the alluring penalty shot: introducing hockey’s greatest thrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

scoring on your own net: he fell forward on his face, lay prone on the ice, and refused to be comforted

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Handcuffed: “I’ve never seen it happen before in all the years I’ve been in hockey,” Roy Worters said in 1940 when his glove betrayed him.

For all the uproar over the puck Edmonton’s Kris Russell fired into his own net last week, you’d think it was NHL’s first own goal. It wasn’t. Just ask — no, actually, let’s leave Steve Smith out of this. Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Patrick Laine, then. Not quite a year has passed since the then-rookie winger for the Winnipeg Jets scored a goal that counted for the Oilers — won them the game, in fact. Laine skated away without so much as a producer’s credit: Edmonton’s Mark Letestu goes down in scoresheet history as the game-winning-goaler. What else is there to say? “I think everybody saw what happened,” Laine told reporters after the game. “That’s my comments.”

He has a point. Though if hockey is, as they say, is a game of mistakes, the suggestion that we shouldn’t dwell on own goals does kind of limit the conversation. I agree that we probably don’t need a central registry of every last self-inflicted score in NHL history. That doesn’t mean we can’t revisit a bunch of them here. Where to start, though? And once you have started, where then to stop?

In 1931, Boston’s Eddie Shore hammered the puck past teammate Tiny Thompson to win a game for the New York Americans. He did it again five years later, in Toronto: the Leafs’ Bill Thoms took a shot on Thompson, which he saved, only to see the puck bounce up. “As Tiny went down,” the Daily Star’s Andy Lytle wrote, “Eddie Shore batted it into the net instead of over it.”

Detroit defenceman Benny Woit snared a rebound in front Red Wings goaltender Terry Sawchuk at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1954. Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail saw it all. “There wasn’t a Toronto player near him. Evidently he planned to flip the puck behind the net but somehow his radar became fouled up and he tossed it directly into the open goal.”

In 1998, Montreal defenceman Vladimir Malakhov whacked Pittsburgh’s winning goal past Canadiens’ goaltender Andy Moog. Penguin Stu Barnes claimed that one. Moog said it was his fault. Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appointed Malakhov a member of Sigma Alpha Oops.

I’ve seen a reference to a couple of “reverse hattricks” — long-ago Amerks’ defencemen Pat Egan and Detroit’s Marcel Pronovost are both implicated in scoring three goals in a single game on their own nets, though I haven’t been able to further verify either one of those claims.

That’s probably enough. Almost. Two last incidents and we’ll leave it there. It’s embarrassing to score on your own net, and terrible-feeling. In Toronto in ’54, 13,115 Leaf fans (quote) roared with delight after Woit scored on Sawchuk. “Woit,” Rex MacLeod wrote, “looked appealingly around the ice, probably praying for a manhole to materialize so that he could jump in.” In Edmonton in ’86, Steve Smith was down on the ice weeping. Which gets us to Roy Worters and Jack Portland.

Roy Worters • January, 1931

Is it an own goal when a goaltender puts the puck past himself? There’s probably a good argument to made that no, it’s not. That’s not going to slow us down here. In February of 1927 Roy Worters was guarding the Pittsburgh Pirate goal in a game that ended up 2-1 for the New York Rangers. The first goal went like this, according to the Associated Press:

Bun Cook went the length and shot, but the puck hit the backboards and bounded back to the front of the net to one side. Worters attempted to clear with his hand and accidentally pushed the disc into the net.

“A tough break,” the AP’s man on the scene called it; an editor for The Pittsburgh Daily Post amplified that to “Bone Play” in the headline overhead.

On to 1931. Worters was tending the New York Americans’ net by now. This time, Montreal Canadiens were in visiting Madison Square Garden. Last minute of the second period, score tied 1-1, Canadiens were pressing. Left winger Georges Mantha flipped the puck high towards the Americans’ goal. Worters dropped to his knees to catch it, did, left-handedly, but then (as one report put it) “became flurried.” In trying to throw the puck into the corner, as goaltenders used to do, he tossed it into his own net. Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle picks up the story:

From the press rows it looked as if the rubber was hot and Roy wanted to get rid of it. But he was just trying to clear his net, as he had done some 25 times before during the evening. However, the puck caught in the tear he didn’t know anything about and, instead of going into the corner, it went right into to the cage behind him. To his horror, the red light went up and the winning goal was scored.

A tear in the leather of his glove, that is. Neither Worters nor Amerks’ trainer Percy Ryan had noticed it, I guess. Burr:

When Roy saw what had happened he fell forward on his face and laid prone on the ice and refused to be comforted.

