goalie on the verge

Andy Aitkenhead

Andy Aitkenhead was born on a Sunday of this date in 1904 in Glasgow in Scotland, though Saskatchewan is where he grew up and learned the goaling trade. As a young man in the 1920s in Saskatoon, he worked the nets for teams called Quakers, Nationals, Empires, and Sheiks, catching the attention, eventually, of Lester Patrick in New York, who signed him up for the Rangers. He seasoned two years in Portland, Oregon, before graduating to the NHL — that’s him here in his PCHL Buckaroos raiment. The glad news is that as a 28-year-old rookie Aitkenhead backstopped the Blueshirts to their second Stanley Cup to finish up the 1932-33 campaign, working all 48 of the team’s regular-season games and a further eight in the playoffs, winning 29 of those 56 encounters.

He didn’t miss a game the following year, either, despite suffering a nervous breakdown this month in 1934. Details of just what happened aren’t easy to discern from contemporary reports, though the newspapers of the day were all too pleased to blithely bandy the goaltender’s mental health across their columns. “Andy Aitkenhead’s nervous system has broken under the strain of National League hockey,” Vancouver’s Province reported mid-March as the Rangers prepared to start the playoffs and the defence of their title. Patrick denied it, even as he scrambled to find an emergency replacement. Heading into their final regular-season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rangers had lost six of their previous ten games; “Andy hasn’t been going so well lately” is as much as the manager would say. As Patrick sought permission from the NHL to bring in Alec Connell, the recently retired veteran of nine NHL campaigns, the newspapers cast their headlines across the continent:

New York Rangers’ Goalie / Suffers Attack of ‘Jitters’ (Edmonton Journal)

Andy Aitkenhead Suffers / From Nervous Breakdown (Boston Globe)

Aitkenhead Out of Game (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix)

Maple Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe thought it was all a, well, con, a case of Patrick trying to bend the rules and acquire a new goaltender after the NHL trade deadline had passed. “Nobody in all the world of sport can do such utterly unthinkable things except that doggone Lester,” Smythe brayed from Toronto. “He excites my admiration damn near every time he moves, and he moves frequently.”

As it turned out, Connell couldn’t get away — he had a regular job, as secretary of the Ottawa Fire Department. Aitkenhead was back in net for the Toronto game, and while the Rangers lost, 3-2, he stopped 41 shots while inspiring a brighter set of headlines in the days that followed:

Andy’s Jitters Not Permanent (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Aitkenhead Is Recovering (Winnipeg Tribune)

Andy Aitkenhead Beating Nerves (Edmonton Journal)

“Aitkenhead’s display lessened somewhat Patrick’s anxiety for the youngster,” the wires reported, “that examination by doctors had caused. Letters from the doctors said Aitkenhead’s reflexes revealed a high degree of nervousness although a physical examination failed to disclose any organic weakness. Encouragement was offered by the statement it might be a passing condition curable by rest.”

And that was pretty much it. Paul Gallico weighed in with a jolly column in the New York Daily News, but mostly,the discussion of Aitkenhead’s well-being sank away out of the news.

As for rest, he didn’t get much that March, starting both of New York’s playoff games later that same week. In a series to be decided by total goals, he and his Maroons’ counterpart Dave Kerr shared in allowing not a one in the first game in Montreal: the Daily News reported that, “though highly keyed up,” Aitkenhead was “magnificent” in stopping 26 shots to guarantee that the game ended 0-0 — while also commending his “coolness.” Five days later, when the teams met again at Madison Square Garden, the Maroons eliminated the Rangers with a 2-1 win secured by a third-period goal by Earl Robinson.

Andy Aitkenhead’s goaltending career had another six years to run, though he only ever played 10 more games in the NHL. The Rangers stumbled out of the gate to start the 1934-35, and they were a dismal 3-7 in December when the Rangers bought Dave Kerr from the Maroons and sent Aitkenhead packing. “I am far from satisfied that the fault was all Andy’s,” Lester Patrick said. “However, when a goalie lest as many get by him as Andy did, you know what happens. All I can say is, I’m sorry.”

Aitkenhead found his way back to the Buckaroos’ net in PCHL Portland, and he played there through to 1941. That’s where he stayed settled, too, after his retirement. Andy Aitkenhead died at the age of 64 in 1968.

(Top image: Oregonian/Barcroft Studios. Oregon Journal; Lot 1368; Box 371; 0371N013)

working for the honour, on and off the ice

Born in Winnipeg on a Wednesday of this date in 1927, Jim Thomson was starting his 12thseason working the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline when he was named captain of the team in the fall of 1956. At 30, he was a four-time Stanley Cup-winner by then, and twice he’d been named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Coach Howie Meeker recommended his promotion to the captaincy ahead of the new season, succeeding Sid Smith. “This being a young team,” Meeker wrote to Leafs’ supremo Conn Smythe, “I think more than ever we should have a captain who can set an example on and off the ice for the kids.” Thomson had proved himself to be the Leafs’ best defenceman at training camp, the coach continued. And: “He is the only one of the possible captain candidates working for the honour on and off the ice.”

