joe benoit: pacing a punch line in montreal, scoring a scad across pre-war europe

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before war interceded. After serving with Canada’s armed forces,  he returned to the Canadiens in 1945.

The Montreal Canadiens headed into the 1940 NHL season with optimism — though, of course, what else were they going to embrace, having finished the previous campaign plumb last in the seven-team NHL?

They did have a new coach at the helm, the great Dick Irvin, and as the team’s training camp wound down towards the start of the new season, he was talking … well, he sounded a little defensive, to be honest. “We’ll have a team by November 3,” he said; “we won’t be any pushovers.”

He did have an impressive rookie class at his disposal. That fall, Canadiens added 20-year-old centre Johnny Quilty, who end up winning the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, along with a few other quality assets (and future Hall-of-Famers) in centre 23-year-old Elmer Lach, defenceman Ken Reardon, 19. Also making his debut: 24-year-old right winger Joe Benoit, who was born on a Sunday of today’s date in 1916.

With Irvin at the helm, Montreal did improve that year, clambering into the playoffs … before clattering out, in the first round, at the hands of the Chicago Black Hawks. Quilty finished as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals and 34 points in 48 games, just ahead of the veteran captain Toe Blake (12 goals, 32 points) and Benoit (16 goals, 32 points).

As one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players, Benoit deserves more recognition than he’s been accorded to date. If we’re talking about the league itself, that recognition is — well, non-existent. At this late date, the NHL still, for some reason, chooses to ignore the stories of trailblazers like Buddy Maracle, Jim Jamieson, Johnny Harms, and Benoit.

His story, Joe Benoit’s, seems to have started in the northern Alberta community of Egg Lake, though he grew up (like Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla) in St. Albert, to Edmonton’s north. The records I’ve reviewed aren’t entirely clear on his family’s history.  His father’s mother was Métis. In 1921, when Joe was four, the Census of Canada lists his father’s “origin” as French and the rest of the family (his mother and four siblings) as Cree.

Later, the story of young Joe’s hockey origins was told this way: with no arena in St. Albert or even an outdoor rink, he puckhandled through the streets. “Benoit learned his hockey with a homemade stick and a piece of ice as a puck, stickhandling his way up and down the main street of the tiny western hamlet. He developed his stickhandling wizardry by flipping the pieces of ice out of reach of paws and jaws of two gambolling dogs. This was Joe’s only opposition until he went to the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in 1935, where he had his first taste of team play.”

That’s from 1943. No telling now how romanticized a scene-setting that is. There’s no explicit mention, you’ll note, of skates, though subsequent retellings added those, too.

Benoit’s NHL career was noteworthy, interrupted as it was by war and service (and hockey) with the Canadian armed forces. He played just five seasons in the big league, all of them with Montreal. He was the original right winger for the Canadiens’ top line in the early ’40s, skating with Lach and Toe Blake on the original Punch Line, before a bright young prospect by the name of Maurice Richard took his place. Benoit’s best season was 1942-43, which he finished with 30 goals and 57 points. The year he returned to the NHL, 1945-46, Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but a back injury kept him out of the playoffs, and his name wasn’t among those stamped in the silverware.

Back between his street-skating years in St. Albert and his first turn on Montreal Forum ice, Benoit, who died at the age of 65 in 1981, did win a couple of notable championships. In 1938, his Trail Smoke Eaters burst out of B.C. Western Kootenay Hockey League to win the Allan Cup, the national senior title.

That earned the team the right to represent Canada the following year at the World Championships, which they did, embarking on a truly remarkable odyssey through Europe on the brink of the war.

Sailing from Halifax aboard the Duchess of York in mid-December of 1938, the Smokies eventually made their way to Switzerland in the new year, where they defended the world title won the previous year by the Sudbury Wolves and by the Kimberley Dynamiters the year before that. In 1939, Trail went undefeated in eight games, beating Germany, Czechoslovakia (twice), and the United States along the way.

