clint Benedict was (as mentioned) often in the mix, while in the ’30s, Lorne Chabot featured prominently. Among the temporary goaltenders, King Clancy continued to stand out, along with Sprague Cleghorn. Goals would have been easy to score in these circumstances — you’d think. In fact, none was scored on the first eight occasions — it wasn’t until 1931, when Chicago’s Tommy Cook punished the Canadiens, that anyone was able to take advantage of an absent goaltender to score.

Despite what you may have read in a recent feature on NHL.com, the last time a goaltender went to the box wasn’t in March of 1932, after a particular fractious game in Boston, though the NHL did adjust some language in the rule book that year.

No, the final goaltender to do his own time would seem to have been Mike Karakas of the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of December in 1936. After that — but we’ll come back to the shifting of the rules that went on for more than a decade before goaltenders were fully and finally excused from going to the box.

Ahead of that, herewith, a helpful review of the NHL’s history of goaltenders who were binned for their sins, listed chronologically from earliest to last, starting in the league’s second season on ice and wandering along to its 20th.

None of the six goalies who tended nets during the NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was penalized. That’s worth a note, if only because, until the rule was changed a couple of weeks into the schedule, goalies were forbidden, on pain of penalty, from falling to their knees to stop the puck. Benedict, again, was front and centre in the discussion that led to the change. In the old National Hockey Association, his collapses were as renowned as his penalties. Indeed, in announcing in January of 1918 that goaltenders would now be allowed to “adopt any attitude” to stop the puck, NHL President Frank Calder made specific mention of Benedict before going on to explain the rationale for the change. “Very few of the teams carry a spare netminder,” Calder explained, “and if the goaler is ruled off it means a long delay in equipping another player, and in a close contest would undoubtedly cost the penalized team the game. The old rule made it hard for the referees, so everybody will be helped.”

Free to flop, Benedict was left to find other means of catching the attention of referees. Which he duly did:

Tuesday, February 18, 1919
Ottawa Senators 4 Toronto Arenas 3 (OT)
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referees: Lou Marsh, Steve Vair

The NHL was a three-team affair in its second season, and not exactly robust, at that: the anemic Toronto Arenas ended up dropping out before the season was over, suspending operations with two games left to play in the schedule. Their sparsely-attended penultimate game — no more than 1,000 fans showed up — saw Ottawa’s goaltender penalized with ten minutes left in the third period. Yes, this was unruly Benedict once again: with Toronto leading 2-1, he was sanctioned for upsetting Corb Denneny behind the Ottawa net, incurring a three-minute penalty (that was a thing, then).

Ottawa defenceman Sprague Cleghorn took over Benedict’s net. The Ottawa Journal: “Torontos tried hard but their sharp shooters were kept at long range by the defensive work of the Senators. Finally goalkeeper Cleghorn himself secured the puck and made an end to end rush, almost scoring.” An added detail from the Citizen: with Cleghorn absent on his rush, Senators’ winger Cy Denneny took to the net where he stopped at least one shot. After Benedict’s return, Toronto stretched their lead to 3-1 before Ottawa got goals from Frank Nighbor and (not one to be denied) Sprague Cleghorn before Punch Broadbent sealed the win for the Senators in overtime.

Hors De Combat: Seen here in the first uniform of Montreal’s Maroons, Clint Benedict was an early protagonist when it came to goaltenders serving time in penalty boxes.

Saturday, January 24, 1920
Ottawa Senators 3 Toronto St. Patricks 5
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Cooper Smeaton

The call on Clint Benedict this time, apparently, was for slashing Toronto captain Frank Heffernan. Referee Smeaton had already warned him for swinging his stick at Corb Denneny before sending Benedict to the penalty bench. The Ottawa Citizen described the goaltender as having swung his stick “heavily,” catching Heffernan across the forehead, while the Journal saw Heffernan go down “with a clout on the dome.” The Toronto faithful, the Globe reported, weren’t pleased: “the crowd hissed and hooted him.” Sprague Cleghorn was still manning the Ottawa defence, but this time it was winger Jack Darragh subbed in while Benedict served his three minutes. The Journal noted several “sensational stops,” and no goals against.

Wednesday, February 1, 1922
Montreal Canadiens 2 Ottawa Senators 4
Laurier Avenue Arena, Ottawa
Referee: Lou Marsh

“At times,” the Ottawa Journal reported, “Sprague Cleghorn played like a master and at other times like a gunman.” It was Cleghorn’s violence that made headlines this night, drawing the attention of Ottawa police, who showed up in Montreal’s dressing room after the game. Cleghorn was a Canadien now, turning out against his old teammates (including Clint Benedict in Ottawa’s goal), and proving a one-man wrecking crew. He accumulated 29 minutes in penalties for transgressions that included cutting Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard over the eye with a butt-end; breaking Frank Nighbor’s arm; and putting Cy Denneny out of the game in its final minutes. For the latter, Cleghorn was assessed a match penalty and fined for using indecent language. Canadiens managing director Leo Dandurand turned back the police who tried to apprehend Cleghorn, telling them to come back when they had a warrant.

Amid all this, Cleghorn also stepped into the Montreal net after Georges Vézina was sent off for slashing King Clancy. Notwithstanding the Ottawa Citizen’s verdict, calling Cleghorn “the present day disgrace of the National winter game,” Montreal’s Gazette reported that as an emergency goaltender he “made several fine stops.”

Saturday, March 31, 1923
Ottawa Senators 1 Edmonton Eskimos 0
Denman Arena, Vancouver
Referee: Mickey Ion

Clint Benedict’s Stanley Cup penalty was for a second-period slash across the knees of Edmonton’s Bullet Joe Simpson. (The Citizen: “the Ottawa goalie used his stick roughly.”) After multi-purpose King Clancy, stepped in, as mentioned, to replace him, his Senator teammates made sure that Edmonton didn’t get a single shot on net.

Saturday, December 20, 1924
Montreal Maroons 1 Hamilton Tigers 3
Barton Street Arena, Hamilton
Referee: Mike Rodden

Montreal Daily Star, 1924.

Clint Benedict, again. He was a Montreal Maroon by now, and still swinging; this time, in Hamilton, he was sent off for (the Gazette alleged) “trying to get Bouchard.” Eddie Bouchard that was, a Hamilton winger. Maroons captain Dunc Munro stepped into the breach while Benedict cooled his heels, and temper. The Gazette: “nothing happened while he was off.”

Saturday, December 27, 1924
Ottawa Senators 4 Toronto St. Patricks 3
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Lou Marsh

For the first time in NHL history, Clint Benedict wasn’t in the building when a penalty was called on a goaltender. He was in Montreal, for the record, taking no penalties as he tended the Maroons’ net in a 1-1 tie with the Canadiens that overtime couldn’t settle.

Offending this time was Senators’ stopper Alec Connell, who was in Toronto and (the Gazette said) “earned a penalty when he took a wallop at big Bert Corbeau. The latter was engaged in a fencing exhibition with Frank Nighbor late in the second period when Connell rushed out and aimed a blow at the local defence man. Connell missed by many metres, but nevertheless, he was given two minutes and Corbeau drew five. ‘King’ Clancy then took charge of the big stick and he made several fine saves, St. Patricks failing to score.”

During the fracas in which Connell was penalized, I can report, Ottawa’s Buck Boucher was fined $10 for (the Toronto Daily Star said) “being too lurid in his comments to the referee.” The Star also noted that when, playing goal, Clancy was elbowed by Jack Adams, the temporary Ottawa goaltender retaliated with a butt-end “just to show the rotund Irish centre player that he wasn’t at all afraid of him and wouldn’t take any nonsense.”

