double take: what the camera shows, and doesn’t, of the barnstorming 1929 new york americans

On The Oregon Trail: The New York Americans line up outside the Portland ice Arena in April of 1929. From left, that’s Roy Worters, Harry Connor, Tex White, Billy Burch, Tommy Gorman, Lionel Conacher, Leo Reise, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, ? Beckett.

They’re some of the biggest names in hockey, standing there in their skates on the pavement, as though surprised by a photographer in their attempt to escape the bounds of the rink in Portland, Oregon, or maybe of hockey itself. That’s the dominant Canadian athlete of the first half of the 20th century in the middle, Lionel Conacher. Beside him is T.P. Gorman, a.k.a. Tommy, who as an NHL coach and manager was involved in winning four Stanley Cup championships with three different teams. The other future Hall-of-Famers here are Billy Burch, to Gorman’s right, and the tiny mighty goaltender Roy Worters, out on the end at far left.

There’s a mystery man lined up here, too, over on the right. Inquiring hockey minds have wondered about him, in recent years, who was he, what was his role with the team, how did he end up crossing sticks with Rabbit McVeigh outside the Portland Ice Arena in the spring of 1929? In another version, he’s in between Burch and an even happier Conacher:

Take Two: From left, Harry Connor, Tex White, Bill Burch, ? Beckett, Lionel Conacher, Leo Reise, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, Roy Worters, Tommy Gorman.

Thanks to photographer Theo Mentzer’s annotations we know his name is Beckett. Beyond that — I haven’t been able to find out too much more about him. Not that the first photograph doesn’t have surprises to spring. I came across those recently, as I looked for traces of him. As surprises go, these ones aren’t particularly momentous, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth waiting for. They seem to have been concealed for decades in … well, no, not exactly plain sight, I guess.

Some background, first. For that, we tunnel back to April of 1929 and the end of the NHL’s twelfth season. The Stanley Cup finals had wrapped up at the end of March, with the Boston Bruins collecting their first championship by overcoming the New York Rangers in a two-game series.

There were ten teams in the league at this point, and the New York Americans were one of the good ones. For all the team’s star-power, coach Gorman had failed to urge them past the first round: two weeks earlier, they’d been ousted from the playoffs by the Rangers, in a close-fought two-game, total-goals series.

The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, had ridden a bye into the second round of the playoffs, but they faltered there against the Bruins. To ease the pain of defeat — and supplement the club’s coffers — both disappointed teams, Canadiens and Americans, went west, departing on a post-season exhibition tour, a common practice for NHL teams in those years.

As April got going, as the Americans arrived in Oregon, for the first of six games they’d play on the Pacific coast, the NHL was concluding its last bit of business for the season, announcing the year’s individual trophy winners. Among them was Roy Worters, who had the high distinction of being winner of the David A. Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. It was the first time in the trophy’s six-year history that it had gone to a goaltender. Worters wasn’t deemed to be the best at his own position, it might be worth pointing out: in 1929 it was the Canadiens’ goaltender, George, Hainsworth, who was named winner of a third consecutive Vézina Trophy.

Hainsworth didn’t join his teammates in the west that spring: along with defenceman Sylvio Mantha and star winger Aurèle Joliat, the goaltender stayed home. I don’t know about the other two, but Hainsworth had a job to do, heading home to Kitchener, Ontario, where he worked as an electrician during the summer months. To tend to their goaling in his absence, the Canadiens borrowed Clint Benedict from the Montreal Maroons. He had just one more year left in his NHL career: the following one, 1929-30, was his finale, featuring a pair of fearful facial injuries suffered at the sticks of Boston’s Dit Clapper and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens, a prolonged absence, and a revolutionary (if ultimately unhappy) experiment with a mask.

Benedict and the Canadiens would play four games in Vancouver that April in ’29. In the first three, they took on the Vancouver Lions, Frank Patrick’s team, who’d just wrapped up the championship of the new four-team Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHL), Frank Patrick’s newly launched loop. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank. Percy Jackson was the goaltender: according to Frank Patrick, he was the best backstop there was, anywhere in hockey.

Ahead of the first game between Montreal and Vancouver, on the basis that the former were the best of the NHL’s Canadian-based teams, Patrick boldly declared that at stake in the three-game series between Canadiens and Lions would be nothing less than the “professional championship of Canada.”

This was news to NHL President Frank Calder, already wary of the PCHL, a more or less outlaw operation, in the NHL’s view, not to mention a possible threat to its hockey hegemony. One of the rumours making the rounds that spring was that Patrick was preparing to expand his operation eastward, setting up a league to rival the NHL there. That would never be, of course: this incarnation of the PCHL would fizzle out after a second season of play, with Frank Patrick heading east, eventually, to become managing director of the NHL, under Calder, in 1933.

Back in 1929, Calder was quick to kibosh the championship talk, noting to Montreal reporters that the PCHL was merely a “minor league” operation, “and it is therefore absurd to say that a minor and a major league team can be engaging for the championship.”

“Then there is the fact,” Calder continued, “that Canadiens went west with only half a team. They left Hainsworth, Mantha, and Joliat behind, and that surely is half their regular club.

“When the team left for the west understrength, I anticipated there would not be any big success for the Canadiens, and when I read advance notices that the games were being booked for the Canadian championship, I took steps to stop this, as it was not correct. But the enthusiasm of some of the western writers has overcome their discretion apparently, for the championship booking is repeated, and I have notified President Frank Calder to discontinue such references. These are merely exhibition with no championship involved.”

True to Calder’s lack of confidence, Montreal lost two of its three games against Vancouver, going down 2-0 on April 6 before rebounding two days later with a 4-1 win. On April 10, the Lions prevailed by a score of 3-2. A shot from Howie Morenz knocked Percy Jackson cold that night, if not out: the aforementioned Vancouver goaltender was revived and, as happened as often as not in those years, he carried on.

Cleaned Up Good: The Americans, again, suited up in Portland in April of 1929. Back row from left, they are Tex White, Harry Connor, Lionel Coancher, Billy Burch, Leo Reise, and Tommy Gorman. Coruched, from the left: Bullet Joe Simpson, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, and Roy Worters.

Gorman’s Americans, meantime, had alighted in Oregon. That’s them there, above, in their civvies in what seems to be yet another Theo Mentzer photograph. It has to be said: they’re looking great. No Beckett here, but another player makes an appearance, one who doesn’t show up in the top two photographs, Bullet Joe Simpson. Take a note of that, if you would: we’ll come back to him and why, though he was on the ice for New York throughout their tour, he happened to be absent from these pictures.

The Americans played two games at the Portland Ice Arena, beating the PCHL Buckaroos on April 1 by a score of 2-1 (in overtime) and again on April 4 by a score of 4-3. Portland had a couple of future NHLers in its line-up in centreman Paul Runge (a Bruin-, Maroon-, and Canadien-to-be) and left winger Red Conn (who’d join the Americans in the early ’30s).

The second game was a costly one in that Lionel Conacher was injured, sent to hospital when his head accidentally met up with a skate belonging to Buckaroos defenceman Ted Jacques. The cut he suffered behind one ear took 16 stitches to close, and while he tried his best to get back on the ice the team’s final game on April 15, medical prudence prevailed and he sat out.

Lacking Conacher, the Americans did borrow a defenceman for the rest of the tour from the Buckaroos, Earl Armstrong, who seems to have acquitted himself well, though this was as close as he’d come to skating in the NHL.

The Americans went to Seattle next, where they split a pair of games (6-4; 1-4) against the PCHL Eskimos, who had Jack Walker leading the way on the ice.

Finally, New York followed the Canadiens to Vancouver. Montreal had completed its series with the local Lions, who New York now met, and beat, 1-0. Bullet Joe Simpson notching the decisive goal. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank.

The Americans played one last game, returning to Vancouver’s Denman Arena on April to outlast their NHL rivals from Montreal by a score of 5-3. Worters was outstanding in the New York net, came the report from the coast, while Benedict was only ordinary. Billy Burch scored a pair of goals for the Americans, with Johnny Sheppard, Harry Connor, and Earl Armstrong contributing the others. Battleship Leduc (with 2) and Armand Mondou scored the Montreal goals. Referee Mickey Ion called not a single penalty.

And that was all for the (non-championship) tour. The Canadiens had been planning to carry on to Portland and Seattle, but those games were cancelled. West-coast interest in hockey was waning as the spring sprang, apparently; Portland, it was reported, had lost money on its two games with New York.

As for the Americans, they headed home to nurse their wounds. Joining Lionel Conacher on the clinical ledger were Harry Connor, cut for seven stitches on the head after a Seattle collision with Smokey Harris, and Joe Simpson who (the Montreal Gazette reported) “had his right wrist twisted.”

Which brings us back to the photograph we started with.

As mentioned, historians and others who pore over the hockey past have puzzled over the second man in civilian clothes (after Gorman), including several of us who frequent the virtual byways of the Society of International Hockey Research, where no detail of hockeyana has yet proven too abstract or obscure for study. The fact that his name — his surname — has been preserved hasn’t (so far) been a factor in the investigation into his role with the Americans (if any) or how he happened to be lining up with the players that April day in Portland.  

