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

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

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.”

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)

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.”

 

my first hockey game: kirstie mclellan day

Hockey She Wrote: Wayne Gretzky and Kirstie McLellan Day.

Hockey squandered its best chance of snaring William Faulkner as a fan in January of 1955. I’m still not entirely sure who’s to blame for failing to catch the Nobel laureate’s imagination. Could have been the fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which Faulkner attended on assignment for Sports Illustrated to witness the hometown Rangers take on the all-powerful Montreal Canadiens. They were smoking, I guess, the fans, and maybe altogether too raucous for Faulkner’s placid soul. Or maybe was it the not-very-good Rangers that turned him off? Unless it was hockey itself: “discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical,” he called it when he wrote it all up.

In a book I wrote a few years ago about the spells that hockey casts, and the shadows, I spent some time with Faulkner — Ernest Hemingway, too — trying to suss out just how they could have failed to have been enchanted by hockey. I also wrote about Evelyn, Viscountess Byng of Vimy in Puckstruck, and how the first hockey game she saw hooked her for life.

This was in Ottawa in 1921, in the first fall of her husband’s tenure as governor-general. The visiting Toronto St. Patricks beat the Senators 5-4. “It was one of the cleanest games on record,” a local newspaper reported next morning, “not a player decorating the penalty box. The checking was heavy and the ceaseless pace a menace to temper-control, but all turned in a splendid record.” Babe Dye scored a couple of goals for the winning team, and Ken Randall scored a couple of others. Also on the ice were Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Frank Boucher. Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard presented Lady Byng with a bouquet of American Beauty roses.

It may be that this first exposure to hockey, pacey yet peaceable, set the standard by which Lady Byng judged the sport from there on after. When subsequent games didn’t meet the mark, did she see no other alternative than to save the game from itself by donating her trophy for skilled, gentlemanly conduct?

Hard to say. I don’t, in general, know what these initial exposures to hockey reveal about the first-timer in question, or about hockey. Still, I like the idea of someone venturing for the first time into a rink, happening on hockey. What do they see? How does it hit them?

Beyond the book, I’ve continued to collect first-time accounts as I’ve come across them. I’ve written about the Dionne quintuplets, and about Henry Ford sitting in as Larry Aurie and Ebbie Goodfellow Detroit Falcons lost to Bill Cook’s New York Rangers in 1932. Browsing the file I’ve built up, I find clippings about World War I heroes of the Royal Navy attending their first hockey games, and a photograph from the night in 1995 a future king of Spain watched Doug Gilmour’s Toronto Maple Leafs slip past Theo Fleury’s Calgary Flames. I’ve got a notice here from 1936 that tells me that the entire roster of New Zealand’s vaunted rugby team, the All Blacks, saw their first NHL game at the Forum. (Canadiens and Rangers tied 1-1 that time.)

This fall, I’ve been seeking out more stories of first encounters with NHL hockey. None of them, so far, have come in from Nobel laureates or viscountesses; unlike Faulkner and Lady Byng, my correspondents were all familiar with the game, as fans or players or both, before they got to a big-league rink. They are writers and historians, journalists, poets, former players I’ve been soliciting to ask about the first NHL game they attended, who they saw, what made an impression. They’ve been generous in their responses. You’ll be seeing these recollections in this space in the coming weeks, if you keep a watch.

First up, today: Kirstie McLellan Day.

Earlier this year, BookNet Canada released a list of the 150 bestselling Canadian books since 2007. The list of authors implicated in this is an impressive one. Robert Munsch not only tops the chart with Love You Forever, he recurs throughout, with a remarkable 34 other titles. As noted by BookNet, Margaret Atwood has four books on the list, while Alice Munro and Chris Hadfield are some of those writers with three. Not so noticed: five of the bestsellers (including the top-rated hockey book) have Day’s name on the cover.

fleuryThe Calgary writer, journalist, TV host and producer has been prolific for a while. Her hockey streak started in 2009, when she worked with Theo Fleury on his autobiography, Playing With Fire. (Ranked 17th on the BookNet 150, it has outsold Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff, The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, and Stephen J. Harper’s A Great Game.)

Day went on to score assists on books by Bob Probert (Tough Guy in 2010) and Ron MacLean (Cornered in 2011 and Hockey Towns in 2015), and on Wayne Gretzky’s 99 Stories of the Game (2016). Still to come is Hellbent, a memoir by Marty McSorley. Kelly Hrudey’s Calling The Shots, out this fall, is her latest collaboration.

Kirstie McLellan Day, then, on the first NHL game she saw for herself.

Growing up in Regina, everybody knew somebody who had something to do with the NHL. My mom grew up across the street from “little Dickie Irvin” who became one of our very best hockey broadcasters for decades. He broke his arm climbing her family fence when he was four years old. Amazing guy. A living encyclopedia of hockey stories. Dick is now a good friend and a source for countless anecdotes in the hockey books I write. One of my dad’s best friends was Billy Hicke, who played for the Canadiens and the California Seals. Gordie Howe who was born in a farmhouse in Floral, just up the highway near Saskatoon, came to town regularly to sign autographs for kids at Simpson’s Department Store. My husband, Larry, was one of those kids. He first met Gordie when he was ten. The hockey card that Gordie signed hangs in his office.