Saturday, February 14, 1925
Hamilton Tigers 1 Toronto St. Patricks 3
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Eddie O’Leary

In the second period, Hamilton goaltender Jake Forbes was penalized for (as the Gazette saw it) “turning [Bert] Corbeau over as the big defenceman was passing by the Hamilton goal.” Hamilton winger Charlie Langlois was already serving a penalty as the defenceman Jesse Spring took the net, but the Tigers survived the scare: “Both Langlois and Forbes got back on the ice without any damage being done while they were absent, the other players checking St. Pats so well that they could not get near the Hamilton net.”

Wednesday, December 2, 1931
Montreal Canadiens 1 Chicago Black Hawks 2
Chicago Stadium
Referee: Mike Rodden, Bill Shaver

Montreal Gazette, 1931.

A first for Chicago and indeed for the USA at large: never before had an NHL goaltender served his own penalty beyond a Canadian border. Notable, too: after seven tries and more than a decade, a team facing a substitute goaltender finally scored a goal. On this occasion, it was a decisive one, too.

The game was tied 1-1 in the third period when Montreal’s George Hainsworth tripped Chicago winger Vic Ripley. With just three minutes left in regular time, Ripley, who’d scored Chicago’s opening goal, hit the boards hard. He was carried off.

Hainsworth headed for the penalty bench. He had a teammate already there, Aurèle Joliat, so when defenceman Battleship Leduc took the net, the situation was grim for Montreal. The Gazette:

Albert Leduc armed himself with Hainsworth’s stick and stood between the posts with only three men to protect him. His position was almost helpless and when [Johnny] Gottselig and [Tommy] Cook came tearing in, the former passed to the centre player and Cook burned one past Leduc for the winning counter. Then Joliat returned and Leduc made one stop. When Hainsworth came back into the nets, Canadiens staged a rousing rally and the final gong found the champions peppering [Chicago goaltender Charlie] Gardiner unsuccessfully.

Tuesday, March 15, 1932
Toronto Maple Leafs 2 Boston Bruins 6
Boston Garden
Referee: Bill Stewart, Odie Cleghorn

Boston saw its first goaltender-in-box when, three minutes in, Toronto’s Lorne Chabot was called for tripping Boston centreman Cooney Weiland. “The latter,” wrote Victor Jones in the Boston Globe, “entirely out of a play, was free-skating a la Sonja Henie in the vicinity of the Leaf cage.” Toronto’s Globe: “The Leafs protested loudly, but Stewart remained firm.”

It was a costly decision for the Leafs. At the time, a penalty didn’t come to its end, as it does today, with a goal by the team with the advantage: come what might, Chabot would serve out his full time for his trip.

Victor Jones spun up a whole comical bit in his dispatch around Leaf coach Dick Irvin’s decision to hand Chabot’s duties (along with his stick) to defenceman Red Horner. The upshot was that Bruins’ centre Marty Barry scored on him after ten seconds. Irvin replaced Horner with defenceman Alex Levinsky, without discernible effect: Barry scored on him, too, ten seconds later. When King Clancy tried his luck, Boston captain George Owen scored another goal, giving the Bruins a 3-0 lead by the time Chabot returned to service.

There was a subsequent kerfuffle involving Toronto GM Conn Smythe, a practiced kerfuffler, particularly in Boston. He’d arrived late to the game, to find his team down by a pair of goals and Clancy tending the net. Smythe ended up reaching out from the Toronto bench to lay hands on referee Bill Stewart, who (he said) was blocking his view. Backed by a pair of Boston policemen, the Garden superintendent tried to evict Smythe, whereupon the Toronto players intervened.

“For some minutes,” Victor Jones recounted, “there was a better than fair chance that there would be a riot.” Bruins’ owner Charles F. Adams arrived on the scene to keep the peace and arrange a stay for Smythe who was allowed to keep his seat on the Leaf bench (in Jones’ telling) “on condition he would not further pinch, grab, or otherwise molest” the referee.

Boston didn’t squander its early boon, powering on to a 6-2 victory.

A couple of other notes from Jones’ notebook: “Stewart may have ruined the game, but he called the penalty as it’s written in the book and that’s all that concerns him.”

Also: “The best crack of the evening was made by Horner, after the game in the Toronto dressing room: ‘You fellows made a big mistake when you didn’t let me finish out my goal tending. I was just getting my eye on ’em, and after four or five more I’d have stopped everything.”

Leaf On The Loose: Lorne Chabot was a habitual visitor to NHL penalty boxes in the 1930s.

Sunday, November 20, 1932
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 New York Rangers 7
Madison Square Garden III, New York
Referees: Eusebe Daigneault, Jerry Goodman

The Leafs were the defending Stanley Cup champions in the fall of 1932, but that didn’t help them on this night in New York as they took on the team they’d defeated in the championship finals the previous April. This time out, Lorne Chabot’s troubles started in the second period, when he wandered too far from his net, whereupon a Rangers’ winger saw fit to bodycheck him. Cause and effect: “Chabot was banished,” Toronto’s Daily Star reported, “for flailing Murray Murdoch with his stick.” (Murdoch was penalized, too.)

Leafs’ winger Charlie Conacher took to the net, and in style. “He made six dazzling stops during this [two-minute] time,” Joseph C. Nichols reported in the New York Times, “playing without the pads and shin-guards always worn by regular goalies.” When Chabot returned, Conacher received a thundering ovation from the New York crowd. Chabot worked hard on the night, too, stopping a total of 41 Ranger shots. Unfortunately, there were also seven that got past him before the game was over.

Thursday, March 16, 1933
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 Detroit Red Wings 1
Detroit Olympia
Referee: Cooper Smeaton, Clarence Bush

Lorne Chabot’s next visit to the penalty box came during what the Montreal Gazette graded one of the wildest games ever to be played at the Detroit Olympia. In the third period, when Detroit centreman Ebbie Goodfellow passed the Leaf goalmouth, Chabot (wrote Jack Carveth of the Detroit Free Press) “clipped him over the head with his over-sized stick.”

“That was the signal for Ebbie to lead with his left and cross with his right,” Carveth narrated. “Chabot went down with Goodfellow on top of him.”

Both players got minor penalties for their troubles, which continued once they were seated side-by-side the penalty box. “After they had been separated,” wrote Carveth, “a policeman was stationed between them to prevent another outbreak.”

Just as things seemed to be settling down, Detroit coach Jack Adams threw a punch that connected with the chin of Toronto’s Bob Gracie, who stood accused of loosing “a vile remark” in Adams’ direction. “Players from both benches were over the fence in a jiffy but nothing more serious than a lot of pushing developed.”

Toronto winger Charlie Conacher took up Chabot’s stick in his absence. “But he didn’t have to do any work,” according to the Canadian Press. “King Clancy ragged the puck cleverly,” and the Wings failed to get even a shot at Conacher. They were already ahead 1-0 at the time, and that’s the way the game ended, with the shutout going to Detroit’s John Ross Roach.

