In Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec, not far from Shawinigan, Jacques Plante was born on a Thursday of this date in 1929. He remains, of course, an icon of hockey headgear, renowned for tuques and masks that his coaches (Dick Irvin and Toe Blake, respectively) didn’t want him wearing on the ice. In The Jacques Plante Story, a 1972 memoir he collaborated on with Andy O’Brien, the goaltender is quoted telling an interviewer, “My business is getting shot at.” By the end of the 1970-71 NHL season, O’Brien suggests, the 42-year-old Plante had faced 28,545 big-league shots in 865 games. “That does not include the ‘friendly shots’ — possibly 100,000 of them — fired at him in practice,” O’Brien writes, “but they can’t be ignored be ignored because they twice put him in hospital.” Add a few thousand more to the final tally: beyond the book’s telling, Plante played a further two seasons in the NHL, along with a final year with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. He died in 1986, at the age of 57.
When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.
Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.
The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.
Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.
It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.
Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.
But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.
Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.
I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.
Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”
The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”
The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”
“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”
Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.
“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”
She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”
The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.
Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”
Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.
Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”
They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.
Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”
“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”
At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.
That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.
The Toronto Maple Leafs took their training camp on the road this morning, flying a squad of 75 players, none of whom was Mitch Marner, for four days of pre-season prepping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Leafs, of course, have been getting out of town ahead of an upcoming NHL campaign for a long, long time, going back to 1928, when they fled north to Port Elgin, Ontario, on the Lake Huron shore. By 1935, the Leafs were convening just down the King’s Highway in Kitchener. Thirty-three players gathered there that October (the season started November 9) under coach Dick Irvin’s supervision. That’s him, of course, here on the right, posed at Maple Leaf Gardens in packing mode the week before camp commenced with the team’s tan managing director, Conn Smythe.
(Image: Archives of Ontario)
Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.
It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”
Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.
The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.
In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”
Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).
Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.
Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”
Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.
Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.
This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.
Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.
Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.
And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”
A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”
Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”
And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”
It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.
That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.
For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.
“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”
Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”
At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.
Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.
That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.
Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.
Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.
Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”
He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”
Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.
“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”
The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”
Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”
The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.
The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”
Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”
He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.
A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.
Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:
It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.
A great cheer went up at this statement.
It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.
Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL neither were they a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.
So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.
It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.
Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.
Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)
Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.
Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)
Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.
“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.
Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”
Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”
Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.
“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”
And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”
But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.
Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”
None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.
Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”
For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.
The Chicago Black Hawks lost the first five games they played to open the 1947-48 NHL season. When, in early November, they lost a sixth, 4-2 at home to Montreal, Hawks’ president Bill Tobin decided it was time for a change. The one he had in mind turned out to be the biggest trade in NHL history, with the Black Hawks’ Max Bentley, the league’s incumbent leading scorer, heading to Toronto with Cy Thomas in exchange for Gus Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, Bud Poile, Bob Goldham, and Ernie Dickens. For the Black Hawks, it didn’t change much: they lost their next game, against Boston, and finished the season in the NHL’s basement.
Their November opponents from Montreal didn’t fare a whole lot better that year: they ended up just ahead of Chicago, out of the playoffs. But on the night of Sunday, November 2, in Bentley’s last game as a Black Hawk, Canadiens managed to come out on top. The chaos that’s depicted here, above, came about in the last minute of the third period. When the wrestling was finished, there were major penalties for Montreal’s Bob Carse and Jimmy Peters as well as for the two Hawks they battled, Ralph Nattrass and goaltender Emile Francis, respectively. (It was, the Chicago Tribune noted, Francis’ second fight in as many games; against Detroit, on October 29, he messed with Ted Lindsay, and vice-versa.) On this night, Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard earned himself a match penalty for the crime of (the Tribune) “assaulting referee George Hayes while Hayes was trying to act as peacemaker.” The Globe and Mail told pretty much the same tale, but amped up the headline: “Free-for-All Climaxes Chicago Tilt; Bouchard Punches Ref; Canucks Win.”
