toe pick

Stop Action: Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1912 in the now ghostly hamlet of Victoria Mines, Ontario, near Sudbury, Toe Blake was a famous left winger for the Montreal Canadiens before he got around to coaching them. For all that, he won his first Stanley Cup playing for Montreal’s other team, the lost, lamented Maroons, in 1935. With the Habs, of course, he lined up with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the Punch Line. He won a Hart Trophy in 1939, the year he also led the NHL in scoring. He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1946. Blake captained the Canadiens from 1940 until an ankle injury forced his retirement in 1948. That stretch saw Montreal win two further Cups, in ’44 and ’46. For all this, he was elevated, in 1966, to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a player. His coaching wasn’t so shabby, either: between 1956 and 1968, he steered the Canadiens to eight more Cups.

Here, above, stymied, Blake is in white, wearing a 6. Making contact is Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert; up front, that’s winger Mush March fleeing the scene. Montreal was at Chicago Stadium on this night in January of 1944, and they’d battle the Black Hawks to a 1-1 draw. Fido Purpur opened the scoring for the home team before Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard tied it up. Three months later, when the teams met in the Cup finals, Canadiens prevailed with emphasis, sweeping the Black Hawks four games to none.

for the defence

On The Move: Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert, left, tries to head off an inbound (fellow Berliner and former teammate) Ott Heller of the New York Rangers, c. the early 1940s.

Earl Siebert’s name will ever be grimly associated with Howie Morenz’s: he was, of course, the Chicago defenceman who tangled or collided with — maybe bumped? — Montreal’s speedy star one January night in 1937, with the two players ending up in a heap on the ice. Morenz ended up in hospital with a badly broken ankle; a month later he’d died of a coronary embolism. Born on this date in 1910, a Wednesday, in what was then Berlin, Ontario (now it’s Kitchener), Seibert had a distinguished NHL career that lasted 15 years and saw him named to the league’s First All-Star team four times. He started as a Ranger in New York, and won a Stanley Cup there in 1933 before a trade took him to Chicago in 1936. He helped the Black Hawks win the Cup in 1938 and went on to captain the team in the 1940s. His final stop in the NHL was in Detroit. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963, joining his father, Oliver, in hockey’s pantheon. Seibert died in 1990 at the age of 78.

whereat chabot jabbed him cruelly with his stick

Standing Tall: Lorne Chabot in New York Ranger garb, which means before a trade took him to Toronto in 1928 — and before he started assaulting goal judges.

When last we visited with him, Lorne Chabot, goaltender extraordinaire for the 1935 Chicago Black Hawks, was assaulting goal judges and getting sued for it. Turns out there’s more to the story than originally advertised.

First thing: this wasn’t Chabot’s first onslaught on the NHL’s goal-judiciary.

In February of 1932, when he was keeping the goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game in Detroit, Chabot felt that a puck shot by Herbie Lewis of the local Falcons hadn’t passed him and ended up in the net, despite what goal judge Duke Kennedy said. The Leafs’ outraged manager Conn Smythe lobbied successfully to have Kennedy ousted from his post, though the goal was not rescinded.

In taking issue with Kennedy’s finding, which helped Detroit win the game 2-1, Chabot was alleged to have punched the goal judge, (1) loosening a tooth and (2) dislodging a filling. Kennedy filed a complaint with NHL President Frank Calder, as did Smythe. Calder found for the goal judge, suspending Chabot for the Leafs’ next game. Toronto called up Benny Grant from Syracuse to stand in, which he did in style, shutting out the Montreal Maroons 6-0. Smythe’s consolation, such as it was: Calder promised that Duke Kennedy wouldn’t, in future, work any more games in Detroit that involved Toronto.

The story from 1935 went like this: Chicago was in New York playing the Rangers one January’s eve at Madison Square Garden. The game ended 3-3. The Rangers actually scored four goals on the night, but just before Frank Boucher put the puck in the net in the first period his teammate Earl Seibert slid into the Chicago net with (per New York’s Daily News) “three Hawks piled on his person.” Goal judge Dick Williams triggered the red light — only to have referee Eusebe Daigneault overrule him.

“Seibert’s presence in the net, however involuntary, outlawed the tally,” explained The Daily News.

