In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.
Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.
“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.
Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.
The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.
Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”
“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”
But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.
“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.
Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.
Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.
If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.
Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.
That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.
And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.
Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”
We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.
“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”
Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:
“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.
“No,” said Gretzky.
The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.
You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.
Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?
“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”
“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.
“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”
Over to you, Mario.
“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”
Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.
“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”
Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.
“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.
“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”
(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)
It was on this day in 1948 that the RCAF Flyers wrapped up the hockey gold medal for Canada at the V Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Twelve years and a world war had passed since Canada’s awkward loss at the previous hibernal Olympics in 1936 and, this time, the Canadians made no mistake.
Well, next to none.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t as straightforward as Canadians hoped it would be.
Having overcome the Swedes (3-1) and Britons (3-0), the airmen shellacked the Poles (15-0), lacquered the Italians (21-1), and enamelled the Americans (12-3). On February 6, the varnishing stopped: Canada could only muster a 0-0 tie against Czechoslovakia. “Real playoff hockey,” said Mike Buckna, the Czech’s Canadian coach. Canada was able, subsequently, to glaze both the Austrians (12-0) and Swiss (3-0) and thereby outrun the Czechs on goal average. The hosts from Switzerland secured the bronze.
Congratulations poured in from Canada. By the following day, the team had received more than 200 cables from home, including greetings (above) from Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. There were salutations as well from the Chiefs of Army and Naval Staff and from RCAF Headquarters. Colin Gibson, Minister of National Defence For Air, sent his cheers to the team for lived up to the RCAF motto, Per Ardua Ad Astra (Through adversity to the stars).
Hockey’s Hall of Fame — the original one, in Kingston, Ontario — sent a telegram, and so did (very sporting) members of 1936 British Olympic team, who wired, “Congratulations to the new champions from the Ex-.”
The cable that the players liked best came from the father of Pete Leichnitz, a 21-year-old spare forward on the Canadian team. “Congratulations,” Mr. Leichnitz wrote from Ottawa, “and what if it did cost me 10 bucks? Paw.”
The coach of the Flyers was RCAF Sergeant Frank Boucher, son of George (Buck) Boucher and nephew of his namesake uncle, the legendary New York Rangers centreman, coach, and (later) GM. The Flyers would not be able to reply individually to all the telegrams, Frank the younger said, but he asked the newspapermen to convey to Canada the team’s “warmest thanks.”
(Image: Library and Archives Canada, R15559-17-9-E)
It’s settled in, now, rooted deep enough that feels like permanent truth: whereas Jacques Plante in 1959 is the acknowledged trailblazer when it comes to goaltenders wearing a mask in the NHL — the man who changed everything in that department — Clint Benedict did, of course, get there before him, donning a mask of his own in February of 1930.
That’s how it’s rendered in the hockey literature — in the new edition, for example, of Saving Face (2015), a handsome history of hockey masks Jim Hynes and Gary Smith, or in the goalie-focussed edition that The Hockey News put out in December.
But maybe was Benedict not the first goaltender to mask himself in an NHL game? Could a damaged Montreal rival of his have beaten him to it by almost a year, viz. George Hainsworth of the Canadiens? If so, this would be news. But is it true?
The evidence that I’ve come across is tantalizing, if not exactly conclusive. Here’s how it goes:
In 1959, it was a vindictive backhander by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that changed everything for Montreal’s Jacques Plante. Once he’d stopped the puck with his face and had his cuts stitched, he returned to the ice with his famous mask in place — what the next day’s Montreal Gazette called “a flesh-colored helmet, with slits for his eyes and mouth.”
In 1930, Clint Benedict suffered head wounds in successive games — followed by a 15-game absence — before returning to the ice with mask in place to patrol the net for the Montreal Maroons.
First up, on January 4, Boston’s Dit Clapper broke in on a third period rush and his shot knocked Benedict out cold. Revived, he went to the dressing room to collect himself. Ten minutes later, he was back to finish the game.
