sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

way to go, cole bardreau — scotty bowman did it first

Ms, See: A couple of Maroons who figured in the NHL’s first successful penalty shot were, left, defenceman Stew Evans and goaltender Alec Connell. Also shown are GM and coach Tommy Gorman and d-man Allan Shields.

The game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was tied 1-1 in the second period last night when New York Islanders’ forward Cole Bardreau stepped up to take a penalty shot. He’d been heading in on Ottawa’s net on a breakaway when defenceman Mark Borowiecki brought him down and so there he was, a 26-year-old in just his seventh NHL game about to skate in on Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson and score his first big-league goal. “He’s a hard player to not root for,” Cory Wright advised later in his report for the Islanders’ website, “after nearly breaking his neck in college and nearly losing his hand to infection after an AHL fight.”

The goal turned out to be a decisive one in New York’s 4-1 victory. Also of note: Bardreau, who hails from Fairport, New York, goes into the books as just the seventh player in NHL history to score his debut goal on a penalty shot.

“I’m not going to lie,” Bardreau said after the game, “I was pretty nervous there looking up. But I just gripped and ripped it, and luckily it went in. It was just nice to get the monkey off the back. I’ll remember that one forever.”

The first man to score his first goal on a penalty shot in the NHL? Scotty Bowman, who did the deed 85 years ago this month in a game between a pair of teams that no longer exist. His goal, as it happens, was also the first penalty shot to be scored in the league.

Not that Scotty Bowman; this one, born in 1911 in Winnipeg, where he christened Ralph before going on to be nicknamed Scotty well before the legendary coach was out of diapers. The original Scotty B started his NHL career as a defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators at the start of the 1933-34 season. In the fall of 1934, when the Sens relocated and turned into the short-lived St. Louis Eagles, Bowman went with them. So it was that he was working the blueline on November 13, another Tuesday night, when the Montreal Maroons paid an early-season visit to the Arena.

The penalty shot was new that year to the NHL, adopted by the Board of Governors in September years after it had been standard practice in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association where it was (to quote a contemporary report from the Montreal Gazette) “born in the fertile brains of Lester and Frank Patrick.”

It wasn’t quite the same penalty shot that Cole Bardreau took last night. In 1934, once the referee determined that an attacking player had been fouled and prevented from taking a clear shot on goal, the wronged team could pick any player who wasn’t then in the penalty box to take the shot.

To do so, he stepped up to a ten-foot circle marked on the ice (just inside the blueline) 38 feet from the goal-line. The goaltender was allowed a certain mobility but not much: he couldn’t come out more than a foot from his line. The Gazette: “The sharpshooter can deliver the shot from the standing position or while skating full speed” — so long as he didn’t carry it beyond the confines of the circle.

In Frank Patrick’s pre-season opinion, the goaltender held a 60-40 advantage. One shot in three would go in, he thought.

He was almost right. The first penalty shot that season was a failed one: at Maple Leaf Gardens on November 10, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth foiled Armand Mondou of the Montreal Canadiens.

Three days later in St. Louis, the Maroons were up 1-0 in the second period when referee Bill Stewart called Montreal defenceman Stew Evans for tripping Eagle forward Syd Howe.

Hard to imagine why St. Louis coach Eddie Gerard would have decided that a defenceman who’d never scored in the league was the man to get the job done. Variously described at the time as just a youngster and both a chunky and a dynamic defenceman, Bowman, 23, was usually partnered on the blueline with Burr Williams. He must have had a shot, I guess, such that Gerard would have elected him over more seasoned goalscorers like Howe, Glenn Brydson, and Carl Voss.

Anyway, Bowman elected to take a run at the puck. Though St. Louis ended up losing the game 2-1 in overtime to a goal by Montreal’s Dave Trottier, Bowman did what he was supposed to do in the second period and tied the score, whipping the puck to goaltender Alec Connell’s glove-side. As The St. Louis Dispatch saw it, the puck sped“ankle high, like a bullet,” though the Star and Times placed the shot a little higher, near Connell’s “right shin.”

Either way, the people of St. Louis were pleased. “The fans stood on their chairs,” the Star and Times noted, “and yelled with glee.”

The Liveliest of Table Waters: The line-ups from November 13, 1934, as displayed in the St. Louis Eagles’ program for the night.

kitchener’s coolest cucumber

Small but mighty, George Hainsworth made his NHL debut in November of 1926 when his Montreal Canadiens opened their season in Boston, losing 4-1 to the hometown Bruins. Eddie Shore got his start in the league that same night, for any who might be keeping track. Also for the record: in the third period, Canadiens’ winger Aurèle Joliat met Shore with what the Montreal Gazette rated “the hardest check of the night, “right at mid-ice, and Eddie, of Saskatoon, went up in the air a yard or two and landed on his third vertebra.” Shore’s Saskatchewan hometown is actually nearer Regina than Saskatoon, but never mind. By the Gazette’s account, Shore set up Carson Cooper for Boston’s fourth goal, even though NHL records don’t credit him with an assist. Hainsworth, for his part, well, the Gazette noticed that in the third, he “seemed to be handicapped by a thick fog which was rising from the ice at the end of the rink. The heat in the rink was fearful.”