Glory to that, but that’s not the remarkable part. Before they set sail for Canada on the Duchess of Richmond in April of 1939, the Smoke Eaters barnstormed their way around Europe, playing 70 games in three-and-a-half months. In Scotland and England they skated, and through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

Along the way, they compiled a record of 67-1-2, with their only loss coming by a score of 4-1 in London against an all-Canadian team, the Wembley All-Stars.

Joe Benoit counted the only goal for Trail that night. All told, he scored some 60 goals on the tour, leading all the Smoke Eaters in scoring, including a couple of other future NHLers in left winger Bunny Dame, who’d join Benoit in Montreal, and right winger Johnny McCreedy, who served a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mere months from the outbreak of war, the hockey players returned to Canada happy but tired, with tales to tell. “The players criticized the food in Germany,” the Regina Leader-Post noted, “where they said a lack of butter, white bread, and meat existed.”

“The players had never seen so many soldiers before,” reported Vancouver’s Province, quoting an unnamed player: “It was terrible in Germany — soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.”

“The streets were full of the them,” the Province continued, “and windows full of uniforms. England was busy digging tunnels as a precaution against air-raids and gas attacks.”

Our Joe: An Edmonton report on the European adventures of Benoit and the Smokies from January of 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

must be some misunderstanding

Twenty-Two: The Boston Bruins will retire Willie O’Ree’s number 22 on February 18.

“Sure, I was nervous,” said the 23-year-old rookie, “but it was the greatest thrill of my life.”

It was on a Saturday night in Montreal, January 18, 1958, that Fredericton, New Brunswick’s own Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut at the Forum, manning the left wing for the Boston Bruins and becoming, as he did so, the first Black player in the league’s then-40-year-old history.

The NHL observed the anniversary of O’Ree’s historic breakthrough this January past with decals on helmets that players across the league started wearing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. “Celebrating Equality,” they read; they’ll be on display through the end of February, which is Black History Month across North America.

O’Ree, who’s now 85, will be further honoured on February 18, when the Bruins plan to raise his number, 22, to the rafters of TD Garden ahead of a game with the New Jersey Devils.

That was the number he eventually wore. For his debut in January of ’58, O’Ree was on call-up duty, summoned from the QHL Quebec Aces to replace a flu-bitten Leo Labine in the Boston line-up for a home-and-home weekend series.

For those games, O’Ree sported number 18.

At the Forum, he skated on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini. The Bruins won that first of them 3-0, with Johnny Bucyk putting the winner past Jacques Plante. Sunday night in Boston, Bernie Geoffrion collected a pair of goals and a brace of assists as Montreal roared back with a 6-2 win.

O’Ree had a respectable 13 goals and 32 points that year with Quebec, but this initial stint of his in the NHL yielded nothing in the way of statistics. It would be another few years before he got a steady chance to play in the NHL, 1960-61, during which he donned number 22 in 43 games for Boston, notching four goals and 14 points.

Can we talk about this? Not the numbers O’Ree wore on his various sweaters, or the stats he registered, but his debut, how it was received, the idea of a “colour line” in hockey, and the fictions by which the sport’s establishment (including the press) deluded itself? Also, for good measure, maybe we’d continue a little further along, back a few years before 1958, and consider the odd instance of Herb Carnegie’s not-quite chance at playing in the NHL.

When Willie O’Ree first skated for the Bruins 63 years ago, note was taken, though the debut wasn’t universally hailed as a long-due turning point.

Many press reports noted the occasion as they did most matters of movements of NHL personnel, which is to say, in passing. Bill O’Ree, a couple of them called him; a United Press dispatch helpfully noted that he went by both names, Willie and Bill, and that his christened name was William Eldon O’Ree.

Montreal’s La Presse rolled out an eight-column headline across its sports page:

Pour La Première Fois, Un Joueur Noir Évoluera Dans La NHL Ce Soir.