Three nights later, Maroons and Canadiens, it was Howie Morenz who brought the puck towards Benedict’s net. His first-period shot flew high and hit the goaltender, as Horace Lavigne of La Patrie wrote it, with incredible violence. Lavigne thought the goaltender jumped to stop the puck — just before he dropped “like a lead weight.” There was plenty of blood and this time when Benedict departed the ice, he went to the hospital to be tended for a broken nose and a cut that needed seven stitches to close.
The Maroons did have a second goaltender, Flat Walsh, but he was himself indisposed that night — at home, suffering under a fever of 102. Still, when the call from the Forum came, he got himself up, into a taxi, and over to the rink — where he arrived wearing a coat over his pyjamas. After a half-hour’s hiatus, the game resumed with Walsh in the Montreal net.
Benedict, for his part, left the hospital as soon as he was able, heading back to the Forum to catch the end of the Maroons’ 2-1 win.
Walsh kept the net (with a little help from Abbie Cox) for a month after that. The infirmary report on Benedict spoke of a rest of three weeks or more: “His face is now swollen to such an extent that it is barely possible for him to open either eye.” February 20 was the date he got back: the Maroons were in New York for a game at Madison Square Garden against the Americans. This was the night he first wore his famous mask — a.k.a. “a large protector” (The Gazette). “Clint looked as if he had stepped out of the Dumas novel, ‘The Iron Mask,’ or in the modern manner, was appearing as a visitor from Mars.”
Benedict wore his mask for four more games after that — or three and a third. It’s often written that he discarded the mask after a game or two, but as Eric Zweig has written, that’s not so — what happened was that, five games after he returned, Benedict discarded hockey. Injured again in a game against Ottawa — someone fell on him, or cracked him on the mask, or both — he gave way again to Flat Walsh, who played the Maroons’ final four regular-season games as well as the team’s first-round playoff series, which was lost in four games to Boston.
Benedict didn’t, right away, say he was finished — with this “hoodoo season” behind him, he vowed, he’d be back. But come the fall, the Maroons decided that at the age of 38, he didn’t figure in their plans. There was regret in Montreal but maybe not overwhelming surprise. “Benny’s downfall,” explained The Canadian Press in November, “came towards the end of last season when he was hit in the face by a puck during a game here. His nose was badly smashed keeping him out of the game for several weeks. When he returned still with a protecting device on his face he found that he had lost some of his old ability to stop the tricky ones.”
George Hainsworth was the Canadiens goaltender on the night, January 7, 1930, when Morenz’s shot sent Benedict to the hospital.
He might have winced, or shuddered: possibly a stab of phantom pain in his nose made his eyes water. Hainsworth was 36, just a year younger than his rival down at the other end. But while the battered Maroons goaltender was nearing the end of his distinguished NHL career, Hainsworth was just getting going.
Leo Dandurand had signed him in the summer of 1926 from the WHL Saskatoon Sheiks and, after a brief tussle with the Toronto St. Pats, who believed they owned his rights, Hainsworth took to the Montreal net to succeed the late lamented Georges Vézina.
He proved a worthy successor, playing in every Canadiens game for the next three seasons, most of which were victories. In 132 regular-season games in those first three years, he had 49 shutouts. After Vézina’s death at the end of March of 1926, the NHL inaugurated a trophy in his name, for the league’s best goaltender, and Hainsworth won it for the first three years that it was awarded.
“Spry as a two-year-old” was a description applied to Hainsworth later in his NHL career; “cool and collected” was another. “A paragon of nonchalance,” advised The Chicago Tribune. “His utter sang froid in stopping the puck affords a rare thrill in hockey,” Montreal’s Gazette trilled. “His severest critic is his wife, who reads the newspapers reports of the games, and writes George in no uncertain terms what she thinks.”
But, for all his successes, were Canadiens loyalists slow to embrace him? Did they possibly not love him as much as they had loved Vézina? That’s what Ron McAllister suggests in the Hainsworth chapter he wrote in his popular compendium of profiles, Hockey Heroes (1949); it wasn’t until early in 1929 that the Montreal faithful finally learned to love Hainsworth. Which brings us, at last, to the (possible) case of Hainsworth’s pre-Benedict mask.
