The New York Rangers are reporting the sad news this hour that former defenceman Jim Neilson has died at the age of 79. Born in 1940 in Big River, Saskatchewan, northwest of Prince Albert, Neilson, whose mother was Cree, made his debut with the New York Rangers in 1962. He played a dozen seasons with the Blueshirts before GM Emile Francis engineered a deal in 1974 via the waiver draft that saw Derek Sanderson join the Rangers from Boston, while the Bruins got Walt McKechnie from the the California Golden Seals, who acquired Neilson. He spent two seasons on the coast before the franchise moved to Cleveland, and he played two more years with the Barons. He was named captain of the Seals in 1975 and when the team shifted the following year he became Cleveland’s first captain. Neilson played his final year of pro hockey in 1978-79 with the WHA version of Edmonton’s Oilers.
So the NHL’s first season came to its natural end as March shifted over to April in 1918. Toronto had won the Stanley Cup, and whatever muted celebrations the team and its city had organized to celebrate the Blueshirts’ five-game victory over Vancouver’s Millionaires, they were over now. Staff at Toronto Arena Gardens on Mutual Street began the new month by breaking up the ice. The hockey players were headed for home for the summer.
Until, that is, word of an arrangement for Toronto to play a team of all stars started to spread. The plan seems to have been a sudden one, and I can’t say to what extent the NHL itself was involved in the enterprise, but it is true that before it got a chance to start, the NHL off-season was delayed in 1918, as the league prepared to play its first (and now almost entirely forgotten) all-star game … in Cleveland, Ohio.
I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the whole venture originated with an invitation from the Lake Erie shore. With a population nearing 800,000, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the United States. (Montreal, in those years, had a population of about 600,000, while Toronto counted 500,000.) A quick glance back into the city’s hockey history suggests that the game was played in various loose forms there before Canadians got around to organizing it in the 1890s. The Elysium Arena (capacity: 2,000) went up in 1907. Amateur hockey thrived in the years that followed. In 1915, efforts to introduce the professional game to the city led to the Ontario Hockey Association instituting a ban on its teams having anything to do with Cleveland rivals.
In 1918, the Elysium hadn’t seen competitive games in two years. I don’t know the whys of that, just that a team was resurrected that wartime winter, I believe under the auspices of the Cleveland Athletic Club. As if to make up for lost time, they embarked on a frantic exhibition schedule, with games against amateur teams from Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Like Frank and Lester Patrick’s PCHA, Cleveland played seven-man hockey. The roster that year was a mostly Ontario-born crew, featuring the unsung talents of Percy Killaly (the playing coach, from Cannington), Elmer Irving (the captain, from Toronto), Mike Trimble (Bracebridge), Joe Debernardi (Port Arthur), Vern Turner (Stayner), and Harry Poland (Stratford). Rover Jimmy Cree was Mohawk, from the Akwesasne territory, near Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. None of them ever played in the NHL.
In March, as the Torontos bypassed the Montreal Canadiens to advance to the Stanley Cup final, Cleveland hosted Canada’s national senior amateur Allan Cup champions, the Kitchener Greenshirts, in a two-game exhibition series at the Elysium.
With future NHL all-star and master-of-the-shutout George Hainsworth in goal, the Greenshirts had reason to be confident coming in. They may have been overly so, The Globe admitted in their report on the opening encounter. “Before the game was five minutes old the Canadians found that they were up against a real seven, and that nothing but real hockey could win out.” Cleveland prevailed 5-3 that night and the next one as well, this time bettering the Greenshirts by a score of 5-2. The Globe’s correspondent was impressed: “Cleveland outplayed the Canadian champions in all departments. They showed more stamina and finished fresh and strong … Cleveland played wonderful hockey.”
Next up, as the Stanley Cup final was wrapping up in Toronto, Cleveland’s septet took on a collective of all stars representing Ontario senior amateur teams. The Globe supposed that this team represented “the greatest galaxy of individual hockey stars that has ever invaded the United States,” and that may have been true — up until the following week. This galactic group included players drawn from the Greenshirts as well as from Toronto’s Dentals, Crescents, and St. Patricks. It featured several future NHLers in Rod Smylie, Bert McCaffrey, and goaltender Doc Stewart.
Like many of his Dental teammates, Stewart was an actual dentist; later, he’d turn from attending to the health of teeth to guarding the Boston Bruins’ net. In Cleveland, he was said to be the star of the opening game, even though the Clevelanders kept their winning streak alive with a 2-1 win.
They followed that up with a 4-2 win in a second game, “outplaying the Canadians in every department,” as The Globe’s man saw it. It didn’t matter how many men were on the ice, either: Cleveland dominated early on when each team iced seven players, and they did so later, too, when an injury to one of the all-star Canadians reduced the teams to six aside.
Having staked a claim as being the best amateur team on the U.S. east coast, the Cleveland club was eager to prove its prowess on a national scale. There was talk of a meeting with the western champions, the Ames Shipyard team from Seattle, but that doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the talking.
