Saddened to hear of Tony Esposito’s death today at the age of 78; the Chicago Blackhawks announced the news, here, this afternoon.
Earl Davis announced his findings in January of 1944.
“Hockey fans are the craziest people, of that I am sure,” was what years of experience had taught him. “They do not seem to know it is dangerous to throw things — that a player could break his leg on the junk they toss — and that we are breaking our backs picking it up. One night we scooped up 300 or 400 pennies, several dimes and nickels, and a couple of quarters.”
Davis, the long-suffering supervisor of the 12-man clean-up crew responsible for keeping the ice clear at Chicago Stadium, unburdened himself toAssociated Press correspondent Charles Chamberlin that winter.
Programs, tissue paper, poker chips, marbles, decks of cards, rice, navy beans were all on Davis’ list of items he and his team had retrieved through the past few wartime seasons. “Eggs — a dime a dozen. Oranges, apples, grapefruit, slices of bread — some day we’ll get the knives and forks. If it wasn’t for rationing …”
Chamberlain also inquired into the flying machines that filled the Stadium airspace night after night. “Made with painstaking care from programs by guys in the far, smoke-bound reaches of the upper gallery,” dozens of paper airplanes regularly went winging down from on high in these “stadium sweepstakes.”
Blackhawks president Bill Tobin described how it worked: “They choose a blueline or a circle on the ice and try to see who can sail their planes closest to the marks. They bet anything from five cents to five dollars on the accuracy of the flights.”
Tobin had his choice cut when it came to stories of flying food.
“The Hawks were in Boston when what should splash down on the ice but a big chunk of beef steak, uncooked. Taffy Abel, who was playing defence for us then, picked it up, made a bow towards the gallery, and carted it off. He said he fried and ate it after the game.”
Could have happened, I guess, just not in ’37: Abel played his last game in the NHL in 1934.
A month into the NHL’s second COVID-modified season: how’s that going? As of last night, 175 games of 210 scheduled games had been played, 35 postponed. Around the league, 108 players on 26 teams have spent time on the COVID protocol list, not all of whom have tested positive, with 52 players from 10 teams now cloistered, along with a couple of linesmen. Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and St. Louis are the teams that have, so far, avoided listing any players.
Time to be erring on the side of shutting it all down? Not according to the NHL. At least, there’s been no public suggestion of any hiatus in the interest of all-around health and safety. Must the show go on? Maybe not, but it will.
And maybe, soon, with more fans. The Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Dallas Stars have already been skating in front of diminished crowds, and now there’s word that both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping to be getting the public-health approval that will allow them to welcome a limited number of fans into their respective buildings, maybe in March.
All of which would seem to suggest that the time is right for a detour back through hockey history to a time when fans not only filled the seats of NHL arenas, but fulfilled their right to hurl whatever they might have in hand, or pocket, or on foot, onto the ice.
The throwing of stuff by fans at hockey games is, of course, as much of the history of the sport as the ice and/or referees that stuff has so often targeted. In a book I wrote about the culture of hockey (and vice-versa), I devoted six pages to the instinct fans have to throw stuff at hockey games; the variety of stuff thrown; and the dangers inherent in that stuff being on the ice — I could easily have filled a chapter of 20 pages.
Welcome, then, to a weekend’s series of posts focussing on Chicago’s old Stadium in the 1930s and ’40s.
Chicago is by no means the only NHL city with a history of dangerous debris: the annals of stuff flung include them all, every franchise, every rink. Black Hawks’ fans were notorious, especially those occupying the high gallery seats at the Madhouse on Madison, for inundating the ice in outrage, protest, joy, or … just because they could. The 1944 Stanley Cup Finals stand out in this regard — more about that here — but there were plenty of instances before that of games delayed by coins and shoes and playing cards raining down from on high, paper airplanes, novels, fruit, empty bottles.
The Blackhawks did their best to curtail the bombarding over the years, deploying ushers and policeman, issuing threats and pleas. The entreaty reproduced here, above, dates to January of 1935, when Chicago was defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in the spring of ’34.
The Associated Press reported on this flyer, which was distributed to fans that winter. “So bold have the customers at the Chicago Stadium been getting that it was decided to appeal to their better natures in an effort to halt the aerial onslaughts.”
