on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

hp[in]hb: ching johnson, again

ching j 1

Bedspread: It was said in 1937 that Ching Johnson had spent 29 weeks of his 19-year hockey career in hospital beds; this stay, above, dates to January, 1940, so best to add a few days to his career calendar of convalescence. Johnson was 41 by then, and out of the NHL. Back in Minnesota, where he’d played in the 1920s before Conn Smythe signed him to the New York Rangers, Johnson was player-coach now of the AHA Millers. His injury? Undisclosed: upper and/or lower body, we’ll say, to be safe, front and possibly back, inner and probably — why not? — outer.

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

needle points

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Bill Gadsby, the Hall-of-Fame defenceman who died last week at the age of 88, suffered for his art. He hit his opponents hard during his 20 years on NHL bluelines, as the obituaries and appreciations duly noted, and that had its costs. Not that he complained. “If your going to give it,” the insufficiently proofread cover of his 2003 autobiography quotes him, “you’d better be able to take it.”

Gadsby’s career damages included the two broken legs, four smashed toes, nine fractured noses — unless, maybe, were there 11 of those, to match the 11 thumbs he injured?

Also, his stitches. At The Hockey News last week, Ken Campbell was quick to crown Gadsby as “the unofficial owner of the all-time league high in stitches with 650.” Dave Stubbs from NHL.com agreed, though he did couch the claim a little more, citing Gadsby’s “unofficial Original Six record of roughly 650 stitches sewn into his face.” In The New York Times, Richard Goldstein, who had nothing to say about records, told his readers that “Gadsby incurred some 640 stitches, many in his face.”

I write here as someone who’s spent some time browsing the medical tolls that hockey exacts from its players as well as the ways in which they’ve figured in the history and the lore of the game. I covered stitch-counting in the book that shares a name with this blog, sewed it up, maybe you’d say — or I would. Still, I’m glad to go through it all again.

First up: what’s the right number when it comes to accounting for the stitches Gadsby needed to bind all his bodily cuts and tears over the course of his NHL career?

The Hockey Hall of Fame website doesn’t hovers over a big but inexact number: “He reputedly received more than 600 stitches to his face.” Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends.com can get behind that, even if he’s not willing to limit the count to the face: Gadsby “took approximately 600 stitches due to high sticks and flying pucks.”

Pelletier does say that the defenceman was cut for 12 stitches in his very first NHL game, in 1946, when he debuted for the Chicago Blackhawks. I can’t find anything to back that up, and if it happened, Gadsby forgot about it, too. In that autobiography of his, The Grateful Gadsby, his very own as-told-through-Kevin-Allen story, he recalls that he assisted on a Pete Horeck goal. “Other than that I can’t tell you much about the game. Probably I had too many butterflies to record much in my memories.”

How many butterflies? Sorry, no, stick to stitches. On that, the book is precise: 640 is the number we get on chapter one, page the first. Two pages on:

The reason I know how many stitches I had is that my dear wife, Edna, kept a log of how many times I was hurt, just like some spouses keep a list of birthdays and anniversary dates. That was just part of our life.

Later, with an insurance policy, Gadsby’s stitches proved profitable, as I’ve also written before — but maybe that calls for a separate elaboration, to follow.

Next question, for now: is Gadsby’s 640 some of kind of individual record among players, Original Six or otherwise?

Hockey’s stitch lit goes back almost as far as the organized game itself. Cully Wilson is a name that arises prominently from the early years. A two-time Stanley Cup winner in pre-NHL days, he had the accounting advantage of newspapermen keeping a running total of his sutures. Here’s The Calgary Daily Herald in 1926:

Wilson started his professional hockey career in 1912, and the first year out he was cut for 12 stitches.

Fast forward 14 years:

Two more stitches have been added to Cully Wilson’s carved visage, and the total in his face has risen to 80, the greatest record of any player in the history of hockey.

Sometimes mentioned as Wilson’s heir is Walter Smaill, once of the Cobalt Silver Kings and Montreal’s Wanderers, said to have accumulated 168 stitches in a career that only lasted 137 games.

Next up: Helge Bostrom, defenceman for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was on record as having sustained 100 stitches in 1931 when a skate cut three of the four tendons in his left leg in a collision with Earl Seibert of the New York Rangers and Dr. H.O. Clauss’s repair work added either 140 or 145 more to his tally.

