headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

scoring on your own net: he fell forward on his face, lay prone on the ice, and refused to be comforted

roy w

Handcuffed: “I’ve never seen it happen before in all the years I’ve been in hockey,” Roy Worters said in 1940 when his glove betrayed him.

For all the uproar over the puck Edmonton’s Kris Russell fired into his own net last week, you’d think it was NHL’s first own goal. It wasn’t. Just ask — no, actually, let’s leave Steve Smith out of this. Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Patrick Laine, then. Not quite a year has passed since the then-rookie winger for the Winnipeg Jets scored a goal that counted for the Oilers — won them the game, in fact. Laine skated away without so much as a producer’s credit: Edmonton’s Mark Letestu goes down in scoresheet history as the game-winning-goaler. What else is there to say? “I think everybody saw what happened,” Laine told reporters after the game. “That’s my comments.”

He has a point. Though if hockey is, as they say, is a game of mistakes, the suggestion that we shouldn’t dwell on own goals does kind of limit the conversation. I agree that we probably don’t need a central registry of every last self-inflicted score in NHL history. That doesn’t mean we can’t revisit a bunch of them here. Where to start, though? And once you have started, where then to stop?

In 1931, Boston’s Eddie Shore hammered the puck past teammate Tiny Thompson to win a game for the New York Americans. He did it again five years later, in Toronto: the Leafs’ Bill Thoms took a shot on Thompson, which he saved, only to see the puck bounce up. “As Tiny went down,” the Daily Star’s Andy Lytle wrote, “Eddie Shore batted it into the net instead of over it.”

Detroit defenceman Benny Woit snared a rebound in front Red Wings goaltender Terry Sawchuk at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1954. Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail saw it all. “There wasn’t a Toronto player near him. Evidently he planned to flip the puck behind the net but somehow his radar became fouled up and he tossed it directly into the open goal.”

In 1998, Montreal defenceman Vladimir Malakhov whacked Pittsburgh’s winning goal past Canadiens’ goaltender Andy Moog. Penguin Stu Barnes claimed that one. Moog said it was his fault. Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appointed Malakhov a member of Sigma Alpha Oops.

I’ve seen a reference to a couple of “reverse hattricks” — long-ago Amerks’ defencemen Pat Egan and Detroit’s Marcel Pronovost are both implicated in scoring three goals in a single game on their own nets, though I haven’t been able to further verify either one of those claims.

That’s probably enough. Almost. Two last incidents and we’ll leave it there. It’s embarrassing to score on your own net, and terrible-feeling. In Toronto in ’54, 13,115 Leaf fans (quote) roared with delight after Woit scored on Sawchuk. “Woit,” Rex MacLeod wrote, “looked appealingly around the ice, probably praying for a manhole to materialize so that he could jump in.” In Edmonton in ’86, Steve Smith was down on the ice weeping. Which gets us to Roy Worters and Jack Portland.

Roy Worters • January, 1931

Is it an own goal when a goaltender puts the puck past himself? There’s probably a good argument to made that no, it’s not. That’s not going to slow us down here. In February of 1927 Roy Worters was guarding the Pittsburgh Pirate goal in a game that ended up 2-1 for the New York Rangers. The first goal went like this, according to the Associated Press:

Bun Cook went the length and shot, but the puck hit the backboards and bounded back to the front of the net to one side. Worters attempted to clear with his hand and accidentally pushed the disc into the net.

“A tough break,” the AP’s man on the scene called it; an editor for The Pittsburgh Daily Post amplified that to “Bone Play” in the headline overhead.

On to 1931. Worters was tending the New York Americans’ net by now. This time, Montreal Canadiens were in visiting Madison Square Garden. Last minute of the second period, score tied 1-1, Canadiens were pressing. Left winger Georges Mantha flipped the puck high towards the Americans’ goal. Worters dropped to his knees to catch it, did, left-handedly, but then (as one report put it) “became flurried.” In trying to throw the puck into the corner, as goaltenders used to do, he tossed it into his own net. Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle picks up the story:

From the press rows it looked as if the rubber was hot and Roy wanted to get rid of it. But he was just trying to clear his net, as he had done some 25 times before during the evening. However, the puck caught in the tear he didn’t know anything about and, instead of going into the corner, it went right into to the cage behind him. To his horror, the red light went up and the winning goal was scored.

