toronto’s 1918 stanley cup champions: good when they were good, but when they were bad, they were rotten

Mutual Street Champs: Dated for the year after their inaugural Stanley Cup championship, this composite portrait of the 1917-18 winners includes Rusty Crawford and Jack Adams, though they were ruled ineligible to play in the final against Vancouver. Note the commemorative sweaters the players sport. By the time this photograph was published, the Torontos had undergone a name change, gaining a nickname, the Arenas, they hadn’t had during that original season.

The NHL’s first season was all over by the middle of March in 1918, when the team from Toronto edged the Montreal Canadiens in a famously brutal two-game final. A hundred years ago, the hockey season didn’t end there: next up, the team known as the Blueshirts or plain old Torontos took on the Vancouver Millionaires, champions of the Pacific coast, in a five-game Stanley Cup final. That rates a review like the one we’ll get into here below. Also worth recalling, as we’ll do later on today in a follow-up, is the fact that in the days that followed Toronto’s Stanley Cup victory — possibly even before the winning team saw the trophy they’d just won — the NHL played its first all-star game, followed by its second and its third. Not that those games seemed to have commanded much attention at the time. And in the years since, they’ve faded away to the point of having been almost entirely forgotten.

A Stanley Cup is a Stanley Cup, and a hundred years ago the team from Toronto won the very first one of the NHL era. The victory was an unlikely one, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t earned. The result wasn’t controversial, exactly, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t contentious. Played at the end of March in 1918, under two significantly different sets of rules, the inaugural Stanley Cup series involving NHL teams saw Toronto enjoy the advantage of playing all five championship games in their home rink. The ice was soft, and the hockey often brutal. If you were going to affix an asterisk to the result, you’d want to put all that in the accompanying footnote, along with something about the relative lack of excitement that attended Toronto’s triumph.

There was no parade in Toronto in 1918. It’s not even clear that the victorious team even had the satisfaction of gazing on the Stanley Cup let alone raising it aloft when they won — the trophy may well have back in Vancouver through the end of the final, safe in the keeping of the jewelers at Henry Birks and Sons, waiting to be shipped to the winners … eventually. Toronto’s players did share in some of the profits from the first three games of the final, with each man taking home a tidy $289.12 for their Cup-winning efforts — about $4,500 in modern-day money.

The deciding game was played on the second-to-last day of March, a Saturday. The champions must have enjoyed their Sunday, which led, inevitably, to the first day of April on the Monday.

The local papers announced the victory, but didn’t exactly blare the news. The sports pages of several prominent papers paid as much attention to dog-show results as they did to hockey glory. It would have been funny as April fooling, except that it was in earnest. Some 300 dogs had taken part in the Toronto Kennel Club’s 15th annual show, and the prize-winners included cocker spaniels named Perfecto and Sir Douglas Haig, a beagle called Smithfield Patience, and the whippet Granite Beauty. According to the Dog Fanciers’ Column in The Telegram, it was the mastiff named Boadicea who took top honours in the Open Bitches division.

•••

The NHL wasn’t exactly created in a flash of light and immaculate goodwill. It was conceived, instead, as part of a sly business maneuver, in the privacy of a Montreal hotel room, by a coven of businessman intent on squeezing out a colleague who annoyed them. Toronto almost missed out on a franchise — Quebec very nearly supplanted them in what was, to start off with in November of 1917, a four-team league.

This was wartime, of course, and so the ice under professional hockey was precariously thin. As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole question of just how sports should be conducted during the upheaval was very much in play. Did a hockey league like the NHL divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or was it vital to morale? While the NHL survived its inaugural season, the league’s president, Frank Calder wasn’t confident by the time it was over that the following winter would see it continue into a follow-up: he was convinced in the early months of 1918 that the government planned to order professional hockey curtailed until hostilities ceased.