With all those connections, hockey should have been in my blood from the start, but I was a late bloomer. Very late. It wasn’t until the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in the early 80s that I started to take an interest. Don’t judge.

Larry was the anchorman at CFAC TV, the local station that carried the Flames games. He got tickets once in a while and so he dragged me to my first NHL game, April 21, 1988. The Smythe Division Finals against the hated Edmonton Oilers. Standing room only and LOUD.

I remember Wayne skating out and the crowd booing. He seemed to revel in it. And then Messier skated over with that big shit-eating grin of his, and they were laughing. Oooo, that pissed people off. We were on Wayne every time he touched the puck. Anytime he went down or skated near an official, the rink echoed with a chorus of, “Whiner! Whiner! Whiner!” Never fazed him. Just seemed to make him play harder. Wayne scored the OT winner. Damn you, Gretzky. We filed out tired, elated, and dejected.

I never dreamed that someday I’d be sitting around his kitchen table with him writing a book about it. Um, the booing and the whiner part never came up, so I’d appreciate it if you kept that part just between us.

 

(Image: Kirstie McLellan Day)

 

off menu

frank nighbor's sweater

Don’t blame Jon Hamm. It’s not his fault that Frank Nighbor won’t be among the 100 Greatest NHL Players the star of Mad Men will be announcing tonight as part of the league’s centenary celebrations. Players who played in the earliest days of the league have already had their moment, but it’s over now. In January, when the NHL revealed a third of the greats, the players recognized from the league’s first decade were four: Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Georges Vézina, and King Clancy. They’ve made clear that the remainder (whom we’ll hear about tonight) will be players “who played predominantly from 1967 — present.” The fact that Newsy Lalonde and Clint Benedict, Frank Boucher, Eddie Gerard, and Sprague Cleghorn have missed the cut — well, it just seems wrong that they (and 17 or 28 others I’d gladly explain) won’t be recognized. It’s not surprising. The 100 will be a monument to a hundred exemplary players, an admirable, arbitrary jumble of skill and achievement, with next to no science to it. Red Kelly is already in the 100, and that’s right and meet. He had it right in 1998 when he was named to a Hockey News inventory of all-time greats. “Just another list,” he said, with respect. “I don’t think you can compare unless you put them on the ice together. It is publicity.”

So save a thought tonight for Aurèle Joliat while you’re looking at Jon Hamm, and maybe also George Hainsworth, Reg Noble, and Herb Gardiner. Lionel Hitchman? Yes. Ace Bailey, too. That’s a lot of names, I know, and time is short, so maybe — okay, just take a long look, if you would, at Frank Nighbor’s sweater, here above. That’s it. We’re done.

noble cause

toronto_arenas

As the adjectives continue to flock to Auston Matthews in the wake of his four-goal debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, the rookie offered up one of his own. The writers called him elite and incredible, sizzling, his performance was magical, spectacular, unforgettable, and NHL-record and historic. Writing the headlines for this morning’s Toronto newspapers, editors contributed Auston-ishing and Marvellous Matthews and Matt Trick to the conversation. Matthews himself? “It’s pretty surreal,” he told reporters in his becalmed way after the game.

“Auston Matthews Sets Goal Record in NHL Debut” The Globe and Mail’s Thursday front page declared above the fold. The Toronto Star’s had him as becoming the “first player to score four goals in NHL debut.” As mentioned last night here and elsewhere, Matthews’ isn’t quite the all-time goal-scoringest debut in NHL history: Joe Malone and Harry Hyland scored five apiece on the NHL’s very first night back in December of 1917. That made it, eventually, into some of the reporting last night, and figures into the late paragraphs of most of the stories online and in print yesterday.

There were some who saw reason to qualify what Malone and Hyland achieved as Lisa Wallace of La Presse Canadienne did in this morning’s La Presse: “Les deux avaient précédemment évolué dans l’Association nationale de hockey.” Some observers, like Darren Millard from Sportsnet, were amused by the notion that anyone might bother to reach back 100 years to find an historical precedent for something that was happening here and now. An adjectival fix (modern-day) seemed to satisfy others, like The Arizona Republic, which celebrated a native son on the front of the morning edition:

az-matthews

Historian Eric Zweig is the long-time managing editor of the NHL’s annual Official Guide and Record Book. He has a good explainer on where Matthews’ feat fits (or doesn’t quite) into the directory of deeds.

Also in need of further explication: Reg Noble.

The pride of Collingwood, Ontario, he played on that first NHL night in 1917 as a dynamic member of Toronto’s original NHL team, known as the Arenas and also the Blueshirts or just plain Blues. Looking back at newspaper accounts of Toronto’s opening game versus the Montreal Wanderers, I saw that Noble was down as having scored a Matthewsesque four of his team’s goals in their (Leafslike) 10-9 loss. I was quick to make Noble’s claim, which nobody else seemed to be advancing and wasn’t on the NHL books.