Was Beckett maybe a bootlegger? Prohibition had been the law in the United States since the Volstead Act went into effect in 1920, and it would be 1933 before it was repealed. SIHR speculation has hovered over the possibility, the bottles prominent at Beckett’s feet having wetted speculation, at SIHR and elsewhere, around that possibility. That notion might be plausibly fortified by the fact that the Americans were owned by the prominent New York rum-runner Bill Dwyer who, starting in 1925, had spent more than a year in jail for his efforts attempting to bribe members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Or maybe was Beckett a boxer? That’s been hypothesized, too, if not proven out. An Oregon newspaper did note that fight promoter Herb Owen would be coinciding in Portland with the Americans that first week of April, and that his “party” planned to attend the hockey game, so maybe Beckett was with him, and could have been invited to pose with the visiting hockey players?

But there’s no further corroborating evidence to substantiate either one of the bootlegging or boxing theories — none that I’ve come across, anyway.

The likeliest answer is that Mr. Beckett was a railway porter. Jim Coleman identifies him as such in a 1942 Globe and Mail column, and he has the authority of Roy Worters himself behind him on this: Coleman describes studying one of the same rinkfront photographs we’ve been looking at in Worters’ own office at the Toronto hotel he ran (with Charlie Conacher) at the corner of Lawrence and Dufferin.

Along with everybody else in the first decades of the 20th century, hockey players took the train. In the NHL, that was the case in the 1920s whether it was the Ottawa Senators going to Montreal for a regular-season encounter with the Canadiens, or bands of barnstormers crossing the continent.

The history of Black railway porters in Canada is a long, fascinating, and oftentimes fraught one in its own right. The points where that history intersects with professional hockey are worth investigating, too. I’m waiting for someone to file a feature on Hamilton, Ontario’s own Norman “Pinky” Lewis, for example. He was a beloved figure in his time, and would serve as trainer for the football Tiger Cats in his hometown, where one of the city’s downtown recreation centres is named in his honour.

Columnist Jim Coleman thought he ought to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his services to the game. In the 1920s, when he worked as a sleeping-car porter for the CPR while also working as trainer for Newsy Lalonde’s WCHL Saskatoon Sheiks (for whom George Hainsworth was the goaltender, in those years). By 1929, Lewis was trainer for the C-AHL Newark Bulldogs, where Sprague Cleghorn was the coach. Lewis himself went on to coach, notably for the OHA’s Owen Sound Greys.

Someone else could look into the bow-tied and behatted man who appears in a photo from another coastal barnstorming tour, this one from the fall 1922, when the Toronto St. Patricks, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, played a series of pre-season games in the west. Above, the team poses aboard the ship they took from Vancouver to Seattle. The man standing between Harry Cameron and Babe Dye is identified as F. Williams, though there’s no consensus on that initial: another contemporaneous version of this image calls him H. Williams, identifying him as a CPR porter while also adding the more than slightly disturbing designation we see here: “mascot.” I’ve never found any other trace of him and his time with Toronto.

The erasure of Messrs. Williams and Beckett, their names and contributions and experiences, isn’t unprecedented, unfortunately, or surprising. Maybe the blanks can be filled in: I hope so. It’s not impossible to imagine that they’re gone forever.

The past does have a way of continuing to churn, and of pressing its artifacts to the surface. These aren’t always of high importance or lasting significance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold their value. Sometimes you might even have been staring at them over a period of years without noticing what you were seeing.

Look again at the photograph we started with. Later commentaries on what we’re seeing here (one from 1942, another from 1960) reveal that Bullet Joe Simpson would have been in it, alongside his teammates — if only he hadn’t climbed into the car you can see behind Tex White and Billy Burch for a nap. By one account, the photographer, Mentzer, was taking too long in setting up his gear. In the other, Simpson was just plain tired.

Then again, if you study the second team photo, there does seem to another player in the line-up, next to Tommy Gorman on the far right, who’s been … excised? Is that Simpson, possibly? Why leave him out?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I can report that shenanigans were at play that day. The car in the first photo, you may also have noticed, is … not all there? Take a look: it seems to be missing its front half, including one wheel. This suggests a long exposure, and movement, of car, camera — maybe both. Which leads to the second surprise. It’s one that Montreal Gazette columnist Vern DeGeer revealed when he wrote about the full, uncropped version of this photograph, a copy of which Tommy Gorman used to have hanging in his office at the old Ottawa Auditorium.

Here’s DeGeer on what that, in its glory, looked like:

When the picture was developed there was much guffawing in the ranks. It showed the impish Roy “Little Squirt” Worters at both ends of the group.

The photog had used a panoramic camera. He started at one end with Worters and slowly swung the magic lantern down the line. As he was doing this Worters sprinted behind his mates, and was at the end other end of the group when the camera completed its arc.

They say that whenever Tay Pay Gorman feels depressed or tired, or just plain nostalgic, he parks the picture on his desk and laughs, and laughs and laughs.

So while Joe Simpson napped, Roy Worters scampered from one end of the line to the other. Knowing that, is it possible to surmise that something the same was going on in the other photo from that day, and that the shoulder next to Tommy Gorman belongs to a second Harry Connor? Maybe so.

I wonder where Gorman’s office copy is parked now. It may well be hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere, generating guffaws as it has since 1929. All that’s left to us in our vandalized version of the photograph is the edge of Roy Worters’ oven-mitt blocker and a bit of the butt-end of his stick, not far from the bottles, next to Mr. Beckett, on the far right:

And just to be clear: Worters would, of course, have had to have sprinted behind the photographer, rather than his teammates, on his way to replicating himself.

Double Take: A cartoon illustrating Vern DeGeer’s 1960 telling of the tale came complete with a car-napping Joe Simpson and double Roy Worterses — but no Beckett.

gaoledtenders: a short history of time served

Box Seats: Chicago’s Mike Karakas was the last NHL goaltender to serve out a penalty, in New York in 1936. That’s Rangers’ trainer Harry Westerby standing by and, in the hat, Ranger coach and GM Lester Patrick.

Clint Benedict’s violations were out in the open, many of them, whether he was upsetting Corb Denneny behind the net or (another time) dropping Toronto captain Frank Heffernan “with a clout on the dome.”

In the decisive game of the 1923 Stanley Cup finals, with Benedict’s Ottawa Senators on the way to beating the WCHL-champion Edmonton Eskimos to claim hockey’s ultimate trophy, referee Mickey Ion sanctioned the goaltender for a first-period slash on Edmonton defenceman Joe Simpson. “Benedict tried to separate Joe from his legs behind the goal,” Andy Lyle wrote in the Edmonton Journal. This particular game was being played under eastern (NHL) rules, so Benedict headed for the penalty bench.

Foul but no harm: with Ottawa nursing a 1-0, Benedict’s teammates were able to defend the lead without their goaltender’s help. This was at the end of the famous series during which Senators defenceman King Clancy ended  playing defence, forward, and goal. In a 1997 memoir written with Brian McFarlane, Clancy describes the moment that he headed for the latter: Benedict chucked over his goalstick and said, “You take care of this place ’til I get back.”

After that, Clancy’s time was mostly an exercise in standing around, though not entirely. In the memoir, Clancy recalls that when, at one point, he smothered the puck near the net, Ion threatened him with a penalty.

But while Clancy says that he didn’t face a single Edmonton shot, contemporary accounts tell a different tale. By Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman’s account, Clancy faced down two Edmonton shots. “Once Joe Simpson whipped in a long one,” he wrote, “whereupon ‘King’ dropped his stick, caught the puck with the skill of a baseball catcher, and tossed it aside while the crowd roared its approval.”

Count it, I guess, as the first shared shutout in Stanley Cup history.

Nowadays, when it comes to penalties for goalies, the NHL rule book gets right to the point with Rule 27:

Minor Penalty to Goalkeeper — A goalkeeper shall not be sent to the penalty bench for an offense which incurs a minor penalty, but instead, the minor penalty shall be served by another member of his team who was on the ice when the offense was committed. This player is to be designated by the Coach of the offending team through the playing Captain and such substitute shall not be changed.

But for the first three decades of NHL history — in the regular season as well as in Stanley Cup play— goaltenders themselves served the penalties they were assessed, departing the ice while a teammate did his best to fill in.

This happened more than a dozen times in those early years, and was cause for considerable chaos and excitement. In the 1920s, Clint Benedict was (as mentioned) often in the mix, while in the ’30s, Lorne Chabot featured prominently. Among the temporary goaltenders, King Clancy continued to stand out, along with Sprague Cleghorn. Goals would have been easy to score in these circumstances — you’d think. In fact, none was scored on the first eight occasions — it wasn’t until 1931, when Chicago’s Tommy Cook punished the Canadiens, that anyone was able to take advantage of an absent goaltender to score.

Despite what you may have read in a recent feature on NHL.com, the last time a goaltender went to the box wasn’t in March of 1932, after a particular fractious game in Boston, though the NHL did adjust some language in the rule book that year.

No, the final goaltender to do his own time would seem to have been Mike Karakas of the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of December in 1936. After that — but we’ll come back to the shifting of the rules that went on for more than a decade before goaltenders were fully and finally excused from going to the box.

