lapses in the legacy: tallying up boston’s neglected captains

“Patrice Bergeron was meant to be a Bruins captain,” a former Boston teammate of his was saying last week, Martin Lapointe, emphasis on the meant and on the destiny. Is there anyone who pays attention to the NHL who’s going to dispute it?

Bergeron’s inevitable ascension to the captaincy came last Thursday, seven days after Zdeno Chara’s 14-year tenure sporting the Boston C ended when the lofty defenceman signed with the Washington Capitals.

Was a week enough to dissipate the regret associated with Chara’s departure? Maybe not quite, but the announcement of Bergeron’s succession still made for a proud picture to add to the gallery commemorating the Bruins’ 97-year history.

It was also very much of the fraught moment: players, coaches, and managers at TD Garden that day were all masked for the dressing-room ceremony that formalized Bergeron’s new role. Elsewhere, online, the team marked the occasion with a profusion of nouns and glossy graphics, the former (“Integrity. Humility. Resiliency.”) featuring in the latter.Bruins GM Don Sweeney threw in a few more in his statement.

“Patrice Bergeron exudes leadership, character, talent, will, and empathy,” Sweeney said. “We all know Bergy embraces the legacy of the Boston Bruins, as he will with the captaincy.”

Patrice Bergeron: Boston’s new  (but not 20th) captain.

Bergeron, who’s 35, is skating into his 17th season as a Bruin. He had his say, too.

“It’s very humbling. It’s a huge honour,” he offered. “There’s been some tremendous captains and leaders along the way, and some legends of the game, and as I said it’s an absolute honour and I’m going to try to keep bettering myself and learning and leading by example, but also trying to be me.”

All in all, then, a bright note on which to get the new season going in such a fraught time.

Yes, true — unless you’re talking hockey history, which Bergy and the Bruins were. From a hockey history perspective, last Thursday’s announcement was (at best) confused. It wasn’t Bergeron’s fault, and it doesn’t make him any less deserving of the Boston C, but it was — and continues to be — a bad look for the Bruins, who’ve been careless with their own history, inattentive to the detail of their rich past, and even willfully neglectful.

If they’re willing to revel in their history (and they should), they ought to take pains to get it right.

There have been, as Bergeron noted, tremendous captains and leaders along the way since Charles Adams took his grocery money and put the Bruins on ice in 1924. They should allbe remembered, and recognized.

Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Boston Bruins, as the team is content to claim. Somehow, somewhere the Bruins have forgotten — and duly erased from their records — the captaincies of at least six Bruins — and maybe as many as eight.

Included in those numbers are five (or six) Hall-of-Famers, some of the greatest names in the annals of the team.

How did this happen? It’s not entirely clear.

Are these mistakes that can be corrected? Easily.

Will they be? Hockey is full of surprises.

These are not contentious cases. The evidence backing up the claims I’m making on behalf of six (or eight) famous Bruins takes some finding, which is to say it involves a certain amount of steering search-engines through newspaper archives, which is to say, no, actually, not that much finding is required at all, just some persistence.

Other than that, it’s not controversial, or particularly difficult to decode. It’s pretty plain. I have it organized here at my desk, because, well, that’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing. I like to share, too, which is why I’ve offered this information I shuffled together to the Bruins in case they wanted to look at it and, you know, acknowledge their own, update the record.

There are errors and inconsistencies in the records of other NHL teams and their accountings of who captained them. Mostly, these are irregularities of the calendar, having to with when a certain player was appointed captain, for how long he served. With no other team (I’ve looked) is the forgetting on a scale that matches Boston’s.

There’s nothing sinister behind this. Part of it seems to be that the record has been faulty for so long that the gaps have worn down, grown over. It’s easy to accept antiquity as accuracy; it’s not just in matters of hockey history that errors get repeated over and over again to the point that they sound almost truthful. (It does happen in hockey history a lot, though.)

What’s baffling in this Bruins case is that the team seems to be so very much … not really interested. Give them that: there does seem to be a consistent commitment to indifference over the years.

“I’m not really in the know on this stuff,” Bob Bauer said when we talked a few months ago. “I mean, I know my dad’s career, but I didn’t know about the being overlooked as captain thing.”

He’s a lawyer in Toronto, Bob; his dad was Bobby Bauer, legendary Bruins, right winger on the Kraut Line, three-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy, Hall of Fame class of 1996. He died in 1964 at the age of 49, when his son was 17.

Maybe the younger Bauer could have followed his father into the NHL — Bob played at Harvard, for the Crimson, and later in Austria. “I didn’t think really — I thought I’d be more likely to be riding the buses in the IHL,” he laughed, “and that wasn’t really a pleasant thought for me, so that was kind of it.”

Bob Bauer knew his dad’s linemates well, Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart. Knowing what Bobby achieved in the hockey, Bob worked, too, on compiling the nomination package that helped see his namesake inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’96.

But the fact that his father captained the Bruins in his last year in the NHL? That was news to Bob when I first got in touch by e-mail. “I went back and looked at what I had submitted [to the Hall],” he said on the phone. “It didn’t mention one way or another about him being captain that year.”

It’s true, though. Even though the Bruins fail to acknowledge it, Bobby Bauer was indeed captain of the team for the 1946-47 season, his last in the NHL.

There’s no doubt about this. The evidence isn’t cloudy, doesn’t leave room for other interpretations.

Bauer was 31 in ’46, heading into his eighth year as Bruin. Like many hockey players — like lots of his Bruin teammates — he’d interrupted his NHL career to go to war. Serving with the RCAF, he missed three full seasons before making a return to the ice in 1945. Back on skates, he helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup final the following spring, though the Montreal Canadiens beat them in five games.

After the final game at the Forum Bauer tried to pack up his sweater, number 17, to take home as a souvenir. Manager Art Ross wouldn’t surrender it. “You’ll be using it next year,” he said.

Globe and Mail, October 17, 1946

He was right. In October, Bauer joined the rest of his Boston teammates in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Bruins convened to train for the upcoming season. It was on a Wednesday, the 16th, that Ross announced that number 17 would be the Bruins’ new captain.

