gaoledtenders: a short history of time served

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreal Daily Star, 1924.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreal Gazette, 1931.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

george the first

Here’s George Hainsworth in all his ratty glory at some point during the 1929-30 NHL season, by the end of which he and his Montreal Canadiens had commandeered the Stanley Cup. Born in Toronto on this date in 1893 — it was a Monday, then — Hainsworth and the Habs defended their championship the following season. He had, of course, taken up the Montreal net in 1926, following  Georges  Vézina’s tragic death, whereupon he claimed the first three editions of the trophy that was instituted in Vézina’s name to recognize the NHL’s outstanding goaltender. In 1928-29, Hainsworth set a record (it still stands) for most shutouts in a season, posting a remarkable 22 in 44 regular-season games for the Canadiens. Another season of his ranks sixth on that same list: in 1926-27, Hainsworth kept a clean sheet in 14 of 44 regular-season games.

herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

It was on a Friday of this same date in 1891 in Winnipeg that Herb Gardiner was born in 1891. If you haven’t heard of his stardom as a defenceman on the ice in Calgary and Montreal, well, here’s an introduction to that. Gardiner, who died in 1972, aged 80, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. A quick browse across his biography shows that the adjectives stellar and two-way and consistent were sometimes applied to his efforts on the ice, along with the noun rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, as well as the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is two days late, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract.

Gardiner took Georges Vézina’s number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, which is a little surprising, but there it is: the team didn’t retire it from circulation after the iconic goaltender’s death in March of 1926. (Herb Rheaume, Vézina’s successor in Montreal’s net, inherited the number before Gardiner arrived; the following year, 1926-27, Montreal’s new goaltender was George Hainsworth, who wore 12.)

Gardiner played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won that contest, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantries he exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and goaltender Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy for league MVP that was named for the father of Montreal’s coach. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to offer it, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first.

As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September.

The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth in 1927, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Benedict mask.

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

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

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

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

 

armand mondou, 1934: a trip and a penalty-shot miss

Armand Mondou played on the left wing for the Montreal Canadiens for a dozen NHL seasons from 1928 through to 1940, winning a pair of Stanley Cups along the way, in 1930 and ’31. 

Born in 1905 on a Tuesday of this date in Saint-David-d’Yamaska, Quebec, he was the first NHLer to take a penalty shot after the league added a new rule in 1934, 18 seasons into its early history. It happened on opening night that year, when the Canadiens were playing at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night of Saturday, November 10. In the third period Toronto’s Bill Thoms tripped Georges Mantha of Montreal as he broke in on Leaf goaltender George Hainsworth.

The rules for penalty-shooting were different in those years: ’34 through ’37, the puck was placed in a 10-foot circle located 38 feet from goal, just inside the blueline. As I’ve described before, in this post delineating the history of the penalty shot, the shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, either standing still in the circle and letting loose, or skating at the puck full tilt from farther back. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

That night in 1934, 29-year-old Armand Mondou was standing in on Montreal’s top line for Wildor Larochelle. Mondou had scored just five goals the year before, so it’s a little surprising that Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde picked him to revenge Mantha’s fall, especially since he had a formidable scorer (and future Hall-of-Famer) in Aurèle Joliat on the bench that night. Mondou decided on a speedy approach for the league’s inaugural penalty shot. That’s according to Montreal’s Gazette: “Mondou, with a running start, and his bullet-like slap shot, made the play against Hainsworth.”

Toronto’s hometown Globe had its own view of the same scene: “The fans were quite interested, but Mondou’s shot was a dud. It never left the ice and Hainsworth stopped it with his usual nonchalance.” 

According to the Gazette (interestingly), Hainsworth switched out his regular goaling stick for the penalty shot with “a lighter stick.” I’d like to know more about that, but I’ve yet to see another reference to this specialty tool. 

The Leafs won the game, 2-1. The NHL’s first successful penalty shot came a week later, when Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles put a puck past Alec Connell of the Montreal Maroons. 

shut the front door: ottawa’s fireman was as fast as a flash

Mainstay of the Maroons, they called him, Horatius at the Bridge, the Sphinx of the Nets. Also? The Ottawa Fireman. That was a nickname, the last one, but it was also a straightforward description, because throughout Alec Connell’s 12-year Hall-of-Fame career as an NHL goaltender, he remained a dutiful employee of the fire department in the nation’s capital.

His renown was such that when, on a Saturday of this date in 1958, Connell died, the news was front-page-centre in the Ottawa Citizen, his hometown paper. He was 58.

