turk triumphant

A Leaf legend who played his part in five successful Maple Leaf Stanley Cup campaigns, Turk Broda was born in Brandon, Manitoba, on Friday, May 15 in 1914. Here he is in the aftermath of Toronto’s 1947 championship, which the Leafs completed on Saturday, April 19 of that year, dismissing the Montreal Canadiens at Maple Leaf Gardens by a score of 2-1 to take the Cup in six games. That’s Leaf majordomo Conn Smythe gripping and grinning on the right. Left is Toronto Mayor Robert Saunders.

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 114329)

the waiting is the hardest part: the leafs won in 1947, but the stanley cup took its time getting to toronto

The Cup Shows Up: The new Cup champions pose on Monday, April 21, 1947. Back row, from left, they are: Howie Meeker, Vic Lynn, Jim Thomson, Garth Boesch, Gus Mortson, Joe Klukay, Bill Barilko. Middle row, left to right: Cliff Keyland (assistant trainer), Bill Ezinicki, Wally Stanowski, Harry Watson, Turk Broda, Bob Goldham, Bud Poile, Gus Bodnar, Tim Daly (trainer). Front, from the left: Gaye Stewart, Ted Kennedy, Conn Smythe (GM), Hap Day (coach), Syl Apps (captain), E.W. Bickle (president). W.A.H MacBrien (vice-president), Nick Metz, Don Metz.

“We want the Cup,” the crowd of 14,546 chanted at Maple Leaf Gardens on a Saturday night of this date in 1947, as was their due: their hometown team had just beaten the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 2-1 to relieve the defending champions of Lord Stanley’s famous trophy in six games. Montreal’s Buddy O’Connor opened the scoring, but the Leafs sealed the deal with goals from Vic Lynn and Ted Kennedy, backed by Turk Broda’s superior goaltending.

Montreal’s Gazette eyed the immediate aftermath: “the big crowd went into a delirium of noisy jubilation and refused to leave the rink.” But their chanting was in vain. The Stanley Cup wasn’t in the city that night, 74 years ago, let alone the building: instead of whooping it up with the Leafs, the Cup spent a lonely Saturday night in Montreal. It was Monday before it arrived in Toronto, just in time to be included in the photograph above, which the Leafs posed for on Monday at noon.

“Canadiens did not, as many thought, leave the Cup behind intentionally,” Jim Vipond clarified in The Globe and Mail. “It was the Toronto club’s idea. Conn Smythe, revealing a superstitious nature, asked NHL prexy [Clarence] Campbell to leave the Cup where it was until it was won.”

There was no parade that year for the champions. After Nat Turofsky got his photos Monday midday, Maple Leaf players and staff gathered in the press room at the Gardens for speeches and celebrations.

Tuesday, the Leafs ate.

First up, the team was rewarded with a turkey lunch by restaurateur Sam Shopsowitz at his famous delicatessen at 295 Spadina Avenue, just north of Dundas Street West.

That same evening the champions were fêted at a supper hosted by Ontario Premier George Drew. Toronto Mayor Robert Saunders was on hand, along with 125 invited guests. The premier was particular in his praise of the Leafs’ sportsmanship. “What you have accomplished is a demonstration of what Canadians really stand for in a sport that is essentially Canadian,” he said. The venue as the old Toronto Normal School, downtown on Gould Street, which had been revamped as a “training and re-establishment centre” for war veterans. Some of them cooked the meal; afterwards (as the Globe reported), “three veterans stepped forward and presented Syl Apps with a cake they had baked. It represented a hockey rink with goal nets at each end and a puck and crossed hockey sticks in the centre.”

In between meals, Leafs left winger Harry Watson went on a mercy mission to Toronto General Hospital. He’d played the previous season for the Detroit Red Wings, and a couple of his former teammates were registered there, Hal Jackson and a 19-year-old rookie by the name of Gordon Howe. Both were having post-season work done on damaged cartilage, so Watson stopped by to deliver some turkey leftovers from Shopsy’s.

the only ones allowed to eat at four o’clock

Jolly Jawn: Detroit Red Wings coach, GM, and all-around-larger-than-life presence Jack Adams. Note the pucks he’s packing amidships in his sweater. (Image: Albert E. Backlund)

It was on a Saturday of this very date in 1936 that the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup, upending the Maple Leafs in Toronto by a score of 3-2 to take the championship series in four games. Winger Pete Kelly scored the decisive goal for Detroit; “I’m glad I was some good,” he told the Detroit Free Press after it was all over, and the Wings were celebrating. Leafs coach Conn Smythe was one of the first to congratulate Jack Adams, his Red Wing counterpart. “You’ve got one of the best hockey clubs of all time, Jack,” is what Smythe told him in the hubbub of the Detroit dressing room. Worth a note: the new champions didn’t actually get their hands on the Cup at the rink where they won it: it wasn’t until later that evening that NHL President Frank Calder handed it over to Detroit owner James Norris at the Royal York Hotel.

While this was the first Cup win for Jack Adams as a coach and GM, this wasn’t his first Stanley Cup rodeo. As a young centreman, he’d been a member of the 1918 Toronto team that won the Cup after the NHL’s inaugural season, although he didn’t end up playing in the finals against the PCHL Vancouver Millionaires. In 1927, his last year as a player, he was with the Ottawa Senators when they won the championship. All in all, Adams would play a part in nine Stanley Cup wins over the course of his career. He remains the only person to have won it as a player, coach, and manager.

In his honour, then, something of a poem. I didn’t write it; what I did was track down a column of D.A.L. MacDonald’s from the Montreal Gazette of Tuesday, March 24, 1936, as Adams prepared his first-place Red Wings to start the playoffs. So these are MacDonald’s words, excerpted;  all I’ve done is poemize them.  

Manager Jack Adams has issued
strict orders
as regards
training rules
for the Red Wings.