“Bauer, often referred to as the ‘Brain,’ will make an excellent leader,” Boston’s Globe reported. “The Bruins will also have two alternate captains in the event Bobby is not on the ice during a dispute. These cocaptains [sic] are defensemen, Johnny Crawford, team leader the past few seasons, and Murray Henderson.”

It was a year of change in the NHL. Clarence Campbell succeeded Red Dutton as president of the league that fall. Rosters, reduced in wartime, expanded. Tweaks to the NHL’s rulebook saw changes to regulations governing penalty shots, broken sticks, and unnecessary roughness. New face-off dots were mandated and, as a safety measure, it was decreed that across the league, all gates leading to the ice now had to swing inwards.

Also, for the first time in NHL history, captains of teams got a letter for their sweaters. Never before had players actually worn a letter to indicate their role as captain or alternate. The effort to limit players crowding referees to complain and dispute calls had been ongoing over the years, and this new act of embroidery was another piece of that.

“One Captain shall be appointed by each team,” Rule 14 of the NHL Rulebook now stipulated, “and he alone shall have the privilege of discussing with the Referee any questions relating to interpretation of rules which may arise during the progress of a game. He shall wear the letter ‘C’, approximately three inches in height and in contrasting color, in a conspicuous position on the front of his sweater.”

If this new lettering aided referees at the time, now privileged with easy identification of players permitted to get in their grill, it also continues to abet historians and curious record-keepers alike. The first to wear an actual C in Boston, Bauer wore his front and centre, stitched in between the 1 and the 7 of the sweater he’d almost given up earlier in 1946. There’s no mistaking it in the Bruins’ team photograph:

It’s apparent, too, in images from games the Bruins played that year, like this one below, from Maple Leaf Gardens in March of 1947. That’s Bauer and his C lurking in front of Leaf goaltender Turk Broda. Leaf captain Syl Apps (his own C obscured) is down on a knee in the slot. Bruin winger Joe Carveth is the man with the puck.

If that’s not proof enough, then maybe could I interest you in the notation official NHL documentation for that same game, with Bauer and Apps annotated with Cs and Nick Metz and Gaye Stewart listed as alternate captains along with Crawford and Henderson?

As mentioned, I’m not the first to flag this, or to have tried to engage with the Bruins to point it out.

Others have written to the team to make the case over the years, or even phoned, cold-calling the TD Garden with the quixotic notion that somebody there might be curious.

Boston author and lifelong Bruins fan Kevin Vautour is one such optimist. For years he’s been trying to get the team’s attention and recognize Bauer’s captaincy. Vautour has collected (and shared) newspaper articles, program notes, photos of Bauer wearing the C. He’s not so much frustrated by the Bruins’ attitude towards their own history as he is flummoxed.

Okay, he is, possibly, a little frustrated. “Maybe they don’t care,” he hazarded in “Recognizing An Omission,” a 2008 article for the Society for International Hockey Research’s annual Journal. In that same piece he chronicled a call he put in to the team’s PR department, which someone named John gamely took, and from whom Vautour … never heard back.

Taking up the challenge last year, I made a little more … what? Not progress, exactly. After arrowing several e-mails into the Boston ether, I did eventually hear from Heidi Holland, the team’s director of publications and information, whose job it is to corral and compile all the stats and esoteric detail that goes into the team’s voluminous annual Guide & Record Book, the de facto official record of all things Bruin.

Team guides used to be published the old-fangled way, on paper, but now they’re only online. The latest edition, for 2020-21, went up before last week’s news, so if you scroll over to page 241, where the honour roll of Bruin captains is listed alongside the men who’ve managed, coached, and presidented the team since their start in 1924, you won’t find Patrice Bergeron’s name.

Nineteen others are there, from Sprague Cleghorn all the way through to Chara:

Boston Wrong: Boston’s register of captains, as listed in the team’s 2020-21 Guide & Record Book.

What about Bobby Bauer? How was the list sourced? Were the Bruins aware of Guide’s several absences and anomalies? Could I send along some corroborating evidence in the spirit of friendly good-faith remedial philanthropy?

I e-mailed my questions, then chased that e-mail with a few (exponentially irritating?) follows-up. In Holland’s perfectly gracious reply, I gleaned, if nothing else,that the reason the Bruins’ complacency when it comes to bygone captains seems as solid as it does may be largely Schmidt-based. Holland wrote:

This question has come up a couple of times over the past several years but unfortunately, I have no way of confirming it. The list of captains from earlier media guides lists John Crawford as captain in that season. The earliest media guide that I have is 1947-48 and Crawford’s bio in that book only says that he has “been captain or assistant captain of the Bruins in recent seasons.” Bauer does not have a bio in that guide.

When the subject first came up, I asked Milt Schmidt (as the only person who was active at that time) if he remembered Bobby being named Boston’s captain and he did not have any recollection that he did.

Makes sense, I guess — other than the abundance of proofs that don’t rely on the memory of the altogether eminent and venerable Schmidt, an institution unto himself, who captained, coached, and GM’d the Bruins in his day, and, right up until his death at age 98 in 2017, remained a beloved icon in and around the team.

Especially since, as it turns out, Bauer isn’t the only Bruin great to have somehow vanished off the historical ledger.

Waiting to hear back from Holland, I kept on shaking the archives, as I tend to do, to see what might fall from the branches. One of the more instructive items I came across was from Montreal Gazettecolumnist Vern DeGeer writing in 1961.

He’d been talking to Ken McKenzie, the co-founder of The Hockey News who also served as the NHL’s long-time publicist. It was thanks to McKenzie’s research that DeGeer was able to report that Chicago’s Black Hawks was the club with the most captains in its history to date, with 18. (Almost but not quite right: Chicago is another club who’ve forgotten a leader or two. But maybe that’s another day’s post.)

The captaincy-confusion seems to have been general. While Montreal’s Canadiens have subsequently righted the record, the Gazette was at in ’61 confident that new Habs skipper Jean Béliveau counted as the team’s ninth captain since the founding in 1909, when in fact he was the 16th.

Remarking on the Bruins, DeGeer alluded specifically to the scattered state of Boston records. According to McKenzie, team records of the captaincy were so lacking that they only included six names and reached back no further than 1939 and Dit Clapper.