It was a rough year, that first one. A rink burned down in Montreal, incinerating the future of one team, the Wanderers, along with its equipment. The gear belonging to their fellow tenants, the Canadiens, was spared: they happened to be on the road when the fire struck. Canadiens moved to a new rink, but the Wanderers expired within days, midway through the schedule, leaving three teams to finish out the year.

From the start, the league was missing some of hockey’s best talents. In 1917-18, the NHL lacked many of the game’s greats, some of whom were in uniform, while others missed that first season through injury. Still others were happily ensconced out on the Pacific coast, preferring to ply their sticks in the very good rival league, the PCHA, that Frank and Lester Patrick were running out there, to the continuing irritation of the eastern owners.

A lot of that first NHL season was played on iffy ice in arenas that were poorly lit and shrouded in cigarette smoke. Attendance was up and down.

And the hockey? A lot of it was brutally violent. At its worst, it prompted Toronto police to arrest Montreal’s Joe Hall and his hometown antagonist, Alf Skinner, after they used their sticks to batter one another about their respective heads when Canadiens visited Toronto’s Arena Gardens at the end of January.

And yet for all that, the NHL’s first fans did some legendary talents perform. Almost half of the 44 players who suited up that year would eventually find their way into hockey’s Hall of Fame, including Joe Malone and the sublime Frank Nighbor, Art Ross and Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, Newsy Lalonde, and goaltenders Clint Benedict and Georges Vézina.

Coached by Dick Carroll, Toronto’s roster counted on the superior skills of future Hall-of-Famers Harry Cameron and Reg Noble. In support they had Harry Mummery and the merciless Ken Randall, Corb Denneny (who could fly), and Skinner (a deft stickhandler when he wasn’t under arrest). Later in the season, manager Charlie Querrie bolstered the line-up with the addition of three more Hall-worthy talents in Jack Adams, Rusty Crawford, and goaltender Hap Holmes.

With other goaltenders, a pair of them who failed to distinguish themselves, Toronto started the season with a 10-9 loss to the Wanderers in Montreal. Even before the Wanderers dropped out and saw many of their players dispersed, Canadiens dominated the first half of the season. The three teams that survived it played 14 games, which took them to early February.

For the second half, Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa embarked on an eight-game schedule. When that wound up in March, Toronto was atop the table. That set up a NHL final, Montreal versus Toronto in a home-and-home match-up, which would produce a champion to take on its counterpart from the PCHA for the Stanley Cup.

Assuming, of course, that Toronto could be bothered to participate. Charlie Querrie wanted to play the final game in Toronto, and part of his posturing involved a languid assertion that he didn’t mind forgoing the championship and settling for an exhibition series against Ottawa. He didn’t really put much stock in the Stanley Cup anyway — it didn’t matter to himif the NHL skipped the whole thing entirely.

Querrie got his way, in the end, along with a success that few had foreseen. After upsetting Canadiens in Montreal by a count of 7-4, the Torontos lost the return game at home, 4-3. It was enough to command the NHL championship on total goals. They would meet the PCHA Vancouver Millionaires for the Lord Stanley’s famous cup.

Getting ahead of themselves and events, perhaps, Montreal had already negotiated to play the Stanley Cup games in Vancouver, but Toronto had no interest in going west. So the Millionaires came to them.

The line-up they brought with them was an impressive one, headlined by Cyclone Taylor, who’d led the PCHA in scoring. Vancouver’s other future Hall-of-Famers were Mickey MacKay, Barney Stanley, and goaltender Hughie Lehman.

Long before the advent of the NHL, eastern and western clubs had fought over players. They also played under fundamentally different sets of rules, including those governing offside rules and how penalties should properly be served. Out west, teams iced seven players aside, whereas the NHL went with six.

The 1918 final would see both sets of rules on display. As had been the case in 1917, when the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans hosted and beat the NHA Montreal Canadiens, the teams would start by playing six-man hockey and then alternate through the rest of the best-three-out-of-five series.

