the nhl’s first noël: christmas day, 1920

Scored, Sat Upon: Toronto’s Babe Dye, c. 1920.

“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”

NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very firsttime was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.

A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.

Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.

Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”

Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.

Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.

In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”

Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he alsoplayed “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”

For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”

Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”

The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”

While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”

This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”

“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”

madison square garden, 1925: flashes of cerise, magenta, nile greens

Net Gain: Shorty Green of the New York Americans scores the first goal at the new Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, December 15, 1925. That’s Montreal’s Billy Boucher trying to catch him, with goaltender Herb Rheaume (making his NHL debut) failing from the front. Note the array of well-dressed fans behind the boards.

A French-Canadien aggregation, known as ‘Les Canadiens,’ will meet the New York team in mortal combat, but in reality it will be an all-Dominion battle, as most of the high-priced players who sport the spangles of the New York club were imported from Canada at great expense.

• Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Tuesday, December 15, 1925

New York’s brand-new rink had already hosted a six-day bicycle race and a basketball game by the middle of December in 1925, along with three bouts of boxing, but it wasn’t until NHL hockey debuted there that the party really got started, 93 years ago last night, when the expansion New York Americans hosted the reigning league champions from Montreal.

Tex Rickard was the man who built the third Madison Square Garden, 18 blocks north of the present MSG, and he didn’t stint on pomp for opening night. A year later, he’d launch a second, longer-lasting New York hockey team, the Rangers, but in 1925 the Americans were the only hockey game in town. Festooned with ribbons and bunting, the new rink Rickard had built to house the team was (Montreal’s Gazette) “dressed up in its best holiday togs, “a picture of a temple of sport” (The New York Times); pro hockey (“jaded New York’s newest plaything”) was making “its debut under the most glittering circumstances,” the Gazette advised.

Reporting for The Ottawa Citizen, Ed Baker enthused that the new rink seemed like “an overgrown theatre;” it was “just as magnificent as the grandest playhouse.” The Gazette: “Just before game time, the spacious lobby looked like the foyer of the opera. Fashionably gowned women were there in furs and jewels. It was a hockey crowd de luxe. Flashes of cerise, magenta, nile green, scarlets and royal purple coloured the boxes. Vendors ambled among the spectators with their apples and oranges and souvenir hockey sticks.”

“It was swank plus,” James Burchard of The World-Telegram would later recall, “in a setting of ermine and evening dress.”

Military bands marched out on the ice to play the anthems. Clad in scarlet and busbies, the 44-piece Governor-General’s Foot Guards struck up “God Save The King,” while their counterparts from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (92 pieces + a bugle-and-drums corps of 35) took care of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Band Stand: Canadiens and Amerks stand amid bandsmen during the opening ceremonies. Howie Morenz is the Montrealer standing attentively just back of the front flagman. Closer up, spying at the camera, that’s New York goaltender Jakie Forbes.

The crowd was the largest in NHL history to that point — though just how many fans it contained remains something of a mystery. The New York Daily News would report 20,000 “shrieking people,” while reports in several Canadian papers put the count at 19,000. The New York Times was among those who numbered the attendees at 17,000. Amid all this shifting math, The Ottawa Citizen noted that the Garden could seat 15, 352 for hockey, though (according to the Americans’ team treasurer) if there had been 25,000 more seats to sell for opening night, they would have gone like hot cakes.

Whatever the actual attendance, the excitement was such that (this from the Gazette) “the world’s record crowd was willing to pay prices ranging from $1.50 for the uppermost balcony seats to the seeming lofty toll of $11.50 for choice box seats to see a spectacle to which it was foreign.” Organized as a benefit for the Neurological Institute Society of New York, the game put some $40,000 into their coffers.

Scheduled to start at 8.30 p.m., the actual game didn’t get going until just after nine. The Citizen’s Ed Baker had it that President Calvin Coolidge was slated to do the honours of dropping a ceremonial puck, but then — “he was unable to attend.” Instead, New York Mayor John Hylan presided over the city’s first ritual NHL face-off, attended at centre ice by New York’s Billy Burch and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens.

Canadiens were the reigning NHL champions that winter, thought they had failed the previous spring in their bid to wrest the Stanley Cup from the Victoria Cougars of the WCHL. The new season hadn’t started well for Montreal, with Georges Vézina, their beloved and highly effective veteran goaltender, having collapsed in the season’s very first game in November.

Suffering from thetuberculosis that would kill him the following spring at the age of 39, Vézina had departed Montreal and the NHL for the last time, bound for his hometown, Chicoutimi. Since then, Canadiens had made do with the league’s emergency goaltender, Alphonse (Frenchy) Lacroix. On their arrival in New York, five games into the season, they were sitting in last place in the seven-team league, six points adrift of the league leaders, though just two back of the fourth-place Americans. Lacroix had been excused; for their first Madison Square turn, Montreal had a new man ready to start in goal, Herb Rheaume, who’d been starring to that point for an amateur Quebec team, the Sons of Ireland.

He worked out all right on the night, winning his debut in Madison Square’s, and keeping his place in the Montreal nets for the remainder of the season — though neither he nor any of his talented teammates would be able to haul the Habs out of last place or into the playoffs.

Go-Time: New York’s Billy Burch faces Montreal’s Howie Morenz in the game’s opening face-off. Aligned well-back at the far end are Montreal wingers, a becapped Aurèle Joliat (nearest the camera) and Billy Boucher. New York’s defencemen have deployed so far back that they’re out of the frame.

Rheaume did, for the record, concede the first goal in MSG history, to Shorty Green, almost twelve minutes into the first period. That’s it depicted above, and maybe from the frozen frame you’ll draw your own conclusions on how it went down. Contemporary accounts (as usual) diverged on the exact circumstances.

The New York Times: “He carried the ice up the ice, gliding swiftly and gracefully through the Canadiens until he was at the Montreal net, where, by a tricky little shot, he sped the rubber past Rheaume for a goal.”

The Montreal Gazette: “Shorty Green sent the Americans into the lead when he stick-handled his way the full length of the rink to shoot a high one past Rheaume, after eleven minutes.”

The great Paul Gallico was on the hockey beat for The New York Daily News. Here’s what he saw: “Shorty Breen [sic] coddled the puck clean down the rink, personally conducted it through the legs of three Canadiens, stopped short, slapped it away from the ankles of the last enemy defense line and suddenly swiped it into the goal from the side, a pretty shot.”

The lead didn’t last, with Billy Boucher (“flashy Montreal wingman” and the game’s “outstanding light,” according to the Gazette) potting a pair of second-period goals past New York goaltender Jakie Forbes before Howie Morenz completed the scoring for Montreal in the third.

Cooper Smeaton and Lou Marsh were the referees. First penalty in the new rink: Montreal’s Sylvio Mantha earned a first-period minor for holding Billy Burch. In the second, Shorty Green and Billy Boucher engaged in what the Times rated “a melee;” the Citizen said they “attempted fisticuffs” — either way, they served out minors.

Was New York’s Ken Randall knocked unconscious? Even when hockey was raising money for neurological care and research, the game didn’t pay head trauma too much mind, and so with a nonchalance typical of the day, the Times seemed to suggest that Randall was out cold without worrying too much about it — he was “laid out for a moment but resumed playing.” The Citizen, meanwhile, mentions a potential concussion of Shorty Green’s in the third: Morenz hit him near centre and he needed assistance getting to the bench. “He appeared to have suffered a hard blow on the head that dazed him.”

The evening marked a debut, too, for the new Prince of Wales Trophy, which Montreal took home along with their victory, with New York’s incoming mayor, Jimmy Walker, presenting the cup to Montreal captain Billy Coutu at the game’s conclusion. Canadiens would hold it only until the end of the season, when it went to the team that won the NHL championship. In 1926, that happened to be Montreal’s other team, the Maroons.

But for the struggle on the ice between Canadiens and Americans, the evening was deemed (by the Gazette, at least) “a sort of international love feast.”

Between periods, the greatest of speedy skaters, Norval Baptie, put on an exhibition of “fancy skating” with his partner, Gladys Lamb. After the game, the Canadian Club of New York hosted a ball at the Biltmore Hotel at Grand Central Station. Paul Whitman and his band entertained the two thousand guests who were said to have convened for that, including the players from both teams. “They all wore their tuxedos like a Valentino,” reported the Citizen’s Ed Baker.

The Daily News covered the hotel festivities on Wednesday’s social page, naming names and highlighting the fashions and jewels they wore. “The party broke up about three o’clock this morning, and society generally voted the whole affair a success.”

Face-First: Montreal goaltender Herb Rheaume stymies New York’s Ken Randall with the help of Habs’ captain Billy Coutu.

jack walker, hook-check artist (can get a little tiresome)

Sultan of Swish: Jack Walker, at the ready, in Seattle Metropolitans’ stripes, circa 1917.

If you want to talk hook-checks, as you well might, the man you need to know about is Jack Walker, born on this date in 1888, when it was a Tuesday, in Silver Mountain, Ontario, up on the Lakehead, not far from what was then Port Arthur — modern-day Thunder Bay. He died in 1950, aged 61.

If he’s not now a household name, he was in his day, a century or so ago. Three times teams he skated for won the Stanley Cup: the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914, the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917, and the Victoria Cougars in 1925. Mostly Walker played on the west coast, in the PCHA; his NHL career was a slender one, lasting 80 regular-season games over two seasons in the mid-1920s when he joined the Detroit Cougars.

Walker did ascend to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1960, which is to say he was voted in. Hard to know from here how much of the case for his place in the pantheon has to do with the hook-check, but as a hook-check enthusiast I’m going to err on the side of a lot.