The night Montreal faithful learned to embrace their new(ish) goaltender was a Thursday, January 24, 1929, when the Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Forum. The game ended in a 1-1, with Montreal winger Aurèle Joliat scoring the home team’s goal.
But before he fired that shot, Joliat unloosed another: in the warm-up he hit Hainsworth full in the face — an accident, of course, as much as it might have seemed like a rehearsal, or demonstration for his linemate Morenz showing how to go about it in a year’s time.
Hainsworth bled and, as Le Canada reported, bled. While Canadiens’ physician Dr. John Corrigan did his best to stanch the flow, he found that the nose was broken. While the doctor dressed the wound, the team’s management saw to it that an announcement went out over Forum loudspeakers: would Hughie McCormick please present himself, if he happened to be in the house?
McCormick was a practice goalie for the Canadiens, a former minor-league guardian of nets, whose story is worth a telling on another day. He didn’t answer the Forum call, though. If Hainsworth was thinking of taking the night off to recover from Joliat’s friendly fire, he now changed his mind. “Courageous,” Le Canada wrote, “Hainsworth insisted on resuming his place. Dr. Corrigan gave him a preliminary dressing and he played the entire game.
If not for him, said the Gazette, who knows how Montreal would have withstood Toronto’s onslaught. “His sterling work in the middle session probably saved the Flying Frenchmen from defeat, for in the middle session the Leafs swarmed all over the local team.” One eye was swollen nearly shut; after the game, he went by ambulance to Notre Dame Hospital. Still, Dr. Corrigan told reporters that he was confident that the goaltender would be ready to play two nights hence, when the Canadiens went to play in Ottawa.
Can we pause here for a moment to consider the season that Hainsworth was having at this point? This was the year he recorded 22 shutouts in 44 regular-season games. Before Joliat broke his face for him, Hainsworth had slammed the proverbial door in 11 of 25 games, including four of the five leading up to the Toronto game.
In case Hainsworth couldn’t play in Ottawa, the Canadiens got permission from the NHL to use Hughie McCormick. There was also talk of calling in a young goaltender who’d practiced with the team in the pre-season, Alex Bolduc. At the hospital, X-ray confirmed Dr. Corrigan’s diagnosis: Hainsworth’s nose was fractured. Canadiens coach Cecil Hart was, all the same, holding out hope that his goaltender would be on the ice in Ottawa.
Hainsworth himself didn’t have any doubt. On Friday, a reporter from La Patrie dropped in on him at the hospital, room 512. “It was with exquisite urbanity that Hainsworth received your representative,” the visitor wrote. It wasn’t the first time, Hainsworth said, that he’d taken a smack to the head. Back when he’d played for the Saskatoon Sheiks, a shot had smashed seven teeth: “But I stayed in my position anyway.” Another time, he’d taken a ball to the temple, playing baseball: “I had a cerebral concussion.” His face still hurt from Joliat’s shot, he told the reporter. Still, he didn’t mind posing for a photograph in his sick-bed, even as he insisted that he would be leaving it soon. “I want to go to Ottawa, and I am able to play tomorrow night,” he said. “I am able to play and I do not want to hear that the Canadiens have departed tomorrow afternoon without me.”
At some point on Friday he did check himself out. He felt well enough, it seems, to head for a rink — an artist for La Patrie caught him at the Mont-Royal Arena watching from the penalty bench as a local senior team, Montreal St. Francois Xavier, went through its practice paces.
Saturday Hainsworth travelled to Ottawa with his teammates and he played, as promised, as the Canadiens beat the Senators 2-1. It was the second game in a row in which he’d allowed a goal — Frank Finnigan beat him — but Hainsworth earned only praise and sympathy in the press. “Alert,” The Globe called him; “Hainsworth was just fine,” La Patrie noted. His view must have been impaired the bandage he wore over his nose (“a heavy plaster,” The Globe called it), but he was his usual stalwart self. The Ottawa Journal: “Hainsworth in the nets didn’t show any effects from his broken nose if his stopping was any criterion.”