“The Boston publicity department,” DeGeer lamented, “hasn’t been able to track down names of any earlier leaders.”

I don’t know — maybe the modern-day Bruins can find some comfort in knowing that 60 years ago, the record was already wanting.

Back in the present, I was a little affronted, I suppose, when Heidi Holland didn’t invite me to send along my Bobby Bauer findings. So along with DeGeer’s article, I didn’t send them.

I guess I was feeling a little sheepish, too, as though it were my fault that the more I juddered the archives, the more the captains missing from the record seemed to multiple.

By then, gazing back beyond Bauer through the 13 seasons before he got the C stitched onto his solar plexus, I found that five other famous Bruins had somehow been effaced from the record.

When I’d first e-mailed the Bruins, I’d been ready to pronounce that Bauer was the Bruins’ seventh captain, which meant that Zdeno Chara came 20th in the succession. Actually? Bauer is (confirmably) the 12thman to have led the team. Given that, Patrice Bergeron is at the very least the 26th captain in Boston Bruins’ history. Depending on your interpretation of a later situation from the 1960s, he could be the 28th.

Either way, that’s a big helping of oblivion. As a team proud of its history you’d want to get that looked at, you’d think.

It was at some point during the 1931-32 NHL that Art Ross made a decision that’s key to the story of the Boston captaincy and its missing protagonists. Just how Ross reasoned this isn’t clear — I haven’t seen it explained, at least — but the Bruins’ coach and manager decided that, in the future, the team would pick a new captain each season.

Hired to launch the expansion Bruins into the NHL in 1924, Art Ross steered his team that first year without naming a captain. (Vern DeGeer speculated in 1961 that if he hadchosen one, the likeliest candidate would have been left winger Herb Mitchell, sometimes said to have been the first player ever signed by the Bruins as well as — maybe not coincidentally — Ross’ brother-in-law.)

Ross did name a leader in 1925, making Sprague Cleghorn the team’s first captain. At 35, Cleghorn was an old Montreal friend of Ross’, as well as a wily, much-scarred — and all-too-willing-to-scar — veteran who, in the five years before joining Boston, had played in four Stanley Cup finals, three times on the winning side.

Cleghorn captained the team for three seasons. To start the last of these, 1927-28, Ross, ever the innovator, named a 25-year-old Lionel Hitchman as his deputy — vice-captain, he called him. This was an NHL first, as far as I know.

“Sprague Cleghorn,” Ross explained to the Boston Globe, “continues, of course, as the Bruins’ captain, but Hitchman a year ago was the regular starting defenceman with [Eddie] Shore, and he will be the playing captain of the team when he is on the ice. Cleghorn will continue to have the entire supervision of players’ conduct as team captain, and when on the ice he will make all decisions.”

Like Cleghorn’s, Hitchman’s stint as captain lasted three years. In his first year at the helm, 1929, he led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup. In 1930, slowed by injuries, Hitchman tried to relinquish his role. Ross wouldn’t hear of it, convincing him to stick with it for one more season.

As the manager told it in 1931, the team picked his successor in their dressing room at the Montreal Forum the day before they opened the season against the Maroons. Hitchman nominated 30-year-old defenceman George Owen, with Eddie Shore seconding the motion. The resulting vote was unanimous. Owen himself missed the election: he’d stayed back in Boston to tend tending to his business, joining his teammates for the game next day.

Dit Clapper was next. He was 25. “The likable right winger yesterday was elected to lead the Bruins,” the Globeheralded in October of 1932, “continuing the policy of selecting a new captain each playing season.”

By his biographer’s account, Clapper’s inauguration involved a ceremonial shower of snow and ice-shavings in the Boston Garden dressing room.

As far as the Bruins are concerned, Ross’ one-off policy ended the following year, with Clapper re-upping and continuing on as captain for five further seasons, through 1937-38.

As with Bobby Bauer, that’s where their history is wonky.

Boston Globe, November 7, 1933.

The policy didn’t expire: in early November of 1933, in Quebec City, where the Bruins convened their training camp, 27-year-old Marty Barry was anointed captain.

He was expected, I suppose, to lead by example — nobody could have been expecting him to rule by oratory. The Globe sketched the scene as his captaincy was announced. “Barry, who never utters a word in the dressing room, as usual had nothing to say, but his playmates insisted, so Marty stood up and made the longest speech of his career. ‘Thanks fellows,’ then he sat down.”

Barry was the first of four captains from the 1930s who are now forgotten by the Bruins. Nels Stewart, 31, came next, a 32-year-old Eddie Shore after him, Hall-of-Famers both. Next was Red Beattie, who was 30.

The announcements of these appointments are all there in 90-year-old print, not just in the Boston papers, but across North America as, year by year, the merits of Boston’s new captains were duly discussed.

In 1934, the Globe noted that Bruins’ goaltender Tiny Thompson had been in the running alongside Stewart, but that coach Frank Patrick “felt a goalie-captain tends to slow up the game in case of disputes on the ice. In 1935, extolling Shore, the Globe reminded readers that Boston captains were appointed (by Ross) rather than elected, and that their term lasted just a year.

Boston Globe, October 25, 1934.

That policy was in fact finally coming to its end. Cooney Weiland, 34, was the new captain in 1937 and kept the job for a second year, during which he also served as Art Ross’ assistant coach, and so might deserve a double measure of credit for the fact that Boston claimed the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1939. (Not to rain on that parade, but I have to report that the Bruins have their dates wrong on Weiland, crediting him with just a single year as captain instead of his two.)

Weiland’s 1939 retirement opened the door for a return to the captaincy by Dit Clapper, now 32, starting into his 13th season as a Bruin. He lasted five seasons this time around, raising a Stanley Cup in 1941.

And the Bruins … well, the Bruins have him staying on through to 1946-47, after which (they assert) John — a.k.a. Jack — Crawford stepped up.

No.

It was the fall of 1944 that Clapper handed over the captaincy to concentrate on his duties as Boston’s playing coach. Yet another long-unacknowledged name took his place: 32-year-old Bill Cowley.

