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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.

first among veterans: chick webster, new york ranger

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Nick Knack: Chick Webster poses with New York Ranger teammates just before Christmas in 1949. That’s him standing second from left. Others pictured include Tony Leswick (to Webster’s right) and Pat Egan, to his left; Wally Stanowski (standing fifth from left); and captain Buddy O’Connor. Suited up as Santa is erstwhile Ranger Phil Watson, whose non-festive job had him coaching the EHL’s New York Rovers.

The Boston Bruins honoured their late captain, coach, and GM Milt Schmidt this week with a video tribute ahead of Thursday’s meeting with the Edmonton Oilers. On their sweaters, Bruin players wore a patch blazed with Schmidt’s 15 to commemorate the man they call the Ultimate Bruin.

With Schmidt’s death on Wednesday at the age of 98, the oldest living NHLer is Chick Webster, who’s 96. He lives in Mattawa, Ontario. If his hockey CV is 848 NHL games shorter than Schmidt’s and also lacks its Stanley Cups, it’s long and varied and entirely commendable in its own right. Born John Webster in Toronto in 1920, his NHL career spanned all of 14 games, all of which he played with the New York Rangers during the 1949-50 season.

On Friday, I exchanged e-mails with Rob Webster, Chick Webster’s son. He’d just spent the afternoon visiting his dad who, he said, had been saddened to hear about Schmidt. Never one to seek attention, he’s been taking this week’s sudden burst of interest in his brief stint in the NHL in stride.

“As far as his career goes,” Rob Webster wrote, “I think he just never really got the breaks at the right time.” Chick Webster was in his early 20s as the Second World War was metastasizing and just as his hockey career was getting going, he joined the Canadian Army. He had no regrets there, his son says. “He wanted to go. Not skating much for over two years was hard … so I guess still making it to the NHL original six was somewhat of a nice goal to achieve.”

As a teenager, Webster senior played for teams in Toronto called the Stockyard Packers and (as an OHA junior, with Baldy Cotton as his coach) the Native Sons. He wasn’t big, 5’11”, 160 pounds, but he was a good skater and a proficient playmaker.

As a 19-year-old in the fall of 1940, he took his trade to the Boston Bruins’ training camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That’s where he skated on a line, for as long as it lasted, with one of the team’s young veterans: Milt Schmidt. Webster told didn’t make the cut, but The Boston Daily Globe noted that he was a “simon pure” (i.e. amateur) coveted by all six NHL clubs. He played the year with the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, leading the team in scoring. (Update: having talked to Chick Webster himself this week for a piece in The Hockey News, Eric Zweig reports that at one of Webster’s Bruin camps, he took Kraut duty, centring Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart when Schmidt went down with an ankle injury. I recommend Eric’s full account of Webster’s career , which is here.)

Like Schmidt and many other hockey players during, Chick Webster decided he had another job he’d better do. Enlisting in the Canadian Army, he ended up skating for the Army’s Petawawa Grenades before shipping out for deployment overseas. Serving with the 13th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artlliery, he saw duty in England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany before the war’s end.

Chick Webster, Ranger winger

Chick Webster, Ranger winger

Back in hockey, he returned to the EAHL before graduating to the AHL’s New Haven Ramblers. It was from there that he launched into the NHL, called up by the New York Rangers in December of 1949. Coached by Lynn Patrick, the Rangers were up with Detroit and Montreal at the top of the league standings. Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Conner featured bright among the team’s forwards that year, and Fred Shero was on the defence. In goal, Chuck Rayner was backed up by Emile Francis.

Webster played his first game in Boston, helping the Rangers to beat Schmidt’s own Bruins 3-1 in a game distinguished by … well, no, according a local report, the game was as undistinguished as they come, “sluggish,” “sleepy,” “boring:” all in all, “one of the dullest exhibitions of hockey played on Garden ice in quite a spell.”

Christmas Day, in Toronto, he left a game against the Leafs charley horse’d. In mid-January, in a game with Detroit at Madison Square Garden, he broke a couple of bones in his left hand — unless someone else broke them for him. (Another Ranger winger, Ed Slowinski, also finished the game with a fractured hand). Either way, it was Webster’s 14th and final appearance on NHL ice. Playing left wing, he’d recorded no goals or assists while sitting out two minor penalties. When he’d healed a bit, he returned to the New Haven ice wearing a soft cast, finishing the season in the AHL while the Rangers went on to defeat in the Stanley Cup finals at the hands of the Red Wings.

Don Webster, Chick’s younger brother by four years, had his own NHL stint: he played 32 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs across the 1943-44 regular season and playoffs, scoring seven goals and 13 points. Don Webster died in 1978 at the age of 53.