Score one for goaltenders, if nought for the Rangers. And yet despite the goal’s having been annulled, Lorne Chabot was still irate to the point of taking the fight, once again, to the goal judge.

Dick Williams was his name this time. Joseph Nichols of The New York Times thought nothing of the incident, or at least not enough to include it in his dispatch from the Garden. Same went for the Associated Press report that found its way into the pages of Toronto’s Globe.

The Chicago Tribune described the melee surrounding the disallowed goal like this:

Chabot resented the argument which followed so much that he skated around the cage and jabbed his stick through it at Goal Umpire Dick Williams.

Leave it to Harold Parrott from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle to file comprehensive coverage of the entire proceedings. By his account, the puck bounced out of the net after Boucher put it in, whereupon referee Daigneault scooped it up and carried it with him on his visit to Williams. Parrott:

Chabot skated in, too, jabbing the wicked butt end of his stick through the wire mesh to raise two gashes on the goal judge’s face, and loosen two teeth.

Then, unaccountably, Referee Daigneault said, “No goal!”

Colonel John Hammond, president of the Rangers, was quick to fire off a letter to Frank Calder. Why hadn’t Daigneault allowed Boucher’s goal when the goal judge indicated it was in? As for Chabot, why wasn’t he ejected from the game? Colonel Hammond wanted to know.

Replying to the latter question, Daigneault said that he hadn’t seen the attack on Williams. Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick had an answer for that. “It’s not necessary to see the blow when Williams’ nose and cut lip drip blood. Do you think those injuries grew there?”

Not according to The Daily News, which had salient details to add:

Skating behind the net, [Chabot] signaled Williams to draw close to the wire fencing the rink. Williams, apparently expecting a whispered confidence, placed his face to the wire, whereat Chabot jabbed him cruelly with his stick. Williams suffered a split lip and a bloodied nose and required the attentions of a doctor.

Calder doesn’t seem to have acted on Hammond’s protest; in time, Williams did (though maybe not). The following week is when word got out that goal judge was pursuing legal remedies. It wasn’t exactly explicit: the press reported that his suit for $10,000 in damages was “underway.” His claim seemed to be against the Hawks rather than Chabot himself. Poked was the operative verb that Montreal’s Gazette (among others) employed to describe the attack; regarding Williams’ injuries, there was this:

Later Williams was treated for slight facial contusions. He charges, however, that he subsequently discovered the inside of his mouth was seriously injured and teeth were loosened. He added that he hasn’t been able to eat since.

There was news, next, that Chabot had apologized; Williams, nevertheless, was said to be pressing his suit.

Except that … he wasn’t. Never had been, Williams declared in early February. “It’s a lot of hooey,” the goal judge protested, and I quote. “Imagine a league official suing a club member. That sock of Chabot’s did hurt, though.”

That’s almost that, but for this: in 1951, columnist Jimmy Powers from The Daily Newsgot Williams shooting the breeze about what happened that night in ’36. Williams was still working at the Garden, flashing the goal-lights when he thought he spied a goal. He was, by then, in his 25thyear on the job at the Garden. The job, mark you, was unpaid — Williams flashed his light and took whatever abuse came his way entirely as a volunteer. The Chabot incident? Oh, he remembered it well — if not, maybe, entirely the way it actually happened. For one thing, his chronology seems to have warped slightly over time.

Sixteen years later, Williams told Powers that Chabot had loosened four teeth rather than the original two. Also: Chabot was a pal of his, presumably dating back to the goaltender’s early NHL years as a Ranger. Williams’ explanation of what went down that night started in the first period:

“Chabot’s feelings were ruffled when the goal judge at the other end called one [goal] against him.

“In the second period Chabot made a beautiful stop but he caught the puck with his gloved hand inside the cage. I kept flashing the light. Chabot blew his top. He thought he caught the rubber outside the cage and he thought I was the same judge who called the first goal against him. He forgot he had changed goals. He charged back and rammed the butt end of his stick into my face.

“Chabot and I were really good friends. When he discovered his error, he pleaded with me to forgive him. Today we have glass partitions instead of the old-type chicken-wire.”

training camp, 1940: all aboard for hibbing

Slow Train Going: Ready to board the train for Hibbing, Minnesota, members of the 1940-41 Black Hawks doff their hats at Chicago’s North Western Station. From left, they are: Bill Thoms, Pep Kelly, Earl Seibert, Johnny Gottselig, Jack Portland, Mush March, coach Paul Thompson, and trainer Eddie Froelich.