The English-language Gazette wasn’t so certain — they only “believed” that O’Ree was the first Black player in the NHL, reminding readers (in case they hadn’t noticed) that there had been, to date, “comparatively few” Black players in hockey.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star both headlined O’Ree’s achievement in their sports sections.

The Boston Globe’s coverage was initially more muted: a United Press game report that ran on Sunday, January 19 highlighted O’Ree’s historic debut while rating his performance “undistinguished, as Boston coach played him only half a turn a time, alternating him with veteran Johnny Peirson.”

Columnist Tom Fitzgerald followed after Sunday’s game with a friendly, first-hand piece. “Boston fans constantly shouted encouragement to O’Ree on his appearances last night,” he wrote, “although he did not see much action in the later stages.”

“He’s a very fast skater,” Bruins GM Lynn Patrick observed, “but there are some things he naturally has to learn yet.”

Fitzgerald noted that the Bruins were hoping that Stan Maxwell, a centre from Truro, Nova Scotia, who was a teammate of O’Ree’s in Quebec and also Black, would soon be making his NHL debut. (Update: he never did.)

If this was a time, the opportunity ripe, for the NHL and the hockey establishment supporting it to reckon with questions of race, accessibility, systemic racism … well, no, there’s no evidence that any such discussion (let alone introspection) occurred.

It was ever thus. Those subjects just don’t figure in the recorded history of the early NHL. A 1928 comment attributed to Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, qualifies an outright rarity:  unlike major-league baseball, he was indirectly said to have suggested,  his league drew no colour line, nor was it  likely to do so.

True: no such prohibition appeared in the NHL’s Constitution or By-Laws. But: it was also one of Calder’s owners, Conn Smythe of Toronto Maple Leafs, who’s alleged to have watched 19-year-old junior star Herb Carnegie (who was Black) skate at Maple Leafs Gardens in 1938, telling Carnegie’s coach that he, Smythe, would sign Carnegie in a minute for the NHL — if only he were white. (In another version, Smythe is supposed to have said he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could “turn Carnegie white.”)

No-one was talking about that in 1958. Another United Press wire story out of Montreal that January weekend did venture to mention Willie O’Ree debut in the context of “the lowering of the last colour line among major sports in North America” … even as reporter Dick Bacon ramped up to a ready rationale that the problem actually resided with Black players themselves: they just weren’t good enough.

“Most hockey observers point out,” he blithely concluded, “that the only reason a ‘colour line’ existed was that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make the National Hockey League.”

Lest anyone have trouble interpreting that view, The Hockey News made sure to boost the signal a couple of weeks later. In the edition dated February 1, 1958, writer Len Bramson kicked off THN’s coverage of Willie O’Ree’s arrival in the NHL with this astonishing take:

Willie O’Ree became the first Negro to play in the National Hockey League, but his presence on the NHL scene didn’t mean that a barrier had been broken, as was the case of Jackie Robinson, the first Negro ever to break into the major leagues. The fact that there has never been a Negro in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself. No Negro, until O’Ree came along had the ability to play in the big time.

NHL owners have never discriminated against race colour or creed. All they have ever asked for was ability on skates.

Just in case he wasn’t clear enough with this, Bramson saw fit, midway through this THNpiece, to fold in Dick Bacon and his previous United Press reporting on O’Ree — including, verbatim, Bacon’s own observation about the mysterious lack of Black players of NHL quality.

Otherwise, following his own mention of ability on skates, Bramson went on to cite Herb Carnegie and his older brother, Ossie, from Toronto, both of whom had retired in the mid-1950s after long minor-league careers.

Of course, neither of them ever did play on NHL ice — while Herb was invited to attend the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1948, he turned down several of the team’s offers for minor-league contracts, opting to return to play for the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Provincial Senior League.

“There was no doubt in my mind, then or now,” Carnegie wrote in his 1997 memoir, “that I was every bit as good as the most talented player on that team. Except that I had once more been stopped by the colour barrier. The Rangers and its [sic] management were unable to look beyond the colour of my skin.”