Eagle-Eye: Hughie Lehman later kept goal and even coached the Chicago Black Hawks, but in 1918, the puckstopping he did was all for Vancouver’s PCHA Millionaires. (Image: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-777)

And so it was under NHL code that Toronto beat Vancouver 5-3 on the night of Wednesday, March 20. They did so without Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford, signed after February 1 and thereby ruled out of playing in the entire final. The fans at Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street were disappointed, reportedly, by Cyclone Taylor’s lacklustre performance. Though he scored a pair of goals, he didn’t show his speed, and had trouble remembering that, under NHL rules, he couldn’t skate ahead of the puck.

Other highlights: Toronto’s Harry Meeking tripped Taylor and then (by a Toronto account), falling as well, accidentally brought his stick down on Taylor’s back. Taylor retaliated by slashing his assailant, two, three times, before Ken Randall intervened to punch Taylor. Hughie Lehman played well in the Vancouver net, and also attacked Noble, who still managed to score a couple of goals on the night, and fell and hurt his shoulder.

Toronto fans were impressed by Mickey MacKay. “He was easily the fastest thing on the ice,” noted The Toronto World. But: “the game was not as interesting as most fans would like.” There was sympathy for Vancouver’s situation. “Train-weariness and the strange eastern rules had a lot to do with the Pacific coast players’ showing.”

Playing by their rules, the Millionaires got their revenge three nights later, posting a 6-4 win. “The weather in Toronto has been very mild,” Vancouver’s Daily World reported, “and the ice is heavy, a marked difference from the ice on which Vancouver has been playing on the coast.” The coastal view had the visitors looking 50 per cent better than they had in the first game.

The wounded included the judge of play — an extra referee — Tom Melville, whose face Harry Mummery accidentally cut with his skate, and a rinkside Toronto spectator, whose ear Alf Skinner shot a puck into (“no damage resulted,” said the World).

Mickey MacKay had another banner night, scoring three goals for Vancouver while showing (said a Vancouver correspondent) “dazzling speed, wonderful stickhandling, good judgment.” Alf Skinner scored three for Toronto.

Vancouver’s Daily World described this game as “one of the roughest games of the season.” There was “a fray that developed into a regular Donnybrook,” though I don’t know who was involved. In the third period, Ken Randall smashed Taylor across the arm, dropping him to the ice and, soon after that, forcing him out of the game. Vancouver’s Si Griffis shot a puck at Corb Denneny “for no reason whatever.” Hughie Lehman was observed attempting “to cut down nearly every player that bored in on net.”

Without expressing too much shock, The Globereported that the game had “bristled with rough, brutal, illegal tactics in which good hockey apparently was the last feature considered by the players of either team”

Neither team approved of the work that referee George Irvine put in that night; both said they wouldn’t have him back for another. The other official on the ice, Art Ross, was frank about what he’d seen. “The Blues gave a most brutal exhibition,” he said, “and unless the western club gets absolute protection from the referee, they will all be killed.”

Particularly offensive? Toronto captain Ken Randall, whom Ross fined $15 for “using foul and abusive language.” Mummery wasn’t much better: Ross noted that his efforts were “so crude and brutal” that he’d been booed by his team’s own faithful.

There was some question whether Cyclone Taylor would be healthy enough to play in the third game after all the punishment he’d taken. He was able, in the end, and did play, scoring another pair of goals in Vancouver’s losing effort on a Tuesday, March 26. The final score (under eastern rules) was 6-3.

According to The Globe, despite “occasional outbursts of ill-feeling,” the temper of the game was “mild as milk” compared to what had transpired previously. Harry Cameron was a stand-out for Toronto, scoring their first goal on a “sensational rush,” while Ran McDonald was Vancouver’s best player.

Final verdict: “It was a clean, fast fixture, with the Toronto forwards outfooting the Vancouver lot.”

Western rules were back in effect for the fourth game on March 28, a Thursday, when Vancouver overran the home team by a score of 8-1. The Globe rated it a poor display, if fairly placid.