I wrote about the hook-check in my 2014 book Puckstruck— also over here, where I did some explaining about definitions and techniques. While Frank Nighbor is sometimes credited with having been the first to ply it on a regular and efficient basis, it seems clear that Walker was in fact the progenitor, and that when Nighbor joined Port Arthur in 1911, the Pembroke Peach learned if from him. Nighbor said as much himself, later on, sort of, talking about Walker’s poke-check, which is related but different, though they’re often conflated, even by the Hall-of-Famers who used them to best effect.

You don’t see much mention of hook-checking in accounts of that earliest Cup, but by 1917, Walker’s name was synonymous with it. Hook check star is an epithet you’ll see in the weeks leading up to the championship series. That came in March, when the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens travelled west to play for all the hockey marbles with a roster that featured Georges Vézina, Harry Mummery, Newsy Lalonde, and Didier Pitre.

Lining up Hap Holmes, Cully Wilson, and Frank Foyston, Seattle prevailed in four games, with Montreal’s only victory coming in the opening game. The score therein, 8-4, doesn’t exactly have the ring of a defensive struggle, but Walker was said to have stood out. This from the wire report in The Ottawa Citizen:

In purely defensive play, Jack Walker, with his clever hook-check, was [sic] the Seattle’s star. Walker took the puck away from the best stick handlers the Flying Frenchmen could produce as easily [as] taking off his hat and it was his work that spilled most of the offensive hopes of the Canadiens.

It was apparently contagious: all the Mets were hooking the second game. After Seattle won that one 6-1, The Vancouver Sun’s Royal Brougham opened his dispatch this way:

“Beaten by the Hookcheck,” might be an appropriate title of tonight’s struggle because it was the clever of this bit of hockey strategy combined with sheer speed and aggressiveness that put the Mets on an even basis with the invaders for the Stanley Cup.

“Every time,” he continued, “a visiting forward got the puck and ankled up the ice, swish, some local skater would slide along and hook the elusive pill from the Canadiens stick leaving the duped player bewildered.”

Seattle won the third game by a score of 4-1. It was the same story. “Jack worked his old hook-check so well and so frequently,” was the word in Vancouver’s Daily World, “that he checked the very life out of the Frenchmen’s offence.”

Going into what was the final game, Royal Brougham was already handing out laurels. “If Seattle wins the Stanley Cup, the glory should go to Jack Walker, the hook-check artist of the Metropolitans who, during the last two games has practically stopped every Frenchmen’s rush.”

Seattle went out in style, taking the decisive game and the Cup with a 9-1 win. Let’s leave the Daily World to give the man his due, if that’s what this does:

Jack Walker’s work has been an outstanding feature of the entire series, and Jack was up to all his tricks last night. He kept the hook-checking working with such monotonous regularity that it almost got tiresome, and he finally succeeded in making one of his shots good and broke through for a goal.

the final days of georges vézina

Georges Vézina died in the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi, in the early morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926 — the hour was 1.20 a.m. by one report, six minutes later according to another. Greatest Goal Minder in Game of Hockey, read the headlines in the papers next morning, Canada’s Famous Hockey Player. He was 44 years old, or 38 — they had some trouble, the papers, with his age (he was 39) as well as with his progeny. Leo Dandurand’s toweringly tall story that Vézina and his wife, the former Marie Morin, had 22 children was still current, and widely repeated in the death notices — though The New York Times capped his brood at 17. (There were, in fact, two Vézina sons.)

He’d started the season in Montreal’s goal, back in November of 1925, at the Forum against Pittsburgh, but he was ailing even then, running a high temperature. Canadiens had a back-up standing by, Frenchy Lacroix, an American who’d tended the U.S. nets at the 1924 Olympics.

Vézina started the game, but he didn’t last. “He was pale and haggard-looking as he turned shots aside in the first period,” The Gazette reported the next day. “At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition, and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.” (Pittsburgh’s Tex White scored the game’s only goal in the third period; Lacroix was deemed not-to-blame.)

As the Gazette told it, Vézina’s condition grew steadily worse that November week. “After a few days [he] was informed that he was suffering from tuberculosis and would live but a month or two at the most. Georges quietly prepared to leave Montreal for his home in Chicoutimi. None of his teammates knew of his ailment until he had departed.”

“It was early December that Vézina went to Chicoutimi and for the past three months he has fought courageously, though knowing that the end was near and that there was no hope. He was resigned to his fate and calmly awaited death.”

Another Montreal paper published the photograph reproduced above on the Monday, the day before the goaltender’s funeral. “Vézina Couldn’t Hide His Anguish Before His Death” the heading reads; a caption dates it to March 7. The quality of the reproduction isn’t good, which seems like some kind mercy. In 1926, readers who opened up the sports pages and found themselves gazing on Vézina’s deathbed also got this narration: “This personality who maintained his composure and impassivity during hockey games could not hide his suffering and anguish during this ultimate and supreme struggle that he would finally lose. We see the tensing of his face, on which was already painted the seal of the Grim Reaper.”

