duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

colour commentator

vancouver 1914

Today we remember them as the Millionaires, and it’s true that that’s one of the names Vancouver’s entry in the PCHA bore from 1912 until they officially took it on in 1914, but they were also known during that time as the Allstars, the Railbirds, and the Terminals. Historian Craig Bowlsby tells the story better than anyone else in his comprehensive 2012 history, Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Hockey Association, 1911-1926. You’ll find the story there of the Stanley Cup that the Millionaires won in 1915 after they defeated the Ottawa Senators in three games at the Denman Arena. Posed here, above, is the 1913-14 edition of the team, an impressive group in its own right. That’s Cyclone Taylor at the back, second from the right. Upfront sit Hall-of-Famers Si Griffis (hatted, second from left), Frank Patrick (centre), and Frank Nighbor (on the right end).

If you haven’t seen them looking this lively before, that’s because Mark Truelove only got around to transforming the original black-and-white archival photograph — that’s it, below — earlier this year. Truelove is the Vancouver-area man who’s taken to tinting historical photos as a hobby. Along with the occasional hockey player, his subjects to date have included images of old Vancouver; Grey Owl and his baby beaver; trainwrecks and baseball teams; war heroes; old voyageurs; and Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. “I got into colourizing when I started looking into my family history,” he was saying last week of the project he calls Canadian Colour. “I wanted to see my relatives in a new light and I saw a colourization someone else had done and taught myself how to do it. I have no art/photography background but I just persevered with it until they started looking right to me.”

The results are remarkable. Take a look at the Canadian Colour Facebook page, here, or follow on Twitter, @CanadianColour.

vancouver bw

Back: Smokey Harris, Sibby Nichols, Pete Muldoon, Cyclone Taylor, Chuck Clark
Front: Russell Lynn, Si Griffis, Frank Patrick, Allan Parr, Frank Nighbor

[Photo: Vancouver Archives, AM1535-: CVA 99-126]