It was on a Saturday of this very date in 1936 that the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup, upending the Maple Leafs in Toronto by a score of 3-2 to take the championship series in four games. Winger Pete Kelly scored the decisive goal for Detroit; “I’m glad I was some good,” he told the Detroit Free Press after it was all over, and the Wings were celebrating. Leafs coach Conn Smythe was one of the first to congratulate Jack Adams, his Red Wing counterpart. “You’ve got one of the best hockey clubs of all time, Jack,” is what Smythe told him in the hubbub of the Detroit dressing room. Worth a note: the new champions didn’t actually get their hands on the Cup at the rink where they won it: it wasn’t until later that evening that NHL President Frank Calder handed it over to Detroit owner James Norris at the Royal York Hotel.
While this was the first Cup win for Jack Adams as a coach and GM, this wasn’t his first Stanley Cup rodeo. As a young centreman, he’d been a member of the 1918 Toronto team that won the Cup after the NHL’s inaugural season, although he didn’t end up playing in the finals against the PCHL Vancouver Millionaires. In 1927, his last year as a player, he was with the Ottawa Senators when they won the championship. All in all, Adams would play a part in nine Stanley Cup wins over the course of his career. He remains the only person to have won it as a player, coach, and manager.
In his honour, then, something of a poem. I didn’t write it; what I did was track down a column of D.A.L. MacDonald’s from the Montreal Gazette of Tuesday, March 24, 1936, as Adams prepared his first-place Red Wings to start the playoffs. So these are MacDonald’s words, excerpted; all I’ve done is poemize them.
Manager Jack Adams has issued
for the Red Wings.
They must all be
up at 10 o’clock
for breakfast and
a morning walk.
On the afternoons of the day of games,
the last meal must be taken at three o’clock,
if a steak is the main dish,
then another walk
and a siesta.
Hec Kilrea and Marty Barry
are the only ones
allowed to eat
at four o’clock.
The reason is
they dine lightly
Movies are banned
on the afternoon of days the Wings play,
especially for Normie Smith.
Everyone in bed by midnight.
Red Dutton did it all in the NHL. A star defenceman in the old WHL, Dutton, who died on a Sunday of this date in 1987 at the age of 89, joined the Montreal Maroons in 1926, anchoring the defence and ending up captain of the team before moving on to the New York Americans after four seasons. He played six further seasons with the Amerks and ended up as coach of the team — and caretaker owner, too, after the NHL separated Bill Dwyer from the franchise in the 1930s. The Americans, of course, didn’t survive the tumultuous years of the Second World War; Dutton, meanwhile, took over as interim president of the league after Frank Calder’s death in 1943. A Hall-of-Famer and Stanley Cup trustee, Dutton ran a highly successful construction based in Calgary, where also, through the years, he was owner and president of the CFL Stampeders and headed the city’s famous Stampede.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.
He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.
Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.
Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.
It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.
Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.
Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.
Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.
Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.
Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.
Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.
Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.
Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.
I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:
For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.
When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.
He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.
In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.
They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.
So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.
Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.
Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.
Jimmy Orlando played six seasons on defence for the Detroit Red Wings, helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1943. Born in Montreal in 1915, Orlando died on a Saturday of this date in 1992 at the age of 77. His wife noted that week that he’d watched hockey right up the end of his life. “He thought they were all overpaid, I’ll tell you that,” Doris Orlando said. “His favourite was Mario Lemieux.”
Uncompromising might be one word for Orlando’s approach to the game when he played, excessively violent two more. He led the NHL penalty minutes the last three seasons of his career. In Chicago in 1941, after he punched a fan and knocked him unconscious, he went unpunished by league or law. A year later, at Maple Leaf Gardens, he infamously swung his stick at Toronto rookie Gaye Stewart’s head, who swung his back at Orlando’s. Photographer Nat Turofsky was on hand to document the bloody aftermath. Both players were assessed match penalties, and each was summarily fined $50 by referee King Clancy.
Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman called for NHL president Frank Calder to ban Orlando outright. “If the president and directors of the league fail to act swiftly and firmly, they might as well close up shop.” Calder waited almost a week to come to his decision: Orlando and Stewart were each ordered to pay $100 to the Red Cross or any other war charity, and Orlando was barred from playing games in Toronto while Stewart was forbidden to represent the Leafs in Detroit — “until further notice.” Those sentences lasted not quite four months — Red Dutton rescinded them when he stepped in as interim NHL president after Calder’s death in February of ’43.
“I’d like to have a dollar for every time the Stanley Cup has been filled with champagne.”
When Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, said that in 1942, hockey’s most cherished trophy had already been won more than 80 times in its 48 years of history, going back to 1893, when the Montreal Hockey Club laid original claim on the Cup. Calder was in a storytelling frame of mind rather than a profiteering one, regaling reporters with tales of Cup shenanigans, some of them involving Lord Stanley’s chalice being misplaced, or maltreated, some of which may even be true. Calder wasn’t at the time harbouring a reliable quaff-count; his point was presumptive, recognizing that however hallowed a symbol it may be, the Stanley Cup will never escape its original self and purpose as a drinking vessel.
All of which gets us around to the question of the night: can you truly be said to have won the Stanley Cup if you don’t end up merrily slurping sparkling alcohol from its silvery bowl?
Seventy-seven times the Cup, in several incarnations, has been awarded since Calder spoke his piece in 1942. With a lock-out having washed out the 2005 season and Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning made it 78 last when they dispensed with the Dallas Stars in Edmonton to win these perturbed playoffs and receive the Cup from Calder-heir Gary Bettman, putting an end, finally, to the 2019-20 NHL season.
And, yes, champagne (and beer) was decanted into the Cup and duly poured out, into and onto the happy faces of the new champions. Was there ever any doubt that they would partake, despite what public health officials might advise in, say, a surging pandemic such as we’re in?
No-one needs reminding how unlikely the whole idea of completing the hockey season seemed back in March and April when COVID-19 interrupted everything. Even when the NHL looked north for a bubbled restart at the beginning of August there was no guarantee that the summer’s emergency experiment would work out.
The NHL deserves credit for the fact that it has. Prudent planning, strict procedures, stringent testing, good luck: they’ve all played a part in getting the league to this point. When, back in August, I talked to some NHL high-ups for a New York Times feature I was working on, they were assuming nothing.
“I’m just hopeful we get to that point,” Dr. Winne Meeuwisse, theNHL’s chief medical officer told me when I raised a question about possible protocols involved in the eventual presentation of/sipping from the Cup. “We’re a long way away from that, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.”
Everybody I spoke with emphasized that health and safety were — and would remain — the top priority.
I asked Dr. Meeuwisse specifically about infectious disease and risk and all the potential for Cup handling, passing around, kissing, and, yes, drinking from.
“Would hoisting the Cup be a problem? No. Would a lot of shared consumption be a problem? It probably would be.”
I asked the NHL’s deputy commissioner, too, Bill Daly.
“That’s a fair question,” he said. Without offering specifics, he suggested that it just might be something that the league would indeed regulate … maybe. The full quote: “For better or for worse, we’re roughly six or seven weeks away from having to deal with that. I think we have some time to figure that out. Quite frankly, I think that’s been a recurring theme in terms of our approach to the pandemic from the start, which is we want to remain nimble. We want to react, or be in a position to proact, where you can, but when as we learn more and new things become evident or apparent to us, we can and have you know proven to this point where we can we can adjust on the fly.”
I talked to Phil Pritchard, too, the Hockey Hall of Fame vice-president and curator who’s better known as the Keeper of Cup. “As we get closer,” he said, “we’ll see what rules and regulations we have to put into effect.”
I get it. Who, exactly, was going to tell Steven Stamkos, or Pat Maroon, that after 65 days sequestered in their Canadian bubbles, far from friends and family and fans, they weren’t allowed to touch their lips to the Cup in all the traditional ways?