They must all be
up at 10 o’clock
for breakfast and
then
take
a morning walk.

On the afternoons of the day of games,
the last meal must be taken at three o’clock,
if a steak is the main dish,
then another walk
and a siesta.

Hec Kilrea and Marty Barry
are the only ones
allowed to eat
at four o’clock.

The reason is
they dine lightly
on eggs,
omitting
the steaks.

Movies are banned
on the afternoon of days the Wings play,
especially for Normie Smith.

Everyone in bed by midnight.

 

philip enjoys heavy hockey bumping

A Royal Guest: The cover of the 1953-54 British Ice Hockey World Annual featured Prince Philip (with Sir Arthur Elvin by his side) and his patronage of hockey at Wembley.

Philip Enjoys Heavy Hockey Bumping

was the headline when the Duke of Edinburgh got his first taste of the NHL’s game, and the Globe and Mail had it from an eyewitness, his Royal Highness’ host, Conn Smythe who, as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had arranged for his team to skate in a command performance for Canada’s own Princess Elizabeth and her husband during the Royal couple’s five-week tour of the Dominion in the fall of 1951.

Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip died in London on Friday morning at the age of 99.

Princess Elizabeth was 25 back during that ’51 visit to Canada, Prince Philip 30. Their cross-country odyssey that fall came just months before the death of George VI, in February of 1952, and Elizabeth’s succession to the throne. Maybe hockey wasn’t the focus of the couple’s busy schedule, but it did feature prominently enough, as it happens, because, well, Canada. Twice that October, the NHL twisted its regularly scheduled programming to accommodate their Royal Highnesses.

First up was an abridged afternoon scrimmage between Toronto’s Leafy defending Stanley Cup champions and the Chicago Black Hawks. That was followed a week later by a game at Montreal’s Forum with Canadiens taking on the New York Rangers.

A fuller account of both those games and the fuss surrounding them can be found, photographs, too, by steering over here. Today we’ll recall that, according to Conn Smythe, both Royal guests enjoyed their experience at Maple Leaf Gardens “tremendously.”

“That was apparent,” Smythe told the Globe, “in the way Prince Philip roared with laughter at the upsetting body-checks and the way the eyes of Princess Elizabeth glowed as the payers shot by her at full speed.”

As Smythe understood it, the Princess had only ever seen hockey once, on television, though the Prince had spent hours attending games in London.

Smythe was charmed by his guests, to say the least. “I’ll tell you that I’m not much for feathered hats,” he enthused, “but I thought the Princess wore a beautiful creation. It was a feathered hat.”

Prince Philip? “He’s a terrific Prince and what a sportsman.”

As a parting gift, Smythe handed over the puck the Leafs and Hawks had chased. “I told the Princess it was for Bonnie Prince Charlie,” he said, “and that the Leafs were putting him on the negotiation list.”

Smythe may have misunderstood, it turns out, about Prince Philip’s hockey-spectating history. What he told the Globe in 1951 is, at least, at odds with Sir Arthur Elvin’s understanding of things from the following year.

Elvin was the founder and owner of London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. Hockey had caught his eye in the early 1930s, when he saw Canadians play at the rink at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and in 1934 he saw to it that Wembley’s new Empire Pool could be converted to a hockey-hosting rink.

By Elvin’s account in 1952, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had only ever seen live hockey on his Canadian tour, never in Britain. That changed on December 4 of that year when Elvin arranged a Wembley game in Prince Philip’s honour, pitting the Wembley Lions against an All-Star team drawing players from their English League rivals.

Reflecting the tenor of the times in British hockey, it was a mostly Canadian affair on the ice. The All-Stars lined up two homegrown players, goaltender Bill Alderson from the Harringay Racers and Streatham Royals forward Pete Ravenscroft. The Lions turned out another pair, in English-born defencemen Art Green and Roy Shepherd. Otherwise, the players involved hailed from Ottawa and Winnipeg, Flin Flon, Montreal, Grand-Mère, Timmins, and Stony Mountain. Wembley’s player-coach was Frank Boucher, son of Buck, nephew of famous Frank, and the man who’d also steered the RCAF Flyers to Olympic gold in 1948.

“Despite a display of nerves by the players in the initial stages,” Sir Arthur noted in his write-up for Ice Hockey World Annual, “the match was packed with thrills and good hockey, as all present will testify and the Duke was as excited and enthusiastic over the play as the most ardent fan present.”

The All-Stars won, 2-1; when it was all over, Elvin narrated, “the Duke descended to the arena from the Restaurant where he had dined and watched the play, to present commemorative medals to all the players participating.”

charlie querrie’s toronto may be gone, but his legacy endures in the stanley cup championships he won and the team he (almost) named

Rink Boss: A century ago, there were few more conspicuous — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene than Charlie Querrie, seen here on the ice at Arena Gardens, the Mutual Street rink he managed.

The downtown arena he ran for more than a decade is gone now, reduced to a lonely plaque in a strip of park shadowed by condo towers in downtown Toronto. The big theatre he built on the Danforth is no more, which is also true of the daily newspaper where he worked for years.

The hockey teams he owned and coached to a pair of Stanley Cups in the early years of the NHL? Yes, that’s right: they’re history, too.

Like Charlie Querrie’s name and record of achievement, the Toronto that he moved in, and the institutions he built, occupy a faded if not quite forgotten geography of the city’s past. A century ago, there were few more prominent — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene.

Time, then, to acknowledge him and lend his story some context, maybe amend an oversight or two in the historical record? As it turns out, Querrie’s legacy as a prime hockey influencer has endured, even if it has been hiding in plain sight amid the foliage that adorns the sweaters of the team that he shepherded into NHL history.

Born in Markham, to Toronto’s  north and east,  in 1877, Querrie made his mark as a field lacrosse player before he ever fixed his focus on the ice. He’s in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame for his exploits on the grass, back when the game there was a much bigger deal than it is now.

