duke keats takes the wheel

Edmonton Wheeler: Duke Keats picks up his brand-new McLaughlin Master Four in 1922. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-1568)

Hall-of-Fame centre Duke Keats made his mark with the Boston Bruins, Detroit Cougars, and Chicago Black Hawks, but he arrived in the NHL relatively late in his outstanding career. Keats, who died on a Sunday of this date in 1972, played seven seasons for the mighty Edmonton Eskimos in the 1920s before he showed up in the eastern big league.

Keats was 27 in the spring of 1922 when he decided he needed the new (Canadian-made) roadster he’s seen sitting in here. The results of the season he’d just wrapped up were … mixed. While the Eskimos had finished first atop the four-team WCHL that year, they’d fallen in the playoffs to the Regina Capitals. Still, Keats himself was the league’s top scorer, compiling 30 goals and 56 points in 25 regular-season games. He was also named to the league’s First All-Star Team.

Did he treat himself to the McLaughlin as a reward for a stellar season? Maybe so. Contemporary ads put the price of a Master Four around $1275 (about $19,000 today). Maybe he got a celebrity discount. Keats certainly didn’t make a secret of his acquisition: theEdmonton Bulletin ran this photograph in April of ’22 along with a grandiloquent ode celebrating Keats and the superior automobile he’d chosen. It went, in part, like this:

Recently Duke arrived at the McLaughlin headquarters and requested that they wrap up one of their latest models for him and presently he was touring Jasper avenue in a shining Master Four to his considerable satisfaction, be it said. Though in jocular mood, Mr. Keats did not request the wrapping up process to commence until he had satisfied himself that the Master Four filled the bill in preference to machines of other makes than the McLaughlin, and the same keen diagnosis which is used by the popular player on the ice was exhibited in the purchasing of the car.

 

 

 

 

eddie shore and that old-time … agriculture

Reap Rep: Eddie Shore on his binder at the farm near Duagh, Alberta, at point in (probably) the early 1930s. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-4293)

Glenn Hall’s barn took its place in hockey history in the fall of 1966, the year he bought his farm in Stony Plain, Alberta, a half-hour’s drive west of Edmonton. That was the year Hall, then in his mid-30s, told the Chicago Black Hawks he was retiring. “When someone called one day,” Hall recalled a few years later, “my wife was home and answered the phone and said I was out on the farm painting the barn.” While the man they called Mr. Goalie returned to Chicago that same fall, and went on to play five further seasons with the St. Louis Blues, the barn took on its own life as a tale that was told perennially — still is — to explain why Hall was delayed for training camp: he had to paint his barn.

“I only tried to retire twice,” Hall, a native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, tried to clarify in the 1970s. “The other times I had permission to be late for camp so I could get the crop in.”

Hall, now 89, still lives on the property in Stony Plain, where that barn, which is red, looks over the land. Its story is still favoured in hockey folklore.

Not so well remembered is the farmland 45 minutes away to the northwest that became a regular focus of the hockey world 30 years earlier, when another Saskatchewan-born hockey superstar, one of the most famous figures of the NHL’s early years, was in the habit of announcing he’d just as soon farm his fields than play defence for the Boston Bruins.

Today, on (probably but possibly not) Eddie-Shore’s birthday, a visit to his Alberta acreage.

First, regarding the birth: mostly you’ll see it dated to November 25, 1902, which a Tuesday 118 years ago. And that does seem to be all in order, given that it’s a date that Shore himself cited on such serious documents as his 1942 U.S. military draft registration. The 1985 record of his death in Massachusetts also names November 25.

And yet, as conclusive as that seems, the Province of Saskatchewan’s record of Shore’s debut in 1902 lists … November 23, a Sunday. Hard to say whose the error might be, especially since we do have evidence of a certain odd coyness on Shore’s own part — that’s to come, a little further on.

In the meantime, happy birthday, belated or not, to the Edmonton Express.

That nickname took some geographical liberties, of course: whatever the date, Eddie Shore was born 850 kilometres and a province to the east of the Alberta capital, in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina. The former Kate Spanier was his mother, Thomas John — T.J. — his father.

When Shore was eight, the family moved about 50 kilometres north and to the west where, as Michael Hiam tells it in Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey, his 2010 biography, T.J. would eventually be farming a property of some 70,000 acres, with 400 head of horses and 600 of cattle on it, while annually producing 100,000 bushels of wheat.

So Eddie was farm-tested from an early age, which is also to say farm-forged. He was taming ponies at the age of nine, Hiam writes. At 12, he was driving four-horse teams to the grain elevator in Cupar. Shore was an expert roper at 15; by the time he was 16, he was riding herd on thousands of cattle.

Boy Cowboy: Eddie Shore at the age of 13 (and steed). The signature came later. (Image: Classic Auctions)

He later told a Boston sportswriter about nearly freezing to death in that era, riding herd one winter when temperatures had plunged to minus 61 F. In his own words:

I say 61 because our thermometers register to 60 below and they all broke. I had to drive 23 head of cattle 32 miles for my father.

There was sort of a trail about three feet wide and with the snow three feet deep on both sides the cattle stayed in file all right. We jog trotted them so that they wouldn’t freeze and got off the horses every once in a while so that we wouldn’t.

On the way back I started to freeze and just a little way from home my horse fell down. I didn’t realize it until then but I was partly frozen. My legs were frozen in the shape of the horse.

You could freeze to death in a very short time there and freezing would be a pleasure. Just a pleasant numbness but I wasn’t that far gone, and it was pretty painful, coming to and getting on the horse again.

Shore’s survival on the trial eventually allowed for his burgeoning hockey career to get him to Melville, Saskatchewan, in the early 1920s. From there he continued on to Regina, then to Edmonton, where he skated for the WHL Eskimos in 1925-26, before taking his talents to Boston in 1926.

Dealmakers: NHL President Frank Calder and Eddie Shore meet on the ice at Boston Garden in the late 1930s. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

It didn’t take Shore long to establish himself as one of the NHL’s biggest (and unruliest) stars. He’d help the Bruins win a Stanley Cup in 1929 and another in ’39, and in the decade between those championships he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player four times.

In the Edmonton news, May of 1928

In 1928, he got back to the land. The Bruins had bowed out of the playoffs in early April, dismissed by the New York Rangers, eventual Cup champions. May brought news that Shore had bought himself an Alberta spread, paying $16,400 for Albert Elliott’s farm, just beyond Edmonton’s northern city limits. Though in Shore’s day the name of the locality was often misrendered in press reports as Daugh, it was in Duagh that Shore set himself up as a farmer. (The slip is not only historical: Michael Hiam’s biography gets it wrong, too.)