Dr. Meeuwisse well understood the challenge. “At that point,” he told me a month ago, “is a player going to care enough about it to alter their behaviour?”
Dr. Andrew Morris was someone else I consulted in August. He wasn’t professionally involved in the NHL’s return to the ice, but he’s a fan and, as an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health and University Health Network, an interested observer.
Would the champions bow to best preventive practices and forgo the clutching of the Cup, the kissing, the swigging, maybe just wave to it across the distance in the dressing room?
“I think they’ll say, ‘We’ll live with the risk here,’” Dr. Morris. And that’s true for this disease in general: there are public health issues, and then there are people’s own personal risk assessment issues.”
Spanish flu stopped the Stanley Cup finals in their tracks in Seattle in April of 1919, when players from both the visiting Montreal Canadiens and the hometown Metropolitans were stricken before the deciding game could be played.
That wasn’t the worst of it, of course: within a week of the series having been abandoned, Canadiens defenceman Joe Hall died in a Seattle hospital of the pneumonia he’d developed. He was 37.
Hall was buried in Vancouver in early April. Some of his teammates stayed on in Seattle to convalesce after their own bouts with the killer flu; most trundled home on eastbound trains.
Canadiens coach and captain Newsy Lalonde was back in Montreal by mid-April, where he told the local Gazette that Canadiens had received the best of care during their illnesses. “The games were the most strenuous I have been in,” he added, “and I would not like to go through another such experience for any amount.”
In the year that COVID-19 has made of 2020, hockey’s 100-year-old experience of another pandemic has been much discussed. But while the deadly unfinished finals of 1919 have been documented in detail, hockey’s subsequent plans for returning to play — for resuming the series that sickness had interrupted, and for making sure the Stanley Cup was indeed awarded that year — have been all but forgotten.
Most recent accounts of the events of that first post-war Stanley Cup encounter keep their focus narrowed on those tragic April days of 1919 and not beyond. When they do consider what happened next — well, Gare Joyce’s big feature for Sportsnet earlier in our locked-down spring spells out the common assumption. In 1919, Joyce posits, “There was never any thought about a replay or rematch.”
That’s not, in fact, the case.
With the modern-day NHL marching inexorably towards ending its 2020 coronavirus interruption, let’s consider, herewith, those 1919 efforts to finish up Seattle’s never-ended Stanley Cup finals and how they kept the parties involved talking, back and forth, for nearly a year.
There was even a plan, if only short-lived, whereby two Stanley Cup finals, the 1919 and the 1920, would have been played simultaneously.
That final fated game in Seattle in 1919 was scheduled for Tuesday, April 1. But before a puck could be dropped at 8.30 p.m. sharp, with the players on both teams too ill to play, workers were in at the Seattle Ice Arena at noon to break up the ice in preparation for the roller-skating season ahead.
For the next week, all the pro hockey news in Canada was grimly medical, tracking which of the suffering players and officials were improving and who among them might be waning. After Joe Hall’s shocking death on Saturday, April 5, and his funeral in Vancouver the following Tuesday, the news moved on altogether.
Occasionally, in the ensuing weeks, a medical update popped up: towards the end of June, for instance, when Canadiens winger Jack McDonald was finally well enough to leave Seattle and head for home while still recovering from his illness. He’d been Hall’s roommate during the finals, and his own case of influenza was serious enough to have required surgery on his lungs.
Mostly through the summer the hockey world stayed quiet.
Until August. That’s when the first public suggestions that the Stanley Cup series might be revived started to appear. The reports were vague, no sources named. The Ottawa Citizen carried one such, towards the end of the month:
It is stated there is a great possibility of the Canadien Hockey team going to the Pacific Coast to play off the Stanley Cup series which was interrupted by the influenza epidemic last spring.
Whatever negotiations may have been happening behind the scenes, Toronto’s Globe had word a few days later that optimism for a resumption of the finals wasn’t exactly surging out on the west coast. “It is pointed out that the Seattle artificial ice rink does not open until late in December,” that dispatch read, and so any games after that date would clash with the regular PCHA schedule. Also: “the expense of the trip is an important consideration.”