A tear in the leather of his glove, that is. Neither Worters nor Amerks’ trainer Percy Ryan had noticed it, I guess. Burr:

When Roy saw what had happened he fell forward on his face and laid prone on the ice and refused to be comforted.

New York coach Red Dutton had to come out on the ice, and did so, and lifted up his goaltender. Told him to forget it.

Not often does Red’s voice break, but it broke then. For the rest of the game Worters was the most pathetic figure in the rink No one could read his thoughts as he crouched there in his cage, but they must have been scalding.

No-one scored in the third, so Canadiens won 2-1. Burr was down in the New York dressing room for the post-game denouement.

Worters sat staring blindly at the offending glove, bulky and shapeless with its reinforcement of felt padding. It was the first of his harness he discarded belowstairs but the last to toss aside.

“I’ve worn that glove for three years and now I’ll have to throw it away — after this,” he was muttering. “I made the same kind of a play every goalie in the league makes when he catches the puck. But it caught in my glove. I’ve never seen it happen before, all the years I’ve been in hockey. Say, Percy!”

The passing trainer came climbing gingerly over discarded heaps of rag-bag underwear so dear to the heart of a hockey player. He was woebegone for the first time this winter.

“Yes, Roy,” he gulped.

Worters handed him the glove that had failed him. “You’d better order me a new pair of gauntlets from the sporting goods store,” he said kindly. “Those old babies are fairly well shot, anyway,” continued Roy, showing the places where the faithful Percy had darned and patched and darned again. “But it’s going to take me all the rest of the season to break in a new pair. I sure liked those old gloves — until tonight.”

 

Jack Portland • March, 1940

Chicago was the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs that year, though Toronto finished higher in the standings: that’s what The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer was saying in 1940 as the regular season rounded into the playoffs. In the opening round, the Maple Leafs ended up sweeping past the Black Hawks in two straight games. It was closer than that sounds. The first game went to an overtime that Syl Apps ended in the hometown Leafs’ favour. The second game, back in Chicago, was tied 1-1 in the third period when — well, there was nothing so remarkable to Jack Portland’s gaffe. Toronto rookie Hank Goldup had taken a shot on Hawks goaltender Paul Goodman and in trying to swat rebound clear, Portland failed to do that.

The Chicago Tribune’s Charles Bartlett didn’t make a whole lot out of the mistaken game-winner: inadvertent, he called it. But in Toronto’s Daily Star, Andy Lytle went to town on Portland:

That makes him an athletic goat comparable to Roy Reagels, who ran a ball the wrong way for a touch-down in football, to “Wrong-Way Corrigan” in the air, to Merkle in baseball, who forgot to touch a base, and to Snodgrass who muffed a fly in world series baseball and kissed a flock of easy dough a tragic [sic] good-by.

Which seems altogether heartless. Max Bentley was a Chicago rookie that year, and while he didn’t make it to the ice in those playoffs, he was with the team. He later said that he’d never seen a man so heartbroken as Portland, who cried bitterly in the dressing-room after the game, and for days after that locked himself in his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

Not that it would have provided much solace at the time, but I hope Portland knew that he wasn’t alone that spring. The Leafs ended up going to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Rangers. In the ten playoff games they played, they scored a total of 21 goals. Nineteen per cent of those were, in fact, knocked into nets by helpful opponents — along with Portland, Chicago’s Art Wiebe and New York’s Mac Colville and Alf Pike scored goals they regretted that counted for the Leafs that spring.

 

 

 

 

swoops like a hawk, seldom suffers mishap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

•••

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.”

 

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Iceward: Boston’s Bruins make their way to the ice at the Garden, circa 1939. Leading the way is Frank Brimsek, followed by Eddie Shore, Charlie Sands, Dir Clapper, Cooney Weiland, Jack Portland, and Roy Conacher.

 

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

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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)