The Chicago Black Hawks went to Hibbing, Minnesota, for training camp in October of 1940, which is what they did in those years, having prepped for years, pre-seasonally, in Champaign, Illinois. Later, 1943, the Hawks would shift briefly to Minneapolis before giving up on Minnesota altogether in the fall ’45, when they took their training to Regina, in Saskatchewan. In ’40, second-year coach Paul Thompson was young, 33; two seasons earlier, he’d been manning the left wing for the Black Hawks, as he’d been doing since 1931. In ’38, coached by Bill Stewart, Chicago had won a surprising Stanley Cup. Aiming to repeat that feat, Thompson’s team convened in Minnesota three weeks ahead of their opening game of their 48-game regular-season schedule, a November 7 meeting with the New York Americans slated for Chicago Stadium.

Twenty-five players travelled to Hibbing. Those who didn’t accompany the coach on the train from Chicago came south from Winnipeg. Paul Goodman was the incumbent in goal, though the Hawks were excited by a young local prospect, too, Sam LoPresti. Defensive veterans Earl Seibert, Jack Portland, and Art Wiebe would be challenged by another Minnesotan, Eveleth’s own John Mariucci, and a recently graduated mining engineer from the University of Alberta, Dave MacKay. Returning forwards included Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, Phil Hergesheimer, and Doug Bentley. The latter’s brother, Max, was given a good chance of making the team, as was a young Winnipegger  by the name of Bill Mosienko.

Thompson was enthusiastic: to his mind, this team was shaping up to be “the most evenly balanced in Chicago history.” The team’s tempestuous owner was on the page when he blew in for a visit midway through camp. Never before, Major Frederic McLaughlin declared, had a team of his looked so good so early.

This despite the fact that the Hawks hardly skated the first week of the pre-season. The ice was iffy in Hibbing that October — what there was of it. This despite the fact that the Hawks hardly skated the first week of the pre-season. The ice was iffy in Hibbing that October — what there was of it. The crew at Memorial Arena was no doubt doing its best to get a freeze on for the hockey players, but they had their troubles that first week. Five days into camp the Hawks still hadn’t seen a serviceable surface. Thompson curtailed Wednesday’s drills before they really got going: “five minutes of skating,” the Canadian Press reported, had worn the ice down to the floor.” The players took to the outdoors, where they kept themselves busy with a little road work, a little golf. Wednesday saw Mush March score a hole-in-one on the Hibbing course’s 190-yard seventh hole. He’d been prepping all summer long, you could say: March had spent the summer as a club pro in Valparaiso, Indiana.

By Thursday, the coach’s patience was almost at its end: if the Hibbing rink couldn’t get it together by Friday, he’d take his team and head west for 500 miles, to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where former Chicago defenceman Taffy Abel managed the rink.

Friday, with the team packed and ready to go, Hibbing’s ice-makers came through, and the Hawks skated for the first time with sticks and pucks. “The frozen surface stood up under two 90-minute tests,” the CP noted; “jubilation was rampant.” Art Wiebe was the season’s first casualty, suffering a gash over the right eye along with what the CP termed “a slight brain concussion.” No worries, said coach Thompson: he’d be back in action next day.

The second week of camp, the ice was fine. Monday 1,000 spectators showed up to watch Chicago’s first open scrimmage. Coach Thompson played referee, “allowing some fouls to pass unnoticed, but … quick to stop play on offsides.” It was 19 minutes before anyone could score, with Johnny Gottselig beating Paul Goodman.

As planned, the Hawks decamped the following Monday for St. Paul. They had another week of drills ahead of them there, along with a series of exhibition games against the local American Hockey Association Saints. Those were played, eventually: when the Black Hawks first arrived in St. Paul that vexed pre-season, they learned that the refrigeration plant had broken down, and that the ice wouldn’t be ready to receive them for another day or two.

 

ott not

Hella Ranger: New York defender and sometime captain Ott Heller.

Nobody likes a New York Rangers nitpicker. Then again, somebody’s going to have to stand up for Ott Heller. And so, just for the record, that’s not him they’ve got pictured in that new Hockey News spread on greatest New York Rangers.