It was after Cowley that Crawford got his turn as captain, and while the Bruins give him credit for four years’ service in the role, he actually only lasted one. Bobby Bauer was next, as mentioned, followed by his (forgetful) friend and linemate Milt Schmidt.

There are other kinks in the Bruins’ list as you go on, mostly to do with dates, nothing on the scale of the gaps that mar the ’30s and ’40s. A corrected list of the entire span of those first decades and the captains who (actually) reigned is here for your consideration, in case you’re interested. Eventually I’ll add in the later decades and highlight some of the confusions and anomalies therein.

For now, let’s just preview a single, significant one of those.

If you study the Bruins’ master list, you’ll see that they declare “No Captain” for the years 1967-68 through 1972-73. Johnny Bucyk’s name appears on either side of this chasm in the captaincy, before (1966-67) and after (1973-74 to 1976-77).

Why so?

It’s complicated and (in this later case) open to some interpreting. I’ll spare you most of that here, focussing (for now) on the first of those No-Captain years, 1967-68, if only because I have a fairly explicit explanation at hand of what went on that year.

Again we go to the Boston Globe, for whom reporter Kevin Walsh was on the Bruins beat as a new NHL season, the first of the expansion era, approached in October of 1967. Here’s Walsh’s lede from a piece headlined “Three Captains Leading Bruins:”

The big ‘C’ Johnny Bucyk wore on his uniform a year ago that designated him as team captain of the Bruins has been retired. He now wears an ‘A’.

Coach Harry Sinden was happy to explain the spelling correction. He and his GM had were opting in this new hockey age for co-captains — that’s the word that he and (none other than) Milt Schmidt were using.

“We decided,” Sinden said, “the important duties of the captain would be shared among Bucyk. Ted Green, and Phil Esposito. All share equally the responsibility of captain.”

Bucyk, he reported, was all aboard. “He thinks it’s a good idea.”

Divided C: The 1967-68 Bruins, featuring co-captains (and GM Milt Schmidt).

“If the league rules allowed it,” Sinden went on, “we would have three men on the ice wearing a C. We may eventually have a captain but right now we will have three players share the duty.”

“We are the first team in the league to have co-captains,” he added, perhaps as a nod of trailblazing respect to Art Ross, “and I feel it’s a good idea.”

So, then: do Ted Green and Phil Esposito deserve to be tallied in the catalogue of Boston captains? Is the proper total 28 rather than 26?

As well as it might have worked at the time, the decision to divide the captaincy in three clearly posed a problem for the team’s records-keepers who, maybe, decided that “No Captain” was simpler that Co-captains. I suppose it’s an easier solution than having to annotate and explain, even if annotating and explaining might better reflect and even honour the team’s history.

I’m satisfied to offer Green and Esposito up for debate. It’s true that they never wore the C for Boston, so it makes a sort of sense that they’re not counted in the overall tally of Bruins captains. Does it, though? By Harry Sinden’s description here, they were captains of the team just as much as Johnny Bucyk was before and after he shared his title.

As for the earlier others, I don’t see how Boston can continue to ignore them. With all due respect to Milt Schmidt’s memory, proof of the Bruin captaincies of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Bill Cowley, and Bobby Bauer is available and confirmable.

It’s time to elevate their distinguished names to the register up alongside Patrice Bergeron’s.

Captains Three: Three B defenceman, all of whom led the team in their early decades. From left, Eddie Shore, George Owen, and Lionel Hitchman.

eddie shore and that old-time … agriculture

Reap Rep: Eddie Shore on his binder at the farm near Duagh, Alberta, at point in (probably) the early 1930s. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-4293)

Glenn Hall’s barn took its place in hockey history in the fall of 1966, the year he bought his farm in Stony Plain, Alberta, a half-hour’s drive west of Edmonton. That was the year Hall, then in his mid-30s, told the Chicago Black Hawks he was retiring. “When someone called one day,” Hall recalled a few years later, “my wife was home and answered the phone and said I was out on the farm painting the barn.” While the man they called Mr. Goalie returned to Chicago that same fall, and went on to play five further seasons with the St. Louis Blues, the barn took on its own life as a tale that was told perennially — still is — to explain why Hall was delayed for training camp: he had to paint his barn.

“I only tried to retire twice,” Hall, a native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, tried to clarify in the 1970s. “The other times I had permission to be late for camp so I could get the crop in.”

Hall, now 89, still lives on the property in Stony Plain, where that barn, which is red, looks over the land. Its story is still favoured in hockey folklore.

Not so well remembered is the farmland 45 minutes away to the northwest that became a regular focus of the hockey world 30 years earlier, when another Saskatchewan-born hockey superstar, one of the most famous figures of the NHL’s early years, was in the habit of announcing he’d just as soon farm his fields than play defence for the Boston Bruins.

Today, on (probably but possibly not) Eddie-Shore’s birthday, a visit to his Alberta acreage.

First, regarding the birth: mostly you’ll see it dated to November 25, 1902, which a Tuesday 118 years ago. And that does seem to be all in order, given that it’s a date that Shore himself cited on such serious documents as his 1942 U.S. military draft registration. The 1985 record of his death in Massachusetts also names November 25.

And yet, as conclusive as that seems, the Province of Saskatchewan’s record of Shore’s debut in 1902 lists … November 23, a Sunday. Hard to say whose the error might be, especially since we do have evidence of a certain odd coyness on Shore’s own part — that’s to come, a little further on.

In the meantime, happy birthday, belated or not, to the Edmonton Express.

That nickname took some geographical liberties, of course: whatever the date, Eddie Shore was born 850 kilometres and a province to the east of the Alberta capital, in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina. The former Kate Spanier was his mother, Thomas John — T.J. — his father.

When Shore was eight, the family moved about 50 kilometres north and to the west where, as Michael Hiam tells it in Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey, his 2010 biography, T.J. would eventually be farming a property of some 70,000 acres, with 400 head of horses and 600 of cattle on it, while annually producing 100,000 bushels of wheat.