Frank Patrick, president of the PCHA, was on the same page. “There will be no East vs. West series on the Pacific coast in December,” he said as summer turned to fall, “nor will there be any Stanley Cup series, until after our regular series.”
“Such a series is impracticable,” he went on. “The Seattle rink will not be open until December 26. … There is absolutely no chance for a series with the East until next spring.”
As definitive as that sounds, the prospect of a return to Stanley Cup play continued.
In October, a report that appeared in the Vancouver Daily Worldand elsewhere cited unidentified Montreal sources when it reported that in the “scarcity of hockey rinks” out east, there was a “very strong probability” that Canadiens would indeed head to the Pacific coast to decide the thing for once and for all.
Names were named: Montreal coach and captain Newsy Lalonde was definitely up for the journey, as was teammate Didier Pitre. Passively voiced assurance was also given that there would be “no trouble about the remainder of the team.”
Canadiens’ owner George Kennedy was not only on board, he was happy to drive: “… it is even understood he is even considering to take the team, or at least part of it, to the Coast by automobile along the Lincoln Highway, which runs from Brooklyn to Spokane.”
The plan, apparently, was to play only a best-of-three series to decide the 1919 Cup, theWorldexplained. “The matches would be played about the second week in December.”
But for every flicker of affirmation, there was, that fall, an equal and opposite gust of denial. A few days further on into October, Vancouver’s Province was once again declaring the whole plan, which it attributed to Kennedy, defunct, mainly due to the persistent problem that Seattle Ice Arena wouldn’t be getting its ice until after Christmas.
“And furthermore, a pre-season series would kill off interest in the annual spring clashes.”
Towards the end of the month, Seattle coach Pete Muldoon confirmed that the plan hadbeen Kennedy’s and that it had been rejected. Under the proposed scenario, neither team would have been able to practice before an agreed date, whereafter the Montreal and Seattle squads would each have had a week or so to play themselves into shape before facing off.
“There was considerable merit to the proposal,” Muldoon said, but again, alas — Seattle would have no ice to play on before the end of the year, whereafter the regular 1920 PCHA season would be getting underway.
“Accordingly,” said Muldoon, “the proposition was turned down.”
With that, the certainty that the 1919 Stanley Cup would remain unfinished was … well, only almost established, with one more last hurrah still waiting to take its turn five months down the road.
In the meantime, as hockey’s two big leagues prepared to restart their new respective regular seasons, they found a new point of Stanley Cup contention to wrangle over.
There were many subjects on which the two rival leagues didn’t agree in those years. The eastern pro loop was the National Hockey Association before the advent, in 1917, of the NHL, while the western operation was a project of Frank and Lester Patrick’s. While there had been periods of cooperation and consultation between east and west through almost a decade of cross-continental co-existence, there had also been plenty of conflict.
Year after year, the rivals competed, not always scrupulously, for hockey talent. On the ice, they each played by their own rules. PCHA teams iced seven men each, played their passes forward, took penalty shots on rinks featuring goal creases and blue lines. They didn’t do any of that in the six-aside east — not until later, anyway, as the western league ran out of steam and money in the 1920s and was absorbed by the NHL, along with many of the Patricks’ innovations that hadn’t already been embraced.
Since 1914, one thing the two leagues hadagreed on was that with their respective champions meeting annually to play for the Stanley Cup, they would alternate venues between central Canada and the west coast.
That’s how the 1919 finals ended up in Seattle. If they couldn’t be completed, then the time had come to look ahead to 1920, the second-last year of the alternating deal.
The problem there? At the end of 1919, both leagues maintained that it was rightly their turn to host.
When the PCHA was first to argue the case, when it convened its league meeting towards the end of November in Vancouver. “The directors decided,” the Daily World’s reporter noted, “that in view of the fact that the series last spring was not completed, the series this season should be played on the coast. President Patrick was authorized to arrange, if possible, with the National Hockey League for the eastern champions to come west.”