Upon further review, it looks like Noble didn’t score four. Or did, only to have credit for one of them rescinded. Or could have, maybe, but it was hard for witnesses to see. Unless it was the scorer’s fault — did he mess up? Whatever happened, Noble’s fourth goal did not pass into history or the NHL archives.

So let the record show that Noble scored a mere three goals on December 19, 1917. While we’re at it, also maybe can we concede that the record is generally more smudged that we’d like? Easy to fault bygone chroniclers who weren’t as attentive to detail as we might wish them to have been, to bewail the paucity of corroborating tweets and GIFs. That doesn’t change anything, though: the reports from Montreal are as vague as they were before we started carping.

arena-dec-1917The accounts we have can’t agree on how many spectators were on hand at the Westmount Arena on the night. “A very small number” was as much as The Ottawa Journal could bring itself to divulge. “Barely 500,” La Patrie counted, while a wire report that appeared in The Toronto World and elsewhere had the crowd at “about 700.” Le Canada? “Hardly more than 1200 fans.”

When it came to the scoring, the local papers repeated the Toronto Daily Star summary in which Noble’s name was attached to Toronto’s first, sixth, seventh, and ninth goals. In its short game report, La Patrie identified 22-year-old Noble as “l’ex-Canadien” (he’d played the 1916-17 NHA season for the Habs). He was “active” and carried himself “like a veteran” — “he deserved a better fate.”

“By himself, he had four goals for Toronto.”

The Wanderers’ Art Ross was the star of the night, in Le Canada’s books, though he scored just a single goal. Noble got no special mention, but then nor did Montreal’s own five-goal hero Harry Hyland. He was knocked out at one point, according to The Ottawa Journal, when an errant puck “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye.”

Like everybody else writing about the game, Le Canada noted Toronto’s dreadful goaltending. Sammy Hebert started the game, but after what the Journal rated a “mediocre” first period (he allowed five goals), in came Art Brooks. “Sammy Hebert couldn’t stop a flock of balloons,” someone at the game advised the Daily Star, “and Brooks wasn’t any better.”

Ross’ goal was “one of the prettiest of the evening,” testified The Ottawa Journal’s witness, failing to file specifics: “an individual effort in which he outguessed the Blue defence” was as much as he was willing to say.

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The Journal’s summary is the only one I’ve seen that varies from the Noble-scored-four norm. It’s a complete muddle, missing one Toronto goal entirely and attributing another to someone called “Neville” when no-one of that name was lined up for either team — although the referee was Lieutenant Tom Melville. In this version, Reg Noble is down for just two goals.

To further confound its stats-minded readership, same day, same edition, the Journal ran a list of the NHL’s leading scorers that tallies ten for Torontonians.

Back in Toronto, the Daily Star was sowing some confusion of its own. A suggestion that Noble’s famous four goals might not last into posterity appears in a dissenting opinion in the December 20 Star two columns to the left of the game summary in which they’re reported.

“Just how good Cameron and Noble were at Montreal last night is indicated by the fact that they got three goals each,” writes the Star’s anonymous contradictor. “Charlie Queerie [sic] says that Dennenay [sic] got the other three, but the official summary credits Skinner with one.”

Whether or not he scored four that first night, Noble did turn in a stellar season for the eventual NHL and Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Credited with just the three, he ended the regular season with 30 goals in 20 games, finishing third in goals and points in the league, behind Canadiens’ Joe Malone and Cy Denneny of Ottawa.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing: in February of 1918, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie fined Noble and teammate Harry Cameron $100 each for what the papers called “breaking training.” That could include anything, of course, from oversleeping to refusing to do push-ups to smuggling a bottle of gin onto the powerplay in the game against Canadiens. What we do know is that Noble’s fine was doubled when he continued to defy the boss.

There were injuries, too, notably at the end of the season, when Noble was reported lamed in the last game of the regular season when Ottawa’s Rusty Crawford kicked him with his skate — while, puzzlingly, Crawford was trying “to get” teammate Eddie Gerard.

Still, as the season wound down, The Ottawa Journal was picking Noble out of the crowd to praise. Not only was he big and fast and tricky on the stickhandle, he checked back hard, scored goals without being selfish, “and has a lot of hockey knowledge stored in his noodle.”

Noble has played beautiful hockey this winter and though fans hear and think more of Malone, Lalonde, Nighbor, and a couple of others, the blue-clad boy appears to have a little on them all as an around player. Reg Noble for ours, if we have asked [sic] to pick out the most effective player in the NHL today.

The modern-day Maple Leafs get set to announce, today, their list of the best 100 players in their history. Will Auston Matthews’ name be among them? I’m guessing that Reg Noble’s won’t be. Who remembers him? There’s always a chance, of course, that he’ll be back in the news as soon as tomorrow night, when Matthews makes his home debut against the Boston Bruins. Reg Noble’s came on another Saturday, December 22, 1917, when Toronto beat the Ottawa Senators 11-4. Don’t tell Matthews, but in his second game, Reg Noble scored four goals.

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Hospital chaplain Rev. W. Mann visits Reg Noble at Toronto General in April of 1960; nurse Nancy Beatty looks on. (Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)