Sizewise, Hiam reports that the property was 640 acres, and some contemporary accounts agree with that, too, though in fact it was a half section, 320 acres.

I don’t know what salary Shore was getting from the Bruins at this point. The $9,000-a-year that the Montreal Maroons were paying defenceman Dunc Munro was reported to be the NHL’s highest salary in ’28 — though there was also some talk that year that these same Maroons had signed Canadian Olympic star Dave Trottier for $12,000.

If Shore was taking in something less than that, he had been doing well enough the previous summer to have decided to give up his summer job back in Melville, where he’d been shovelling coal for the Canadian National Railway going back to when he was playing senior hockey there. (The end of the 1926-27 NHL season had, it’s true, enriched Shore by $2,000 in bonuses.)

For a view of the set-up at Duagh, we’ll trust to a plucky reporter from the Edmonton Journal who paid a visit in the summer of 1929.

The Bruins had won the Cup that spring, but Shore wasn’t resting much at all, let alone on any laurels. He was toiling hard, “enjoying 10 to 12 hours work every day on his farm.” He had 170 acres sown to wheat that year, and his barnyard roster included 14 horses and 400 chickens. He was just getting started, though:

Eddie is planning to have one of the finest farms in the entire district. He will have a beautiful bungalow, a big ribbed roof barn, an ideal machine shop, and there will be everything on the land that any successful farmer should have.

“It will take time,” said Eddie when he was talking to the Journal representative. “But in two years time I should have all the buildings up that I am planning.”

“Then I will have sufficient cattle, Holsteins, most likely; not very many horses, because machinery is better; plenty of chickens, pigs, and everything else.”

Shore got married that year, to Kate Macrae, a former basketball star with Edmonton’s mighty Grads. Their son, Edward Jr., arrived a year later.

By 1933, Michael Hiam reports, Shore had cultivated a “model farm,” featuring a modest house, a small barn in the Pennsylvania Dutch style, and “a picturesque windmill.” He had a hired man to help with the work and to run the place while he was away playing hockey. His line-up now included hogs, cattle, turkeys, ducks, chickens, workhorses (Percherons and Belgians), and “a prized Guernsey bull named Taywater Warrior.”

Playing his own particular brand of surly and, occasionally, near-fatal hockey, Shore continued to cut a swath through the NHL from his winter base in Boston. Summers in Duagh, he found time amid the call of crops and livestock for golfing (he shot in the 70s); baseball (he played outfield for the Professional Pucksters, a team that included NHLers Leroy Goldsworthy and brothers Neil and Mac Colville); and saving lives (in 1938, he dove into the Sturgeon River near the farm to rescue three swimmers in danger of drowning).

Glimpses of life on the farm reached the hockey world now and then. In 1937, for instance, Shore confided that he’d given up sowing wheat in favour of barley. “Can’t miss with that crop,” is what he told Andy Lytle of Toronto’s Daily Star, “with beer guzzled all over the country.”

Often, though, when the farm at Duagh made its way into the hockey pages of newspapers it was because Shore wasn’t happy with what Boston manager Art Ross was offering to pay him. Glenn Hall may have joked about painting his barn as a negotiating tactic; Eddie Shore’s Albertan hold-outs in the 1930s don’t seem to have amused anyone involved.

In October of 1933, when Shore was a no-show at the Boston training camp in Quebec City, it was initially reported that he was “delayed by harvesting.” Art Ross had already advised Bruin beat reporters a couple of times that the team’s star defenceman was “expected next week” before the Edmonton Journal dispatched a reporter to Duagh in early November, just six days before the Bruins were set to open their season in Toronto.

Shore was busy butchering a 300-pound hog when Ken McConnell arrived. “Sure, I’m a holdout,” Shore told him. Boston had initially offered him a satisfactory contract, he said, only to turn around and reduce their offer by $2,500 when he was a little late getting to Quebec. “I am not going to take it.”

Idle Idol: A reporter who visited the Shore spread in the fall of 1933 found Boston’s superstar defenceman butchering a hog. Also on hand: Shore’s wife, the former Kate Maccae; his son, Ed Jr.; the family house; the big old barn.

Would he quit hockey?

“If they don’t want to meet my terms,” Shore said, “why, I’ll stay here. I have everything I need right here. I don’t have to play hockey any more.”

In light of the inconsistency mentioned earlier regarding Shore’s birthdate, the next quote McConnell got is interesting. As it appeared, with McConnell’s parentheses:

“I am only 30 — have a birthday some time in this month [he would not name the date] and I figure I should be able to play NHL hockey for another seven years at least — Bill Cook of the New York Rangers is 39. But it’s entirely up to the bosses of the Bruins. I am standing pat.”

The next news of the negotiation came on November 9, the following Thursday. The Bruins were in Toronto that night, preparing to open their season Shoreless against the Maple Leafs. And Shore? As Boston’s Globereported that the team’s other prominent dissenter, Cooney Weiland, had signed his contract, word from Alberta was that Shore was practicing with the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos, for whom Duke Keats presided as the playing coach. The word from the ice? “He looks good.”

Also: Shore was headed to the foothills of the Rockies for “a big game hunting expedition.”

Friday’s update: with a defensive corps consisting of Lionel Hitchman and a trio of rookies and journeymen, the Bruins had succumbed to the Leafs by a score of 6-1. That was front-page news in Edmonton insofar as in the same breath the Journal also declared that Shore and the Bruins had settled their differences.

The family headed east, and on the Monday, Shore was in Montreal to meet with NHL President Frank Calder. As often happened in those years, the team had handed its holdout problem over to the league, and so it was with Calder that Shore did his final dealing. In exchange for his signature, he was reported to have successfully secured the $2,500 that the Bruins had initially offered.

Shore made his debut in Boston the following night, though he couldn’t help his team find a win, as the Bruins fell to their third successive loss to start the new season. They never really turned it around that season, finishing the ’33-34 schedule in last place in the four-team American Division, out of the playoffs.

International Harvester: Eddie Shore works the land. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-5202)

In 1934, Shore seems to have been delayed by an actual late harvest. He made it to camp by the end of October, signing a contract (the Edmonton Journal reported) for the NHL maximum salary of $7,000.

In subsequent years, Shore showed up more or less on time in the fall, when the time came to trade in threshers for hockey sticks.

“Word drifts through from the Maritimes,” Ken McConnell advised in 1936, by which time the Bruins had shifted their training camp from Quebec to New Brunswick, “that Eddie Shore has definitely signed a brand new contract with the Bruins and so that trifling matter is settled for this year at least.” (As it turned out, Shore would miss more than half of the season’s schedule, suffering from sciatica.)

