Here’s how the story goes. There was a river in Egmondville, and a winter, but no hockey. How that’s possible, in southern Ontario, in the early years of the new, 20thcentury, I don’t know, but that’s the story. So it was that young Ralph Weiland, our young hero, had only read about hockey, he’d never seen it, let alone played: hockey, to him, was all on the page. How to get from here to there? This elsewhere hockey dogged the boy’s imagination until finally it burst those bounds. So (in the story), Ralph and an unnamed friend jumped a freight train in their desperation for discovery.
If they’d travelled southeast just 20 kilometres down the line they might have run into a tyro Howie Morenz, whose childhood was underway in nearby Mitchell. Instead, the boys went north, ended up in Seaforth. If you study your Ontario map over towards Lake Huron, you’ll notice that Egmondville is actually right up alongside Seaforth, with just a few kilometres between the two — but the story says the boys took a train, so we’ll stick with the train. In Seaforth, one winter’s night, they found what they were searching for in the arena, which they snuck into with the help of a friendly ticket-taker.
I don’t know about the friend, but the hockey was all that Ralph, anyway, had hoped for. He was apparently so thoroughly puckstruck by the time the game was over that he stole a stick before legging it for home.
The friend here departs the narrative: back home, Ralph alone tries out his new pilfered prize, stickhandling a stone. That’s no good, obviously. He has the bright idea, then, of prying off the rubber heel from one of his father’s Sunday-best boots — much better. If you were expecting a Dickensian conclusion here, wherein the boy is cast out for his crime, has to make his way in the world alone thereafter, bravely facing up all its trials and troubles as stoutly as David Copperfield himself — sorry. In Ralph’s case, his father is fine when he finds out about the thieving and the vandalism, and our intrepid hero is launched on his hockey way.
That’s the way it goes, anyway, in a freewheeling Minneapolis Starfeature dating to the later 1920s, by which time Ralph had aged and prospered and was widely known as Cooney Weiland. He was stopping in Minnesota to play for the AHA Millers; in just a few more years he’d make his NHL debut. I’m not saying that the story isn’t true, but I will suggest that, categorically, it might be worth shelving it as close to the fairytales as to the annals of history.
The fact is, nevertheless, that November 5 is the day Cooney Weiland was born in Egmondville in 1904 (it was a Saturday, then). A centreman, Weiland did get back to Seaforth to play as a junior with the local Highlanders. He subsequently made a move up to Owen Sound, where he helped the Greys win the 1924 Memorial Cup.
Weiland would go on to star with the Boston Bruins, playing middleman to wingers Dutch Gainor and Dit Clapper on the Dynamite Line in the late 1920s, winning two Stanley Cups, and topping the NHL’s scoring chart in 1930. Trades took him to the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings in the ’30s before he made a return to Boston. He was named captain of the team in 1937. Later, he coached the Bruins, steering them to a 1941 championship. He ended up across the Charles River, coaching the Harvard hockey team from 1950 to 1971. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’71.
One of the All-Americans Weiland oversaw during his time with the Crimson was a defenceman named David Johnston, who revered him, and went on to serve as Canada’s 28th Governor-General. Johnston gave a eulogy at his old coach’s funeral when Weiland died in 1985 at the age of 80. During his time in office, the Right Honourable GG kept a reminder of his mentor in his Rideau Hall office in Ottawa: an ornately carved chair that had been awarded to Weiland for his conspicuous Harvard career.
Born in Calgary on a Friday of this date in 1906, Paul Thompson played 13 seasons in the NHL, five of them as a Ranger in New York, the rest with the Chicago Black Hawks. A younger brother to goaltender Tiny Thompson. Paul was a left winger. Three times he got his name on the Stanley Cup, with the Rangers in 1928, in 1934 and 1938 with the Black Hawks. “Chicago’s high-flying sniper” is a phrase associated with him in ’36, when he finished up third in NHL scoring behind Sweeney Schriner of the New York Americans and Marty Barry of the Detroit Red Wings. Two years later, he was third-best again, this time chasing Gordie Drillon and Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was twice named to the NHL’s All-Star Team.
