“The curly-headed lad from the lakehead has speed, power, and a vicious shot. He revels in the heavy-going and can carry a big load alone when a team is faltering.” That was the Montreal Gazette‘s 1927 scouting report on Jimmy Ward, the young right winger from Fort William, Ontario, who’d just signed with the local Maroons. A steady scorer and tenacious checker, Ward went on to play 11 seasons with the team, becoming one of its most respected players, and winning a championship, to boot, when the Maroons claimed the Stanley Cup in 1935. He suffered a serious concussion that same year after a mid-season collision with Boston’s Eddie Shore. Ward’s luck was better than Toronto’s Ace Bailey, whose NHL career was ended as the result of a 1933 clash with Shore; Ward was back on the ice after a little more than two weeks’ convalescence. After the Maroons folded in 1938, he played his final NHL season with the Canadiens. In the 1980s, Gazette columnist Tim Burke asked a colleague who, as a boy, had watched Ward play whether he was the Bob Gainey of his time. “Yeah, but I think he was better,” Marc Thibeault opined. “He scored more in the clutch.” Ward died on a Thursday of today’s date in 1990, at the age of 84.
It was on a Friday of this same date in 1891 in Winnipeg that Herb Gardiner was born in 1891. If you haven’t heard of his stardom as a defenceman on the ice in Calgary and Montreal, well, here’s an introduction to that. Gardiner, who died in 1972, aged 80, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. A quick browse across his biography shows that the adjectives stellar and two-way and consistent were sometimes applied to his efforts on the ice, along with the noun rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, as well as the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.
Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is two days late, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.
Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract.
Gardiner took Georges Vézina’s number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, which is a little surprising, but there it is: the team didn’t retire it from circulation after the iconic goaltender’s death in March of 1926. (Herb Rheaume, Vézina’s successor in Montreal’s net, inherited the number before Gardiner arrived; the following year, 1926-27, Montreal’s new goaltender was George Hainsworth, who wore 12.)
Gardiner played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won that contest, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantries he exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and goaltender Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”
Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.
“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”
By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy for league MVP that was named for the father of Montreal’s coach. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to offer it, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.
So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first.
As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September.
The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.
He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.
Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.
Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.
A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”
Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.
It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”
And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.
According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?
Questions, questions, questions.
They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.
Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?
You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.
And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.
What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”
Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.
There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.
They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.
Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”
The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.
When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”
It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.
The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.
The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).
I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).
Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”
Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?
That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.
In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.
The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.
Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.
In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”
Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.
Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.
The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”
Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”
The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”
Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.
As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.
“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”
The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.
Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”
If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.
“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)
In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered in Reggie Fleming’s brain, the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”
Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”
Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”
If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?
I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.
Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.
Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.
“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”
Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”
He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”
A birthday today for Art Ross, the man who defined and built and (for 30 years) guided the Boston Bruins, who was born in Naughton, Ontario, near Sudbury, on a Tuesday of this date in 1885. That’s him up to the left of this undated image, putting his players through their paces at the Boston Arena on St. Botolph Street. The message on the boards behind him: The Management Will Not Be Responsible For Accidents On The Ice. I’d venture that this is the either the 1926-27 season or the following one. The goaltender at ease by Ross might be Doc Stewart. Eddie Shore is easy to pick out among the stoppers-and-starters, facing the tall, capped figure of #3, Lionel Hitchman. #8 might be Archie Briden (or Dutch Gainor?) and folded-over #9 (maybe) Harry Oliver. #15 could be Hago Harrington. Bottom left, with stick raised, that looks like Dit Clapper, I think, no?
Below, Ross takes a call in 1954, the year he retired. Beyond his Bruinsing, of course, Ross was a scintillating player in his own right, a coach of the NHL’s long-lost Hamilton Tigers, an NHL referee, and a tireless thinker on and innovator of hockey equipment, rules, and strategies. Art Ross died in 1964 at the age of 79.
Born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1924, Doug Harvey was a defenceman whose dominance helped the Montreal Canadiens win six Stanley Cup championships between 1953 and 1960. Seven times he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best blueliner, the last of those after his move to the New York Rangers. He’s wrangling here with Lorne Ferguson, winger for Detroit in the later ’50s; the spectacled defenceman in the background is Al Arbour.
