maple leaf gardens, 1999: the last waltz

They played in the first NHL game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens in 1931, and they were there at the last, 68 years later. Red Horner had worked the blueline that opening night for the Leafs, while Mush March was a member of the visiting Chicago Black Hawks, scoring on their behalf the first goal in the history of the rink that Conn Smythe built. On Saturday, February 13, 1999, when the same two teams met for the final game at the Gardens, March and Horner, both 90, were on hand to drop a ceremonial puck. Like them, that was an original, too: March had kept the one he’d scored with in ’31, carrying it with him, back to Toronto, from his home in Illinois.

Also on hand for that final Gardens night were a further hundred or so former Maple Leafs, Gaye Stewart and Fleming Mackell, Ed Litzenberger, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis, Red Kelly among them. (Pointed in their staying away: Dave Keon, still vowing then that he’d never have anything more to do with the team, ever, and Bert Olmstead, miffed that his invitation hadn’t been personalized.)

What else? The 48th Highlanders piped their pipes and drummed their drums. Anne Murray sang “The Maple Leaf(s) Forever,” and Stompin’ Tom Connors struck up with “The Hockey Song.” Michael Burgess took care of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”

Then, hockey. In 1931, Chicago beat the Leafs 2-1. They did it again in ’99, this time by a score of 6-2.

Toronto artist James Paterson later rendered his vision of the evening’s events, with some added Lordly commentaries. In the fall of 1999, the painting was on display at Toronto’s Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery as part of a Paterson show also called “Hockey All The Time.”

fifteen games a ranger: buddy maracle, in and out of the nhl

In A Minors Key: The Springfield Indians, probably in their 1928-29 configuration. Back row, from the left, best as I can tell, that’s coach Frank Carroll, Frank Waite, Harry Foster, Leroy Goldsworthy, and Laurie Scott (?). Front, from left: Buddy Maracle, Wilfrid Desmarais, Andy Aitkenhead, Clark Whyte (?), Art Chapman.

The turn of the calendar from January to February brings Hockey Is For Everyone™ — “a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey.” There’s a hashtag, there are websites (here and here), a mobile museum; there are events and programs planned around the league, throughout the month. Ambassadors have been named, one for each NHL team; others are drawn from women’s hockey, the media, as well as from the ranks of the league’s distinguished alumni.

Fred Sasakamoose is one of the latter. His story and achievements have both been widely chronicled, and there’s no questioning his contributions or commitment as a hockey pioneer and change-maker. Last year, he was a worthy (and past due) recipient of the Order of Canada. To point out (again) that Sasakamoose doesn’t seem, in fact, to have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player doesn’t diminish his achievements, or affront his dedication to many causes, hockey and otherwise, over the years. The NHL doesn’t want to get into it, apparently: in recent months, the league’s position on its own history so far as it involves Buddy Maracle and his apparent breakthrough has been — no position at all. You’ll find his statistics archived on NHL.com, but no word of his story, beyond those bare numbers. I’ve asked both the league and the New York Rangers, for whom Maracle played in 1931, about whether they have plans to recognize and/or honour his legacy. They don’t.

Maybe there’s a debate to be had, maybe not: the NHL is nothing if not steadfast in staying as aloof as possible from the history. This month, still, wherever he’s introduced in the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone outlay, Fred Sasakamoose remains “the NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.”

Here (again): Buddy Maracle’s story. A version of this post first appeared in the January 7, 2019, edition of The Hockey News.

Buddy Maracle’s time as an NHLer lasted not quite two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history and statistics. A review of the records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over the North American map in a career that lasted nearly 20 years. What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something that the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as having been the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 85, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

And yet history suggests that at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose into the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of just who might have been the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s very beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in the league’s second season in 1918. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did indeed practice with Charlie Querrie’s team in the pre-season, but the evidence that he actually made it to regular-season ice is sparse, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defence for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born centreman, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. Manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea; either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was the man briefly in charge ofassembling a roster. The man who’d go on to invent and shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings played an NHL game. Smythe did recruit Taffy Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seems to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in Toronto’s Mercantile League. As it was, 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Ranger farm team that fall.

There’s much that we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Much of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for The Ayr Newswho took an interest in the Maracle story early last year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s researches that we understand thatyoung Albert Maracle and his family, Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point Albert married Elsie Hill; their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September of 1904.

The family subsequently headed north, to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his hockey-playing start, first at high school, then as a junior with the North Bay Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by Elmer in those years, though the course of his career he began to show up in contemporary newspapers as Bud, Clarence, Moose, and (inevitably) Chief. Buddy seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s Can-Am Hockey League affiliate team in Springfield, Massachusetts — which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of him from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and his speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him,” The Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team, and becoming a favourite with the fans for his industry and failure to quit. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided that he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many contemporary newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight: over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox, and “the last Mohican.”

“Redskin Icer” was another epithet that featured in press reports of Maracle’s exploits. Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters were also only too pleased to couch their columns with references to warpaths and wigwams, war whoops, tomahawks, and scalps.