New York coach Red Dutton had to come out on the ice, and did so, and lifted up his goaltender. Told him to forget it.

Not often does Red’s voice break, but it broke then. For the rest of the game Worters was the most pathetic figure in the rink No one could read his thoughts as he crouched there in his cage, but they must have been scalding.

No-one scored in the third, so Canadiens won 2-1. Burr was down in the New York dressing room for the post-game denouement.

Worters sat staring blindly at the offending glove, bulky and shapeless with its reinforcement of felt padding. It was the first of his harness he discarded belowstairs but the last to toss aside.

“I’ve worn that glove for three years and now I’ll have to throw it away — after this,” he was muttering. “I made the same kind of a play every goalie in the league makes when he catches the puck. But it caught in my glove. I’ve never seen it happen before, all the years I’ve been in hockey. Say, Percy!”

The passing trainer came climbing gingerly over discarded heaps of rag-bag underwear so dear to the heart of a hockey player. He was woebegone for the first time this winter.

“Yes, Roy,” he gulped.

Worters handed him the glove that had failed him. “You’d better order me a new pair of gauntlets from the sporting goods store,” he said kindly. “Those old babies are fairly well shot, anyway,” continued Roy, showing the places where the faithful Percy had darned and patched and darned again. “But it’s going to take me all the rest of the season to break in a new pair. I sure liked those old gloves — until tonight.”

 

Jack Portland • March, 1940

Chicago was the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs that year, though Toronto finished higher in the standings: that’s what The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer was saying in 1940 as the regular season rounded into the playoffs. In the opening round, the Maple Leafs ended up sweeping past the Black Hawks in two straight games. It was closer than that sounds. The first game went to an overtime that Syl Apps ended in the hometown Leafs’ favour. The second game, back in Chicago, was tied 1-1 in the third period when — well, there was nothing so remarkable to Jack Portland’s gaffe. Toronto rookie Hank Goldup had taken a shot on Hawks goaltender Paul Goodman and in trying to swat rebound clear, Portland failed to do that.

The Chicago Tribune’s Charles Bartlett didn’t make a whole lot out of the mistaken game-winner: inadvertent, he called it. But in Toronto’s Daily Star, Andy Lytle went to town on Portland:

That makes him an athletic goat comparable to Roy Reagels, who ran a ball the wrong way for a touch-down in football, to “Wrong-Way Corrigan” in the air, to Merkle in baseball, who forgot to touch a base, and to Snodgrass who muffed a fly in world series baseball and kissed a flock of easy dough a tragic [sic] good-by.

Which seems altogether heartless. Max Bentley was a Chicago rookie that year, and while he didn’t make it to the ice in those playoffs, he was with the team. He later said that he’d never seen a man so heartbroken as Portland, who cried bitterly in the dressing-room after the game, and for days after that locked himself in his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

Not that it would have provided much solace at the time, but I hope Portland knew that he wasn’t alone that spring. The Leafs ended up going to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Rangers. In the ten playoff games they played, they scored a total of 21 goals. Nineteen per cent of those were, in fact, knocked into nets by helpful opponents — along with Portland, Chicago’s Art Wiebe and New York’s Mac Colville and Alf Pike scored goals they regretted that counted for the Leafs that spring.

 

 

 

 

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and lacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

•••

The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

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Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”

 

a fighting, snarling star (a good-natured, likable cuss)

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End of the summer, 1939, and as the world headed for war, Babe Siebert was back home in western Ontario in the little crossroads village of Zurich, where he’d grown up. At 35, Siebert the younger had played the last game of his monumental NHL career in the spring of the year, March, going out as captain of the Montreal Canadiens as they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Detroit’s Red Wings. Slowed, in his final season, by a wrenched back, he’d scored the last of his NHL goals in February against Toronto. Once, as a Maroon in Montreal early in his career, he’d plied the wing, joining Nels Stewart and Hooley Smith on one of the league’s most feared lines, but he’d finished up on defence. Lending his experience to guide the Canadiens, too: when, midway through the season, the Canadiens fired coach Cecil Hart, after Frank Boucher and Herb Gardiner were said to have turned down the job, club secretary Jules Dugal took up the team’s reins with Siebert as a playing assistant.

There was talk again, after the season, of Frank Boucher taking over the team, or maybe Bun Cook? But most of the betting was on Siebert, who was indeed named to the post in early June.