The cut in pay Shore seems to have taken in ’37 reflected that shortened season, from what I can tell. When he stopped in to see Frank Calder in Montreal that fall, trouble seemed to be brewing, according to Calgary’s Herald. “The league prexy, when he heard that Shore wanted to make an appointment with him, naturally thought that Eddie was having contract trouble again. Imagine his surprise when Eddie appeared and said nothing about contract but simply asked Calder for permission to play with the All-Star team in the Howie Morenz benefit game.”

The Bruins convened their camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in ’38, and Shore, who was coming off another Hart-Trophy-winning season, hit the ice there in “prime condition.”

“I have never felt better,” said the 36-year-old veteran. “Every day for the past two months I have been working from dawn to dusk harvesting wheat, and then, to prove to myself I was in shape, I drove the family over the road from Edmonton to Boston, making the trip in a bit more than five days, and that’s no rest cure.”

With a full camp and a slate of exhibition games behind him, Shore finally saw the contract the Bruins were offering in early November, and when the Bruins boarded a train for Toronto and the opening game of the season, Shore stayed home.

All he wanted was to be paid like he was back in 1936-37, he said, before he’d agreed to a cut. “I was offered a slight raise and promised a share of the gate receipts,” he said, “but I was not satisfied with those terms.”

And so the stalemate was on. As Art Ross handed his problem once again over to Frank Calder, the Bruins revived their tradition of starting their season in Toronto. This time, with rookie Jack Crawford tabbed to fill Shore’s skates, the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Shore missed four games before he struck a deal with Calder. “Old Man Shore has signed,” he told reporters in Boston with a smile. The deal was said to be for $7,000: $6,000 in salary plus $1,000 if the Bruins made the playoffs (they did, winning the Stanley Cup, to boot). This was $500 more than the Bruins had originally offered. “The only extra promise we’ve made Shore,” Art Ross advised, “is that he’ll be paid for the four games he’s missed.”

The following year, 1939-40, was the one in which Shore might be said to have worn out his welcome in Boston. He’d bought the AHL Springfield Indians by then, furthering souring his relationship with the Bruins, who ended up trading him in early 1940 to the New York Americans, for whom he played the last ten games of his tempestuous NHL career.

And the farm at Duagh? “Mr. Eddie Shore, whose business interests are all in the east, has instructed us to sell his Half-Section of Land, northeast of the city,” read the ad that Edmonton realtors placed in the Journal in the fall of 1943. “His own words: ‘Sell, lock, stock, and barrel.”

The price was $20,000 — at first. Over the course of the year that followed, more ads appeared, with lower prices. I don’t know what the farm at Duagh sold for, in the end, but this is the last of the pitches that I’ve seen, from the fall of 1944:

 

 

art’s work

Born in Ottawa on this date in 1896 — it was a Monday then, there, too — Art Gagne played the right wing for a parcel of amateur teams in his hometown, Aberdeens, Royal Canadiens, Grand Trunk. That was during the First World War. In 1919, he signed with Quebec in the NHL, though he never turned out for them, heading west, instead, to join the WCHL’s Edmonton Eskimos, where he skated with Joe Simpson, Eddie Shore, and Duke Keats, and played in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1923, when the Eskimos lost to the Ottawa Senators.

As a Canadien in Montreal in the latter ’20s his regular linemates were Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat. Morenz was the tallest of the three at 5’9’’, Joliat and Gagne were both 5’7”. “Joliat and I were good skaters,” he recalled in 1965, “but we could never keep up with Howie. He was a man who flew on skates, and he had to be at top speed to shoot. For a couple of little fellows, we did fairly well. Oh, yes, they treated us rough, but they weren’t dirty to us. We didn’t stand still long enough for them to drive us into the boards.” Of Morenz he remembered that he could shoot a puck through a board; he also said that he and Joliat wore a minimum of pads in their effort to keep up with the Stratford Streak. Gagne’s best goal-getting year in the NHL was 1927-28, when he scored 20 in 44 games. Joliat had 28 that year; Morenz led the league with 33. After three seasons with Montreal, Gagne went to Boston for a year; he also had stints with Ottawa and the Detroit Falcons. Art Gagne died in 1988 at the age of 91.

that wonder-working bird

The Edmonton Hockey Team: The WCHL Eskimos as they lined up in 1925-26. From left: Bobby Boucher, Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, Herb Stuart, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Art Gagne, Johnny Shepard, Spunk Sparrow, Ernie Anderson, Lloyd McIntyre, Bobby Benson.

Born in Hartney, Manitoba, on a Wednesday of this date in 1897, Spunk Sparrow won an Allen Cup in 1916 on the 61st Battalion team that Joe Simpson starred on. Emory was Sparrow’s given name, if you’re wondering; he was a right winger; he died in 1965 at at the age of 67. As a pro, Sparrow mostly played in the old WCHL in the early 1920s, turning out for the Regina Capitals (Dick Irvin and Rabbit McVeigh were teammates), Calgary’s Tigers (alongside Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner), and the Edmonton Eskimos pictured above. He played briefly for Boston, joining Art Ross’s fledgling Bruins in 1925 for six games. He scored some goals in his day, and was oft-penalized and several times suspended — “a sterling hockey player,” the Winnipeg Tribune called him, “but a rather difficult man to handle.” The flaxen flash was an epithet the Edmonton Journal applied to him in 1924 on the occasion of his having scored a handsome goal against Calgary. It was so good, apparently, that one of the paper’s writers saw fit to dash off a poem in his honour, “An Ode To Spunk.” It opened like this:

Tell me, stranger, have you heard
Of that wonder-working bird?
Not the peacock or the wren
Or the brilliant guinea-hen.
It’s the bird who saves our souls
Gets badly-needed goals —
Sparrow!

gone wrong, one on one: a short history of playoff penalty-shot nonfeasance

Before The Oil: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s Eskimos from the old WCHL and a future Hall-of-Famer, out for a country ramble during the 1921-22 season. In 1923, he missed a penalty shot in the Stanley Cup final, but he wasn’t the only one. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Conor Sheary shot wide; when it was his turn, Jonathan Drouin tried for a backhand, but the puck wasn’t interested, and wandered wide.

The Montreal Canadiens exceeded the Pittsburgh Penguins last night in Toronto, 3-2 in overtime, with each team failing to score on a penalty shot. Sheary’s chance came in the third period, while Drouin failed to score in overtime as the NHL resumed its 2019-20 season with a flurry of Stanley Cup Qualifiers yesterday.

In the bold new world of the NHL’s emergency overhaul of its season, we’re not quite into the playoffs, yet — unless you’re talking about statistics and records-keeping. In that case, yes. As the league stipulates in its Return To Play manual, all these August games, round-robin and qualifying-round, “are considered part of the 2020 post-season,” and will go into the books as such.

Got it? Ready, then, for an historical note on the last time a playoff game featured a pair of penalty shots?