Fans had been growing bolder, the AP noted, since earlier in the season when a bottle-tosser, arrested by police, had been released at the request of Stadium authorities.
“Officials of the club were inclined to believe their printed appeal was conducive to better behaviour,” the AP noted, “because there was a noticeable depreciation in the amount of debris scattered on the ice the first night it was tried.”
With the NHL preparing for the mid-January launch of a second COVID-era season, I’ve been reporting for The New York Times on how hockey fared in some past times of crisis and contingency. That’s on the page in today’s paper, as well as online over this way.
This part didn’t make it into the Times piece, but as I was charting back through the challenges the NHL faced during World War II, I was reminded of another echo of former times that 2020’s fraught hockey season awakened.
Back in far-off February of last year, the NHL got a first inkling of the disruptions that were to follow when two major suppliers of hockey sticks, Bauer and CCM, shut down manufacturing operations in China as the coronavirus continued its insidious spread. Equipment managers fretted, along with some prominent players. None of them, of course, imagined at the time that the entire league would be summarily shuttered — along with everything else — just a month later.
World War II tested hockey’s supply chains, too. It was a lack of manpower at North American sawmills and lumberyards that raised the spectre of a scarcity of sticks in 1946, not a global pandemic. “We’re still making a few,” a Spalding spokesman warned early that year, “but we have no reserve stocks of lumber on hand. When these are finished, there won’t be any more this year.”
CCM faced a similar predicament. Disaster seems to have been averted — hockey carried on — but several minor leagues did wonder whether they’d be able to play, and those with sticks in hand were advised to wield them with caution, to preserve what they had.
Wartime shook hockey to its core — specifically, the small, black one at the centre of every game. In 1941, with war in the Pacific limiting the supply of raw rubber even as military demand was increasing, news of North American shortages began to spread.
In December of the year, just a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Canada’s minister of Munitions and Supply, C.D. Howe, announced a ban on the sale of all rubber tires save those new vehicles. Two months later, one of Howe’s deputies, Alan Williamson, warned that Canadians didn’t understand just how dire the rubber situation was: it was “the gravest problem confronting” Canada and the Allies, he told the Canadian Hardware Convention and Exposition that February.
In another address, he upped the ante even higher, saying that he did not consider it “an exaggeration to say that anyone who uses rubber for any unnecessary purpose is committing an act of treason.”
For effect, Williamson enumerated some of the things for which rubber was no long being made available: “rubber soles, rubber heels, rubber bands, rubber bathing suits, garters, suspenders, foundation garments, tennis balls, flooring, rubber mats, shower curtains, tires for passenger cars, bathing caps.”
In January, the Canadian Press quoted Williamson as saying that while his department did not propose “to tell manufacturers of hockey pucks, tennis balls, and golf balls to stop making them, it would be ‘nothing short of a miracle’ if they were to get the rubber to do so in 1942.”
“New Composition Expected For Hockey Pucks,” an Ottawa Journal headline announced that winter, without offering any specifics: “the future of this staple article in Canada’s winter sports calendar is still obscure” was as far as the accompanying article was willing to go.
NHL teams were already doing their best to maintain their strategic puck reserves. The Chicago Black Hawks posted signs at the Stadium asking fans to return any puck that found a way into the crowd because, well, the very future of the league depended on it.
“This is a great national emergency,” a team spokesman reasoned. “Everything must be saved. Rubber is in great demand and we must conserve it. Pucks are made of rubber and we must conserve them, too. It would be a great shame to see a great sport and morale-building game like hockey go into the discard because of a shortage of pucks. That’s why we call upon our fans to throw back our pucks in the interest of sport and conservation of valuable defense material.”
Earnest as it was, this appeal didn’t convince everyone. When the Black Hawks hosted the Boston Bruins on Sunday, December 14, 1941, the only puck to leave the rink during the teams’ 3-3 tie was not returned, proving (as Edward Burns wrote in the Tribune) “a souvenir bug will cling to almost anything.”
Efforts were made at other rinks, too. Madison Square Garden was still home in 1941-42 to two NHL teams, the Rangers and the Brooklyn Americans. Games there began with advisories over the public address system emphasizing that that repatriating pucks that strayed was the “patriotic” thing to do.