In the late 1930s, Ching Johnson was said to have been — well, more stitched than not. An excitable columnist once said his sewings went as high as 5,000. I don’t know what Johnson thought of that, but he did respond, in 1937, to a report that he’d taken 1,000 in his time. “Where could they put them?” he’s quoted as having said. “I’ve had only 374.”

Lionel Conacher’s catalogued his career of pain for Maclean’s in 1936, including:

a total of more than 500 stitches in my face and head, another 150 or so in the rest of my gnarled anatomy.

A case might be made (as I wrote in Puckstruck) for Gordie Howe, who was declared on a 1968 magazine cover to be “Hockey’s Man Of 1,000 Stitches.” Howe’s own calculations are more modest — and unsettled. The biography on his website says that in years on the ice he amassed “500 stitches in his face alone.” That jibes with what Howe says in an “authorized autobiography” he wrote with Tom DeLisle in 1995, and … Howe!

 In another one, written with Paul Haavardsrud’s help, he begs to differ with himself. “Over my career,” he confides in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014),

I figure I’ve taken more than 300 stitches to my face alone. [Wife] Colleen wondered if that might qualify me for a Guinness world record, but I told her I knew some goalies that definitely had me beat. For what it’s worth, as a connoisseur on the subject I can tell you that not all stitches are created equal. I labeled the area than ran from my nose to below my mouth as the triangle of pain. Taking stitches there was no kind of fun. Getting sewn up in a place with fewer nerve endings, like the forehead, is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting shift. I don’t know how to explain it. What kind of audit would have been involved in this kind of adjusted reporting? Either way, of course, five hundred or three, it’s a lot. “One year I had 50 stitches in my face,” Howe told Larry Bortstein of Family Weekly in 1970. “That was a bad year. A good year is when I have 10 or less.”

Eddie Shore? His count, too, fluctuates. Was it 600? You’ll also find estimates across the years ranging from 900 through 987. Trent Frayne says 964; Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam tells us he was “cut 100 times, receiving 978 stitches.”

That last one is the number that surfaces most often — including in The Catholic Digest in 1951. Other writers are content with resonant approximations. Austen Lake, for instance: “In a rough sum, he had more stitches in his flesh than a tailor needs to make an overcoat.”

That’s probably enough for now, even as I own that we haven’t talked about the goaltenders. Let’s leave it at this: I haven’t yet happened on any, even from the desperate, maskless days pre-1959, claiming more than 500.

As for latter-day challengers, Hall-of-Fame defenceman Rod Langway is one I hadn’t come across before. He was starting into the second-last of his 15 NHL seasons in 1991 when he talked to Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post about his close encounters with monofilament.

“Over 1,000,” Langway said calmly.

Over 1,000?

“Oh sure,” he said. “I’m close to 100 already this year. No, probably closer to 70. I took 11 in the ear in the opener against Philadelphia, these eight in the nose, that’s 19.

Langway made some cursory calculations in his head and said, “I’ve gotten stitched in seven of the 19 games I’ve played.”

Australia's Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

Australia’s Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

messrs. belvedere

belvedere handball pkstrk

A hidden gem! A setting said to be distinctive for guests on business and leisure alike! Unparalleled location in the heart of Manhattan! Rates starting at around US$167 per night!

That’s the pitch browsers online can find looking for a booking at New York’s Belvedere Hotel, which I wasn’t, recently. I can’t say one way or the other whether it’s the place for you; what I can report, confidently, is that if you do go, your hopes of emulating these early New York Rangers, above, and getting in a game of handball on the roof is zero.

There is a gym at the Belvedere: indeed, the hotel’s website says it’s “proud” to have one, “encouraging health-conscious guests to maintain their active lifestyle while traveling and dining out.”

I guess handball’s heyday has come and mostly gone, but I had a moment’s reverie in which you could still catch a game on high at the Belvedere.

The woman I talked to there when I phoned seemed worried by my rooftop questions. “No,” she told me, “there’s no tennis court.” Handball. “Nope.” When did it close? Did she know? Did someone know? What’s up there now? Anybody I can talk to who can talk about the history of the hotel? I was panicking her, though. “Honestly,” she said, “nobody that’s here has ever seen anything like that.”

•••

That’s Ching Johnson here, of course, on the left, with Bill Cook leaping high over his fallen brother, Bun. All three had been with the Rangers since their inaugural season, 1926-27. It was 1929 now, springtime, and the team was girding to defend the Stanley Cup title it had won the previous year over the Maroons of Montreal. Bun Cook was 25, his brother (the Ranger captain) and Johnson older, 32 and 30, respectively. The team couldn’t quite pull off the defense, falling in that year’s two-game final to the Boston Bruins.