Twenty-nine years he served with the Ottawa Fire Department, starting in 1921. He was working as secretary to Chief Robert Burnett in the fall of 1924 when he was signed by the mighty Senators, Stanley Cup champions in three of the previous five seasons, to replace Clint Benedict. Connell’s sporting exploits were well-known in the city: “one of Ottawa’s best all-round athletes,” the Montreal Gazette advised. 

“He is a little man as fast as a flash and as cool-headed almost as the great Georges Vézina of the Canadiens.” He was, moreover, “a fine, clean-cut youth.” 

“Connell neither smokes nor drinks, and is in every way a credit to sport.”

He would play eight seasons, all told, with the Senators, often wearing what was described as a floppy hat, his face set with a serious expression that contemporary reports tended to classify as deadpan. He backstopped Ottawa to the 1927 Stanley Cup, and he was the Montreal Maroons’ goaltender in 1935 when they won the Cup. He had turns, too, with the Detroit Falcons and New York Americans before he gave up his pads for good in 1937.

On that subject, the pads, while Jake Forbes of the old Hamilton Tigers was the first NHL goaltender to transition from the old, narrow cricket-style pads to the new-fangled wider horsehide-and-kapok versions pioneered by Hamilton harnessmaker Pop Kenesky in the 1920s, Alec Connell was the second. These are Keneskys pictured in the image above, showing Connell in all his felted glory in 1931, when he was with Detroit; the pads are, in all probability, the originals that Connell commissioned from the legendary Pop Kenesky in 1927.

Some other Connell claims to hockey fame:

• He’s one of six goaltenders in NHL history to have captained his team, which in his case was Ottawa for the 1932-33 season. (Not counting Roberto Luongo here, whom the Vancouver Canucks recognized as their leader from 2008-10, despite the league’s latter-day rules that don’t allow captains in the crease.) 

• Playing for the Maroons in 1934, Connell was the goaltender of record when Ralph Bowman scored the NHL’s very first penalty shot

• Alec Connell still holds the record for the longest shutout streak in NHL history, 460 minutes and 49 seconds. That dates back to the 1927-28 season, when he strung together six consecutive clean sheets before Duke Keats of the Black Hawks solved him in a game in Chicago. Connell racked up 15 shutouts in 44 regular-season games that season — impressive, though not enough to win him the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, which went to George Hainsworth of the Canadiens that year. 

Flashman: An artist’s impression of Connell’s antics in a 1924 pre-season game against the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers. Note the pre-Kenesky pads, narrow, like cricket pads.

the goose that laid 50 eggs

Towering Tiny: An artist’s rendition of Boston’s mighty Tiny Thompson from 1930.

Score it 0-0: the game that particular February 24 on a Sunday night in 1935 ended up without a puck getting by either goaltender through three regular periods and a ten-minute overtime. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the scene, with 26-year-old Dave Kerr tending the nets for the hometown Rangers against Tiny Thompson and the Boston Bruins in front of a crowd of 16,000 or so. The ice, by one account, was wretched.

“For Rangers,” the Boston Globe disclosed the next day, “Kerr was the whole works.” He stopped 43 pucks, recording the 15th shutout of his five-year career. His closest call? Harold Parrott from Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle said it came on a “rifle shot” from Boston’s Babe Siebert, “which nearly tore the goaler’s little finger off and hit the goal post with that dull ping which signifies failure.” Thompson deterred 39 New York shots — or maybe 34. The NHL didn’t keep official counts in those early years, and the Globe and the New York Times begged to differ in their accounting of Thompson’s work. To the latter’s eye, his hardest test came in the second period on a “ripping long shot” from New York’s Murray Murdoch.

For Thompson, who was 31 and playing in his eighth NHL season, the night marked a milestone of distinguished denial: this was the 50th regular-season shutout of his career. He was the seventh goaltender in league history to make it to that mark, following in the venerable skates of (not in order) George Hainsworth, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Lorne Chabot, Alec Connell, and John Ross Roach.

 

hart beat

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

They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.

He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.

Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.

Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.

It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.

Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.

Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.

Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.

Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.

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

 

 

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

meteor maintenance

The great Howie Morenz was born on a Sunday of this date in 1902 in the southwestern Ontario village of Mitchell. That’s where he first took to skates, atop the local Thames River, and first seized a stick. It was in nearby Stratford that Morenz started to make his hockey name and, when the ’20s were still young, signed the contract Leo Dandurand put in front of him to make him a Montreal Canadien.

The scene here has Morenz, in the middle, under examination by long-serving Canadiens trainer Jimmy McKenna while coach Cecil Hart, left, looks on. The latter piloted Montreal to successive Stanley Cups in 1930 and ’31, though my instinct is that this photo might date to 1936-37, when Hart and Morenz both returned to Montreal for one last season together. Morenz died, of course, midway through the year. He was 34.