In 1958, Montreal Gazette columnist Dink Carroll deemed Harvey and the Boston Bruin’s dauntless Eddie Shore to be the best blueliners in NHL history. “Harvey is the best I’ve ever seen,” Shore himself said. “He’s cool, he can think, and he can lift a team.” Toe Blake, Harvey’s coach with Montreal, was asked to weigh in. He, of course, had played against Shore in the 1930s, when Blake was a winger for the Maroons and Canadiens. “Yes, he’s ahead of Shore,” Blake said. “He can do more things — when he wants to.”
Born in 1902 on a Sunday of this date in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina, the volatile Eddie Shore won a pair of Stanley Cup championships with Boston; four times he was handed the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable asset.
“Undoubtedly the greatest individual player in the game,” Niven Busch called Shore in 1929, when Boston’s number 2 was in full fettle.
“This Eddie Shore is an odd chap,” Busch pronounced in the pages of The New Yorker. “He was born at a Hudson Bay Station, and as soon as he had made some money playing hockey, he went back to Saskatchewan and bought a big farm there. He works on his farm in the summer, and does well at it for a fellow whose agricultural experience after boyhood consisted of such glimpses of the country as he was able to get from the locomotive cabs in which he was a fireman. Last year Boston paid him twelve thousand dollars and this year he asked for five thousand more, and got most of it — how much was not announced. At seventeen thousand dollars, if that’s what they pay him, he is the highest-paid player in hockey, as well as the ablest. In spite of what you can say for Dutton, Bourgault, Johnson, or Lionel Conacher, he is the only defenceman who also ranks as a great forward. He is perfectly built for hockey; not particularly heavy in the shoulders, but with a solid, barrel-shaped trunk, tremendous legs, and wide hips. He and Conacher are natural rivals. Both about the same size and equally aggressive. Conacher, an all-round athlete, good at baseball and lacrosse, and one of the best football players in Canada, is far better known in the North than Shore, who has made the most of his reputation in the United States.”
(Image, from 1937: Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)
Born in Toronto on a Friday of this date in 1900, the tiny-handed man they called Shrimp played 12 NHL seasons, most of those for the Americans. He won a Hart Trophy in 1929, finishing ahead of Toronto’s Ace Bailey and Boston’s Eddie Shore, and collected a Vézina for his miniature efforts in 1931. He never won a Stanley Cup. Worters died in 1957 at age 57. He was voted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1969.
If the measure of NHL success is whether or not your team hoists the Stanley Cup to finish a given season, then Patrice Bergeron’s first campaign as captain of the Boston Bruins was a flop.
The season itself wasn’t so dire. The Bruins, you’ll recall, finished third in their division, the old MassMutual East, accumulating 73 points, which was good enough for tenth overall in the NHL’s regular-season standings — just three points behind the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Boston won their first-round playoff series, dismissing the Washington Capitals in five games. Then, of course, they faltered, losing out in six to the frisky New York Islanders.
Historically, in the annals of Bruinly seasons going back to the team’s founding in 1924, Bergeron’s first as captain rates … fairly well. Measured by the percentage of points earned during the regular season, Bergeron’s Bruins (who went 33-16-7 in wins/losses/overtime losses) come in at .652, which ties them for 21st on the chart showing 96 seasons played to date.
That’s well behind the Bruins best season, 1929-30, when the team compiled a .875 record in Lionel Hitchman’s second year as captain. But it’s better than a whole raft of other Boston seasons, including those in which some of the greatest names in team history took over as captain.
Nels Stewart’s 1934-35 Bruins registered a .604 record before departing the playoffs in the semi-finals. Red Beattie’s 1936-37 team put together a .552 record, losing out in the quarter-finals. Bobby Bauer oversaw a .525 Bruins season in 1946-47; his Bruins lost in the semi-finals. Eddie Shore? He led Boston to a .521 record in 1935-36 and then out of the post-season in the quarter-finals. Marty Barry and Bill Cowley fared worse still: their respective teams, from 1933-34 and 1944-45 respectively, show points percentages of .427 and .350. Cowley’s team failed to get through the semi-finals; Barry’s missed the playoffs altogether.