In the winter of 1938-39, the Black Hawks launched their defence of the ’38 Stanley Cup with four straight wins. In the 17 games that followed, they only won four more, and by early January of the new year, Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin decided that coach Bill Stewart had to go. In his place, he appointed a former Black Hawk, Carl Voss, who’d been scouting for the team, to share coaching duties with Thompson, who would continue to play.
According to Edward Burns of Chicago’s Tribune, Thompson was supposed to be in civvies on the night, but showed up dressed for action. He only sent himself once in the first two periods, for powerplay duty, when Boston’s Eddie Shore went to the penalty bench. He played more in the third, assisting on a Joffre Desilets goal, and engaging in “light fisticuffs” with Cooney Weiland of the Bruins. Final score: Boston 2, Chicago 1.
“Co-coach Carl Voss,” Burns reported, “who is supposed to have equal authority with Thompson under Maj. McLaughlin’s new brain trust system, was on the bench as scheduled, but so far as could be observed, functioned only as a cheer leader when the Hawks seemed to be doing all right.”
Voss subsequently seems to have settled in as assistant coach, in support of Thompson. Though Chicago ended up missing the playoffs, McLaughlin decided to stick with Thompson, and late in the season he signed on as the team’s full-time coach. He would coach another six seasons in Chicago before his tenure came to an end in 1944.
Paul Thompson died at the age of 84 in 1991.
It was on a Sunday of this date in 1939 that the Boston Bruins upended the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 3-1 at Boston Garden to win their second Stanley Cup, with Roy Conacher scored the winning goal to wrap up the best-of-seven series 4 to 1. “The scenes following the sounding of the final bell almost beggar description,” Victor Jones wrote in his dispatch for the Boston Globe. “Conny Smythe hopped the dasher and ran over to congratulate Arthur H. Ross, while the players shook hands all around, firecrackers rent the air, fans screamed and shouted, while the band broke in to ‘Paree.’” NHL president Frank Calder presented the Cup to Ross, who handed it to captain Cooney Weiland. “The trophy was lugged off to the Bruins’ dressing room,” Jones went on, “where Sam Simon, the Garden concessionaire, lost no time in filling it and refilling it and refilling it with the finest vintage champagne.” This image of that night doesn’t catch any of that, unfortunately. Standing from left to right are goaltender Frank Brimsek, Jack Crawford, Eddie Shore, and (on the other side) Jack Portland, and Ray Getliffe. Arrayed in front, from the right, are Conacher, Mel Hill, Charlie Sands, Cooney Weiland, Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, and Bill Cowley. Down in front that’s a single-skated Milt Schmidt alongside Gord Pettinger and Flash Hollett.
(Top image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
(A version of this post appeared in The New York Times on June 10, 2019, under the headline “When the Boston Bruins Won Their First Stanley Cup. Twice.”)
The Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in Montreal one Saturday night in March of 1929, sweeping aside the mighty Canadiens. Back home, a crowd of 3,000 met the team’s train at North Station, creating a clamor on a scale usually reserved for World-Series-winning baseball players and troops returning from war.
Then again, the series with Montreal was only a semi-final. Any doubts to their hold on the trophy were put to rest six days later, when the Bruins definitively won the Cup, conquering the Rangers in New York.
Two Stanley Cups in a week? Sounds unlikely. Not something that’s reflected in the records, either: those distinctly show the Bruins having won six championships, not seven.
And yet 90 years ago, a brief confusion in the hockey continuum did seem to present the Bruins with the opportunity for an unprecedented Stanley Cup double.
The 1928-29 season was a banner year for the 12-year-old NHL. From just four teams in 1923-24, the league had spread to ten cities, six in the United States. Overall attendance was up by 22 per cent from the previous season, with the Bruins rated the biggest draw.