The home team just couldn’t keep up: “Vancouver ran all over them with speed and had a bag of tricks that left the Blue Shirts gasping.” The Millionaires, said Toronto’s World, “made the Torontos look like a juvenile team.” They tried a three-man defence at one point, with Ken Randall playing out in front of Harrys Mummery and Cameron, but that didn’t seem to help.

Mickey MacKay once again impressed for Vancouver: “He tore up and down the ice like a crazy man.” Barney Stanley and Lloyd Cook each scored a pair of goals for the Millionaires, as did Taylor.

It was Vancouver’s Daily World that was reporting that the host city may have been wearying of the championship. “Interest in the series is waning locally,” was their report, “as the demand for seats is not large.” Toronto also followed up the loss by lodging a “formal objection” against referees Art Ross and George Irvine. Another western dispatch had it that Toronto manager Charlie Querrie was threatening that his players would use the final game to “get” unspecified Millionaires.

Going into the game that would decide the 1918 Stanley Cup champion, on Saturday, March 30, PCHA President Frank Patrick went on the record to state categorically that Vancouver would accept nothing but a victory. Querrie, for his part, declared himself that his team would “win or bust.”

With all that had gone on before, the two teams had failed to agree on who should referee the final game, so it was left for Stanley Cup trustee William Foran to appoint the officials. He settled at first on Tom Melville and Harvey Pulford, but then couldn’t get in touch with Melville, so drafted in Russell Bowie instead.

Neither man was keen to take part. “I had trouble inducing them to do so,” Foran confessed.

Their instructions were to keep the game clean at any cost. For all their reluctance, the two former greats of the game — both would be inducted in the Hall of Fame for their exploits as players — delivered on the job they didn’t want to do. They performed “without fear or favour,” said The Telegram, where their work was praised as the best the city had seen all season.

The first period, scoreless, did feature a display of skating by Cyclone Taylor that the Globe said delighted the crowd with “stops, starts, and turns that seemed only possible for a contortionist.”

After Toronto’s Alf Skinner scored in the second, his team did its best to rag the puck, play out the clock, but Cyclone Taylor scored to tie the game. When Corb Denneny scored in the third to restore Toronto’s lead, the skill he used to outwit Hugh Lehman was said to constitute one the greatest pieces of individual play ever seen at the Arena.

Vancouver pressed after that, with Taylor and MacKay coming close, but Toronto held their fort. Harry Mummery’s shot-blocking came in for special mention: he was operating as “a sort of advance goal-tender, throwing himself in front of shots.”

Reports of that final game in 1918 fail to report the kind of frenzying we’d expect to see today if a Toronto team were to win a Stanley Cup. No doubt players and managers were pleased to beat Vancouver, and that fans allowed themselves a certain amount of hooting along with a measure of hollering in the aftermath.

There was, again, a war on, and that has to have sobered the celebration. As of Monday, April 1, 1918, it had been underway for 1,340 days. The fighting may have been far away in France, but Toronto was filled with soldiers, the unblooded (recruits perfecting their marching and trench-fighting before they shipped out) as well as the wounded (recovering in local hospitals) and the dead (returned, some of them, from France for local burial).

Ahead of the hockey and the award-winning dogs, the pages of Toronto’s first April papers were filled with news of French battlefields and others closer to home.

Canadian troops were holding the line at Arras and Vimy Ridge in the face of German offensives. Meanwhile, battalions were being rushed from Toronto to Quebec City to help police the anti-conscription riots there. Under the headline “New Toronto Names in Casualty Lists,” The Telegram listed 22 local men, five of them recently killed in action, the others “gassed and wounded.”

Twenty-year-old Harold Meyrick of 334 Wellesley Street East was one of the gassed, a former hardware clerk who’d been serving as a driver with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Lieutenant Jack Newcombe of 79 Brunswick Avenue had been with the British Army’s Royal Engineers when he died in France on March 21, the day after Toronto’s first Stanley Cup win. He was 24, the same age as Corb Denneny.

