mite is right

“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. Howie’s linemates, in fact, were even more diminutive than he was: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, nicknamed the Black Cat for his speed and his coiffure, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”

Widen your eyes, if you would, then, for Gagnon, whose birthday falls today: born in Chicoutimi on a Saturday of this date in 1905, he was a Canadien for ten years through the 1930s, which means that he was in on Montreal’s 1931 Stanley Cup. He also saw duty, briefly, for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Goalswise, he had his best year, notching 20, the season of Morenz’s untimely death, 1936-37. 

Gagnon went on, later, to serve as a scout for the New York Rangers. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.

Back to the ’30s and his gig as a flyweight partner to Howie Morenz. Here’s Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January of 1931 about the Stratford Streak’s wingers and the rivalry (possibly exaggerated) around what they displaced:

Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.

It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.

“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.

 “Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.

So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.

“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.

A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.

“One hundred and thirty-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.

Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the description of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”

In A Minor Key: Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat.

meet me in chicoutimi

Meet Me in Chicoutimi: Canadiens pose at the Aréna with (in white) local players on the afternoon of March 7, 1915. Dark-sweatered Montrealers are (front row, from left) Louis Berlinguette, Didier Pitre, and Harry Scott and (back row, from left) Jack Laviolette with Ernie Dubeau (I think) next to him, Nick Bawlf fourth from lef,  and Georges Vézina sixth from left, in the tuque. It’s likely that Vézina’s older brother Pierre would have played in this game, and judging from other photographs, I’m guessing that  he’s the tall one at the back, third from the left. Or maybe front row, farthest to the right? A defenceman, he played briefly for Montreal in the NHA, suiting up for a single  game in 1911-12.

A birthday today for Georges Vézina, who was born in Chicoutimi on a Friday of this date in 1887. That means he would have been 28 in March of 1915 when this photograph was taken on the ice at the Aréna one Sunday afternoon in his Saguenay hometown, when his Canadiens came to town for an exhibition game against the local Banque National team.  While I haven’t found a record of the score that day in ’15, what I can report is that Montreal’s season had finished with a thud a few days earlier, when they’d finished dead last in the standings of the six-team NHA.

It’s not that the team lacked talent: alongside Vézina, playing in his fifth professional season, the 1914-15 Canadiens iced a few other future Hall-of-Famers that year in Jack Laviolette, Didier Pitre, and Newsy Lalonde, as well as the solid talents of Bert Corbeau and Louis Berlinguette. A year later, with much the same line-up, Canadiens did win their first Stanley Cup, but in 1915 they just couldn’t get it together.

Finishing top of the NHA that year were the Ottawa Senators and Montreal’s other team, the Wanderers, and those two teams duly played for the league championship.

Ottawa won the two-game series, earning the right to play the PCHA-champion Vancouver Millionaires for the Stanley Cup. That was at the end of March; Vancouver prevailed, winning three successive games.

Progrès du Saguenay ad ahead of Montreal’s exhibition in Chicoutimi in March of 1915.

Montreal’s teams, meanwhile, went to New York, where they played in a friendly tournament at the St. Nicholas Rink at 69 West 66th Street. Wanderers lined up the Cleghorn brothers that year, Odie and Sprague, along with Harry Hyland and Goldie Prodger. They took the first game 7-6 over Vézina and his teammates, and won again the following night, 8-3.

Maybe “friendly” isn’t quite the right word, given the reports from New York.

“It was a hard game from start to finish in the way of body checking,” The New York Times wrote of the first encounter. “The players of each team crashed into each other with utter disregard of consequences and several times players were sent sprawling on the ice and time was taken so they might recover.”

Jack Laviolette impressed: a dispatch from the sidelines of the second game described him skimming “over the ice with such speed that in his jersey of flaming scarlet he resembled a fire brand.”

Vézina, too, earned praise, despite the eight goals that went by him that night. He was deemed to have done “some excellent work at stopping the rush of the Wanderers” even though “at times they came at him so fast and furious it was impossible for him to see the puck at all.”

The victorious Wanderers went on to meet their NHA rivals from Quebec in the next stage of the tournament. The Bulldogs featured Joe Malone in their forward line and Paddy Moran in goal, but the Wanderers overwhelmed them all the same, winning by scores of 12-6 and 15-12 to claim their reward: a purse of $2,500.

à la douce mémoire

This 1926 Georges Vézina memorial postcard was sold at auction last month in Montreal for close to C$1,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Georges Vézina died 93 years ago, early in the morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926, at the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi. It was just four months since Vézina, who was 39, had tended goal for the last time for the Montreal Canadiens, departing the ice after a period in Montreal’s season-opening game in November of 1925 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, never to return.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Montreal in early December for Chicoutimi, where he spent his last days in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. His Canadiens teammates planned to visit, but it’s not clear that they made it before he died; Montreal manager and coach Leo Dandurand — a close friend of the goaltender’s — does seem to have made the journey.