Those who tossed them back, it was duly noted, were cheered lustily. Louis Schneider, a syndicated financial columnist, reported on the fate of the bold soul who tried to hang on to a puck in New York. “The hockey fan that grabs one and refuses to throw it back is all but mobbed by soldiers and sailors in addition to being booed by the crowd.”
It’s all over but the shouting here: the puck, you can see, is already in the back of the net, despite Roy Worters’ best effort to flop into its path. It was 85 years today, on a Thursday of this, that this photograph was taken, and that Worters, goaltender for the long-gone New York Americans, failed to thwart Paul Thompson’s second-period game-winning goal for the Chicago Black Hawks.
This was opening night for the NHL in 1935, with the league heading into its 17th season. It was an eight-team loop in those years; another now-extinct team, Montreal’s Maroons, were the defending Stanley Cup champions. On this night, with Worters’ Americans in at the Chicago Stadium to start the proceedings, the home team won by a score of 3-1. Paul Thompson is the Hawk on the ice at right; aiding his effort are (numbered 12) Chicago centre Doc Romnes and an identified teammate — maybe Don McFadyen, who assisted on the goal? Vainly defending Worters’ net: I don’t know who it is in the background, but it might be defenceman Bill Brydge nearest the net. And down on the ice with Thompson? Looks to me like Red Dutton.
Other notes from the night:
Howie Morenz was starting his second season with Chicago, though he wouldn’t last the year. In January of ’36, his slow journey back to the Montreal Canadiens continued as he was traded to the New York Rangers. Morenz was slowed that opening week by a strained back muscle, and was doubtful for the New York game until he wasn’t: he played.
Chicago goaltender Lorne Chabot didn’t: he’d injured a knee in practice was only seen on crutches before the game, making his way to centre-ice to receive the Vézina Trophy from NHL president Frank Calder. Mike Karakas started in his place in the Black Hawks’ goal.
Chicago mayor Edward Kelly dropped a ceremonial puck; it was for the best, the Tribune said, that he’d decided not to do it on skates. Attendance was given as 13,500.
Along with his game-winning goal, Chicago winger Paul Thompson added an assist: he aided in Lou Trudel’s opening goal for the Hawks. Romnes added an insurance goal in the third. New York’s only goal came from Harry Oliver, shorthanded, in the first. Thompson also found the time and the choler for a fight, engaging with New York winger Baldy Cotton in the second period.
The Black Hawks, it’s worth mentioning, were wearing brand-new uniforms this night, debuting a new livery that abandoned the black-and-white colouring scheme the team had affected since their arrival in the league in 1926. That original design was said to have been overseen by Irene Castle McLaughlin, wife of Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin, and that may well be the case. Without a doubt she had a hand in the new design, displayed here.
“Ever since they were organized the Hawks have clung to black and white unies,” the Tribune’s Edward Burns had written earlier that fall. “The stripes from time to time would be varied, but always they gave a chance for scoffers to make cracks about convicts and chain gangs. But ah, how different it will be this year!”
“The shoulders are black,” he continued, “but with no white stripes. The torso and arms are circled with three wide stripes, the outside ones red and the middle one buckskin. The color scheme, with Indian embellishments, has been used in the design of the panties [sic] and the socks. The socks have diagonal stripes rather than the Joliet solitary confinement motif.”
“The gloves are uniform for the first time. The three-color idea is carried out on these flashing gloves and fringe on the gauntlets give that Indian touch.”
Back, finally, to Roy Worters. It was 22 years to the day after this game, and this photograph, that he died, on a Thursday of this date in 1957, of throat cancer. He was 57.
March of 1964 was a busy month for Gordie Howe. To finish up his 18th season with the Detroit Red Wings, he scored four goals in 10 games, giving him 26 on the season and 566 for his career. He ended up, again, as Detroit’s leading scorer, fifth overall in the NHL. Both The Hockey News and the Associated Press voted him to their Second All-Star teams, which is where he’d end up when the official NHL version was named in April. What else? As his 36th birthday loomed, on March 31, and Howe was signing a 10-year promotion deal with Eaton’s department store, he mentioned that he planned to play two more years of pro hockey before he retired and went looking for a coaching job.
Also: on this very date in ’64, another Sunday, deep in Chicago Stadium, Gordie Howe asked a young fan a question that — just guessing here — he thought of as rhetorical. Did the fan, Howe inquired, want a punch in the mouth?