Ahead of that, herewith, a helpful review of the NHL’s history of goaltenders who were binned for their sins, listed chronologically from earliest to last, starting in the league’s second season on ice and wandering along to its 20th.

None of the six goalies who tended nets during the NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was penalized. That’s worth a note, if only because, until the rule was changed a couple of weeks into the schedule, goalies were forbidden, on pain of penalty, from falling to their knees to stop the puck. Benedict, again, was front and centre in the discussion that led to the change. In the old National Hockey Association, his collapses were as renowned as his penalties. Indeed, in announcing in January of 1918 that goaltenders would now be allowed to “adopt any attitude” to stop the puck, NHL President Frank Calder made specific mention of Benedict before going on to explain the rationale for the change. “Very few of the teams carry a spare netminder,” Calder explained, “and if the goaler is ruled off it means a long delay in equipping another player, and in a close contest would undoubtedly cost the penalized team the game. The old rule made it hard for the referees, so everybody will be helped.”

Free to flop, Benedict was left to find other means of catching the attention of referees. Which he duly did:

Tuesday, February 18, 1919
Ottawa Senators 4 Toronto Arenas 3 (OT)
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referees: Lou Marsh, Steve Vair

The NHL was a three-team affair in its second season, and not exactly robust, at that: the anemic Toronto Arenas ended up dropping out before the season was over, suspending operations with two games left to play in the schedule. Their sparsely-attended penultimate game — no more than 1,000 fans showed up — saw Ottawa’s goaltender penalized with ten minutes left in the third period. Yes, this was unruly Benedict once again: with Toronto leading 2-1, he was sanctioned for upsetting Corb Denneny behind the Ottawa net, incurring a three-minute penalty (that was a thing, then).

Ottawa defenceman Sprague Cleghorn took over Benedict’s net. The Ottawa Journal: “Torontos tried hard but their sharp shooters were kept at long range by the defensive work of the Senators. Finally goalkeeper Cleghorn himself secured the puck and made an end to end rush, almost scoring.” An added detail from the Citizen: with Cleghorn absent on his rush, Senators’ winger Cy Denneny took to the net where he stopped at least one shot. After Benedict’s return, Toronto stretched their lead to 3-1 before Ottawa got goals from Frank Nighbor and (not one to be denied) Sprague Cleghorn before Punch Broadbent sealed the win for the Senators in overtime.

Hors De Combat: Seen here in the first uniform of Montreal’s Maroons, Clint Benedict was an early protagonist when it came to goaltenders serving time in penalty boxes.

Saturday, January 24, 1920
Ottawa Senators 3 Toronto St. Patricks 5
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Cooper Smeaton

The call on Clint Benedict this time, apparently, was for slashing Toronto captain Frank Heffernan. Referee Smeaton had already warned him for swinging his stick at Corb Denneny before sending Benedict to the penalty bench. The Ottawa Citizen described the goaltender as having swung his stick “heavily,” catching Heffernan across the forehead, while the Journal saw Heffernan go down “with a clout on the dome.” The Toronto faithful, the Globe reported, weren’t pleased: “the crowd hissed and hooted him.” Sprague Cleghorn was still manning the Ottawa defence, but this time it was winger Jack Darragh subbed in while Benedict served his three minutes. The Journal noted several “sensational stops,” and no goals against.

Wednesday, February 1, 1922
Montreal Canadiens 2 Ottawa Senators 4
Laurier Avenue Arena, Ottawa
Referee: Lou Marsh

“At times,” the Ottawa Journal reported, “Sprague Cleghorn played like a master and at other times like a gunman.” It was Cleghorn’s violence that made headlines this night, drawing the attention of Ottawa police, who showed up in Montreal’s dressing room after the game. Cleghorn was a Canadien now, turning out against his old teammates (including Clint Benedict in Ottawa’s goal), and proving a one-man wrecking crew. He accumulated 29 minutes in penalties for transgressions that included cutting Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard over the eye with a butt-end; breaking Frank Nighbor’s arm; and putting Cy Denneny out of the game in its final minutes. For the latter, Cleghorn was assessed a match penalty and fined for using indecent language. Canadiens managing director Leo Dandurand turned back the police who tried to apprehend Cleghorn, telling them to come back when they had a warrant.

Amid all this, Cleghorn also stepped into the Montreal net after Georges Vézina was sent off for slashing King Clancy. Notwithstanding the Ottawa Citizen’s verdict, calling Cleghorn “the present day disgrace of the National winter game,” Montreal’s Gazette reported that as an emergency goaltender he “made several fine stops.”

Saturday, March 31, 1923
Ottawa Senators 1 Edmonton Eskimos 0
Denman Arena, Vancouver
Referee: Mickey Ion

Clint Benedict’s Stanley Cup penalty was for a second-period slash across the knees of Edmonton’s Bullet Joe Simpson. (The Citizen: “the Ottawa goalie used his stick roughly.”) After multi-purpose King Clancy, stepped in, as mentioned, to replace him, his Senator teammates made sure that Edmonton didn’t get a single shot on net.

Saturday, December 20, 1924
Montreal Maroons 1 Hamilton Tigers 3
Barton Street Arena, Hamilton
Referee: Mike Rodden

Montreal Daily Star, 1924.

Clint Benedict, again. He was a Montreal Maroon by now, and still swinging; this time, in Hamilton, he was sent off for (the Gazette alleged) “trying to get Bouchard.” Eddie Bouchard that was, a Hamilton winger. Maroons captain Dunc Munro stepped into the breach while Benedict cooled his heels, and temper. The Gazette: “nothing happened while he was off.”

Saturday, December 27, 1924
Ottawa Senators 4 Toronto St. Patricks 3
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Lou Marsh

For the first time in NHL history, Clint Benedict wasn’t in the building when a penalty was called on a goaltender. He was in Montreal, for the record, taking no penalties as he tended the Maroons’ net in a 1-1 tie with the Canadiens that overtime couldn’t settle.

Offending this time was Senators’ stopper Alec Connell, who was in Toronto and (the Gazette said) “earned a penalty when he took a wallop at big Bert Corbeau. The latter was engaged in a fencing exhibition with Frank Nighbor late in the second period when Connell rushed out and aimed a blow at the local defence man. Connell missed by many metres, but nevertheless, he was given two minutes and Corbeau drew five. ‘King’ Clancy then took charge of the big stick and he made several fine saves, St. Patricks failing to score.”

During the fracas in which Connell was penalized, I can report, Ottawa’s Buck Boucher was fined $10 for (the Toronto Daily Star said) “being too lurid in his comments to the referee.” The Star also noted that when, playing goal, Clancy was elbowed by Jack Adams, the temporary Ottawa goaltender retaliated with a butt-end “just to show the rotund Irish centre player that he wasn’t at all afraid of him and wouldn’t take any nonsense.”

Saturday, February 14, 1925
Hamilton Tigers 1 Toronto St. Patricks 3
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Eddie O’Leary

In the second period, Hamilton goaltender Jake Forbes was penalized for (as the Gazette saw it) “turning [Bert] Corbeau over as the big defenceman was passing by the Hamilton goal.” Hamilton winger Charlie Langlois was already serving a penalty as the defenceman Jesse Spring took the net, but the Tigers survived the scare: “Both Langlois and Forbes got back on the ice without any damage being done while they were absent, the other players checking St. Pats so well that they could not get near the Hamilton net.”

Wednesday, December 2, 1931
Montreal Canadiens 1 Chicago Black Hawks 2
Chicago Stadium
Referee: Mike Rodden, Bill Shaver

Montreal Gazette, 1931.

A first for Chicago and indeed for the USA at large: never before had an NHL goaltender served his own penalty beyond a Canadian border. Notable, too: after seven tries and more than a decade, a team facing a substitute goaltender finally scored a goal. On this occasion, it was a decisive one, too.

The game was tied 1-1 in the third period when Montreal’s George Hainsworth tripped Chicago winger Vic Ripley. With just three minutes left in regular time, Ripley, who’d scored Chicago’s opening goal, hit the boards hard. He was carried off.

Hainsworth headed for the penalty bench. He had a teammate already there, Aurèle Joliat, so when defenceman Battleship Leduc took the net, the situation was grim for Montreal. The Gazette:

Albert Leduc armed himself with Hainsworth’s stick and stood between the posts with only three men to protect him. His position was almost helpless and when [Johnny] Gottselig and [Tommy] Cook came tearing in, the former passed to the centre player and Cook burned one past Leduc for the winning counter. Then Joliat returned and Leduc made one stop. When Hainsworth came back into the nets, Canadiens staged a rousing rally and the final gong found the champions peppering [Chicago goaltender Charlie] Gardiner unsuccessfully.

Tuesday, March 15, 1932
Toronto Maple Leafs 2 Boston Bruins 6
Boston Garden
Referee: Bill Stewart, Odie Cleghorn

Boston saw its first goaltender-in-box when, three minutes in, Toronto’s Lorne Chabot was called for tripping Boston centreman Cooney Weiland. “The latter,” wrote Victor Jones in the Boston Globe, “entirely out of a play, was free-skating a la Sonja Henie in the vicinity of the Leaf cage.” Toronto’s Globe: “The Leafs protested loudly, but Stewart remained firm.”