They had been the first American team to join the NHL, bankrolled by grocery magnate Charles Adams. His first hire in 1924 was 38-year-old Art Ross, a Montrealer with a reputation as a genius of hockey strategy and innovation who’d also, in younger, playing days, won two Stanley Cups.
First awarded in 1893 by Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s governor-general, hockey’s most coveted prize was, from the start, a challenge cup intended to reward the best Canadian team. Won by Montreal teams, mostly, in the early years, it also went to Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Kenora, Ontario. In 1917, just before the advent of the NHL, the Cup left home for the first time, claimed by Seattle’s Metropolitans.
From 1918 on, Stanley Cup finals pitted the league’s champion against the best team from western Canada. That arrangement lasted through 1926, after which only NHL teams played for the Cup. The league further consolidated its prerogative in 1947 when the trustees formally delegated full authority for Cup affairs to the league.
Still, in 1927, NHL President Frank Calder believed (so he said) in the Cup’s original mandate, and that any serious challenger deemed worthy by the trustees should be allowed to play for it. He told an Ottawa audience that he favoured a competition beyond the NHL schedule, something similar to English soccer’s F.A. Cup, whereby any team in North America, amateur or professional, might take a run at the championship.
In the spring of 1928, the Bruins and Canadiens ended up atop their respective regular-season divisions, the American and Canadian. But both teams faltered on the road to the finals, allowing the lesserly touted New York Rangers to take the Cup.
Come September of 1928, Calder and NHL’s governors prepared for the new season by revamping the playoff system. To ensure that at least one top-performing team made it to the finals, the new format saw divisional leaders granted byes to a semi-final that would send one of them on to vie for the Cup against the team that survived a two-round playoff among the best of the rest. The purported architect of this new ordering? Boston manager Art Ross.
Six months later, at the end of the NHL’s 44-game regular season, Boston and Montreal had once again finished first. The Bruins lined up eight future Hall-of-Famers that year, including superstar defenceman Eddie Shore, rookie goaltender Tiny Thompson, and forwards Cooney Weiland and Dit Clapper.
As they prevailed in their semi-final, the word from the Boston Globe was that, because this was a battle of divisional champs, the sacred trophy was indeed at stake. Why wouldn’t the winner automatically succeed the Rangers as Cup champions? Of course they would — whereupon, as of old, the competition would enter its “challenge phase,” with the new holders defending their claim against the winner of the other semi-final.
No Canadian newspaper seems to have reported any of this, despite the Globe’s assertion that the ruling was Frank Calder’s own. Hard to say whether the Globe was misled or just mistaken. Within a few days, the paper changed key: maybe the Bruins hadn’t “gained actual possession” of Canada’s Cup, but it was absolutely “theirs theoretically.” By the time Boston eliminated Montreal, Canadians used to claiming hockey as a proprietary technology all their own were otherwise occupied dealing with a traumatic new truth: for the first time in the 36-year history of the Stanley Cup, the (final) finals involved only foreign teams. Those didn’t last long: while the Rangers had earned the right to try to wrest back the title they might or might not have only just relinquished, Boston took the best-of-three final series in a brisk sweep.
“I’m proud of the boys,” Ross declared. “They’ve stood by me splendidly. Do you know not one of them has had a glass of beer since November?”
Training home again, this time from New York, the Bruins pulled into Boston’s South Station. But it was early Saturday morning, and no throng awaited the actual champions: the players quietly went home.
The team formally took possession of the coveted Cup when they reconvened, three days later, for a banquet in the Copley Plaza Hotel’s Swiss Room. The players’ rewards were individually rich, too: each received a share of playoff receipts, about $2,000 (nearly $30,000 in 2019 dollars), along with a $500 “purse of gold” from owner Adams. From Art Ross they each got a diamond ring, while faithful fans chipped in with gold watches for all.