There were scheduling and weather aspects to this position, too: with the PCHA season continuing through the end of March, the directors worried that the NHL’s natural-ice rinks wouldn’t be playable by the time the western champions made their way cross-country.
The NHL read the reports and issued a statement. “No official request has come to us intimating that the Stanley Cup series should be played in the west again this year,” president Frank Calder said. As for ice concerns, he noted that in fact Toronto’s Arena Gardens did indeed have an ice plant, and in the event of thawing elsewhere, the finals could always be played at the Mutual Street rink.
Meanwhile, both leagues continued to prepare to launch their own regular seasons. In the west, the same three teams would play among themselves, with Seattle’s Metropolitans in the running again along with the Vancouver Millionaires and Victoria’s Aristocrats.
For the NHL, it would be a third season on ice. The league’s 1919 session had ended, let’s remember, with a bit of a bleat. Having started the year with just three teams, the NHL reached the end of its second year with just two, after the defending Stanley Cup champions, Toronto’s Arenas, faltered and folded in February, leaving Canadiens and Ottawa Senators to play for the right to head to Seattle.
Ahead of the new campaign set to open just before Christmas, there was a rumour that Toronto might return to the NHL fold with two teams, and that Montreal could be getting a second team, too, with Art Ross reviving the Wanderers franchise that had collapsed in 1918, early in the NHL’s inaugural season. Quebec was another possibility.
By another report, Toronto was a no-go altogether — the city had never been a viable hockey market, anyway, the story went, and the league would be much better off concentrated in eastern Ontario and Quebec.
In December, when the music stopped, Quebec did get a team, the Athletics. So too did Toronto, when Fred Hambly, chairman of the city’s Board of Education, bought the old Arena franchise. Reviving the name of an early NHA team, they were originally called the Tecumsehs. On paper, at least: within a couple days the team had been rebranded again, this time as the Toronto St. Patricks.
Nothing had been resolved on the Stanley Cup front by the time the NHL’s directors met for their annual get-together in Ottawa on December 20. They did now have in hand correspondence from Frank Patrick confirming the PCHA’s provocative position. “The matter was brought up,” the Daily World duly reported, “but the Eastern delegates could not give Patrick a concession on his letter.”
George Kennedy of the Canadiens was “particularly riled:” was it Montreal’s fault that the finals had to be abandoned? Obviously not. (Kennedy was also said to be “het up.”)
There was a suggestion that the matter would be referred to William Foran, the secretary of Canada’s Civil Service Commission who’d served as a Stanley Cup trustee since 1907 and was the go-to arbiter in disputes between the two pro leagues. “His services will likely be called on in a short time,” devotees of the ongoing drama learned.
On it went, and on. By the end of February, the race for the NHL title had Ottawa’s Senators tied atop the standing with Toronto, with Montreal not far behind. Ottawa was feeling confident enough, or sufficiently outraged, to put out a public statement that the club was adamantly opposed to going west to play for the Cup.
“Patrick’s claim,” an unnamed team director said, “that the games should be played elsewhere than in one of the National League teams [sic] is based on a technicality and is a most unreasonable one.”
Asked for his view, William Foran “did not care to express any opinion as to the dispute.” He was willing to opine on the quality of the winter’s hockey that the NHL was displaying:, it was, he declared, “the finest and cleanest on record.”
Maybe was the answer in … Winnipeg?
That was an idea that Frank Patrick had floated earlier in February. W.J. Holmes, the owner of the city’s naturally iced Amphitheatre rink, was on board, and he had been in contact with Frank Calder, hoping to coax him and his league to a prairie compromise with a promise of hard ice through the end of March.
“We certainly could not play in the east before March 22,” Patrick said, “but would ready to play in Winnipeg no later than March 19. It is now up to the east.”
But the NHL’s governors put a nix on a Manitoba finals during a special February meeting at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, where the league had been born just over two years earlier.
And so the debate trudged on in March. Out west, all three PCHA teams were still locked in close contention for the league championship, while in the east, Ottawa claimed their place in the finals, wherever they might be played, with three games remaining in the schedule. The season was divided, still, in those years into halves, but with the Senators having prevailed in both, there was no need for a playoff.