It sounds like Cleveland indomitable seven would have been game to take on the NHL Torontos, and maybe there was an attempt to arrange that — I don’t know. The way it worked out, the Stanley Cup champions agreed to travel south to play an assemblage of their professional peers, and that seems to have put an end to Cleveland’s season. At least one of the Cleveland players had other business to attend to: captain Elmer Irving was headed home to Canada to enlist in the Army.
In Toronto, the first mention of the series appeared on the Tuesday following Toronto’s Saturday-night Stanley Cup win. Three games were planned for Cleveland, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Toronto had some line-up issues, starting with the fact that defenceman Harry Mummery had already upped and left town for Manitoba. Star centre Reg Noble would be ruled out en route: Canadian police turned him back at the border due to his military conscription status.
I can’t say how the All Stars were selected, but I suspect the process was as much about who was available as anything else. As originally announced, the team collected a pair of Vancouver Millionaires in Hughie Lehman and Ran McDonald along with Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators, and two players who’d played for Toronto late in the season (though not in the Stanley Cup finals), Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford. More names would be forthcoming, and duly were: by midweek, Newsy Lalonde of the Montreal Canadiens had joined the tour, along with Speed Moynes of the Millionaires; veteran Jack Marks, who’d opened the NHL season with the Montreal Wanderers before taking a turn with Toronto; and Jack McDonald, a Wanderer who’d migrated to Canadiens.
None of the participants was going to get rich on this junket. “The guarantee is just about sufficient to pay the expenses of the players,” The Winnipeg Tribune reported, “and leave a little to buy ice cream cones.”
Thursday’s game at the Elysium saw the NHL All Stars beat the Stanley Cup champions 5-4 over the course of two 20-minute halves. The Globe’s unnamed correspondent on the scene seems to have been a local writer, and he complained about the lack of team play. “It was a case after one long rush after another,” he felt. The teams “utterly failed to display class.”
Cleveland was not impressed: the hockey the pros brought with them “was materially different from the tests that have been played here by the great amateur sevens.” Their display was redeemed somewhat by the goaltenders, Holmes and Lehman, both of whom played brilliantly — “in fact, their work was the outstanding feature.” Frank Nighbor was a treat to witness, too: his stickhandling “was probably the best ever seen here.”
Toronto got its goals from Alf Skinner and Harrys Cameron and Meeking (he notched two). Newsy Lalonde scored a pair for the All Stars, who also got goals from Marks, McDonald, and Moynes.
Friday’s game saw Toronto ice Holmes in goal, with Cameron and Ken Randall playing defence, and Adams centering Meeking and Skinner.
The All Stars had Lehman between the posts, with Lalonde and Crawford on the defence. Nighbor was at centre, Marks and McDonald on the wings. Moynes was the lone substitute.
It was Holmes’ “highly sensational goaltending” that turned the tide this time: he was “an unsurpassable obstacle,” making 28 stops in Toronto’s 3-1 win. The All Stars were, all in all, the better team, for what that was worth. Rusty Crawford, “always busy,” was their star, and when the Torontos played rough, he was willing to reply in kind. Randall scored a pair of Toronto goals, and Cameron got the other. Newsy Lalonde scored for the All Stars.
The verdict from The Ottawa Journal: if fans in Cleveland were asked to choose between the hockey their own hometown Canadians had been showing them all winter and these barnstorming pros, they’d pick the amateur version “every time.”
Saturday’s final game was deemed by the Globe “by far the best contest of the series.” On the strength of Frank Nighbor’s hattrick, the All Stars roared to a 6-3 win, thereby taking the series both by games (two to one) and goals (12 to 10).
It’s possible that the whole effort was mounted with an idea to raise funds for the war effort — earlier talk of playing the Seattle shipyard team had included plans to donate all proceeds to the Red Cross. I haven’t found any details of that, though. Nor of any tales of adventure from beyond the rink. Did the NHLers see the sights? Meet up and play any informal games with against Percy Killaly and Jimmy Cree and company? Can’t say. I can report that almost as soon as the Torontos and their All Star rivals departed Cleveland at the end of that weekend, bound for home and the off-season ahead, the series seems to have vanished from all recall.
You won’t find any mention of it in any NHL repository — none that’s accessible to the public, anyway. The Hockey Hall of Fame pays it no heed. Andrew Podnieks published a scrupulous catalogue, The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition in 2000, but it makes no mention of Cleveland in 1918. As detailed therein (and as generally acknowledged across the hockey world), hockey convened four landmark benefit games involving all-star line-ups between 1908 and 1939 (Hod Stuart, Ace Bailey, Howie Morenz, and Babe Siebert). The first proper All-Star Game came in 1947, in Toronto, with proceeds going towards the establishment of a pension fund for the players. The format there was as it was in Cleveland, with the Stanley-Cup champion Maple Leafs taking on a selection of the best of the rest.
So where do the 1918 games fit in? I haven’t asked, but I’m going to guess that the NHL might go with the line that they were wholly unofficial — that this weekend in Cleveland was more of barnstorming situation than anything that might be recognized as a true All-Star series. The league may already have studied the situation and decided that, though I doubt it: I don’t think these games are anywhere on the NHL radar.
