of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

madison square garden, 1925: flashes of cerise, magenta, nile greens

Net Gain: Shorty Green of the New York Americans scores the first goal at the new Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, December 15, 1925. That’s Montreal’s Billy Boucher trying to catch him, with goaltender Herb Rheaume (making his NHL debut) failing from the front. Note the array of well-dressed fans behind the boards.

A French-Canadien aggregation, known as ‘Les Canadiens,’ will meet the New York team in mortal combat, but in reality it will be an all-Dominion battle, as most of the high-priced players who sport the spangles of the New York club were imported from Canada at great expense.

• Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Tuesday, December 15, 1925

New York’s brand-new rink had already hosted a six-day bicycle race and a basketball game by the middle of December in 1925, along with three bouts of boxing, but it wasn’t until NHL hockey debuted there that the party really got started, 93 years ago last night, when the expansion New York Americans hosted the reigning league champions from Montreal.

Tex Rickard was the man who built the third Madison Square Garden, 18 blocks north of the present MSG, and he didn’t stint on pomp for opening night. A year later, he’d launch a second, longer-lasting New York hockey team, the Rangers, but in 1925 the Americans were the only hockey game in town. Festooned with ribbons and bunting, the new rink Rickard had built to house the team was (Montreal’s Gazette) “dressed up in its best holiday togs, “a picture of a temple of sport” (The New York Times); pro hockey (“jaded New York’s newest plaything”) was making “its debut under the most glittering circumstances,” the Gazette advised.

Reporting for The Ottawa Citizen, Ed Baker enthused that the new rink seemed like “an overgrown theatre;” it was “just as magnificent as the grandest playhouse.” The Gazette: “Just before game time, the spacious lobby looked like the foyer of the opera. Fashionably gowned women were there in furs and jewels. It was a hockey crowd de luxe. Flashes of cerise, magenta, nile green, scarlets and royal purple coloured the boxes. Vendors ambled among the spectators with their apples and oranges and souvenir hockey sticks.”

“It was swank plus,” James Burchard of The World-Telegram would later recall, “in a setting of ermine and evening dress.”

Military bands marched out on the ice to play the anthems. Clad in scarlet and busbies, the 44-piece Governor-General’s Foot Guards struck up “God Save The King,” while their counterparts from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (92 pieces + a bugle-and-drums corps of 35) took care of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Band Stand: Canadiens and Amerks stand amid bandsmen during the opening ceremonies. Howie Morenz is the Montrealer standing attentively just back of the front flagman. Closer up, spying at the camera, that’s New York goaltender Jakie Forbes.

The crowd was the largest in NHL history to that point — though just how many fans it contained remains something of a mystery. The New York Daily News would report 20,000 “shrieking people,” while reports in several Canadian papers put the count at 19,000. The New York Times was among those who numbered the attendees at 17,000. Amid all this shifting math, The Ottawa Citizen noted that the Garden could seat 15, 352 for hockey, though (according to the Americans’ team treasurer) if there had been 25,000 more seats to sell for opening night, they would have gone like hot cakes.

Whatever the actual attendance, the excitement was such that (this from the Gazette) “the world’s record crowd was willing to pay prices ranging from $1.50 for the uppermost balcony seats to the seeming lofty toll of $11.50 for choice box seats to see a spectacle to which it was foreign.” Organized as a benefit for the Neurological Institute Society of New York, the game put some $40,000 into their coffers.

Scheduled to start at 8.30 p.m., the actual game didn’t get going until just after nine. The Citizen’s Ed Baker had it that President Calvin Coolidge was slated to do the honours of dropping a ceremonial puck, but then — “he was unable to attend.” Instead, New York Mayor John Hylan presided over the city’s first ritual NHL face-off, attended at centre ice by New York’s Billy Burch and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens.

Canadiens were the reigning NHL champions that winter, thought they had failed the previous spring in their bid to wrest the Stanley Cup from the Victoria Cougars of the WCHL. The new season hadn’t started well for Montreal, with Georges Vézina, their beloved and highly effective veteran goaltender, having collapsed in the season’s very first game in November.