So Eddie was farm-tested from an early age, which is also to say farm-forged. He was taming ponies at the age of nine, Hiam writes. At 12, he was driving four-horse teams to the grain elevator in Cupar. Shore was an expert roper at 15; by the time he was 16, he was riding herd on thousands of cattle.

Boy Cowboy: Eddie Shore at the age of 13 (and steed). The signature came later. (Image: Classic Auctions)

He later told a Boston sportswriter about nearly freezing to death in that era, riding herd one winter when temperatures had plunged to minus 61 F. In his own words:

I say 61 because our thermometers register to 60 below and they all broke. I had to drive 23 head of cattle 32 miles for my father.

There was sort of a trail about three feet wide and with the snow three feet deep on both sides the cattle stayed in file all right. We jog trotted them so that they wouldn’t freeze and got off the horses every once in a while so that we wouldn’t.

On the way back I started to freeze and just a little way from home my horse fell down. I didn’t realize it until then but I was partly frozen. My legs were frozen in the shape of the horse.

You could freeze to death in a very short time there and freezing would be a pleasure. Just a pleasant numbness but I wasn’t that far gone, and it was pretty painful, coming to and getting on the horse again.

Shore’s survival on the trial eventually allowed for his burgeoning hockey career to get him to Melville, Saskatchewan, in the early 1920s. From there he continued on to Regina, then to Edmonton, where he skated for the WHL Eskimos in 1925-26, before taking his talents to Boston in 1926.

Dealmakers: NHL President Frank Calder and Eddie Shore meet on the ice at Boston Garden in the late 1930s. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

It didn’t take Shore long to establish himself as one of the NHL’s biggest (and unruliest) stars. He’d help the Bruins win a Stanley Cup in 1929 and another in ’39, and in the decade between those championships he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player four times.

In the Edmonton news, May of 1928

In 1928, he got back to the land. The Bruins had bowed out of the playoffs in early April, dismissed by the New York Rangers, eventual Cup champions. May brought news that Shore had bought himself an Alberta spread, paying $16,400 for Albert Elliott’s farm, just beyond Edmonton’s northern city limits. Though in Shore’s day the name of the locality was often misrendered in press reports as Daugh, it was in Duagh that Shore set himself up as a farmer. (The slip is not only historical: Michael Hiam’s biography gets it wrong, too.)

Sizewise, Hiam reports that the property was 640 acres, and some contemporary accounts agree with that, too, though in fact it was a half section, 320 acres.

I don’t know what salary Shore was getting from the Bruins at this point. The $9,000-a-year that the Montreal Maroons were paying defenceman Dunc Munro was reported to be the NHL’s highest salary in ’28 — though there was also some talk that year that these same Maroons had signed Canadian Olympic star Dave Trottier for $12,000.

If Shore was taking in something less than that, he had been doing well enough the previous summer to have decided to give up his summer job back in Melville, where he’d been shovelling coal for the Canadian National Railway going back to when he was playing senior hockey there. (The end of the 1926-27 NHL season had, it’s true, enriched Shore by $2,000 in bonuses.)

For a view of the set-up at Duagh, we’ll trust to a plucky reporter from the Edmonton Journal who paid a visit in the summer of 1929.

The Bruins had won the Cup that spring, but Shore wasn’t resting much at all, let alone on any laurels. He was toiling hard, “enjoying 10 to 12 hours work every day on his farm.” He had 170 acres sown to wheat that year, and his barnyard roster included 14 horses and 400 chickens. He was just getting started, though:

Eddie is planning to have one of the finest farms in the entire district. He will have a beautiful bungalow, a big ribbed roof barn, an ideal machine shop, and there will be everything on the land that any successful farmer should have.

“It will take time,” said Eddie when he was talking to the Journal representative. “But in two years time I should have all the buildings up that I am planning.”

“Then I will have sufficient cattle, Holsteins, most likely; not very many horses, because machinery is better; plenty of chickens, pigs, and everything else.”

Shore got married that year, to Kate Macrae, a former basketball star with Edmonton’s mighty Grads. Their son, Edward Jr., arrived a year later.

By 1933, Michael Hiam reports, Shore had cultivated a “model farm,” featuring a modest house, a small barn in the Pennsylvania Dutch style, and “a picturesque windmill.” He had a hired man to help with the work and to run the place while he was away playing hockey. His line-up now included hogs, cattle, turkeys, ducks, chickens, workhorses (Percherons and Belgians), and “a prized Guernsey bull named Taywater Warrior.”

Playing his own particular brand of surly and, occasionally, near-fatal hockey, Shore continued to cut a swath through the NHL from his winter base in Boston. Summers in Duagh, he found time amid the call of crops and livestock for golfing (he shot in the 70s); baseball (he played outfield for the Professional Pucksters, a team that included NHLers Leroy Goldsworthy and brothers Neil and Mac Colville); and saving lives (in 1938, he dove into the Sturgeon River near the farm to rescue three swimmers in danger of drowning).

Glimpses of life on the farm reached the hockey world now and then. In 1937, for instance, Shore confided that he’d given up sowing wheat in favour of barley. “Can’t miss with that crop,” is what he told Andy Lytle of Toronto’s Daily Star, “with beer guzzled all over the country.”

Often, though, when the farm at Duagh made its way into the hockey pages of newspapers it was because Shore wasn’t happy with what Boston manager Art Ross was offering to pay him. Glenn Hall may have joked about painting his barn as a negotiating tactic; Eddie Shore’s Albertan hold-outs in the 1930s don’t seem to have amused anyone involved.

In October of 1933, when Shore was a no-show at the Boston training camp in Quebec City, it was initially reported that he was “delayed by harvesting.” Art Ross had already advised Bruin beat reporters a couple of times that the team’s star defenceman was “expected next week” before the Edmonton Journal dispatched a reporter to Duagh in early November, just six days before the Bruins were set to open their season in Toronto.

Shore was busy butchering a 300-pound hog when Ken McConnell arrived. “Sure, I’m a holdout,” Shore told him. Boston had initially offered him a satisfactory contract, he said, only to turn around and reduce their offer by $2,500 when he was a little late getting to Quebec. “I am not going to take it.”