Frank Patrick still didn’t think an eastern finals was going to work. Apart from issues related to melting ice, his teams worried that they’d be undermanned. Vancouver, for instance, would be without Cyclone Taylor and Gordie Roberts, whose non-hockey jobs would keep them from travelling.
Ottawa’s position hadn’t changed. “The Ottawas feel that in fairness to their supporters,” a local report reported on March 3, “they ought to have the matches played here.” William Foran was now, apparently, involved, and though the team had no news of developments, officials remained confident that the western champions would yield and travel east.
If not, well, they had job-related problems of their own: several key Senators players, including captain Eddie Gerard and goaltender Clint Benedict, wouldn’t be able to get away for a western sortie.
This, despite a report from Calgary — on the very same day — that Ottawa had been inquiring about playing exhibition games in Alberta on their westward way to the coast.
The whole was just about resolved by the end of the week. “We will be in the east by March 22,” Frank Patrick was quoted as saying on March 6. “That has all been settled.”
And so it was. Still, the prospect that the 1919 Stanley Cup might actually yet be completed nearly a year after it failed to finish did rear its head one last time. With all three teams in contention for the PCHA title in mid-March of 1920, Montreal’s George Kennedy let it be known that Newsy Lalonde had been talking to his Seattle counterpart, Pete Muldoon, about the possibility of reviving the 1919 series even as the 1920 finals were getting underway.
Seattle would have to lose out on the current year’s PCHA title, of course, for the plan to move forward. If that happened, Canadiens were said to be ready to head west to finish out the previous year’s finals while Victoria or Vancouver went the other way to take on Ottawa. Playing just a single make-up game wouldn’t be viable, in terms of cost, so as previously, the teams would settle the matter of the 1919 Cup with a three-game series.
Duelling Stanley Cup finals would have been something to see, but as it turned out, Seattle put an end to the possibility by surpassing Vancouver to win the right to vie for the 1920 Cup.
William Foran had been keeping the Stanley Cup safe ever since Toronto won it in the spring of 1918. (It seems that the vaunted trophy didn’t even make the journey to Seattle in 1919.) Now, as Ottawa prepared to host the finals, he loaned it to the Senators so they could put it on display in the shop window of R.J. Devlin’s, furrier and hatter, on Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street.
The weather was mild in Canada’s capital the week of March 15, prompting one more last-ditch offer from Frank Patrick to switch back west. Ottawa was quick to decline, and by Saturday, temperatures had sunken well below freezing.
Along with the weather, the Spanish flu was still in the news. Back in 1919, Joe Hall had died during the pandemic’s third wave. Now, almost a year later, alongside the inevitable ads for cure-alls like Milburn’s Heart & Nerve Pills and Hamlin’s Wizard Oil (“a reliable anti-septic preventative”), newspapers across Canada continued to log the insidious reach of the illness.
In late January of 1920, influenza cases were surging in Detroit and New York. In February, an outbreak cut short an OHA intermediate hockey game and closed the Ingersoll, Ontario, arena. In the province’s north, near Timmins, another caused the popular annual canine race, the Porcupine Dog Derby, to be postponed.
By mid-March, daily influenza deaths in Montreal were down to seven from 265 a month earlier. “Epidemic Shows Signs of Breaking,” ran the headline in the Gazette.
Ottawa papers from the middle of that March are mostly flu-free, though it is true that the federal minister of Immigration and Colonization was reported to be suffering the week Seattle and Ottawa were tussling for the 1920 Stanley Cup. J.A. Calder was his name, no relation to Frank: the Ottawa Citizen reported that the minister was planning to “go south” to recover.”
The Senators, meanwhile, were in receipt of a telegram on Wednesday, March 17, from Seattle coach Pete Muldoon:
Left Vancouver last night. Coming by way of Milwaukee and Chicago. Will arrive in Ottawa Sunday afternoon. Ready for first game Monday night.