Suffering from thetuberculosis that would kill him the following spring at the age of 39, Vézina had departed Montreal and the NHL for the last time, bound for his hometown, Chicoutimi. Since then, Canadiens had made do with the league’s emergency goaltender, Alphonse (Frenchy) Lacroix. On their arrival in New York, five games into the season, they were sitting in last place in the seven-team league, six points adrift of the league leaders, though just two back of the fourth-place Americans. Lacroix had been excused; for their first Madison Square turn, Montreal had a new man ready to start in goal, Herb Rheaume, who’d been starring to that point for an amateur Quebec team, the Sons of Ireland.

He worked out all right on the night, winning his debut in Madison Square’s, and keeping his place in the Montreal nets for the remainder of the season — though neither he nor any of his talented teammates would be able to haul the Habs out of last place or into the playoffs.

Go-Time: New York’s Billy Burch faces Montreal’s Howie Morenz in the game’s opening face-off. Aligned well-back at the far end are Montreal wingers, a becapped Aurèle Joliat (nearest the camera) and Billy Boucher. New York’s defencemen have deployed so far back that they’re out of the frame.

Rheaume did, for the record, concede the first goal in MSG history, to Shorty Green, almost twelve minutes into the first period. That’s it depicted above, and maybe from the frozen frame you’ll draw your own conclusions on how it went down. Contemporary accounts (as usual) diverged on the exact circumstances.

The New York Times: “He carried the ice up the ice, gliding swiftly and gracefully through the Canadiens until he was at the Montreal net, where, by a tricky little shot, he sped the rubber past Rheaume for a goal.”

The Montreal Gazette: “Shorty Green sent the Americans into the lead when he stick-handled his way the full length of the rink to shoot a high one past Rheaume, after eleven minutes.”

The great Paul Gallico was on the hockey beat for The New York Daily News. Here’s what he saw: “Shorty Breen [sic] coddled the puck clean down the rink, personally conducted it through the legs of three Canadiens, stopped short, slapped it away from the ankles of the last enemy defense line and suddenly swiped it into the goal from the side, a pretty shot.”

The lead didn’t last, with Billy Boucher (“flashy Montreal wingman” and the game’s “outstanding light,” according to the Gazette) potting a pair of second-period goals past New York goaltender Jakie Forbes before Howie Morenz completed the scoring for Montreal in the third.

Cooper Smeaton and Lou Marsh were the referees. First penalty in the new rink: Montreal’s Sylvio Mantha earned a first-period minor for holding Billy Burch. In the second, Shorty Green and Billy Boucher engaged in what the Times rated “a melee;” the Citizen said they “attempted fisticuffs” — either way, they served out minors.

Was New York’s Ken Randall knocked unconscious? Even when hockey was raising money for neurological care and research, the game didn’t pay head trauma too much mind, and so with a nonchalance typical of the day, the Times seemed to suggest that Randall was out cold without worrying too much about it — he was “laid out for a moment but resumed playing.” The Citizen, meanwhile, mentions a potential concussion of Shorty Green’s in the third: Morenz hit him near centre and he needed assistance getting to the bench. “He appeared to have suffered a hard blow on the head that dazed him.”

The evening marked a debut, too, for the new Prince of Wales Trophy, which Montreal took home along with their victory, with New York’s incoming mayor, Jimmy Walker, presenting the cup to Montreal captain Billy Coutu at the game’s conclusion. Canadiens would hold it only until the end of the season, when it went to the team that won the NHL championship. In 1926, that happened to be Montreal’s other team, the Maroons.

But for the struggle on the ice between Canadiens and Americans, the evening was deemed (by the Gazette, at least) “a sort of international love feast.”

Between periods, the greatest of speedy skaters, Norval Baptie, put on an exhibition of “fancy skating” with his partner, Gladys Lamb. After the game, the Canadian Club of New York hosted a ball at the Biltmore Hotel at Grand Central Station. Paul Whitman and his band entertained the two thousand guests who were said to have convened for that, including the players from both teams. “They all wore their tuxedos like a Valentino,” reported the Citizen’s Ed Baker.