Tuesday, November 28, 1933
Montreal Maroons 4 Montreal Canadiens 1
Montreal Forum
Referees: Bill Stewart, A.G. Smith

Lorne Chabot may have moved from Toronto to Montreal by 1933, but he was still battling. On this night, he contrived to get into what the Montreal Daily Star called a “high voltage scrap” with Maroons centreman Dave Trottier. The latter’s stick hit Chabot on the head as he dove to retrieve a puck in the third period, it seems. “Thinking it intentional,” the Gazette reported, “Chabot grabbed one of Trottier’s legs and pulled him to the ice with a football tackle. They rose and came to grips.” Later that same brouhaha, Chabot interceded in a fight between teammate Wildor Larochelle and the Maroons’ Hooley Smith, whereupon (somehow) Trottier and Larochelle were sentenced to major penalties while Smith and Chabot earned only minors.

With two minutes left in the game and Maroons up by three goals, Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde elected not to fill Chabot’s net. Maroons couldn’t hit the empty net, though winger Wally Kilrea came close with a long-distance shot that drifted wide.

Sunday, December 27, 1936
Chicago Black Hawks 0 New York Rangers 1
Madison Square Garden III
Referee: Bill Stewart, Babe Dye

“One of hockey’s rarest spectacles,” New York Times’ correspondent Joseph C. Nichols called the second-period tripping penalty that was called when Chicago’s Mike Karakas tripped New York’s Phil Watson. Filling in for Karakas was none other than Tommy Cook who, you might recall, scored a goal against Battleship Leduc in 1931 when he’d replaced Montreal’s George Hainsworth. This time, Nichols reported, the net might as well have been empty for all the chances the rangers had to score. With Chicago’s Johnny Gottselig, Paul Thompson, and Art Wiebe doing yeoman’s work on the defensive, Cook faced no shots during his stint as a stand-in — the last one, as it turned out, in NHL history.

Both Sides Now: Chicago centreman Tommy Cook was the first NHLer to score a goal with a goaltender in the box, in 1931. In 1936, he was also the last player to take a penalized goaltender’s place.

Tracing the evolution of the NHL’s rule book generally involves a certain amount of sleuthing. James Duplacey’s The Rules of Hockey (1996) is helpful up to a point, but it’s not it’s not without bugs and oversights.

This is specifically the case, too, when it comes to goaltenders and their penalties. When in 1918 goaltenders were freed to fall to their knees without risk of punishment, this freedom never enshrined in writing. For most if not all of the league’s first decade, the only language in the rule book governing goaltenders had to do with holding the puck — not allowed — and the face-off arrangement that applied if they dared to commit this misdemeanor.

This changed in 1932, after that Leaf game in Boston in March when Toronto’s three emergency goaltenders yielded three goals and Conn Smythe got into (another) melee. Did he draft or drive the addition of the paragraph that was added to the rule book that year? It’s possible. It was procedural only, and didn’t change the way things had been done since the beginning. The language added to Rule 12 read:

If a goal-keeper is removed from the ice to serve a penalty the manager of the club shall appoint a substitute and the referee shall be advised of the name of the substitute appointed. The substitute goal-keeper shall be subject to the rules governing goal-keepers and have the same privileges.

The last part does suggest that stand-ins would be within their rights to strap on goaltending pads, and maybe that happened, though I’ve never seen any archival or anecdotal evidence that it did in any of the instances cited above.

Goaltenders were boxed on four more occasions (as we’ve seen) after this change in rule-book wording. It was six years later that the sentencing of rule-breaking goaltenders changed materially, in September of 1938. No goaltender had, to date, ever been assessed a major penalty, but if that were to happen, the new rule stipulated that he would go to the box, with his substitute accorded all the privileges of a regular netminder, “including the use of the goal-keeper’s stick and gloves.”

And for lesser infractions? Now The Official Rule Book declared that:

No goal-keeper shall be sent to the penalty bench for an offence which incurs a minor penalty but instead of the minor penalty, a penalty shot shall be given against him.

It didn’t take long for the statute to get its first test, once the 1938-39 season got underway. There was, it’s true, some confusion on the ice when the Detroit Red Wings hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, the reigning NHL champions, on Thursday, November 24.

It was a busy night for referee Clarence Campbell. The future NHL president wasn’t a favourite in Detroit, as Doc Holst of the local Free Press outlined:

Anytime Mr. Campbell is referee on Mr. [Jack] Adams’ ice, you can wager your grandma that there will be plenty of difficult problems and that he will never solve them to the satisfaction of the Red Wings. He’s their ogre, no matter how the other club praises his abilities.

Campbell infuriated both teams on this night. In the first period, he disallowed a goal that the Wings’ Marty Barry thought he’d score. Next, Campbell awarded the Wings a penalty shot after Hawks’ defenceman Alex Levinsky held back the Wings’ Ebbie Goodfellow on his way in on Chicago’s Mike Karakas. Levinsky objected so vociferously that Campbell gave him a ten-misconduct. Mud Bruneteau took Detroit’s penalty shot: Karakas saved.

Things got even more interesting in the third. It started with Detroit’s Pete Kelly skating in on the Chicago net and colliding with Karakas. Doc Holst: “The two of them came out of the net and started to roll, Pete holding on to Mike for dear life. The only thing Mike could think of was to tap Pete on the head with his big goalie stick.”

Campbell penalized both, sending Kelly to the box for holding and awarding Detroit a penalty shot for Karakas’ slash. The Wings weren’t having it — they wanted the Chicago goaltender sent off. “Campbell pulled the rule book on the Wings,” a wire service account of the proceedings reported, “and showed them goalies do not go to penalty boxes” Once again Mud Bruneteau stepped up to shoot on Karakas and, once again, failed to score. The Red Wings did eventually prevail in the game, winning 4-2, despite all the goals denied them.

Goaltenders did keep on taking penalties, some of them for contravening a new rule added to the books in 1938 barring them from throwing pucks into the crowd to stop play. In Detroit, if not elsewhere, this rule was said to be aimed at curbing the Red Wings’ Normie Smith, who’d been known in his time for disposing of (said the Free Press) “as many as a dozen pucks a night over the screen.” Chicago’s Karakas was, apparently, another enthusiastic puck-tosser.

And so, in February of 1939, Clarence Campbell called Wilf Cude of the Montreal Canadiens for flinging a puck over the screen against the New York Americans. Cude took his medicine and kicked out Johnny Sorrell’s penalty shot. In January, 1941, when Toronto’s Turk Broda tripped Canadiens’ Murph Chamberlain, he was pleased to redeem himself by foiling a penalty shot from Tony Demers.

The NHL continued to tweak the rule through the 1940s. In September of ’41, the league split the penalty shot: now there were major and minor versions. The major was what we know now, applied when a skater was impeded on a clear chance at goal. The player taking the shot was free to skate in on the goaltender to shoot from wherever he pleased. A minor penalty shot applied when a goaltender committed a foul: he would be sentenced to face an opposing player who could wheel in from centre-ice but had to shoot the puck before he crossed a line drawn 28 feet in front of the goal.

By 1945, the rules had changed again, with a penalty shot only applying when a goaltender incurred a major penalty. That meant that when, in a February game in New York, referee Bill Chadwick whistled down Rangers’ goaltender Chuck Rayner for tossing the puck up the ice (just as prohibited as hurling it into the stands), Rayner stayed in his net while teammate Ab DeMarco went to the penalty box. From there, he watched  Chicago’s Pete Horeck score the opening goal in what ended as a 2-2 tie.

