(not so) bad (as all that) joe hall

Joe Hall’s shocking death is fixed in hockey’s history within the context of the 1919 Stanley Cup finals, famously stopped in Seattle by a wave of Spanish flu before they could be completed. Hall, a veteran defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens, died of pneumonia within days of the final game having been abandoned, that April. He was 37.   

PCHA President Frank Patrick paid him tribute that week. “Joe Hall was one of the real veterans of hockey,” he said. “He has been playing senior since 1902, and the game suffers a great loss by his passing. Off the ice, he was one of the jolliest, best-hearted, most popular men who ever played.”

Born in 1881 on a Tuesday of this date in Milwich, just south of Stoke-on-Trent in England’s Midlands, Joe Hall acquired a whole other reputation on the ice, of course. Going back to the earliest days of his hockey development in and around Brandon, Manitoba, Hall proved himself to be a highly skilled and determined competitor. He could also be, and consistently was, vicious with stick and skates and fists. He was often suspended, and several times banned outright; there’s a case to be made that the nickname he acquired during his playing days doesn’t adequately represent the record of his wanton acts. Particularly in his younger years, Bad Joe Hall was Heinous.

It might be worthwhile to explore some of that history — maybe in a follow-up post? Stand by for that. Today we’ll go the other way, to wonder whether, actually, was Hall not so bad as all that? Was he misrepresented, misunderstood, unfairly vilified? Is his reputation in need of redemption? 

As early as 1911, efforts were afoot to rebrand him. Maybe in his past he’d been headstrong, heedless, ever verging on the violent, but that was all behind him now. He was with the NHA’s Quebec Bulldogs by then, and would be a key component in the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships they collected in 1912 and ’13.

“Bad Joe Hall is no longer ‘Bad Medicine,’” the Edmonton Journal declared, “and recent dispatches from Quebec state that the Jesse James of hockey is now so tame that he will eat out of the hand.” 

He had, true enough, “gained an international reputation for pure cussedness and was really better known to the penalty timers than to the fans, as he used to spend at least half of every game in the sweat box.”

The problem now was that referees who, refusing to look forget the past, would penalize him simply because he was Bad Joe. And, you know what, even in those old days, maybe his intentions weren’t as malign as they seemed. According to the Journal, many people (none of them named) felt that Hall was “far from being a bad actor.”

“These [same people] also ventured the opinion that when he was caught in the act of delivering a body blow, he was only endeavouring to get even for something that had been handed him earlier in the evening.”

This got to be a bit of a theme over the next couple of years. Here’s a columnist by the name of C.C. Stein writing in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1913:

“Joe is a living example of that old and true saying, ‘Give a dog a bad name,’ etc. Just as long as Hall plays hockey, he will carry the appellation of the ‘bad man’ of the game. He can’t get away from it.”

As rough and ready as he might have played it in his youth, Stein insisted, Hall had changed his game, and was now as well-behaved as they came — other than “on occasion when he is forced to retaliate for self-defensive purposes.”

“Hall wants to play clean hockey, but how can he when his opponents take advantage and slash and cut him when they find Joe is a lamb instead of a bear? And the moment Joe starts to retaliate officials pounce upon him. If Joe wants to get by with a clean game all he has to do is forget that his bones are breakable, and smile every time he is cracked on the shins or ankle.”

The inimitable Joe Malone weighed in on this same issue many years later. A teammate of Hall’s on those triumphant Quebec teams in ’12 and ’13, Malone did some reminiscing for The Hockey Book, Bill Roche’s 1953 anecdotal miscellany. 

“His title of ‘Badman,’ which he acquired through his aggressive (not dirty) play, was one that he enjoyed and laughed at more than anything else,” Malone recalled. “Some long-forgotten hockey writer, probably in a fit of pique, pinned the ‘bad’ tag on him when Joe was playing right wing for the Houghton team of the old blood-and-thunder International Pro League, back around 1905-06. It was a brand-new catchword at that time and, unfortunately, it stuck.”

“His type of play was not of the mean sort,” Malone insisted. “He checked heavily for the sheer sport of bodily contact, and he was always ready to take as well as to give. That was all the more remarkable when one remembers that his normal weight was only about 150 pounds.” 