Which gets us back to the matter, mentioned a little way back, of a slightly earlier time in the younger Carnegie’s career, another chance at breaking through to the NHL that actually seems to have been … an illusion?

It’s a decidedly odd episode that I haven’t seen mentioned before: it’s not in that memoir of Carnegie’s, A Fly In A Pail of Milk (which appeared in a new edition in 2019), nor does it surface in Cecil Harris’ Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (2007).

March of 1947 this was. As a point of pertinent context, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson made his big-league baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of that year, having spent the previous season with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate.

Herb Carnegie was 27 that spring. He and Ossie, who was 29, were both playing in the QPSHL for the Sherbrooke Saint-François (as they were called that year), playing on a line with Manny McIntyre, from Gagetown, New Brunswick, who was also Black. Herb would lead the team in scoring that season, collecting 33 goals and 83 points, and for the second year in a row he’d be named league MVP.

So it’s not so surprising that the Montreal Canadiens wanted to sign him — if they did.

Did they?

Herb Carnegie and his imminent NHL debut make the news in Muncie, Indiana, in March of 1947.

As March was winding down, so too was the NHL’s regular season. Looking forward to defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in 1946, Montreal was cruising towards the playoffs in first place, ten points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But. Injuries were starting to mount. Star centre Elmer Lach had been out three months with a broken cheek-bone. In mid-March, they lost the man who’d taken his place on the first-line, Buddy O’Connor: he broke his cheek in a particularly raucous game against the Rangers in New York. Defenceman Ken Reardon and winger George Allen were also banged up, and while it looked like they would be ready for the post-season, O’Connor’s status remained iffy.

And so, according to Montreal broadcaster Larry O’Brien, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin was looking to call in Herb Carnegie. He’d discussed it with club officials, declaring himself “most impressed” by the Sherbrooke centre’s skills.

O’Brien is an interesting figure. He was a crime reporter for The Montreal Staras well as a broadcaster, calling Canadiens hockey on the radio and Royals ballgames, too. He also stood in as a regular batting-practice pitcher for the Royals, and as such had thrown to Jackie Robinson in ’46. That was one of O’Brien’s proudest memories, he later said. He also ended up helping Robinson and his wife, Rachel, find an apartment. O’Brien would call the first TV broadcast of a sporting event in Canada, a Royals game in 1952, and later worked Grey Cup games and Stanley Cup finals. He went on to run the Canadian Open golf tournament for a decade, and spent years, subsequently, as Jack Nicklaus’ publicist.

In March of ’47, O’Brien seems to have been in New York for the CBC in his role as Canadiens broadcaster. The NHL’s board of governor’s was meeting in Manhattan, too, on Monday, March 17, and that’s where O’Brien said he got his scoop that Carnegie and the Canadiens were about to make history.

The news rippled across North America. Most of the headlines, it’s true, were tentative, touting Carnegie’s promotion to the NHL as a possibility. Someone saw fit to ask Boston Bruins president Weston Adams about the whole situation — I guess because Montreal was due to meet Boston in the playoffs? Anyway, Adams’ strange sign-off, declaration of permission, blessing — whatever it was, it was duly broadcast around the continent as well.

“It makes no difference to us what race or creed a player is,” Adams said. “If he’s a good player and can help the Canadiens that’s all the interest we have in the matter.”

Montreal’s interest, as it turned out, was not so much. Dick Irvin was quickly on record saying that the whole thing was a “misunderstanding.” How so? He made clear that there would be no other comment: it was just a misunderstanding.

O’Brien, for his part, stood fast, insisting that his information was correct.

And Carnegie … stayed where he was. Instead of joining Montreal for their Wednesday loss in Toronto or the following Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Chicago, Carnegie suited up for Sherbrooke as they launched into the provincial-league finals against the Lachine Rapides. On Thursday, March 20, he scored a pair of goals in his team’s 7-2 win. Going on to win the title in six games, Sherbrooke carried on to the Allan Cup playoffs, which they departed in April, losing out to the Montreal (hockey) Royals.

