Heading into the NHL new season in November of 1925, Montreal Canadiens managing director (and co-owner) Léo Dandurand wasn’t sure whether Georges Vézina was going to play or not. The goaltender was 38 that fall, and he had a cabinetry business to run in Chicoutimi, his hometown. He’d served his time with Montreal down through the years, maybe earned his rest, nobody could argue otherwise: since 1911, Vézina had, astonishingly, been the one and only goaltender to defend the Canadiens’ net. He’d seen the NHA come and go in that time, and the rise of the NHL in 1917, and had suited up for every competitive game for the Canadiens in the eight years since then. The only break Vézina had taken in 14 years came in 1922, when he’d ceded his net to serve a slashing penalty against Ottawa, with teammate Sprague Cleghorn filling in on an emergency backstop.
In 1925, Vézina left it late to agree to play another season. Dandurand finally got him to agree to it on November 10, after (as the Montreal Star reported) “some busy long-distance telephoning.” This was to be his swansong. “There is little doubt that this is to be Georges’ last season in hockey,” the newspaper noted. “His business in Chicoutimi needs his attention more and more, and it was only in view of the fact that he had given the Canadiens the impression earlier that he would be with them again that he has made special arrangements for this season.”
Dandurand was making contingency arrangements of his own, signing an understudy in 28-year-old Alphonse (a.k.a. Frenchy) Lacroix, the Newton, Massachusetts-born goaltender who’d backed the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. “Even though Canada scored six goals against him in the Olympic hockey final,” the Star advised, “he was given credit for staving off a worse defeat than that.”
Vézina arrived in Montreal the following Monday, November 16. He saw his first action two days later, in an exhibition match-up with Lester Patrick’s Victoria Cougars, the same WCHL team that had beaten the Canadiens in four games the previous March to claim the Stanley Cup. The Cougars prevailed again this time out, outlasting Montreal by a score of 5-3. Despite the loss, the hometown Gazette reported that Vézina’s “eagle eye” was intact, rating some of his first-period stops “heart-breaking to the Victoria attacking division.” A defenceman, Gord Fraser, scored Victoria’s last goal in the third period — the final goal ever to be scored on Vézina.
The following week, with their goaltender reported to be suffering from “a severe cold,” Montreal cancelled a series of further exhibition games against Tommy Gorman’s New York Americans in Hamilton, Ontario.
Still, Vézina was in his net at the Mount Royal Arena on the night of Saturday, November 28, when the Canadiens took on Pittsburgh’s mighty Pirates. Steered by a former Canadien, Odie Cleghorn, who served both as right wing and coach, with Roy Worters in goal, the Pirates ended up winning the game, 1-0, on a goal by Tex White. The Pittsburgh Press carried a lively narrative next day, in which Montreal’s Howie Morenz featured both for storming offense and pugnacity. In the first period, he took a penalty for “bumping;” in the second he had “a fist fight in the corner” with Jesse Spring.
Only briefly did the Press note a line-up change at the start of the second period:
Lacroix was in the nets for [sic] Canadians at start of second period. Vézina was reported ill.
Montreal’s Gazette carried a more detailed report under the sub-head “Vézina Was Shadow:”
But the high spot of the evening for the Canadien supporters came at the beginning of the second period when Lacroix, former United States Olympic goalkeeper went into the Canadien goal in place of Georges Vézina. The veteran goalkeeper started the game with a high temperature. He was pale and haggard looking as he turned shots aside in the first period. At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.
The Star detailed an even more desperate scene:
His temples throbbed with fever, his face, while on the ice, was flushed, pale and drawn, and though he should have been home and in bed, he insisted on remaining till the end, impatiently sending out [Canadiens assistant trainer] Pat Kennedy and ither messengers, to find out how the battle progressing.
When the Canadiens went to Boston for their next game, Vézina stayed home. “Dandurand left instructions with a doctor here,” the Star reported on December 1, “to give Georges a thorough examination today to see if anything really serious is the matter with him.”
By the end of the week, the verdict was out: Montreal’s iconic goaltender had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Star ran a long story under the headline
Greatest Hockey Goal Keeper of Past
Decade Will Never Play Again
that featured Leo Dandurand’s (more or less?) embroidered account of Vézina’s turbulent final weeks in Montreal.
It was Dandurand, remember, who’d played a large party in fashioning his famous goaltender’s image over the years, certainly in the English press, in Montreal and beyond. Vézina wasn’t interested in publicity, kept mostly to himself and to the French language, allowing (or suffering) Dandurand to fill the void. It was the Canadiens’ owner, for instance, who’d launched the myth, a persistent one that still, today, comes back to life from time to time, that Vézina was the father of 22 (or maybe was it 17?) children.
Dandurand’s account from this week in 1925 may be the straight goods; it does have, it has to be said, an air of having been over-crafted.
Tuberculosis isn’t mentioned, oddly: instead, Dandurand is quoted as saying that “poor Georges has the battle of Christy Mathewson to fight.” That would have held no mystery for sports fans: news of the great New York Giants pitcher’s death from the disease at the age of 45 had rippled across North America that same October.
Announcing the goaltender’s retirement, Dandurand added the news that Vézina had left for Chicoutimi without bidding farewell to his teammates, who had returned to Montreal to meet the Maroons on Thursday, December 3. Dandurand framed this as “Vézina’s last act of devotion to the club he loved so well,” quoting the goaltender himself. “Perhaps they will play better if they think I am coming on,” he’s supposed to have said. “When I’m not on they will soon forget about me in the excitement of the play.”
Dandurand had more to disclose. “I had known from the first that Vézina was not the Vézina of old. He did not look well when he reported, but assured me he would improve. That too was typical of him. But he lost weight in an alarming fashion, and it was not by accident that we signed Lacroix. I saw Vézina was nearly done, and though he insisted on going through his last game with a temperature of 102 degrees, and even then gave a good account of himself, he never recovered. Perhaps his insistence on playing the game spelled his doom. He was taken to bed that night, stayed there for a week, and when doctors examined him, it was found he had lost 35 pounds since coming to the city. Further examination revealed that his lungs were in bad shape ….”
Dandurand described the goaltender’s final visit that Thursday to Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena dressing room. Vézina found his usual corner. “I glanced at him as he sat there, and saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He was looking at his old pads and skates that [trainer] Eddie Dufour had arranged in George’s corner thinking that probably Vézina would don them that night. Then he asked one little favour — the sweater he wore in the last world series. Then he went. I doubt if hockey will ever know his like again.”
Vézina was soon home in Chicoutimi. Within four months, before the end of March of 1926, just 39, he was dead.