The Belvedere, at 319 West 48th Street, was new in the late 1920s. “The Outstanding Success of the City,” bragged a newspaper ad from those years, before getting down to details: 450 baths complemented the Belvedere’s 450 rooms, all of which were outside rooms, featuring two large windows. The Moderately Priced Restaurant served a Peerless Cuisine. You could get a large double room for US$6 a day; furnished suites with serving pantries ran anywhere from US$35 to US$150.

Times Square wasn’t far and, more to the point, Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden was just a block north up 8th Avenue. Handball was just the start of it — over the years, many hockey players would call the Belvedere home. Following, a few notes on that and other Belvedere/hockey associations.

•••

In early April of 1928, just before the Rangers went into Stanley-Cup battle with the Montreal Maroons, the Belvedere and its inimitable menu played host to a hockey awards dinner. At this time, the NHL proper awarded three individual trophies, the Hart (for league MVP), the Vézina (goaltender allowing the fewest goals), and Lady Byng (high skill and gentlemanly conduct), but these weren’t those.

First among honourees on this night were handballing defenceman Ching Johnson, who took the Paramount Theatre Trophy as MVP of the New York teams, Rangers and Americans. The Broadway director and producer (and native-born Newfoundlander) John Murray Anderson sponsored that one, with the New York Hockey Writers Association taking care of the voting. Out of 26 ballots cast, Johnson’s name was on 12, while the two centreman, the Rangers’ Frank Boucher and the Amerks’ Normie Himes, appeared on seven each.

Boucher was the highest scoring New Yorker that year, finishing third in the NHL chart behind Hart-winner Howie Morenz and his Canadiens teammate, Aurele Joliat, and that was good enough to win him the Belvedere Hotel Trophy. (His Cook wingers, Bun and Bill, were runners-up.) But while Boucher would that same year win the first of his seven Lady Byng Trophies (in 1935, they actually gave him trophy, ordered a new one), on this night Boucher had to concede the Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy to Harold Darragh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton seems to have been responsible for deciding this one, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report calls his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Darragh, a winger, was sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.

Bandleader and hockey fan Paul Whiteman presided over the proceedings — or as the Daily Eagle called him, “corpulent ‘Oom’ Paulie Whitehead,” who made Ching Johnson look like a mere “mite.”

•••

In the late 1930s, the Belvedere played host to an annual dinner given by the NHL for the aforementioned New York Hockey Writers Association. At the 1938 edition, Rangers GM Lester Patrick unveiled his proposal for an all-new playoff format. Harold Parrott wrote it up for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In fact, the Silver Fox of the ice rinks was practically lopsided after expounding his playoff theories to hockey writers last night with the aid of calculus, logarithms, a financial expert he brought along for the purpose — and a lot of patient good humor.

Ahead of the season, Montreal’s troubled Maroons talked of migrating to St. Louis, or maybe Cleveland, but the league turned them down, so they’d suspended operations, leaving seven teams. Patrick wanted the NHL to collapse the remaining teams into one division (previously they’d been divided into American and Canadian halves) with the team that finished on top declared league champion. All seven teams would them compete for the Stanley Cup, with the first-place finisher leaping past the first round with a bye while — importantly — not missing out on its share of ticket profits. Revenue was an important feature of the plan, with teams’ percentages based on (as far as I can discern) a formula accounting both for regular-season and how far they advanced in the playoffs. “The Ranger boss,” Parrott wrote, “figures this will make the teams hustle until the season’s last whistle.”

Interesting that Patrick was sharing with the writers before he took it to the NHL and the teams involved. “Manager Patrick,” noted The New York Times in its report, “is hopeful that his plan will be accepted, although at first blush it seems a most radical and fantastic one, he himself declared.” If the NHL did put this Patrick plan to a vote, it failed to pass. The league did end up rejigging divisions that year, decanting two into one, but when the playoffs came around in the spring of 1939, only the top six teams were in. Last-place Chicago had to watch as Boston went on to beat Toronto in the finals.