It would take Hainsworth, who died on a Monday of this date in 1950, three more games in 1926 to notch his first NHL win, but by the end of the season he was recognized as the league’s best goalkeep, winning inaugural Vézina Trophy. By the time he retired in 1937, no-one doubted that he was one of the best ever to have played in the NHL — even if (rant alert) the league’s faulty 2017 ranking of superlative NHLers forgot about him. Twenty per cent of Hainsworth’s regular-season starts ended as shutouts; in 1928-29, he kept a clean sheet in 22 of 44 regular-season games.

Hainsworth grew up in southwestern Ontario, though at 5’6” and 150 pounds you wouldn’t say substantially. A tiny figure who looked lost in his bulky goaltending armor is a phrase extracted from a remembrance written at the time of his death. Earlier (1927), he was dubbed Kitchener’s coolest cucumber and seen, on some occasions (in 1929), to have spent the greater part of the game enjoying an impersonal view of the affair as he lolled back on the top cross-bar of his cage. What chances Ottawa did have that night he handled with such ease and nonchalance that they appeared simple.

Sometimes he had a bad night. In Boston in 1930, he stopped George Owen’s long shot, but then cleared in such leisurely fashion that he finally fell face forward on the ice, allowing Cooney Weiland to score.

Sleepy-eyed, Boston’s Globe called him in 1930, citing also his jovial calm. A year later he was deemed still as spry as a two-year-old whose utter sang-froid in stopping a puck affords a rare thrill in hockey.

He stood out like a beacon (1932), handling some of Charlie Conacher’s fastest shots as though they came from the stick of Morenz’s little son.

As of 1934, he was one of the smoothest articles seen between the iron bars on any rink.

His harshest critic was said to be his wife, Alma; back home in Kitchener, she’d read newspaper reports of his games and then write him letters telling him to do better.

He was an alderman in Kitchener at the time of his death in 1950 at the age of 57. He and Alma were returning from a visit to their son Bill in Val d’Or, Quebec, when, near Gravenhurst, Ontario, their car collided head-on with a small truck. Alma and three other were injured; Hainsworth alone lost his life.

limbering up on the gymnasium floor

Usual Suspects: From left to right, three unnamed attendants pose at the National AAA gymnasium alongside Montreal Canadiens Johnny Gagnon, Amby Moran, Aurèle Joliat, Wildor Larochelle, Billy Boucher, Pit Lepine, Rollie Paulhus, Sylvio Mantha, coach Cecil Hart.

Star centre Howie Morenz wasn’t there — he was on his way, from Cleveland — and right winger Art Gagne had yet to depart his off-season home in Prince George, B.C. A couple of highly touted new recruits hadn’t arrived in Montreal, either: defenceman Herb Gardiner (coming from Calgary) and (from Saskatoon) goaltender George Hainsworth. Still, first-year Montreal Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart made a start with what he had that last week in October of 1926, convening his in-town charges for what the local Gazette classed “a limbering-up session on the gymnasium floor” of the National AAA Club House on Rue Cherrier at St. Andre.

With the NHL season set to open in Boston on November 16, Hart was aiming to have his players hit the ice at Mount Royal Arena by the first of the month. They never got there, as it turned out: in the last days of October, Canadiens announced that they were breaking their lease at the Arena to make a move to the bigger and newer west-end Forum, where they’d share the ice with the Maroons. Surveying his roster, Hart felt that he still had one hole to fill, at left wing, where he wanted someone to relieve Aurèle Joliat when he tired. Young Leo Lafrance was the man he had in mind; once he’d negotiated his arrival from Duluth of the Central Hockey League, Hart would (as the Gazette opined) “be able to sit back and survey his 1926-27 edition of the Canadiens with equanimity, as he will have a balanced squad with two players for every position.”

(Image: Classic Auctions)

george hainsworth: surely a well-driven puck would bowl him over like a ten-pin

When the NHL was young, in a time of small goaltenders, George Hainsworth was … not so tiny as, say, Roy Worters, who measured in at 5’3’’ and a slight 135 pounds. Hainsworth, born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1893, was a stout 5’6” with 150 pounds on him. His reputation for rebuffing pucks was already sizeable when he jumped from the WHL Saskatoon Sheiks to the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens in 1926. There, he not only succeeded the great Georges Vézina but won the first three editions of the trophy that was minted in Vézina’s name to honour the best goaltender in the league. In 1928-29 (incredibly), Hainsworth registered 22 shutouts in 44 regular-season games. He went on to help Montreal win two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. After seven seasons with the Canadiens, he was traded to Toronto in exchange for Lorne Chabot. Five seasons he spent with the Maple Leafs before returning for one more campaign with Montreal, 1936-37, before retiring at the age of 41. He was serving as an alderman in Kitchener, Ontario, when he was killed in a car accident near his hometown in the fall of 1950. He was 57.