Meanwhile, Canada kept mostly calm. One Vancouver newspaper did run a single-sentence editorial on the nation’s behalf, trying out what would become more and more of a traditional refrain as American-based teams continued to claim championships.
“Players imported from Canada won the Stanley Cup for Boston,” the Province wrote.
The puck hit the captain of the Boston Bruins square on the jaw and he headed for the bench. The pain the big defenceman was in was obvious to anyone watching, but he finished the game. X-rays later revealed that the jaw was fractured, but that wasn’t going to deter him, and he was soon back on the ice as his team battled for the Stanley Cup.
No, not Zdeno Chara.
As Pam Coburn was recalling on Friday, the Bruins’ 20th captain isn’t the first to play in the Stanley Cup finals while wearing special headgear to protect a less-than-intact jaw: Lionel Hitchman got there first, the team’s second captain, in the spring of 1930. An Ottawa-area writer and former CEO of Skate Canada, Coburn knows the story well, having just published a Hitchman biography, Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Hero, that makes the compelling case that the stalwart defenceman’s absence from the Hockey Hall of Fame is a wrong that ought to be righted. She also happens to be Hitchman’s granddaughter.
As Chara prepares to put his face, once again, to the fore in tonight’s sixth game in St. Louis, a quick review of Hitchman’s historical hurt is what we’ll undertake here. He was 28 in 1930, playing in his sixth season as a Bruin, the third as captain. If Eddie Shore, his brilliant, combustive partner on the Bs’ blueline, got most of the headlines in those years, Hitchman was considered by many to be league’s most effective and hardest-to-bypass defenders.
The Bruins, you may remember, were the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1930. At the beginning of March, cruising towards the end of the regular season, they brought along a 14-game unbeaten run to their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. It was in extending that streak with a 2-1 win that Hitchman suffered his damage, and Shore was the one to inflict it. In the second period, during an Ottawa attack, Hitchman fell to friendly fire: the puck that struck Hitchman came off Shore’s stick.
As mentioned, he finished that Saturday game, though by the next day the Bruins were announcing that, based on the breakage that team physician Dr. Joe Shortell was seeing in his x-rays, Hitchman wouldn’t be back in action until the playoffs.
That was almost right. Hitchman missed four games before making his return for the Bruins’ final regular-season date, on Tuesday, March 18, at home to the New York Rangers. Though their winning streak had ended earlier in the week with an overtime loss to Chicago, the Bruins were back on track again, walloping New York 9-2. The captain wore the headgear pictured here, above. After having missed almost three weeks, Hitchman was his usual steady self, “the same defensive star” as ever, according John Hallahan of Boston’s Globe, “his poke and sweep checks being as brilliantly executed as before his injury.”
Of note: the Rangers’ best defenceman was also back on the ice with a sore jaw to protect. Ching Johnson had broken his in a February collision with the Bruins’ Dit Clapper, only making his return to the line-up in the Rangers’ previous game. The device that he wore wasn’t so much a helmet as — well, in New York’s Daily News, Noel Busch described it as “a brown bib or choker of some sort, patterned after a horse collar and intended to ward off any injuries to his tender portion.”
Hitchman subsequently played in all six of Boston’s playoff games that spring. They first faced the Montreal Maroons, overwhelming them in four games. The limits of Hitchman’s headgear were apparent in both the second game, when a Montreal stick cut him over the left eye for two stitches and the fourth, during which Nels Stewart caught the Boston captain over the right, adding seven new stitches to his forehead.
The Bruins met the Canadiens in the final. Despite Hitchman’s best efforts, they couldn’t defend their title, falling in two straight games to the mightier of the Montreals. John Hallahan was at the Montreal Forum to see the decisive game, which saw Montreal prevail 4-3 after a puck that Cooney Weiland put past George Hainsworth was deemed to have been kicked in and so disallowed.