William Foran was on hand at Dey’s Arena for that first game and he addressed the players on the ice before dropping the puck for the opening face-off, “expressing the hope” (reported the Citizen) “that the traditions of the Stanley Cup would be honoured and that the teams would fight it out for the celebrated trophy in the spirit of fair play.”
Seattle’s team was almost the same one that had faced Montreal the year before. Hap Holmes featured in net, Frank Foyston and Jack Walker up front. “That irritating couple,” the Ottawa Journal called the latter pair, “the centre ice wasps,” warning that they would cause the Senators more worry than any of the other Mets.
Ottawa’s formidable line-up included Benedict and Gerard along with Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, Punch Broadbent, and Cy Denneny.
The home team won that first game, played under NHL rules, by a score of 3-2. They won the next game, too, 3-0, when the teams went at it seven-aside. The weather was warming, and by the time they met again on March 27, players were sinking into the slushy ice as the Metropolitans found way to win by 3-1.
The teams made a move, after that, to Toronto, where the final two games were played out on the good, hard, artificial surface of Arena Gardens.
Seattle won the next game, 5-2, but Ottawa came back two nights later, a year to the day that workers had broken up the ice in Seattle, to earn a 6-1 victory and, with it, the Stanley Cup. The Senators’ first championship since 1911, it heralded the opening of a golden age in Ottawa, with the team winning two out of the next three Cups through 1923.
It was on a Sunday of this date in 1939 that the Boston Bruins upended the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 3-1 at Boston Garden to win their second Stanley Cup, with Roy Conacher scored the winning goal to wrap up the best-of-seven series 4 to 1. “The scenes following the sounding of the final bell almost beggar description,” Victor Jones wrote in his dispatch for the Boston Globe. “Conny Smythe hopped the dasher and ran over to congratulate Arthur H. Ross, while the players shook hands all around, firecrackers rent the air, fans screamed and shouted, while the band broke in to ‘Paree.’” NHL president Frank Calder presented the Cup to Ross, who handed it to captain Cooney Weiland. “The trophy was lugged off to the Bruins’ dressing room,” Jones went on, “where Sam Simon, the Garden concessionaire, lost no time in filling it and refilling it and refilling it with the finest vintage champagne.” This image of that night doesn’t catch any of that, unfortunately. Standing from left to right are goaltender Frank Brimsek, Jack Crawford, Eddie Shore, and (on the other side) Jack Portland, and Ray Getliffe. Arrayed in front, from the right, are Conacher, Mel Hill, Charlie Sands, Cooney Weiland, Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, and Bill Cowley. Down in front that’s a single-skated Milt Schmidt alongside Gord Pettinger and Flash Hollett.
(Top image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
“Syl Apps had counted for Toronto in the first session, Nick Metz in the second and 14,894 were all excited over a series-tying triumph from their heroes when Rangers started to ride the icy plains. Socko! Neil Colville shook Red Horner out of his hair and made it 2-1. One minute, 54 seconds later in the third period, Alf Pike feinted goalie Turk Broda out of position and delivered the tying goal.” That’s how Gene Ward opened his New York Daily News dispatch describing the Saturday-night soiree that saw the Rangers win the third of their four Stanley Cups on this very date in 1940. With the circus ensconced at Madison Square Garden, four of the series’ six games were played at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, and it was there in overtime in the decisive game that New York’s Bryan Hextall beat Broda for the winner after two minutes.
Seen here receiving the stove-pipe Stanley Cup are, from left — well, Rangers’ goaltender Dave Kerr is all but missing from the frame (his pads are present and accounted for). In view next to him is Dutch Hiller alongside Lynn Patrick, Clint Smith, coach Frank Boucher, Babe Pratt, captain Art Coulter, Bryan Hextall, Madison Square Garden president Colonel John Reed Kilpatrick, an unidentified obscured Ranger, NHL president Frank Calder, Ranger manager Lester Patrick, another hard-to-identify Ranger, Neil Colville, Alf Pike, and Phil Watson.