A Montreal reporter who visited Vézina in early March found him in a bad way, pale and weak, though peaceful enough under the watch of his wife of 20 years, Marie, and in the care of Drs. Riverin and Tremblay. The paper held off running of a photograph of the stricken goaltender until after this death — more on that here — but did publish a long, heartbreaking, and quite remarkable dispatch from Chicoutimi a week before the end.

“His case is desperate,” one of the doctors confided; it didn’t seem likely that he would survive the month.

“Formerly, he was always calm in his goal,” the reporter reported. “Neither the most exciting phases of a game nor the most distressing moments could deprive him of this firm, concentrated attitude. It’s still the same.”

“Georges knows he is going to die and he is resigned.”

The piece continues at some length, not only including (as you might expect) a detailed biographical sketch of the legendary goaltender, but also (as you might not) an itemized accounting of the family’s finances. There’s this exchange, too, from the hospital:

Georges has his full knowledge and a perfect clarity of spirit. At times, his face writhes horribly. As we approached his bed, he looked up. We looked at him and he asked:

“How’s Leo?”

“He’s fine.”

Georges gathered his strength and asked us clearly:

“Tell Leo,” he said in a low voice, “that I want to see him, absolutely. That he should come with all the players, all my comrades. I want to speak to them.”

As these few words exhausted him, we were about to retire when he signaled us to stay. His eyes lit up a little. Gathering all his strength, he asked us in a very low voice:

“Did the Canadiens win last night?”

The Canadiens had lost. But how to say this to Georges when he was there, on his bed of suffering, waiting with a tragic anxiety, and almost begging an answer in the affirmative answer?

We told a virtuous lie: “Yes, the Canadiens won!”

Georges smiled and gave a sigh of relief. His face flushed. But the gaiety soon disappeared, driven away by a fit of grief.

“What score?” he asked.

“Four to two.”

“If you knew how tired I am,” he said in a whisper.

Georges no doubt meant that the many defeats of the Canadiens weighed heavily on him.

As he was exhausted, we left him.

The game in question here did end 4-2 for Montreal — but it was the Maroons who prevailed at the Forum on the night of March 13, 1926, handing Canadiens their 12th loss in a row. Back in November, Frenchy Lacroix had replaced the irreplaceable Vézina, but he had subsequently given way in Montreal’s net to Herb Rheaume.

the final days of georges vézina

Georges Vézina died in the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi, in the early morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926 — the hour was 1.20 a.m. by one report, six minutes later according to another. Greatest Goal Minder in Game of Hockey, read the headlines in the papers next morning, Canada’s Famous Hockey Player. He was 44 years old, or 38 — they had some trouble, the papers, with his age (he was 39) as well as with his progeny. Leo Dandurand’s toweringly tall story that Vézina and his wife, the former Stella Morin, had 22 children was still current, and widely repeated in the death notices — though The New York Times capped his brood at 17. (There were, in fact, two Vézina sons.)

He’d started the season in Montreal’s goal, back in November of 1925, at the Forum against Pittsburgh, but he was ailing even then, running a high temperature. Canadiens had a back-up standing by, Frenchy Lacroix, an American who’d tended the U.S. nets at the 1924 Olympics.

Vézina started the game, but he didn’t last. “He was pale and haggard-looking as he turned shots aside in the first period,” The Gazette reported the next day. “At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition, and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.” (Pittsburgh’s Tex White scored the game’s only goal in the third period; Lacroix was deemed not-to-blame.)

As the Gazette told it, Vézina’s condition grew steadily worse that November week. “After a few days [he] was informed that he was suffering from tuberculosis and would live but a month or two at the most. Georges quietly prepared to leave Montreal for his home in Chicoutimi. None of his teammates knew of his ailment until he had departed.”

“It was early December that Vézina went to Chicoutimi and for the past three months he has fought courageously, though knowing that the end was near and that there was no hope. He was resigned to his fate and calmly awaited death.”

Another Montreal paper published the photograph reproduced above on the Monday, the day before the goaltender’s funeral. “Vézina Couldn’t Hide His Anguish Before His Death” the heading reads; a caption dates it to March 7. The quality of the reproduction isn’t good, which seems like some kind mercy. In 1926, readers who opened up the sports pages and found themselves gazing on Vézina’s deathbed also got this narration: “This personality who maintained his composure and impassivity during hockey games could not hide his suffering and anguish during this ultimate and supreme struggle that he would finally lose. We see the tensing of his face, on which was already painted the seal of the Grim Reaper.”

The editors had held the photograph back while the goaltender remained alive. They did not want, they said, “to make any sadder the last moments of poor Georges by presenting him with a picture of his own suffering.”

the best thing about babies

vezina stanley

There were a lot of babies born to Chicago Blackhawks this season and last, which meant the United Center ice started resembling a nursery. But the best thing about babies is that they usually fit perfectly inside the Stanley Cup bowl.

