tiger troupe

Hammercats: The Hamilton Tigers as they lined up in their final NHL season in 1924-25. From left, manager Percy Thompson, owner Andrew Ross, Charlie Langlois, Red Green, Ed Bouchard, Billy Burch, Vernon Forbes, Mickey Roach, Ken Randall, Alex McKinnon, captain Shorty Green, Jesse Spring.

Ken Randall was born in Kingston, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1887. He captained Toronto’s very first NHL team, leading his mates to a Stanley Cup championship in 1918. He won another Cup in 1922, by which time the Toronto team had transformed into the St. Patricks. Randall’s next stop was Hamilton: in 1923, he joined the NHL Tigers. He played two seasons in Steeltown, including with the 1924-25 squad pictured here. Randall was 36 that year, and the team was good, finishing first overall at the end of the regular season. While the Tigers were touted as a Stanley Cup contender, it was not to be: after the players went on strike, demanding to be properly paid for the longer season they’d just come through, the team was suspended, the players sold — and that was the end of Hamilton’s big-league team. Along with those of most of the players seen here, Randall’s contract was sold to New York, where he made his next and final stop in the NHL with the fledgling Americans.

vegas knights and fake swordfights? in 1926, wolves overran madison square garden ice

Wolf Man: Gogama, Ontario’s Joe LaFlamme started with wolves, but in later years he was known for training moose and bears. Here, at some point during the 1950s, he’s seen with a bear cub headed for Britain. (Image: Canadian National Railways / Library and Archives Canada)

Before their players went out and beat the Capitals in a wild 6-4 game Monday night, the team put on its own show pregame, a Game of Thrones-esque ceremony. It included a narrator describing how the west was won, a golden knight on skates taking out a group of skaters with red capes representing the Capitals and even a catapult launching CGI cannon balls at the opponents.

“The Golden Knights army has vanquished the Kings, feasted on Sharks and grounded the Jets,” the narrator began, referring to the teams Vegas beat to get to the Stanley Cup finals. “Conquering enemies on land, sea and air, the West belongs to Vegas.”

• Greg Joyce, “Golden Knights’ PreGame Show Was Bizarre Start To Stanley Cup,” The New York Post, May 29, 2018

With all the bustle over the pre-game hokum that Vegas has been putting on ice ahead of this week’s Stanley Cup games, can I just say that when it comes to side-shows put on by infant NHL franchises, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I’d much rather have been on hand when the wolves overran Madison Square Garden in 1926.

Even better would have been to have somehow accompanied those wolves on their epic journey to the NHL. Is it possible that they mushed all the way from Northern Ontario to Manhattan that long-ago winter?

Just possible, though that part of the story does seem a little far-fetched.

Tex Rickard, garbed for New York Americans’ goaling, c. 1925.

What is beyond doubt is that the NHL’s original New York team, the Americans, launched a year before the Rangers joined the league. Staffed mostly by players from the defunct Hamilton Tigers, the Amerks were owned by Thomas Duggan and the bootlegger Bill Dwyer. They were tenants of Tex Rickard’s fancy new Madison Square Garden. Rickard would get a team of his own in the Rangers the following year, but during the 1925-26 he had to make do with serving as landlord and “honorary president” of the Americans. He was the one, from what I can tell, who arranged for the appearance by Joe LaFlamme and his menagerie one Saturday night midway through the season.

LaFlamme is a fascinating figure; Suzanne Charron’s 2013 biography Wolf Man Joe LaFlamme: Tamer Untamed tells the tale of his long career in bootlegging, trapping, showmanship, conservation, wrestling, and zookeeping with verve.

Born Télesphore Laflamme in St. Télesphore, Quebec, in 1889, he became Joe during the First World War in an effort to avoid conscription. He succeeded, and kept the name. After a move to Gogama, Ontario, 191 kilometres north of Sudbury, he raised huskies for dog-sledding and made his name brewing illicit liquor. By 1923, he was trapping wolves and training them to sled.

It was during the winter of 1925 that he gained big-city celebrity when The Toronto Star made the Wolf Man a centerpiece of its winter carnival. LaFlamme brought a team of 13 wolves and huskies by train to the city’s streets in aid of The Star’s desire “to give Toronto citizens the privilege of seeing this unique outfit from the northern woods.” Their itinerary included parading up University Avenue at a speed of 16 kilometres-an-hour, and a tour of the Danforth. Thousands turned out to visit them over the course of the week in a “bush camp” set up in High Park.

LaFlamme’s Manhattan adventure a year later wasn’t quite on the same scale. In this case, LaFlamme, then 36, had in harness to his sleigh a team of eight huskies, a mixed-breed wolf, and four actual timber wolves. Suzanne Charron doubts that LaFlamme drove them all 1,300 kilometres from Gogama to New York, though was the story that the local press went with at the time, including The New York Times (who also mentioned “a seven-dog team). LaFlamme and friends did steer down Broadway on the morning of Saturday, January 23, 1926, and they may well have stopped at City Hall to greet Mayor Jimmy Walker.