“There were plenty of huge, rough characters on the ice in Hall’s time, and he was able to stay in there with them for about 19 years. That, I know, was largely because of the fact that his personal habits were above reproach and a model to his teammates.”

Malone still hoped that Hall could shed his moniker. 

“Just the name, Joe Hall, should stand down through hockey history as a symbol of pluck, aggressiveness, and courage. The addition of ‘bad’ is, and always has been, unfair and wrong.”

delay of game

It was just a regular night on the NHL’s late-season calendar, that Wednesday, March 11, a year ago, with five games on the schedule and a yield of regular outcomes: the Ottawa Senators lost, Connor McDavid scored a goal. But that, of course, was all for the league’s 2019-20 regular season as well, um, life as we knew it in North America. Maybe you recall: the next day was when COVID-19 stopped everything, other than the fear, uncertainty, suffering, and death. The year we’ve had since? Well, you know. As Nick Paumgarten, staff writer at The New Yorker, where he sometimes bends his paragraphs to hockey themes, notes in this week’s magazine, “If you were lucky, you were merely bored.” Herewith, a couple of Toronto front pages from a year ago, including (above) the Star’s only-in-Canada end-of-February virus-complimenting  front page.

Wear a mask.

Get vaccinated.

To better, brighter days, and anniversaries, ahead.

abandon cup: bad joe hall and the fatal stanley cup final of 1919

Seattle Strong: The Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens line up in April of 1917 for a post-Stanley Cup exhibition at San Francisco’s Winter Garden rink. Seattle prevailed that year to become the first U.S. team to win the coveted trophy. In 1919, when the rivals met again, Seattle came close to winning a second championship before the series was abandoned.

The last hockey game Joe Hall ever played, he bloodied no-one with his stick, which he also failed to smash across anyone’s passing head. He kicked no referees; no fines or suspensions did he incur. The police, too, saw no reason to arrest him in the dressing room.

Instead, with the Stanley Cup on the line on that late-March night in 1919, the 37-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman made what was, for him, a meek showing. Bad Joe Hall’s reputation had added an outlaw’s epithet to his name, but on this night he was ailing, unable to play beyond the first period of Montreal’s thrilling come-from-behind overtime win over the hometown Seattle Metropolitans.

The victory was in vain. Within days, the championship series was abandoned, marking the first time since the Stanley Cup was inaugurated in 1893 that it had gone unwon. (The only other Cupless year was 2005, when a labor dispute wiped out the NHL season.)

A hundred years ago, an outbreak of the virulent Spanish flu sickened players from both teams. For Joe Hall, the outcome was as dire as it could have been — on April 5, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he died in his bed at Seattle’s Columbus Sanitarium.

English-born, in Milwich, Staffordshire, Hall was the oldest player in professional hockey in 1919, and still one of the game’s most effective — and feared — figures.

His family had emigrated to Canada when he was a boy, and in the early years of the 20th century he started making a hockey-playing name for himself in the prairie city of Brandon, Manitoba. His skills soon took him farther afield: to Winnipeg first, then south and across the border to Houghton, Michigan, where he joined the world’s first professional hockey league.

He was a fleet forward, then, touted as the fastest in the dominion. He remained a regular goal-scorer even after he shifted back to defence, moving to eastern Canada to star in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association. When the Quebec Bulldogs won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1912 and ’13, Hall was a dominant force.

Dangerous, too.

Throughout his career there would be those who vowed that Hall was never so dastardly as all that, only ever retaliated when wronged; referees persecuted him. Some argued that his skullduggery was at least honest: he never tried to hide his merciless swiping, spearing, and slashing.

But even by the unruly standards of early hockey, Hall does seem to have played the game with a singular ferocity. His name was often at the centre of discussions on how to rid hockey of what was called, in the parlance of the times, rowdyism.

A columnist aiming to classify his unsubtle style wrote that “he was a wielder of the broad-axe, not the rapier.” He battled all comers, often with his trusty rock-elm stick. Another witness to Hall’s early career predicted he’d keep going until he killed someone.