Most of the players didn’t waste a second to get their kids into the nicest cradle they’ll ever rest in.

• Chris Peters, “Blackhawks’ babies get their own moment with Stanley Cup,” CBS Sports, June 16, 2015

This week it was Ames Richard Desjardins and Jaxson James Versteeg — oh, and don’t forget Austin Wolf Carcillo. These were the babies of the moment on Monday night, and if each of them found themselves, well, more or less stuffed into the Stanley Cup at Chicago’s noisy United Center in the on-ice aftermath of the Blackhawks decisive victory, they seemed to be enjoying themselves, some of them with the sensible aid of noise-cancelling headphones.

As Sports Illustrated, among others, has celebrated in recent days, these weren’t the first newishlyborns to find themselves posed by parents in hockey’s silvery championship trophy. If we don’t have a definitive diaper-count on just how many there have been over the years, can we trust that the Hockey Hall of Fame is on the case? In the meantime, we can say with what feels like certainty that in this photograph, above, we’re looking at the trailblazer in Marcel Vézina.

There’s lots we don’t know about the boy and the circumstances of the portrait, but some things we do. He was the second son of Canadiens’ goaltending titan and legendary Cucumber of Chicoutimi, Georges Vézina. At this point, in 1917, he was about a year old and — well, obviously — a pretty happy kid.

He didn’t have 21 brothers and sisters, despite what you can still read in several recent hockey histories, just the one older brother, Jean Jules. The story goes that Marcel’s middle name was Stanley, which would be great, if true. It may well have been a nickname in his youth, but baptismal records show that he was in fact christened Joseph Louis Marcel. And while you’ll see it often suggested that Marcel was born on March 30, 1916 — the very night his father was repelling the pucks that helped the Canadiens to beat the Portland Rosebuds 2-1 and thereby the five-game series that won the team its very first Stanley Cup — family records indicate that he actually arrived the following day, March 31.

The bad news for his father and the rest of the Canadiens was that by the time Marcel’s first birthday rolled around, the Cup was no longer theirs to hold high, let alone burden with babies. On March 26, 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans beat Montreal 9-1 to take the series and the Stanley Cup for themselves.

(Photo: Archives de la Ville de Montreal, VM6, D1980-33-9-1)

(Post updated 03/30/2020 with Marcel’s christened name, and date of birth.)

il est malade

vezinaHe doesn’t look well but only because he wasn’t: Georges Vézina was one ill goalie in the fall of 1925. That’s when the Montreal photographer S.J. Hayward got him out on a plank outside the Mount Royal Arena to take this photograph, a print of which sold online this month for nearly US$1,000 at RMY Auctions. Vézina was 38 by the time it was taken. The only man to have guarded the Canadiens’ goal since 1910, he had, at this point, just one more regular-season game to play. He won his first Stanley Cup in the old NHA in 1916 and then he won another (in the NHL) in 1924. Between the two leagues, he was the goalie to allow the fewest goals seven times. He was a baker’s son and — this you already knew — his nickname was The Chicoutimi Cucumber.

Heading into the new season, Montreal coach (and owner) Léo Dandurand wasn’t sure whether Vézina was going to play. Just in case, he signed Alphonse Lacroix, who’d backed the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. On November 12, Vézina sent a telegram that he’d be back. In the week that followed, he played in exhibitions against the Victoria Cougars, the reigning Stanley Cup champions from the Western Canada Hockey League. And when the season started on November 28, he was in the Montreal net for the opening game against Pittsburgh’s mighty Pirates. Steered by Odie Cleghorn, their right wing/coach, with Roy Worters in goal, the Pirates ended up winning the game, 1-0, on a goal by Tex White. Montreal’s line-up featured Howie Morenz, Aurèle Joliat, and Billy Coutu. The Pittsburgh Press carried a lively narrative of the game next day, in which Morenz featured both for storming offense and pugnacity. In the first period, he took a penalty for “bumping” while in the second he had “a fist fight in the corner” with Jesse Spring.

Only briefly did the Press note a line-up change at the start of the second period:

 Lacroix was in the nets for [sic] Canadians at start of second period. Vézina was reported ill.

 Montreal’s Gazette carried a more detailed report under the sub-head “Vezina Was Shadow:”

But the high spot of the evening for the Canadien supporters came at the beginning of the second period when Lacroix, former United States Olympic goalkeeper went into the Canadien goal in place of Georges Vézina. The veteran goalkeeper started the game with a high temperature. He was pale and haggard looking as he turned shots aside in the first period. At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.

A few days earlier, The Gazette had reported that Vézina was suffering from “a severe cold;” now he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was soon home in Chicoutimi. Within four months, before the end of March of 1926, just 39, he was dead.