Idle Idol: A reporter who visited the Shore spread in the fall of 1933 found Boston’s superstar defenceman butchering a hog. Also on hand: Shore’s wife, the former Kate Maccae; his son, Ed Jr.; the family house; the big old barn.

Would he quit hockey?

“If they don’t want to meet my terms,” Shore said, “why, I’ll stay here. I have everything I need right here. I don’t have to play hockey any more.”

In light of the inconsistency mentioned earlier regarding Shore’s birthdate, the next quote McConnell got is interesting. As it appeared, with McConnell’s parentheses:

“I am only 30 — have a birthday some time in this month [he would not name the date] and I figure I should be able to play NHL hockey for another seven years at least — Bill Cook of the New York Rangers is 39. But it’s entirely up to the bosses of the Bruins. I am standing pat.”

The next news of the negotiation came on November 9, the following Thursday. The Bruins were in Toronto that night, preparing to open their season Shoreless against the Maple Leafs. And Shore? As Boston’s Globereported that the team’s other prominent dissenter, Cooney Weiland, had signed his contract, word from Alberta was that Shore was practicing with the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos, for whom Duke Keats presided as the playing coach. The word from the ice? “He looks good.”

Also: Shore was headed to the foothills of the Rockies for “a big game hunting expedition.”

Friday’s update: with a defensive corps consisting of Lionel Hitchman and a trio of rookies and journeymen, the Bruins had succumbed to the Leafs by a score of 6-1. That was front-page news in Edmonton insofar as in the same breath the Journal also declared that Shore and the Bruins had settled their differences.

The family headed east, and on the Monday, Shore was in Montreal to meet with NHL President Frank Calder. As often happened in those years, the team had handed its holdout problem over to the league, and so it was with Calder that Shore did his final dealing. In exchange for his signature, he was reported to have successfully secured the $2,500 that the Bruins had initially offered.

Shore made his debut in Boston the following night, though he couldn’t help his team find a win, as the Bruins fell to their third successive loss to start the new season. They never really turned it around that season, finishing the ’33-34 schedule in last place in the four-team American Division, out of the playoffs.

International Harvester: Eddie Shore works the land. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-5202)

In 1934, Shore seems to have been delayed by an actual late harvest. He made it to camp by the end of October, signing a contract (the Edmonton Journal reported) for the NHL maximum salary of $7,000.

In subsequent years, Shore showed up more or less on time in the fall, when the time came to trade in threshers for hockey sticks.

“Word drifts through from the Maritimes,” Ken McConnell advised in 1936, by which time the Bruins had shifted their training camp from Quebec to New Brunswick, “that Eddie Shore has definitely signed a brand new contract with the Bruins and so that trifling matter is settled for this year at least.” (As it turned out, Shore would miss more than half of the season’s schedule, suffering from sciatica.)

The cut in pay Shore seems to have taken in ’37 reflected that shortened season, from what I can tell. When he stopped in to see Frank Calder in Montreal that fall, trouble seemed to be brewing, according to Calgary’s Herald. “The league prexy, when he heard that Shore wanted to make an appointment with him, naturally thought that Eddie was having contract trouble again. Imagine his surprise when Eddie appeared and said nothing about contract but simply asked Calder for permission to play with the All-Star team in the Howie Morenz benefit game.”

The Bruins convened their camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in ’38, and Shore, who was coming off another Hart-Trophy-winning season, hit the ice there in “prime condition.”

“I have never felt better,” said the 36-year-old veteran. “Every day for the past two months I have been working from dawn to dusk harvesting wheat, and then, to prove to myself I was in shape, I drove the family over the road from Edmonton to Boston, making the trip in a bit more than five days, and that’s no rest cure.”

With a full camp and a slate of exhibition games behind him, Shore finally saw the contract the Bruins were offering in early November, and when the Bruins boarded a train for Toronto and the opening game of the season, Shore stayed home.

All he wanted was to be paid like he was back in 1936-37, he said, before he’d agreed to a cut. “I was offered a slight raise and promised a share of the gate receipts,” he said, “but I was not satisfied with those terms.”

And so the stalemate was on. As Art Ross handed his problem once again over to Frank Calder, the Bruins revived their tradition of starting their season in Toronto. This time, with rookie Jack Crawford tabbed to fill Shore’s skates, the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Shore missed four games before he struck a deal with Calder. “Old Man Shore has signed,” he told reporters in Boston with a smile. The deal was said to be for $7,000: $6,000 in salary plus $1,000 if the Bruins made the playoffs (they did, winning the Stanley Cup, to boot). This was $500 more than the Bruins had originally offered. “The only extra promise we’ve made Shore,” Art Ross advised, “is that he’ll be paid for the four games he’s missed.”

The following year, 1939-40, was the one in which Shore might be said to have worn out his welcome in Boston. He’d bought the AHL Springfield Indians by then, furthering souring his relationship with the Bruins, who ended up trading him in early 1940 to the New York Americans, for whom he played the last ten games of his tempestuous NHL career.

And the farm at Duagh? “Mr. Eddie Shore, whose business interests are all in the east, has instructed us to sell his Half-Section of Land, northeast of the city,” read the ad that Edmonton realtors placed in the Journal in the fall of 1943. “His own words: ‘Sell, lock, stock, and barrel.”

The price was $20,000 — at first. Over the course of the year that followed, more ads appeared, with lower prices. I don’t know what the farm at Duagh sold for, in the end, but this is the last of the pitches that I’ve seen, from the fall of 1944:

 

 

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

paul thompson, chicago’s high-flying sniper

Hot Seat: With a blanket to keep him warm, Paul Thompson makes his debut as playing coach of the Chicago Black Hawks in January of 1939 after owner Major Frederic McLaughlin fired Bill Stewart.

Born in Calgary on a Friday of this date in 1906, Paul Thompson played 13 seasons in the NHL, five of them as a Ranger in New York, the rest with the Chicago Black Hawks. A younger brother to goaltender Tiny Thompson. Paul was a left winger. Three times he got his name on the Stanley Cup, with the Rangers in 1928, in 1934 and 1938 with the Black Hawks. “Chicago’s high-flying sniper” is a phrase associated with him in ’36, when he finished up third in NHL scoring behind Sweeney Schriner of the New York Americans and Marty Barry of the Detroit Red Wings. Two years later, he was third-best again, this time chasing Gordie Drillon and Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was twice named to the NHL’s All-Star Team.