Launched last month, the glossy 130-page special-edition magazine isn’t going to win any prizes for snappy titles. That’s not to dismiss Top 50 Players of All-Time By Franchise outright — on the contrary, this is an ambitious and absorbing undertaking by THN team and historian James Benesh, with lots to interest fans and historical pointillists alike.

Interesting to see Steve Smith (#17) ranked ahead of Connor McDavid (#19) among Edmonton’s superlatives. Fills me with unearned pride, even. How long before McDavid climbs the list to mingle with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Jari Kurri (#s1,2,3)?

The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their centenary celebrations last fall by hoisting Dave Keon to the top of the charts of their Top 100 players. THN begs to differ: to their thinking, Keon drops to number five, behind (at four) Ted Kennedy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, and, tip-top, Syl Apps.

Does Earl Seibert (#7) deserve a higher rung on the Chicago ladder ahead of Chris Chelios and Duncan Keith (#8 and #9)? After reading senior editor Brian Costello’s thoughts on trying to measure players from different eras against one another, I’m probably in. As Benesh says: “There will never be a right answer, never a consensus.”

Which is why, I suppose, some of us decrying the many omissions from the NHL’s centenary list might soon stop steaming from the ears. Benesh, at least, has a place for peerless Frank Nighbor ,and the great Hooley Smith. Glad to see the NHL’s defunct teams in the mix, with lists of the greats who skated for the Montreal Maroons, original Ottawa Senators, California Golden Seals, et al.

It’s with due respect that I note a few scattered errors. Deep into the Quebec Bulldogs/Hamilton Tigers top-ten, it should be Goldie Prodgers rather than the singular Prodger.

Not Ott: Bucko McDonald stands in for his Ranger teammate.

And then again back with the Rangers, on page 84. I’m not here to argue that Ott Heller (#22) deserves to be up there at the top of the rankings with fellow defencemen Ching Johnson (#9) and Brian Leetch (#2). It’s just that the photo, seen above, isn’t Heller at all: it’s Bucko McDonald.

They were teammates, it’s true, for a couple of years. After spending most of his career patrolling bluelines for Toronto and Detroit, McDonald arrived in New York in 1943, where he played out his two final NHL seasons on teams captained by Heller. That’s another pickable nit, I’m afraid: Heller only captained the Rangers for three seasons. Succeeding Art Coulter in the fall of 1942, he led the team again in ’43-’44 and ’44-’45 before giving way to Neil Colville.

mclaughlin’s all-americans: making the chicago black hawks great again

Newlyweds: Irene Castle and Major Frederic McLaughlin, circa 1923, the year of their marriage.

(A version of this post appeared on page D3 of The New York Times on June 12, 2017.)

Long before President Donald J. Trump turned a protectionist eye to the iniquities of Canadians, another opinionated American tycoon decided that he had had enough. Eighty years ago, the cross-border irritant wasn’t Nafta or softwood lumber. As Major Frederic McLaughlin saw it, Canada was flooding American markets with too many hockey players.

In 1937, his short-lived America-first campaign was all about making the Chicago Black Hawks great again.

Canadians have long and fiercely claimed hockey as their own, a proprietary technology that also happens to be a primary natural resource. But the game’s south-of-the-border veins run deep, too. The first organized American game is said to have been played in the 1880s at St. Paul’s, a prep school in Concord, N.H.. The first fully professional league was based in Michigan, in 1904, though most of the players were Canadian.

When the N.H.L. made its debut in 1917 with four Canadian teams, it counted a lonely three Americans among 51 players.

“The climate is not suitable for hockey in the United States,” Lester Patrick (b. Drummondville, Quebec), the longtime Rangers coach and manager, explained in 1928. Unfair as it might be, Canadian boys donned skates at age 3.

“They start skating from the ankles, then with the lower leg up to the knee and at maturity they skate from the hip,” Patrick said. “It is an evolutionary process of time.”

“The Americans,” he held, “start too late to develop a full-leg stride.”

None of that mattered, of course, when it came to the potential profitability of American markets. The N.H.L.’s sometimes rancorous rush south saw Boston’s Bruins as the first United States-based team to join, in 1924. Pittsburgh’s Pirates and New York’s Americans followed in 1925 before the Rangers debuted in 1926, along with teams in Detroit and Chicago.