It was a costly decision for the Leafs. At the time, a penalty didn’t come to its end, as it does today, with a goal by the team with the advantage: come what might, Chabot would serve out his full time for his trip.

Victor Jones spun up a whole comical bit in his dispatch around Leaf coach Dick Irvin’s decision to hand Chabot’s duties (along with his stick) to defenceman Red Horner. The upshot was that Bruins’ centre Marty Barry scored on him after ten seconds. Irvin replaced Horner with defenceman Alex Levinsky, without discernible effect: Barry scored on him, too, ten seconds later. When King Clancy tried his luck, Boston captain George Owen scored another goal, giving the Bruins a 3-0 lead by the time Chabot returned to service.

There was a subsequent kerfuffle involving Toronto GM Conn Smythe, a practiced kerfuffler, particularly in Boston. He’d arrived late to the game, to find his team down by a pair of goals and Clancy tending the net. Smythe ended up reaching out from the Toronto bench to lay hands on referee Bill Stewart, who (he said) was blocking his view. Backed by a pair of Boston policemen, the Garden superintendent tried to evict Smythe, whereupon the Toronto players intervened.

“For some minutes,” Victor Jones recounted, “there was a better than fair chance that there would be a riot.” Bruins’ owner Charles F. Adams arrived on the scene to keep the peace and arrange a stay for Smythe who was allowed to keep his seat on the Leaf bench (in Jones’ telling) “on condition he would not further pinch, grab, or otherwise molest” the referee.

Boston didn’t squander its early boon, powering on to a 6-2 victory.

A couple of other notes from Jones’ notebook: “Stewart may have ruined the game, but he called the penalty as it’s written in the book and that’s all that concerns him.”

Also: “The best crack of the evening was made by Horner, after the game in the Toronto dressing room: ‘You fellows made a big mistake when you didn’t let me finish out my goal tending. I was just getting my eye on ’em, and after four or five more I’d have stopped everything.”

Leaf On The Loose: Lorne Chabot was a habitual visitor to NHL penalty boxes in the 1930s.

Sunday, November 20, 1932
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 New York Rangers 7
Madison Square Garden III, New York
Referees: Eusebe Daigneault, Jerry Goodman

The Leafs were the defending Stanley Cup champions in the fall of 1932, but that didn’t help them on this night in New York as they took on the team they’d defeated in the championship finals the previous April. This time out, Lorne Chabot’s troubles started in the second period, when he wandered too far from his net, whereupon a Rangers’ winger saw fit to bodycheck him. Cause and effect: “Chabot was banished,” Toronto’s Daily Star reported, “for flailing Murray Murdoch with his stick.” (Murdoch was penalized, too.)

Leafs’ winger Charlie Conacher took to the net, and in style. “He made six dazzling stops during this [two-minute] time,” Joseph C. Nichols reported in the New York Times, “playing without the pads and shin-guards always worn by regular goalies.” When Chabot returned, Conacher received a thundering ovation from the New York crowd. Chabot worked hard on the night, too, stopping a total of 41 Ranger shots. Unfortunately, there were also seven that got past him before the game was over.

Thursday, March 16, 1933
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 Detroit Red Wings 1
Detroit Olympia
Referee: Cooper Smeaton, Clarence Bush

Lorne Chabot’s next visit to the penalty box came during what the Montreal Gazette graded one of the wildest games ever to be played at the Detroit Olympia. In the third period, when Detroit centreman Ebbie Goodfellow passed the Leaf goalmouth, Chabot (wrote Jack Carveth of the Detroit Free Press) “clipped him over the head with his over-sized stick.”

“That was the signal for Ebbie to lead with his left and cross with his right,” Carveth narrated. “Chabot went down with Goodfellow on top of him.”

Both players got minor penalties for their troubles, which continued once they were seated side-by-side the penalty box. “After they had been separated,” wrote Carveth, “a policeman was stationed between them to prevent another outbreak.”

Just as things seemed to be settling down, Detroit coach Jack Adams threw a punch that connected with the chin of Toronto’s Bob Gracie, who stood accused of loosing “a vile remark” in Adams’ direction. “Players from both benches were over the fence in a jiffy but nothing more serious than a lot of pushing developed.”

Toronto winger Charlie Conacher took up Chabot’s stick in his absence. “But he didn’t have to do any work,” according to the Canadian Press. “King Clancy ragged the puck cleverly,” and the Wings failed to get even a shot at Conacher. They were already ahead 1-0 at the time, and that’s the way the game ended, with the shutout going to Detroit’s John Ross Roach.

Tuesday, November 28, 1933
Montreal Maroons 4 Montreal Canadiens 1
Montreal Forum
Referees: Bill Stewart, A.G. Smith

Lorne Chabot may have moved from Toronto to Montreal by 1933, but he was still battling. On this night, he contrived to get into what the Montreal Daily Star called a “high voltage scrap” with Maroons centreman Dave Trottier. The latter’s stick hit Chabot on the head as he dove to retrieve a puck in the third period, it seems. “Thinking it intentional,” the Gazette reported, “Chabot grabbed one of Trottier’s legs and pulled him to the ice with a football tackle. They rose and came to grips.” Later that same brouhaha, Chabot interceded in a fight between teammate Wildor Larochelle and the Maroons’ Hooley Smith, whereupon (somehow) Trottier and Larochelle were sentenced to major penalties while Smith and Chabot earned only minors.

With two minutes left in the game and Maroons up by three goals, Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde elected not to fill Chabot’s net. Maroons couldn’t hit the empty net, though winger Wally Kilrea came close with a long-distance shot that drifted wide.

Sunday, December 27, 1936
Chicago Black Hawks 0 New York Rangers 1
Madison Square Garden III
Referee: Bill Stewart, Babe Dye

“One of hockey’s rarest spectacles,” New York Times’ correspondent Joseph C. Nichols called the second-period tripping penalty that was called when Chicago’s Mike Karakas tripped New York’s Phil Watson. Filling in for Karakas was none other than Tommy Cook who, you might recall, scored a goal against Battleship Leduc in 1931 when he’d replaced Montreal’s George Hainsworth. This time, Nichols reported, the net might as well have been empty for all the chances the rangers had to score. With Chicago’s Johnny Gottselig, Paul Thompson, and Art Wiebe doing yeoman’s work on the defensive, Cook faced no shots during his stint as a stand-in — the last one, as it turned out, in NHL history.

Both Sides Now: Chicago centreman Tommy Cook was the first NHLer to score a goal with a goaltender in the box, in 1931. In 1936, he was also the last player to take a penalized goaltender’s place.

Tracing the evolution of the NHL’s rule book generally involves a certain amount of sleuthing. James Duplacey’s The Rules of Hockey (1996) is helpful up to a point, but it’s not it’s not without bugs and oversights.

This is specifically the case, too, when it comes to goaltenders and their penalties. When in 1918 goaltenders were freed to fall to their knees without risk of punishment, this freedom never enshrined in writing. For most if not all of the league’s first decade, the only language in the rule book governing goaltenders had to do with holding the puck — not allowed — and the face-off arrangement that applied if they dared to commit this misdemeanor.

This changed in 1932, after that Leaf game in Boston in March when Toronto’s three emergency goaltenders yielded three goals and Conn Smythe got into (another) melee. Did he draft or drive the addition of the paragraph that was added to the rule book that year? It’s possible. It was procedural only, and didn’t change the way things had been done since the beginning. The language added to Rule 12 read:

If a goal-keeper is removed from the ice to serve a penalty the manager of the club shall appoint a substitute and the referee shall be advised of the name of the substitute appointed. The substitute goal-keeper shall be subject to the rules governing goal-keepers and have the same privileges.

The last part does suggest that stand-ins would be within their rights to strap on goaltending pads, and maybe that happened, though I’ve never seen any archival or anecdotal evidence that it did in any of the instances cited above.

Goaltenders were boxed on four more occasions (as we’ve seen) after this change in rule-book wording. It was six years later that the sentencing of rule-breaking goaltenders changed materially, in September of 1938. No goaltender had, to date, ever been assessed a major penalty, but if that were to happen, the new rule stipulated that he would go to the box, with his substitute accorded all the privileges of a regular netminder, “including the use of the goal-keeper’s stick and gloves.”

And for lesser infractions? Now The Official Rule Book declared that:

No goal-keeper shall be sent to the penalty bench for an offence which incurs a minor penalty but instead of the minor penalty, a penalty shot shall be given against him.

It didn’t take long for the statute to get its first test, once the 1938-39 season got underway. There was, it’s true, some confusion on the ice when the Detroit Red Wings hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, the reigning NHL champions, on Thursday, November 24.

It was a busy night for referee Clarence Campbell. The future NHL president wasn’t a favourite in Detroit, as Doc Holst of the local Free Press outlined:

Anytime Mr. Campbell is referee on Mr. [Jack] Adams’ ice, you can wager your grandma that there will be plenty of difficult problems and that he will never solve them to the satisfaction of the Red Wings. He’s their ogre, no matter how the other club praises his abilities.

Campbell infuriated both teams on this night. In the first period, he disallowed a goal that the Wings’ Marty Barry thought he’d score. Next, Campbell awarded the Wings a penalty shot after Hawks’ defenceman Alex Levinsky held back the Wings’ Ebbie Goodfellow on his way in on Chicago’s Mike Karakas. Levinsky objected so vociferously that Campbell gave him a ten-misconduct. Mud Bruneteau took Detroit’s penalty shot: Karakas saved.

Things got even more interesting in the third. It started with Detroit’s Pete Kelly skating in on the Chicago net and colliding with Karakas. Doc Holst: “The two of them came out of the net and started to roll, Pete holding on to Mike for dear life. The only thing Mike could think of was to tap Pete on the head with his big goalie stick.”

Campbell penalized both, sending Kelly to the box for holding and awarding Detroit a penalty shot for Karakas’ slash. The Wings weren’t having it — they wanted the Chicago goaltender sent off. “Campbell pulled the rule book on the Wings,” a wire service account of the proceedings reported, “and showed them goalies do not go to penalty boxes” Once again Mud Bruneteau stepped up to shoot on Karakas and, once again, failed to score. The Red Wings did eventually prevail in the game, winning 4-2, despite all the goals denied them.

Goaltenders did keep on taking penalties, some of them for contravening a new rule added to the books in 1938 barring them from throwing pucks into the crowd to stop play. In Detroit, if not elsewhere, this rule was said to be aimed at curbing the Red Wings’ Normie Smith, who’d been known in his time for disposing of (said the Free Press) “as many as a dozen pucks a night over the screen.” Chicago’s Karakas was, apparently, another enthusiastic puck-tosser.

And so, in February of 1939, Clarence Campbell called Wilf Cude of the Montreal Canadiens for flinging a puck over the screen against the New York Americans. Cude took his medicine and kicked out Johnny Sorrell’s penalty shot. In January, 1941, when Toronto’s Turk Broda tripped Canadiens’ Murph Chamberlain, he was pleased to redeem himself by foiling a penalty shot from Tony Demers.

The NHL continued to tweak the rule through the 1940s. In September of ’41, the league split the penalty shot: now there were major and minor versions. The major was what we know now, applied when a skater was impeded on a clear chance at goal. The player taking the shot was free to skate in on the goaltender to shoot from wherever he pleased. A minor penalty shot applied when a goaltender committed a foul: he would be sentenced to face an opposing player who could wheel in from centre-ice but had to shoot the puck before he crossed a line drawn 28 feet in front of the goal.

By 1945, the rules had changed again, with a penalty shot only applying when a goaltender incurred a major penalty. That meant that when, in a February game in New York, referee Bill Chadwick whistled down Rangers’ goaltender Chuck Rayner for tossing the puck up the ice (just as prohibited as hurling it into the stands), Rayner stayed in his net while teammate Ab DeMarco went to the penalty box. From there, he watched  Chicago’s Pete Horeck score the opening goal in what ended as a 2-2 tie.

This continued over the next few years. Boston’s Frank Brimsek slung a puck into the Montreal crowd and teammate Bep Guidolin did his time for him. Detroit’s Gerry Couture went to the box when his goaltender, Harry Lumley, high-sticked Boston’s Bill Cowley. In the October of 1947, in a game at Chicago Stadium between the Black Hawks and Red Wings, Chadwick saw fit to call (in separate incidents) penalties on both team’s goaltenders, Lumley for tripping (Red Kelly went to the box) and Chicago’s Emile Francis for high-sticking (Dick Butler did the time).

A few days later Francis was penalized again, this time against Montreal, after a “mix-up” with Canadiens’ winger Jimmy Peters. By some accounts, this was an out-and-out fight, though Peters and Francis were assessed minors for roughing. Is it possible that referee Georges Gravel downgraded the charge to avoid the spectacle of Francis having to face a penalty shot for his temper?

The rule does seem generally to have fallen into disrepute in these final years before it was rewritten. Witness the game at Maple Leaf Gardens in January of 1946 when the Leafs beat the Red Wings 9-3 in a game refereed by King Clancy. Late in the third period, Detroit’s Joe Carveth took a shot on the Leaf goal only to see it saved by goaltender Frank McCool. The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer described what happened next:

The puck rebounded back to Carveth’s stick as a whistle sounded. Carveth fired the puck again. It hit McCool on the shoulder. The Toronto goalie dropped his stick and darted from his cage. He headed straight for Carveth and enveloped the Detroiter in a bear hug that would have done credit to one of Frank Tunney’s mightiest wrestling warriors, and bore him to the ice.

DeGeer’s description of the aftermath came with a derisive subhed: Who Wrote This Rule?

The sheer stupidity of major hockey rules developed out of the McCool-Carveth affair. Carveth was given a two-minute penalty for firing the puck after the whistle and an additional two minutes for fighting. A major penalty shot play was given against McCool. Carl Liscombe made the play and hit the goalpost at McCool’s right side. There’s neither rhyme nor reason for such a severe penalty against a goaltender, but it’s in the rule book.

Carveth was in the penalty box when the game ended. First thing the former Regina boy did was skate to the Toronto fence and apologize to Frank for taking the extra shot after the whistle.

The NHL made another change ahead of the 1949-50 season: from then on, major penalties, too, that were incurred by goaltenders would see a teammate designated to serve time in the box rather than resulting in a penalty shot.

someone with more sense than bravado: clint benedict, conn smythe, and the 1929 mask mandate that never was

Benny In The Nets: After playing seven NHL seasons (and collecting three Stanley Cups) with the Ottawa Senators, Clint Benedict joined the Montreal Maroons in 1924.

This is the first of a two-part series on the NHL’s original masked man, and how in 1929 the NHL almost (but not quite) came to mandate protection for all its goaltenders.

Olive Benedict might have blamed herself when her husband Clint went down in Montreal that January night in 1930, but it was mischance — and a puck Howie Morenz fired — that actually felled the 37-year-old goaltender for the Montreal Maroons and precipitated the painful end of his long and illustrious NHL career.

That came, the end, nine weeks later when, on a Tuesday, 92 years ago this past week, Benedict played the 390th — and final — game of his Hall-of-Fame career, during which he played in five Stanley Cup finals, winning four of those, three with the (original) Ottawa Senators and another with the Montreal Maroons.

In hockey history, that final game of Benedict’s is also annotated as the end of the goaltender’s desperate two-week experiment with the first face-mask in league history. Five games that lasted. It would be 1959 — 29 years later — before Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante donned his famous mask in an actual game, jump-starting a new era in the NHL.

Why was the NHL (and hockey generally) so slow in adopting masks to protect the well-being (and faces) of goaltenders? Institutional conservatism, I guess. Hubris would figure in as a major factor, too, I might say, even if Clint Benedict wouldn’t. Asked in 1964 about the possibility of any such stigma having been attached to goaltenders erring on the side of self-preservation, the old goaltender (he was 71) wasn’t having any of it. “Nah,” he told an inquiring reporter, “we took such a beating anyway that nobody would have thought it sissified. No, it was just a case of not developing one that was practical.”

Even before Benedict tried out his mask, the 1929-30 campaign looked like being a pivotal one for goaltenders, with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner, coach, GM, and force-of nature Conn Smythe in a leading role. Not much has been made of this, over the years, but that fall, mere months before an infant Jacques Plante celebrated his first birthday, there was an effort afoot to require the league’s goaltenders to wear masks.

From the start, the 1929-30 season was a challenging one for Clint Benedict, who was playing in 13th NHL season, the 18th, if you felt like counting his years in the NHA, too. In November of ’29, just as the season was getting going, he left a game in Ottawa after the first period after what was described as “a violent attack of indigestion.” Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to play: reported to have been ailing all day, he took the ice “in a weak condition,” as Montreal’s Gazette described it.

Flat Walsh replaced him that night, and went on holding the fort as Benedict recovered, as it was subsequently reported, from a case of ptomaine (food) poisoning. Something he ate in Boston, he said. He lost eight pounds, missed eight games.

Benedict was back in December, but in his second game of his return, he went down again. Painful as it sounds, he got back up on his skates in short order, this time. He was playing brilliantly, by all reports, frustrating the Boston Bruins at the Forum, when he sprawled to stop Dit Clapper and took the puck full in the face. “Benny dropped,” the Gazette reported, “and lay still as if he had been shot dead.” He was unconscious on the ice, revived, repaired to the dressing room. With no concussion protocol or common sense to keep him there, Benedict returned to finish the game.

He was back in action three nights later, on January 7, at the Forum, against the Canadiens. This was the night his wife, Olive, was looking on from a seat just behind his first-period net, a reluctant witness who’d travelled from her home in Ottawa. It was the first game she’d attended in six years, and one of just a dozen or so she’d ever been to in the course of her husband’s lengthy career. It may have been, as one Montreal newspaper suggested, that she thought she brought him back luck, but it might just as well have been that she preferred not to see the dangers he faced every night on the job.

On this night, the game wasn’t yet a minute old when Howie Morenz swept onto Maroon ice and fired the puck. “A smoking shot,” the Montreal Star’s reporter called it; “got him straight between the eyes and smashed the bridge of his nose,” the Gazette detailed. “The impact of the drive could be heard in the far reaches of the building,” the Star said. Players from both teams carried Benedict to the dressing. There was a great mess of blood.

Damage Report: The Montreal Star headline for the game on January 7, 1930. Canadiens’ sporting gesture was tnot to rush sickly substitute Flat Walsh as he suited up in Benedict’s place.

While Benedict’s wounds were being tended, the Maroons dispatched a taxi to retrieve Flat Walsh, who was home in bed, recovering from a bad bout of flu. He arrived at the Forum wearing an overcoat over his pyjamas, changed into his gear, pulled on a cap. “He was almost tottering on his pins,” said the Star, “with his grave face showing a grey pallor beneath his upturned visor. Unsteadily he braced himself for a few practice shots, and then went on to stardom.” After a half-hour delay, that is, hockey resumed, with the Maroons winning by a score of 2-1, and thereby taking over first place in the Canadian side of the NHL standings from their Montreal rivals.

The Star checked in next day at the LaSalle Hotel, just east of the Forum on Drummond at St. Catherine, where Benedict was resting under his wife’s care. “An examination today revealed his nose badly broken with a V-shaped cut that required five stitches, and the flesh is torn all the way down the nose.” The next day, the couple left for Ottawa, where Benedict would spend his convalescence.

He’d miss 15 games this time, over the course of six weeks, with Flat Walsh and (for one game) Abbie Cox, lent by Montreal’s IHL farm team, the Windsor Bulldogs, standing in his stead.

Neither of them saw fit to protect their faces in the wake of Benedict’s injury. In the wider hockey world, discussion of the need for and practicalities of masks had been going on for years. Goaltending in the NHL has never been an easy way of making a living, but in the 1920s and 1930 it was particularly dangerous. Battered by pucks, scythed by skates, run into and over by barrelling opponents: the men who volunteered to man the nets were constantly being jarred, cut, knocked out.

They came to, groggily acknowledged their surroundings, were patched up: mostly, they finished a game they’d started. It happened all the time, in those years.

“I remember at least four times being carried into the dressing room to get all stitched up and then going back in to play,” Benedict said in 1962. “There were some other times, too, but I don’t remember them.”

Much of the mayhem has faded away from modern memory. For its part, the NHL doesn’t, at the best of times, display a nuanced or even particularly reliable memory of its own history, and when it comes to unflattering aspects of the historical game — extreme violence, concussions, other grievous injuries — it’s not as if the league is interested in curating … any of it.

When it comes to early NHL goaltenders, the league will occasionally highlight agony-adjacent events. The emergency foray that New York Rangers coach Lester Patrick made at the age of 44 into the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, for instance, is a polished gem of popular hockey history, even if the details of how he was called to duty aren’t always so well remembered. A shot from Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught the regular Ranger goaltender, Lorne Chabot, in the face that night. It was several days before doctors were satisfied that he wouldn’t lose his left eye. Guarding the goal for Montreal that night: Clint Benedict.

Was Canadiens goaltender George Hainsworth, in fact, the first NHLer to don a mask in January of 1929 after his nose was broken by his teammate Aurèle Joliat in a pre-game warm-up? I’ve delved into that possibility to some depth here; the short answer is probably not.

But something was building around that time. I’m not sure you can call it momentum, given how slowly the evolution of hockey masks progressed in the game’s early years. My friend Eric Zweig, hockey historian extraordinaire, has written about Ev Marshall in Calgary in 1899, who is (to date) the first documented goaltender to mask up.

There were others after that, though not many. Some who sought protection did so to safeguard the glasses they wore, and glass-protectors were common in amateur hockey (and in particular on U.S. college ice) through the years of the First World War and into the 1920s. (Not all historians allow that these qualify as masks.) In any case, as with hockey helmets, there was no organized effort to develop a purpose-built hockey mask.

In 1920, the Ontario Hockey Association did add a rule permitting goaltenders to wear masks. It’s possible that some judicious soul took advantage of that provision as soon as it was passed. What we do know with certainty is that during the 1926-27 season, Lawrence Jones did. A stopper of pucks for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League, he was noted (in Ottawa’s Journal) as “one of the few net guardians in the sport who wears a baseball mask.”

That same year, suiting up for the women’s team at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, goaltender Elizabeth Graham famously donned a fencing mask.

In the unprotected NHL, pucks kept on hitting goaltenders in the face, which was bad for them, generally. More specifically, if they were injured seriously enough that they ended up missing games, that was bad for their teams which, in most cases, didn’t keep a full-time back-up on the roster.

Something had to change, and almost did, two months before Clint Benedict went down with the injury that ended up, finally, shifting the balance. Playing protagonist again in November of 1929 was Lorne Chabot. He was with the Toronto Maple Leafs now, gearing up with his teammates to open the season against the Chicago Black Hawks. The Globe described the mishap at the Leafs’ final pre-season practice at Arena Gardens:

The big goal-guardian was struck in the face by one of Charley Conacher’s terrific drives and was practically knocked unconscious. He quickly recovered, however, but it was necessary to put four stitches in the wound that was opened up in his cheek. He will play tonight, however, although he may present a bandaged appearance.

And so he did, helping his team to a 2-2 tie on a night that Conacher was making his NHL debut (and scoring a goal). Leafs GM and coach Conn Smythe, meanwhile, was working on a plan.

That same fall, the NHL had adjusted its “anti-defence” rules, hoping to speed up the game, increasing scoring opportunities and thereby, goals. To open up play (and specifically confound the packing-of-the-defence scheme perfected by Pete Green and his Ottawa Senators with their “kitty-bar-the-door” strategy”), the new rule stipulated that only three defenders (including the goaltender) were permitted in the defensive zone when the puck was elsewhere. This meant that forwards couldn’t precede the puck into their own zone: they had to wait to enter with the play.

Another rule barred goaltenders from holding pucks that came their way. Previously, they’d been permitted to hang on to a puck for three seconds before casting it away to a teammate or a corner. Now, they had to release the puck instantly, or pay the penalty of a punitive face-off ten feet in front of their net, with no defenders allowed on the ice between the goal and the puck-drop.

What all this meant for goaltenders, Smythe said, was more shots and more danger. (The league seemed to acknowledge this in its amended rules: where previously goaltenders were allowed ten minutes to recuperate from an on-ice injury, an extra five minutes was now added in the case that the goaltender had to be replaced.) The Gazette in Montreal explained Smythe’s position: “To prevent a serious accident,” Smythe wanted to mandate that goaltenders “be protected as much as possible by headgear and especially constructed masks.” To that end, he had a proposal he was going to present at the next meeting of the NHL’s governors that would compel all goaltenders to wear masks.

According to the Gazette’s report, Smythe had the support of “several managers in the NHL.” The problem was one of social stigma as much as anything else: goaltenders themselves were reluctant to be the first to take up a mask. “If all teams were compelled to do so,” the dispatch concluded, “it would be quickly adopted.”

Bright Idea: A Montreal newspaper reports on Smythe’s modest 1929 proposal.

There’s no reason to believe that Smythe didn’t follow through on this effort. If he did, details of the discussion didn’t filter out to the newspapers, and no decision on mandatory masks was taken. NHL President Frank Calder did oversee a meeting of league governors in mid-December in Chicago, but no mention of masks or mandates surfaced in the press that week. And Smythe, it seems, was in Montreal anyway, coaching the Leafs in a 3-1 loss to the Maroons and earning himself a fine of $50 for haranguing referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary.

As urgent as Smythe’s push for a mask mandate had seemed, it … evaporated? Maybe he did present his proposal to the league and failed to rally enough support. Could he have been persuaded in the interim that the goaltenders themselves didn’t like the idea? We don’t know.

And so the mask debate faded away into the background again … for a month. “Some day the league will authorize masks for netminders as baseball does for its catchers, and these accidents will be avoided.” That was the Gazette, in its original report of Morenz’s shot and Benedict’s resulting distress in January of 1930.

Baz O’Meara weighed in the following day in his Montreal Star column. “So far no mask has been made which gives the maximum of protection, and the minimum of discomfort,” he wrote. “Still someone with more sense than bravado will come out some night and set a new fashion in protection to eyes and noses — but it won’t be till someone invents a better mask than any that can be utilized at present.”

Masked Man: Clint Benedict poses with his mask in 1930.

Benedict was on the case, of course, commissioning a sporting goods firm to make him a sensible apparatus with which he could return to the Maroons net. The record hasn’t, over the years, had much more to say in the way of specifics than that.

According to several accounts, the firm was in Boston — that’s what Jim Hynes and Gary Smith report in their book Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask (2008), though they don’t list a source. Another history, Douglas Hunter’s lavish A Breed Apart: An Illustrated History of Goaltending (1995), mentions Boston, but also notes a second possibility: that the Maroons’ trainer (not named, but it would have been Bill O’Brien) “modified a black leather face mask boxers wore in sparring by riveting a thick black bar across the front to protect Benedict’s nose and cheekbone.” Again, no sources are listed.

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Benedict mask.

There is this famous contemporary photograph of Benedict showing off his mask. As Hunter points out, the Hockey Hall of Fame has in its collection another mask of a slightly different design that it says belonged to Benedict. Is that one a prototype, then, or an alternate mask? In 1932, Benedict announced that he was contemplating a hockey comeback with the aid of a whole new mask — maybe that’s what the Hall has?

One photograph I hadn’t seen until I came across it recently in the pages of a Montreal newspaper from February of 1930 must have been taken at the same time as the one above. Benedict has the same distant gaze in this new one, but his cap is off: you can see the head-strap that held the mask in place, or not — in at least one of the games in which the mask served, the strap failed and had to be taped.

Even more interesting than the photograph is the short article that accompanies it. It may not solve any of the small puzzles associated with Benedict’s mask — indeed, on a point or two, it stirs up new questions. There’s insight here, too, though, into the makings of Benedict’s mask that I haven’t seen before in my scourings of archival records.

That’s for another post, though, I think, on another day. Stand by.

 

spit take: nels stewart, newsy lalonde, and a jolt of tobacco juice in jakie forbes’ eye

Poison Control: A 1952 magazine ad for Pleasant Moments whisky celebrated Nels Stewart’s 1931 record-setting outburst with this imaginative view of one of the two goals he scored within four seconds to lead his Montreal Maroons to a win over the Boston Bruins. (Artist: John Floherty Jr.)

By early afternoon, the signs at Montreal’s Forum were already up: Standing Room Only. “And long before the referees called the teams together at centre ice to start the game, all this space had been grabbed up,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil would recount. “It was a complete sell-out Saturday night. And those 13,000 fortunates witnessed a mighty spectacle that crammed action and thrills into every minute of play.”

Playing a leading role that night in January of 1931: Nels Stewart, star centreman for Montreal Maroons and the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP. In a battle between two of the NHL’s best teams, Stewart, who was born in Montreal on a Monday of yesterday’s date in 1902, powered his team to a win over the visiting Boston Bruins with a third-period outburst, setting a record for speedy scoring that stands to this day.

That being the case, today’s another day that I’ll be pleased to gripe that Stewart doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His absence from the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Players in league history tells you everything you need to know about that marred memorial. Stewart won a Stanley Cup with the Maroons in 1926 and was the first man to win the Hart Trophy twice. Along with his seven seasons in Montreal, Stewart played another five for the New York Americans along with four for Boston where, though the Bruins themselves have forgotten it, he captained the team. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison overtook Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Toronto Telegram columnist Ted Reeve grew up with Stewart in the Beaches, in Toronto’s eastern end. “The best natural all-round athlete I have ever seen in Canada,” Reeve called him.

“Extremely deceptive,” was Frank J. Selke’s verdict, “the brainiest player I have ever known.”

Selke also testified that Stewart “couldn’t backcheck a lick.”

“He is worthless as a defensive player, always has been,” Herb Manning wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939. “There is nothing streamlined about him. He lumbers along like a truck on a steep grade. He always seems to be ten feet behind the play, whether they are going backward or forward.”

But?

“But a split second is all the time he requires to complete a chore in the enemy zone.”

He got his chores done, scoring 324 goals in 650 regular-season NHL games, nine more in 50 playoff games.

In Montreal, he centred the famous S line, flanked by Hooley Smith and Babe Siebert. “Babe and Hooley did most of the work,” Stewart later said, “because I was a shambling six-footer who took relays from the corners.”

In 1938, the Ottawa Journal wrote about his “careless, almost lazy style,” noting also that “no goalie ever feels at ease while he is lurching and wandering around the vicinity of the net.”

Ottawa Senators goaltender Clint Benedict: “Nels liked to park and take a puck and fire it quick.”

“Nels was one helluva hockey player,” New York Rangers centreman Frank Boucher said. “He was almost impossible to move once he got in front of the net.”

Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle consulted former Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard on Stewart’s virtues in 1932, when Gerard was coaching the New York Americans.

“Big and wide of beam,” was Burr’s description of Stewart, whose playing-days metrics came in at 6’1’’, 200 pounds.

No other player in the National Hockey League practices his loafing around the nets of the enemy. He doesn’t look dangerous. He isn’t a fast skater or a hard shot. But he does all his playing from the other fellow’s blue line.

“Watch him lift his shoulder to draw the goalie out,” warns Gerard, his old Montreal boss. “That’s why he scores so frequently — he makes the goalminder make the first move. But watch further. Nels never shoots from the shoulder. He just flips his wrist.”

Boston bought him in 1932. “He is a two-fisted fighting player,” coach Art Ross said at the time, “and the greatest inside player in the game.”

Greatest Inside Player in the Game: Montreal Maroons’ star Nels Stewart as he actually looked in the early 1930s.

Which brings us back to that night at the Montreal Forum in 1931, Saturday, January 3. Nearly halfway through the season’s schedule, the visiting Bruins were heading up the league’s American section, while the Maroons were atop on the Canadian side, neck-and-neck with the Canadiens, defending Cup champions.

Maroons prevailed, 5-3, despite going into the third period trailing 3-1. D.A.L. MacDonald wrote up the game for the Montreal Gazette, and he speculated that if the frenzied Montreal fans had any regrets, they might have centred on the hurry with which the home team turned the game around.

First winger Jimmy Ward scored. Six minutes later, Stewart stepped up after Hooley Smith slammed a shot into Tiny Thompson’s pads. “The rebound dropped barely a foot in front of the Boston goalie and big Nelson Stewart was in like a flash to flip the puck over his prostrate form,” was how MacDonald saw it. “If Nels had scooped it up with a dessert spoon he couldn’t have done it more neatly.”

That tied the game. Four seconds later, Stewart scored the winner. It went like this:

From the face-off once again, Stewart slipped a pass over to Smith that left the Boston front rank behind and at the defence back came the disc to Nelson. The big fellow rode right in on Thompson and the goalie never had a chance. Another flip of those steel wrists and Maroons were in front to stay.

Two goals in four seconds. “Shades of Frank McGee!” MacDonald enthused. “For quick scoring feats and high-powered excitement, Nelson the Great has few equals.” It would, indeed, take 64 years for another NHLer to match Stewart’s record. No, not Gretzky or Lemieux: in1995, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Deron Quint scored a pair of goals in four seconds versus the Edmonton Oilers to slip into the record book alongside Stewart.

Is there any indication that in scoring his brisk brace, Stewart might have distracted or disabled Tiny Thompson by spitting tobacco juice into his unsuspecting eye?

No, none. Though that is a stratagem that is persistently attributed to Stewart in latter-day accounts of his career. Mostly it’s offered up as passing proof of his cunning and/or outright nastiness, often with a hint of admiration — if not any specificity.

The general tobacco-spitting charge shows up in Stewart’s Wikipedia profile, for instance. Floyd Conner slots it into Hockey’s Most Wanted (2002), with his own twist: the eye-spitting was motivated by Stewart’s “contempt” for goaltenders. In his 2012 book, Next Goal Wins, Liam Maguire goes out on a limb of his own to venture that the nickname Old Poison derived directly from “his habit of spitting chewing tobacco into the eyes of opposing goaltenders.”

Stan Fischler has been one of the more enthusiastic purveyors of the expectorating story over the years; it repeats throughout his broad oeuvre. Here it is in his The All-New Hockey’s 100 (1998):

It was not uncommon for Stewart to chew a wad of tobacco, produce juice, and then spit it unerringly in the eyes of a goalie as he shot the puck.

None of the above mentions is sourced; not one identifies a particular instance which any first-hand accounting to back up the chewing/juicing/spitting combo that Stewart is reputed to have employed to such (purported) devilish effect. None of the authors cited above seems to have done any digging of their own. If they had, they’d have found that no-one seems to have been taking note of Stewart’s spitful habit when he was actually playing: my scourings of contemporary newspaper accounts from Stewart’s active years in the 1920s and ’30s haven’t turned up even a fleeting mention of any tobacco-chewing let alone spitting.

The legend does (fittingly?) crop up in the five-part hockey-history TV series that Vancouver’s Opus Pictures produced in 1996, Legends of Hockey, and my guess (it’s mostly a guess) is that it’s from this (also unsourced) documentary that the subsequent literary mentions originated and proliferated. (Wikipedia’s mention of Stewart’s adventures in chaw footnotes it.) The second episode includes short biographies of several colourful hockeyists, including Eddie Shore, Red Horner, and Ol’ Poison himself. You can click in to review it here, starting at the 27:26-minute mark, where you’ll soon hear narrator Alan Maitland intone:

As well as being poison around the net, the Montreal Maroons’ Nels Stewart had the nasty habit of spitting his chewing tobacco in the goalie’s eyes. Never a great skater, never a great checker, he was still a lethal goalscorer.

As Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star wrote back in 1996, Legends of Hockey is, as a whole, a delightful confection. Specifically citing Stewart and his alleged spitting, Woolsey also notes that “in the off-hand fashion of such productions, this pungent detail is presented without elaboration. Legends delivers with more similar tidbits of history, whetting the appetite. What it might not explain meatily, the series suggests delectably.”

Is it possible that there’s truth at the root of the legend, wherever that might lie? Of course. But without any first-hand account of where Stewart might have been chewing his tobacco and loosing it on contemptible goaltenders, or when, or who the goaltenders might have been, I’ll be wary of treating the tale as fact. I don’t mind James Marsh’s formulation in his biography of Stewart in The Canadian Encyclopedia:

The story that he spat tobacco juice in the eyes of opposing goalies may be apocryphal but apparently is in keeping with his temperament on the ice.

If Newsy Lalonde merits a mention here (and he does), it’s because he’s a, well, key witness in the larger case — as well as a prime suspect.

Lalonde, of course, was one of hockey’s greatest talents, as well as another fairly glaring absentee from that centenary list from 2017. His pro career on ice started as early as 1906, and he went on to play seven NHL seasons, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens, before it was over in the late 1920s. He was famously uncompromising — which is one generous way of saying that he played the game violently and often with what still looks like, over the distance of years, breathtaking spite.

Not that he was (apparently) alone in his willingness to twist rules or (as the case may be) soak them in tobacco juice in those early decades. Long after he’d hung up his skates he was still recalling the transgressions of opponents like Paddy Moran, Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender for the Quebec Bulldogs and a fellow Hall-of-Famer. Here’s Lalonde reminiscing in 1951, as reported in the Montreal Gazette:

“Paddy chewed tobacco,” Newsy said, “and he could hit a keyhole at 40 paces. You had to duck when you skated behind his cage or he’d get you right between the eyes.”

Lalonde elaborated on this theme a decade later. This time he was talking to Andy O’Brien for a feature on hockey malice for Weekend Magazine.

“Paddy [Lalonde said] was in a class by himself by himself when it came to chopping toes of opposing forwards who came within range, and in those days the skate toes weren’t  so well padded. But his pet skill was squirting tobacco in your eye.”

In 1961, Newsy Lalonde implicated Paddy Moran for his chaw crimes.

What would it have cost Any O’Brien to press for just a few more details? As it is, I guess Lalonde’s long-range memories do get us closer to a confirmed case of tobacco-juice-in-the-eye without pinpointing anything precisely. The best we might be able to hope for on that count focusses again on Newsy Lalonde, though he’s not (and probably shouldn’t be expected to be) implicating himself this time. It’s another goaltender of old giving evidence here, Jakie Forbes, who was playing for the Toronto St. Patricks in the early 1920s when Lalonde was skating for — and captaining and coaching — the Canadiens.

Forbes’ news wasn’t exactly fresh when he got around to reporting it: one version I’m looking at dates to 1969, 50 years after the fact, when Forbes was 72, and the other is from Trent Frayne’s 1974 book The Mad Men of Hockey.

Both accounts are, it has to be said, fairly vivid, even if they don’t perfectly match up.

The first, from a genial Globe and Mail retrospective, has Forbes telling his tale this way to writer James Young:

The game is much faster now, but not nearly as rough as it was. In one game at the old Mount Royal rink in Montreal, Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went skating out to protest to the referee and skated right into him, knocking both of us down. He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net.

The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side of me, spit his tobacco juice in my face and when I fell skated around me to score in the open net.

Trent Frayne’s framing of this same tale five years later isn’t quite the same; it does up the colour balance.

“He was,” Forbes says this time, by way of introducing Lalonde, “the dirtiest son of a bitch I ever played against.”

In Frayne’s version, Forbes stopped Lalonde and the puck was headed back the other way. As Lalonde rounded the net to follow it, he paused to punch Forbes squarely — and hard — in the face.

“Blood spurted from the goaler’s nose,” Frayne writes, “and he took off after Lalonde, brandishing his stick like a lariat.”

The referee is named as Cooper Smeaton, and he does get knocked down. Jumping up, he’s quoted threatening Forbes:

“Get back in the goal, you crazy little bugger,” he shouted at the five-foot-five goaltender, “or you’re out of the game.”

Frayne adds some fine points to the final act of the piece, too. Near the end of the game, with Canadiens leading 4-1, Lalonde broke in with the puck. Forbes was ready for him, “readying an axe-swing at Lalonde’s head.”

But at the last instant the flying Lalonde spat a long stream of tobacco juice into Jakie’s face, circled the net laughing, and pushed the puck into the goal past the sputtering Forbes.

Triangulating with a few of the details provided by Frayne, it’s possible to key in a couple of games from the two seasons Forbes spent with Toronto. The first time he played Canadiens in Montreal was on Wednesday, March 10, 1920, a night on which the local Gazette found plenty in his performance to praise: “Forbes the Youngest Goaler in NHL Made Many Brilliant Stops at Mount Royal Arena,” reads a subhead from the next morning’s dispatch.

Too bad for Forbes, Montreal won, 7-2, with Lalonde scoring a hat trick. But contemporary accounts mention no high sticks, punches, or other hijinks. Also, the referee that night was Harry Hyland. So that’s probably not the night in question.

A better bet altogether is a game from almost a year later, a Monday-nighter played on February 28, 1921. It was noteworthy affair on several counts. A former U.S. president was one of the 5,000 spectators on hand, for one thing: what’s more, William Howard Taft was “in position to have a good view” of a first-period fight between Toronto’s Ken Randall and Didier Pitre of Montreal.

It was a thoroughly bad-tempered occasion even before the teams hit the ice. Toronto was lending winger Cully Wilson to Canadiens that season, but just before the game, with centreman Corb Denneny ill and unable to play, the St. Pats tried to claim Wilson back for their own line-up.

NHL President Frank Calder was in the building and presided over a summit in the referee’s room. The Montreal Star mapped the terrain:

If he played with Canadiens, Toronto would protest him. If he played with Torontos, Canadiens would no doubt protest him, and if he refused to play with Torontos, whose property he was, he would be suspended. The president, however, refused to counsel him what to do, and told him to suit himself, bearing in mind that he was Toronto’s property.

Wilson sat out and, indeed, never suited up for either Montreal or Toronto again: the following season he turned out for the Hamilton Tigers.

In Montreal in 1921, the game went sourly on without him. “There were many unparliamentary clashes,” the Star reported. The Mount Royal Arena’s natural ice deteriorated as the game continued, too. In the second interval, the Star’s reporter watched as “the men who were supposed to scoop the snow off the ice only got water for their pains, and when the third period began, the ice was like mud. When a man fell he got up sopping wet.”

It was in the second period that Forbes and Lalonde first sparred, though whether it was a high stick or a punch that the latter perpetrated isn’t clear. Press reports make no mention, either, of a collision between Forbes and Smeaton. “Lalonde was given a minor for charging Forbes,” is as much as we get from the Gazette, though with an interesting coda: “Lalonde was booed for his attack on the net custodian.” (Le Droit: “Lalonde was hissed when he jostled Forbes.”)

In Trent Frayne’s telling, the game ended 5-1 for Montreal, which wasn’t the case on this night. Lalonde did score Canadiens’ final goal, towards the end of the third, to complete a 4-0 Montreal win (and Georges Vézina shutout). As the Star had it, “Lalonde’s brilliant lone-handed shot finished the scoring.”

But if reporters present saw Lalonde score, none of them would seem to have noticed him spit his tobacco or laugh, and nor did they catch Forbes’ sputtering as he failed to foil him. That doesn’t mean that a spit-assisted goal isn’t part of hockey history which remains, after all, mostly a matter of the many moments, savoury or not, that go unrecorded.

Famous Five: Lined up from left, Newsy Lalonde, Lester Patrick, Odie Cleghorn, Frank Calder, and Cooper Smeaton, circa the … early 1930s? (Image: La Presse)

 

 

 

chairman of the boards

A birthday today for Red Dutton, born on another Friday of this date, the one in 1897, in Russell, Manitoba. After starting his NHL service as an enthusiastic and highly effective defenceman for the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans, Dutton went on to coach the Americans bench, as he’s doing here in 1940. He ran the team eventually, and took a turn in the mid-40s as NHL president. Dutton was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. He turned his back, later in life, on the hockey establishment, refusing for some 35 years to darken the door of an NHL arena. He died in 1987 at the age of 89.

the only ones allowed to eat at four o’clock

Jolly Jawn: Detroit Red Wings coach, GM, and all-around-larger-than-life presence Jack Adams. Note the pucks he’s packing amidships in his sweater. (Image: Albert E. Backlund)

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
strict orders
as regards
training rules
for the Red Wings.

They must all be
up at 10 o’clock
for breakfast and
then
take
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
on eggs,
omitting
the steaks.

Movies are banned
on the afternoon of days the Wings play,
especially for Normie Smith.

Everyone in bed by midnight.

 

americans dream

Red Handed: New York Americans coach Red Dutton congratulates right winger Lorne Carr on the night of Tuesday, March 29, 1938, after their team beat the Chicago Black Hawks 3-1 at Madison Square Garden to take the opening game of their playoff semi-final. The Americans had sailed past the Rangers in the first round, but couldn’t keep up the momentum against the Black Hawks, losing the next two games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

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.

must be some misunderstanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those games, O’Ree sported number 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

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.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

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.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.

 

 

billy burch took his skates to bed

No Sudden Coughing: In 1928, Billy Burch did his best to recommend Lucky Strikes to hockey’s tobacco-craving players.

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.

Billy Babe Burch Ruth

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.

 

jumping jimmy

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.

quaffing from the stanley cup: would a lot of shared consumption be a problem?

Bottoms Up: Readying the Stanley Cup for action in April of 1949 is Toronto Maple Leafs PR manager Spiff Evans. Steered by coach Hap Day (right) and managing director Conn Smythe (middle), the Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in four games that year to earn the championship and the right to sip. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 3015)

“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?

Not really.

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.”

Embed from Getty Images

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.”