“After the final bell,” Hallahan wrote, “the players condoled and congratulated each other. Capt Lionel Hitchman and Manger [Art] Ross raced to the Canadiens’ dressing room to congratulate the winners.”
(Top image courtesy Pam Coburn)
The NHL didn’t play its first official All-Star Game until 1947, in Toronto, though the league’s marquee players were involved in a little-remembered all-star series in Cleveland in 1918 at the end of the NHL’s very first campaign. Between those dates, the best of the NHL’s best did also convene for several benefit games — in 1934, for one, after Toronto’s Ace Bailey had his career ended by Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins, and in 1937 and ’39 (for two more) after the sudden, shocking respective deaths of Howie Morenz and Babe Siebert.
The wartime winter of 1942 saw another gathering of premier players — though in this case, many of them were retired from regular NHL duty. Then again, at the Boston Garden on that Friday, February 6, the stars who turned out to play when the senescent All-Stars met the (not-yet-retired) Boston Bruins were only asked to play two 15-minute periods mixed into a regular-season game the Bruins’ farm team, the EAHL Boston Olympics, were playing against the Johnstown Bluebirds. A crowd of 14, 662 showed to see the evening’s program, which raised more than US$14,000 for military widows and orphans supported by the U.S. Army Relief Society.
Major-General Thomas Terry the evening’s military patron, a man who, for his day job, was in command of what was known as the First Corps Area, and thereby largely in charge of defending New England against enemy invasion. Meeting in January of ’42 with Boston sportswriters to announce the All-Star exhibition, he explained the good work that the Army Relief Society did and thanked the Bruins for supporting the cause. To those who wondered whether the NHL and other sporting organizations might be forced to suspend operations because of the war, his message was … equal parts mildly reassuring and grimly ominous.
“Go ahead and plan your sports as you have before,” General Terry said. “Go along until something happens to cause a curtailment. There is no reason to get panicky, but take reasonable precautions at all times. If it does become necessary for a curtailment, it will be apparent to all of us.”
To the Bruins that NHL mid-season, what might have seemed apparent was that their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions had already been all but suspended. They were still lodged in second place in the seven-team standings, behind the New York Rangers, but there was a sense that winter that health and international hostilities were working against them.
Centre Bill Cowley was out with a broken jaw and goaltender Frank Brimsek had just missed a game with a broken nose. The week of the Army benefit the Bruins went north to play the Maple Leafs, and did beat them — but left two forwards behind in Toronto General Hospital, Herb Cain and Dit Clapper, to be tended for a fractured cheek and a badly cut ankle, respectively.
Adding induction to injury, Bruins’ manager Art Ross was about to lose his top line, the famous Krauts, to the war effort: after Friday’s benefit, Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer would play one more NHL game, against Montreal on February 10, before departing the ice to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
For all that, the abridged All-Star exhibition of February, 1942, was a success. A few notes on the night, which ended in a 4-4 tie, might include these:
• The referee on the night, Bill Stewart, had retired from NHL whistleblowing, but he was glad to partake. “I was in the Navy in the last war,” he said, “and I stand ready to do anything I can to help a cause which benefits any servicemen.”
• Tickets for the best seats — in the boxes, on the promenade, and some along the sides —were priced at $2.50 each. Lower-stadium and first-balcony tickets went for $1.65 and $1.10. An unreserved place in the upper balcony would set you back 55 cents.
• The Garden was dark for the introductions, except for a pair of spotlights that followed the players as they skated out to the blueline accompanied (the Boston Globe recorded) by “a fanfare of drums.”
Eddie Shore, who appeared last, got a two-minute ovation, and gave a little speech. “Everyone has special thrills in their lives,” he told the faithful, “but none of you know how much I appreciate this welcome or how I feel this evening. It’s like a fellow whom you haven’t seen for a long time walking up to you, holding out his hand, and slapping you on the shoulder. Then he says, ‘Gee, it’s nice to see you.’ That’s how I feel tonight, and thank you very much.”