The Daily News covered the hotel festivities on Wednesday’s social page, naming names and highlighting the fashions and jewels they wore. “The party broke up about three o’clock this morning, and society generally voted the whole affair a success.”

Face-First: Montreal goaltender Herb Rheaume stymies New York’s Ken Randall with the help of Habs’ captain Billy Coutu.

chicago stadium, 1929: keen ice, no boos

On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period.  The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”

ten and ohio

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“Ten to nothing is a score that requires some explanation.” I’m not sure that’s something the modern-day Montreal Canadiens have been telling themselves today, after last night’s 0-10 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets — seems like they may be more interested in getting to tonight’s game with Philadelphia to play their way out of having to account for last night’s debacle. That opening line dates back, in fact, to 1921, when a correspondent from The Ottawa Journal watched Canadiens of an earlier incarnation the very first time they lost by that disconcerting margin.

That it’s happened four times now in Canadiens history is, in its way, impressive. But precedents don’t make it any easier to deal with, for the team or for its fans. The wording they saw this morning in the headlines of Montreal newspapers was enough to curdle the stoutest Hab-loving heart. Pulvérisé was how La Presse framed the game, in which Canadiens’ back-up goaltender Al Montoya suffered through the entire excruciating game; Le Journal de Montreal opted for Piétinés à Columbus and, decked below, Le Canadien subit une raclée.

Over at The Gazette the dispatch from Ohio was spiked throughout with the words crushed, embarrassing, humiliated, trainwreck, ass-kicking, total meltdown. Columnist Pat Hickey noted that Friday also marked coach Michel Therrien’s 53rd birthday. “I don’t remember being a part of a game like that,” said Therrien. “There’s not much positive to take from it.”

Back home at the Bell Centre Saturday night, Al Montoya took the night off, leaving Carey Price to fend off the Flyers by a score of 5-4. It was the first time in the annals of Montreal’s 10-0 losses that the same goaltender who’d suffered the defeat hadn’t retaken the net for the next game. A look back:

December 24, 1921
Ottawa 10
Montreal 0

“Ottawas achieved a clear cut and decisive victory over Canadiens by the mammoth score of 10 to 0 Saturday,” was the hometown Ottawa Journal’s opening take on the first of Montreal’s historical whompings — the Canadiens were, in a word, smothered.

It was Christmas Eve, just three games into the new season. Both teams had a win and a loss under their belts. Ottawa was the defending Stanley Cup champion; Montreal’s powerful (if slightly aged) line-up featured Georges Vézina in goal with Sprague Cleghorn and Bert Corbeau on defence while forwards included the legendary Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. In a day when a different kind of analytics held sway, much was made of the weight players carried into battle, and The Ottawa Journal noted that Montreal averaged an impressive 176 pounds per man while the team’s aggregate tonnage came in at 2,465.

Ottawa was fast and from the start had Montreal “puffing like grampuses.” In the third, the Habs looked “juvenile.” The Senators had several bright rookies, including Frank “King” Clancy, deemed the architect of the rout by one local paper. Scoring the second goal in the opening period, “he brought the crowd to their toes in a thunderous cheer.”

Cy Denneny scored three goals for Ottawa, and Frank Nighbor added a memorable one (“it was a cuckoo,” to be exact). Goaltender Clint Benedict was good, “as a happy as a kid with a Christmas stocking” with his shutout; Nighbor’s poke check was Punch Broadbent’s determined backchecking were also cited by the Journal as playing decisive parts in the home side’s win. For the third game in a row — the entire season to date — Ottawa took no penalties. All in all, the crowd of 5,000 was “tickled giddy.”

Georges Vézina

Georges Vézina

Vézina? “The Chicoutimi Cucumber looked more like a well perforated slab of Roquefort. Vez stopped plenty, but he was handling drives from inside his defence that kept him on the hop, and was frequently forced out of his nets in desperate sorties, trying to split the Ottawa attack.”

As for Montreal’s forwards, Didier Pitre stood out. He “played hard,” the Journal allowed, “and while he has to bend forward to see his skates, uncoiled some whistling drives that would have knocked Benny’s roof into the south-end seats had they hit on the cupola.”