This continued over the next few years. Boston’s Frank Brimsek slung a puck into the Montreal crowd and teammate Bep Guidolin did his time for him. Detroit’s Gerry Couture went to the box when his goaltender, Harry Lumley, high-sticked Boston’s Bill Cowley. In the October of 1947, in a game at Chicago Stadium between the Black Hawks and Red Wings, Chadwick saw fit to call (in separate incidents) penalties on both team’s goaltenders, Lumley for tripping (Red Kelly went to the box) and Chicago’s Emile Francis for high-sticking (Dick Butler did the time).

A few days later Francis was penalized again, this time against Montreal, after a “mix-up” with Canadiens’ winger Jimmy Peters. By some accounts, this was an out-and-out fight, though Peters and Francis were assessed minors for roughing. Is it possible that referee Georges Gravel downgraded the charge to avoid the spectacle of Francis having to face a penalty shot for his temper?

The rule does seem generally to have fallen into disrepute in these final years before it was rewritten. Witness the game at Maple Leaf Gardens in January of 1946 when the Leafs beat the Red Wings 9-3 in a game refereed by King Clancy. Late in the third period, Detroit’s Joe Carveth took a shot on the Leaf goal only to see it saved by goaltender Frank McCool. The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer described what happened next:

The puck rebounded back to Carveth’s stick as a whistle sounded. Carveth fired the puck again. It hit McCool on the shoulder. The Toronto goalie dropped his stick and darted from his cage. He headed straight for Carveth and enveloped the Detroiter in a bear hug that would have done credit to one of Frank Tunney’s mightiest wrestling warriors, and bore him to the ice.

DeGeer’s description of the aftermath came with a derisive subhed: Who Wrote This Rule?

The sheer stupidity of major hockey rules developed out of the McCool-Carveth affair. Carveth was given a two-minute penalty for firing the puck after the whistle and an additional two minutes for fighting. A major penalty shot play was given against McCool. Carl Liscombe made the play and hit the goalpost at McCool’s right side. There’s neither rhyme nor reason for such a severe penalty against a goaltender, but it’s in the rule book.

Carveth was in the penalty box when the game ended. First thing the former Regina boy did was skate to the Toronto fence and apologize to Frank for taking the extra shot after the whistle.

The NHL made another change ahead of the 1949-50 season: from then on, major penalties, too, that were incurred by goaltenders would see a teammate designated to serve time in the box rather than resulting in a penalty shot.

tangled up in blue (and white) (and red)

High-Slot Hubbub: It wasn’t to be for the Toronto Maple Leafs on the night of Saturday, April 11, 1936: powered by Pete Kelly’s third-period goal, the visiting Detroit Red Wings beat the home team 3-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens to thereby corral the team’s very first Stanley Cup with a 3-1 series win. “The only ruckus occurred when [Detroit’s] Ebbie Goodfellow and [Leafs’ Charlie] Conacher swung their fists and went down in a heap on the ice,” an account of the game advised the next morning. That was in the second period, and it’s what we’re seeing here, with the Wings’ Herbie Lewis (#4) piled on top of Conacher and Goodfellow, in that order. Detroit goaltender Normie Smith is back in the beyond. “An imitation of wrestling” is how the Toronto Daily Star’s Andy Lytle described this encounter. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 39753)

someone with more sense than bravado: clint benedict, conn smythe, and the 1929 mask mandate that never was

Benny In The Nets: After playing seven NHL seasons (and collecting three Stanley Cups) with the Ottawa Senators, Clint Benedict joined the Montreal Maroons in 1924.

This is the first of a two-part series on the NHL’s original masked man, and how in 1929 the NHL almost (but not quite) came to mandate protection for all its goaltenders.

Olive Benedict might have blamed herself when her husband Clint went down in Montreal that January night in 1930, but it was mischance — and a puck Howie Morenz fired — that actually felled the 37-year-old goaltender for the Montreal Maroons and precipitated the painful end of his long and illustrious NHL career.

That came, the end, nine weeks later when, on a Tuesday, 92 years ago this past week, Benedict played the 390th — and final — game of his Hall-of-Fame career, during which he played in five Stanley Cup finals, winning four of those, three with the (original) Ottawa Senators and another with the Montreal Maroons.

In hockey history, that final game of Benedict’s is also annotated as the end of the goaltender’s desperate two-week experiment with the first face-mask in league history. Five games that lasted. It would be 1959 — 29 years later — before Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante donned his famous mask in an actual game, jump-starting a new era in the NHL.

Why was the NHL (and hockey generally) so slow in adopting masks to protect the well-being (and faces) of goaltenders? Institutional conservatism, I guess. Hubris would figure in as a major factor, too, I might say, even if Clint Benedict wouldn’t. Asked in 1964 about the possibility of any such stigma having been attached to goaltenders erring on the side of self-preservation, the old goaltender (he was 71) wasn’t having any of it. “Nah,” he told an inquiring reporter, “we took such a beating anyway that nobody would have thought it sissified. No, it was just a case of not developing one that was practical.”

Even before Benedict tried out his mask, the 1929-30 campaign looked like being a pivotal one for goaltenders, with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner, coach, GM, and force-of nature Conn Smythe in a leading role. Not much has been made of this, over the years, but that fall, mere months before an infant Jacques Plante celebrated his first birthday, there was an effort afoot to require the league’s goaltenders to wear masks.

From the start, the 1929-30 season was a challenging one for Clint Benedict, who was playing in 13th NHL season, the 18th, if you felt like counting his years in the NHA, too. In November of ’29, just as the season was getting going, he left a game in Ottawa after the first period after what was described as “a violent attack of indigestion.” Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to play: reported to have been ailing all day, he took the ice “in a weak condition,” as Montreal’s Gazette described it.

Flat Walsh replaced him that night, and went on holding the fort as Benedict recovered, as it was subsequently reported, from a case of ptomaine (food) poisoning. Something he ate in Boston, he said. He lost eight pounds, missed eight games.

Benedict was back in December, but in his second game of his return, he went down again. Painful as it sounds, he got back up on his skates in short order, this time. He was playing brilliantly, by all reports, frustrating the Boston Bruins at the Forum, when he sprawled to stop Dit Clapper and took the puck full in the face. “Benny dropped,” the Gazette reported, “and lay still as if he had been shot dead.” He was unconscious on the ice, revived, repaired to the dressing room. With no concussion protocol or common sense to keep him there, Benedict returned to finish the game.

He was back in action three nights later, on January 7, at the Forum, against the Canadiens. This was the night his wife, Olive, was looking on from a seat just behind his first-period net, a reluctant witness who’d travelled from her home in Ottawa. It was the first game she’d attended in six years, and one of just a dozen or so she’d ever been to in the course of her husband’s lengthy career. It may have been, as one Montreal newspaper suggested, that she thought she brought him back luck, but it might just as well have been that she preferred not to see the dangers he faced every night on the job.

On this night, the game wasn’t yet a minute old when Howie Morenz swept onto Maroon ice and fired the puck. “A smoking shot,” the Montreal Star’s reporter called it; “got him straight between the eyes and smashed the bridge of his nose,” the Gazette detailed. “The impact of the drive could be heard in the far reaches of the building,” the Star said. Players from both teams carried Benedict to the dressing. There was a great mess of blood.

Damage Report: The Montreal Star headline for the game on January 7, 1930. Canadiens’ sporting gesture was tnot to rush sickly substitute Flat Walsh as he suited up in Benedict’s place.