Making do without Carnegie, meanwhile, Canadiens called on utility forwards Hub Macey and Bobby Fillion to fill the holes in their line-up, along with rookie Leo Gravelle. Buddy O’Connor made it back to the ice for the end of Montreal’s successful first-round series against Boston and played in the finals, too, which saw the Canadiens surrender the Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What exactly happened with Carnegie’s call-up-that-never-was? Why wasn’t he the NHL’s first Black player, eleven years before Willie O’Ree, a month ahead of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball?

It’s not entirely clear. Since the principals of the piece — Carnegie, Irvin, O’Brien — are all now gone, we only have what’s on paper. Montreal’s French-language dailies were pretty categorical: Irvin was joking, O’Brien took him seriously. As Le Canada put it (translation Google’s):

Dick Irvin didn’t believe Larry O’Brien would take him seriously when he asked him if black player Herb Carnegie would be as strong a draw in hockey as Jackie Robinson in baseball.

What Toronto Daily Star sports editor Andy Lytle put on the page at the tail of one of his columns that week in March of ’47 might be as detailed an explanation as we’re ever going to get on the whole sorry business.

Lafayette, Indiana, gets news of Carnegie and the Canadiens in March of 1947, before Dick Irvin gets  a chance to explain.

Lytle and his departmental copy editors got a few basics wrong — naming Ossiewhen he meant Herb, calling Larry O’Brien Andy — but Canadiens GM Frank Selke was Lytle’s source, so his information is worth weighing.

“It’s the Robinson thing which stirs up Montreal writers,” Selke told Lytle. “Dick [Irvin] happened to say to [Larry] O’Brien if Robinson was only a hockey player, that would solve our troubles. That was enough. O’Brien decided we should use Carnegie and we weren’t even consulted. The idea, of course, is ridiculous.”

If only Lytle had pressed there — ridiculous? what, exactly, was ridiculous? — but Lytle didn’t press. Selke trundled on.

“We’re not too bad,” he said. “We finished on top and we have some hockey players left.”

Getting to the end of that update in the Star, readers might have let their attention drift to the top of the page, which featured a photograph of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and their baby, Jackie Jr.

The baseball pioneer’s future was still not decided. In that baseball pre-season, he remained a Montreal Royal, with Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey telling reporters that he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Robinson had earned a spot with the Dodgers. Rickey had a couple of weeks before the season got underway to make his mind up, the Starstory said, and Rickey suggested he’d make full use of that time.

“Robinson’s record with Montreal Royals last season would have automatically sent him to the Dodgers,” the Star piously opined on the very day that the possibility of Carnegie’s NHL debut tagged as a jest, “except for that unadmitted bar, the old American one of prejudice against colour.”

Note: While press style of the 1940s and ’50s consistently has newspapers Canadian and otherwise going with the American spelling of color, it has been rendered here throughout as colour.

witnessing a walloping

Hurrah For Habs: A contented Montreal Forum crowd watches their Canadiens trounce the visiting Boston Bruins by a score of 11-3 on the Saturday night of January 27, 1945. Contemporary accounts say that 12,000 were on hand to watch Montreal’s eighth consecutive win.  Elmer Lach led the way, adding  a goal and four assists to his NHL-leading scoring statistics, while the wingers just behind him on the league ladder — and his linemates — did what they could: Maurice Richard collected three points on the night  and Toe Blake two.  Montreal forwards Ken Mosdell, Dutch Hiller, and Ray Getliffe each put two goals past Boston reminder Paul Bibeault. If not for him, a consoling Boston Globe writer advised, Montreal’s tally would have been twice what it was. Too bad for Boston, but the teams met again the following night at the Garden. The size of Montreal’s Sunday win was 4-1. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)

erratum

First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.

Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.

This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.