The editors had held the photograph back while the goaltender remained alive. They did not want, they said, “to make any sadder the last moments of poor Georges by presenting him with a picture of his own suffering.”

the greatest job in the world: the year tony harris spent painting 100 hockey greats

Standing Pat: Tony Harris’ NHL100 rendition of Pat LaFonatine.

(A version of this post appeared on November 18, 2017, on page D1 of The New York Times under the headline “The Best on Ice, Preserved in Oil.”)

OTTAWA — A hundred years after the National Hockey League was born in Montreal’s grandest hotel, the Windsor, the league went back to where it all began in November.

The hotel is gone, but the adjacent train station is still there, next door to the Montreal Canadiens’ home rink at the Bell Centre.

Gathering there — on paper, at least — are the 100 players deemed to be the best to have played in the NHL.

For the past year, the artist Tony Harris has been at his easel trying to translate the speed and color and glory of hockey through paint and paper.

In mid-November he finished the final two 11-inch-by-14-inch portraits, depicting Montreal Canadiens speedy winger Yvan Cournoyer and the inimitable Wayne Gretzky in the Edmonton Oilers’ blue and orange. Over the weekend of November 18-19, all 100 paintings will be shown together in public for the first time.

A panel of 58 hockey insiders voted on the top 100 list, which was revealed in January. A certain amount of debate ensued. Whither Frank Nighbor? Where have you gone, Joe Thornton? No Evgeni Malkin — really?

But for the most part, the list was not controversial. Gordie Howe is there, and Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Howie Morenz, Ken Dryden and the rest — 76 living and 24 deceased.

Six of the players are skating still, including Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and the perennial Jaromir Jagr. Most of the players date to the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, with just a single representative (goalie Georges Vézina) from that first season in 1917-18.

Commissioner Gary Bettman hatched the idea for the paintings last fall. Harris, 53, has called the assignment “the greatest job I could ever get.”

“I guess it was a shock,” he said, recalling the initial discussion when he realized he would be putting aside all other professional work for the year. “But it was a cool call.”

Since the NHL announced the art project in February, two new paintings have been posted on NHL.com each Monday.

Studious: Tony Harris at work in his Ottawa studio in February of 2017.

The studio at Harris’s Ottawa home claims a basement room that the morning lights through high windows. A wall-filling TV is tuned, always, to wherever in the world there is a golf tournament.

One of the action figurines presiding over Harris’s work space is a six-inch Chicago Blackhawks goaltender from the early 1970s. Harris was in the third grade back then at Lakefield Elementary, about 90 minutes northeast of Toronto. He liked to draw. And like many Canadian 8-year-olds, he also collected hockey cards.

“The only one I could find with my name on it was Tony Esposito’s,” Harris said.

Sketching the Chicago goalie over and over again, he turned himself into a Blackhawks fan. And when the time came to suit up for minor hockey, Harris knew he would follow his namesake to the net.

I was at school with Harris, a couple of years behind him, and I can vouch for his goaltending chops: he was good. Set amid fields and forests, next to a lake called Katchawanooka, Lakefield College School is known by those who are fond of it as the Grove. As the son of a beloved English teacher there, Harris grew up on campus at the private boarding school before he started as a student there in grade nine.

Two of his mentors at the Grove were teachers who meant a lot even to those of us who didn’t end up painting portraits or skating on NHL ice. Bob Armstrong taught History and Economics. A former NHL defenceman for the Boston Bruins, he was also the hockey coach.

Harris’ Mark Messier

When the art teacher, Richard Hayman, wasn’t commanding the school’s busy art room, he could be found ranging soccer fields and cricket pitches as coach of Lakefield’s varsity teams. “To this day I’ve never taken an art lesson from anybody other than Richard,” Harris said, an echo of awe in his voice. “I still don’t think I’m even close to what he could do. He was just so ridiculously talented. But his gift was also in teaching. And thank God that was his calling, because he was so important for me.”

One of Hayman’s imperatives, and Lakefield’s, Harris said, was: “Here was a place you could be an athlete and an artist. It was really the whole point of being able to not pigeonhole yourself into this is what you’re supposed to be, or how it’s supposed to go.”

He admitted he was not a good student, and was happiest outdoors.

“If you were inside, reading was like the worst thing for me, so I would grab a ‘Sports Illustrated’ and draw,” Harris said. “I found something that I could do and I just kept doing it.”

He played quarterback in college, and had a short junior stint in the nets of the Kingston Canadians of the Ontario Hockey League. Then he followed his father into the classroom. There was just one problem: “I just felt like I was back in school again,” Harris said. “I thought why am I doing this? So I left.”

When he took up painting, he said, he did not think of it as a real job.

“The thing that saved me was golf — painting golf courses,” Harris said. “There just wasn’t anybody else doing it in Canada.”