They do deserve to be recognized for what they represent in the way of breaking new ground for the NHL. It would be six years before the league added its first American team, the Boston Bruins. How much did the experience in Cleveland in 1918 influence what happened when the time came for expansion south? In terms of all-star games, it would be another 29 years before the NHL got around to organizing the one that’s known as the first. Is it time to reset the record?
Can I say, pre-emptively, that I don’t accept any notional claim about whether they were league-sanctioned or not. The NHL wasn’t the behemoth brand that it is today, of course — in 1918, it was an entity consisting, more or less, of president and secretary Frank Calder. Whether Toronto manager Charlie Querrie sought his approval for the jaunt to Cleveland, I don’t know. The whole NHL operation had a make-it-up-as-you-along vibe to it that first tumultuous year, from the moment of its creation at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel in November of 1917 through the Stanley-Cup series with Vancouver. For me, the series in Cleveland was no more ad hoc than any of the rest of it.
Hockey continued in Cleveland, of course, after the Stanley Cup champions and their All-Star rivals left town. The city got its first professional team in 1929, and there was talk off and on after that of an NHL franchise — including in 1935, when the Montreal Canadiens used the threat of a move to Cleveland as they negotiated a new rink deal back home. Cleveland got a WHA team, the Crusaders, in the early 1970s, and then an NHL franchise soon after that, though the Barons only stayed for two seasons.
Back to 1929 for a moment. After many years of amateur powerhouses like the one that played so well in the winter of 1918, the Cleveland Indians secured a place in the minor-league Canadian Professional Hockey League. This is noteworthy, I’ll venture: the man who made it happen as owner and manager of the new enterprise, launching Cleveland into its hockey future, was none other than Hap Holmes, Toronto’s Stanley Cup goaltender from back in 1918, star of the NHL’s first, forgotten All-Star games.
Peter Mansbridge didn’t mention him when he talked to Bobby Orr on CBC’s The National last night about Orr: My Story, published today, and you won’t see his name in most of the reviews and interviews. In the book itself, it doesn’t appear until page 280, at the end of a deft afterword. Then it’s there again, over the page, where he gets the final word in Orr’s acknowledgments:
My special thanks go to my friend Vern Stenlund for helping me get all this down on paper. We’ve worked on a few projects over the years, but this one required special patience.
But if little of the light that Bobby Orr’s new autobiography is generating will illuminate Orr’s friend and ghostwriter, that’s just as Dr. Vern Stenlund prefers it. Born and raised in Thunder Bay, he played his junior hockey with the Junior B Chatham Maroons before moving up to A with the London Knights.
As the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players notes, he was a scoring star in those years, netting 84 goals in three seasons. In 1976 the California Seals drafted him 23rd overall, just after Brian Sutter (20th) and ahead of the likes of Randy Carlyle (30th) and Kent Nilsson (64th). His four NHL games came in the spring of 1977, after California had moved to Cleveland. Injuries took a toll in the years that followed. “I had some knee problems and shoulder woes that kind of took the starch out of my game,” he says, “but such is life.” He retired from the game in 1981 after a final year skating in Norway.
He went on to coach, at the youth, Junior B, and university level, and for Windsor in the OHL. He got a master’s degree in education and followed that with a doctorate. He wrote influential books, Coaching Hockey Successfully (2002) with Denis Gendron and (with Steve Cady) High-Performance Skating for Hockey (1998) among them. And when Bobby Orr got involved with Chevrolet’s Safe and Fun hockey program to mentor minor hockey players, it was Stenlund who worked with him.
Nowadays, when he’s not shaping the memoirs of all-time hockey greats, he teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor.
Friendly and forthcoming, he was on the phone recently from his office to talk about his work on Orr: My Story, having made clear that the background is where he’d rather remain. “This is Bobby’s book,” he started by saying, “and I sort of did some grunt work for him, so I don’t want to be perceived in any way shape or form as trying to upstage him …”
Did you and Bobby Orr ever meet on the ice?
You know, I only played four games in the Show… My fourth game was against the Chicago Black Hawks, last game of the season, ’76-77 season, and I was called up the last two weeks with Cleveland. And so we went to Chicago and I was very hopeful that I’d get a chance to play against him. He was so banged up, of course, he only played about 26 games over the two years in Chicago — or three years, actually, I guess — so by the time I got there, his time was done. I’ve always told him, I think he must have heard I was coming to town and he got a little bit weak-kneed and didn’t want to got in the line-up that night.
What kind of a player were you?
Yeah, you know I was sort of a big centreman for my time and I was a skill guy. My heroes when I watching the NHL, I was a great Jean Béliveau fan, and I remember as a kid watching him, toward the end of his career. Loved Gilbert Perreault, the way he played. I was a kind of a guy that liked to carry the puck, rush the puck, that was my game. I always felt hockey was artistry on ice, you wanted to be creative, and that’s what I tried to do. Continue reading