The New York Americans were no Vegas Golden Knights in their first year in the NHL, but they were respectable. In late January, they were sitting fifth in the league’s standings. That put them ahead of Toronto and Boston if not the other team making its debut that year, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were in third.

It was the Bruins who were visiting the night of January 23, and in front of a crowd of 10,000, they battled the Americans to a 2-2 impasse that overtime couldn’t resolve. Billy Burch and Shorty Green scored the New York goals, while Boston got theirs from Carson Cooper and Sprague Cleghorn. Worth a mention, too, maybe: both Green and his New York teammate Charlie Langlois were knocked unconscious during the game. “Sturdy souls, these boys, a local paper appraised. “A dash of water and a little persuasion and they were on their feet again.”

Joe LaFlamme dropped a ceremonial puck to start the evening’s entertainment, possibly. His command performance came in the first intermission, when he and his team (a reported seven dogs and four wolves) took their turns around the ice. It doesn’t sound like it was easy. According to the Times, “the timber wolves and dogs from the frigid North acted as if they knew they were far from home.”

The New York Daily News said he “attempted to persuade his dog team to obey his commands on the slick ice of the Garden rink.” In response, New Yorkers watching them go were “typically critical.” As the Daily News saw it, “the diet didn’t appeal.”

LaFlamme, on his sledge, shouted in strident tones: “Mush! Mush! Mush!”

The new Garden populace was quick with: “Cheese! Cheese!”

But LaFlamme tried.

The northerners were back two nights later when the Americans hosted Montreal’s Maroons. This game also ended in a fruitless overtime; 1-1 was the score. Nels Stewart scored for the visitors, with Eddie Bouchard replying for New York. Montreal’s Reg Noble was the casualty of the night, knocked out (as noted by The Times) when a shot of Bouchard’s caught him in the stomach. He revived and played on, it seems, though “it required considerable ammonia to bring him around.”

Joe LaFlamme had his struggles, again, in the first intermission. His animals, said The Times were unruly, making “it very plain that they do not care for New York. Joe gave his dogs a lot of orders, but they went in one ear and out the other.”

hockey players in hospital beds: ching johnson on the fire-escape

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

“Ching Johnson, heaviest and oldest player in major league hockey, has spent 29 weeks of his career in hospitals.”
• Norman Thomas, “Ye Sport Sandwich,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 16, 1937

I’m not going to catalogue all of Ivan Johnson’s hockey ailments here — this isn’t the time for that, and it isn’t the place. Regarding that introductory tally of Norman Thomas’, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny his calendar calculation for the Hall-of-Fame defenceman better known as Ching. What I can confide is what a newspaper aside dating to 1926 alleged, just as Johnson was just starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers: that the hockey he’d played to that point had conferred “27 scars.” That’s a number that — maybe it’s just coincidence — recurs in a 1938 edition of Time: “in twelve seasons of big-league of big-league hockey he has had bones broken in 27 different parts of his body.”

Hockey hurt more in the early years of the NHL: the game was sharper, blunter, more broadly brutal in the damage it inflicted on the professionals who played it. That’s part of the Ching Johnson story. The abandon he played with had something to do with his hospital tenancy, too. He enjoyed throwing his body at oncoming forwards. Frisky was one of his adjectives, and bumptious was another. He was tall, 5’11”, and what contemporary newspapers liked to call husky and/or burly — paired as he often was in his first years as a Ranger with Taffy Abel, he was half of what The New York Times called “the beefiest combination defense in the game,” a blueline bulwark that brought some 461 pounds to bear (at least 210 of them were Johnson’s).

Sounds like a brute, I know. But Johnson was fast, too, and if we loiter, for a moment, on the skill that went with his physical dynamism, we can find his boss in New York, Lester Patrick, likening him to Babe Ruth. “Great boy, Ching!” he gushed to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1928. “He has only one superior as a stick-handling defenceman and that is Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins.” Ten years later, a Ranger teammate, Bill Cook, classed Johnson as the greatest hockey player he’d ever seen.

But. Hospitals. There is one in particular I’m heading for, though not before a few more paragraphs to gather momentum. Maybe, to start, a sampling of vintage newspaper headlines from the Ching Johnson Injury Archive:

Injured

Johnson Injured In Hockey Clash

Blesse Dangereusement Samedi Soir

Johnson Unable To Rejoin Ranger Sextet This Season

Injured, He Stars

If he was a hockey Babe Ruth, it’s also the fact that there were oft-hurt ballplayers — Del Bissonette was one — who were referred to as the Ching Johnson of baseball, as in much-mended.

Ching Johnson injuries we’re not going to discuss, too much:

• the collarbone he broke in a collision with Charlie Langlois of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke in 1926;

• three of his ribs, damaged when he tripped Herb Drury of the Pirates in 1928 and (as The Pittsburgh Press had it) Drury’s “feet flew up and crashed into Johnson’s side;”

• the jaw Dit Clapper’s shoulder smashed in 1930, causing a dislocation and compound fracture that attending doctors (according to Ranger publicist Jersey Jones) used 80 inches of copper wire to repair;

• the forehead that Detroit’s Ebbie Goodfellow clipped with his stick in the playoffs in 1933 which left him, Johnson, “looking as though a horse had kicked him in the forehead” (said The Associated Press), leaving a scar that carved “in a livid crescent from the top of his nose to near his left eyebrow” in which five stitches could be counted.