Good.

It was 97 years ago, since you’re wondering, on a Thursday at the end of March in 1923, in the first game of the Stanley Cup final.

That night, three penalty shots were awarded and duly taken. All three were failed efforts.

Vancouver was the scene, although (like last night) both of the teams involved were only visiting. In those years, up until 1926, the Stanley Cup final pitted the NHL champions against a western counterpart. In 1923, that meant the mighty Ottawa Senators were playing the Edmonton team from the old WCHL, who were called the Eskimos long before the CFL arrived in town.

The NHL didn’t adopt the penalty shot until 1934, but out west, where the canny Patrick brothers ran the PCHL, it had been in effect (for the WCHL, too) since 1921. The way it was then, when teams from rival leagues played for the Stanley Cup, they alternated rulebooks, game by game. The opening game of the ’23 final was played under western rules. Mickey Ion was the referee.

Ottawa prevailed that night, winning 2-1 in overtime thanks to a goal by Cy Denneny. Before that they’d failed to convert two penalty shots, while Edmonton missed one.

They did it differently, in those years. Instead of rushing in from centre-ice the way Sheary and Drouin did last night, a player 1923 saw the puck placed on one of three three-foot circles that were spread out across the ice in what we’d call the high slot, about 35 feet from the net. The shot would be taken from whichever circle was closest to where the infraction had taken place. Players had a choice: they could take the shot standing still, or they could make a skating start, building up speed as they approached the puck. They had to shoot it; carrying the puck to the net wasn’t allowed.

In 1923, Ottawa papers noted that the Senators’ disadvantage when it came to penalty shots, “something they were entirely unfamiliar with.”

In the first period, Ottawa defenceman Georges Boucher was on the rush when an Edmonton counterpart, Bob Trapp, tripped him. Ottawa sent in their leading scorer, Cy Denneny, to take the shot. Edmonton goaltender foiled him: he “dropped his stick,” the Ottawa Journal noted, “and caught the puck nicely.”

Later in the period, after Trapp took down Denneny, another Ottawa winger, Punch Broadbent, stepped up to take the penalty shot. “Although he directed it straight as a gun barrel,” Ottawa’s Citizen reported, “Winkler blocked it.”

In the third, up 1-0, Edmonton got its chance at a free shot when Ottawa defenceman King Clancy upended Eskimo winger Johnny Shepard. Edmonton sent in their top goalscorer to try his luck, the great Duke Keats, but his shot from the right-side spot didn’t trouble Ottawa goaltender Clint Benedict.

Back in Alberta, fans despairing after Denneny’s overtime winner put Ottawa ahead in the best-of-three final awoke next morning to find a column under Keats’ byline in the Edmonton Journal asking them not to worry. The Eskimos, he guaranteed, weren’t beaten yet — “not by a darn sight.”

It would be good to see something similar in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today from Conor Sheary, though it doesn’t seem to have materialized yet. Or maybe it should be another one for the Journal in Edmonton, this time under Connor McDavid’s name.

Of course, for Duke Keats in 1923, it didn’t work out so well. The Senators would wrap up the series the following day, that March, shutting out Edmonton 1-0 on Punch Broadbent’s goal to claim the Stanley Cup.

reg noble: fastest on the ice, and a very hard man to relieve of the puck

Noble Oblige: Reg Noble strikes a pose in the late 1920s, when he turned out, and captained, the Detroit Cougars.

Here’s a story, for Reg Noble’s birthday — well about Reg Noble, the day after his birthday, which was yesterday. June 23 was a Tuesday in 1896, in Collingwood, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay, which is where was Noble was born 124 years ago. If you’re vague on Reg Noble details, here are a few of his hockey specs: he was very good, possessed of a wicked shot, a forward at first, then later a defenceman, played for the old Toronto Blueshirts and the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, the final year of the old National Hockey Association.

The following year, 1918, when the NHA was supplanted by the brand new National Hockey League, Noble signed with Toronto, whom he duly helped to win the Stanley Cup. He stayed with Toronto on into the 1920s, playing and captaining and even coaching the team as they turned into the St. Patricks, and winning still another Stanley Cup in 1922. The St. Pats eventually sold him to the Montreal Maroons, and he won yet another Cup with them, in 1926, before joining Detroit’s original NHL team, the Cougars, in 1927. That’s their livery he’s wearing in the photograph here, posing on a wintry tennis court colonized by the Cougars for a team practice and photo session.

Noble captained the team in Detroit for three seasons, and played on when they shifted identifies, from Cougars to Falcons. He was still there in 1932 when the team re-launched as Red Wings, though not for long: Detroit released him early in the season. He had one final whirl later that year when he returned to the Maroons, by which time his was the distinction, at age 36, of being the very last player from the league’s inaugural season to still be skating on NHL ice.

Noble was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 — a few months after his death, as it happens, at the age of 65.

And the story? It’s a wartime tale, going back before the NHL, in 1916, when Noble did what many young men were doing in the torrid time: he went to war.

He tried to, at least. Unlike Red Dutton and Joe Simpson and several other of his fellow Hall-of-Famers, Noble never made it overseas much less into the frightful fight of the Western Front.

As much as he might have wished to serve, he was ruled out and discharged before he got the chance. Hockey had rendered him unsuitable.

Noble was 19 in the winter in which 1915 turned to 1916. He was playing with Toronto Riversides that winter, as rover on the seven-aside team that won the OHA Senior championship that wartime winter. When the team’s regular season came to a close at the end of January, Noble was featuring prominently in a 4-0 victory over a military team, the 40th Battery. “Noble, as usual, was the fastest man on the ice,” the Globe reported, “and some of his rushes bordered on the sensational. He is a very hard man to relieve of the puck and is learning every game how to go in on a defence.”

Six days later, Noble joined up, presenting himself at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on the Exhibition grounds. His attestation papers from that day tell the tale, and show his orderly signature as he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, promising to fight all HM’s enemies and obey all of his orders, as well as those of all his Generals and Officers, so help him God.

Noble was measured for height (he was 5’8”) and girth of chest (40”), and the locales of his five scars noted down: three on a shin, one each on a foot and a knee. His complexion was deemed fair, his eyes blue. A Captain Barton was in charge of this medical examination, declaring Noble fitfor duty with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

That was just the beginning of Noble’s busy Saturday. That same evening, he lined up with his fellow Riversides to see to beating Toronto R and AA by a score of 7-2 in a playoff game at the Arena on Mutual Street. By midnight, Noble was home and suffering, not so fit as he’d been earlier: “he was in bed,” according to a subsequent report, “with a raging fever and a beautiful attack of la grippe.”