His non-lethal charge-sheet included a 1910 fracas during which he kicked a referee named Rod Kennedy. There was talk then that Hall would be banned from hockey for life, but in the end he was fined $100 and suspended for a pair of games. Learning that Kennedy’s trousers had been torn in the fracas, Hall offered to pay a further $27.50 to buy Kennedy a new suit, but the referee told him not to worry about it.

Bad Rap: Joe Hall poses outside Montreal’s Forum circa 1917.

In 1913, Hall kicked another referee, Tom Melville, and swung his stick at his head. (Melville ducked.) Sentenced to another two-game suspension, Hall paid a fine of $150 this time — two thirds of which was imposed by his own team. A Montreal newspaper approved: “This will be a lesson to other players in future that rowdyism will not be tolerated.”

Hall’s most famous feud was with a fellow future Hall-of-Famer, Newsy Lalonde. In 1914, when he hit the captain of the Montreal Canadiens in the mouth with his stick, Lalonde lodged his protest by walloping Hall over the head. Eight stitches closed the cut.

There was more talk of expelling Hall for good, but nothing came of it. When the NHL debuted in 1917, he signed with Lalonde’s Canadiens. The two old adversaries became roommates, and good friends.

Not that Hall had trouble finding new antagonists. In a game in Toronto the following March, a local reporter noted that every opposing player who approached Montreal’s net “received a jab in the face or head from Hall.”

“It was a disgraceful exhibition and a discredit to any league or city,” a local critic complained. If the NHL continued to tolerate “players of the Hall type,” he foresaw, “the league is certain to die a natural death.”

The league was a lean and somewhat shaky operation as it launched into its second season in the fall of 1918. For Hall, it was business as usual on the ice: he would end up leading the league in penalty minutes, accumulating more than twice as many by the end of the season as anyone else in the league.

Not figured into that ledger was the time that Hall spent in police court in January of 1919. Toronto’s Alf Skinner seems to have started it, driving his stick into Hall’s mouth, whereupon Hall clubbed Skinner to the ice, continuing to chop at him while he lay unconscious.

Toronto police arrested both players, on charges of disorderly conduct. Both would plead guilty in court, though the magistrate presiding decided that the $15 fines already imposed on them by the referee was punishment enough for their crimes.

In those early NHL years, the Stanley Cup final brought together the best professional teams from east and west. As eastern champions, the Canadiens boarded the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Imperial Limited in mid-March for the journey to the Pacific coast.

There was discussion, briefly, of convening a four-team tournament, with Ottawa and Vancouver Millionaires joining in to vie for the Cup, but by the time Montreal reached Vancouver, it was confirmed that they would meet the Pacific Coast Hockey League-champion Seattle Metropolitans in a best-of-five series for the title.

Montreal’s line-up was a seasoned one, anchored in goal by Georges Vézina. Joining Hall on defence were Bert Corbeau and Billy Coutu. Up front Montreal counted on Lalonde and Didier Pitre, Odie Cleghorn, Jack McDonald, and (playing in his fifth final) Louis Berlinguette. Seattle counted on veteran goaltender Hap Holmes and forwards Jack Walker, Cully Wilson, Bernie Morris, and Frank Foyston.

The teams were familiar rivals. Two years earlier, Seattle had beaten Montreal to become the first American team to claim hockey’s premier prize. Most of the players involved in the 1919 series were the same. Personal connections interwove the rosters, too: Seattle’s leading scorer, for instance, was Morris — like Hall, a Brandon man.

For all the bonds between players, the two teams played very different brands of hockey. The western game had been shaped and streamlined by the Patrick brothers, Lester and Frank, sons of a British Columbia lumber baron. Retired now from distinguished playing careers, they ran the PCHL.

As hockey innovators, the Patricks introduced many of the rules and procedures hockey fans take for granted today, from blue-lines and penalty-shots to forward-passing and the awarding of assists. East and west were working towards harmonizing their rules — in 1918-19, the NHL had gone so far as to adopt the west’s forward-passing rule — but because they still hadn’t fully agreed on how best the game should be played, the Stanley Cup final saw the teams alternate rulebooks.