As for McKenna, who also reached his 30s that decade, his years tending Montreal’s players made him a veteran: he’d been on the job with the team going back to the very dawn of the Canadiens in 1910.

“I’d say that Morenz and [George] Hainsworth were about the two players who caused me the least trouble in all the time I’ve been with the club,” McKenna said in 1940.

“Naturally I look upon Howie as the greatest of all players. But my opinion is based also on the fact that he never crabbed, and that he was easy for a trainer to handle. It’s hard to believe just how little trouble he’d cause you.”

 

reg noble: fastest on the ice, and a very hard man to relieve of the puck

Noble Oblige: Reg Noble strikes a pose in the late 1920s, when he turned out, and captained, the Detroit Cougars.

Here’s a story, for Reg Noble’s birthday — well about Reg Noble, the day after his birthday, which was yesterday. June 23 was a Tuesday in 1896, in Collingwood, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay, which is where was Noble was born 124 years ago. If you’re vague on Reg Noble details, here are a few of his hockey specs: he was very good, possessed of a wicked shot, a forward at first, then later a defenceman, played for the old Toronto Blueshirts and the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, the final year of the old National Hockey Association.

The following year, 1918, when the NHA was supplanted by the brand new National Hockey League, Noble signed with Toronto, whom he duly helped to win the Stanley Cup. He stayed with Toronto on into the 1920s, playing and captaining and even coaching the team as they turned into the St. Patricks, and winning still another Stanley Cup in 1922. The St. Pats eventually sold him to the Montreal Maroons, and he won yet another Cup with them, in 1926, before joining Detroit’s original NHL team, the Cougars, in 1927. That’s their livery he’s wearing in the photograph here, posing on a wintry tennis court colonized by the Cougars for a team practice and photo session.

Noble captained the team in Detroit for three seasons, and played on when they shifted identifies, from Cougars to Falcons. He was still there in 1932 when the team re-launched as Red Wings, though not for long: Detroit released him early in the season. He had one final whirl later that year when he returned to the Maroons, by which time his was the distinction, at age 36, of being the very last player from the league’s inaugural season to still be skating on NHL ice.

Noble was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 — a few months after his death, as it happens, at the age of 65.

And the story? It’s a wartime tale, going back before the NHL, in 1916, when Noble did what many young men were doing in the torrid time: he went to war.

He tried to, at least. Unlike Red Dutton and Joe Simpson and several other of his fellow Hall-of-Famers, Noble never made it overseas much less into the frightful fight of the Western Front.

As much as he might have wished to serve, he was ruled out and discharged before he got the chance. Hockey had rendered him unsuitable.

Noble was 19 in the winter in which 1915 turned to 1916. He was playing with Toronto Riversides that winter, as rover on the seven-aside team that won the OHA Senior championship that wartime winter. When the team’s regular season came to a close at the end of January, Noble was featuring prominently in a 4-0 victory over a military team, the 40th Battery. “Noble, as usual, was the fastest man on the ice,” the Globe reported, “and some of his rushes bordered on the sensational. He is a very hard man to relieve of the puck and is learning every game how to go in on a defence.”

Six days later, Noble joined up, presenting himself at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on the Exhibition grounds. His attestation papers from that day tell the tale, and show his orderly signature as he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, promising to fight all HM’s enemies and obey all of his orders, as well as those of all his Generals and Officers, so help him God.

Noble was measured for height (he was 5’8”) and girth of chest (40”), and the locales of his five scars noted down: three on a shin, one each on a foot and a knee. His complexion was deemed fair, his eyes blue. A Captain Barton was in charge of this medical examination, declaring Noble fitfor duty with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

That was just the beginning of Noble’s busy Saturday. That same evening, he lined up with his fellow Riversides to see to beating Toronto R and AA by a score of 7-2 in a playoff game at the Arena on Mutual Street. By midnight, Noble was home and suffering, not so fit as he’d been earlier: “he was in bed,” according to a subsequent report, “with a raging fever and a beautiful attack of la grippe.”

The battalion that Noble joined was a newborn unit, the 180th, formed in Toronto in January of ’16 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Greer, a prominent Crown Attorney who’d been a distinguished athlete in his own right in his University of Toronto days. “Pals” battalions had been common in the British Army since the start of the war, whereby men with common backgrounds — friends or neighbours or co-workers — enlisted to serve together. Conceived as a Sportsmen’s battalion, the 180th was one of the first units in Canada to follow that lead.

It did a roaring business filling its ranks that winter. Football players, scullers, boxers, and runners flocked to attest their willingness to serve in the early days of February. The famous Mohawk marathoner Tom Longboat, made on his way on foot from Brantford to Toronto to join up. Tommy Daly volunteered for the 180th, too, the well-known Toronto boxer who was also making a reputation as a baseball and hockey trainer — and who, post-war, having shifted his name to Tim, served for decades in that role for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lou Marsh, who’d played football for the Argonauts and wrote sports for the Toronto Daily Star was a lieutenant in the 180th as well as keeping up a busy schedule as a boxing and hockey referee. He was on the ice the night Reg Noble enlisted, in fact, whistling the game between Riversides and Toronto R and AA. Noble, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only hockey player bound for the ranks of the 180th: a report from a few days later made clear that the team’s entire line-up was joining up, the coach, too, Bonny Gard, who said “he might as well go along with them in France as stay at home here and be lonesome.” (With another month of the season still to play, possibly, Colonel Greer graciously agreed to make sure that the Riverside recruits would be granted leave for all and any games.)

Later that same week, on February 14, a recruiting jamboree for the 180th filled Massey Hall. “Half a dozen boxers, recently enlisted, gave sparring exhibitions, enlisted bike riders raced on rollers, and there was a long program free to members of athletic clubs,” a dispatch in the Montreal Gazette affirmed. “Massey Hall was packed to the roof with the flower of the Queen City’s athletes.”

In two hours, the 180th had signed up 325 new recruits, breaking, it was reported, “all Canadian recruiting records.”

At strength, the battalion eventually counted 31 officers and 833 other ranks. They spent the spring and summer training as infantry at Toronto’s Exhibition Camp. There was time for some hockey, too, before the ice thawed out for the season. In March, a few days after Noble and the Riversides wrapped up the OHA Senior championship over a Berlin, Ontario, team anchored in goal George Hainsworth, the 180th’s hockey team took on the 93rd Battalion from Peterborough in a St. Patrick’s Game at the Mutual Street Arena.

Reg Noble skated in that game, at rover, and he was judged to be the best player on the ice. He had a couple of teammates with OHA Senior experience skating with him, but they couldn’t overcome the 93rd squad, who’d played the season on the OHA’s Intermediate loop. The visitors ended up winning by a score of 2-1. Between the first and second periods, a speedy local skater named Fred Robson scampered (unofficially) 50 yards in just under the world’s record time of five seconds. In the second intermission, he returned to entertain the crowd with a barrel-jumping show.

Noble still had more hockey to play before he fully devoted himself to soldiering. Though Riversides opted out of heading west to Winnipeg to play for the Allan Cup, the national Senior championship, they did play several exhibitions late in March. Facing Dick Irvin’s visiting Winnipeg Monarchs at the Arena, the Riversides prevailed 8-7, with Noble playing a starring role that included scoring a goal while (the Daily Star related) “practically standing on his ear and with four Monarchs glued to him.” (The team that did win the Allan Cup, by the by, was Joe Simpson’s 61st Battalion from Winnipeg.)

At some point, with hockey having reached its seasonal end, the sporting soldiers of the 180th moved north out of Toronto to continue their training at Camp Borden, southwest of Barrie, where as many as 25,000 soldiers were under canvas that summer. When they weren’t learning infantry tactics and how to use their weapons, the men of the 180th boxed and raced and hit baseballs whenever the opportunity arose. In July, they helped build an in-camp stadium with seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

“Good athletes do not always make good soldiers,” a column in The Windsor Star warned around this time, noting that Lieut.-Colonel Greer had been forced to make some hard choices as the summer went on. “Much to the colonel’s surprise, he has been compelled to drop several champions from the ranks because they could not stand the wear and tear of a hard route march.” Names were named: Erme Woods, “the well-known distance runner” was ousted along with a couple of accomplished boxers who couldn’t keep up.

“Colonel Greer is handling his battalion just as he would [a] baseball team,” the Star said, “and is rapidly getting rid of the ‘dead-wood.’ He wants only the best, and it is his determination to make the 180th battalion second to none.”

He must have pleased when, in August, the Sportsmen dominated the 4th Brigade athletic meet, showing particularly well in the mile-run, the 16-pound shot put, and the tug of war. The Sportsmen didn’t fare so well in the bayonet-fighting contest, which they lost by a score of 5-3 to the 147th (Grey) Battalion from Owen Sound.

No Noble: Bidding farewell to Toronto in November of 1916, the men of the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion prepare to leave Union Station on their way to Halifax and, from there, the war in France. Reg Noble had already been discharged by this point. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 821)

In September the battalion got its notice from Ottawa to be ready to ship out — the 180th was  “warned for overseas,” in the parlance. In fact, it would be November before they made their move by train to Halifax. From there, they crossed the Atlantic to England in four days aboard the Olympic.