His love of the game and his skill with a club blended well with what he could do on canvas. Lots of people in and around Toronto, as it turned out, were eager to pay for paintings of a favorite hole at a chosen course.

“All of a sudden I went from a struggling artist to having as much work as I wanted,” Harris said.

He is not complaining now, but after almost a decade of that work, he said, “I was really getting tired a painting golf courses.”

The transition to hockey did not happen all at once. It was accelerated around 2006, when Harris painted a portrait of Orr from a photograph he had seen on the cover of Stephen Brunt’s book, Searching For Bobby Orr. To Harris, the picture was remarkable because it looked like a painting; the realism of his painting wowed those who saw it.

Soon Harris was painting less grass and more ice. His commissions for the N.H.L. Players’ Association came to include an annual portrait of the winner of the Ted Lindsay Award, given to the league’s outstanding player as voted by N.H.L.P.A. members.

More and more, he was getting calls to commemorate career milestones for players in Ottawa and around the N.H.L. When the Senators’ Chris Phillips played his 1,000th N.H.L. game in 2012, the team presented him with a Harris portrait that showed the defenceman fending off Ovechkin, Crosby, Lemieux, and Gretzky.

Phillips, who retired in 2016, now has three Harris prints hanging on his walls, and has commissioned paintings of the Canadian prairies where he grew up.

“He really understands the little details that are important to a player,” Phillips said, “and he portrays them with such precision.”

Colourings: A view into Harris’ paint drawer.

If Harris has a guiding principle in his painting of athletes, it might be this: “I’ve got to do something,” he said, “that if I was the guy, if it was me, that’s the painting I’d want to see of myself.”

He laughed when he talked about the call he got in 2016 from the Chicago Blackhawks.

As reigning Stanley Cup champions, they had been invited to visit the White House. The team had prospered during President Barack Obama’s two terms, making two previous White House visits after their 2010 and 2013 championships. President Obama already had plenty of Blackhawks swag; this time he was going to get a painting.

Harris quickly sketched up an idea that February and emailed it to the Blackhawks; he proposed presenting a triptych of the team’s Stanley Cup parades.

“I said, ‘When do you want to do this?’ They said, ‘Well, next Thursday.’ And this was … Thursday,” Harris said.

Working 20-hour days, he got it done — framed, too — by the next Tuesday.

Chicago Coach Joel Quenneville, a friend of Harris’s, reported on what went on in the Oval Office: the president told the Blackhawks that he was going to take down George Washington to put up Harris’s painting.

“I said, ‘No, he didn’t,’” Harris recounted. “Joel said, ‘Hand to God, Tony, he said it.’”

He is wary of tallying up the hours he spent at the easel painting the NHL’s top 100 players. “When I start thinking about it, the math just gives me a headache,” he said. “Twenty hours or 25 hours probably, per?”

He would rather recall the simple pleasures of doing the work, and the distractions he will continue to savour.

Out of the blue he got a call from Tony Esposito, who is among the 100 along with brother Phil. They talked for 15 minutes.

What about? “How goaltending used to hurt,” Harris said. “You had to catch pucks, because if you didn’t, they were going to hit your body, and if they hit your body, you were going to be in pain, because the equipment was so terrible.”

In November, as he approached the last brush stroke, Harris contemplated what it all meant to him, what he had achieved.

He tried out a couple of words — iconic, legacy, “all those buzzwords,” he said — but none of them felt right.

Seeing the exhibition in Montreal, all 100 paintings on the wall together for the first time, he said, “That’s going to be spectacular.

“I just want someone to stand there and say, ‘That’s cool.’ And if it’s Pat LaFontaine and he takes a look at his painting, I’d like him to say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’”

Namesake: Harris’ portrait of Tony O, his childhood hockey-card hero.

 

(LaFontaine and Esposito images courtesy of Tony Harris. Messier and paintbox photos by Stephen Smith)

bob gainey: what you get if you turn guy lafleur inside out

On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.

A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”

The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)

“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.

Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?

“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”

Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”

Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.

Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”

“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”

Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.

“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”

He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.

Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.

Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”

He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.

It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.

In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:

It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do

This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”

Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:

(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)

(Painting by Timothy Wilson Hoey, whose work you’re advised to investigate further, at  www.facebook.com/ocanadaart and ocanadaart.com)

curb appeal: the 1924 stanley cup by the side of the côte

Roadside Attraction: The Stanley Cup, circa 1930, was all grown up compared to the one that Sprague Cleghorn left by the side of the road six years earlier. The band that Léo Dandurand added to commemorate his ’24 champions is the bottom one. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM6, D1980-33-11-002)

After months of lay-off, the Stanley Cup reported back to work a week ago Sunday night. The routine wasn’t a whole lot different from last year, though the scene was Nashville this time instead of San Jose: up went the Cup, one more time, over Sidney Crosby’s happy head, as the Pittsburgh Penguins once more started off a summer’s-long celebration that will see members of the team show off hockey’s sacred silverware around the world while also taking time to fill it with cereal, champagne, and babies.