He was shifty, those who saw him play later said, and speedy, with a deadly shot. In 1902, he scored 68 goals in a run of 17 games. That was with a Toronto team, during a tour of England that included a game at Lord’s in London in front of King Edward VII and a crowd of 20,000.

Querrie played professionally after that, signing on in 1906 as the playing coach of another Toronto team, Tecumsehs. He was not, court records confirm, an entirely peaceful player. Words like firebrand and hair-trigger temper figure in reviews of his career. He was arrested for clouting a referee during a game on Toronto Island in 1904. For that, he was convicted of assault in Police Court, and paid a $5 fine for his efforts. In the aftermath, one Ottawa newspaper accorded him this recognition: “He has caused more trouble through rough work than probably any other man in the game.”

Islanders: Toronto’s Tecumsehs as they lined up in 1907. Charlie Querrie is in the front row, third from the left. Standing in the back row at far left is Tim Daly, who’d later serve several decades as trainer of the Maple Leafs.

When he wasn’t wielding a lacrosse stick, Querrie was working as a printer in those years. Later, he was a sportswriter and editor for the daily Toronto News. While there’s no record of his having played hockey of any competitive kind, he ended up rinkside all the same. In 1912, professional hockey debuted in Toronto with the opening downtown of Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Without quitting his day job at the News or his summer lacrosse gig, Querrie took up, too, as manager of the new facility.

He was 40 in 1917, the year that the professional hockey world shifted, transforming the former lacrosse star’s trajectory as it did so. That November, after eight seasons as hockey’s major league in eastern Canada, the National Hockey Association died a quick administrative death one afternoon in Montreal’s Windsor Hotel — only to be immediately reformed as the National Hockey League.

That maneuvering was all because of one not-much-liked man, Eddie Livingstone, another former newspaper editor who’d owned several of the NHA’s Toronto franchises over the years, aggravating peers, players, and officials as he went. “The toxic Toronto owner,” hockey historian (and former prime minister) Stephen Harper called Livingstone, “quarrelsome and litigious.”

So thoroughly loathed was he by his peers in the old league that they were willing to scuttle the whole enterprise just to be rid of him. And it worked.

Backed by Montreal owners, the NHL’s new, Livingstone-free Toronto team found a home at Arena Gardens, where Querrie was still running the operation. The man originally picked to manage the team was Jimmy Murphy, another veteran of the lacrosse field who came with solid hockey bona fides, too.

And when Murphy bowed out just two weeks before the league’s inaugural season got underway? “I’ve got a new job,” Querrie told The Globe as the NHL’s four teams prepared to launch into the league’s inaugural season.

Managers in the early NHL were often more directly involved than their modern-day counterparts, exhorting their players and directing traffic from the bench as much as attending to matters of personnel, arranging trades and doling out contracts. And so while Querrie did hire Dick Carroll as a coach that first NHL season, that didn’t mean he wasn’t on the front lines himself, as thickly into the action as he could be without donning skates.

Querrie’s team was named the Torontos that year, plain and simple, though imaginative press reports sometimes styled them as the Blueshirts. Before they hit the ice that December, 103 years ago, Querrie issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto, distilling his own rigorous sporting philosophy as he laid down the law for the players in his charge on how they should apply themselves.

Point #4: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

Point #8: “You will be punished for indifferent work or carelessness. If you are anxious to win all the time you will be a good player. Indifference or lack of pepper is one thing we never did like.”

The season that ensued in the winter of 1917-18 was as tumultuous as any in the NHL’s 103-year history — present company, perhaps, excepted.

Still, Querrie’s team found a way through. After he tended to an early goaltending crisis, the team that styled themselves simply as the Torontos went out and won both the NHL title and the subsequent Stanley Cup final, beating the Vancouver Millionaires, the west-coast champions, in five games.

It wasn’t always pretty. Frank Patrick was president of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association that year. There was too much gambling in the Toronto rink at the final, he felt. Also? “Torontonians are very prejudiced.” As for Querrie, “he acted pretty friendly,” Patrick allowed, “except when under stress of excitement.”

That might help explain the feud that Querrie cultivated in that same series with Art Ross, then a former star defenceman assigned to referee a pair of the 1918 Cup games. Querrie was only too pleased to describe the exchange he had with the man who would go on to more or less invent the Boston Bruins. “Ross started in by telling me that I was a poor loser,” Querrie said, “and went on to say that I was mixed up in a crooked league, and was a crook in sport. I promptly called him a liar, and then he threatened to lick me.”

However else it’s remembered, the early history of the NHL stands out for the pains the league took to go on thwarting Eddie Livingstone, who was bent on revenge if acceptance wasn’t in the cards.

Pre-Leafs: By the time the St. Patricks posed for this photograph during the 1923-24 season, Querrie had already steered two Toronto teams to Stanley Cup championships. Back row from left, that’s trainer Billy Popp, Shrimp Andrews, Red Stuart, John Ross Roach, Bert Corbeau, Toots Holway, assistant trainer Oh Boy Saunders, Querrie. Front, from left: Chris Speyer, Amos Arbour, Jack Adams, Babe Dye, captain Reg Noble, and Stan Jackson.

As part of that program, the Toronto team relaunched in 1918 as the Arenas. A year later, when Querrie and an old lacrosse pal took control, the team was briefly renamed the Tecumsehs, though almost overnight the owners of hockey’s senior-league St. Patricks swooped in to buy the club and change the name again.

Querrie remained a part-owner of the NHL St. Patricks, newly clad in green, and he continued his hands-on management, with success — the St. Pats won another Stanley Cup championship in 1922.

When in 1924, the NHL fined Querrie $200 for “abusing an official,” the object of his ire was — guess who? — Art Ross.