Newsy Lalonde seemed “passé” to the Ottawa eye — though to the correspondent from Montreal’s Le Canada, he was brilliant and gave one of the best performances of his career.

There was hope for Montreal, on the western horizon. Leo Dandurand was Montreal’s managing director (he was also one of the team’s new owners) and word was that he’d signed up an Ottawa youngster by the name of Aurèle Joliat who’d been playing out in Saskatoon.

In the end, he wouldn’t play for the Canadiens for another year, and so he was of no help when the Canadiens played the Senators again four days later at the Mount Royal Arena. This time they lost in overtime, 1-2, with Punch Broadbent beating Vézina for the winning goal — on a “flip shot from the side.”

February 21, 1933
Boston 10
Montreal 0

It was another 11 years before Montreal conspired against themselves to lose so large again, but not everything had changed: Leo Dandurand was still the team’s managing director and smothered was still the best word (in The Winnipeg Tribune this time) for a game Canadiens managed to lose by ten goals to none.

Would it surprise you to hear that the blood was running bad between Montreal and Boston back in the winter of ’33? They’d played a pair of games back in January, with the Canadiens winning the first, 5-2, at home before succumbing a few days later (2-3) in Boston. That second game was particularly nasty, with Boston defenceman Eddie Shore in a leading role. The crosscheck on Johnny Gagnon and the fight with Sylvio Mantha was the just beginning; the referee and judge of play were both injured at Shore’s hands. Bruins’ coach Art Ross was ill and missed the game. In a complaint to NHL president Frank Calder, Dandurand accused Boston owner Charles F. Adams of instigating the ugliness.

In the aftermath, Shore was fined $100 and told to behave: “Pres Calder intimated,” The Boston Globe advised, “that if Eddie starts any more rumpuses he will most likely draw indefinite suspension.” The referee, Cooper Smeaton, was reported to be resting in bed with two fractured ribs. He just happened to have been on duty back in 1921 for that inaugural 10-0 showing.

It was with all this in the near background when Montreal went back to Boston in February and lost 10-0.

The Boston Daily Globe didn’t gloat, too much: the headline that called the game a slaughter also turned the focus from the losers to the 16,000 fans looking on at Boston Garden. For them, it was A Goal-Scoring Treat.

Bruins who enjoyed themselves particularly included Marty Barry (five points) and Dit Clapper (four). Shore contained himself, collecting two assists, a tripping penalty, and a cut over the eye.

The only shot that troubled Tiny Thompson was directed at him accidentally by a teammate, Vic Ripley.

George Hainsworth

George Hainsworth

Back in Montreal, The Gazette didn’t said what had to be said. “The Flying Frenchmen put on about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” Along with Dandurand, coach Newsy Lalonde might have been one to recall that wasn’t quite so. Howie Morenz played as though “his speedy legs were shackled” (Boston paper took the view that he was “effectively bottled.” Boston reporters commended Canadiens’ goaltender George Hainsworth for “unusually fine saves” on Dit Clapper and Red Beattie. Back in Montreal, the Gazette noted that he had 17 shots fired at him during the third period. “He missed seven of them to cap the most wretched performance of his career.”

The Canadiens trudged home. Two days later, when they hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, Hainsworth was back at work. He had an injured ankle, it turned out, and the Gazette divulged that it caused him “acute pain throughout.” Still, he stopped 14 shots in Montreal’s 2-0 win for his sixth shutout of the season. Continue reading

powers outage

Ed Powers Hawks-Leafs, slammed into baorad, “After three minutes of rest, Powers was able to continue.” Nov 11 1959

Horizontal Stripes: Slammed into the boards by (alleged) accident during a 1959 Leafs and Black Hawks game in Chicago, Eddie Powers took a moment. “After three minutes of rest,” a correspondent reported from the scene, “Powers was able to continue.”

Nobody said it was easy, the life of a hockey referee. Russell Bowie was one of the best players to play the game before the NHL got started, winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Victorias in 1898. After he hung up his stick, he quite naturally took up a whistle, though that didn’t last too long. In 1911, mid-season, he quit. “The continual nagging of the players all through the season has bothered me a lot,” is what he told reporters. “I have decided that there is nothing in it for me. I have had enough hockey refereeing to last for the rest of my natural life.”