Many of the men would see action — some would die — the following year in the harrowing battles around Vimy Ridge in northern France. But the 180th was no longer, by then, a unit. In January of 1917, the battalion was absorbed into the 3rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, from which the men were assigned to other battalions in need of reinforcement.

The Leafs’ trainer-to-be got to England, where Private Tommy Daly served as Colonel Greer’s orderly — his servant, basically — before being invalided home and discharged from the CEF because of a wonky right shoulder. Daly had hurt it in February of 1916, not a month after enlisting. “Injured slightly while boxing,” his medical records testify, “Feb. 21/16, and has had pain since then.”

Private Reg Noble’s story was a little different: he never even made it to the wharf in Halifax. Declared “Medically Unfit,” Noble departed Camp Borden, the battalion, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force in one fell swoop at the end of September of 1916, a victim of — well, I guess in Colonel Greer’s way of seeing things, he was surplus to the battalion’s second-to-none purposes.

Noble may have had an 18-year NHL career ahead of him but that fall, as it turns out, he just couldn’t march the way soldiers of the infantry are meant to march.

An old hockey injury was to blame. Or maybe newer baseball damage? Contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that he hurt an ankle playing ball at Borden in the summer of 1916 and that the injury was not only serious enough to see him mustered out of uniform, it looked like it might keep him off skates, too.

That could well have been the case but if so, it doesn’t happen to have been entered as the official reason for Noble’s military career coming to its end.

As detailed in Noble’s CEF discharge papers, one of the scars that Captain Barton had marked down when Noble attested in February, the one on the instep of his right foot, commemorated a cut from a skate he’d suffered in 1914 playing hockey back home in Collingwood. The blade had gone deep, enough to cut the tendon and immobilize his big toe.

The 180th’s Medical Officer, Captain Brown, wrote it up. “Can follow the marching under difficulty but has to have frequent periods of light duty,” he noted. “Sent him to hospital where they could do nothing for the condition.”

On a second page, Captain Brown gave his own interpretation of Noble’s scar status — unless Noble had acquired a new configuration in a summer of mishaps? Now, instead of 3 shin scars and one apiece on a foot and a knee, he was credited with

Scar on palm of left hand. Scar on right foot. Bullet scar on right leg.

Farther down the page, in answer to the military form question What is the probable duration of the disability?Captain Brown wrote “Permanent.”

Next question: To what extent will it prevent a full livelihood in the general labour market? Please state in fractions. Captain Brown’s answer: “Will not prevent his earning full livelihood more than before enlisting.”

True enough. By mid-November, as Noble’s former brothers in arms set sail, the word from Toronto was that Eddie Livingstone, wildcard owner of the local NHA Blueshirts, had signed Noble to his first pro contract.

And so, in the winter he didn’t go to war, Noble lined up for a team that included Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Duke Keats. He made a quick impression, and a good one. The Blueshirts started the season in Montreal by beating Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions, by a score of 7-1. Noble didn’t score, but neither did he seem to show any signs of a tender ankle or instep. “He checked [Didier] Pitre, the Canadien star forward,” Toronto’s Daily Star noted, “and smothered him throughout the game. … His rushes were effective, too, and he had speed to burn.”

Reg Noble scored his first pro goal, and his second, in Toronto’s next game, back at the Mutual Street Arena, when the Blueshirts did away with the Quebec Bulldogs by a score of 8-5.

The Blueshirts didn’t last out the season: early in 1917, when the team from the 228th Battalion famously left the NHA in a whole lot of hurry, the league decided to eject Toronto, too, mostly because they didn’t want to deal with owner Eddie Livingstone any longer. That’s when Noble made the switch to Montreal, seeing out the ’16-17 season with Canadiens.

That fall, of course, the NHA collapsed and the NHL arose all on the same day, in Montreal, mostly, again, to stymie Livingstone. Toronto launched a whole new team that year, and Reg Noble was one of the players they signed up. That’s how, in December of 1917, he was on the ice to score an Auston Matthewsesque four goals in his and his team’s National Hockey League debut, as they started out on their way to winning the franchise’s very first Stanley Cup.

For a panoramic view of the many men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, proudly paraded in April of 1916 at Toronto’s east-end Riverdale Park, click over this way, then click again to zoom in. Reg Noble is in there somewhere, along with the man-who-would-be-Tim-Daly, long-serving Maple Leafs trainer. Let me know if you find them. Look beyond the soldiers, too, over to the right: those are hockey rinks coming down for the season, aren’t they?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.