old guard: a brief history of aged nhlers

Don’t Let Go The Coat: The year before he became Montreal’s original Canadien (and nine years before he made his NHL debut at age 38), here’s Jack Laviolette, left, and a pal … possibly Didier Pitre, which is what the original caption says. Given the look of him and the date offered (1908), I’m not entirely convinced.

The NHL debut that Connie Madigan made on this date in 1973 is notable because, at 38, the St. Louis defenceman was, well, in hockey terms — elderly. For 14 years he’d laboured in the minor leagues before getting his break, mostly with the WHL Portland Buckaroos, with whom he earned (not necessarily in this order) a nickname, Mad Dog, and a reputation for not letting the rules of the game compromise his style of stopping opponents. “All knees, elbows, and snarly looks” is how a Vancouver paper summed it up in 1968. “He hurts,” a rueful and respecting opponent said in 1971. That was the same year Madigan served a lengthy suspension for punching a referee, knocking him out.

Madigan was pleased, in ’73, to have finally made the big time. “Even after waiting all these years,” he said, “it was still quite a thrill playing in my first game. I’m just glad to be here, although I’ve always thought I should have been here sooner.” The Blues were playing Vancouver the night he premiered, and on his first shift Madigan gave the puck away to a Canuck, Barry Wilkins, whose own inadvertent pass eventually went to the Blues’ Pierre Plante, who scored — so no assist for Madigan, but not a terrible start. He took no penalties from referee Dave Newell, who happened to be the very guy he’d punched in ’71. “It didn’t bother me any that it was him,” Madigan said. “He leaves me alone.”

Madigan finished the year with St. Louis, getting into 20 regular-season games in all, then five more in the playoffs. That was all for Connie Madigan in the NHL; he finished his career after another few seasons in the minors.

Madigan was then (and sometimes still is) deemed the NHL’s “oldest rookie.” The definition of what constitutes one of those in the NHL has changed over the years. Since Mad Dog’s stint in the league, it’s been narrowed to exclude the exceedingly mature: “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie,” the league’s policy now stipulates.

That doesn’t change the fact that Madigan remains one of the most aged players ever to have waited for most of his career to skate in the big league. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not the oldest of the old. In fact, I think he’s no better than the third oldest player to make an NHL debut.

First would be Lester Patrick, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He was 43 and coaching the New York Rangers when he inserted himself into his own line-up for a game on defence in 1927. The following spring in the playoffs, he made a more famous appearance, replacing an injured Lorne Chabot in the Ranger goal. (More on that here.)

Then, next: Jack Laviolette, Hall of Fame class of 1963. Born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1879 — he died, at 80, in 1960 — he’s themost original Montreal Canadien you can name, the team’s first hire in 1909 when it came into being as Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien. As manager and coach, he built the team; on the ice, he captained it from the defence that first futile year, when Le Canadien finished at the bottom of the seven-team National Hockey Association standings.

Laviolette would soon cede the managing, coaching, and captaining to others — George Kennedy, Adolphe Lecours, and Newsy Lalonde succeeded him, respectively, in 1910-11. Continuing on the defence, Laviolette did get (briefly) the captaincy back the following year, and played on as an influential member of the NHA Canadiens through the war years. In 1916, he helped the team win the Stanley Cup.

He was still in the picture as the team prepared for a new season in November of 1917, even as the old league was dissolving and a new one materializing.

The latter was, of course, the NHL, and when its four teams got going on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, Laviolette was the eldest of its players at 38 years, 145 days. (On his St. Louis debut, Connie Madigan was 38 years, 125 days.)

Canadiens were in Ottawa that opening night, where the local Citizen lamented the home team’s lacks (Frank Nighbor, Horace Merrill) while singing the virtues of the visitors. Montreal “skated out with one of the finest all around hockey machines they have ever had.” Anchored by Georges Vézina in goal, Canadiens counted on Joe Hall and Bert Corbeau on defence and a forward line led by Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Joe Malone. Jack Laviolette was a substitute by now, along with Billy Coutu and Louis Berlinguette.