Assessing just how much of this was idle stereotyping and how much pointedly racist is beside the point: casual or otherwise, it’s all more or less insidious. As nasty as it reads on the page in old newspapers, how much worse must it have been for Maracle in the moment? When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’”

Maracle got his NHL chance towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

Continue reading

conn brio

Hats Off: Born on this date in 1895, when it was also Friday, Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe. “Young Constantine hated the name from the time he was old enough understand it,” Kelly McParland writes in his 2011 biography, The Lives of Conn Smythe, and soon he made a change. Connhe borrowed from an ancient Irish king, “hero of a hundred battles.” In 1927 Smythe headed the syndicated that bought the Toronto St. Patricks and re-invented them as the Maple Leafs. Here he’s seen at the age of 54 on the night of Saturday, April 16, 1949. That’s Leafs’ coach Hap Day with him, of course; the dressing-room salute follows their team having swept to a third successive Stanley Cup championship, the sixth of Smythe’s tenure to that point. Toronto defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night to take the Cup in four games.

(Image: Globe and Mail Fonds 1266, Item 132809, City of Toronto Archives)

the winter crop of the snow-covered fields

Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.

Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener  — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.

The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.

below the belt: the great leaf groin crisis of 1957

“Guts, goals, and glamour” was the slogan that GM Hap Day Toronto Maple Leafs draped on his team in the mid-1950s and it was one that his coach Howie Meeker gladly took up when he took charge of the team for the 1956-57 campaign. But halfway through the season, with the Leafs cruising closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than the top, another not so melodious g-word was crowding into the phrasing: groins.

Toronto had gone nearly six years without winning a Stanley Cup, and ’56-57 wouldn’t be their year again. That March, not long after the team missed the playoffs, Day resigned his post, and while Meeker hung around for a little longer, Leafs president and managing director Conn Smythe fired him before the spring had turned to summer. Smythe himself was retiring that year after a lively 30 years helming the Leafs, though not before naming a new coach (Billy Reay) and installing a committee of GMs (it included his son Stafford and Harold Ballard, among others) to steer the team into the future.

Whatever the particular lacks and flaws of the ’56-57 Leafs might have been, injuries did play a significant part in their failure to launch. Hap Day was talking about that in a story that appeared on this very January day in 1957 in The Globe and Mail. “I can recall some pretty rough seasons but never one to equal the present campaign,” he told Red Burnett. “I don’t believe we’ve been able to put a full-strength team on the ice since the season started.”

Injured Leafs had by that point missed a total of 124 games — and they still had 27 games to play. Over the entirety of the previous season, they’d lost a total 66 man-games to injuries. (As of today, this year’s Mike Babcock-led edition of the Leafs have lost 50 man-games.)

Among the ’56-57 wounded were defenceman Hugh Bolton, who’d been out 27 games with a broken leg, and forward George Armstrong, 16 games on the shelf with torn ligaments. Bob Pulford (strained back), Gerry James (battered shoulder), Barry Cullen (charley horse + fractured hand), Marc Reaume (gammy foot), and Tod Sloan (shoulder separation) had all been absent.

For all that pain and damage, it was the ubiquity of one particular ailment that seems to have concerned Conn Smythe most. Defencemen Jim Thomson, Tim Horton, and Jim Morrison had all at some point gone down with groin injuries that season, along with forwards Rudy Migay and Ted Kennedy.

As the pair of memos shown here memorialize, Conn Smythe was on the case. Could his team of highly tuned professional athletes be failing to stretch properly before they threw themselves into the fray? And what about these nefarious stops and starts? Were theyto blame? On this day 62 years ago, he started his investigation with a phone message to GM Day, who duly answered.

 

 

 

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

bruins + leafs, 1931: swing and a miss

One wintry meeting between Leafs and Bruins deserves another, so here’s this scene from 88 years ago or so, when the two teams clashed at Boston Garden during the 1930-31 season. What I can’t say with complete certainty is which Leaf visit this was, of the two they paid their old Massachusetts rivals that year. Guessing, I’d have to go with the second game (March 10, 1931) over the first (December 2, 1930), if only because Benny Grant tended the Leafs’ goal in the latter while in the former it was Lorne Chabot who, to my squinted eye, seems to be the man in the net in the photograph here.

Other Leafs? Battling for the puck behind the net is Toronto’s number 4, Hap Day. Out in front — well, Day’s usual partner in those years was King Clancy, though I don’t think that’s him, so it’s either Red Horner or Alex Levinsky. Skating for centre is surely Ace Bailey, whose linemates that year tended to be Baldy Cotton and Andy Blair. As for the Bruins, wearing number 7 is Cooney Weiland with Dit Clapper (5) hovering nearby. Together with centre Dutch Gainor those two played on Boston’s “Dynamite Line” around this time, so let’s say that’s Gainor digging for the puck with Day.

The game (if it is the second one) ended in a 3-3 tie that overtime couldn’t change. Bailey and Blair scored for the Leafs, as did Charlie Conacher; Weiland got two of the Bruins’ goals, with George Owen adding the third.

Other notes of interest: according to the Boston Globe, the game was a high-spirited affair, on the ice and off. In overtime, King Clancy “tried to punch a spectator through the wire screen behind the Toronto goal, something which one would not expect such a brainy person to do.”

Before that:

At the end of the first period, Art Ross, the Bruin manager, and Connie Smythe, the chief moving spirit behind the Leafs, had a verbal altercation in the lobby, with Ross swinging but missing the jaw of Smythe. This drama was repeated at the end of the second stanza, when Smythe ventured to inquire how Ross liked being behind.

(Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)