In Chicago, McLaughlin emerged as the majority shareholder. The McLaughlins had made their fortune on the Lake Michigan shore as coffee importers. In the 1850s, most American coffee drinkers bought raw beans and roasted them at home. W.F. McLaughlin was one of the first to sell pre-roasted coffee. When he died in 1905, his elder son took the helm of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee with Frederic, the younger son, aboard as secretary and treasurer.

Harvard-educated, Frederic found fame in those prewar years as one of the country’s best polo players. In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin served in the Illinois National Guard.

A year later, the United States went to war with Germany, and McLaughlin joined the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, taking command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. Trained in Chicago and England, the division reached France just in time for peace to break out in 1918.

Postwar, McLaughlin returned to Chicago society as a prized catch among bachelor millionaires. But he gained national attention after secretly marrying Irene Castle, a ballroom dancer and movie star revered as America’s best-dressed woman.

As president of Chicago’s N.H.L. team, he reserved naming rights, borrowing from his old Army unit’s tribute to an 18th-century Sauk warrior. From his polo club, the Onwentsia in Lake Forest, Ill., he plucked the distinctive chief’s-head emblem that still adorns Black Hawks sweaters.

“Oh, boy, I am glad I haven’t got a weak heart,” McLaughlin is reported to have said at the first hockey game he ever attended, in November 1926, just a month before Chicago’s NHL debut. His newly minted Black Hawks were in Minneapolis, playing an exhibition that featured Canadian men named Moose and Rusty and Tiny.

Stickmen: Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert (b. Kitchener, ON) consults coach Clem Loughlin in the mid-1930s.

McLaughlin and his fellow investors bought a ready-made roster to get their franchise going: 14 players who had spent the previous winter as the Western Hockey League’s Portland Rosebuds, men named Dick and Duke and Rabbit from Canadian towns called Kenora and Snow Lake and Mattawa.

While owners in New York and Boston hired old Canadian hockey hands to run their teams, McLaughlin decided he would do the job himself. Asked whether his team was ready to compete for a championship, he said, “If it’s not, we’ll keep on buying players until it is.”

The Blackhawks started respectably enough, making the playoffs in their inaugural season. Coaches came and went in those early years, while McLaughlin cultivated a reputation for ire and eccentricity. Still, after only five N.H.L. seasons, Chicago played its way to the finals. Three years later, in 1934, the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup.

Key to Chicago’s winning formula was McLaughlin’s decision to replace himself with a veteran (Canadian) coach and manager, Tommy Gorman.

“I’m sending myself to the cheering section,” McLaughlin grinned, announcing his midseason surrender in 1933. “I’m convinced that I’m just an amateur in hockey. It’s been a case of the blind leading the blind as far as my influence on the team goes.”

The joy of victory did not linger. Gorman resigned, and Charlie Gardiner, the team’s beloved goaltender, died at 29.

Charged with the reconstruction was a former Black Hawk defenseman, Clem Loughlin, a son of Carroll, Manitoba. Hired in the fall of 1934, he was Chicago’s 11th coach in nine years. The team remained largely Canadian during his regime, with several talented American exceptions, including Doc Romnes and the goaltender who arrived in 1935, Mike Karakas.

A photograph promoting Loughlin’s 1936-37 squad bore the slogan “Lightning On Skates.” When the season opened, Chicago’s still largely Canadian roster struck for a pair of listless ties. Then they started losing in earnest. By Christmas, they had won only two of 16 games.

The new year brought no relief. Coach Loughlin threatened a shake-up and then shook, releasing center Tommy Cook, an eight-year veteran accused of “failure to keep in playing condition” and “lax behavior.”

The remaining Hawks won a couple of games before reverting to type. Mulched in Montreal, trimmed in Toronto, they returned to Chicago to lose again and solidify their hold on last place in the league’s American division.

That’s when McLaughlin announced that he had an answer, or at least a vision. Having already lobbied the N.H.L. to replace Canadian referees with Americans, he divulged his plan to shed the yoke of northern tyranny: within two years he would have only American boys skating for the Black Hawks. And he would be changing the team’s nickname to Yankees.

“I think an all-American team would be a tremendous drawing card all over the league,” McLaughlin said.