Hayes was working the game as a linesman, along with Mush March; the game’s (sole) referee was George Gravel. Still, for Bouchard to be attacking any of the game’s officials would seem to spell trouble for the big Montreal defenceman. None of the newspapers reporting on the incident had much in the way of detail to offer, including Montreal’s Gazette, which reported that NHL President Clarence Campbell was waiting to get Gravel’s report on the game. The Gazette’s synopsis, in the interim: the game was “hard-fought;” Hayes hailed from Ingersoll, Ontario; Bouchard, weighing in at 200 pounds, was banished “after landing blows” on the linesman.
Except that — just maybe — did no blows land? By mid-week, the Canadian Press was reporting that “after a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding,” L’Affaire Bouchard was closed. The Montreal defenceman was fined $50 for his part in the upset in Chicago, but Campbell found him innocent of the charge of punching, and levelled no suspension. According to referee Gravel’s report, Bouchard merely pushed Hayes during the melee at the end of the game. “Bouchard,” CP said, “did not poke or hit anybody.”
He was free to play, therefore, in Montreal’s next game, and did so, later on that same week, when Max Bentley and the Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Forum. “It was a typical battle between these two teams,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll enthused, “full of fast and furious play, with no quarter asked and none given.” Canadiens prevailed, 3-0, with goaltender Bill Durnan featuring prominently, with Bouchard’s help. The latter (Carroll decided) “was just about the best man on the ice.” He made not a mistake, and “won all his jousts with Wild Willie Ezinicki, the Leafs’ well-known catalytic agent.”
Alongside Butch Keeling, George Hayes was back on the lines, and while he and Bouchard seem to have managed to steer clear of one another, referee Bill Chadwick found himself featured in the paper next day for what seems like an eccentric call:
“No comment,” Clarence Campbell said in November of 1949 in the wake of the rhubarbary in Chicago that saw two Montreal players, Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle, arrested and jailed. The NHL president said that he wouldn’t have anything to say until he’d heard from referee Bill Chadwick.
Other than, well, he did want to warn fans. On that, yes, he had comment. “If people go looking for trouble,” he said, “they’ll always get it.” He was talking to George Grbich, I guess, who’d leapt to ice after being struck and bloodied by Reardon’s stick. “There’s simple protection for him if he stays in the seat allotted to him. And anyway, a man without skates is a pretty inadequate citizen on the ice.”
“No fans need get involved unless they choose to do so.”
The game in Chicago was on the Wednesday. Friday, when Canadiens arrived back in Montreal, Campbell invited Reardon, Gravelle, and Billy Reay to pay him a visit at his office in the Sun Life Building. Reay had swung his stick, too, in Chicago, and taken a penalty, but avoided arrest. The meeting wrapped up without any statement forthcoming for press or public.
“There should be better protection along the rinkside for players from fans,” said Dick Irvin, Canadiens’ coach. His view, other than that the whole business “was really not much,” was that it was all accidental. Well, the damage to George Grbich, at least. Irvin:
“Grbich stood up in his seat with one foot on the railing, reached over the netting which fronts the promenade seats and grabbed Kenny Reardon by the shoulder-pad. The pad was pulled off the shoulder. Reardon went off-balance, swung around and his stick struck Grbich on the head.
“It opened quite a cut and friends of the spectator started to swarm over the netting and out on the ice.”
That was when Gravelle got involved, waggling his stick. “But,” Irvin said, “he didn’t hurt anybody and neither did Billy Reay who took a cut at one of these jerks but missed him.”
Irvin had news, too, of Grbich having come around to the Montreal dressing room after the game for a chat and some forgiveness. Head bandaged, blood on his lapels, Grbich said he was a Czech who’d played hockey back home. Said, too, as Irvin heard it, that “he was a great admirer of Reardon, really meaning to wish him well — but we figured this was a lot of baloney.”
Irvin continued: “Reardon had been in a scuffle with Ralph Nattress just before this and I guess the guy got excited. Anyway, he shook hands.”