• Also warmly received: former Bruins Tiny Thompson and Cooney Weiland along with Charlie Conacher and Ching Johnson, “whose bald dome glistened beautifully under the klieg lights.” Former Leaf Red Horner got cheers and boos — “and the big redhead showed the combination made him feel right at home by breaking out with a broad smile.”
• At 39, Shore was still skating professionally, the playing coach for his own AHL Springfield Indians. Busher Jackson, 31, was the only other active player on the All-Star roster — he was a serving Bruin. Both Shore and Jackson had, incidentally, played in all four benefit games cited above — the Bailey, Morenz, Siebert, and Army Relief.
• Jackson reunited with his old Maple Leaf Kid Line linemates on the night, Charlie Conacher, 32, and Joe Primeau, 36. Oldest man in the game was Bill Cook, 46, who lined up with his old New York Ranger linemates, brother Bun (44) and Frank Boucher (40). For some reason, no Montreal Canadiens alumni appeared in the game. The lack didn’t go unnoticed: a letter from a hockey purist published in the Globe that week complained that organizing a game like this without Aurèle Joliat or any Hab greats was like “having an American League old-timers’ game without including Ty Cobb or the New York Yankees.”
• Marty Barry and Larry Aurie said they hadn’t skated in, oh, a year. The Globe: “Large Charlie Conacher weighed in at 245 pounds for the affair, although Marty Barry looked plenty hefty at the 215 to which he admitted.”
• Warming up, the veterans all wore sweaters of the teams they’d last played for in the NHL — except for Shore, who showed up in his Springfield duds. For the game, the whole team wore the bestarred V (for Victory) sweaters shown in the photograph. Hooley Smith was pleased to learn he could keep his: in all his 17 years in the NHL, he said, he’d never kept any of his sweaters.
• Just before the opening puck-drop, as they’d always done in their Boston years together, Weiland and Thompson “went through their old Bruins’ custom of having Cooney put the last practice puck past Tiny.”
• “Believe it or not,” The Globe noted, “the old-timers actually had a wide territorial edge during the first period.”
• Injured Bill Cowley was called on to coach the Bruins, while Cooney Weiland took charge of the All-Stars. To start the second period, he put out five defencemen: Horner at centre between Cy Wentworth and George Owen, Shore and Johnson backing them on the blueline.
• Globe reporter Gerry Moore: “While truthful reporting demands the information that the glamorous old-timers were aided by some lenient officiating and no bodychecking from the Bruins in pulling off their garrison finish, the All-Stars displayed enough of their form from glory days to make the night not only the best financially of any single event staged for the Army Relief Fund, but one of the most interesting presentations ever offered in the Hub.”
• The Bruins went up 3-0 in the first half, on a pair goals from Bobby Bauer and one by rookie Gordie Bruce. In the second, the All-Stars went on a run, with Bill Cook twice beating Frank Brimsek and George Owen and Busher Jackson following his example.
• With “the rallying old men” ahead by 4-3, the game … failed to end. “At 15:56, or 56 seconds after the final gong should have been sounded,” Bruce again beat Tiny Thompson to tie the score. Allthe players hit the ice after that, with all 32 players playing “shinny in an effort to break the stalemate without success.”
• Eddie Shore was deemed the star of the night. “The crowd yelled for the Edmonton Express to pull off one of his patented rushes, but Eddie played cagily in the opening session.” Eventually he gave the people what they wanted, though he didn’t score. Thompson, too, was a stand-out.
And: “Bald Beaned Ching Johnson also came up with several thrilling gallops,” Gerry Moore wrote.
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.”
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)
(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)
Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.
True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.
Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.
What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.
Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.
In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.
“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”
The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”
A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.
None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”
It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.
The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.
In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.
“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”
If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.
That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”
December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.
Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”
They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.
And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.
Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.
Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “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.”
It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.
At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.
Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.
A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.
Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)
Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.
He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”
Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”