Their quarrel continued after Ross took over as coach and manager of Boston’s expansion Bruins. One night in December of 1926, with Querrie’s St. Patricks battling the Bruins at Boston Garden, a melee broke out over a called-off goal. Ross was already out on the ice remonstrating with the referee when the Toronto manager followed him.

“Someone hurled a monkey wrench at my head,” Querrie recalled when he was back safe in Toronto. “It wasn’t any toy either but a full sized three-pound wrench and I brought it away for a souvenir. It only missed my head by a foot. Then someone socked me with a hard-boiled egg and not an overly fresh one at that. There were plenty of eggs flying.”

Even when they weren’t under barrages, the St. Patricks were not very good that season. Querrie was back behind the bench, but he didn’t seem to have any answers as the team won just two of their first ten games. Local newspapers reported that he and his partners were ready to sell the team, with C.C. Pyle stepping forward as the likeliest buyer, an American promoter who wanted to move the team to Philadelphia.

The story of how the hockey team stayed in Toronto has been burnished into legend. It’s the one in which Conn Smythe — war veteran, gravel contractor, hockey coach — saved the day, backed by a partner or two. Smythe had been hired and quickly fired by the fledgling New York Rangers that fall and parlayed his earnings into even bigger money with a couple of sports bets. Then he combined those winnings with his own daring, pluck, and sense of civic duty to buy the St. Patricks. In February 1927, he duly transformed them — in the middle of the NHL season, no less — into the Maple Leafs.

And that’s, more or less, the way that it went.

The team’s new name was nothing particularly novel. The maple leaf had been a national emblem since before Confederation and had been appropriated by hockey and lacrosse teams across the country ever since — complete with the spelling-error of the plural. Toronto’s minor-league baseball Maple Leafs had been swinging away since 1895.

If nowhere in the historical record does Smythe take explicit credit for the recycling the Leaf, nor did seem to mind when credit accrued to him and his patriotic pride.

“I had a feeling that the new Maple Leaf name was right,” he wrote in his 1981 autobiography, invoking the 1924 Olympic team and the insignia he himself had worn while serving with the Canadian artillery in the First World War. “I thought it meant something across Canada.”

That was right, of course, as nearly a century of subsequent Leaf history bears out. It’s just Charlie Querrie got that feeling first.

As Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth note in their 2002 book Deceptions and Doublecross, Querrie had had a name-change in mind three months earlier.

Back in December of ’26, before anyone had hurled any tools at his head, Querrie had been mulling the very switch that Smythe and his new partners would make official in February.

It wasn’t any secret. The Toronto Daily Star reported (and endorsed) the Querrie plan.

“The name St. Patricks doesn’t mean anything,” the Star opined, “and he is seriously considering dubbing his team the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

A more recent review of contemporary accounts reveal that Querrie’s first choice was, fun fact, to return the team to its NHL roots, rebranding as the plain-and-simple Torontos — only to discover that Eddie Livingstone owned the rights to that. Star columnist (and NHL referee) Lou Marsh declared himself on board with Querrie’s “non-partisan” second choice that was, to boot, “a name of fame in sport.”

“A lot of folks,” Marsh wrote, “never could understand why the club was labeled St. Pats.”

“If the switch in nomenclature is made,” the Star went on to hazard, “the green sweater may be dropped in favour of some other color scheme with a large Maple Leaf on the back.”

If Querrie was even minorly irked at not getting credit for his plan coming true, he doesn’t seem to have shared his annoyance in any public way. After the deal was done with Smythe and company that winter, he was reported to have walked away from NHL ownership with $65,000 — almost $1 million in 2020 terms. His 1919 original stake was said to have been no more than $1,200.

Out of hockey, Querrie busied himself running the Palace Theatre, the popular movie-house he’d opened in 1924 on the Danforth, in Toronto’s west end. He returned to writing, filing a genial weekly column in the Star and penning features for Leafs’ programs. He was proud of his ongoing devotion to Toronto hockey: in 1944, he noted that in the 32 years since professional hockey first launched in the city, he’d witnessed every game but three.

His feud with Art Ross withered away, then sprouted into friendship. Querrie had stowed away the wrench that just missed his head and in 1939 he had it mounted, with a clock, as a decorative desk-set, and presented it to his old rival.

Charlie Querrie died in April of 1950. He was 72. The Leafs were trying, that week, to defend the Stanley Cup they’d won three times in a row. Querrie’s last regret was said to have been that he couldn’t be on hand to watch the team he’d once owned — and almost named.

In Memoriam: Charlie Querrie’s grave in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, fall of 2020.

 

(A version of this post appeared on TVO.org in January of 2021.)

 

 

must be some misunderstanding

Twenty-Two: The Boston Bruins will retire Willie O’Ree’s number 22 on February 18.

“Sure, I was nervous,” said the 23-year-old rookie, “but it was the greatest thrill of my life.”

It was on a Saturday night in Montreal, January 18, 1958, that Fredericton, New Brunswick’s own Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut at the Forum, manning the left wing for the Boston Bruins and becoming, as he did so, the first Black player in the league’s then-40-year-old history.

The NHL observed the anniversary of O’Ree’s historic breakthrough this January past with decals on helmets that players across the league started wearing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. “Celebrating Equality,” they read; they’ll be on display through the end of February, which is Black History Month across North America.

O’Ree, who’s now 85, will be further honoured on February 18, when the Bruins plan to raise his number, 22, to the rafters of TD Garden ahead of a game with the New Jersey Devils.

That was the number he eventually wore. For his debut in January of ’58, O’Ree was on call-up duty, summoned from the QHL Quebec Aces to replace a flu-bitten Leo Labine in the Boston line-up for a home-and-home weekend series.

For those games, O’Ree sported number 18.

At the Forum, he skated on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini. The Bruins won that first of them 3-0, with Johnny Bucyk putting the winner past Jacques Plante. Sunday night in Boston, Bernie Geoffrion collected a pair of goals and a brace of assists as Montreal roared back with a 6-2 win.