The battalion that Noble joined was a newborn unit, the 180th, formed in Toronto in January of ’16 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Greer, a prominent Crown Attorney who’d been a distinguished athlete in his own right in his University of Toronto days. “Pals” battalions had been common in the British Army since the start of the war, whereby men with common backgrounds — friends or neighbours or co-workers — enlisted to serve together. Conceived as a Sportsmen’s battalion, the 180th was one of the first units in Canada to follow that lead.

It did a roaring business filling its ranks that winter. Football players, scullers, boxers, and runners flocked to attest their willingness to serve in the early days of February. The famous Mohawk marathoner Tom Longboat, made on his way on foot from Brantford to Toronto to join up. Tommy Daly volunteered for the 180th, too, the well-known Toronto boxer who was also making a reputation as a baseball and hockey trainer — and who, post-war, having shifted his name to Tim, served for decades in that role for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lou Marsh, who’d played football for the Argonauts and wrote sports for the Toronto Daily Star was a lieutenant in the 180th as well as keeping up a busy schedule as a boxing and hockey referee. He was on the ice the night Reg Noble enlisted, in fact, whistling the game between Riversides and Toronto R and AA. Noble, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only hockey player bound for the ranks of the 180th: a report from a few days later made clear that the team’s entire line-up was joining up, the coach, too, Bonny Gard, who said “he might as well go along with them in France as stay at home here and be lonesome.” (With another month of the season still to play, possibly, Colonel Greer graciously agreed to make sure that the Riverside recruits would be granted leave for all and any games.)

Later that same week, on February 14, a recruiting jamboree for the 180th filled Massey Hall. “Half a dozen boxers, recently enlisted, gave sparring exhibitions, enlisted bike riders raced on rollers, and there was a long program free to members of athletic clubs,” a dispatch in the Montreal Gazette affirmed. “Massey Hall was packed to the roof with the flower of the Queen City’s athletes.”

In two hours, the 180th had signed up 325 new recruits, breaking, it was reported, “all Canadian recruiting records.”

At strength, the battalion eventually counted 31 officers and 833 other ranks. They spent the spring and summer training as infantry at Toronto’s Exhibition Camp. There was time for some hockey, too, before the ice thawed out for the season. In March, a few days after Noble and the Riversides wrapped up the OHA Senior championship over a Berlin, Ontario, team anchored in goal George Hainsworth, the 180th’s hockey team took on the 93rd Battalion from Peterborough in a St. Patrick’s Game at the Mutual Street Arena.

Reg Noble skated in that game, at rover, and he was judged to be the best player on the ice. He had a couple of teammates with OHA Senior experience skating with him, but they couldn’t overcome the 93rd squad, who’d played the season on the OHA’s Intermediate loop. The visitors ended up winning by a score of 2-1. Between the first and second periods, a speedy local skater named Fred Robson scampered (unofficially) 50 yards in just under the world’s record time of five seconds. In the second intermission, he returned to entertain the crowd with a barrel-jumping show.

Noble still had more hockey to play before he fully devoted himself to soldiering. Though Riversides opted out of heading west to Winnipeg to play for the Allan Cup, the national Senior championship, they did play several exhibitions late in March. Facing Dick Irvin’s visiting Winnipeg Monarchs at the Arena, the Riversides prevailed 8-7, with Noble playing a starring role that included scoring a goal while (the Daily Star related) “practically standing on his ear and with four Monarchs glued to him.” (The team that did win the Allan Cup, by the by, was Joe Simpson’s 61st Battalion from Winnipeg.)

At some point, with hockey having reached its seasonal end, the sporting soldiers of the 180th moved north out of Toronto to continue their training at Camp Borden, southwest of Barrie, where as many as 25,000 soldiers were under canvas that summer. When they weren’t learning infantry tactics and how to use their weapons, the men of the 180th boxed and raced and hit baseballs whenever the opportunity arose. In July, they helped build an in-camp stadium with seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

“Good athletes do not always make good soldiers,” a column in The Windsor Star warned around this time, noting that Lieut.-Colonel Greer had been forced to make some hard choices as the summer went on. “Much to the colonel’s surprise, he has been compelled to drop several champions from the ranks because they could not stand the wear and tear of a hard route march.” Names were named: Erme Woods, “the well-known distance runner” was ousted along with a couple of accomplished boxers who couldn’t keep up.

“Colonel Greer is handling his battalion just as he would [a] baseball team,” the Star said, “and is rapidly getting rid of the ‘dead-wood.’ He wants only the best, and it is his determination to make the 180th battalion second to none.”

He must have pleased when, in August, the Sportsmen dominated the 4th Brigade athletic meet, showing particularly well in the mile-run, the 16-pound shot put, and the tug of war. The Sportsmen didn’t fare so well in the bayonet-fighting contest, which they lost by a score of 5-3 to the 147th (Grey) Battalion from Owen Sound.

No Noble: Bidding farewell to Toronto in November of 1916, the men of the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion prepare to leave Union Station on their way to Halifax and, from there, the war in France. Reg Noble had already been discharged by this point. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 821)

In September the battalion got its notice from Ottawa to be ready to ship out — the 180th was  “warned for overseas,” in the parlance. In fact, it would be November before they made their move by train to Halifax. From there, they crossed the Atlantic to England in four days aboard the Olympic.

Many of the men would see action — some would die — the following year in the harrowing battles around Vimy Ridge in northern France. But the 180th was no longer, by then, a unit. In January of 1917, the battalion was absorbed into the 3rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, from which the men were assigned to other battalions in need of reinforcement.

The Leafs’ trainer-to-be got to England, where Private Tommy Daly served as Colonel Greer’s orderly — his servant, basically — before being invalided home and discharged from the CEF because of a wonky right shoulder. Daly had hurt it in February of 1916, not a month after enlisting. “Injured slightly while boxing,” his medical records testify, “Feb. 21/16, and has had pain since then.”

Private Reg Noble’s story was a little different: he never even made it to the wharf in Halifax. Declared “Medically Unfit,” Noble departed Camp Borden, the battalion, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force in one fell swoop at the end of September of 1916, a victim of — well, I guess in Colonel Greer’s way of seeing things, he was surplus to the battalion’s second-to-none purposes.

Noble may have had an 18-year NHL career ahead of him but that fall, as it turns out, he just couldn’t march the way soldiers of the infantry are meant to march.

An old hockey injury was to blame. Or maybe newer baseball damage? Contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that he hurt an ankle playing ball at Borden in the summer of 1916 and that the injury was not only serious enough to see him mustered out of uniform, it looked like it might keep him off skates, too.

That could well have been the case but if so, it doesn’t happen to have been entered as the official reason for Noble’s military career coming to its end.

As detailed in Noble’s CEF discharge papers, one of the scars that Captain Barton had marked down when Noble attested in February, the one on the instep of his right foot, commemorated a cut from a skate he’d suffered in 1914 playing hockey back home in Collingwood. The blade had gone deep, enough to cut the tendon and immobilize his big toe.

The 180th’s Medical Officer, Captain Brown, wrote it up. “Can follow the marching under difficulty but has to have frequent periods of light duty,” he noted. “Sent him to hospital where they could do nothing for the condition.”

On a second page, Captain Brown gave his own interpretation of Noble’s scar status — unless Noble had acquired a new configuration in a summer of mishaps? Now, instead of 3 shin scars and one apiece on a foot and a knee, he was credited with

Scar on palm of left hand. Scar on right foot. Bullet scar on right leg.

Farther down the page, in answer to the military form question What is the probable duration of the disability?Captain Brown wrote “Permanent.”

Next question: To what extent will it prevent a full livelihood in the general labour market? Please state in fractions. Captain Brown’s answer: “Will not prevent his earning full livelihood more than before enlisting.”

True enough. By mid-November, as Noble’s former brothers in arms set sail, the word from Toronto was that Eddie Livingstone, wildcard owner of the local NHA Blueshirts, had signed Noble to his first pro contract.

And so, in the winter he didn’t go to war, Noble lined up for a team that included Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Duke Keats. He made a quick impression, and a good one. The Blueshirts started the season in Montreal by beating Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions, by a score of 7-1. Noble didn’t score, but neither did he seem to show any signs of a tender ankle or instep. “He checked [Didier] Pitre, the Canadien star forward,” Toronto’s Daily Star noted, “and smothered him throughout the game. … His rushes were effective, too, and he had speed to burn.”

Reg Noble scored his first pro goal, and his second, in Toronto’s next game, back at the Mutual Street Arena, when the Blueshirts did away with the Quebec Bulldogs by a score of 8-5.

The Blueshirts didn’t last out the season: early in 1917, when the team from the 228th Battalion famously left the NHA in a whole lot of hurry, the league decided to eject Toronto, too, mostly because they didn’t want to deal with owner Eddie Livingstone any longer. That’s when Noble made the switch to Montreal, seeing out the ’16-17 season with Canadiens.

That fall, of course, the NHA collapsed and the NHL arose all on the same day, in Montreal, mostly, again, to stymie Livingstone. Toronto launched a whole new team that year, and Reg Noble was one of the players they signed up. That’s how, in December of 1917, he was on the ice to score an Auston Matthewsesque four goals in his and his team’s National Hockey League debut, as they started out on their way to winning the franchise’s very first Stanley Cup.

For a panoramic view of the many men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, proudly paraded in April of 1916 at Toronto’s east-end Riverdale Park, click over this way, then click again to zoom in. Reg Noble is in there somewhere, along with the man-who-would-be-Tim-Daly, long-serving Maple Leafs trainer. Let me know if you find them. Look beyond the soldiers, too, over to the right: those are hockey rinks coming down for the season, aren’t they?

a hockey babe ruth, they called him

There’s none of us now who was around to see Joe Simpson skate, so let’s listen to what his contemporaries had to say. Newsy Lalonde, circa 1923, called him the greatest hockey player alive. The great Duke Keats rated Simpson one of the best defencemen he ever saw, on a par with Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn. “He made dazzling, dodging rushes,” Jim Coleman hymned in 1973, “a technique of puck-carrying that earned him [the] nickname ‘Corkscrew Joe.’”

There’s more on Simpson — including discussions of his many nicknames; just what the corkscrew might have looked like; reference to my grandfather; and Wally Stanowski turning pirouettes at Maple Leaf Gardens — over here. Here, for now, we’ll go on to recall that Harold Edward Simpson happens to have been born on an 1893 Sunday of this date in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he ended up skating with his hometown Fisherman before war broke in 1914.

There’s more to know about his military service — that’s still to come — but the short version with hockey at the forefront goes like this: having enlisted with Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion in the summer of 1915, Simpson led the battalion’s hockey team to an Allan Cup championship in 1916 before the soldiers stowed their hockey sticks and shipped out for France. Simpson was wounded on the Somme in ’16 and then again later in the war — but, again, we’ll come back to that another time. Returning from France in 1919, he rejoined the Selkirk Fishermen. The five subsequent seasons he played with the Edmonton Eskimos of the WCHL included a trip, in 1923, to the Stanley Cup finals (Edmonton lost to the Ottawa Senators). They called him Bullet Joe and the Babe Ruth of hockey when he arrived in the NHL in 1926, joining the newfound New York Americans at the age of 33. He played five seasons in New York and, later, served as coach for another three. Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963, Joe Simpson died in 1973, at the age of 80.

playing hurt: I’m getting back into that game if it kills me

Special Ed: Eddie Gerard in 1914, when he first joined the Ottawa Senators. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / e003525294)

So the Boston Bruins’ 42-year-old captain Zdeno Chara is in tonight, leading his team into the fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues despite that jaw of his that a puck broke two nights ago and (as Ron MacLean reported just before puck-drop) “we believe to be wired shut.”

Chara got medical clearance to play this afternoon, we’re told, whereupon he himself made the decision to play. Much of the coverage through the day focussed on Chara, watching him at the Bruins’ optional skate, imaging his discomfort. Much of the punditry heading into the game toggled between expressions of amazement at Chara’s pain-threshold/courage and reminders that he is, after all, a hockey player.

Along with frontline dispatches from Boston came historical reviews of other ghastly injuries suffered by other stout NHLers who gamely played on. None of those reached back to the 1923 Stanley Cup, so maybe that’s our duty here. A comparable case? Maybe not exactly, but here it is nonetheless.

Eddie Gerard is the man in question, captain of the (original) Ottawa Senators as they won their third Stanley Cup in four years. Coached throughout those years by Pete Green, this is a team (it’s worth mentioning) that has been called one of the finest in NHL history. Just because that’s impossible to verify doesn’t make it untrue. In its 1923 edition, the team’s 10-man line-up included eight future Hall-of-Famers, including Frank Nighbor, King Clancy, Clint Benedict, and Cy Denneny. A ninth player, defenceman Lionel Hitchman probably should be in the Hall, which leaves another blueliner, poor Harry Helman, as the odd man out.

Gerard, for his part, was one of the original nine players to be chosen for the Hall’s inaugural class in 1945, joining the likes of Howie Morenz, Hobey Baker, and Georges Vézina in that auspicious cohort.

In 1923, aged 33, he was still a dominant defenceman in the league, which the Senators duly topped. By beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on aggregate in a two-game playoff, Ottawa earned the right to represent the NHL in a three-team Stanley Cup tournament played in Vancouver. The Senators had to dispense with the Vancouver Maroons to make it to the finals, which they did, setting up a two-game sweep of the Edmonton Eskimos that won them the Cup.

It was in the final game against Vancouver, a 5-1 Ottawa win at the Denman Street Arena, that Gerard was hurt, Monday, March 26. He was rushing for goal, as Ottawa’s Journal had it, when he collided with Eskimos’ centre Corb Denneny, Cy’s brother. Gerrard ended up on the ice with his left shoulder dislocated and an injured knee. Helped off, he spent the third period on the bench with his arm in a sling, “shouting and coaching his players,” according to the eyewitness account of Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman, who was beside him, and would later write the game up for the front page of the Ottawa Evening Citizen.

“Twice he begged me to let him get back on the ice,” Gorman reported. “‘I can hold my arm up,’ he kept saying. ‘Let me on and they’ll never get in.’”

Gorman demurred; Gerard stayed put. The following day, the latter wrote, “the gallant Ottawa captain” lay in hotel room “smiling in the face of his pain and assuring his teammates that they’ll beat Edmonton without him.”

“There is,” Gorman concluded, “only one Eddie Gerard.”

A visit to a Vancouver hospital revealed that his injury wasn’t so singular: “Eddie suffered a double fracture,” the Journal noted, “and his shoulder ligaments are torn.” Gerard’s optimism was page-one news back home in the Citizen: he now said he expected to join his teammates when they took the ice Thursday night.

Gorman wasn’t so sure. By Wednesday, a compromise seems to have been reached. The shoulder was responding to treatment and Gerard would dress, though he would most likely stay on the bench. “If he should get into the game it will be for a few minutes at a time,” the Citizen’s correspondent wrote, “just to relieve George Boucher or Frank Clancy.” With defenceman Harry Helman ruled out entirely due to a cut on a foot and Lionel Hitchman (broken nose) uncertain, the Senators were looking at going into the game with (Gerard aside) a grand total of five skaters out in front of goaltender Clint Benedict.

Hitchman did play, in the end, scoring Ottawa’s first goal; Gerard remained for the entire game on the bench, even after yet another defenceman, George Boucher, hurt a foot. Despite a line-up that featuring the legendary likes of Duke Keats and Bullet Joe Simpson, the Eskimos (to the slightly impartial eye of the Citizen) “looked like an ordinary hockey team.” Cy Denneny decided it in Ottawa’s favour when he scored in overtime.

Ahead of the second game, played on Saturday, March 31, the word again that Gerard would be dressed, though it wasn’t clear how much he would play. George Boucher’s ankle was swollen to twice its usual size, but he too would be in the line-up. In event, it was Boucher who kept to the bench the whole game while Gerard made his return.

Ottawa’s victory was a narrow one: Punch Broadbent scored in the first period and they held on from there to claim the tenth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Gerard’s part in the piece was duly recognized. As Citizen sports editor Ed Baker saw it, the captain’s mere presence on the ice was an “exhibition of courage rarely witnessed in any form of sport.”

“He was unable to raise his lift arm as high as his chin at any time since he was injured,” Baker wrote, “but knew the serious position the Senators were in and went into the game more for the moral effect it would have on his teammates than with any expectation of playing up to his usual form.”

He mainly kept to coaching his teammates, Baker noted, though there were a couple of occasions on which he couldn’t resist a rush into Edmonton territory. In the second period, he fell badly, had to be helped from the ice — “but pluckily returned to the fray.”

Tommy Gorman filed his view from the Ottawa bench:

Eddie Gerard actually played for the greater part of the game, notwithstanding his injuries. Twice he went down with a crash and three times with the  shoulder, and after each occasion he skated over to the bench groaning under the pain, but refusing to retire. “Pull that shoulder back,” he would shout to Trainer [Cozy] Dolan. “I’m getting back into that game if it kills me.”

With Hitchman fading in the third, Gerard insisted on relieving him. “It was a physical torture to skate and could not shoot or handle the stick,” Gorman attested, “yet he blocked with all his old-time effectiveness, and steadied his team at critical moments. The Ottawa captain gave the greatest exhibition of pluck and endurance ever seen in Vancouver.”

For Gerard and Gorman alike, 21-year-old King Clancy was the pick of Ottawa’s litter. Gorman:

In the last period Clancy outskated every other man on the ice. With Gerard unable to carry the puck, and Hitchman hardly able to move, Clancy bore the brunt. “Heavens!” Eddie Gerard once ejaculated through his pain-racked [sic] body, “look at Clancy playing the whole Edmonton team. He’s the greatest kid in the world.”

Clancy stood out in this game for another reason: in the second period, when Clint Benedict was called for slashing Joe Simpson, the Ottawa goaltender (as one did in those years) headed to the penalty bench to serve his sentence. “King Clancy then went into net,” Ed Baker wrote, “and that gave the youngster unprecedented distinction of having played every position on the line-up during the present tour. He had previously subbed in both defence positions, center, and on right and left wing.”

The Senators enjoyed their victory — and nursed their wounds. “Eddie Gerard and George Boucher lie in their rooms smarting under injuries,” Gorman wrote, “but smiling and happy.”

The team enjoyed their triumphant cross-country train trip home. Ed Baker was aboard. From Moose Jaw he sent word that Gerard and Boucher were “both doing nicely and picking up more as every mile is reeled off.” Gerard (a.k.a. The Duke of Rockcliffe) was “getting the injured shoulder back to a working basis again” while Boucher hobbled his way around with increasing dexterity.

When the team’s train arrived in Ottawa on the morning of Friday, April 6, it was met by a crowd of thousands. There was a parade, and there were speeches, a lunch at the Chateau Laurier. “Men,” declaimed Mayor Frank Plant, “we are glad and proud to welcome you back home after your splendid victory. Ottawa is proud of you.”

The Citizen took one more survey of the cost of victory:

Many of the players bore evidence of their honorable scars. Eddie Gerard shoulder was bothering him and George Boucher walked lame from the effect of the bad smash he got in the West. Others had pieces of skin missing, but all were cheerful and smiling.

The Senators spent the summer months recovering their health. For Eddie Gerard, though, there would be no return to NHL ice. Though shoulder was recovered in time for the start of the new campaign, he fell ill in October with throat and respiratory problems that would keep him out of the line-up for the entire 1923-24 season. He spent the year helping coach the team before finally retiring in 1924 to sign on to coach the expansion Montreal Maroons.

Stanley Cup Sens: Ottawa’s 1923 line-up, showing (back row, left to right) Owner Ted Dey, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Pete Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, and Harry Helman.

