herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

It was on a Friday of this same date in 1891 in Winnipeg that Herb Gardiner was born in 1891. If you haven’t heard of his stardom as a defenceman on the ice in Calgary and Montreal, well, here’s an introduction to that. Gardiner, who died in 1972, aged 80, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. A quick browse across his biography shows that the adjectives stellar and two-way and consistent were sometimes applied to his efforts on the ice, along with the noun rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, as well as the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is two days late, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract.

Gardiner took Georges Vézina’s number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, which is a little surprising, but there it is: the team didn’t retire it from circulation after the iconic goaltender’s death in March of 1926. (Herb Rheaume, Vézina’s successor in Montreal’s net, inherited the number before Gardiner arrived; the following year, 1926-27, Montreal’s new goaltender was George Hainsworth, who wore 12.)

Gardiner played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won that contest, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantries he exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and goaltender Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy for league MVP that was named for the father of Montreal’s coach. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to offer it, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first.

As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September.

The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth in 1927, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

small comfort

Crease Violation: Boston winger Lloyd Gross celebrates the puck he’s put past a dispirited Roy Worters of the New York Americans in a game at the old Madison Square Garden. “Once a bosom companion of little Roy Worters,” the Daily News reported, “[Gross] skated right up to him and let him gave it, zingo! Like that.” Just a month after Ace Bailey’s grievous head injury, this game marked the first time a New York crowd had seen the Bruins wearing, to a man, “the new-fangled helmets.”

Hockey pundits used to like to talk about Roy Worters’ stature, which was slight, and I guess that hasn’t changed. “Worters, who is but five feet and two inches tall, weighs 128 pounds, and has hands so small he cannot catch the puck as it speeds toward the goal mouth, is one of the best skating goalies in hockey.” That’s from a 1928 dispatch, just as a trade was converting Worters from a Pittsburgh Pirate into a New York American.

Born in Toronto on a Friday of this date in 1900, the tiny-handed man they called Shrimp played 12 NHL seasons, most of those for the Americans. He won a Hart Trophy in 1929, finishing ahead of Toronto’s Ace Bailey and Boston’s Eddie Shore, and collected a Vézina for his miniature efforts in 1931. He never won a Stanley Cup. Worters died in 1957 at age 57. He was voted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1969.

from pembroke, a peerless percolator

To A T: Toronto’s Blueshirts as they lined up for the 1912-13 NHA season. From left, they are: Cully Wilson, Harry Cameron, Frank Foyston, manager Bruce Ridpath, a 20-year-old Frank Nighbor, Archie McLean, and Hap Holmes.

A birthday today, yes, for Wayne Gretzky, who’s 60, and many happy returns to him. But another extraordinary (if under-remembered) talent born on this date, in 1893, when it was a Thursday? The pride and glory of Pembroke, Ontario, centreman and hook-check artist extraordinaire Frank Nighbor. The Peach, they used to call him, as well as the Percolator and Peerless; sometimes, in contemporary accounts of his hockey exploits, all three words show up in alliterative aggregate. He won his first Stanley Cup in 1915, when he played with Vancouver’s Millionaires, before returning east to star with the Ottawa Senators, with whom he won four more Cups, in 1920, ’21, ’23, and ’27. In 1924, was the first ever recipient of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. The following year, when Lady Byng decided to donate a trophy to the league in the name of gentlemanly hockey played with supreme skill, Nighbor won that, too. Just for good measure, he won it again the following year, in 1926.

a brace of shakes

“He is a man of serious mien. He doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t drink. He dresses conservatively, favoring brown suits and white shirts with French cuffs — except on the golf course, where his raiment looks as though it had been dragged through a maze of molten rainbows. He never hurls a harsh word into the sensitive ears of a referee.”

“Kennedy, who carries 180 pounds on a frame that is just an inch under six feet, is a dogged player, full of stamina and courage,” Lunny continued. “He combines the brainy play of a Bentley with the robust aggressiveness of, say, Boston’s Milt Schmidt.”

That’s Vince Lunny profiling legendary Leaf centreman Ted Kennedy in 1951. Born in Humberstone, Ontario, on this date in 1925 (also a Saturday), Kennedy played 14 seasons with Toronto, half of them as captain. The Hart Trophy he won in 1955 was the last to have been claimed by a Leaf.

Kennedy  was aboard for five Stanley Cup championships, including one in 1949, happening here, above. It was April and the Leafs had swept past the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games to become the first team in NHL history to win  the Cup three seasons in a row. That’s Wing captain Sid Abel sharing a moment with Kennedy. Both men, of course, would be elevated, eventually, into the Hall of Fame, Kennedy in 1966, Abel in ’69. Ted Kennedy died in 2009 at the age of 83.

 (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132804)

hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.

He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.

Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.

Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.

It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.

Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.

Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.

Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.

Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.