O’Ree had a respectable 13 goals and 32 points that year with Quebec, but this initial stint of his in the NHL yielded nothing in the way of statistics. It would be another few years before he got a steady chance to play in the NHL, 1960-61, during which he donned number 22 in 43 games for Boston, notching four goals and 14 points.

Can we talk about this? Not the numbers O’Ree wore on his various sweaters, or the stats he registered, but his debut, how it was received, the idea of a “colour line” in hockey, and the fictions by which the sport’s establishment (including the press) deluded itself? Also, for good measure, maybe we’d continue a little further along, back a few years before 1958, and consider the odd instance of Herb Carnegie’s not-quite chance at playing in the NHL.

When Willie O’Ree first skated for the Bruins 63 years ago, note was taken, though the debut wasn’t universally hailed as a long-due turning point.

Many press reports noted the occasion as they did most matters of movements of NHL personnel, which is to say, in passing. Bill O’Ree, a couple of them called him; a United Press dispatch helpfully noted that he went by both names, Willie and Bill, and that his christened name was William Eldon O’Ree.

Montreal’s La Presse rolled out an eight-column headline across its sports page:

Pour La Première Fois, Un Joueur Noir Évoluera Dans La NHL Ce Soir.

The English-language Gazette wasn’t so certain — they only “believed” that O’Ree was the first Black player in the NHL, reminding readers (in case they hadn’t noticed) that there had been, to date, “comparatively few” Black players in hockey.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star both headlined O’Ree’s achievement in their sports sections.

The Boston Globe’s coverage was initially more muted: a United Press game report that ran on Sunday, January 19 highlighted O’Ree’s historic debut while rating his performance “undistinguished, as Boston coach played him only half a turn a time, alternating him with veteran Johnny Peirson.”

Columnist Tom Fitzgerald followed after Sunday’s game with a friendly, first-hand piece. “Boston fans constantly shouted encouragement to O’Ree on his appearances last night,” he wrote, “although he did not see much action in the later stages.”

“He’s a very fast skater,” Bruins GM Lynn Patrick observed, “but there are some things he naturally has to learn yet.”

Fitzgerald noted that the Bruins were hoping that Stan Maxwell, a centre from Truro, Nova Scotia, who was a teammate of O’Ree’s in Quebec and also Black, would soon be making his NHL debut. (Update: he never did.)

If this was a time, the opportunity ripe, for the NHL and the hockey establishment supporting it to reckon with questions of race, accessibility, systemic racism … well, no, there’s no evidence that any such discussion (let alone introspection) occurred.

It was ever thus. Those subjects just don’t figure in the recorded history of the early NHL. A 1928 comment attributed to Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, qualifies an outright rarity:  unlike major-league baseball, he was indirectly said to have suggested,  his league drew no colour line, nor was it  likely to do so.

True: no such prohibition appeared in the NHL’s Constitution or By-Laws. But: it was also one of Calder’s owners, Conn Smythe of Toronto Maple Leafs, who’s alleged to have watched 19-year-old junior star Herb Carnegie (who was Black) skate at Maple Leafs Gardens in 1938, telling Carnegie’s coach that he, Smythe, would sign Carnegie in a minute for the NHL — if only he were white. (In another version, Smythe is supposed to have said he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could “turn Carnegie white.”)

No-one was talking about that in 1958. Another United Press wire story out of Montreal that January weekend did venture to mention Willie O’Ree debut in the context of “the lowering of the last colour line among major sports in North America” … even as reporter Dick Bacon ramped up to a ready rationale that the problem actually resided with Black players themselves: they just weren’t good enough.

“Most hockey observers point out,” he blithely concluded, “that the only reason a ‘colour line’ existed was that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make the National Hockey League.”

Lest anyone have trouble interpreting that view, The Hockey News made sure to boost the signal a couple of weeks later. In the edition dated February 1, 1958, writer Len Bramson kicked off THN’s coverage of Willie O’Ree’s arrival in the NHL with this astonishing take:

Willie O’Ree became the first Negro to play in the National Hockey League, but his presence on the NHL scene didn’t mean that a barrier had been broken, as was the case of Jackie Robinson, the first Negro ever to break into the major leagues. The fact that there has never been a Negro in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself. No Negro, until O’Ree came along had the ability to play in the big time.

NHL owners have never discriminated against race colour or creed. All they have ever asked for was ability on skates.

Just in case he wasn’t clear enough with this, Bramson saw fit, midway through this THNpiece, to fold in Dick Bacon and his previous United Press reporting on O’Ree — including, verbatim, Bacon’s own observation about the mysterious lack of Black players of NHL quality.

Otherwise, following his own mention of ability on skates, Bramson went on to cite Herb Carnegie and his older brother, Ossie, from Toronto, both of whom had retired in the mid-1950s after long minor-league careers.

Of course, neither of them ever did play on NHL ice — while Herb was invited to attend the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1948, he turned down several of the team’s offers for minor-league contracts, opting to return to play for the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Provincial Senior League.

“There was no doubt in my mind, then or now,” Carnegie wrote in his 1997 memoir, “that I was every bit as good as the most talented player on that team. Except that I had once more been stopped by the colour barrier. The Rangers and its [sic] management were unable to look beyond the colour of my skin.”

Which gets us back to the matter, mentioned a little way back, of a slightly earlier time in the younger Carnegie’s career, another chance at breaking through to the NHL that actually seems to have been … an illusion?

It’s a decidedly odd episode that I haven’t seen mentioned before: it’s not in that memoir of Carnegie’s, A Fly In A Pail of Milk (which appeared in a new edition in 2019), nor does it surface in Cecil Harris’ Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (2007).

March of 1947 this was. As a point of pertinent context, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson made his big-league baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of that year, having spent the previous season with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate.