In September, the Cup goes to Montreal to meet with Louise St. Jacques. She’s the engraver whose solemn duty it is to hammer in new names next to older. As Ken Campbell noted recently in The Hockey News, some of those senior names will depart the Cup before next spring’s Cup presentation. In order to make room for future winners, as happens every 13 years, the topmost band of the five that encircle the base of the Cup will be removed to a display at the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a fresh blank.

It’s in this and other ways that the Cup has grown in physical stature since Lord Stanley donated the original bowl in 1892, shifting its shape through the years. The names of early winning teams were sometimes etched on the Cup, though sometimes they weren’t. The first NHL team to claim the Cup — Toronto, in 1918 — went unengraved at the time, as did the Ottawa Senators (champions in 1920, ’21, and ’23) and the Toronto St. Patricks (1922).

Léo Dandurand changed that. In 1924, his Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the second time in their brightening history. The following season, the coach and manager would add a globe to the team’s sweaters, reflecting their worldly hockey dominance. The Cup itself — one writer described it at that time as “a tureen resting on an ebony base” — Dandurand decided to annotate. As a result, to accommodate with the names of Canadiens’ players and members of management, the Cup gained a new band.

Global Express: A season after they’d won their Cup, wearing new sweaters to reflect their worldly excellence, Canadiens repeated as NHL champions before falling to the Victoria Cougars in the ’25 Stanley Cup finals. The squad included: Sylvio Mantha, Billy Boucher, Howie Morenz, Aurèle Joliat, Georges Vézina, Odie Cleghorn, Sprague Cleghorn, Fern Headley, Billy Coutu, Johnny Matz, and Léo Dandurand.

All of which winds us around to another feat with which Dandurand maintains a close association: ditching the Stanley Cup, if only briefly, by the side of a midtown Montreal street.

Eric Zweig was writing about this incident a little while ago in The New York Times — that’s what prompted all this, fore and aft. Stories involving indignities visited upon the various editions of the Cup over the years aren’t hard to come by, many involving drunken behaviour, others defecation. Zweig turned his focus on two of the best-known and most-repeated tales, staples both of hockey lore, in an effort to determine whether there might be any truth in them.

The first involves members of Ottawa’s Silver Seven, in 1905 (or maybe ’06?) punting the venerable Cup across (though possibly into) the capital’s Rideau Canal. Zweig’s conclusion, having weighed the available evidence: never happened.

The second Cup tale concerns Dandurand’s 1924 Canadiens. As Zweig details, the central source for this one is The Hockey Book, Bill Roche’s rich 1953 anthology of anecdotes, wherein Dandurand narrates the story himself. It’s a short and sweet and fairly straightforward account. The pertinent passage:

Georges Vézina, Sprague Cleghorn, Sylvio Mantha and I, got into a model T Ford to make the trip. The little lizzy stalled going up Côte St. Antoine Road in Westmount, and we all got out to push.

Cleghorn, who had been jealously carrying the hard-won Stanley Cup in his lap, deposited it on the curb at the roadside before he joined us in shoving the car up the hill. When we reached the top, we hopped back into the car and resumed our hockey chatter as we got going again.

Upon reaching my house, we all started in on a big bowl of punch which my wife had prepared. It wasn’t until she asked, “Well … where is this Stanley Cup you’ve been talking about?” that we realized that Cleghorn had left it on the side of the road.

Sprague and I drove hurriedly back to the spot almost an hour after we had pushed the car up the hill. There was the Cup, in all its shining majesty, still sitting on the curb of the busy street.

Zweig’s verdict on this one: probably true. Sprague Cleghorn himself is said to have vouched for its veracity. I’ll add a vote of confidence here, too, based on a further Dandurand account that adds further weight to the case, along with some finer — and occasionally divergent — detail.

•••

As is often the case in the canon of popular hockey lore, the original anecdote hasn’t quite kept its original shape through the years of repetition. Roche’s Hockey Book has the car stalling, and subsequent accounts (Stan Fischler’s 1970 book Strange But True Hockey Stories) stick to that. Elsewhere the version you’ll find is the one in Andrew Podnieks’ Lord Stanley’s Cup from 2004: it was a flat tire that waylaid Dandurand’s party, “and while they changed wheels they placed the Cup by the side of the road.” Other variations (see Brian McFarlane’s 2015 Golden Oldies) separate Cleghorn and Dandurand, with the former arriving chez latter sans Cup, whereupon the coach “ordered Sprague and his pals to go back and retrieve the trophy.”

Cup To The Curb: The 1924 anecdote is a familiar one in hockey folklore. Above, a Bill Reid illustration adorning Brian McFarlane’s Peter Puck and the Stolen Stanley Cup (1980).