Six times the Bruins have won the Stanley Cup in their history; it’s not unreasonable to imagine Patrice Bergeron raising a seventh during his tenure as Boston captain. Until that happens, he can take solace (maybe?) in the fact that the team he plays for actually acknowledges his captaincy.
It’s the least the Bruins could do, of course, though not (for the Bruins) so straightforward as you might think. Because while Boston does celebrate (and proudly) Bergeron’s role as team captain, the team still doesn’t allow that Barry, Stewart, Shore, Beattie, Cowley, and Bauer preceded him in the role.
Yes, it’s back to that refrain again, which is to say, this one.
To sum up, quick-like: at some point in the Bruins’ 97-year history, the team has mislaid a prominent chunk of that history, somehow overlooking the captaincies of at least six of their most famous players. Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Bruins, as the team is content to claim: he’s the 26th (or possibly the 28th).
It’s not clear when exactly the forgetting originated, just that it’s well-entrenched and, now, widespread: the team’s erroneous record-keeping has become the standard for a bevy of (mostly otherwise) reputable online registers of hockey history. I could go on (and have) about the team’s carelessness when it comes to its own rich past. I took an interest in Bobby Bauer’s unacknowledged captaincy in 2019, following where others, like Bruins historian Kevin Vautour, have gone before. Finding evidence of Bauer’s tenure wasn’t hard, and before long I happened on references to all the others — Barry, Beattie, Shore, Cowley, et al — who’ve been ignored.
I first contacted the Bruins in December of 2019 to ask about this and (politely) to offer to share my files. I’ve previously quoted the response I got, but it’s worth repeating here. It was Heidi Holland I heard back from, the Bruins’ the team’s director of publications and information, and thereby the gatekeeper of the team’s history, statistical and otherwise, as enshrined in the team’s annual Guide & Record Book.
Focussing on Bobby Bauer’s claim, she 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.
Fair enough, I guess … if also fairly dismissive of the idea that there just might be proofs out there that go beyond Milt Schmidt’s memory.
Evidence of the overlooked captains has been out there, of course, for going on 90 years, available for the finding by anyone, including club employees, willing to bother to take the initiative to look for it. I keep coming across references in my archival wanderings, as do others, like Kevin Vautour and Jeff Miclash, a researcher in Burlington, Ontario, who’s working on a book about the Bruins in the 1930s. At this point, we have a regular online marketplace going where we gather to share newfound references to the snubbed captains and roll digital eyes at the Bruins’ ongoing oblivion. It was this past January, as Patrice Bergeron inherited the C, that I piled up the evidence and made my case in that puckstruck.com post of mine. I cc’d that to Heidi Holland and several other interested parties attached to the team without hearing anything back. At the risk of annoying these same people, I got back in touch in July, in the quietude of Boston’s post-season, in the interest of getting the record straightened out in time for the upcoming season. The response, again, was … none.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Bruins are doubling down on the institutional inattention to detail that’s prevailed to this point. The end of their willful neglect of this history of theirs might well be on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet, or access it on our browsers.
Because here’s the thing: as a new NHL season approaches, the Bruins will be, in the next few weeks, unveiling their 2021-22 Guide & Record Book. It’s entirely possible that the team has tidied up the register of captains altogether quietly, on their own, righting the record that’s been wrong.
I’ll be happy to see it; I’ll salute their diligence. Meet me back here when — if — that happens.
Meantime, I’m happy to barge back into the question of just how the Bruins came to not remember that Bobby Bauer and Eddie Shore et al. served the team as captains. The answer is probably lost for good, actually — but maybe can we narrow in to take a look at the timeline of the neglect?
In that e-mail of hers, Heidi Holland mentioned the 1947-48 Bruins guide as the earliest edition she’s seen. That’s the one with Milt Schmidt on the cover, proudly wearing his C in the centre of his sweater. I haven’t tracked down a copy of that one, but I do have in hand the guide published ahead of the previous season, 1946-47 — that is, the one over which Bobby Bauer presided as captain.