In the winter of 1938-39, the Black Hawks launched their defence of the ’38 Stanley Cup with four straight wins. In the 17 games that followed, they only won four more, and by early January of the new year, Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin decided that coach Bill Stewart had to go. In his place, he appointed a former Black Hawk, Carl Voss, who’d been scouting for the team, to share coaching duties with Thompson, who would continue to play.  

According to Edward Burns of Chicago’s Tribune, Thompson was supposed to be in civvies on the night, but showed up dressed for action. He only sent himself once in the first two periods, for powerplay duty, when Boston’s Eddie Shore went to the penalty bench. He played more in the third, assisting on a Joffre Desilets goal, and engaging in “light fisticuffs” with Cooney Weiland of the Bruins. Final score: Boston 2, Chicago 1.

“Co-coach Carl Voss,” Burns reported, “who is supposed to have equal authority with Thompson under Maj. McLaughlin’s new brain trust system, was on the bench as scheduled, but so far as could be observed, functioned only as a cheer leader when the Hawks seemed to be doing all right.”

Voss subsequently seems to have settled in as assistant coach, in support of Thompson. Though Chicago ended up missing the playoffs, McLaughlin decided to stick with Thompson, and late in the season he signed on as the team’s full-time coach. He would coach another six seasons in Chicago before his tenure came to an end in 1944.

Paul Thompson died at the age of 84 in 1991.

playing for howie, 1937: may his fine spirit never die

Saluting 7: It was on a Tuesday of this date in 1937 that a team of NHL All-Stars met a mingling of Maroons and Canadiens in the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at Montreal’s Forum. Eight months earlier, Morenz had lain in state at centre ice after his death at the age of 34. In November, a crowd of 8,683 was on hand, raising $11,447.57 for a memorial fund in support of the Morenz family. Tributes filled the programme printed for the evening: “May his fine spirit never die,” read the NHL’s. Montreal’s roster counted most of Morenz’s Canadien teammates, including his long-time linemates Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat. The All-Stars’ line-up included Tiny Thompson in goal along with Boston teammates Eddie Shore and Dit Clapper, as well as Toronto’s Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Busher Jackson. Marty Barry of the Detroit Red Wings scored the decisive goal in the All-Stars’ 6-5 win. Detroit’s Jack Adams coached the All-Stars. When the pace of the game lagged in the second period, he was heard to roar from the bench, “Quit loafing! Make this a real game!”

 

that wonder-working bird

The Edmonton Hockey Team: The WCHL Eskimos as they lined up in 1925-26. From left: Bobby Boucher, Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, Herb Stuart, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Art Gagne, Johnny Shepard, Spunk Sparrow, Ernie Anderson, Lloyd McIntyre, Bobby Benson.

Born in Hartney, Manitoba, on a Wednesday of this date in 1897, Spunk Sparrow won an Allen Cup in 1916 on the 61st Battalion team that Joe Simpson starred on. Emory was Sparrow’s given name, if you’re wondering; he was a right winger; he died in 1965 at at the age of 67. As a pro, Sparrow mostly played in the old WCHL in the early 1920s, turning out for the Regina Capitals (Dick Irvin and Rabbit McVeigh were teammates), Calgary’s Tigers (alongside Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner), and the Edmonton Eskimos pictured above. He played briefly for Boston, joining Art Ross’s fledgling Bruins in 1925 for six games. He scored some goals in his day, and was oft-penalized and several times suspended — “a sterling hockey player,” the Winnipeg Tribune called him, “but a rather difficult man to handle.” The flaxen flash was an epithet the Edmonton Journal applied to him in 1924 on the occasion of his having scored a handsome goal against Calgary. It was so good, apparently, that one of the paper’s writers saw fit to dash off a poem in his honour, “An Ode To Spunk.” It opened like this:

Tell me, stranger, have you heard
Of that wonder-working bird?
Not the peacock or the wren
Or the brilliant guinea-hen.
It’s the bird who saves our souls
Gets badly-needed goals —
Sparrow!

cooper smeaton: one ref to rule them all

Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, southwest of Ottawa, on a Tuesday of this date in 1890, Cooper Smeaton was the NHL’s very first referee-in-chief. It was the reffing that got him into the Hall of Fame, years and years of it, but Smeaton also played the game, served time (briefly) as an NHL coach, and presided as a trustee of the Stanley Cup. He got his start playing point — defence — with several Montreal teams in the 1910s, and was a teammate of Odie and Sprague Cleghorn’s with the New York Wanderers in the American Amateur Hockey League. He refereed in the old National Hockey Association before signing up, in 1917, to serve in the artillery with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was a sergeant when he returned from France, and decorated, having been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for saving an ammunition dump from destruction after it was hit by a German shell.

The Hall of Fame says that as a referee he was fearless and always showed good sense. Enforcing the rules in the NHL in the early 1920s was not, let’s recall, for the frail-hearted or self-doubtful. An account I’ve been browsing of a 1923 game between Canadiens and Senators at Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena describes how unruly fans besieged the Ottawa dressing room after the game, and how the referees, Smeaton and Lou Marsh, tried to defend the visitors. “Cooper Smeaton used his fists freely in the battle,” one report goes, “and the police grabbed two or three of the ringleaders.” It was in the aftermath of Billy Coutu’s attack on referee Jerry Laflamme that Smeaton was appointed as the NHL’s  one-ref-to-rule-them-all in 1927. He kept on as a full-time whistler, too, and continued to pay the price. In 1929, overseeing a game in New York between Canadiens and Americans, he ended up with a broken leg after tumbling into the boards in a melee of players. That was in the second period; he finished the game before seeking treatment.

In 1933, after he cracked a pair of ribs breaking up a fight between Boston’s Eddie Shore and Sylvio Mantha of Montreal, he was back on the ice a couple of days later for a game between Canadiens and Senators. He had to warn the visiting team, that night, for foul language. “The  Ottawans,” Montreal’s Gazette noted, “were very loquacious all evening, climaxing a night’s oratorical effort with a barrage of Smeaton as he left the ice.”