And so it was that Thomson, pictured here with his wife, June, proudly showing off his C’d sweater, took up as the Leafs’ on-ice leader. The season, unfortunately, didn’t go so well: the team stumbled from the start, and ended up out of the playoffs. By time it was all over, Smythe had accepted responsibility for what he called “a year of failure” — while summarily axing Meeker and long-serving GM Hap Day. As for Thomson, he signed on during the season as secretary for and Leafs’ representative to Ted Lindsay’s fledgling players’ association. When the players went public in February of 1957, Thomson soon found out what his boss thought of the whole business. Benched and stripped of his captaincy, Thomson was soon sold into exile, joining Lindsay and others on the NHL’s island of Broken Toys, a.k.a. the Chicago Black Hawks. “I find it very difficult to imagine,” Smythe railed, “that the captain of my club should find time during the hockey season to influence young hockey players to join an association that has no specific plans to benefit or improve hockey.”

Thomson played a year for the Black Hawks for he hung up his skates in 1958. He died in 1991 at the age of 64.

skate department

Skate Of Play: Herb Carnegie was 33 in March of 1953, playing centre for the Quebec Aces of the Senior QMHL when he featured in the pages of La Patrie. This week that February, Carnegie contributed a pair of assists to a 12-2 Aces shellacking of the Shawinigan Falls Cataracts. Leading the way were two of Quebec’s other centremen, each of whom notched three goals and four assists on the night:  Ludger Tremblay, 32, and a 21-year-old Jean Béliveau, who was a year away from bursting into the NHL. Tremblay was a reliable goalscorer who spent his entire pro career with the Aces. Carnegie, as it’s well known, had the skills and the speed to skate in the NHL, and would have been the league’s first black player, if the call had come. A training camp try-out with the New York Rangers in 1948 was as close as he came. It was before that, back in his hometown of Toronto, that his Junior A coach, Ed Wildey, passed on what Maple Leafs’ managing director Conn Smythe had said: that the Leafs would have signed Carnegie in a minute if only Smythe could have turned him white.

lemons and turnips greeted bert corbeau

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when these four posed in early December of 1926 at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena. The following February, Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided change was order. Just like that, in mid-season, green-and-brown St. Patricks turned to blue-and-white Maple Leafs. Above, looking stern, left to right, are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey.

Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, on this date in 1894 — it was a Friday there, then — Bertram Orion Corbeau was better known in his hockey-playing years as just plain Bert, as well as by his distinctive nickname: Pig Iron. His mother was Fanny; his father, Francois, made a busy living as a carriage-maker, undertaker, and furniture-store owner, and later, in the 1920s, served as mayor of Penetanguishene. A defenceman whose adjectives included sturdy (1916), husky, and blond backwoodsman (both dating to 1917), Bert Corbeau signed with the NHA Canadiens in 1914, helping Montreal win a Stanley Cup in ’16. He worked the Canadiens’ blueline in the team’s earliest NHL years, before Montreal sold him to the Hamilton Tigers ahead of the 1922-23 season. Traded the following year to the St. Patricks, he played his final four NHL seasons in Toronto. It’s a dubious distinction, but noteworthy all the same: in 1925-26 he became the first player in NHL history to amass more than 100 penalty minutes in a single season (he finished with 125 that year, just ahead of Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons, who had 121.)

Corbeau went on to serve as an NHL referee and, subsequently, as a minor-league coach in Ontario and with Atlantic City of the Eastern U.S. Hockey League. Bert Corbeau drowned at the age of 48 in September of 1942 when the 75-foot launch he owned and was piloting in the waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron capsized. Vern DeGeer remembered him in the pages of The Globe and Mail the day after the shocking accident, in which a total of 25 men died. “Although the barrel-chested, sandy-haired son of Penetanguishene was one of the roughest and toughest of the men of iron that jolted and jarred their way through major pro puck competition in the gory era of the sport,” DeGeer wrote, “Corbeau was a thoroughbred campaigner. Friend and foe respected the raw courage of the man.”

Headliner: Corbeau’s ongoing feud with Punch Broadbent of the Senators coloured a February, 1920 visit by Canadiens to Ottawa.

 

this hippodrome of hockey

Leaf Spot: It was on a Thursday of this date in 1931 that Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens saw its first NHL hockey. Before a crowd of 13,542, the home team fell by a score of 2-1 to the visiting Chicago Black Hawks. Two days later, the Leafs tied the Montreal Canadiens in the brand-new building that the Globe’s ebullient Bert Perry called “this hippodrome of hockey.” It wasn’t until the Leafs’ fourth game under their new roof that the team finally forged a victory at home, beating the Boston Bruins on November 28 by a score of 6-5 in overtime on a goal by Andy Blair. This is an altogether later photograph from on high in the Gardens, dating to 1946. Squint and you can make out the languid form of goaltender Turk Broda in the net to the left. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7524)

just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

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frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).