“We suppose that one of the reasons hockey is such a great sport,” ran a memorial editorial in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, “is that it demands the basic elements of man’s struggle for existence: courage, ability, and intelligence. These were the qualities which made George Hainsworth a star. So spare in stature that it seemed a well-driven puck must surely bowl him over like a ten-pin, he showed, in measure out of proportion to his tiny frame the mettle which every goalkeeper must have, plus the speed and deftness to turn aside flying rubber and the brains to outguess on-rushing forwards. The combination made him one of the greatest goalies in hockey history, and his net-minding feats … will be remembered long after his untimely death and its unfortunate cause have been forgotten.” Hainsworth was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.

bruins’ captains + broken jaws: a stanley cup tradition

Chin, Chin:  Looking more than a little Zdeno Chara-esque, Lionel Hitchman models the headgear he wore in the spring of 1930 to protect his broken jaw.

The puck hit the captain of the Boston Bruins square on the jaw and he headed for the bench. The pain the big defenceman was in was obvious to anyone watching, but he finished the game. X-rays later revealed that the jaw was fractured, but that wasn’t going to deter him, and he was soon back on the ice as his team battled for the Stanley Cup.

No, not Zdeno Chara.

As Pam Coburn was recalling on Friday, the Bruins’ 20th captain isn’t the first to play in the Stanley Cup finals while wearing special headgear to protect a less-than-intact jaw: Lionel Hitchman got there first, the team’s second captain, in the spring of 1930. An Ottawa-area writer and former CEO of Skate Canada, Coburn knows the story well, having just published a Hitchman biography, Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Hero, that makes the compelling case that the stalwart defenceman’s absence from the Hockey Hall of Fame is a wrong that ought to be righted. She also happens to be Hitchman’s granddaughter.

As Chara prepares to put his face, once again, to the fore in tonight’s sixth game in St. Louis, a quick review of Hitchman’s historical hurt is what we’ll undertake here. He was 28 in 1930, playing in his sixth season as a Bruin, the third as captain. If Eddie Shore, his brilliant, combustive partner on the Bs’ blueline, got most of the headlines in those years, Hitchman was considered by many to be league’s most effective and hardest-to-bypass defenders.

The Bruins, you may remember, were the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1930. At the beginning of March, cruising towards the end of the regular season, they brought along a 14-game unbeaten run to their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. It was in extending that streak with a 2-1 win that Hitchman suffered his damage, and Shore was the one to inflict it. In the second period, during an Ottawa attack, Hitchman fell to friendly fire: the puck that struck Hitchman came off Shore’s stick.

As mentioned, he finished that Saturday game, though by the next day the Bruins were announcing that, based on the breakage that team physician Dr. Joe Shortell was seeing in his x-rays, Hitchman wouldn’t be back in action until the playoffs.

That was almost right. Hitchman missed four games before making his return for the Bruins’ final regular-season date, on Tuesday, March 18, at home to the New York Rangers. Though their winning streak had ended earlier in the week with an overtime loss to Chicago, the Bruins were back on track again, walloping New York 9-2. The captain wore the headgear pictured here, above. After having missed almost three weeks, Hitchman was his usual steady self, “the same defensive star” as ever, according John Hallahan of Boston’s Globe, “his poke and sweep checks being as brilliantly executed as before his injury.”

Of note: the Rangers’ best defenceman was also back on the ice with a sore jaw to protect. Ching Johnson had broken his in a February collision with the Bruins’ Dit Clapper, only making his return to the line-up in the Rangers’ previous game. The device that he wore wasn’t so much a helmet as — well, in New York’s Daily News, Noel Busch described it as “a brown bib or choker of some sort, patterned after a horse collar and intended to ward off any injuries to his tender portion.”

Hitchman subsequently played in all six of Boston’s playoff games that spring. They first faced the Montreal Maroons, overwhelming them in four games. The limits of Hitchman’s headgear were apparent in both the second game, when a Montreal stick cut him over the left eye for two stitches and the fourth, during which Nels Stewart caught the Boston captain over the right, adding seven new stitches to his forehead.

The Bruins met the Canadiens in the final. Despite Hitchman’s best efforts, they couldn’t defend their title, falling in two straight games to the mightier of the Montreals. John Hallahan was at the Montreal Forum to see the decisive game, which saw Montreal prevail 4-3 after a puck that Cooney Weiland put past George Hainsworth was deemed to have been kicked in and so disallowed.

“After the final bell,” Hallahan wrote, “the players condoled and congratulated each other. Capt Lionel Hitchman and Manger [Art] Ross raced to the Canadiens’ dressing room to congratulate the winners.”

 

(Top image courtesy Pam Coburn)

 

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to, but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th 1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mail could very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.