•••

The reviews of the 1918 Stanley Cup final were mixed, even in the Toronto papers. The champions and their rivals from Vancouver were evenly matched, decided The Telegram, with outstanding goaltending at both ends. There was too much close-checking, in the end, for the hockey to be described as exciting; it was, finally, “nothing to rave over.”

The debrief from Toronto’s Daily Star allowed that Vancouver had adapted to alien rules better than the home team. They’d also outscored Toronto through the five-game series by a count of 21 goals to 18. The praise accorded the victorious Torontos was this: “when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are rotten.”

Toronto’s fans, to their credit, had been fair-minded, giving “wonderful support” to the visitors. “They cheered their good work to the echo and booed and hissed the local players when they roughed it up. They sat hard on the referees whom they did not like and generally had a whale of a time, but at no time did any except a few rowdies roast or verbally abuse the visiting players.”

Was it true that local interest had flagged during the course of the final? The crowd at that last game was a mere 4,500 in a rink with capacity for 7,500. “Perhaps it was because Toronto fans have become fed up on hockey,” ventured The Telegram, “or perhaps it is because they figured the world’s titular series was being drawn out into five games in order to get the gates.”

Dissatisfaction with the NHL’s and PCHA’s duelling sets of rules was widespread. Without a uniform code, The Telegram offered, “the series for the Stanley Cup will never be satisfactory.” The NHL’s Frank Calder agreed: the sooner it was seen to, the better. “Perhaps an arrangement may be reached before President Patrick goes west again,” Calder said.

Patrick seemed willing, travelling to Montreal for further discussions. The two men made headway: by April 10, Frank Patrick was saying that the PCHA was willing to play six-man hockey during future Stanley Cup series. The two sides came to agreements on other key matters, too, from offsides and how penalties should be served to the question of whether players should be allowed to kick the puck so long as they didn’t do it near the goal. In Patrick’s opinion, Stanley Cup finals should in future be kept to three games — but that was still to be determined. Further talks were planned; meanwhile, Patrick said, the western league reserved the right to continue playing by its own rules in its own league.

And so the NHL’s tumultuous first season came to its natural end. April 1 was a Monday in triumphant Toronto. At the rink on Mutual Street, staff was removing the ice: preparations were underway (per The Ottawa Journal) “to turn the big Arena into the dancing garden.”

The hockey players, meanwhile, prepared to disperse. Harry Mummery was headed to Winnipeg to resume his real-life job as a CPR engineer. Jack Adams had managed to play the latter half of the NHL schedule even though he was serving in the Artillery, and he was headed, now, to London, Ontario, to join his battery. Reg Noble was going home to Collingwood, Harry Cameron to Pembroke. Others were home already in Toronto, where Ken Randall worked as a plumber, and Alf Skinner for the City.

The Millionaires, too, were on their way, home to Vancouver and off-season employment — or, in Barney Stanley’s case, to a job at the Edmonton City Dairy.

By the Tuesday, though, many of those best-laid plans had shifted. The off-season would have to wait: there was more hockey to be played. By the end of the week, Toronto’s world champions would suit up against an all-star team for a series of games that would sink into obscurity almost as soon as it was completed. No-one recalls it now, but in 1918, the NHL took its show on the road, venturing for the first time across the southern border to the United States for its first, forgotten all-star weekend.

Next up: on the road with the NHL’s first all-stars.

 

the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

the alluring penalty shot: introducing hockey’s greatest thrill

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Conacher’d: In December of 1934, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers was the goaltender trying to stop Charlie Conacher from scoring the first penalty shot in Leafs’ history. He didn’t.

A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.

A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.

The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.

“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.

Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”

The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.

Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”

In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.

Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.

Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:

Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.

Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.

Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.

December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.

Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.

Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:

Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.