He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong  embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.

The New York Times ran an Armstrong obituary on January 24.

But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.

This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.

Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.

The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?

There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:

The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.

Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.

Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.

Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.

His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.

On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.

Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.

You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.

Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)

Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.

big moe

Ken Mosdell made his name in the NHL of he late 1940s as a defensive centreman, though later he blossomed into a bit of a goalscorer. Either way, his value to the Montreal Canadiens was never in doubt. Born in Montreal on a Thursday of this date in 1922, Mosdell played 15 NHL seasons, most of them with Canadiens, though he skated for the Brooklyn Americans, too, and the Chicago Black Hawks. He won four Stanley Cups with Montreal. In 1953-54, he was the centre voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team, alongside Detroit wingers Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Big Moe, his teammates called him in Montreal, where he was honoured at the Forum for his service on Ken Mosdell Night in 1955. Ahead of a game against the New York Rangers, teammate Elmer Lach (he was out of the line-up) did a turn around the ice in a gleaming new Oldsmobile 98 before handing Mosdell the keys. Canadiens won the game 10-2, with Boom-Boom Geoffrion scoring five goals. Mosdell couldn’t buy so much as an assist on the night. He died in 2006 at the age of 83.

buddy o’connor: a hart, a byng, a razzle dazzle past

Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.

By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”

McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”

Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.

Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.

But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.

O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”

O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.

Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”

In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.

Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.

 

 

 

in the pressure of the moment

Save The Date: Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, Gerry McNeil stood up to the Boston Bruins this week in 1953, along with the rest of the Montreal Canadiens, to win the team’s seventh Stanley Cup. Having stopped a shot of Maurice Richard’s in practice earlier that April, McNeil played the final couple of games with his right ankle novocained and tightly taped. In the Montreal dressing room after Elmer Lach’s overtime goal clinched the Cup, coach Dick Irvin shook hands with all his players and then sat down next to McNeil. “Well, we finally put it on ice,” the Canadian Press reported him telling his goaltender. Columnist Dink Carroll was on hand, too. “Apparently tired now that the series has ended,” he wrote, “Irvin, who not long ago raised racing pigeons, puffed: ‘Coaching is strictly for the birds; I don’t want any more of it.’ Then he laughed and quickly changed the subject.” The ’53 win was the last of the four Cups Irvin won as a coach, though he did continue for two more years behind the bench in Montreal before taking on the Chicago Black Hawks for a final season, 1955-56.

16

He wasn’t the first Canadien to bear the number 16 on his sweater in the NHL, just the last: a few months after a 39-year-old Henri Richard retired in 1975, the number he’d worn for all 20 of his magnificent seasons in the league was raised to the rafters of the Montreal Forum in his honour. In December of ’75, Richard, who died today at the age of 84, was joined at a pre-game ceremony to mark the occasion by former Hab greats (from the left) Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, and Toe Blake. Lach wore number 16 for 12 seasons before the Pocketful Rocket made the team as a 19-year-old in 1955. Blake was a 16, too, when he played for Canadiens, though only for a single season, whereafter he switched to 6. (Bouchard was briefly numbered 17 before he settled his more familiar 3.) Right winger Gus Rivers is generally named as the man who first wore 16 for Montreal, though maybe it was just for a game or two when he first came to the team in 1930: for most of his short stint with Canadiens he had 15. A total of 26 players wore 16 before Richard’s greatness took it out of circulation, including Jean Pusie, Gizzy Hart, Red Goupille, and goaltender Paul Bibeault. To date, Montreal has honoured 18 numbers (including Lach’s 16, in 2009), but in 1975, Richard’s 16 was just the fourth in team history to be raised aloft, following Howie Morenz’s 7, brother Maurice’s 9, and Jean Béliveau’s 4.