•••

The Belvedere is where Stan Fischler got his start to his career in hockey journalism, books, broadcasting and general, all-around mavening. He writes about this in New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players (2015). As a Brooklyn College student in the early 1950s he not only joined a Rangers fan club organized by team publicist Herb Goren but launched a club newspaper with a pair of willing friends. “This gave us entrée to interview players,” he recalls, the first being Ed Kullman, “cross-examined in his suite at the Belvedere Hotel.”

•••

Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times called on Fischler’s formidable Ranger memory when he wrote Don Raleigh’s obituary in 2012. “Bones Raleigh was the quintessential antihero,” Fischler said of the former centreman, Kenora-born, who captained the Rangers and scored back-to-back overtime winners in the team’s losing struggle with Detroit in the 1950 Stanley Cup finals. “He was an intellectual; he would write poetry on the Staten Island Ferry. He would get the puck behind his net and just wend his way up ice on spectacular rushes. Problem was, Bones being so skinny, by the time he got inside the enemy zone, he was usually body checked. But we didn’t mind because he was our guy.”

For much of his ten-year NHL career, he was one of many Rangers to make a hockey-season home at the Belvedere. Klein talked to teammates Harry Howell and Pentti Lund, among others. They both remembered him calling in teammates to his suite for pre-game strategy sessions. He was a book-reader and a bon vivant, loved life in New York, enjoyed the sense of humour:

“Old Bones Raleigh, he used to be our cook in the hotel,” Howell said. “He used to buy the groceries, and we’d pay him. One night, he gave a huge can of peaches to the players, and we thought, Boy, this is really something. So Bones, before we ate the peaches, said, ‘Now you guys realize you each have to give me 12 cents per peach.’ We all knew what he was like and just laughed.”

•••

I’m assuming that Raleigh was on hand at the Belvedere on the last night of 1952 as the Rangers, with wives and girlfriends, heralded the new year. Frank Boucher was there, the Rangers’ GM now, and so was Bill Cook, his coach, who’d almost died twice in the year gone by thanks to irate bulls and exploding tractors. The Leafs and Rangers had played to a 3-3 tie that night but while Toronto’s hockey players had packed up and travelled on to Boston after the game, several of her hockey writers had stayed on to party at the Belvedere. The Globe and Mail’s Gord Walker was one of them, which is how we know that Gladys Gooding was at the piano when the time came to sing Auld Lang Syne, when Rangers captain Allan Stanley wore a plastic fireman’s hat to welcome the midnight. “There was quite a noise for a while,” Walker wrote. “It died down shortly because he wives kissed their husbands, and the girl friends kissed their escorts and the Toronto hockey writers shook hands with each other.”

all georges vézina’s children

vezina 17

For as long as the NHL hands out trophy for goaltending excellence in his name, Georges Vézina will be remembered for his proficiency in stopping pucks. Still, it is 90 years this fall since Vézina played his last period of NHL hockey, which means we don’t really have much of a sense of the man, his demeanor, or how he conducted himself, on or off the ice. His goaling statistics remain impressive, if not exactly overwhelming. Between 1910 and 1925, he was the only goaltender to ply the Montreal Canadiens’ net. He won two Stanley Cups before the NHA made way for the NHL. Of the 203 games he played over nine seasons once that happened, 113 of them were wins. You can study all this at one of the online stats archives, where you’re liable to learn that Vézina’s lack of a QSP and his relatively modest career GPS of 38.8 don’t seem to have affected his standing on the Elo Fan Rating ladder.

Not a fan of analytics? Fair enough. What about fantastical stats? Those are different from the fancy metrics with which the NHL game is now measured in that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with on-ice performance and, plus, they’re not true. For instance: you may have read, possibly in a book published newly this fall, that by the time he died in 1926, 39-year-old Georges Vézina had fathered 24 children.

myths sticksIf the book in question is Kevin Gibson’s Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences (Douglas & McIntyre), then you may know already that it doesn’t profess to be a major work. It’s a slim volume, light-hearted in tone, “a lively compendium of little-known hockey trivia,” as the publisher promises, from a “stats archaeologist.” More than a third of its 176 pages are devoted to a humdrum calendar of on-this-day-in-history reminders from the hockey past.

“I am,” Gibson volunteers in his introduction, “the TSN Research, Stats and Information Department.” As such, he’s all about facts, a word that choruses through both the author’s manifesto and the book’s marketing material along with notable others like urban legends, conspiracy theories, debunking, and falsehoods. The truth is, when it comes to hockey history, you just can’t believe what you’ve read. “I’d like to go through some old wives’ tales,” Gibson announces, “legends and confessional stories and get to the bottom of what is fact and fiction in the world of hockey.” Never fear, Gibson’s here, to separate the faux from the facts, all of which he’s analyzed and researched and uncovered.