The Canadiens trained down to New York next for a pair of games at Madison Square Garden to start the new week. The first of these, Monday night, was a make-up game against the Rangers, defending Stanley Cup champions. The two teams had originally been scheduled to meet on January 8, but promoter and Rangers’ founder Tex Rickard had died, and the game was postponed to honour him.
The crowd was small, about 5,000. Many of the spectators spent much of the second and third periods jeering the home team. On the ice, the game was “bitterly fought,” The New York Times said. Referees Jerry Laflamme and Eddie O’Leary called many penalties, including a charging major against Bill Cook, his third of the season. When Armand Mondou scored the game’s only goal, the Canadiens had a four-on-three man advantage. The Rangers thought they’d scored a tying goal, through Leo Bourgeault, who (The Times):
… crashed the disk past Hainsworth, only to have the shot disallowed as the crowd booed. Bourgault was all alone at the rival net, and though the spectators thought the goal had been made the ruling was that it had hit the top bar and did not fall into the net.
At the finish it remained Canadiens 1, Rangers 0.
This January 28 game is the one in which Hainsworth may have worn some kind of protective mask to guard his wounded nose — which, again, would ante-date Clint Benedict’s famous face-guard by more than a year.
Unless there was no Hainsworth mask: the evidence I’ve come across comes down to a single reference in a single newspaper account.
In the ten reports of the game I’ve looked at, there are several mentions of Hainsworth injured nose, most of which refer to a save he made with it. Montreal Gazette was one of these, running an Associated Press dispatch that mentions a combined attack by the brothers Cook: “Hainsworth saved at the expense of a blow on his nose, broken less than a week ago.” La Patrie mentions this, too, while commending Hainsworth’s all-around play (“merveilleux,” “superbe,” “solide”). When Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick sent out five forwards in the third period in an attempt to tie the score, “Hainsworth had to make miracles.”
Two New York papers go into more detail — it’s just that the details don’t agree.
Grover Theis wrote up the game for the Times. “When the two teams skated out on the ice,” he remarked, “the most striking thing was that Hainsworth had a piece of plaster from one side of his face to the other.” He went on:
He was hurt in practice, but the goalie was undaunted by the handicap, because he stood up in the face of the first Ranger assaults with real courage and stopped several hard shots that the Ranger forward line carried against him.
On the beat for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was Harold C. Burr, an enthusiastic hockey correspondent with a vivid style. Here’s his overview of the game:
Not a spectator dared leave until the final whistle. One goal really decided it, but there was much ado before and after it. Once the playing surface was swept practically clean of Rangers. Frank Boucher tied the score, yet didn’t, in one man’s opinion. Excitable Frenchmen hugged and kissed on the ice. The crowd did everything but mob the referees. And Bill Cook drew his third damaging major penalty.
Quite a game, by and large, once everybody got their mad up.
“Les Canadiens sent some cripples into the melting pot,” he continued:
Howie Morenz reported with an ailing ankle and Goalie George Hainsworth wore from ear to ear a rubber protector across the bridge of a nose broken in practice at Montreal last week. But Morenz ran into a blue pocket with a tightening draw-string every time he attempted to advance and Hainsworth’s nose was in danger only once.
It was when rubber met rubber. The goalie was hit in the face by a high shot from Bill Cook’s weapon of wood. He put up both hands as if blinded. Both Cook brothers put their arms around him. But his mask had literally saved his face.
So there it is. A rubber protector. His mask. More than merely a passing reference, Burr’s is a very specific description And yet he remains all alone in his specificity. Assuming he wasn’t the only one to spy this mask of Hainsworth’s, could he really have been the only man on the reporting job to deem it worth a mention? Continue reading
A hidden gem! A setting said to be distinctive for guests on business and leisure alike! Unparalleled location in the heart of Manhattan! Rates starting at around US$167 per night!