I asked Rob Webster to ask his dad who were the players he’d admired in his playing days and the answer that came back included Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, and teammates Laprade, O’Connor, and Rayner.

The latter years of his hockey career took him around the minor-league map — Tacoma, Cincinnati, Vancouver, and Syracuse (where he played, unhappily, under Eddie Shore) — before he made his return to the Toronto area. He continued to play after he went to work for de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, before retiring, in 1969, to Mattawa.

“Been there ever since,” Rob Webster wrote, and skating all the while: he organized an oldtimers team with the Mattawa Legion and played until he was nearly 80. The nickname? From the gum Chiclets, his son says. “He always chewed gum as a kid. He thinks his aunt was the first to give it to him. As long as I can remember he always chewed when he played.”

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In The Army Now: Chick Webster (that’s him in the front row, third from right) poses with the Petawawa Grenades, circa 1943-44.

(All images courtesy of Rob Webster)

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Bru Two: Boston’s Eddie Shore (left) takes a moment in the room at Boston Garden alongside teammate Charlie Sands, circa 1938.

 

(© Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography. Photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)

ten and ohio

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“Ten to nothing is a score that requires some explanation.” I’m not sure that’s something the modern-day Montreal Canadiens have been telling themselves today, after last night’s 0-10 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets — seems like they may be more interested in getting to tonight’s game with Philadelphia to play their way out of having to account for last night’s debacle. That opening line dates back, in fact, to 1921, when a correspondent from The Ottawa Journal watched Canadiens of an earlier incarnation the very first time they lost by that disconcerting margin.

That it’s happened four times now in Canadiens history is, in its way, impressive. But precedents don’t make it any easier to deal with, for the team or for its fans. The wording they saw this morning in the headlines of Montreal newspapers was enough to curdle the stoutest Hab-loving heart. Pulvérisé was how La Presse framed the game, in which Canadiens’ back-up goaltender Al Montoya suffered through the entire excruciating game; Le Journal de Montreal opted for Piétinés à Columbus and, decked below, Le Canadien subit une raclée.

Over at The Gazette the dispatch from Ohio was spiked throughout with the words crushed, embarrassing, humiliated, trainwreck, ass-kicking, total meltdown. Columnist Pat Hickey noted that Friday also marked coach Michel Therrien’s 53rd birthday. “I don’t remember being a part of a game like that,” said Therrien. “There’s not much positive to take from it.”

Back home at the Bell Centre Saturday night, Al Montoya took the night off, leaving Carey Price to fend off the Flyers by a score of 5-4. It was the first time in the annals of Montreal’s 10-0 losses that the same goaltender who’d suffered the defeat hadn’t retaken the net for the next game. A look back:

December 24, 1921
Ottawa 10
Montreal 0

“Ottawas achieved a clear cut and decisive victory over Canadiens by the mammoth score of 10 to 0 Saturday,” was the hometown Ottawa Journal’s opening take on the first of Montreal’s historical whompings — the Canadiens were in a word smothered.

It was Christmas Eve, just three games into the new season. Both teams had a win and a loss under their belts. Ottawa was the defending Stanley Cup champion; Montreal’s powerful (if slightly aged) line-up featured Georges Vézina in goal with Sprague Cleghorn and Bert Corbeau on defence while forwards included the legendary Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. In a day when a different kind of analytics held sway, much was made of the weight players carried into battle, and The Ottawa Journal noted that Montreal averaged an impressive 176 pounds per man while the team’s aggregate tonnage came in at 2,465.

Ottawa was fast and from the start had Montreal “puffing like grampuses.” In the third, the Habs looked “juvenile.” The Senators had several bright rookies, including Frank “King” Clancy, deemed the architect of the rout by one local paper. Scoring the second goal in the opening period, “he brought the crowd to their toes in a thunderous cheer.”

Cy Denneny scored three goals for Ottawa, and Frank Nighbor added a memorable one (“it was a cuckoo,” to be exact). Goaltender Clint Benedict was good, “as a happy as a kid with a Christmas stocking” with his shutout; Nighbor’s poke check was Punch Broadbent’s determined backchecking were also cited by the Journal as playing decisive parts in the home side’s win. For the third game in a row — the entire season to date — Ottawa took no penalties. All in all, the crowd of 5,000 was “tickled giddy.”

Georges Vézina

Georges Vézina

Vézina? “The Chicoutimi Cucumber looked more like a well perforated slab of Roquefort. Vez stopped plenty, but he was handling drives from inside his defence that kept him on the hop, and was frequently forced out of his nets in desperate sorties, trying to split the Ottawa attack.”

As for Montreal’s forwards, Didier Pitre stood out. He “played hard,” the Journal allowed, “and while he has to bend forward to see his skates, uncoiled some whistling drives that would have knocked Benny’s roof into the south-end seats had they hit on the cupola.”