 

helge bostrom: chicago’s past master in the art of interference

Winnipeg-born this very week in 1894, Helge Bostrom didn’t arrive in the NHL until late in his hockey career: a bulky defenceman, he’d just turned 36 when he debuted for the Chicago Black Hawks in January of 1930. By then, his resume showed a year-long war-time stint with the Fort Garry Horse, the paperwork for which divulges that his eyes were blue, his complexion fair, and his feet flat (“no disability,” the examining doctor deemed). The teams Bostrom played after he got back to Canada in 1919 were some talented ones. Bostrom was a teammate of Duke Keats’ and Bullet Joe Simpson’s on a 1923 Edmonton Eskimos team that fell to the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals. Later, with Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Maroons, he lined up alongside Frank Boucher and Hugh Lehman. A stout defender, Bostrom also gained a name for himself in those old western leagues for his penalty-shot prowess. 

He played parts of four seasons in the NHL, serving as Chicago’s captain for the last of those, 1932-33. Adjectivally, contemporary newspapers have down as rugged and husky, a proponent of bang-up hockey and a past master in the art of interference — though he was also heralded as good-natured and a right smart fellow. Paging back, you’ll also see him referred to as the most stitched player in hockey history. As per Chicago’s Tribune, he accumulated 243 during his career on the ice, 140 of which were administered by Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor at Madison Square Garden, in November of 1931 after Bostrom’s ankle was deeply cut in an accidental encounter with a skate worn by Rangers’ defenceman Earl Seibert. The 142 isn’t a number I can vouch for, personally: I’ve also seen it given as 142, 144, and 187. Anyway, the wound was bad. “He was lucky he didn’t lose his leg,” Black Hawks’ teammate Johnny Gottselig said.

Bostrom played on with a succession of minor-league teams after he left the NHL in 1933, Oklahoma City Warriors, Philadelphia Arrows, Kansas City Greyhounds. He went on to coach the AHA Greyhounds, too, and eventually made it back to Chicago and the NHL: in 1941 Major Frederic McLaughlin hired him to serve as an assistant to head coach Paul Thompson. Helge Bostrom was 83 when he died in January of 1977.

 

swine country

Five Aside: The season spanning 1925-26 was the WHL’s last; the league folded once Montreal’s NHL Maroons dispensed with the Victoria Cougars to carry off the Stanley Cup in April. Edmonton’s Eskimos finished atop the WHL’s regular-season standings that year, powered in large part by the players pictured here. All of them would be in the NHL the following year. From left, they are Duke Keats and Eddie Shore (Boston Bruins, both); Johnny Shepard (Detroit Cougars); Art Gagne (Montreal Canadiens); and Barney Stanley (Chicago Black Hawks). (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3112)

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

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)

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.”

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.”

 

swoops like a hawk, seldom suffers mishap

Sentences tweezered from long-ago accounts of hockey games in newspapers that no longer exist on actual paper tell us that Harry Oliver was crafty and cool-headed and a treat for the eye.

Born on this day in 1898 in Selkirk, Manitoba, Oliver was a Hall-of-Fame right-winger who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 1929. He died in 1985 at the age of 86.

Other adjectives he accumulated over his career include exemplary (his lack of penalty-taking) and smooth-as-silk. His grace has likened to that of a greyhound. He was an increasingly ballyhooed Selkirk Fisherman before he turned professional in 1922. As a Calgary Tiger he got sparkling; his work in at least one third period was designated nifty.

In 1924 his Tigerish teammates voted him the team’s MVP, and gave him a medal at centre ice. Asked to pick an all-star line-up from the ranks of Western Canadian Hockey League players that year, referee Mickey Ion named Red Dutton and Duke Keats and Bill among his starters with Oliver, Joe Simpson, Dick Irvin, and Newsy Lalonde as back-ups. Oliver was deemed a menace in the goal area and a regular flash on his blades. The word out of Calgary was that he

has never been known to commit a deliberate foul of any description. He swings through the checks with a daring style that often endangers him, but he seldom suffers mishap. He whips around a net, dodging defencemen and sliding through rebounds, like a hawk swooping for prey.

As a Bruin, his qualifiers would come to include seasoned and 155-pound. In his first year, 1926-27, he often played on a speedy line with Keats and Archie Briden. The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals that spring, where Ottawa beat them. Oliver scored a goal in the final game in Ottawa, though that’s not really what the night is remembered for in hockey’s annals. Before it was all over the Bruins’ Billy Coutu had attacked the referee, Dr. Jerry Laflamme, for which he was subsequently banned from the NHL for life. The evening’s mayhem also featured Ottawa’s Hooley Smith butt-ending Oliver and breaking his nose. Smith was suspended for a month. He later admitted his mistake: the man he meant to attack was Boston’s Eddie Shore.

The night the Bruins beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to win the 1929 Stanley Cup, Oliver scored Boston’s opening goal and later set up the winner. Here’s how the former looked to John J. Hallahan of The Boston Daily Globe:

The popular, quiet right winger took a pass well down in his own territory from Shore. He skated down the right side, being bumped around by several players. He did not relinquish the disk, but took the most difficult path, between Abel and Vail on the defense. They hit him but not enough to make him lose the disk. While off balance, he made a shot, and the rubber whizzed past Roach, after 14 minutes of play.

Toronto’s Globe tabbed him in 1930 as one the NHL’s best stickhandlers. He was manning the right side that year of Boston’s top line, with Marty Barry at centre and Perk Galbraith out on left. Eddie Shore was asked in 1930 about players he admired across the league and Shore said Lionel Hitchman for body-checking, Howie Morenz for skating, Dutch Gainor for shifting, Harry Oliver for blocking body-checks, and Cooney Weiland for avoiding body-checks.

In 1934, Boston sold him to the New York Americans where Bullet Joe Simpson was the coach, and in previewing the season a local paper called Oliver classy and quoted Simpson as saying that he wasn’t through yet. In 1936 Oliver was described in 1936 as quiet-spoken and keen backchecking wingman. Following a game that year in which the Amerks tied the Montreal Maroons, The Winnipeg Tribune called him old. He was 37. The score of the game was 8-8, with Oliver contributing a goal and three assists.

In New York, he sometimes played on a line with Bob Gracie and Normie Himes; sometimes Hap Emms took Gracie’s place. By 1937, Red Dutton was running the Americans, Oliver’s old teammate from the Calgary Tigers. Old-timer is an adjective you’ll see attached to Oliver’s name in contemporary stories about Dutton’s pre-season line-up renovations. Oliver wasn’t the only one deemed surplus: those articles also toll the retirement bell for Roy Worters, Ted Graham, and Baldy Cotton.

In 1967, along with Neil Colville, Red Storey, and Turk Broda, Harry Oliver was elevated to hockey’s Hall of Fame. The Toronto Daily Star rated him one of the game’s noted stickhandlers. In The Ottawa Journal he was recalled as one of the lightest players in any era in hockey.