It’s hard to discern just how involved the team was in this producing this 64-page booklet that bears the subtitle “The complete story of a great hockey team” on its opening page. Compiled by a pair of Boston Globe sportswriters, Harold Kaese and Herb Ralby, it was promoted and sold through the paper (35 cents a copy, plus another five for postage), I’m surmising that it was a Bruin production through and through. I think it may be the very first Bruin guide to have been published, though I can’t confirm that. It’s packed with player profiles, historical rosters, team records — all the usual fodder you’d expect, if not (notably) a comprehensive listing of team captains.
There’s no mention, in fact, of any captain in this ’46-47 guide. As the Bruins erringly tell it, defenceman John (a.k.a. Jack) Crawford skippered the team that season, continuing in the role he’d had the previous year. As I’ve noted before, Bauer had changed his mind about retiring in the fall of 1946, rejoining the team for one more campaign. On October 16, he was named captain of the team.
The Bruins guidebook pictured above was published a month later, on November 13. I’m speculating here, but my guess is that it was already in production when Bauer was crowned. That would explain why his captaincy isn’t mentioned.
Game for a little more esoterica? I thought so. The NHL had an official guide of its own in the 1940s. Overseen by a former newspaperman from Vancouver, Jim Hendy, it had been keeping scores and stats since the early 1930s. By the start of the 1947-48 season, it had split into two publications: Who’s Who In Hockey, which compiled active player data, and the Official Guide and Record Book, overseeing the NHL as a whole as well as minor and amateur leagues.
It’s the latter of these booklets that’s of interest here: specifically, the write-up on page 37 and the photograph following on page 56. The former commemorates the winner of the 1947 Lady Byng Trophy: “Bobby Bauer, Boston Bruins’ great little captain.”
The latter, reproduced here, shows Bauer front and centre, proudly wearing the C denoting his rank between the 1 and the 7 on his sweater. As previously noted, the 1946-47 season was the first in which letters were added to NHL sweaters to denote captains and their alternates. Bauer’s deputies show their As here: Murray Henderson standing tall beside coach Dit Clapper and, seated three places to Bauer’s left, then-former captain Jack Crawford.
One last (for now) thread from the fabric. Fast-forwarding through the decades, we find the Bruins heading into the NHL’s 1973-74 season looking forward to their 50th anniversary. This is duly noted on the cover of the team guide they published that fall:
A gallery of remarkable hockey players on that cover, you’ll agree. Of the 11 depicted, all but four (goaltenders Frank Brimsek and Tiny Thompson, along with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito) served with distinction as Bruin captains.
And yet two of them shown here — Bill Cowley and Eddie Shore — are still (then as now) missing from the historical record.
Their captaincies, along with those of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Red Beattie, and Bobby Bauer, are plain facts, despite what the Bruins recall. What the ’73-74 guide tells us is that the neglect that still seems to be in place goes back at least 48 years. The proof that the team was getting it as wrong in 1973 as it was in 2021 is on page 38:
What this may also illuminate is the how — and the who — of just what happened here. I don’t mean to be casting blame, or getting anybody into historical trouble, but, well, um, the man in charge of the ’73-74 guide was, somewhat remarkably, one of the men who’d collaborated on that ’46-47 edition, 27 years earlier.
Herb Ralby was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe starting in the 1930s, when he was in his early 20s, and he was on the job until 1970, when he left journalism to join the Bruins full-time as the team’s director of publicity. (He died in 1994 at the age of 81.) Ralby was on the scene, that’s to say, going back all the way to the time Eddie Shore’s tenure as captain, and even reported on Bobby Bauer’s tenure (below), well before he took charge of — and didn’t repair — the Bruins’ not-so-well-tended history that nobody since has bothered to set right.
“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.”
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 all be 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.
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 its start in 1924, you won’t find Patrice Bergeron’s name.
Nineteen others are there, from Sprague Cleghorn all the way through to Chara:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.