Something else we’re not really going to get into: Johnson’s many stitchings, other than to say he himself denied having taken on 1,000 in his career, as was sometimes claimed by others on his behalf. “Where could they put them?” he said in 1937. “I’ve had only 374.”

His lack of meanness is important to emphasize, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been any spite in him. “Johnson,” wrote Horace Lavigne in La Patrie, “is a gentleman on the ice and he never abuses his strength or his bulk.” He bodychecked with bonhomie, sometimes helping those he’d knocked down back to their feet. When he rushed the puck, Lavigne went on, it was “with the impetuosity of an overflowing torrent.”

If you study the Ching Johnson literature you come across many sentences regarding his good nature and perpetual smile, which was said to grow as the going got rougher. “Often,” said his 1979 obituary in The New York Times, “when Mr. Johnson was knocked down, he would flash a grin that bespoke his delight at the contact.” A 1932 Le Canada dispatch almost scans as poetry:

Haynes et Johnson en collision;
Ching n’en perd pas son sourire,
Haynes non plus. Mais,
de l’équilibre, c’est autre affaire.

•••

Johnson was about to turn 30 in early December of 1928, when he took to the ice at the Montreal Forum. The new NHL season was just six games old and the Rangers were in town to take on the local Maroons. When the two teams had faced each in the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring, it was the Rangers who’d prevailed. At 4-1-1, they were off to strong start in the new season, though it was the Maroons who’d handed them their lone loss so far.

Other game notes? Dave Trottier, star winger of Canada’s 1928 Olympic team, was making his home debut on the Maroons’ left wing.

Also in the house, front and centre in Forum crowd that numbered about 12,000: Su Alteza Real Don Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, cousin to King Alfonso XIII. With his wife, Infanta Doña Beatrice, and their son, Prince Alvaro, and a small retinue of retainers, Don Alfonso was on a North American tour when he stopped in Montreal. Mayor Camillien Houde met him at the train station, along with his host, Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, general manager of the Bank of Montreal.

The visitors spent a busy two-and-a-half days, touring the Royal Victoria Hospital and their host’s bank, attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica — and taking a pew at Saturday night’s hockey game, where the band opened the proceedings by playing of the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem.

On the ice, Maroons’ goaltender Clint Benedict was the star of the game, per The Gazette, “turning aside one drive after another with a brilliance that was uncanny.”

The game was fast. Also: rugged and robust and even peppery, but: not rough. Ching Johnson was a big part of this, and of the spectacle. “He is booed lustily by the fans,” The Gazette noted, “but they all admire him for a clean, hard playing, good natured defenceman, who smiles through fortune and adversity in hockey.”

The latter struck in the second period. With the game still goalless, Johnson took the puck and skated for the Montreal net, where a defenceman named Henry Hicks poke-checked him. The Gazette:

The Maroon defenceman started for the Ranger goal, and Johnson, somewhat off balance, kept on towards the corner behind the Maroon net. He could not get himself straightened out and crashed into the boards.

A later account described how the “pachydermic and bald defense ace” fell and slid feet first into the boards: “The weight of Johnson’s huge body carried such impetus that the ankle shattered under the strain.”

There were other Ranger casualties on the night: Taffy Abel didn’t return for the third period, and was reported to have suffered a gash from a skate to his left ankle, while left winger Butch Keeling went down with a (Montreal Gazette) “severely wrenched shoulder,” the right one. Torn ligaments, said the doctors later, when they looked.

Nels Stewart scored a goal for the Maroons before the second period ended, and he put another past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach early in the final period before Red Dutton made it 3-0.

That’s how it ended. The champions were beaten again. The Ottawa Journal rated Dave Trottier “fairly impressive,” particularly in the third; he also took two penalties. For Don Alfonso, well, he’d seen hockey before, in St. Moritz and Chamonix, but that was nothing like this.

“It is wonderful,” he said, “and we have all enjoyed every minute of the game.” He and his wife had both been touched to hear their anthem played. “We appreciated immensely the kindly touch and all that it meant.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was in a hospital that the Spaniards hadn’t seen, the western unit of Montreal General on what was then Dorchester Street. X-rays confirmed that his ankle, the left one, was indeed broken.

He wouldn’t be back playing for most of the rest of the season, The New York Times reported subsequently, and with Taffy Abel said to be gone for ten days, Rangers coach and GM Lester Patrick’s line-up was down to two defensemen, Leo Bourgeault and Myles Lane. For their next game, in Boston, the Rangers played with a reduced roster, 11 men. Abel’s and Keeling’s names were noted in the boxscores, though I don’t think either one of them got on the ice. The Bruins won that one, 2-0.

Johnson stayed in Montreal, resting his enplastered leg. The day after his teammates took on Boston, a photographer from La Patrie found the patient in his bed and pointed his camera. That’s it, above: Johnson looks comfortable, if a little unfocussed.

Later the same day, when the hospital caught fire, he’d be on the run. Continue reading