Herb Carnegie was 27 that spring. He and Ossie, who was 29, were both playing in the QPSHL for the Sherbrooke Saint-François (as they were called that year), playing on a line with Manny McIntyre, from Gagetown, New Brunswick, who was also Black. Herb would lead the team in scoring that season, collecting 33 goals and 83 points, and for the second year in a row he’d be named league MVP.

So it’s not so surprising that the Montreal Canadiens wanted to sign him — if they did.

Did they?

Herb Carnegie and his imminent NHL debut make the news in Muncie, Indiana, in March of 1947.

As March was winding down, so too was the NHL’s regular season. Looking forward to defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in 1946, Montreal was cruising towards the playoffs in first place, ten points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But. Injuries were starting to mount. Star centre Elmer Lach had been out three months with a broken cheek-bone. In mid-March, they lost the man who’d taken his place on the first-line, Buddy O’Connor: he broke his cheek in a particularly raucous game against the Rangers in New York. Defenceman Ken Reardon and winger George Allen were also banged up, and while it looked like they would be ready for the post-season, O’Connor’s status remained iffy.

And so, according to Montreal broadcaster Larry O’Brien, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin was looking to call in Herb Carnegie. He’d discussed it with club officials, declaring himself “most impressed” by the Sherbrooke centre’s skills.

O’Brien is an interesting figure. He was a crime reporter for The Montreal Staras well as a broadcaster, calling Canadiens hockey on the radio and Royals ballgames, too. He also stood in as a regular batting-practice pitcher for the Royals, and as such had thrown to Jackie Robinson in ’46. That was one of O’Brien’s proudest memories, he later said. He also ended up helping Robinson and his wife, Rachel, find an apartment. O’Brien would call the first TV broadcast of a sporting event in Canada, a Royals game in 1952, and later worked Grey Cup games and Stanley Cup finals. He went on to run the Canadian Open golf tournament for a decade, and spent years, subsequently, as Jack Nicklaus’ publicist.

In March of ’47, O’Brien seems to have been in New York for the CBC in his role as Canadiens broadcaster. The NHL’s board of governor’s was meeting in Manhattan, too, on Monday, March 17, and that’s where O’Brien said he got his scoop that Carnegie and the Canadiens were about to make history.

The news rippled across North America. Most of the headlines, it’s true, were tentative, touting Carnegie’s promotion to the NHL as a possibility. Someone saw fit to ask Boston Bruins president Weston Adams about the whole situation — I guess because Montreal was due to meet Boston in the playoffs? Anyway, Adams’ strange sign-off, declaration of permission, blessing — whatever it was, it was duly broadcast around the continent as well.

“It makes no difference to us what race or creed a player is,” Adams said. “If he’s a good player and can help the Canadiens that’s all the interest we have in the matter.”

Montreal’s interest, as it turned out, was not so much. Dick Irvin was quickly on record saying that the whole thing was a “misunderstanding.” How so? He made clear that there would be no other comment: it was just a misunderstanding.

O’Brien, for his part, stood fast, insisting that his information was correct.

And Carnegie … stayed where he was. Instead of joining Montreal for their Wednesday loss in Toronto or the following Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Chicago, Carnegie suited up for Sherbrooke as they launched into the provincial-league finals against the Lachine Rapides. On Thursday, March 20, he scored a pair of goals in his team’s 7-2 win. Going on to win the title in six games, Sherbrooke carried on to the Allan Cup playoffs, which they departed in April, losing out to the Montreal (hockey) Royals.

Making do without Carnegie, meanwhile, Canadiens called on utility forwards Hub Macey and Bobby Fillion to fill the holes in their line-up, along with rookie Leo Gravelle. Buddy O’Connor made it back to the ice for the end of Montreal’s successful first-round series against Boston and played in the finals, too, which saw the Canadiens surrender the Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What exactly happened with Carnegie’s call-up-that-never-was? Why wasn’t he the NHL’s first Black player, eleven years before Willie O’Ree, a month ahead of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball?

It’s not entirely clear. Since the principals of the piece — Carnegie, Irvin, O’Brien — are all now gone, we only have what’s on paper. Montreal’s French-language dailies were pretty categorical: Irvin was joking, O’Brien took him seriously. As Le Canada put it (translation Google’s):

Dick Irvin didn’t believe Larry O’Brien would take him seriously when he asked him if black player Herb Carnegie would be as strong a draw in hockey as Jackie Robinson in baseball.

What Toronto Daily Star sports editor Andy Lytle put on the page at the tail of one of his columns that week in March of ’47 might be as detailed an explanation as we’re ever going to get on the whole sorry business.

Lafayette, Indiana, gets news of Carnegie and the Canadiens in March of 1947, before Dick Irvin gets  a chance to explain.

Lytle and his departmental copy editors got a few basics wrong — naming Ossiewhen he meant Herb, calling Larry O’Brien Andy — but Canadiens GM Frank Selke was Lytle’s source, so his information is worth weighing.

“It’s the Robinson thing which stirs up Montreal writers,” Selke told Lytle. “Dick [Irvin] happened to say to [Larry] O’Brien if Robinson was only a hockey player, that would solve our troubles. That was enough. O’Brien decided we should use Carnegie and we weren’t even consulted. The idea, of course, is ridiculous.”

If only Lytle had pressed there — ridiculous? what, exactly, was ridiculous? — but Lytle didn’t press. Selke trundled on.

“We’re not too bad,” he said. “We finished on top and we have some hockey players left.”

Getting to the end of that update in the Star, readers might have let their attention drift to the top of the page, which featured a photograph of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and their baby, Jackie Jr.

The baseball pioneer’s future was still not decided. In that baseball pre-season, he remained a Montreal Royal, with Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey telling reporters that he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Robinson had earned a spot with the Dodgers. Rickey had a couple of weeks before the season got underway to make his mind up, the Starstory said, and Rickey suggested he’d make full use of that time.