In August, on the occasion of his father’s 80th birthday, Siebert travelled west to Zurich from Montreal with his family. A month still remained before the Canadiens would gather to train for the season’s start in early November. On this day, August 25, 1939, newspapers bore dispatches of imminent war in Europe. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was appealing to Adolf Hitler to back off his threats to Poland; Pope Pius XII asked the world to pray for peace.

Babe Siebert took his daughters for a swim, Judy, 11, and 10-year-old Joan. Lake Huron wasn’t far, a few miles to the west. Siebert was there with his girls and two of his nieces, and his friend from Zurich was with them, Clayton Hoffman. One of the children let go of an inner-tube and when it began to float off, Siebert called the children in and went after it himself. He was 150 feet out when he got into trouble.

“The wind was carrying it parallel to the shoreline,” Hoffman later said, “and it was soon apparent that he was in difficulty. I was standing on the shore fully dressed when I heard his cries.”

Hoffman reported going into the water but getting tangled in his clothes. Siebert was 35 feet away. “Before I could reach him, Babe had gone down for the last time.”

Miss Burnette Mouseau of Zurich was sitting in a car on the beach and she raised the first alarm. Hoffman ran to a nearby house to seek aid. Would-be rescuers dove down to search at the spot where Siebert was last seen, but he was gone. Eventually, a fishing boat was summoned from Grand Bend to help in the search. was It was three days before his body was found by his brother, Frank, on the lake’s bottom, about 40 feet from where he’d vanished. Continue reading

a slight sneer mantled joliat’s lean bronze face

Montreal Mite: On early 1930s ice, left to right, Johnny Gagnon lines up with Canadiens teammates Gus Rivers and Sylvio Mantha.

Montreal Mite: On early 1930s ice, left to right, Johnny Gagnon lines up with Canadiens teammates Gus Rivers (a fellow right wing) and defenceman Georges Mantha.

“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. His wingers, in fact, were smaller than him: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, the Black Cat, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”

More on Morenz’s Montreal flyweight sidekicks from Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 20, 1931:

Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.

It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.

“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.

 “Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.

So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.

“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.

A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.

“One hundred and thrity-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.

Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the descriptin of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”

 

this week: tonight even tanks won’t help

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Once A Dutchie: Denis Brodeur and his 1956 Olympic bronze medal.

Denis Brodeur died this week, the hockey photographer and Olympic goaltender and, of course, Martin’s dad. He was 82. “My father,” Martin wrote in his 2006 memoir, “learned how to play pool on top of an empty Coca-Cola box and didn’t start playing organized hockey as we know it today until he was 16 years old.”

It was Georges Mantha who asked him whether he wanted to play Junior B. His first Junior A game, for Victoriaville, he beat Jacques Plante’s team. He was small, 5’5”, 160 pounds, which may be why he never made it to the NHL but also there was the phone call he missed one night when the New York Rovers, a Rangers’ affiliate, were looking for an emergency goalie and when they couldn’t get Brodeur, they settled for Gump Worsley instead.

From @stats_canada this week: “7% of Canadians are getting tired of talking about hockey but don’t know how to stop.”

Denis Brodeur acquired (his son’s word) 113 stitches across his face over the years, playing mostly maskless.

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Viktor Zinger

Another old goalie who died this week was Viktor Zinger, who backed up Vladislav Tretiak during the 1972 Summit Series. He was 72. He played for CSKA Moscow and Spartak and he won Olympic gold in Grenoble in 1968. He also stopped enough pucks to win the Soviet Union five straight world championships in the years 1965–69.

Sports Illustrated predicted this week that it will have been Chicago over Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup when the season’s all over next June. Sportsnet Magazine agrees. The Hockey News begs to differ: St. Louis will be the one beating Pittsburgh. Which is exactly what EA Sports thinks, too. They ran a computer simulation on their own NHL 14 game to figure it out and, yep, that’s what it’s looking like. A Blues defenceman, Alex Pietrangelo, wins the Conn Smythe Trophy, with Sidney Crosby taking the Hart as leading scorer; Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos winning the Rocket Richard Trophy by scoring 64 goals; and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins getting the Vézina. Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin gets the Calder as superior rookie.

Brodeur père was stopping pucks for the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in 1955 when they beat the Fort William Beavers to win the Allen Cup and, with it, the job of representing Canada at the Olympics in 1956. Bobby Bauer was the team’s coach. On the outdoor rinks of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the Dutchies wore sweaters white and woollen with a green maple leaf on the chest. Also, toques. Continue reading