While Benedict’s wounds were being tended, the Maroons dispatched a taxi to retrieve Flat Walsh, who was home in bed, recovering from a bad bout of flu. He arrived at the Forum wearing an overcoat over his pyjamas, changed into his gear, pulled on a cap. “He was almost tottering on his pins,” said the Star, “with his grave face showing a grey pallor beneath his upturned visor. Unsteadily he braced himself for a few practice shots, and then went on to stardom.” After a half-hour delay, that is, hockey resumed, with the Maroons winning by a score of 2-1, and thereby taking over first place in the Canadian side of the NHL standings from their Montreal rivals.

The Star checked in next day at the LaSalle Hotel, just east of the Forum on Drummond at St. Catherine, where Benedict was resting under his wife’s care. “An examination today revealed his nose badly broken with a V-shaped cut that required five stitches, and the flesh is torn all the way down the nose.” The next day, the couple left for Ottawa, where Benedict would spend his convalescence.

He’d miss 15 games this time, over the course of six weeks, with Flat Walsh and (for one game) Abbie Cox, lent by Montreal’s IHL farm team, the Windsor Bulldogs, standing in his stead.

Neither of them saw fit to protect their faces in the wake of Benedict’s injury. In the wider hockey world, discussion of the need for and practicalities of masks had been going on for years. Goaltending in the NHL has never been an easy way of making a living, but in the 1920s and 1930 it was particularly dangerous. Battered by pucks, scythed by skates, run into and over by barrelling opponents: the men who volunteered to man the nets were constantly being jarred, cut, knocked out.

They came to, groggily acknowledged their surroundings, were patched up: mostly, they finished a game they’d started. It happened all the time, in those years.

“I remember at least four times being carried into the dressing room to get all stitched up and then going back in to play,” Benedict said in 1962. “There were some other times, too, but I don’t remember them.”

Much of the mayhem has faded away from modern memory. For its part, the NHL doesn’t, at the best of times, display a nuanced or even particularly reliable memory of its own history, and when it comes to unflattering aspects of the historical game — extreme violence, concussions, other grievous injuries — it’s not as if the league is interested in curating … any of it.

When it comes to early NHL goaltenders, the league will occasionally highlight agony-adjacent events. The emergency foray that New York Rangers coach Lester Patrick made at the age of 44 into the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, for instance, is a polished gem of popular hockey history, even if the details of how he was called to duty aren’t always so well remembered. A shot from Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught the regular Ranger goaltender, Lorne Chabot, in the face that night. It was several days before doctors were satisfied that he wouldn’t lose his left eye. Guarding the goal for Montreal that night: Clint Benedict.

Was Canadiens goaltender George Hainsworth, in fact, the first NHLer to don a mask in January of 1929 after his nose was broken by his teammate Aurèle Joliat in a pre-game warm-up? I’ve delved into that possibility to some depth here; the short answer is probably not.

But something was building around that time. I’m not sure you can call it momentum, given how slowly the evolution of hockey masks progressed in the game’s early years. My friend Eric Zweig, hockey historian extraordinaire, has written about Ev Marshall in Calgary in 1899, who is (to date) the first documented goaltender to mask up.

There were others after that, though not many. Some who sought protection did so to safeguard the glasses they wore, and glass-protectors were common in amateur hockey (and in particular on U.S. college ice) through the years of the First World War and into the 1920s. (Not all historians allow that these qualify as masks.) In any case, as with hockey helmets, there was no organized effort to develop a purpose-built hockey mask.

In 1920, the Ontario Hockey Association did add a rule permitting goaltenders to wear masks. It’s possible that some judicious soul took advantage of that provision as soon as it was passed. What we do know with certainty is that during the 1926-27 season, Lawrence Jones did. A stopper of pucks for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League, he was noted (in Ottawa’s Journal) as “one of the few net guardians in the sport who wears a baseball mask.”

That same year, suiting up for the women’s team at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, goaltender Elizabeth Graham famously donned a fencing mask.

In the unprotected NHL, pucks kept on hitting goaltenders in the face, which was bad for them, generally. More specifically, if they were injured seriously enough that they ended up missing games, that was bad for their teams which, in most cases, didn’t keep a full-time back-up on the roster.

Something had to change, and almost did, two months before Clint Benedict went down with the injury that ended up, finally, shifting the balance. Playing protagonist again in November of 1929 was Lorne Chabot. He was with the Toronto Maple Leafs now, gearing up with his teammates to open the season against the Chicago Black Hawks. The Globe described the mishap at the Leafs’ final pre-season practice at Arena Gardens:

The big goal-guardian was struck in the face by one of Charley Conacher’s terrific drives and was practically knocked unconscious. He quickly recovered, however, but it was necessary to put four stitches in the wound that was opened up in his cheek. He will play tonight, however, although he may present a bandaged appearance.

And so he did, helping his team to a 2-2 tie on a night that Conacher was making his NHL debut (and scoring a goal). Leafs GM and coach Conn Smythe, meanwhile, was working on a plan.

That same fall, the NHL had adjusted its “anti-defence” rules, hoping to speed up the game, increasing scoring opportunities and thereby, goals. To open up play (and specifically confound the packing-of-the-defence scheme perfected by Pete Green and his Ottawa Senators with their “kitty-bar-the-door” strategy”), the new rule stipulated that only three defenders (including the goaltender) were permitted in the defensive zone when the puck was elsewhere. This meant that forwards couldn’t precede the puck into their own zone: they had to wait to enter with the play.

Another rule barred goaltenders from holding pucks that came their way. Previously, they’d been permitted to hang on to a puck for three seconds before casting it away to a teammate or a corner. Now, they had to release the puck instantly, or pay the penalty of a punitive face-off ten feet in front of their net, with no defenders allowed on the ice between the goal and the puck-drop.

What all this meant for goaltenders, Smythe said, was more shots and more danger. (The league seemed to acknowledge this in its amended rules: where previously goaltenders were allowed ten minutes to recuperate from an on-ice injury, an extra five minutes was now added in the case that the goaltender had to be replaced.) The Gazette in Montreal explained Smythe’s position: “To prevent a serious accident,” Smythe wanted to mandate that goaltenders “be protected as much as possible by headgear and especially constructed masks.” To that end, he had a proposal he was going to present at the next meeting of the NHL’s governors that would compel all goaltenders to wear masks.

According to the Gazette’s report, Smythe had the support of “several managers in the NHL.” The problem was one of social stigma as much as anything else: goaltenders themselves were reluctant to be the first to take up a mask. “If all teams were compelled to do so,” the dispatch concluded, “it would be quickly adopted.”

Bright Idea: A Montreal newspaper reports on Smythe’s modest 1929 proposal.

There’s no reason to believe that Smythe didn’t follow through on this effort. If he did, details of the discussion didn’t filter out to the newspapers, and no decision on mandatory masks was taken. NHL President Frank Calder did oversee a meeting of league governors in mid-December in Chicago, but no mention of masks or mandates surfaced in the press that week. And Smythe, it seems, was in Montreal anyway, coaching the Leafs in a 3-1 loss to the Maroons and earning himself a fine of $50 for haranguing referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary.

As urgent as Smythe’s push for a mask mandate had seemed, it … evaporated? Maybe he did present his proposal to the league and failed to rally enough support. Could he have been persuaded in the interim that the goaltenders themselves didn’t like the idea? We don’t know.

And so the mask debate faded away into the background again … for a month. “Some day the league will authorize masks for netminders as baseball does for its catchers, and these accidents will be avoided.” That was the Gazette, in its original report of Morenz’s shot and Benedict’s resulting distress in January of 1930.