Having just helped his team even its first-round playoff series with the Chicago Black Hawks at a game apiece, Mr. Hockey might or might not have gotten the answer he was or wasn’t looking for: we just don’t know.
What’s clear is that Howe put down the bags he was carrying to deliver the aforementioned punch — “a good one,” as he described it, later, to reporters.
Robert Rosenthal, 20, was the fan. He and his friend George Berg had gone down after the game to wait outside the Red Wings’ dressing room. This we know because the next day, Monday, Rosenthal presented himself at Chicago’s Monroe Street municipal court with an idea of obtaining a warrant for Gordie Howe’s arrest on a charge of assault.
“When the player came out,” Rosenthal recounted, “I said, ‘Why don’t you learn to play a little cleaner?’” Howe’s reply: “You want a punch in the mouth?”
To that, Rosenthal told the court, he said this: “You’re good at fighting guys smaller than you.”
Howe hit him.
Rosenthal testified that he’d retreated south, to nearby Cook County Hospital, where he’d taken on eight stitches to close the cut to his mouth.
Judge John Sullivan wasn’t impressed. “I will not,” he told Rosenthal, “perform a useless act.”
“On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me, any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted that you provoked him.”
Back in Detroit, Howe told reporters what he knew — and added several new punches to the mix-up.
“This guy got in the way and said to me, ‘The ref called ’em right for you?’ I said, ‘Sure, all right.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, he didn’t call them right, huh?’” He wasn’t making much sense.”
“I asked him if he was looking for trouble. Then he stepped into me and I let him have a light punch on the nose.”
“I took another step toward the bus and he hit me on the back of the head, so I put down both travelling bags and let him have a good one.”
“I don’t think they have the right to swear at you,” Howe said, summing up, “and I’m not going to stand for it when they use my mother’s and father’s name in vain.”
In the aftermath of Rosenthal’s dismissal at court, his mother, whose name may have been Veronica but is given in at least one account as Veronia, mentioned that lawyers would be consulted. Sure enough, before the week was out, just in time for Howe’s birthday, Rosenthal filed a lawsuit seeking US$25,000 for damages from number 9 and the Red Wings, claiming “Howe’s unprovoked attack humiliated, embarrassed, and held him up to public ridicule.” He noted, too, that his wound had become infected and swollen to three times its regular size.
Howe and/or Wings may have settled the suit — whatever happened, the incident vanished from the press. They had largely, true to Rosenthal’s claim, sided with the hockey player over the man who accosted him. A scrapbook of not exactly sympathetic headlines from that week, 56 years ago, might include:
Detroit Hockey Player Socks Annoying Fan
Fan Learns What NHL Players Know — Don’t Mess Around With Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe Decks Abusive Fan
Fist in Face Worth $25,000, Figures Fan
As for the NHL, president Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate, though he didn’t expect anything to come of it. “I’m not too excited about it,” he said, “and I doubt there’ll be any league action against Howe. After the game is over and he’s out of the rink, it’s not really an NHL affair, although these incidents can’t do anything for our public image.”
Stop Action: Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1912 in the now ghostly hamlet of Victoria Mines, Ontario, near Sudbury, Toe Blake was a famous left winger for the Montreal Canadiens before he got around to coaching them. For all that, he won his first Stanley Cup playing for Montreal’s other team, the lost, lamented Maroons, in 1935. With the Habs, of course, he lined up with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the Punch Line. He won a Hart Trophy in 1939, the year he also led the NHL in scoring. He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1946. Blake captained the Canadiens from 1940 until an ankle injury forced his retirement in 1948. That stretch saw Montreal win two further Cups, in ’44 and ’46. For all this, he was elevated, in 1966, to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a player. His coaching wasn’t so shabby, either: between 1956 and 1968, he steered the Canadiens to eight more Cups.
Here, above, stymied, Blake is in white, wearing a 6. Making contact is Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert; up front, that’s winger Mush March fleeing the scene. Montreal was at Chicago Stadium on this night in January of 1944, and they’d battle the Black Hawks to a 1-1 draw. Fido Purpur opened the scoring for the home team before Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard tied it up. Three months later, when the teams met in the Cup finals, Canadiens prevailed with emphasis, sweeping the Black Hawks four games to none.