“Robinson’s record with Montreal Royals last season would have automatically sent him to the Dodgers,” the Star piously opined on the very day that the possibility of Carnegie’s NHL debut tagged as a jest, “except for that unadmitted bar, the old American one of prejudice against colour.”

Note: While press style of the 1940s and ’50s consistently has newspapers Canadian and otherwise going with the American spelling of color, it has been rendered here throughout as colour.

erratum

First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.

Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.

This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.

He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong  embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.

The New York Times ran an Armstrong obituary on January 24.

But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.

This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.

Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.

The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?

There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:

The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.

Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.

Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.

Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.

His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.

On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.

Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.

You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.

Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)

Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.

busher the kid

Action Jackson: Born in Toronto on a Tuesday of this date in 1911, Harvey Busher Jackson made his NHL debut with the hometown Maple Leafs at the age of 18 in 1929. He played left wing on the Leafs’ legendary Kid Line, skating with Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher, and together they won a Stanley Cup in 1932. In 1934, in a game against the St. Louis Eagles, he became the first NHLer to score four goals in a period. After a decade in Toronto, he played a couple of seasons with the New York Americans and three more with the Bruins in Boston. In later life, he suffered from alcoholism and a host of health challenges; Jackson died in 1966 at the age of 55. Despite Conn Smythe’s best efforts to keep him out, Jackson was finally elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971 — whereupon Smythe quit the Hall’s Selection Committee in dissent.

black friday, 1931: the leafs fire a flying ace

Conn and Coach: Managing director and all-round Leaf overlord  Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs’ coach Dick Irvin. Irvin steered Toronto to a Stanley Cup in his first year with the team, and took them to six more Finals thereafter. In his nine seasons with the Leafs, his teams never missed the playoffs . (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

“Personal relations between Art Duncan and myself are of the best,” Toronto Maple Leafs managing director Conn Smythe was saying 89 years ago today, on another Friday of this same date, stepping up to announce his utmost and ongoing confidence in his coach. “I cannot speak too highly in praise of Mr. Duncan’s attitude since he has had the team.”

Actually, no, sorry, my mistake: fond as that speech sounds, Smythe was in fact firingthe man who’d been guiding his hockey team for just over a year. Five games into the new season, with the Leafs mired at the foot of the NHL’s four-team Canadian Section on a record of three losses and two overtime ties, Smythe had decided that Dick Irvin was the change that the Leafs needed.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Art Duncan had turned 40 in the summer of 1931. He was already a veteran defenceman when he came to the Leafs in 1927. A trade brought him in from the Detroit Cougars, with whom he’d served as playing coach before ceding the bench to Jack Adams.

Having headed up the syndicate that bought the Toronto franchise earlier in ’27, Conn Smythe would soon take over as manager and coach of the team, too. In 1930, after three years of guiding the team, Smythe decided that the time had come for him to fix his attention on getting a new arena built. Smythe had hoped that Frank Nighbor would succeed him, but when he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Pembroke Peach, he handed the job to Duncan.

This wasn’t Duncan’s first stint playing big-league hockey in Toronto: a decade earlier, during the First World War, he’d enlisted in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and played for the 228th Battalion team during its brief tenure in the pre-NHL NHA.

After the 228th cut short its season in 1917 to deploy to France, Duncan transferred to Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, as a lieutenant flying an S.E.5a fighter over Belgium and northern France, he was credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. For “continuous gallantry and initiative,” Duncan was awarded the Military Cross and bar.

By the fall of ’31, Conn Smythe had done what he’d set out to: on November 12 that year, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in a blaze of pomp and ceremony. The Leafs couldn’t contribute a win to the festivities. Two weeks later, they still didn’t have one to their name.

Duncan’s last game in charge saw Toronto fall in Montreal, 3-2 to the Canadiens, on the night of Thursday, November 26. When he was fired next day, he had coached the Leafs in 47 regular-season games — the same number, as it happens, that the present coach, Sheldon Keefe, has overseen to date. (Keefe’s winning percentage stands at .400 to Duncan’s .250.)

Several reports of Duncan’s dismissal noted that he would remain on the Toronto payroll, though that doesn’t seem to have worked out over the longer term. In February of 1932, news reached the popular press that Duncan was suing the Leafs for several thousand dollars in pay, claiming wrongful dismissal and breach of contract. (I haven’t been able to determine how that was resolved, or wasn’t.)

Dick Irvin, who was 39, had also served with the CEF, with the Fort Garry Horse. He was already a veteran star of the Western Canadian Hockey League when he joined the expansion Chicago Black Hawks in 1926, becoming the team’s first captain.

After a fractured skull put an end to his playing career in 1929, he took over as coach the team. He didn’t last, but then not many coaches did, for long, in those torrid years when Major Frederic McLaughlin was the owner in Chicago.

After just a year-and-a-half on the job — and having beaten the Leafs on the way to the 1931 Stanley Cup final, where Chicago lost to Montreal — Irvin resigned his post with the Black Hawks in September of ’31.

He was back home in Regina in mid-November as the rumours circulated that he might be convinced to return to the Black Hawks. Smythe, though, was persuasive enough over the telephone from Toronto that Irvin decided his future lay in Toronto.

He wasn’t on hand to get it started right away, as it turned out. With the new coach en route from Saskatchewan, and not due to arrive on in Toronto until the following Monday, Conn Smythe stepped in to take command of the Leafs that Saturday, 89 years ago tomorrow.

He did fine, steering Toronto to a 6-5 decision over the Boston Bruins — the Leafs’ very first victory in their new building. Andy Blair scored the overtime winner.

Dick Irvin’s first game in charge was at the Gardens on Tuesday, December 1, when another overtime failed to unlock a 2-2 tie between Toronto and the New York Americans. It was another two games before the new coach got his first Leafly victory, a 4-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.