It’s not just the carping, either, that officials have to endure. “A referee has to be fast on his skates,” confided Cooper Smeaton, who wielded a whistle in the early days of the NHL. “He may at any moment be forced to hurdle sticks, climb on the fence, or instantly reverse his direction in order to get out of the way of a play. At that, we get plenty of cracks on the shins — perhaps not all of them strictly accidental.”

Fast isn’t always fast enough, of course, as referee Eddie Powers (above) learned in November of 1959 in a game at the Chicago Stadium between the hometown Black Hawks and the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. In what we’ll call an unfortunate mishap, he found himself “slammed” into the boards by players fighting for a puck. “After three minutes of rest,” the papers reported next day, “Powers was able to continue.”

Four years and a few months later he was in Montreal. February. At 45, he was a veteran by then of seven NHL campaigns. He walked into NHL headquarters in the Sun Life building where he called Carl Voss, chief referee, out of a meeting to tell him, “I quit as of now.” He didn’t stay to see NHL president Clarence Campbell. According to Voss, Powers left after saying that the two secretaries present could serve as witnesses of his resignation.

Voss was surprised. Campbell regretted the loss — Powers was one of the most experienced referees in the league. “But we’ll get along without him.”

Powers had refereed a game on the last day of January, Toronto at Montreal. That was the start of it. The Maple Leafs shot down the Canadiens, 6-3 (Red Burnett’s view, in The Toronto Daily Star), or else erased a 2-0 Montreal lead and ran away with the game on four third-period scores (Pat Curran in the hometown Gazette). Either way, the Leafs’ Red Kelly scored a hattrick. He was playing centre; also, as widely reported, as an opposition Liberal MP for the riding of Toronto West, he was missing a tumultuous day in Parliament as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government tottered on the edge of dissolution over its nuclear arms policy and what the United States thought about it.

Red Kelly, MP and centre-iceman

Red Kelly, MP and centre-iceman

In Montreal, the Canadiens were close to detonation by force of sheer disgruntlement. Kelly’s second goal, they thought, was scored while the Leafs’ Bob Nevin was in the crease. Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante chased after referee Powers to remonstrate and, eventually, to demonstrate how to smash a goalstick to flinders.

The Gazette reported that the Habs thought that Nevin had kicked the puck into the net. Coach Toe Blake screamed so much that Powers gave him a bench minor.

That was in the second period. The third was no calmer. Powers doled out misconducts to Montreal’s Bernie Geoffrion and Toronto’s Carl Brewer followed by a game misconduct for Geoffrion, along with a $75 fine (Brewer’s was $25). Montreal’s Bill Hicke was also charged with a $25 misconduct for (as Red Burnett wrote it) “questioning linesman Ron Wicks’ eyesight and ancestry.”

There was a penalty shot, too, for Red Kelly. That’s how he completed his hattrick. There was the Montreal crowd, stirred to a frenzy (the Gazette said), chanting “We Want Storey.”

Common decency prevented Pat Curran from printing much of what Toe Blake had to say after the game. Red Burnett quoted directly on what he thought of Powers. “He’s too inconsistent. Some of his calls were bad and he missed so many that you have to say his work was putrid. The whole league is getting bush all around.”

Montreal-Matin had Blake saying that the NHL should investigate the officials because they gave the impression of having bet on the outcome of the game. “Don’t tell me he’s not working against us,” The Montreal Star contributed to vituperative quote-quilt. “He let’s everything go and then he calls a chippy penalty against us.”

La Presse checked in with Montreal’s PR director, Frank Selke, Jr.: “I don’t know how much referees get for each game, but if he got more than $10 for tonight’s game he was overpaid.”

Blake wasn’t pleased with his players, either. “Our guys quit like dogs after they tied it up,” he said. “Maybe I used the wrong tactics in blaming the referee. That gave them an excuse and they folded.”

NHL president Clarence Campbell weighed in, of course. He was going to check with Blake; if he admitted to saying what he was supposed to have said, the fine could run to $1,000. Continue reading

messrs. belvedere

belvedere handball pkstrk

A hidden gem! A setting said to be distinctive for guests on business and leisure alike! Unparalleled location in the heart of Manhattan! Rates starting at around US$167 per night!