Sportswriter Andy O’Brien wanted fans to be fair. Writing in The Montreal Standard, he opined that the whole affair had been “grossly exaggerated.” Players took all kinds of razzing from fans, and some of what they heard was truly filthy. “I have no sympathy for the fan who isn’t fair,” O’Brien wrote, and if a fan decided to punch, grab, or insult “a tensed-up athlete” then it was “a two-way deal.”
In Reardon’s defence, he also wanted to point out that the Canadiens’ defenceman was a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, where he excelled at handball and squash, and membership at that august club was restricted to “gentlemen” — so there.
By Saturday, Clarence Campbell was back to keeping his counsel — and commanding everybody else’s, too. He expressed his “extreme displeasure” at the publicity surrounding events in Chicago. He was particularly irked by the jailhouse photos from Chicago; that kind of thing, he felt, “is bad for hockey.”
Uh huh. As opposed to the smacking of spectators with hockey sticks?
“Meanwhile,” said The Ottawa Citizen, “the NHL chief ordered all concerned to refrain from comment on the fracas until the case is cleared up.”
The time for that came not quite two weeks later. Montreal was back in Chicago to play the Black Hawks, which they did on the Sunday night. On the ice, the visitors acted like “little gentlemen,” according to Edward Burns from the local Tribune. And the Hawks? “Mild characters, too.” The game ended 0-0. Referee Butch Keeling called a bevy of minor infractions in the first period, and assessed Montreal winger Rip Riopelle a misconduct for abusive language. There were no penalties in the second or the third.
The legal case was supposed to get going on Monday morning, November 14, but then George Grbich didn’t show up at Municipal Court, so the proceedings were put over a day so that he could be found.
Tuesday: still no Grbich. The news was that he’d upped and sold his Chicago property and moved to Butler, Wisconsin. The charges of assault with a deadly weapon against Reardon and Gravelle were heard without him.
Complainants Anthony and John Scornavacco were there, and so was Peter Zarillo. Anthony owned a tavern, Zarillo was a taxi-driver; no word on how John passed his days. When they told Judge Joseph B. Hermes that their grievance was with Gravelle alone, he declared Reardon’s charge nolle prossed (not prosecuted), leaving Gravelle to face the music on his own.
The overture had Reardon testifying about the hand that had reached over the rail and grabbed his sweater. He said,
“I spun around and though that my stick hit the screen. And then I saw that a man was bleeding. The man [this was Grbich] yelled at me that he was okay. Just then another man climbed over the barrier and came at me as though he wanted to fight. I dropped my stick and gloves, but the officials ordered the man off the ice before he got to me. I heard a scuffle and then saw a spectator stand up and try to throw a chair over the barrier.”
Reardon didn’t say who the first man was, the one he almost fought; the attempted-chair-thrower he identified as Anthony Scornavacco.
Leo Gravelle said he didn’t see Reardon or Grbich, but he did see the unknown man on the ice.
“I did not strike any of the spectators,” he told the court. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.”
The Scornavaccos remembered otherwise: Gravelle’s stick hit their arms and their shoulders, they said. But referee Chadwick and linesman Doug Young gave stepped up to say that they remembered what Gravelle remembered: no spectators were struck.
I’d like to know (but probably never will) whether Zarillo’s tie was introduced into the record, the one that was supposed to have been “torn” by one of the hockey sticks wielded by one of the Canadiens.
For an hour-and-a-half the evidence spooled out. When it was Judge Hermes’ turn to decide where it all led, he dismissed the charge against Gravelle.
“It is the prerogative of the American fan to boost his team and heckle opponents,” he ruled, “but from the testimony presented here it is evident that the complainants were the aggressors.”
And that was all, the end of it. There was word from the Scornavaccos that they intended to pursue a civil case against Gravelle, but I can’t find any trace of that. Montreal’s acquitted Canadiens were soon on a train to Toronto, where their Canadiens had a Wednesday-night game against the Leafs. As for Clarence Campbell and what his comment might have been on the outcome — whatever he thought, I haven’t come across any record of it.