Things got better and better from there, to the extent that in April of 1932, Irvin’s Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.

Fly Guy: Art Duncan depicted by Jimmy Thompson in 1930, his first year as Leaf coach.

golden grad: in 1928, dave trottier was the most sought-after hockey player in the world

Everybody wanted Dave Trottier in the winter of 1927-28, and why not, he was, at 21, the hottest hockey talent outside the NHL. He would have been an asset to any of the league’s ten team that season, and several of the league leaders did their best to sign him.

But Trottier, a left winger, had a European trip he wanted to take before he decided on his hockey future, and so the Leafs and Senators and the Rangers and the Bruins all had to wait.

Trottier died at the age of 50 on a Wednesday of this date in 1956.

Back in 1927, he was the Pembroke-born star of the University of Toronto Varsity Grads who were, under coach Conn Smythe, the presiding Allan Cup champions. As amateur champions of Canada, the Grads won the right to represent their country at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and so they did that, in February, with Trottier leading the way, but without Smythe — he stayed home in Canada over a roster dispute.

A Trottier tale from the St. Moritz Olympics in February of 1928.

On their way to winning gold, the Canadian Grads dispatched Swedes (11-0) and Brits (14-0) and Swiss (13-0). Trottier scored five goals in each of the first and the final of those games, managing a meagre pair against the British, and with those 12 goals he shared the tournament’s scoring lead with teammate Hugh Plaxton.

Post-Olympics, Toronto thought they had the inside track on getting Trottier’s signature on a contract: Conn Smythe was the man in charge of the Maple Leafs, and Trottier was said to have vouched himself to the club.

But a Montreal paper was also hearing that he’d sign for the Maroons in Montreal. In Chicago, the news was that Ottawa had a chance.

Or maybe would he stay an amateur? There was word that he had a job lined up in pulp and paper in Northern Ontario, where he could also play hockey for Iroquois Falls.

In the fall, the Trottier speculation began to warm up again. The Leafs were reported to have offered him $5,000 annually for three years, plus a $5,000 signing bonus. Canadiens were said to be in the hunt, and the New York Rangers, too.

In October, with the opening of the new NHL season weeks away, the Boston Bruins were reported to have paid Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs $10,000 for the option on Trottier’s rights.

According to another report, the former Olympic star was asking the Bruins for a three-year deal that would pay him $35,000. That would have put him among the highest-paid players in the NHL, if not above them: in 1927-28, Maroons defenceman Dunc Munro was the top earner, with a contract that paid him $9,000 a season.

“All the things that have been published have been very distasteful to me,” the man himself said at the end of October. He was in Montreal, working for a pulp-and-paper company there, and planning to play senior hockey for the Victorias. “I have not definitely decided to turn professional. I like hockey, but I have a business career ahead of me that for the future is more important than the game.”

Trottier finally agreed to terms with the Montreal Maroons at the end of November. The Boston deal was, I guess, annulled — or was it just a rumour in the first place? Either way, Montreal paid Toronto $15,000 and promised to send them a player at the end of the season. (I can’t tell who that ended up being.) The value of Trottier’s contract wasn’t reported.

Trottier didn’t have a stellar rookie season, contributing just a couple of goals. But he did turn into a reliable scorer over the course of a decade with the Maroons. In his best season, 1931-32, only three other players in the NHL scored more than his 26 goals, while his 44 points put him sixth in league scoring.

In 1935, he helped in the effort that secured the Maroons a Stanley Cup. Dave Trottier spent his last year in the NHL, 1938-39, with the Detroit Red Wings, before persistent knee and shoulder injuries put an end to his career.

Atop The Hockey World: A cartoon from October of 1928, a month before Trottier ended up signing for the Montreal Maroons.

 

as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton-born (and B.C.- and Swiss-based)  photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. For more of his work, visit http://scottconarroe.com. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”

 

the nhl’s first finn, only almost a leaf, was also the coach who didn’t get the gold in 1936

“They are stepping along nicely,” Al Pudas said that day, having put his team though their paces ahead of their opening game. It was 1936, February. The 36-year-old coach was confident. “This is the strongest club I’ve ever had,” he said.

Spoiler alert: Pudas, who died on a Thursday of this date in 1976 at the age of 77, didn’t get the gold medal he, his team, and all of Canada was expecting. Maybe you know the story of the ’36 Olympics, which were in Germany, and how they ended Canada’s golden hockey streak. There’s more on that, here and here, if you’re interested. What we’ll say here is that to that point, teams sporting the maple leaf on their sweaters hadn’t lost a game let alone a gold medal in four Olympics, going back to Antwerp in 1920. Also, this: the fact the fact that the ’36 team could only manage silver wasn’t really Pudas’ fault.

Before he was a coach, Pudas was a referee. Before that he played, mainly on the wing. He did most of his skating in the ’20s, for teams in Port Arthur, though the fact that he was summoned in late 1926 to the NHL means that he was the league’s very first Finnish-born player: born in Siikajoki in Finland in 1899, Pudas had emigrated to Canada with his family before he turned two.

Pudas was playing right wing for the Windsor Hornets of the Canadian Professional Hockey League in December of 1926 when the Toronto St. Patricks signed him. They brought in left winger Butch Keeling at the same time. Both made their debut in a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins at Toronto’s Arena Gardens. Pudas wore number 14 during his short stay with Toronto, which lasted just four games. By mid-January of 1927 he was back in the Can-Am with Windsor, which means that he was only almost a Maple Leaf: it would be another month before Conn Smythe and his partners swooped in to acquire the team and switch the team’s identity almost overnight.

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street in December of 1926. From left to right, they are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey. A few months later, when Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided the St. Pats would now be Maple Leafs, Pudas’ NHL career was over, and he was back in the Can-Am loop. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9948)