Baz O’Meara weighed in the following day in his Montreal Star column. “So far no mask has been made which gives the maximum of protection, and the minimum of discomfort,” he wrote. “Still someone with more sense than bravado will come out some night and set a new fashion in protection to eyes and noses — but it won’t be till someone invents a better mask than any that can be utilized at present.”

Masked Man: Clint Benedict poses with his mask in 1930.

Benedict was on the case, of course, commissioning a sporting goods firm to make him a sensible apparatus with which he could return to the Maroons net. The record hasn’t, over the years, had much more to say in the way of specifics than that.

According to several accounts, the firm was in Boston — that’s what Jim Hynes and Gary Smith report in their book Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask (2008), though they don’t list a source. Another history, Douglas Hunter’s lavish A Breed Apart: An Illustrated History of Goaltending (1995), mentions Boston, but also notes a second possibility: that the Maroons’ trainer (not named, but it would have been Bill O’Brien) “modified a black leather face mask boxers wore in sparring by riveting a thick black bar across the front to protect Benedict’s nose and cheekbone.” Again, no sources are listed.

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Benedict mask.

There is this famous contemporary photograph of Benedict showing off his mask. As Hunter points out, the Hockey Hall of Fame has in its collection another mask of a slightly different design that it says belonged to Benedict. Is that one a prototype, then, or an alternate mask? In 1932, Benedict announced that he was contemplating a hockey comeback with the aid of a whole new mask — maybe that’s what the Hall has?

One photograph I hadn’t seen until I came across it recently in the pages of a Montreal newspaper from February of 1930 must have been taken at the same time as the one above. Benedict has the same distant gaze in this new one, but his cap is off: you can see the head-strap that held the mask in place, or not — in at least one of the games in which the mask served, the strap failed and had to be taped.

Even more interesting than the photograph is the short article that accompanies it. It may not solve any of the small puzzles associated with Benedict’s mask — indeed, on a point or two, it stirs up new questions. There’s insight here, too, though, into the makings of Benedict’s mask that I haven’t seen before in my scourings of archival records.

That’s for another post, though, I think, on another day. Stand by.

 

under review: writing the good fight

 

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”

Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.

It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”

“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”

And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.

According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?

•••

Questions, questions, questions.

They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.

Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?

Madison Mayhem: “The fight was a honey,” the New York Daily News reported in November of 1937 after New York’s Phil Watson collided with Dave Trottier of Montreal’s Maroons. “They ditched sticks in a hurry and began throwing punches.”

You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.

And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.

What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”

Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.

There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.

They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.

Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”

•••

The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.

When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”

It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.

Gloves Off: “The fight, or rather fights, were swell and snapped 5,000 dozing customers erect in their seats,” the New York Daily News advised after this Manhattan meeting between the local Americans and the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1940. Wearing #2 is Eddie Shore, along with (#6) teammate Charlie Conacher. Leafs’ Bob Davidson is their quarry.

The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.

The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).

I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).

Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”

•••

Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?

That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.

•••

In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.

The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.

Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.

In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”

Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.

The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”

Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”

The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”

Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.

“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”

The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.

Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”

If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.

“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)

In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered  in Reggie Fleming’s brain,  the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”

Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”

Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”

•••

Questions, questions.

If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?

I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.

Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.

Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.

“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”

Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”

He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

Why.

Emptied Benches: A meeting of Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the 1977-78 NHL season.

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such a violent contact game: clarence campbell holds court at the statler hotel, 1951

Hearing Room: Ted Lindsay, NHL President Clarence Campbell, and Bill Ezinicki in Campbell’s suite at Boston’s Statler Hotel on the afternoon of Saturday, January 27, 1951. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Reasons hockey players ended up in hotel rooms in the 1950s: they were on road trips, with hours to kill before the game, or recuperating after it was all over, maybe it was the old Bismarck Hotel in Chicago, or the Croydon, could be that they were living there, in the Kimberly in New York, where some Canadian Rangers used to shack up during up the season, or in the Belvedere on 48th, or the Roosevelt on 45th, in the Theatre District. The Montreal Canadiens often put up at the Piccadilly, also on 45th, that’s where, in 1951, Maurice Richard grabbed a referee by the name of Hugh McLean “by the throat or tie,” to quote one account of the fracas — though I think that was in the lobby.

In Toronto, Richard and his teammates used to stay at the Royal York. The Mount Royal Hotel on Peel Street was a haven for NHL teams visiting Montreal in those years. The Sheraton-Cadillac in Detroit was where the Red Wings threw a big testimonial bash for Jack Adams in 1952 on the occasion of his having devoted a quarter-century to the cause of the wingéd wheel.

And in Boston? For years, hotelwise, hockey central was the Manger (rhymes with clangour), neighbouring the old Garden, which was built atop the city’s busy North Station. “Who could forget Boston and the old Manger Hotel where we stayed?” Canadiens’ captain Butch Bouchard wondered, years later. The coming and going of trains below would tremor the hockey players all night in their beds, he recalled. The Bruins used to convene there, too, in 1956, for example, when coach Milt Schmidt ran his training camp at the Garden. Herbert Warren Wind wrote about it in Sports Illustrated:

To make sure that his players were thinking of hockey, hockey, hockey, Schmidt made it mandatory for every member of his squad to live in the Hotel Manger, which adjoins the Garden. He moved in himself, the better to enforce a strict curfew of 11 p.m. Furthermore, every man had to be up by 7 — there would be none of that lolling in bed and skipping breakfast and then trying to slide through morning practice without a good meal to fuel you.

In his 2020 memoir, Willie O’Ree remembered arriving at the Manger in the fall of 1957 for his first NHL camp. “I’d never seen so much marble in my life. It was first-class, and just staying there made me feel as if I were already a full-fledged member of the Bruins.”

The Manger is where Bruins legend Eddie Shore is supposed to have chased another player through the lobby waving a stick— I’m not clear on whether it was a teammate or rival. It’s where, in his refereeing years, King Clancy got into a fight with Black Hawks’ coach Charlie Conacher. And the Manger was the scene of another momentous moment in Bruins history in 1947, when another Boston hero, Bill Cowley, summarily quit the team and his hockey career in a dispute with Bruins’ supremo Art Ross at a post-season team banquet.

Could it be that it was due to this long record of ruckus that NHL President Clarence Campbell chose to stay away from the Manger’s fray? I don’t have good information on that.

What I can say is that, in January of 1951 — 71 years ago last week — Campbell checked himself into the calmer — more commodious? — confines of the Statler Hotel, which is where he and a couple of his (concussed) players posed for the photo above. The Statler is about a mile-and-a-half south of the Manger and the Garden, down by Boston Common. The latter was razed in 1983; the Statler is Boston’s Park Plaza today.

And how did Campbell come to be entertaining Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki (while showing off the bathroom of his suite) on that long-ago Saturday afternoon?

It all started two days earlier, in Detroit, where Lindsay’s Red Wings had been hosting Ezinicki’s Bruins.

The Red Wings were leading the NHL, eight points ahead of second-place Toronto; the Bruins were 23 points back, fourth-placed in the six-team loop. Three of the league’s top six scorers wore Red-Wing red that season, names of Howe and Lindsay and Abel; Milt Schmidt was Boston’s leader, eighth in the league. The game ended as a 3-3 tie, with Howe and Abel adding assists to their collections.

Scoring wasn’t what this game would be remembered for. “At Detroit, there was more brawling than hockey playing.” That was the Canadian Press’ reporting next day. Enlivened was a word in the version The New York Times ran: an NHL game “enlivened by a bruising battle between Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki.”