Toronto’s 1933-34 Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: Benny Grant, Buzz Boll, Bill Thomas, Alex Levinsky, Red Horner, Andy Blair, Busher Jackson, Joe Prime, Charlie Sands, Baldy Cotton, trainer Tim Daly, George Hainsworth. Front: Hec Kilrea, King Clancy, Hap Day, coach Dick Irvin, managing director Conn Smythe, assistant director Frank Selke, Ace Bailey, Ken Doraty, Charlie Conacher.

 

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)

aurèle joliat: tiny, but hockey star

The anniversary last week of the death of Aurèle Joliat might elsewhere have triggered an impassioned rant highlighting the outrage and injustice associated with the little left winger’s absence from the list the NHL published earlier this year of its 100 best all-time players. Not here. That’s not to dispute that when Joliat died at 84 on June 2, 1986, hockey lost the greatest of its left wingers — official puckstruck.com policy, in fact, agrees that it did. The case for Joliat’s greatness, a solid one, is buttressed by the resumé the man whose name was often anglicized to Aurel built skating (mostly) alongside Howie Morenz: it includes the three Stanley Cups he helped Canadiens win, his Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1934, all those goals, his elevation to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, & etcetera.

But we’re not going to get into that here. Today, we’ll focus instead on two other important matters relating to Joliat’s 16-year NHL career: his weight and his hat.

If once the Ottawa-born winger towered over Montreal Canadiens’ history, he was never what you’d call an imposing physical specimen. Check in with today’s standard reference sites — hockeyreference.com or nhl.com — and you’ll find Joliat listed as standing 5’7” and displacing 136 pounds. That’s small — slight, even. During his playing days, The Mighty Atom was a nickname he bore, and you’ll find many contemporary newspaper accounts in which he appears as Montreal’s “mite wingman.”

“Probably the tiniest player in the National League,” the Detroit Free Press tagged him in 1934, as ridiculous an insult to Roy Worters (5’3”/135 lbs.) as you’re going to see today, but never mind. Eddie Gerard played with Joliat in Ottawa before both men graduated to stardom in the NHL. “If he should walk into this room now,” he testified in 1932, “the last thing you’d take him for would be a hockey player, with his thin, pale face and frail body.”

“I don’t believe even with his hockey togs on he weighs 145 pounds.”

It’s not unusual to see the weights of hockey players bandied at length in newspaper accounts from the early decades of the 20th century. Makes sense — in an age before TV, with radio broadcasting still in its infancy, fans who weren’t seeing games live and in person relied on prose descriptions of play and players far more than we do today.

Still, even in that context, Joliat’s weight seems to have been oddly, ongoingly, in focus. Not only that: the way it fluctuated in the press seems to suggest that at least one prominent newspaper kept bathroom scales at the Montreal Forum in order to monitor his mass.

Watching Joliat play in the spring of 1924, PCHA President Frank Patrick sized him at 155 pounds. That’s as high a number as I’ve ever seen quoted. By 1929, Charles Grafton of Detroit’s Free Press had him down to 135 in a feature that bore this helpful subhead:

Joliat One Of The Light Men Who Overcomes Weight Handicap By Fast Thinking

By 1930, he’d lost a bit more newspaper poundage: “weighs only 130 pounds,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Joliat and his teammate Johnny Gagnon, Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin advised in 1931, “weigh only 136 and 139 pounds respectively.” Another year, another headline, this time from a 1932 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Joliat’s 138 Pounds Are Very Deceptive if You Don’t Know Hockey

Up and down went the newspaper scales as the decade moved on. “Weighs only 135 pounds,” said Dunkirk, New York’s Evening Observer in 1933. “Probably the smallest player in the circuit at 133 pounds” (Detroit Free Press, 1934). “Weighs only 135 pounds” (Chicago Tribune, 1935). “Weighs only 130 pounds” (NEA, 1938).

The Evening News, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, weighs in, 1935.

Joliat was 37 when he retired in the spring of 1938. As the hockey season neared that fall, he professed he didn’t know what was next for him. “My plans are indefinite,” he said as September struck, still holed up at his vacation camp in the Gatineau hills. “I will be in Montreal Monday, when I may decide what to do.”