Newsy Lalonde seemed “passé” to the Ottawa eye — though to the correspondent from Montreal’s Le Canada, he was brilliant and gave one of the best performances of his career.

There was hope for Montreal, on the western horizon. Leo Dandurand was Montreal’s managing director (he was also one of the team’s new owners) and word was that he’d signed up an Ottawa youngster by the name of Aurèle Joliat who’d been playing out in Saskatoon.

In the end, he wouldn’t play for the Canadiens for another year, and so he was of no help when the Canadiens played the Senators again four days later at the Mount Royal Arena. This time they lost in overtime, 1-2, with Punch Broadbent beating Vézina for the winning goal — on a “flip shot from the side.”

February 21, 1933
Boston 10
Montreal 0

It was another 11 years before Montreal conspired against themselves to lose so large again, but not everything had changed: Leo Dandurand was still the team’s managing director and smothered was still the best word (in The Winnipeg Tribune this time) for a game Canadiens managed to lose by ten goals to none.

Would it surprise you to hear that the blood was running bad between Montreal and Boston back in the winter of ’33? They’d played a pair of games back in January, with the Canadiens winning the first, 5-2, at home before succumbing a few days later (2-3) in Boston. That second game was particularly nasty, with Boston defenceman Eddie Shore in a leading role. The crosscheck on Johnny Gagnon and the fight with Sylvio Mantha was the just beginning; the referee and judge of play were both injured at Shore’s hands. Bruins’ coach Art Ross was ill and missed the game. In a complaint to NHL president Frank Calder, Dandurand accused Boston owner Charles F. Adams of instigating the ugliness.

In the aftermath, Shore was fined $100 and told to behave: “Pres Calder intimated,” The Boston Globe advised, “that if Eddie starts any more rumpuses he will most likely draw indefinite suspension.” The referee, Cooper Smeaton, was reported to be resting in bed with two fractured ribs. He just happened to have been on duty back in 1921 for that inaugural 10-0 showing.

It was with all this in the near background when Montreal went back to Boston in February and lost 10-0.

The Boston Daily Globe didn’t gloat, too much: the headline that called the game a slaughter also turned the focus from the losers to the 16,000 fans looking on at Boston Garden. For them, it was A Goal-Scoring Treat.

Bruins who enjoyed themselves particularly included Marty Barry (five points) and Dit Clapper (four). Shore contained himself, collecting two assists, a tripping penalty, and a cut over the eye.

The only shot that troubled Tiny Thompson was directed at him accidentally by a teammate, Vic Ripley.

George Hainsworth

George Hainsworth

Back in Montreal, The Gazette didn’t said what had to be said. “The Flying Frenchmen put on about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” Along with Dandurand, coach Newsy Lalonde might have been one to recall that wasn’t quite so. Howie Morenz played as though “his speedy legs were shackled” (Boston paper took the view that he was “effectively bottled.” Boston reporters commended Canadiens’ goaltender George Hainsworth for “unusually fine saves” on Dit Clapper and Red Beattie. Back in Montreal, the Gazette noted that he had 17 shots fired at him during the third period. “He missed seven of them to cap the most wretched performance of his career.”

The Canadiens trudged home. Two days later, when they hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, Hainsworth was back at work. He had an injured ankle, it turned out, and the Gazette divulged that it caused him “acute pain throughout.” Still, he stopped 14 shots in Montreal’s 2-0 win for his sixth shutout of the season. Continue reading

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Press Ganged: The 1938-39 Boston Bruins line up for Boston photographers. From left, best-guessed: Bobby Bauer, Cooney Weiland, Frank Brimsek, Bill Cowley, Mel Hill, Tiny Thompson, Charlie Sands, Eddie Shore, Ray Getliffe, Terry Reardon, Harry Frost, Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, Flash Hollett, Roy Conacher, Dit Clapper, Jack Portland, and Gord Pettinger.

(Image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)

a monkey wrench, a hardboiled egg: only missed my head by a foot

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Rossman: Coach and manager and spirit of the team, Art Ross shaped and led the Boston Bruins. Photographed here in the 1930s.

The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.

That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?

Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.

The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.

The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”

That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 78, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”

Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”

All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.

He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400.  He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patrick’s to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his $400 investment.

Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.

The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.

“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.

In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared. Continue reading

tell all the people of ottawa that I’ll never forget them

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King Comes To Town: Clancy shows off his new Leaf togs at training camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, in October of 1930.

Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.

Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.

There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.

Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.

The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.

Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.

“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”

The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”

Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.

And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.

Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.

First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.

Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.

For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.

Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.

Clancy agreed.

As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?

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Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.

The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading