frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).

trophy case: three bygone nhl awards you’ve (probably) never heard of

Won And Done: Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs with the one-and-only Paul Whitman Cup.

With the Stanley Cup having found a new home last week, it was, last night, time for the Hart and the Lady Byng (along with all the rest of the NHL’s trophies for individual achievement) to make their matches. And so they did, of course, tonight, at the (big breath) 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

As you may have heard, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Hart Memorial Trophy, which goes to the player deemed to be the league’s most valuable. Originally called the Hart Trophy, it’s the league’s oldest individual award, donated in 1924 by Dr. David A. Hart, a distinguished Montreal medical man, soldier, and sportsman whose son Cecil was a long-time coach of the Montreal Canadiens. That first year, by a plurality of votes cast by a panel of sportswriters, Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators finished just ahead of Canadiens’ Sprague Cleghorn.

As Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers may or may not have been told, the former Evelyn Moreton donated a second trophy to the NHL’s cabinet in 1925. It was as the wife of Viscount Byng of Vimy, Canada’s governor-general, that Lady Byng had arrived in Ottawa and become, in time, a hockey fan, and she meant for her trophy to aid in the calming and cleansing of the game she learned to love. Rewarding the league’s “cleanest and most effective” practitioner, it was originally supposed to be called the Lady Byng of Vimy Cup, though the Lady Byng Trophy is what stuck and then, subsequently, the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. Sportswriters would again do the deciding, but only from 1926 on: for the first Lady Byng, Lady Byng herself chose the winner, Ottawa’s Frank Nighbor once again.

One by one over the years the NHL added the trophies that will be handed out tonight. The Vézina was first awarded in 1927 (to Montreal’s George Hainsworth), the Norris not until 1954 (Detroit’s Red Kelly was the inaugural winner). The NHL did start recognizing a Rookie-of-the-Year in 1933, when the recognition went to Carl Voss of Toronto, though the Calder Trophy wasn’t actually awarded until 1937 (to Toronto’s Syl Apps). The Art Ross Trophy for the league’s leading regular-season scorer didn’t appear on the scene until 1947-48 (Elmer Lach of Montreal claimed it that year).

For all that familiar silverware, the list of NHL trophies that didn’t make it to Vegas is a surprisingly lengthy one. While the Harts and Byngs and Calders have endured through much of the league’s century+ on ice, many others have appeared only to disappear again — usually all in an unexplained hurry. Here, quick-like, a look at three trophies that briefly recognized the best of the NHL’s best.

The Paul Whiteman Cup

Bandleader Paul Whiteman (a.k.a. the King of Jazz) was a big North American deal in the 1920s and ’30s. Bing Crosby had his first number one hit singing “Ol’ Man River” in front of Whiteman’s orchestra; another version, with Paul Robeson on vocals, is in the Grammy Hall of Fame along with several other Whiteman recordings. News of Whiteman’s death in 1967 — he was 77 — made the front page of The New York Times. “In the era of the Stutz Bearcat,” Alden Whitman wrote there, “the raccoon coat, and the hip flask, Mr. Whiteman was the hero of flaming youth.”

King of Crease: Bandleader Paul Whiteman taking a late-1920s practice turn with Tex Rickard’s New York Rangers.

He was also something of a hockey fan. Born in Denver, Colorado, in 1890, Whiteman seems to have taken to the ice at some young point in his upbringing (“on the Pacific Coast,” according to one account). Flash forward to the fall of 1928 and you’ll find him donating a trophy to the NHL to recognize the league’s leading scorer 20 years before the Art Ross came to be.

By the time the 1928-29 season had wrapped up the following March, Toronto’s Ace Bailey had surged to the top of the heap, compiling 22 goals and 32 points to nudge past Nels Stewart of the Maroons and his 29 points.

Whiteman was on hand at Madison Square Garden when the Leafs met the Rangers in a playoff semi-final, handing over the cup before the puck dropped. According to the uncharitable account of New York’s Daily News, Whiteman “wisely kept to the sideboards while doing so. The ice is too slippery for a 300-pounder to entrust himself to it.”

The Whiteman only seems to have been awarded that once: there’s no evidence that Boston’s Cooney Weiland was recognized in 1930 when he led the league in scoring, or indeed anyone else after that.

Desker: Ace Bailey at his Maple Leaf Gardens’ desk in 1969, with his Paul Whiteman Cup displayed in the corner.

Bailey kept the trophy he’d won, and proudly. In the 1969 photograph here, below, you can spy it in the corner of the former Leafs’ sniper’s office at Maple Leaf Gardens. Today, the one-and-only Paul Whiteman Cup resides in Bailey’s hometown of Bracebridge, Ontario, where it’s on display in a cabinet at the Bracebridge Sports Hall of Fame.

The Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy

The Roosevelt Hotel is today where it was in 1928: at 45 East 45thStreet, near Madison Avenue, in midtown Manhattan. That’s not too far away from where boxing impresario and promoter extraordinaire Tex Rickard opened his Madison Square Garden in 1925, on Eighth Avenue, between 49thand 50th. Three years later, Rickard had two hockey teams, Americans and Rangers, as tenants. While it’s not clear how the Roosevelt Trophy came to be, it’s likely that Rickard was somehow involved, if not directly then through the efforts of his Madison Square marketing machinery.

New York was positively awash in new (short-lived) hockey trophies in ’28. The Paramount Theatre Trophy recognized the MVP of the two New York teams, as determined by a vote among the New York Hockey Writers Association, while the Belvedere Hotel Trophy honoured the leading local regular-seasons scorer. Rangers’ defenceman Ching Johnson took Paramount that spring while his teammate Frank Boucher claimed the Belvedere.

When it was first announced in late 1927, the Roosevelt Trophy was styled (on New York newspages at least) as succeeding the Lady Byng in rewarding the NHL’s “cleanest” player. The Roosevelt Hotel was a hive of sporting activity as the trophy made its debut, with baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis presiding over his sport’s winter meetings on the property the same December week that a fancy dinner party was convened to hand over hockey’s newest prize. Hosted by Edward Clinton Fogg, managing director of the company that owned the hotel, the hockey ceremonies were broadcast live over the airwaves of New York radio station WRNY.

Cup Christening: Posing with the brand-new Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Cup in December of 1927 are, from left, Joseph Hannon, president of the New York Americans (and New York’s deputy fire commissioner); Edward Clinton Fogg, managing director of the Roosevelt; Tex Rickard, president of Madison Square Garden; and Colonel John S. Hammond, president of the New York Rangers.

With NHL president Frank Calder unable to attend, Tex Rickard took the trophy into his keeping. As spelled out in the press at the time, the conditions governing the Roosevelt were less subjective than those by which the Lady Byng was defined. “At the close of the season,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle advised, “it will be awarded to the player who receives the least number of penalties during the campaign.”

The three new New York trophies were awarded once that had played out, in early April of 1928, just before the Rangers opened what was to be a successful Stanley Cup run against the Maroons of Montreal. The party, this time, was at the Belvedere Hotel, on West 48thStreet. Presiding over the evening’s proceedings was none other than the man the Daily Eagle had no problem calling the “corpulent bandleader:” Paul Whiteman. (Next to him, bulky Ching Johnson looked a mere “mite.”)

For any who might have lamented the demise of the Lady Byng, well, no, it had not given way to the new trophy. A week before the party at the Belvedere, it had been conferred as usual, with Frank Boucher of the Rangers beating out Detroit’s George Hay; Frank Nighbor from Ottawa; Boston’s Harry Oliver; Normie Himes of the New York Americans; and Canadiens’ Herb Gardiner for the honour.

When it came to the Roosevelt, Boucher was only second-best. Surveying all those NHLers who’d played at least 1,000 minutes that season, NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton did the math, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report called his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Pittsburgh Pirates’ winger Harold Darragh had been sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.

I don’t know that Darragh was on hand to receive his hardware, but I’m assuming it was delivered to him eventually. Like the Paramount and the Belvedere, the Roosevelt Trophy seems to have been a tradition that ended as soon as it started. None of the trophies in the room at the Belvedere that night appears to have survived its infancy. I haven’t come across any further mention of any of them beyond 1928, let alone a hint of any subsequent winners.

The Greyhound Cup

The Greyhound may be the most enigmatic of lost NHL trophies. How did it come about? Who did the voting? Was it awarded with any ceremony? Where did it end it up? Was Red Dutton truly as thrilled to receive it as he looks here?

Historian Andrew Ross says that the Greyhound was sponsored by the bus company, which makes more sense than a dog-backed scenario. Spend some time sifting through old newspapers and you’ll find … not much more in the way of answers. In recognizing the NHL’s MVP it seems to have been flooding ice that the Hart was already taking care of — had been, as mentioned, for seven years.

Like the Whiteman and the Hotel Roosevelt, the Greyhound only seems to have been awarded once, in 1931, which is when defenceman Red Dutton of the New York Americans collected it and posed for the photograph here. Dutton, 33 that year, was a formidable force on the blueline throughout his ten-year NHL career and, before that, with the Calgary Tigers of the old WHL. He would go on to coach and manage the Americans and, after Frank Calder’s death, served time as interim president of the NHL. It’s not really for me to say how good Dutton was during the 1930-31 season, but I might point that when it came to the voting for the Hart that year, he didn’t rate in the top five. Montreal’s Howie Morenz tallied best on the ballot, going away, followed by Boston’s Eddie Shore; the Leafs’ King Clancy; Ebbie Goodfellow of the Detroit Falcons; and Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons.

playing hurt: I’m getting back into that game if it kills me

Special Ed: Eddie Gerard in 1914, when he first joined the Ottawa Senators. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / e003525294)

So the Boston Bruins’ 42-year-old captain Zdeno Chara is in tonight, leading his team into the fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues despite that jaw of his that a puck broke two nights ago and (as Ron MacLean reported just before puck-drop) “we believe to be wired shut.”

Chara got medical clearance to play this afternoon, we’re told, whereupon he himself made the decision to play. Much of the coverage through the day focussed on Chara, watching him at the Bruins’ optional skate, imaging his discomfort. Much of the punditry heading into the game toggled between expressions of amazement at Chara’s pain-threshold/courage and reminders that he is, after all, a hockey player.

Along with frontline dispatches from Boston came historical reviews of other ghastly injuries suffered by other stout NHLers who gamely played on. None of those reached back to the 1923 Stanley Cup, so maybe that’s our duty here. A comparable case? Maybe not exactly, but here it is nonetheless.

Eddie Gerard is the man in question, captain of the (original) Ottawa Senators as they won their third Stanley Cup in four years. Coached throughout those years by Pete Green, this is a team (it’s worth mentioning) that has been called one of the finest in NHL history. Just because that’s impossible to verify doesn’t make it untrue. In its 1923 edition, the team’s 10-man line-up included eight future Hall-of-Famers, including Frank Nighbor, King Clancy, Clint Benedict, and Cy Denneny. A ninth player, defenceman Lionel Hitchman probably should be in the Hall, which leaves another blueliner, poor Harry Helman, as the odd man out.

Gerard, for his part, was one of the original nine players to be chosen for the Hall’s inaugural class in 1945, joining the likes of Howie Morenz, Hobey Baker, and Georges Vézina in that auspicious cohort.

In 1923, aged 33, he was still a dominant defenceman in the league, which the Senators duly topped. By beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on aggregate in a two-game playoff, Ottawa earned the right to represent the NHL in a three-team Stanley Cup tournament played in Vancouver. The Senators had to dispense with the Vancouver Maroons to make it to the finals, which they did, setting up a two-game sweep of the Edmonton Eskimos that won them the Cup.

It was in the final game against Vancouver, a 5-1 Ottawa win at the Denman Street Arena, that Gerard was hurt, Monday, March 26. He was rushing for goal, as Ottawa’s Journal had it, when he collided with Eskimos’ centre Corb Denneny, Cy’s brother. Gerrard ended up on the ice with his left shoulder dislocated and an injured knee. Helped off, he spent the third period on the bench with his arm in a sling, “shouting and coaching his players,” according to the eyewitness account of Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman, who was beside him, and would later write the game up for the front page of the Ottawa Evening Citizen.

“Twice he begged me to let him get back on the ice,” Gorman reported. “‘I can hold my arm up,’ he kept saying. ‘Let me on and they’ll never get in.’”

Gorman demurred; Gerard stayed put. The following day, the latter wrote, “the gallant Ottawa captain” lay in hotel room “smiling in the face of his pain and assuring his teammates that they’ll beat Edmonton without him.”

“There is,” Gorman concluded, “only one Eddie Gerard.”

A visit to a Vancouver hospital revealed that his injury wasn’t so singular: “Eddie suffered a double fracture,” the Journal noted, “and his shoulder ligaments are torn.” Gerard’s optimism was page-one news back home in the Citizen: he now said he expected to join his teammates when they took the ice Thursday night.

Gorman wasn’t so sure. By Wednesday, a compromise seems to have been reached. The shoulder was responding to treatment and Gerard would dress, though he would most likely stay on the bench. “If he should get into the game it will be for a few minutes at a time,” the Citizen’s correspondent wrote, “just to relieve George Boucher or Frank Clancy.” With defenceman Harry Helman ruled out entirely due to a cut on a foot and Lionel Hitchman (broken nose) uncertain, the Senators were looking at going into the game with (Gerard aside) a grand total of five skaters out in front of goaltender Clint Benedict.

Hitchman did play, in the end, scoring Ottawa’s first goal; Gerard remained for the entire game on the bench, even after yet another defenceman, George Boucher, hurt a foot. Despite a line-up that featuring the legendary likes of Duke Keats and Bullet Joe Simpson, the Eskimos (to the slightly impartial eye of the Citizen) “looked like an ordinary hockey team.” Cy Denneny decided it in Ottawa’s favour when he scored in overtime.

Ahead of the second game, played on Saturday, March 31, the word again that Gerard would be dressed, though it wasn’t clear how much he would play. George Boucher’s ankle was swollen to twice its usual size, but he too would be in the line-up. In event, it was Boucher who kept to the bench the whole game while Gerard made his return.

Ottawa’s victory was a narrow one: Punch Broadbent scored in the first period and they held on from there to claim the tenth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Gerard’s part in the piece was duly recognized. As Citizen sports editor Ed Baker saw it, the captain’s mere presence on the ice was an “exhibition of courage rarely witnessed in any form of sport.”

“He was unable to raise his lift arm as high as his chin at any time since he was injured,” Baker wrote, “but knew the serious position the Senators were in and went into the game more for the moral effect it would have on his teammates than with any expectation of playing up to his usual form.”

He mainly kept to coaching his teammates, Baker noted, though there were a couple of occasions on which he couldn’t resist a rush into Edmonton territory. In the second period, he fell badly, had to be helped from the ice — “but pluckily returned to the fray.”

Tommy Gorman filed his view from the Ottawa bench:

Eddie Gerard actually played for the greater part of the game, notwithstanding his injuries. Twice he went down with a crash and three times with the  shoulder, and after each occasion he skated over to the bench groaning under the pain, but refusing to retire. “Pull that shoulder back,” he would shout to Trainer [Cozy] Dolan. “I’m getting back into that game if it kills me.”

With Hitchman fading in the third, Gerard insisted on relieving him. “It was a physical torture to skate and could not shoot or handle the stick,” Gorman attested, “yet he blocked with all his old-time effectiveness, and steadied his team at critical moments. The Ottawa captain gave the greatest exhibition of pluck and endurance ever seen in Vancouver.”

For Gerard and Gorman alike, 21-year-old King Clancy was the pick of Ottawa’s litter. Gorman:

In the last period Clancy outskated every other man on the ice. With Gerard unable to carry the puck, and Hitchman hardly able to move, Clancy bore the brunt. “Heavens!” Eddie Gerard once ejaculated through his pain-racked [sic] body, “look at Clancy playing the whole Edmonton team. He’s the greatest kid in the world.”

Clancy stood out in this game for another reason: in the second period, when Clint Benedict was called for slashing Joe Simpson, the Ottawa goaltender (as one did in those years) headed to the penalty bench to serve his sentence. “King Clancy then went into net,” Ed Baker wrote, “and that gave the youngster unprecedented distinction of having played every position on the line-up during the present tour. He had previously subbed in both defence positions, center, and on right and left wing.”

The Senators enjoyed their victory — and nursed their wounds. “Eddie Gerard and George Boucher lie in their rooms smarting under injuries,” Gorman wrote, “but smiling and happy.”

The team enjoyed their triumphant cross-country train trip home. Ed Baker was aboard. From Moose Jaw he sent word that Gerard and Boucher were “both doing nicely and picking up more as every mile is reeled off.” Gerard (a.k.a. The Duke of Rockcliffe) was “getting the injured shoulder back to a working basis again” while Boucher hobbled his way around with increasing dexterity.

When the team’s train arrived in Ottawa on the morning of Friday, April 6, it was met by a crowd of thousands. There was a parade, and there were speeches, a lunch at the Chateau Laurier. “Men,” declaimed Mayor Frank Plant, “we are glad and proud to welcome you back home after your splendid victory. Ottawa is proud of you.”

The Citizen took one more survey of the cost of victory:

Many of the players bore evidence of their honorable scars. Eddie Gerard shoulder was bothering him and George Boucher walked lame from the effect of the bad smash he got in the West. Others had pieces of skin missing, but all were cheerful and smiling.

The Senators spent the summer months recovering their health. For Eddie Gerard, though, there would be no return to NHL ice. Though shoulder was recovered in time for the start of the new campaign, he fell ill in October with throat and respiratory problems that would keep him out of the line-up for the entire 1923-24 season. He spent the year helping coach the team before finally retiring in 1924 to sign on to coach the expansion Montreal Maroons.

Stanley Cup Sens: Ottawa’s 1923 line-up, showing (back row, left to right) Owner Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Pete Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, and Harry Helman.

 

the winter crop of the snow-covered fields

Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.

Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener  — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.

The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.

pembroke’s peach

Peerless P: Born on this day in 1893, the great and underappreciated Frank Nighbor was the pride of Pembroke, Ontario. Seen here in hometown kit in 1909, Nighbor would go on to win five Stanley Cups. The “Peach,” they used to call him, as well as the “Percolater” and “Peerless;” sometimes, in contemporary accounts of his hockey exploits, all three words show up in alliterative aggregate. Nighbor perfected the hook-check, and was a dab hand when it came to the poke- and the sweep-, too. In 1924, he won the first Hart Trophy ever awarded to an NHL MVP.  A year later, when Lady Byng decided she wanted to  donate a trophy to the NHL in the name of gentlemanly hockey played with the utmost skill, it was Nighbor she invited to Rideau Hall to present him with the inaugural edition in person.

flour-pot

Let’s be honest: caught up in the chaos of Christmas, we all forgot. That today’s Ottawa Senators missed a chance to mark an important historical milestone doesn’t seem so strange, I guess, in this year of capitalized turmoil — though can we grant Eugene Melnyk & co. the benefit of the doubt and surmise that they skipped the celebrations on purpose, preferring to do it up properly when next year’s centenary rolls around? Assuming that’s the case, let’s keep our observance of the 99th anniversary here brief, recognizing, simply, that on the night of December 23, 1919, as the Ottawa Senators hosted Toronto’s St. Patricks to open the NHL’s third season, the great Frank Nighbor put his famous hook-check to use in the first period to thief the puck from Ken Randall and slap it decisively past goaltender Howie Lockhart. The goal itself was important, winning a game for Ottawa that would end 3-0, and the Senators would use this auspicious start to go on to both NHL and Stanley Cup championships that year. Those should be duly venerated when the time comes, but our business here, today, is to honour and revere the truly first-class way in which Nighbor’s goal was celebrated that winter’s night in 1919. In those days, when Ottawa still knew how to treat a superstar, Nighbor was called to centre ice after the game to receive his rightful due. For having scored that inaugural goal that season, Pembroke’s own peerless peach received from the hand of Mr. A. E. Ford of the Interprovincial Flour Mills Company a reward such as a modern-day hockey sharpshooter might only dream of taking home from the rink:

 

jack walker, hook-check artist (can get a little tiresome)

Sultan of Swish: Jack Walker, at the ready, in Seattle Metropolitans’ stripes, circa 1917.

If you want to talk hook-checks, as you well might, the man you need to know about is Jack Walker, born on this date in 1888, when it was a Tuesday, in Silver Mountain, Ontario, up on the Lakehead, not far from what was then Port Arthur — modern-day Thunder Bay. He died in 1950, aged 61.

If he’s not now a household name, he was in his day, a century or so ago. Three times teams he skated for won the Stanley Cup: the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914, the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917, and the Victoria Cougars in 1925. Mostly Walker played on the west coast, in the PCHA; his NHL career was a slender one, lasting 80 regular-season games over two seasons in the mid-1920s when he joined the Detroit Cougars.

Walker did ascend to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1960, which is to say he was voted in. Hard to know from here how much of the case for his place in the pantheon has to do with the hook-check, but as a hook-check enthusiast I’m going to err on the side of a lot.

I wrote about the hook-check in my 2014 book Puckstruck— also over here, where I did some explaining about definitions and techniques. While Frank Nighbor is sometimes credited with having been the first to ply it on a regular and efficient basis, it seems clear that Walker was in fact the progenitor, and that when Nighbor joined Port Arthur in 1911, the Pembroke Peach learned if from him. Nighbor said as much himself, later on, sort of, talking about Walker’s poke-check, which is related but different, though they’re often conflated, even by the Hall-of-Famers who used them to best effect.

You don’t see much mention of hook-checking in accounts of that earliest Cup, but by 1917, Walker’s name was synonymous with it. Hook check star is an epithet you’ll see in the weeks leading up to the championship series. That came in March, when the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens travelled west to play for all the hockey marbles with a roster that featured Georges Vézina, Harry Mummery, Newsy Lalonde, and Didier Pitre.

Lining up Hap Holmes, Cully Wilson, and Frank Foyston, Seattle prevailed in four games, with Montreal’s only victory coming in the opening game. The score therein, 8-4, doesn’t exactly have the ring of a defensive struggle, but Walker was said to have stood out. This from the wire report in The Ottawa Citizen:

In purely defensive play, Jack Walker, with his clever hook-check, was [sic] the Seattle’s star. Walker took the puck away from the best stick handlers the Flying Frenchmen could produce as easily [as] taking off his hat and it was his work that spilled most of the offensive hopes of the Canadiens.

It was apparently contagious: all the Mets were hooking the second game. After Seattle won that one 6-1, The Vancouver Sun’s Royal Brougham opened his dispatch this way:

“Beaten by the Hookcheck,” might be an appropriate title of tonight’s struggle because it was the clever of this bit of hockey strategy combined with sheer speed and aggressiveness that put the Mets on an even basis with the invaders for the Stanley Cup.

“Every time,” he continued, “a visiting forward got the puck and ankled up the ice, swish, some local skater would slide along and hook the elusive pill from the Canadiens stick leaving the duped player bewildered.”

Seattle won the third game by a score of 4-1. It was the same story. “Jack worked his old hook-check so well and so frequently,” was the word in Vancouver’s Daily World, “that he checked the very life out of the Frenchmen’s offence.”

Going into what was the final game, Royal Brougham was already handing out laurels. “If Seattle wins the Stanley Cup, the glory should go to Jack Walker, the hook-check artist of the Metropolitans who, during the last two games has practically stopped every Frenchmen’s rush.”

Seattle went out in style, taking the decisive game and the Cup with a 9-1 win. Let’s leave the Daily World to give the man his due, if that’s what this does:

Jack Walker’s work has been an outstanding feature of the entire series, and Jack was up to all his tricks last night. He kept the hook-checking working with such monotonous regularity that it almost got tiresome, and he finally succeeded in making one of his shots good and broke through for a goal.