One night, the teams would ice seven men aside, as per PCHL practice. Next game: fans would see six-man NHL hockey, which also allowed teams to substitute a player who’d been penalized without worrying about going shorthanded.

Opening the championship series under western rules, Seattle duly won in a 7-0 romp. They managed this despite the unexpected absence of Bernie Morris, accused on the very eve of the final of deserting the U.S. Army, and confined to Seattle’s Camp Lewis to await a court martial that would eventually imprison him on Alcatraz for a year.

Playing to the eastern code, Montreal won the second game 4-2. Seattle took the third, 7-2, which meant that they had a chance to wrap up the championship on March 26.

Hints of what was ahead crept into the reports of that fourth game, played March 26. Scoreless through 60 minutes, the teams battled for a further 20 minutes of overtime without a goal to decide the outcome. Players from both teams collapsed as the game ended unresolved; some had to be carried off the ice.

“The hardest-played game in hockey history,” Frank Patrick called it. NHL President Frank Calder said that there was none more remarkable in all the hockey annals, even though it never should have been halted — in his book, the teams ought have continued until somebody scored a goal. Seattle coach and manager Pete Muldoon didn’t see why the game shouldn’t count as a tie, which would mean that the next game would be played under western rules. A brief stand-off ensued before Muldoon allowed that the fourth game would, in effect, be replayed under eastern rules. Epic as it was, the contest would be ignored, with the series continuing as though it had never been played at all.

It seems clear now that many of the players were already, by this point, fevering under the effects of the H1N1 virus. The Spanish flu pandemic that had swept the globe in the wake of the First World War would kill between 20 and 100 million people worldwide. Preying largely on young, vigorous adults, the highly infectious respiratory virus had reached its deadly peak in October of 1918. Both Stanley Cup cities had been hit hard then: by the end of the year some 1,400 had succumbed in Seattle, while the toll in Montreal was close to 3,000.

In nearby Ottawa that fall, the hockey fraternity had mourned the death of Hamby Shore, 32, a three-time Stanley-Cup champion who’d just retired as an NHLer. And two weeks before the games in Seattle, Montreal centre Jack McDonald learned that flu had killed a brother of his who was serving with the Canadian Army in Siberia.

McDonald, as it happened, scored the decisive goal when the two teams met for the last time that week when the final resumed. Poised once again to clinch the Cup, Seattle got goals from  Foyston and Walker, who notched a pair, to surge to a 3-0 lead after two periods. It didn’t hold.

Joe Hall wasn’t a factor — after having played only sparingly, he seems to have left the game at the end of the first period, retiring (as the Vancouver Daily World described it) “owing to sickness.” An early shoulder injury knocked Hall’s partner Bert Corbeau out the game, which meant that Lalonde and Pitre had to drop back to play defence for the balance of the game. Still, Montreal got a goal to start the third period from Odie Cleghorn before Lalonde tied it up with a pair of his own.

In overtime, McDonald skated half the rink to score on Mets’ goaltender Hap Holmes.

But there would be no more hockey. In the days leading up to what would have been the decisive game, the focus moved east from Seattle’s Ice Arena to the city’s Providence Hospital, to which several suffering Mets were transferred, and the Columbus Sanitarium, where five Canadiens, including Hall and McDonald, along with Canadiens manager George Kennedy were soon under care.

It was pneumonia that killed Joe Hall at the age of 37 on April 5, a week after he’d played in his final hockey game. His mother and his brother were with him at the end; his wife learned of his death as she hurried west on the train from Brandon. Joe Hall was buried April 8 in Vancouver.

Vancouver historian Craig Bowlsby has argued persuasively that if the rules revolution underway in hockey a century ago didn’t kill actually Joe Hall, it did set the stage for his demise.

The advent of forward-passing had made the game faster than ever before. As exciting as this new and still-evolving brand of hockey was for fans, it was taxing the players to their physical limits — and in Joe Hall’s case, beyond.