We’ll get to the testimony back up Dandurand’s Hockey Book account — first, a pinch of background:

Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921, paying $11,000 with partners Joe Cattarinich and Louis Letourneau. Installed as managing director, Dandurand stepped in to guide the team from the bench that season after a dispute with his playing coach and team captain, Newsy Lalonde. Dandurand keep on with the coaching for another four seasons, none of which saw his Canadiens succeed as they did in the spring of 1924. That was the was the year they overcome Ottawa’s Senators to claim the NHL championship, Montreal then went on to beat the PCHA Vancouver Maroons for the right to play the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers for the Stanley Cup.

Montreal’s championship team featured Georges Vézina in goal and a defence anchored by Sprague Cleghorn and Sylvio Mantha. Up front: Joe Malone, Aurèle Joliat, Billy Boucher, and a promising rookie by the name of Howie Morenz. Calgary had Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner manning the defence, and Harry Oliver and Eddie Oatman at forward.

Montreal won the first game of the best-of-three series on home ice at the Mount Royal Arena in late March. Bad ice sent the teams to Ottawa’s Auditorium for the second game, where Canadiens prevailed again. That was on March 25, a Tuesday. They had to wait until the following Monday to lay hands on the actual Cup, when trustee William Foran made the presentation back in Montreal, at a Windsor Hotel banquet, April 1, organized by a committee of prominent Canadiens supporters.

Artist’s Impression: A La Patrie illustration highlighting distinguished guests — including, top, Dandurand and his Canadiens — at the Windsor Hotel banquet.

A crowd of 450 was on hand, with all the Canadiens ensconced at the head table, except for Vézina, who was back home in Chicoutimi. The goaltender did send along a humorous greeting, which was read aloud, along with congratulatory telegrams from Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy as well as, also, a concatenation of Canadiens’ fans in Grimsby, Ontario, where Montreal trained in the pre-season in those years.

There were toasts: to King George V, to the Canadiens, and to the NHL, as well as to “visitors” and the press.

Gifts were given, too: the team’s 11 players as well as trainer Ed Dufour received engraved gold watches. Dandurand got luggage: what the Montreal Gazette described as “a handsome travelling bag.”

When the time came for Dandurand to address the gathering, he started in French. In English, he said, “I am proud of the bulldog courage and tenacity which our English brothers revere so much and which our players exhibited so frequently throughout the season, no matter what the odds were against them. No matter what was said or done, it was understood that our players should go through the games like good, game sportsmen.”

College Fête: On a Thursday night in April of 1924, Canadiens and their newly own Stanley were head-table guests at a University of Montreal gala at the Monument National.

Thursday there was a further tribute, at a gala University of Montreal event at the Monument National theatre on Saint Laurent Boulevard. On a night on which U of M undergraduates were celebrating a season of sporting successes by some of their own accomplished fellows, the Canadiens once again occupied the head table. They got a cheer from the crowd of 1,500, of course, and more gifts: fountain pens and engraved gold pencils, by one account. Among the student athletes honoured were Leo “Kid” Roy, newly crowned Canadian featherweight boxing champion, and Germain McAvoy, who’d recently matched the national indoor record for dashing 60 yards.

After supper, the program included a display of fencing; three wrestling matches; and no fewer than eight bouts between boxers. There were musical performances, too, by the university orchestra and a jazz sextet.

And a repeat of the Cup presentation: the honorary president of the U of M’s Athletic Association, Dr. Edouard Montpetit, handed it to the Hon. Athanase David, Quebec’s provincial secretary who also served as Canadiens president. Amid (the Gazette) “mighty applause and cheering of the students,” David in turn passed it on to Dandurand.

The latter mentions this event in his 1953 Hockey Book account. “It is the only time in history,” he writes there, “that a professional hockey club has been so honoured by a major seat of learning.” He then proceeds to describe the fateful forgetting of the Cup.

Here’s where we can expand what we know of the waylaid Cup by just a bit. A year before the Hockey Book appeared, Dandurand told the story elsewhere in print. Because Rosaire Barratte’s biography, Léo Dandurand: Sportsman (1952), seems only ever to have been published in French, this somewhat more detailed version isn’t one that’s been widely disseminated. It is broadly similar, though it does include a few key variations.

Dandurand relates (again) that, following the U of M soirée, he and his wife, Emélia, were hosting a late-evening buffet for Canadiens players and management at their house, which, we learn, was in the west-end Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. A little more digging turns up the address: 3801 Avenue Northcliffe.

Dandurand was among the last to leave the Monument National, Barrette writes (in French; the translation is mine, Google-aided), “for he had to take home the Stanley Cup.”

So our happy companion jumped into Jos Cardinal’s car, an ancient model-T Ford with three seats, into which Sprague Cleghorn and Georges Vézina also climbed. Everything went well until the Côte-Saint-Antoine, where the old wreck [“bazou”] refused to climb the slope. Jos Cardinal begged his companions to get out of the car.