In his role as a reliever, the Citizen said, Laviolette showed he had “lost little of his speed and snap.” Montreal prevailed on the night by a score of 7-4 with Laviolette notching an assist for his troubles — the only one he’s credited with in his 20-game NHL career, to go with two goals.

I don’t know what Laviolette’s plans were for the following year, but his hockey future was decided in May of 1918. His off-season gig at that point was as manager of the Joffre Café in Montreal; he also had a thing for speed. For as long as he’d starred on the ice, Laviolette had excelled at other sports, as well: he was a superior lacrosse player and excelled at racing both motorcycles and automobiles.

He seems to been driving one of his racing cars in a non-competitive setting one night in the Montreal neighbourhood of Longue-Point, near the river, when the car skidded and hit what’s described in contemporary accounts as an “iron tramway pole.” Two friends who were with him escaped unhurt, but Laviolette’s injuries were such that surgeons ended up amputating his right leg below the right knee. That was the grim news the Gazette reported in the days following the accident — though subsequent reports that summer had him losing his left foot.

That might warrant further investigation. Some more historical housekeeping might be in order here, too, in the matter of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career. Consult the usual trusted sources — Hockey Reference, say, or Canadiens’ own historical reservoir — and you’ll find Newsy Lalonde listed as the team’s coach for 1918-19. Like Laviolette before him, he was multi-tasking in those years, coaching, playing, and captaining the team. But that December, as the new season was getting underway, several newspaper reports had Jack Laviolette coming on as coach — or, in the terminology of the day, trainer. (Just to confuse things, head coaches were in that early era often also referred to as managers.)

The day of the team’s first practice, for instance, Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Gazette notes that at Jubilee Rink, at 7 p.m., Laviolette (“whose hockey career is finished”) “will make his initial appearance as trainer.”

“Laviolette has been given charge of the team, and should make good in the position.”

The Ottawa Citizen mentions him, too, as Canadiens’ trainer in December, with an intriguing coda: “He will give an exhibition of skating between the periods.” Pluck that thread and you might extract an item from Toronto’s Daily Star in which Toronto coach Charlie Querrie mentions this same plan. “Querrie says that Laviolette already handles his artificial foot so well that strangers never notice his disability,” is how that report ends.

Did Jack Laviolette end up coaching the Canadiens for some of their schedule in 1918-19 or did he simply entertain the faithful between periods? I don’t have much more to go on either way, at this point. If you’re reading the old newspapers, you’ll find that he fades from the page — until early February, when his name emerges one more time. “Happy” Jack Laviolette, the Ottawa Citizen tags him, announcing that he may that very day get up on skates and give them a go.

“He threatened to put them on early this winter, but somehow or other refrained,” the report continues. Depending on how things go, and given the scarcity of NHL referees, the Citizen suggests that Laviolette may soon be enlisting as an arbiter. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though. The final line of the Citizen’s update doesn’t really clear up the coaching mystery, either, noting that “Jack has been acting as a sort of a coach and adviser to the Canadien hockey team.”

happy birthday, georges vézina

Toronto had everything, to quote from the local Star: “speed, courage, team play, aggressiveness, and ability.”

No, not the Maple Leafs as they’re currently constituted: they’re clearly snarled in a bit of a mid-season muddle. But a hundred years ago this very night, Toronto was having a very good time of it, quashing the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 11-3, and in so doing (I think it’s fair to assume) souring their goaltender’s birthday. Nowadays, a netminder suffering through such a night would expect, at some point, to be spared further misery, but there was no back-up to relieve the great (and newly 32) Georges Vézina that night, and no mercy from his opponents.

Toronto’s team was the Arenas that season, the NHL’s second, and they were the defending league and Stanley Cup champions. Still, the schedule to date hadn’t been kind so far in 1918-19, and Toronto was stuck in third place, behind Ottawa, who in turn trailed Montreal. That doesn’t sound so bad, I guess, except that the NHL was, that year, a three-team operation. Just ten days earlier, in Montreal, Toronto had been the quashed and Canadiens the quashers. The score that night was 13-4.