He was also said to be annoyed that his Canadian veterans rejected the daily calisthenics he insisted they needed.

“We’ve found out you can’t make athletes out of hockey players,” he declared, “so we’ll try to make hockey players out of athletes. Give me a football player who can skate and we can show this league a lot of hockey.”

He already had a so-called “hockey factory” up and running, with five prototype Minnesotans and Michiganders in training on the ice and at Chicago’s Y.M.C.A. These were men in their 20s named Bun and Butch and Ike. Plucked from quiet amateur careers, none of them had yet shown particular signs of stardom. In command was Emil Iverson, a former Danish Army officer who’d coached college hockey in Minnesota and — briefly — the pre-Gorman Hawks.

Meanwhile, the Hawks went to New York, where they hammered the Americans, 9-0. The Americans, as it happened, were almost entirely not — Roger Jenkins of Appleton, Wis., was the only exception. Chicago’s goals were all scored by importees.

Ridicule was brewing in Canada. John Kieran, a columnist for The New York Times, reported that the north-of-the-border consensus was that an all-American team would dominate at “the same time that the Swiss navy equals the combined fleets of the United States, Great Britain and Japan in total tonnage and heavy armament.”

Coach Loughlin stood by his boss. “It isn’t as silly as it sounds by any means,” he said. “I contend that most hockey players are made, not born.”

By March, the future had arrived. With the Hawks out of the playoffs, McLaughlin decreed that his five factory-fresh Americans would debut against Boston.

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It went well — for the Bruins, who prevailed by 6-2. The Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings wired Frank Calder, the president of the league, to protest Chicago’s use of “amateurs” while other teams were still vying for playoff positions.

Boston Coach Art Ross called McLaughlin a “headstrong plutocrat.”

“I have been in hockey 30 years,” he railed, “and never in its entire history has such a farce been perpetrated on a National Hockey League crowd.”

He demanded Chicago refund the price of every ticket —“that’s how rotten the game was.”

“I don’t know whether our constitution will allow the cancellation of an owner’s franchise,” Ross continued, “but if it does, I’ll do everything I can to see that the board of governors do it.”

Unsanctioned by the league, the Hawks went to Toronto, where loudspeakers blared “Yankee Doodle” as “the cash customers prepared for a comedy,” one correspondent reported. Ike Klingbeil of Hancock, Mich., scored a Chicago goal in a losing effort, though a Canadian critic deemed his skating “stiff-legged.”

The new-look Hawks got their first win at home, outlasting the Rangers, 4-3. That night at least, the Times allowed that McLaughlin’s experiment might not have been so far-fetched after all.

The Hawks themselves weren’t entirely contented. A New York reporter listened to a Canadian veteran on the team grumble about the new Americans. “We score the goals and make the plays and they do nothing but a lot of spectacular heavy back-checking,” he said, “but they get all the headlines and all the praise.”

Chicago lost its final two games, finishing a proud point ahead of New York’s even-worse Americans. When the playoffs wrapped up, the Stanley Cup belonged to a Detroit team featuring one American among 21 Canadians with names like Hec and Mud and Bucko.

Come the off-season, the Major gave Clem Loughlin a vote of confidence, right before the coach decided he preferred a return to wheat-farming and hotelkeeping back home in Canada.

Chicago’s five experimental Americans were released. None of them played another N.H.L. game.

The team’s new coach was appropriately unorthodox, for McLaughlin: Bill Stewart, born in Fitchburg, Mass., was best known to that point as a Major League Baseball umpire who carried a wintertime whistle as an N.H.L. referee.

McLaughlin’s wife sued him for divorce that summer, which may have distracted the Major from his all-American plan. In any case, Stewart announced that it was on hold, and the team would continue as the Black Hawks.

When the new hockey season opened, the team started slowly. By March of 1938, they surprised most pundits when they beat the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup.

The trophy itself was absent from the final game, so the champions had to wait to hold it high. Eight of Chicago’s 18 players that season were Americans, men named Doc and Virgil and Cully, who had learned their hockey in Minnesota towns called Aurora, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake.

No N.H.L. champion would count more Americans until last year, when the Pittsburgh Penguins had 10.

(Note: Chicago’s NHL team was Black Hawks for the first 60 years of its history; Blackhawks became one word in 1986.)

 

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and lacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

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The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

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Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”