 

on a line called broken bone

Damaged Goods: Tony Demers, Elmer Lach, and Maurice Richard line up on Forum ice in 1942. (Image: Conrad Poirier, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec)

When Elmer Lach first stepped up to centre the Montreal Canadiens’ powerful Punch Line in 1943, his wingers were Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. The combination was a new one, though not the name. Going back at least as far as the 1939-40 campaign, the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League had a Punch Line of their own, with Buddy O’Connor flanking Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. All three of them, of course, would eventually graduate to play for the Canadiens, with O’Connor going on to win Hart and Lady Byng trophies as a New York Ranger. Then in 1942-43, when O’Connor and Heffernan were both skating for Montreal, the team’s top trio was a Punch Line featuring Lach down the middle with Blake and Joe Benoit as his wingers. Maurice Richard took Benoit’s place the following year when the latter enlisted to serve with the Canadian Army.

Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1918 in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, Lach had made his NHL debut during the NHL’s 1940-41 season, during part of which he played on a line with left winger Tony Demers and, on right, (the other, non-Detroit Red Wings) Jack Adams. The following year, ’41-42, Lach and Demers combined with rookie Richard to form the line shown posing in the photograph here. All three players having been injured during the previous year — Lach and Richard on the ice, Demers in an automobile accident — they were dubbed, naturally, the Broken Bone Line.

 

 

toe pick

Stop Action: Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1912 in the now ghostly hamlet of Victoria Mines, Ontario, near Sudbury, Toe Blake was a famous left winger for the Montreal Canadiens before he got around to coaching them. For all that, he won his first Stanley Cup playing for Montreal’s other team, the lost, lamented Maroons, in 1935. With the Habs, of course, he lined up with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the Punch Line. He won a Hart Trophy in 1939, the year he also led the NHL in scoring. He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1946. Blake captained the Canadiens from 1940 until an ankle injury forced his retirement in 1948. That stretch saw Montreal win two further Cups, in ’44 and ’46. For all this, he was elevated, in 1966, to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a player. His coaching wasn’t so shabby, either: between 1956 and 1968, he steered the Canadiens to eight more Cups.

Here, above, stymied, Blake is in white, wearing a 6. Making contact is Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert; up front, that’s winger Mush March fleeing the scene. Montreal was at Chicago Stadium on this night in January of 1944, and they’d battle the Black Hawks to a 1-1 draw. Fido Purpur opened the scoring for the home team before Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard tied it up. Three months later, when the teams met in the Cup finals, Canadiens prevailed with emphasis, sweeping the Black Hawks four games to none.

tip to toe

Drillmaster: Toe Blake died on a Wednesday of this date in 1995 at the age of 82. Though he started his career as an NHL left winger as a Maroon in Montreal, it was, of course, as a Canadien that he made his mark. He played parts of 13 seasons with that Montreal, seven of those as captain, while (mostly) skating alongside Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the famous Punch Line. After helping Maroons raise a Stanley Cup in 1935, he won two more playing with Canadiens. In the 13 seasons he subsequently spent coaching the latter, he steered the team to another eight Cups. To this day, no Montreal coach has coached or won more games than Blake, seen here in 1961 with three of his bleu-blanc-et-rouge stalwarts: from left, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Béliveau, and Jacques Plante. (Image: Louis Jaques, Weekend Magazine / Library and Archives Canada / e002505697)

 

 

helmets for hockey players, 1947: richard and lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos

Top Gear: Elmer Lach, on the right, fits linemate Maurice Richard with the helmet he wore for all of two games in 1947. Lach’s, just visible at the bottom of the frame, didn’t have quite so long a career on NHL ice.

Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL neither were they a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.

So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.

It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.

Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.

Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)

Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.

Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)

Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.

“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.

Nokomis’ Own Dandy: Lach in his helmet on the day of its debut, November 27, 1947.

Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”

Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”

Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.

“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”

And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”

Boxed: Maurice Richard sits out his third-period elbowing penalty during the November 27 game at the Forum.

But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.

Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”

None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.

Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”

For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.

Tusslers: Richard and Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson … hard to say what they’re up to, actually. A bit of vying, I guess; some grappling?