Under the old ice order, players often played an entire game, 60 minutes, without leaving the ice. But while hockey in its new, speedy, evolved form made that physically difficult even for players who weren’t battling a deadly virus, hockey had failed to adapt to allow for regular substitutions. Montreal iced nine players for the 1919 series, Seattle just eight. In any other year, the game that had failed to adapt quickly enough might just have left them exhausted. With H1N1 still in the air in Seattle, they faced a much more dangerous prospect. Even after Hall’s death, it would be years, Bowlsby points out, before teams adjusted their rosters.

“The games were the most strenuous I have ever been in,” Newsy Lalonde said when he and his teammates got back to Montreal after burying Joe Hall. “I would not like to go through another such experience for any amount of money.”

the final days of georges vézina

Georges Vézina died in the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi, in the early morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926 — the hour was 1.20 a.m. by one report, six minutes later according to another. Greatest Goal Minder in Game of Hockey, read the headlines in the papers next morning, Canada’s Famous Hockey Player. He was 44 years old, or 38 — they had some trouble, the papers, with his age (he was 39) as well as with his progeny. Leo Dandurand’s toweringly tall story that Vézina and his wife, the former Stella Morin, had 22 children was still current, and widely repeated in the death notices — though The New York Times capped his brood at 17. (There were, in fact, two Vézina sons.)

He’d started the season in Montreal’s goal, back in November of 1925, at the Forum against Pittsburgh, but he was ailing even then, running a high temperature. Canadiens had a back-up standing by, Frenchy Lacroix, an American who’d tended the U.S. nets at the 1924 Olympics.

Vézina started the game, but he didn’t last. “He was pale and haggard-looking as he turned shots aside in the first period,” The Gazette reported the next day. “At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition, and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.” (Pittsburgh’s Tex White scored the game’s only goal in the third period; Lacroix was deemed not-to-blame.)

As the Gazette told it, Vézina’s condition grew steadily worse that November week. “After a few days [he] was informed that he was suffering from tuberculosis and would live but a month or two at the most. Georges quietly prepared to leave Montreal for his home in Chicoutimi. None of his teammates knew of his ailment until he had departed.”

“It was early December that Vézina went to Chicoutimi and for the past three months he has fought courageously, though knowing that the end was near and that there was no hope. He was resigned to his fate and calmly awaited death.”

Another Montreal paper published the photograph reproduced above on the Monday, the day before the goaltender’s funeral. “Vézina Couldn’t Hide His Anguish Before His Death” the heading reads; a caption dates it to March 7. The quality of the reproduction isn’t good, which seems like some kind mercy. In 1926, readers who opened up the sports pages and found themselves gazing on Vézina’s deathbed also got this narration: “This personality who maintained his composure and impassivity during hockey games could not hide his suffering and anguish during this ultimate and supreme struggle that he would finally lose. We see the tensing of his face, on which was already painted the seal of the Grim Reaper.”

The editors had held the photograph back while the goaltender remained alive. They did not want, they said, “to make any sadder the last moments of poor Georges by presenting him with a picture of his own suffering.”

a long winter’s nap

Slumber Party: Artist Ryan Heshka grew up in Winnipeg, where (he says) prairie winters fed his early creativity, along with old comics and pulp magazines, natural history, graphic design, music, movies, and animation. Trained in interior design, he is self-taught as an artist. He makes his home and his art in Vancouver now. See more of his luminous work at http://www.ryanheshka.com.

 

memento mori

plante 62 63

The fans crowded into Chicago Stadium
gave their heroes
a three-minute ovation
as the final buzzer
went
off.

During the last minute of play,
a roar of approval
started
to build
up
in exuberant
approval
of the Hawks’ play.

They flooded the ice with

hats,
rubbers,
programs

and a
multitude
of other articles —
including

a skull

one whimsical fan
tossed near
Montreal goalie
Jacques Plante.

The dejected Canadiens
started to move

slowly

off the ice
after the finish, but

then
turned and

came back

to congratulate
the winners.

 

• The Canadian Press reports on Chicago’s 3-0 win over Montreal on April 5, 1961 whereby the Black Hawks defeated the defending Stanley Cup champions 4-2 in their playoff semi-final. Moving on to the Final, Chicago met and bested Detroit. On April 16, the Cup was theirs. Excerpted, edited, and poemized.