Great. Happy to hear it. Lots of us who love hockey history revel in fine detail and quirky ephemera, and we’re always eager to learn more. Some of us have even gone before where Gibson goes, delving (for example) into Georges Vézina’s family history. That’s how we found out that the story of his multitudinous children is exactly that: plain fiction, a fanciful not-true made-up fallacious falseness that has been making the rounds for almost as long as the Montreal Canadiens have been around, ever since Léo Dandurand put it on a hook to see whether the newspaper boys might bite.

For the record, Vézina and his wife Marie (née Morin) had two children, no more. Both were sons: Jean-Jules, born in 1912, and Marcel Stanley, who made his debut in 1916, on the very night the Canadiens won the Cup whose name he inherited.

Dandurand is, of course, a towering figure in Montreal Canadiens history, an owner who also coached and managed the team. He could have been a serial fabricator, I guess, but then again the story of his goaltender’s populous family might just as well have been a moment’s joke taken up by a newspaperman who didn’t bother to verify it with Vézina himself. The goaltender’s English doesn’t ever seem to have been very good, so maybe that was part of it. D’Arcy Jenish dates the original Dandurand telling to the spring of 1925, when Montreal was in Victoria to play for the Stanley Cup.

Gibson certainly isn’t the first reputable writer to repeat the error. When Vézina fell ill and left the Canadiens in the fall of 1925, various newspapers gave him a brood of 17 — “enough for two hockey teams, plus substitutes,” according to The Springfield Missouri Republican, who also saw fit to add six years to his age and promote him to police chief of his hometown, Chicoutimi.

After his death the following March of 1926, newspapers variously pegged his progeny at 17 (an Associated Press report in The New York Times) and 22 (Winnipeg Tribune). While I should say that the French press seems to have gone unfooled from the start, Montreal’s English papers preferred the fantasy version in which, for example, (The Gazette) “two sets of twins were born in the first two years of his married life.”

The numbers have fluctuated over the years. By 1936, The New York Post was at 18 — though two years later they’d revised themselves down to 14. Strange to say, but Rosaire Barrette’s 1952 biography of Léo Dandurand reiterated its subject’s original lie, hoisting the number back up to 22.

Stan Fischler settled on 20 in The Flying Frenchman (1971) but 22 is the number that’s proved the most persistent. It’s the one in both Ron McAllister Hockey Stars (1950) and Andrew Podnieks’ otherwise authoritative Players: The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone Who Has Ever Played in the NHL (2003). Podnieks notes that only two of the many were alive by the time Vézina died — true enough, in its way.

“He began fathering babies like he was aiming at a world record,” Brian McFarlane breezes in The Habs (1996). In Canadiens Legends: Montreal’s Hockey Heroes (2005), Mike Leonetti mentions Vézina’s devout Roman Catholic lifestyle: “He was married at 20 and produced 22 children!” That’s good enough, too, for Jack Falla, who paid tribute to Vézina in his 2008 book Open Ice, devoting a whole chapter to the man in which he described a pilgrimage to visit Chicoutimi and alluded awkwardly to Mrs. Vézina’s partnership.

The truth is out there. Michel Vigneault’s straightforward entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography gets it right. Online, The Hockey Hall of Fame successfully splits myth from truth, as does Vézina’s Wikipedia page. In ‪The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory (2009), D’Arcy Jenish makes no mistake. And as recently as this very fall, Pat Hickey’s 100 Things Canadiens Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die tells (a little wearily?) the truth.

Is it such a big deal that Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences gets it wrong? Other than the several times the error is trumpeted on the book’s cover and in marketing materials, Vézina’s imaginary family occupies one small paragraph within one slim book. It is interesting that Gibson ups the ante more than almost anyone previously — only Stephen Cole, in The Canadian Hockey Atlas (2006), has ever claimed 24 minor Vézinas before now — but in the wider swing of things, it’s not such an egregious blunder.

Except for … it’s not the only one in the book. I gave up looking after not too long, but just before I got truly exasperated, I came across a glaring error of fact involving Gordie Howe hattricks along with a pair of Ching Johnson mistakes. I don’t have a ratio on how much faux Of Myths and Sticks contains compared to its facts, but whatever the number, it’s not favourable. Continue reading