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, which it very well could be, though it doesn’t appear on the Dominion of Canada census that I’ve been looking at. Nor is a birthdate given there, so I can’t confirm that Marcel was born, as the story goes, on the night of March 30, 1916, as 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.

It could very well be; I hope that’s true, too. If it is, 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)

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.