He took a break from refereeing in 1930 to coach the Philadelphia Quakers through their only NHL campaign, after the franchise moved from Pittsburgh, and before it folded for good in 1931. A couple of young Quakers, like Syd Howe and Wilf Cude, would go on to have fruitful NHL careers, but as a team that season, Philadelphia was a bust, winning just four of 44 games, and finishing dead last in the ten-team NHL.

Smeaton later said that he lost 40 pounds that year just from worrying whether there would be enough money day-to-day to keep the team on ice. He recalled waiting with his players on a Philadelphia street in hope that a messenger would show up from the bank. “We were scheduled to play in Chicago and it was getting near train time and we needed the money for the trip. The man finally arrived with the money but a succession of things like that can wear you out.”

in the six

Born in 1903 on a Friday of this date in Bracebridge, Ontario, Ace Bailey only ever played for Toronto during his short NHL career. He debuted with the St. Patricks in 1926, the year they transformed into Maple Leafs, and played seven further seasons after that, on the right wing. He was speedy, and prone to scoring, leading the league in goals and points in 1928-29, and notching the goal, in 1932, that won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. His career came an end when he was 30 years old, one December night in 1933, after Eddie Shore of the Bruins blindsided him at the Boston Garden. His head hit the ice hard; a doctor at the scene diagnosed a lacerated brain. Two subsequent surgeries saved his life. “It’s all in the game, Eddie,” is what he’s supposed to have told Shore at the rink when the Boston defenceman apologized for knocking him down. After he didn’t die, when he’d recovered enough to never play hockey ever again, Bailey went on to coach the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues men’s hockey team. Later, he worked as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens.  His number, 6, was the first in NHL history to be retired. Inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1975, Ace Bailey died in 1992. He was 88.

and the band played paree

It was on a Sunday of this date in 1939 that the Boston Bruins upended the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 3-1 at Boston Garden to win their second Stanley Cup, with Roy Conacher scored the winning goal to wrap up the best-of-seven series 4 to 1. “The scenes following the sounding of the final bell almost beggar description,” Victor Jones wrote in his dispatch for the Boston Globe. “Conny Smythe hopped the dasher and ran over to congratulate Arthur H. Ross, while the players shook hands all around, firecrackers rent the air, fans screamed and shouted, while the band broke in to ‘Paree.’” NHL president Frank Calder presented the Cup to Ross, who handed it to captain Cooney Weiland. “The trophy was lugged off to the Bruins’ dressing room,” Jones went on, “where Sam Simon, the Garden concessionaire, lost no time in filling it and refilling it and refilling it with the finest vintage champagne.” This image of that night doesn’t catch any of that, unfortunately. Standing from left to right are goaltender Frank Brimsek, Jack Crawford, Eddie Shore, and (on the other side) Jack Portland, and Ray Getliffe. Arrayed in front, from the right, are Conacher, Mel Hill, Charlie Sands, Cooney Weiland, Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, and Bill Cowley. Down in front that’s a single-skated Milt Schmidt alongside Gord Pettinger and Flash Hollett.

(Top image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

flashback

Hockey history remembers him by his nickname, Flash, but he was Frank William Hollett — or just Bill — from his earliest days, which got underway on a Thursday of this date in 1911 in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Hollett later recalled learning to skate on the local harbour ice in Cape Breton. His father, Frederick Hollett, was a fisherman who died of Spanish flu in another pandemic, whereupon his mother, Lena, moved her six children to Toronto’s west end.

In 1932, as a 21-year-old, Hollett signed to play professional lacrosse for the ball-slinging version of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a new league that collapsed before a single game was played. He made his debut with the puck-slapping Leafs a year later, when he was called up to replace a suspended Red Horner in the grim aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending injury. Hollett notched a goal and an assist in his debut, and after spending the following year on loan to the Ottawa Senators, returned to the lead the Leaf backline in scoring in 1934-35, a year in which only Boston veteran Eddie Shore had more points among NHL defencemen.

When Hollett started slowly the next season out, chief Leaf and affirmed knave Conn Smythe blamed it on Hollett’s having married over the summer. A contract dispute and a wrist injury didn’t help Smythe’s view of his young defenceman, and in early 1936 the Leafs sold Hollett to the Boston Bruins for $16,000.

A “brilliant young player,” the Boston Globe crowed, by way of introducing Hollett to Bruins’ fans, “who, by his color, has earned the nicknames of ‘Flash,’ ‘Headline,’ and ‘Busher,’ but prefers ‘Flash’ himself.” He played nine seasons with Boston, piling up the points along the way. The two Stanley Cups he helped the Bruins win included the 1939 edition, when Hollett scored the final goal of the series that saw his new team defeat his old, the Maple Leafs. In 1941-42, Hollett set a new NHL record for goals by a defenceman when he scored 19, surpassing the 18 Harry Cameron had registered two years running for the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21 and ’21-22.

Used To Bs: Flash Hollett, on the right, lines up with Bun Cook, who spent his final NHL season with Boston in 1936-37 after a long and legendary career with the New York Rangers.

Hollett scored 19 again the following year before getting to 20 in 1944-45. That record stood for 24 years: no defenceman scored more in a season until Boston’s Bobby Orr got 21 in 1968-69. That record-breaking year, ’44-45, Hollett was playing for Detroit, where he captained the team and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team. After retiring at 35 from the NHL in 1946, he returned to the ice as an amateur, joining the OHA senior Toronto Marlboros, with whom he’d win an Allan Cup national championship in 1950. Flash Hollett did this month in 1999. He was 88.

 

(Top 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. Bottom: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

happy birthday, milt schmidt

Doc Zone: Born in Kitchener, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1918, Milt Schmidt centred the Boston Bruins’ famous Kraut Line — captained the team, of course, too, and ended up as the coach, eventually. He was 98 when he died in January of 2017. Here, numbered 15, circa 1940 in the Boston Garden dressing room, he’s alongside a one-skated Eddie Shore and the Bruins’ long-time physician, a bespatted Dr. Martin Crotty. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)