That’s the pitch browsers online can find looking for a booking at New York’s Belvedere Hotel, which I wasn’t, recently. I can’t say one way or the other whether it’s the place for you; what I can report, confidently, is that if you do go, your hopes of emulating these early New York Rangers, above, and getting in a game of handball on the roof is zero.

There is a gym at the Belvedere: indeed, the hotel’s website says it’s “proud” to have one, “encouraging health-conscious guests to maintain their active lifestyle while traveling and dining out.”

I guess handball’s heyday has come and mostly gone, but I had a moment’s reverie in which you could still catch a game on high at the Belvedere.

The woman I talked to there when I phoned seemed worried by my rooftop questions. “No,” she told me, “there’s no tennis court.” Handball. “Nope.” When did it close? Did she know? Did someone know? What’s up there now? Anybody I can talk to who can talk about the history of the hotel? I was panicking her, though. “Honestly,” she said, “nobody that’s here has ever seen anything like that.”

•••

That’s Ching Johnson here, of course, on the left, with Bill Cook leaping high over his fallen brother, Bun. All three had been with the Rangers since their inaugural season, 1926-27. It was 1929 now, springtime, and the team was girding to defend the Stanley Cup title it had won the previous year over the Maroons of Montreal. Bun Cook was 25, his brother (the Ranger captain) and Johnson older, 32 and 30, respectively. The team couldn’t quite pull off the defense, falling in that year’s two-game final to the Boston Bruins.

The Belvedere, at 319 West 48th Street, was new in the late 1920s. “The Outstanding Success of the City,” bragged a newspaper ad from those years, before getting down to details: 450 baths complemented the Belvedere’s 450 rooms, all of which were outside rooms, featuring two large windows. The Moderately Priced Restaurant served a Peerless Cuisine. You could get a large double room for US$6 a day; furnished suites with serving pantries ran anywhere from US$35 to US$150.

Times Square wasn’t far and, more to the point, Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden was just a block north up 8th Avenue. Handball was just the start of it — over the years, many hockey players would call the Belvedere home. Following, a few notes on that and other Belvedere/hockey associations.

•••

In early April of 1928, just before the Rangers went into Stanley-Cup battle with the Montreal Maroons, the Belvedere and its inimitable menu played host to a hockey awards dinner. At this time, the NHL proper awarded three individual trophies, the Hart (for league MVP), the Vézina (goaltender allowing the fewest goals), and Lady Byng (high skill and gentlemanly conduct), but these weren’t those.

First among honourees on this night were handballing defenceman Ching Johnson, who took the Paramount Theatre Trophy as MVP of the New York teams, Rangers and Americans. The Broadway director and producer (and native-born Newfoundlander) John Murray Anderson sponsored that one, with the New York Hockey Writers Association taking care of the voting. Out of 26 ballots cast, Johnson’s name was on 12, while the two centreman, the Rangers’ Frank Boucher and the Amerks’ Normie Himes, appeared on seven each.

Boucher was the highest scoring New Yorker that year, finishing third in the NHL chart behind Hart-winner Howie Morenz and his Canadiens teammate, Aurele Joliat, and that was good enough to win him the Belvedere Hotel Trophy. (His Cook wingers, Bun and Bill, were runners-up.) But while Boucher would that same year win the first of his seven Lady Byng Trophies (in 1935, they actually gave him the trophy outright, ordered a new one), on this night Boucher had to concede the Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy to Harold Darragh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton seems to have been responsible for deciding this one, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report calls his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Darragh, a winger, was sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.

Bandleader and hockey fan Paul Whiteman presided over the proceedings — or as the Daily Eagle called him, “corpulent ‘Oom’ Paulie Whiteman,” who made Ching Johnson look like a mere “mite.”

•••

In the late 1930s, the Belvedere played host to an annual dinner given by the NHL for the aforementioned New York Hockey Writers Association. At the 1938 edition, Rangers GM Lester Patrick unveiled his proposal for an all-new playoff format. Harold Parrott wrote it up for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In fact, the Silver Fox of the ice rinks was practically lopsided after expounding his playoff theories to hockey writers last night with the aid of calculus, logarithms, a financial expert he brought along for the purpose — and a lot of patient good humor.