That’s the pitch browsers online can find looking for a booking at New York’s Belvedere Hotel, which I wasn’t, recently. I can’t say one way or the other whether it’s the place for you; what I can report, confidently, is that if you do go, your hopes of emulating these early New York Rangers, above, and getting in a game of handball on the roof is zero.
There is a gym at the Belvedere: indeed, the hotel’s website says it’s “proud” to have one, “encouraging health-conscious guests to maintain their active lifestyle while traveling and dining out.”
I guess handball’s heyday has come and mostly gone, but I had a moment’s reverie in which you could still catch a game on high at the Belvedere.
The woman I talked to there when I phoned seemed worried by my rooftop questions. “No,” she told me, “there’s no tennis court.” Handball. “Nope.” When did it close? Did she know? Did someone know? What’s up there now? Anybody I can talk to who can talk about the history of the hotel? I was panicking her, though. “Honestly,” she said, “nobody that’s here has ever seen anything like that.”
That’s Ching Johnson here, of course, on the left, with Bill Cook leaping high over his fallen brother, Bun. All three had been with the Rangers since their inaugural season, 1926-27. It was 1929 now, springtime, and the team was girding to defend the Stanley Cup title it had won the previous year over the Maroons of Montreal. Bun Cook was 25, his brother (the Ranger captain) and Johnson older, 32 and 30, respectively. The team couldn’t quite pull off the defense, falling in that year’s two-game final to the Boston Bruins.
The Belvedere, at 319 West 48th Street, was new in the late 1920s. “The Outstanding Success of the City,” bragged a newspaper ad from those years, before getting down to details: 450 baths complemented the Belvedere’s 450 rooms, all of which were outside rooms, featuring two large windows. The Moderately Priced Restaurant served a Peerless Cuisine. You could get a large double room for US$6 a day; furnished suites with serving pantries ran anywhere from US$35 to US$150.
Times Square wasn’t far and, more to the point, Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden was just a block north up 8th Avenue. Handball was just the start of it — over the years, many hockey players would call the Belvedere home. Following, a few notes on that and other Belvedere/hockey associations.
In early April of 1928, just before the Rangers went into Stanley-Cup battle with the Montreal Maroons, the Belvedere and its inimitable menu played host to a hockey awards dinner. At this time, the NHL proper awarded three individual trophies, the Hart (for league MVP), the Vézina (goaltender allowing the fewest goals), and Lady Byng (high skill and gentlemanly conduct), but these weren’t those.
First among honourees on this night were handballing defenceman Ching Johnson, who took the Paramount Theatre Trophy as MVP of the New York teams, Rangers and Americans. The Broadway director and producer (and native-born Newfoundlander) John Murray Anderson sponsored that one, with the New York Hockey Writers Association taking care of the voting. Out of 26 ballots cast, Johnson’s name was on 12, while the two centreman, the Rangers’ Frank Boucher and the Amerks’ Normie Himes, appeared on seven each.
Boucher was the highest scoring New Yorker that year, finishing third in the NHL chart behind Hart-winner Howie Morenz and his Canadiens teammate, Aurele Joliat, and that was good enough to win him the Belvedere Hotel Trophy. (His Cook wingers, Bun and Bill, were runners-up.) But while Boucher would that same year win the first of his seven Lady Byng Trophies (in 1935, they actually gave him trophy, ordered a new one), on this night Boucher had to concede the Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy to Harold Darragh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton seems to have been responsible for deciding this one, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report calls his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Darragh, a winger, was sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.
Bandleader and hockey fan Paul Whiteman presided over the proceedings — or as the Daily Eagle called him, “corpulent ‘Oom’ Paulie Whitehead,” who made Ching Johnson look like a mere “mite.”
In the late 1930s, the Belvedere played host to an annual dinner given by the NHL for the aforementioned New York Hockey Writers Association. At the 1938 edition, Rangers GM Lester Patrick unveiled his proposal for an all-new playoff format. Harold Parrott wrote it up for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
In fact, the Silver Fox of the ice rinks was practically lopsided after expounding his playoff theories to hockey writers last night with the aid of calculus, logarithms, a financial expert he brought along for the purpose — and a lot of patient good humor.