“Fist fighting has no honest place in hockey,” Marshall Dann of Detroit’s Free Press wrote while also allowing that, for those in the 10,618-strong crowd who enjoyed hockey’s violence, what ensued was “probably … the best battle at Olympia this season.”

Ezinicki was 26, Lindsay a year younger. They’d been teammates once, winning a Memorial Cup championship together with the (Charlie Conacher-coached) 1944 Oshawa Generals. In 1949, playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ezinicki had led the NHL in penalty minutes, with Lindsay not far behind, in seventh place on the league list.

A year earlier, 1949-50, only Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers had compiled more penalty minutes than Ezinicki; Lindsay had finished third, a minute back of Ezinicki. Wild Bill the papers called him; the Associated Press identified Lindsay (a.k.a. Terrible Ted) as Detroit’s sparkplug. They’d clashed before in the NHL: in a 1948 game, in what the Boston Globe qualified as a “joust,” Lindsay freed four of Ezinicki’s teeth from his lower jaw.

In the January game in 1951, it was in the third period that things boiled over between the two malefactors. To start, they had exchanged (in Dann’s telling) “taps” with their sticks. “The whacks grew harder and finally they dropped sticks and gloves and went at it with fists.” Three times Lindsay seems to have knocked Ezinicki down: the third time the Boston winger’s head hit the ice, knocking him out.

Referee George Gravel assessed match penalties to both players for their deliberate efforts to injure each other. Both players were assessed automatic $100 fines.

In the aftermath, Red Wings physician Dr. C.L. Tomsu closed a cut from Lindsay’s stick on Ezinicki’s forehead with 11 stitches. He threaded another four into the side of Ezinicki’s head, where it had hit the ice, and four more inside his mouth. He also reported that Ezinicki had a tooth broken off in the violence.

Before departing Detroit, Ezinicki had his skull x-rayed; no serious injury was revealed, said his coach, Lynn Patrick. It took several days — and another x-ray — for Boston’s Dr. Tom Kelley to discover that Ezinicki’s nose was broken.

Lindsay took a stitch over one eye, and got treatment “for a scarred and bruised right hand.”

The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll reported that Lindsay stopped by the Olympia clinic as Ezinicki was getting his stitching.

“Are you all right?” Lindsay asked. … The angry Ezinicki growled, “I’m all right,” and Lindsay left.

The Boston Daily Globe reported that the two had dropped their gloves and “slugged it out for more than a minute.” A Canadian Press dispatch timed the fighting at three minutes: “the length of a single round of a boxing match.”

None of the immediate (i.e. next-day) reports included the term stick-swingfest. That was a subsequent description, a few weeks after the fact, in February. Much of the reporting was couched in standard-issue hockey jovialese, as though the two men’s attempts to behead one another were purely pantomime.

The two teams were due to meet again in Boston two nights later, on the Saturday night, but before the two teams hit the ice, NHL President Clarence Campbell called for a hearing at the Statler to decide, hours before the puck dropped, on what today would be called supplemental discipline. The match penalties that referee Gravel had assessed came with automatic suspensions, but it was up to Campbell to decide how long the offenders would be out.

Campbell had been planning to be visiting Boston, as it turned out, on his way down from NHL HQ in Montreal to a meeting of club owners scheduled for Miami Beach. So that was convenient. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss would conduct the hearing into what had happened in Detroit, then Campbell would come to his decision.

We Three: Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

And so the scales of what passed for NHL justice weighed the evidence. Ezinicki and Boston coach Lynn Patrick were scheduled to appear in Campbell’s suite at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, with Lindsay and Detroit coach Tommy Ivan following at 1 p.m. George Gravel was also on deck to report what he’d witnessed.

In the event, the teams were late arriving in Boston — their train from Detroit was delayed for five hours after hitting a car at an Ontario rail crossing — and proceedings had to be hurried along.

It would have been mid-afternoon when the scene above ensued. No-one else spoke to the reporters who assembled to hear the verdict: this was Clarence Campbell’s show.

“Everything has been said,” Ezinicki offered. Lindsay: “Nothing to say.”

“Neither of them had a whisper to offer in defence of their actions,” Campbell said.

The Boston Globe reminded readers that Campbell, himself a former NHL referee, had a lawyerly past, and that in 1945, just before assuming the NHL presidency, he’d been a Canadian Army prosecutor at the German war crime trials.

“There are three factors to be considered in settling a case of this kind,” he began. “First, the amount of incapacitation; second, provocation, and third, the past records of the players.”

“I don’t feel there was any real incapacitation in this instance,” Campbell continued. “I’m sure that Ezinicki would be able to play all right against the Wings if he were allowed.” (Ezinicki later concurred, for the record: he said he felt “all right.”)

“I don’t consider either of these men had provocation. They went at each other willfully.”

“These two fellows’ previous records are hard to exceed, not for one but for all seasons.”

His sentences? Campbell noted that the punishments he was handing down were the most severe of his five-year tenure as NHL president. Lindsay and Ezinicki were each fined $300 (including the original $100 match-penalty sanctions) and both were suspended (without pay) for the next three Boston-Detroit games. The fines were, in fact, more akin to peace bonds: so long as they behaved themselves, Lindsay and Ezinicki could each apply to have $200 of their fines returned to them.

“It depends upon their records the remainder of the season,” Campbell said, “if they’re not too proud to ask for it.”

Campbell did have some sharp words for the linesmen who’d been working the game in Detroit, Mush March and Bill Knott, who’d failed to quell the disturbance. “An order has been sent out reminding linesmen rules call for them to heed instructions in their rule books which say they ‘shall intervene immediately in fights,’” he said.

Campbell did, finally, have an important policy distinction to make before he concluded his sentencing session at the Statler Hotel. “I want to emphasize,” he told the writers gathered, “that I’m handing out these penalties entirely for the stick-swinging business and not for their fist-fighting.”

“In 1949, when there was a mild epidemic of match penalties, the board of governors instructed me to stiffen up on sticking incidents. I’m following that policy.”

“We want to stamp out the use of sticks. We’re not so concerned with fists . Fighting is not encouraged,” Campbell explained, “but it is tolerated as an outlet for the high spirits in such a violent contact game.”

It was the end of February by the time Ezinicki and Lindsay had served out their suspensions and were back on the ice to face one another in a game in Boston. They restrained themselves, I guess: neither of the antagonists featured in the penalty record or write-ups generated by the 1-1 tie that the Red Wings and Bruins shared in.

Campbell had a busy schedule all the same as February turned to March in ’51.

He took a suite at Toronto’s Royal York as the month got going and it was there that he decreed, after hearing from the parties involved (including referee Gravel, again), that Maple Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson would be suspended for two games and fined $200 for swinging his stick at Adam Brown of the Chicago Black Hawks.

“It appears to me as if he had a mental lapse,” Campbell said of Mortson.

Next up, a few days later, Campbell was back in his office in Montreal to adjudicate Maurice Richard’s New York hotel run-in with referee Hugh McLean.

During a game with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that week, the Rocket had objected to a penalty he’d been assessed. For his protestations, he’d found himself with a misconduct and a $50 fine.

Later, when Richard happened to run into McLean in the lobby of the Piccadilly Hotel on 45th, just west of Broadway, he’d accosted him.

Campbell fined Richard $500 on a charge of “conduct detrimental to the welfare of hockey.”