This time out, Montreal was missing its captain and star forward, Newsy Lalonde, who stayed home to nurse an injured arm. As Toronto trainer and master of the malapropism Tim Daly assessed it, without Lalonde, Montreal was like Hamlet without the eggs.

And yet manager George Kennedy could still count on a formidable array of talent: the Montreal line-up that night included future Hall-of-Famers in Vézina, Joe Hall, and Didier Pitre alongside the veteran abilities of Bert Corbeau and Odie Cleghorn.

“They might just as well have left their skates home,” said The Toronto Daily Star’s correspondent of those Canadiens who did suit up at the Arena on Mutual Street. Though it’s unbylined, the dispatch that appeared in the next day’s Star has a wry ring to it that could be Lou Marsh’s. He was a sportswriter on the paper at the time, though I suppose it’s unlikely that he would have been writing up the same game that he was working — his other job, of course, was an NHL referee, and he was manning the rulebook that night. Whoever it was who contributed the copy, he kept it light and laughable — just like the hockey itself. Canadiens, the Star’s man wrote, appeared to have no more use for hockey “than a goldfish has for a tenderloin steak.” Throughout, the speedy Arenas made the “weary Frenchmen look like tanks floundering around in the Somme mud.”

Harry Meeking led the way for Toronto with three goals, while Alf Skinner and Jack Adams each added a pair. On the question of whether or not it was right to be running up the score, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie apparently told his players to help themselves. “Go on in and get all you can,” he’s quoted as recommending. “They’d beat you 16-1 in Montreal if they could, so pile it up.”

Canadiens Suffer A Complete Failure was the headline with which La Presse cheered its readers the following day. The Gazette’s was a drowsier Toronto Team Beat Canadiens, with a subhead that seemed almost self-diagnosing: Flying Frenchmen Played Far Below Their Form and in a Listless Manner.

Back in Toronto, if the Star was mostly merry,the rival World was all in a temper. “The Montrealers played as if they didn’t care how soon it was over,” ran the peeved narrative there. Canadiens “lost a lot of local admirers,” who were decidedly “not taken with what was offered by the Frenchies.”

“The game left a bad taste in the mouths of the fans.”

An outraged column that ran alongside the World’s aggrieved game report went further, suggesting that the game had been fixed by gamblers. “Fake hockey,” the World charged, without offering no specifics or indeed anything in the way of positive proof. Nothing came of this charge, so far as I can determine — it seems simply to have drifted away. It doesn’t sound like the newspaper expected anything different. “The World mentions these things because it is the function of a newspaper to do its best to protect the public. Even on a race track a horse showing a performance like the Canadiens last night at the Arena would be ruled off the track. But not so in the National Hockey League.”

“Eleven goals against Vézina is something to talk about,” the World’s hockey reporter wrote. The again: “The Canadiens’ defence opened like a picture album, and everybody who asked had a peek at Vézina unmolested.”

“Vézina did not appear to advantage,” decided The Globe. “The Chicoutimi wizard, however, was given little or no opportunity to save the majority of the goals tallied against him and towards the close of the game grew rather careless.”

This 1919 debacle, I have to report, was only one of Vézina’s worst NHL showings. In 1920, he would twice allow 11 goals in a game. On two further occasions, in 1921 and ’22, he would see ten pucks pass him by.

Vézina’s NHL career spanned nine seasons, from 1917 through to 1925, and during those years he played six times on his birthday. Including the 1919 trouncing, his record in those games was a discouraging 2-4.

 

mars fatal

mars fatalHowie Morenz died late on the night of Monday, March 8, 1937, in his hospital room at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. Many Montrealers would have first known the shocking news next morning through the pages of Tuesday’s morning paper, The Gazette, Le Canada, La Patrie. None of them had much light to cast on just what had happened, how the leg Morenz had fractured in late January on the ice at the Forum could now have killed him. His doctor reported that his heart and his pulse had been normal on Monday, according to La Patrie, and yet he’d died in his sleep.