He ran a grocery store, eventually, in Montreal’s west end, and thought about opening a night club (but didn’t). After a few years, he’d return to NHL ice as a linesman. Later still, he worked as a ticket agent at Ottawa’s train station.

In 1941, when he gave up the store, he announced a new plan: he was thinking of taking up as a ski instructor. He told a reporter that he’d lost eight pounds in just the previous month, and his reasoning was that the outdoor life at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians might help to restore his health. He was down to 129 pounds. “If I kept losing weight like that,” he said, “in another year, there wouldn’t be anything of me left.”

•••

“Colourful Canadien,” Montreal’s Gazette headlined him, the day after his death in 1986. His final numbers? “Five-foot-six and 135 pounds at his heaviest.” His stature, readers learned, had been an on-ice asset. “He used his small size to his advantage, stickhandling around large defencemen and tucking the puck between their legs.”

Also? “Mr. Joliat became famous for wearing a tuque while playing.”

That was wrong, of course, and still is. A tuque. Joliat’s hat was in fact — well, take your pick of comtemporary descriptions, which range from “a black peaked-hat” and “his old baseball cap” to “a polo cap” and “the blue peaked cap that has become a landmark around the circuit” to “that tight-fitting piece of headgear with its sombre visor.”

There’s some suggestion that he wore it to cover up a bald-spot, though nothing conclusive: it may just have been habit. Rivals quickly learned how to knock Joliat off his game.

“The players of other teams made it a point to aim for that cap,” Harold Burr wrote in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1932.

Punch Broadbent, now with the Canadian Flying Corps, reached perfection at the trick. All he had to do was skate close to Joliat, nudge upward with his elbow and the cap would fall to the ice.

It didn’t matter if Joliat had possession of the puck. He would always let it go, stoop down and replace his cap. But he has discovered a way this Winter to circumvent his tormenters. He doesn’t wear the cap any more.

This was big news across the NHL. “The enemy players stared when Aurel was seen without his black cap,” John Kieran wrote in The New York Times.

Jack Carveth of Detroit’s Free Press had a different explanation for Joliat’s stowing of the cap: it was all about curing a scoring slump.

I’m not so sure about that, though: Joliat scored Montreal’s only goal in the first game of the season that 1931 November with his hat in place. Canadiens then went to Toronto, where Joliat, now bareheaded, again scored the team’s lone goal. He counted three hatless assists in a 5-2 win over the Montreal Maroons, and scored against Boston in his team’s next game, too. I can’t say whether he’d put the cap back on by then or not, just that he did go back to it at some point. He replaced it with a helmet for a few games in 1937 after hurting his head in a fall, but otherwise the remaining years of his NHL career were hatted.

In February of 1934, he played his 500th game, and before the puck dropped to set Canadiens and Maroons going, there was a ceremony at centre Forum ice. NHL President Frank Calder was there, along with other dignitaries. Canadian Press:

Referee Mike Rodden of Toronto summoned Joliat with a wave of his hand, and the mighty atom, who is playing his 12th season with Canadiens, pulled his black cap over his eyes and skated over to receive a beautiful loving cup presented by his teammates, and a handsome chest of silver and a golf bag, tributes of his many friends and admirers among the fans.

 

you naturally hope it can turn things around: a field guide to hiring and firing boston coaches

Rodden + Patrick 1935 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boards Meeting: Boston coach Frank Patrick, at his command post on the Bruin bench, confers with referee Mike Rodden at the Garden, c. 1935. This was still a time before coaches patrolled behind the bench and their players; mostly, they sat alongside them. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.

Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.

“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”

Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).

Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.

While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).

That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”

After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.

“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”

The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.

Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”

Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.

“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”

So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.

“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”

ross-cooney-version-2

He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.

Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.

Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.

Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.

Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”

Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet,  owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”

Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.

Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.

“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”

I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.

“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”

Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”

When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”

Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.

“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.

Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”

Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”

“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”

Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”

“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”

Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”

Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.

That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

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