Cardinal was a Montreal theatre impresario, and a friend (we’ll assume) of Dandurand’s. No mention here of Sylvio Mantha — and no room for him in the car, either. Vézina could presumably returned from Chicoutimi for this second Cup event, and indeed the Gazette account of the U of M event speaks of the players “attending in body.” Although — hmm — other French-language dispatches make specific mention of Vézina’s absence from the banquet. So maybe Mantha was aboard?

But back to Jos Cardinal. “My car can go up backwards,” Barrette has him telling his passengers. “Meet me at the top.” That’s not how it went in The Hockey Book: all got out to push there, “shoving the car up the hill.”

The Barrette narrative continues:

Léo, Sprague and Georges did as they were asked. On the pavement, Cleghorn put down the Stanley Cup at the foot of a streetlamp, and the three of them lit cigarettes. When Cardinal called them, after having accomplished his tour de force, our friends hurried up and took their places in the vehicle. But they forgot the famous trophy on the Côte-Saint-Antoine.

This is not a neighbourhood I know myself. Spying in with Google’s help doesn’t really clarify anything. This weekend, I happened to be visiting Montreal with my son Zac, so on a Sunday morning that had already started to swelter, we drove along Sherbrooke Ouest, as the Stanley Cup might have on a spring night 93 years ago. I was telling Zac the story as we turned onto Avenue Argyle, which you have to do to get to Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, taking the first left by the Westmount Hôtel de Ville.

Past Metcalfe, past Mount Stephen. The road starts to rise. The steepest stretch gets going just past Strathcona. It doesn’t last long: the serious part of the hill tops out at Arlington. This is guesswork, but I’m willing to take a stand here and now and declare that if Dandurand and Cleghorn did forsake the Cup one night in April of 1924, it was here.

I pulled over and parked. The leafy green expanse of King George Park is on the right and then there’s a stone wall that starts. A few paces up the hill and the wall opens to the house at 331. There’s a streetlamp there. Does it date back (almost) a century? I don’t know. It looks … elderly. As I told Zac, given what’s documented, I’m nominating it as the one whereby Jos Cardinal’s Model-T faltered and everybody bailed out and Sprague Cleghorn laid down the Stanley Cup. I took a bunch of photographs while Zac, to be funny, photographed me.

Site Visit: The hill on the Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, as it looks today. On the right is the streetlamp where (best guess) Sprague Cleghorn forgot the Stanley Cup in 1924.

Northcliffe isn’t far, a four-minute drive on a modern-day Sunday in June. I don’t know if the modest two-story semi-detached house at 3801 is the same one that the Dandurands occupied before they moved in 1940 to a mansion in Beaconsfield — it could be a later replacement.

Back to 1924, and back to Barrette: Madame Dandurand had prepared a punch. With her husband and his companions arriving from their gala supper, the hostess wanted (naturally enough) to be serving her brew from the Stanley Cup.

Which, of course, wasn’t there. Dandurand froze.

O wonder! O calamity! The magnate believed that his heart was caught between a hammer and an anvil. He came out of the house like a whirlwind and hailed a taxi that broke all speed records. Léo devoted himself to all the divinities and made all promises imaginable to good Saint Anthony.

Can the celestial joys be compared to that which the terrified manager experienced when he found the treasure at the same place or Sprague Cleghorn had left it?

•••

“Léo Dandurand wasn’t above stretching the truth,” Eric Zweig wrote in the Times, citing the myth he crafted concerning the score of children Georges Vézina was supposed to have fathered. Still, Zweig says, his 1924 Stanley Cup mostly holds up. Rosaire Barratte’s account only adds ballast to that conclusion.

It doesn’t, of course, answer all the questions it raises. There was a taxi cruising Northcliffe late on a Thursday night?

A further clockly note might be in order here, too. In The Hockey Book, Dandurand writes that the Cup was stranded for “almost an hour.” With the evening’s slate of gala events starting at 8 p.m., the proceedings can’t have wrapped much before midnight, can they? (I’m assuming that the team and its trophy stayed until the end.) The journey to and through Westmount would have taken a little time, followed by the delay before the rescue. If that’s the case, is it fair to suppose that events in question unfolded in/around/after 1 a.m.? A nocturnal setting doesn’t forgive the forgetfulness; the context of the whole episode taking place on a slumbering residential street does, however, slightly undercut the end of Dandurand’s English account in which he refers to retrieving the Cup from “the curb of the busy street.”

Whatever the hour, there’s no doubting Dandurand’s relief. With the Cup safe, he took home a bright anecdote. Many years later, he wondered how, if things had turned out differently, how he would have explained the disappearance of “a trophy that has no price and which represents the most important emblem of the universe!” The evening’s events remained, he told Barrette, a “hallucinatory adventure.”

“There was surely,” he firmly felt, “a little Infant Jesus of Prague who protected me, as always!