Amid the many tributes and reviews of Morenz’s career, La Patrie also saw fit to remind readers that there’s no more mournful month in Montreal Canadiens’ history than March. It was just 11 years, after all, since legendary goaltender Georges Vézina had died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, four months after opening the 1925-26 season in the Montreal net. Seven years before that, Canadiens’ notorious 37-year-old defenceman Joe Hall had succumbed to pneumonia he’d contracted while suffering from Spanish influenza.

A terrible thing that was, of course, if not entirely fair to March. La Patrie had a key detail wrong: Hall actually died on April 5, 1919.

Back on March 19, he was still resting in his room in Seattle’s Georgian Hotel, one of several Canadiens to have sickened while the team was battling the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup. Transferred to the Providence Hospital in early April, Hall was saidto be improving, his temperature a steady 103. With five games of the six-game Stanley Cup series in the books, the ravaging flu had by then forced Montreal to forfeit the deciding game on April 1. When Seattle manager Pete Muldoon refused to accept the forfeit, the championship was abandoned.

On April 3, Montreal manager George Kennedy announced that his players were not all, as rumour had it in Eastern Canada, on the verge of death. Hall’s condition had, however, worsened. “He still has a chance for his life,” The Vancouver Daily World wrote the day before he died, “and he is fighting hard.”

In 1937, Canadiens were scheduled to play the Maroons the night after Howie Morenz died. The team planned to cancel, but Mary Morenz insisted that her husband would have wanted the game to go on. Two days later, on Thursday, his body would lie in state at centre ice in the Forum, but on Tuesday it was hockey night.

The referees and players on both teams wore arm-bands; ushers and program-sellers had black ribbons pinned to their jackets.

Canadiens president Ernest Savard spoke to the crowd of 10,000. “It is with sincere regret and deep emotion that we announce the death last night of the one and only Howie Morenz,” he said. “He was a gentleman and the finest hockey player ever known.”

Two minutes of silence followed his words. “The monotonous whirling of the ventilating fans alone broke the stillness,” The Canadian Press reported, “until the drums of the Victoria Rifles began to roll. Then, the bugles sounded Last Post.”

Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude cried, The Gazette noted, “unashamedly,” and defencemen Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert “had to skate to his side and talk to him.”

In the dressing room, coach Cecil Hart said, “You know, boys, there is little I can say on an occasion like this.” He told them to “forget all your troubles, to go out there and play — play as Howie would have played if he were here.”

“The game that followed helped make those in the Forum a bit forgetful of the tragedy of the night before,” was the way The Gazette described it. “A fighting Canadien team saddened by the loss and minus two regulars, Aurel Joliat and Toe Blake, hurled itself at Maroons.” They couldn’t overcome: the final score was Maroons 4, Canadiens 1.

sons of sea-captains, haberdashers

The Montreal Canadiens yesterday named Marc Bergevin as their new general manager. A quick look at those who’ve preceded him in the position, starting at the club’s pre-NHL start:

• Joseph Cattarinich was a goaltender, the Canadiens’ first, in 1909. As a businessman he was known as The Silent One and also Silent Joe. With Leo Dandurand and Louis Letourneau, he would later buy the Canadiens from George Kennedy’s widow for $11,500.

• Jack Laviolette, Hall-of-Fame defenceman, was a playing manager with Cattarinich when managers were also, sort of, coaches, too. His on-ice career ended when he lost a foot in a car accident in 1918. According the Hockey Hall of Fame, that didn’t keep him from refereeing the benefit game that was organized on his his behalf in 1921.

• George Kennedy, son of a sea-captain, was a Canadian amateur wrestling champion who died of the lingering effects of Spanish flu.

• Leo Dandurand, the man who brought Howie Morenz to Montreal, owned a restaurant called Drury’s. He forbade his players from driving cars because of the risk of leg and hand cramps. Continue reading