Ahead of the season, Montreal’s troubled Maroons talked of migrating to St. Louis, or maybe Cleveland, but the league turned them down, so they’d suspended operations, leaving seven teams. Patrick wanted the NHL to collapse the remaining teams into one division (previously they’d been divided into American and Canadian halves) with the team that finished on top declared league champion. All seven teams would them compete for the Stanley Cup, with the first-place finisher leaping past the first round with a bye while — importantly — not missing out on its share of ticket profits. Revenue was an important feature of the plan, with teams’ percentages based on (as far as I can discern) a formula accounting both for regular-season and how far they advanced in the playoffs. “The Ranger boss,” Parrott wrote, “figures this will make the teams hustle until the season’s last whistle.”

Interesting that Patrick was sharing with the writers before he took it to the NHL and the teams involved. “Manager Patrick,” noted The New York Times in its report, “is hopeful that his plan will be accepted, although at first blush it seems a most radical and fantastic one, he himself declared.” If the NHL did put this Patrick plan to a vote, it failed to pass. The league did end up rejigging divisions that year, decanting two into one, but when the playoffs came around in the spring of 1939, only the top six teams were in. Last-place Chicago had to watch as Boston went on to beat Toronto in the finals.

•••

The Belvedere is where Stan Fischler got his start to his career in hockey journalism, books, broadcasting and general, all-around mavening. He writes about this in New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players (2015). As a Brooklyn College student in the early 1950s he not only joined a Rangers fan club organized by team publicist Herb Goren but launched a club newspaper with a pair of willing friends. “This gave us entrée to interview players,” he recalls, the first being Ed Kullman, “cross-examined in his suite at the Belvedere Hotel.”

•••

Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times called on Fischler’s formidable Ranger memory when he wrote Don Raleigh’s obituary in 2012. “Bones Raleigh was the quintessential antihero,” Fischler said of the former centreman, Kenora-born, who captained the Rangers and scored back-to-back overtime winners in the team’s losing struggle with Detroit in the 1950 Stanley Cup finals. “He was an intellectual; he would write poetry on the Staten Island Ferry. He would get the puck behind his net and just wend his way up ice on spectacular rushes. Problem was, Bones being so skinny, by the time he got inside the enemy zone, he was usually body checked. But we didn’t mind because he was our guy.”

For much of his ten-year NHL career, he was one of many Rangers to make a hockey-season home at the Belvedere. Klein talked to teammates Harry Howell and Pentti Lund, among others. They both remembered him calling in teammates to his suite for pre-game strategy sessions. He was a book-reader and a bon vivant, loved life in New York, enjoyed the sense of humour:

“Old Bones Raleigh, he used to be our cook in the hotel,” Howell said. “He used to buy the groceries, and we’d pay him. One night, he gave a huge can of peaches to the players, and we thought, Boy, this is really something. So Bones, before we ate the peaches, said, ‘Now you guys realize you each have to give me 12 cents per peach.’ We all knew what he was like and just laughed.”

•••

I’m assuming that Raleigh was on hand at the Belvedere on the last night of 1952 as the Rangers, with wives and girlfriends, heralded the new year. Frank Boucher was there, the Rangers’ GM now, and so was Bill Cook, his coach, who’d almost died twice in the year gone by thanks to irate bulls and exploding tractors. The Leafs and Rangers had played to a 3-3 tie that night but while Toronto’s hockey players had packed up and travelled on to Boston after the game, several of her hockey writers had stayed on to party at the Belvedere. The Globe and Mail’s Gord Walker was one of them, which is how we know that Gladys Gooding was at the piano when the time came to sing Auld Lang Syne, when Rangers captain Allan Stanley wore a plastic fireman’s hat to welcome the midnight. “There was quite a noise for a while,” Walker wrote. “It died down shortly because he wives kissed their husbands, and the girl friends kissed their escorts and the Toronto hockey writers shook hands with each other.”