Yes, he decided, Richard had appl wrote in rendering his decision, “that Richard did get McLean by the throat or tie …. Richard’s action in grabbing McLean was accompanied by a lot of foul and abusive language at the official which was continued through the entire incident lasting several minutes, and during which several women were present.”

Campbell did chide press coverage of the incident, which had been, he found, “exaggerated” the situation, since no blows had actually been landed in the fracas.

Campbell did say a word in defence of his referee, saying that Richard’s conduct was “completely unjustifiable.” His fine, Campbell insisted, would serve both as punishment for his bad behaviour and as a warning to other hockey players not to attack referees on the ice, or in hotels — or anywhere, really, at any time.

Justice League: Back row, from left, that’s Detroit coach Tommy Ivan, NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss, referee George Gravel, Boston coach Lynn Patrick. Up front: Ted Lindsay, Clarence Campbell, Bill Ezinicki. Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

 

 

charlie conacher lends a hand

Palmistry: Charlie Conacher, in the foreground here, shows goaltender Earl Robertson how it’s done at Madison Square Garden circa 1940. Otherwise, from the right, that’s Ranger Dutch Hiller (#8), Amerks’ Busher Jackson in the distance, and Ranger Phil Watson tussling with (I think) Art Chapman. Note the chicken-wire fencing protecting the fans. The only question: where’s the puck?

Birthday tidings today for the great Charlie Conacher — unless those are due tomorrow, or on December 20? Questions abound; you can review them here, if you’re in a mood. The scene here dates to the Big Bomber’s latter NHL years when, after ten seasons starring for the Toronto Maple Leafs and another year’s stop in Detroit, Conacher played his final two seasons with the New York Americans. Red Dutton’s team was not very good in those years, going 15-29-4 in 1939-40 and 8-29-11 the following year. Conacher’s own returns were modest, compared to the heady days when he was playing the Toronto wing, earlier in the decade. In New York, he contributed 10 goals and 28 points in 47 games his first year, 7 and 23 in 46 in his last.

Take a note, here, of the hand he’s showing. Cutting the palms out of hockey gloves is an old trick, of course, that someone like Conacher might have pleaded allowed him a better grip on his stick. That may have been the case; palmless gloves also aided in the freer and more surreptitious clutching of opponents in tight quarters. The NHL eventually cracked down on the practice, though not until 1964, when Leaf defenceman Carl Brewer was caught in the act and copped to the reason why his gloves were doctored. A new rule followed: all NHL gloves, after that, had to be fully palmed.

Toronto, remember, was on a three-year run winning Stanley Cups at the time. Coach Punch Imlach griped about the new rule, and others: he thought they were part of anti-Leaf campaign to throw the team off its championship form. “Those changes are aimed at us,” he said.

on a day like this, 1955: toe picked

The early months of 1955 were tumultuous ones for the Montreal Canadiens. In March, as the regular season was winding to an end, Maurice Richard’s suspension roiled the team and, soon enough, the city of Montreal. The Canadiens did get to the finals that spring, but without the Rocket they fell to the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. That was in April. To start May, the news from Montreal was that after 15 seasons and three Cup championships, coach Dick Irvin was moving out and on, to Chicago, where he hoped to resurrect the Black Hawks.

There was plenty of speculation in Montreal, of course, on the matter of who might take Irvin’s place. Canadiens Managing Director Frank Selke was quick to rule out a couple of candidates with experience on the Montreal blueline: Ken Reardon, who was already ensconced in the organization’s front office, was thought to be a GM-in-waiting, while Butch Bouchard still hoped to play another season or two. Former Leaf great Charlie Conacher had experience coaching in Chicago, and when he was seen chatting with Selke, the rumour was quick to spread that he was the man. Another defenceman on the Canadiens roster, Tom Johnson, told a reporter that while he’d heard the names of former Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy and Toe Blake bandied about, he didn’t think either man would end up in the job: he suspected the new man would be a Quebecer. So maybe Roger Léger, yet another former Canadien (and one more defender), who was coach of Shawinigan in the Quebec league? Billy Reay was mentioned, too, though he was from Winnipeg, an erstwhile Canadien now coaching the Victoria Cougars in the WHL. 

By the end May, Maurice Richard was weighing in. No disrespect to his old teammates Léger and Reay, but the Rocket felt — or knew — that it would be his former linemate, Blake, who should be taking charge. “I think Blake is the best of the three men, as he can handle men both on and off the ice,” Richard told reporters on a visit to Timmins, Ontario, to receive an award. “He should get the job over Reay or Léger, although they both have done good jobs.”

Blake, who was 42 that spring, and a son of Coniston, Ontario, which is now p[art of Sudbury, had been coaching previously in Montreal’s farm system, notably with the Valleyfield Braves of Quebec’s Senior League. As predicted by the Rocket, he was appointed to the job of Canadiens coach 11 days later, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955. 

“I am stepping into a big pair of shoes in taking over from Dick Irvin,” Blake said told the press that day. “I have always considered him the best in the league, and with the help of Mr. Selke and Mr. Reardon and the players, we will continue to keep Canadiens hockey name on top. The team won’t let the fans down. I am not going to promise the Stanley Cup, but we will continue as a great fighting club.”

Blake’s first game in charge came that October, when Montreal beat Toronto 2-0 in the opening game of the 1955-56 season. The Stanley Cup that Blake’s Canadiens won the following spring was the first of five in a row, of course, as Blake steered Montreal to eight championships in the 13 years he remained at the helm before retiring in 1968 and handing over to Claude Ruel. 

(Image, from the late 1960s: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

locomotive at large

Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.

In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.

He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.

After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.

A writer for  Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:

I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.

Theme Park: Conacher and his legacy are commemorated in a midtown Toronto park.

(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

busher the kid

Action Jackson: Born in Toronto on a Tuesday of this date in 1911, Harvey Busher Jackson made his NHL debut with the hometown Maple Leafs at the age of 18 in 1929. He played left wing on the Leafs’ legendary Kid Line, skating with Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher, and together they won a Stanley Cup in 1932. In 1934, in a game against the St. Louis Eagles, he became the first NHLer to score four goals in a period. After a decade in Toronto, he played a couple of seasons with the New York Americans and three more with the Bruins in Boston. In later life, he suffered from alcoholism and a host of health challenges; Jackson died in 1966 at the age of 55. Despite Conn Smythe’s best efforts to keep him out, Jackson was finally elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971 — whereupon Smythe quit the Hall’s Selection Committee in dissent.

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

playing for howie, 1937: may his fine spirit never die

Saluting 7: It was on a Tuesday of this date in 1937 that a team of NHL All-Stars met a mingling of Maroons and Canadiens in the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at Montreal’s Forum. Eight months earlier, Morenz had lain in state at centre ice after his death at the age of 34. In November, a crowd of 8,683 was on hand, raising $11,447.57 for a memorial fund in support of the Morenz family. Tributes filled the programme printed for the evening: “May his fine spirit never die,” read the NHL’s. Montreal’s roster counted most of Morenz’s Canadien teammates, including his long-time linemates Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat. The All-Stars’ line-up included Tiny Thompson in goal along with Boston teammates Eddie Shore and Dit Clapper, as well as Toronto’s Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Busher Jackson. Marty Barry of the Detroit Red Wings scored the decisive goal in the All-Stars’ 6-5 win. Detroit’s Jack Adams coached the All-Stars. When the pace of the game lagged in the second period, he was heard to roar from the bench, “Quit loafing! Make this a real game!”