Ahead of the season, Montreal’s troubled Maroons talked of migrating to St. Louis, or maybe Cleveland, but the league turned them down, so they’d suspended operations, leaving seven teams. Patrick wanted the NHL to collapse the remaining teams into one division (previously they’d been divided into American and Canadian halves) with the team that finished on top declared league champion. All seven teams would them compete for the Stanley Cup, with the first-place finisher leaping past the first round with a bye while — importantly — not missing out on its share of ticket profits. Revenue was an important feature of the plan, with teams’ percentages based on (as far as I can discern) a formula accounting both for regular-season and how far they advanced in the playoffs. “The Ranger boss,” Parrott wrote, “figures this will make the teams hustle until the season’s last whistle.”
Interesting that Patrick was sharing with the writers before he took it to the NHL and the teams involved. “Manager Patrick,” noted The New York Times in its report, “is hopeful that his plan will be accepted, although at first blush it seems a most radical and fantastic one, he himself declared.” If the NHL did put this Patrick plan to a vote, it failed to pass. The league did end up rejigging divisions that year, decanting two into one, but when the playoffs came around in the spring of 1939, only the top six teams were in. Last-place Chicago had to watch as Boston went on to beat Toronto in the finals.
The Belvedere is where Stan Fischler got his start to his career in hockey journalism, books, broadcasting and general, all-around mavening. He writes about this in New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players (2015). As a Brooklyn College student in the early 1950s he not only joined a Rangers fan club organized by team publicist Herb Goren but launched a club newspaper with a pair of willing friends. “This gave us entrée to interview players,” he recalls, the first being Ed Kullman, “cross-examined in his suite at the Belvedere Hotel.”
Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times called on Fischler’s formidable Ranger memory when he wrote Don Raleigh’s obituary in 2012. “Bones Raleigh was the quintessential antihero,” Fischler said of the former centreman, Kenora-born, who captained the Rangers and scored back-to-back overtime winners in the team’s losing struggle with Detroit in the 1950 Stanley Cup finals. “He was an intellectual; he would write poetry on the Staten Island Ferry. He would get the puck behind his net and just wend his way up ice on spectacular rushes. Problem was, Bones being so skinny, by the time he got inside the enemy zone, he was usually body checked. But we didn’t mind because he was our guy.”
For much of his ten-year NHL career, he was one of many Rangers to make a hockey-season home at the Belvedere. Klein talked to teammates Harry Howell and Pentti Lund, among others. They both remembered him calling in teammates to his suite for pre-game strategy sessions. He was a book-reader and a bon vivant, loved life in New York, enjoyed the sense of humour:
“Old Bones Raleigh, he used to be our cook in the hotel,” Howell said. “He used to buy the groceries, and we’d pay him. One night, he gave a huge can of peaches to the players, and we thought, Boy, this is really something. So Bones, before we ate the peaches, said, ‘Now you guys realize you each have to give me 12 cents per peach.’ We all knew what he was like and just laughed.”
I’m assuming that Raleigh was on hand at the Belvedere on the last night of 1952 as the Rangers, with wives and girlfriends, heralded the new year. Frank Boucher was there, the Rangers’ GM now, and so was Bill Cook, his coach, who’d almost died twice in the year gone by thanks to irate bulls and exploding tractors. The Leafs and Rangers had played to a 3-3 tie that night but while Toronto’s hockey players had packed up and travelled on to Boston after the game, several of her hockey writers had stayed on to party at the Belvedere. The Globe and Mail’s Gord Walker was one of them, which is how we know that Gladys Gooding was at the piano when the time came to sing Auld Lang Syne, when Rangers captain Allan Stanley wore a plastic fireman’s hat to welcome the midnight. “There was quite a noise for a while,” Walker wrote. “It died down shortly because he wives kissed their husbands, and the girl friends kissed their escorts and the Toronto hockey writers shook hands with each other.”