There’s a howling you’ll hear when the Montreal Canadiens start an NHL season with a run of 1-6-1. Fans lend their fury to the high machine-buzz of hockey-media frenzy, and and there’s an echo down there in the NHL’s basement where the Canadiens and the three sad points they’ve earned to date languish. The whole din of it gets amplified, as everything does, when you put it online. And history can’t resist raising a nagging voice, too.
Today its refrain is this: should these modern-day Canadiens lose tonight’s game at the Bell Centre to the visiting Florida Panthers, they’ll match the ’41-42 Canadiens for season-opening futility. That was the last time Montreal went 1-7-1 to start a season.
Lots of people have lots of good ideas. Captain Max Pacioretty should either start scoring/lose his C/get himself reunited on a line with centre Philip Danault/see to it that he’s traded to Edmonton as soon as possible, maybe in exchange for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. GM Marc Bergevin needs to address the media/find a sword and fall on it/reverse-engineer the trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.
Amid the clamour, coach Claude Julien was calm, ish, yesterday. “We’re all tired of losing, I think that’s pretty obvious,” he told reporters circling the team’s practice facility at Brossard, Quebec. “You know we really feel that we’re doing some good things but we’re not doing good enough for 60 minutes and we need to put full games together.”
Back in ’41, sloppy starting had become a bit of a Canadien tradition. With Cecil Hart at the helm, the team had launched its 1938-39 campaign by going 0-7-1. A year later they got going in 1939-40 with an encouraging 4-2-2 record before staggering through an eight-game losing streak followed by twin ten-game winless runs. In 1940-41, getting underway for new coach Dick Irvin, Canadiens sputtered out to a 1-5-2 start.
Irvin had just coached the Leafs to another Stanley Cup final when he quit Toronto for Montreal in the spring of ’41. He’d started his Leaf reign by winning a Cup in 1932 and in eight subsequent seasons, he’d steered his teams to six Stanley Cup finals.
Why would he want to take charge of a team that The Globe and Mail’s Ralph Allen called “a spent and creaking cellar occupant”?
For the challenge, presumably. Better money? Main Leafs man Conn Smythe was, in public at least, magnanimous — strangely so, to the extent that The Gazette ran his comments under the headline “Smythe in New Role/ As Aide to Canadiens.” It quoted him saying that Montreal had asked his permission to offer Irvin the job. “The Maple Leaf club’s reaction,” he continued, “was that we hated to see Irvin go but we felt that the sorry condition in which the Canadiens had found themselves wasn’t doing any team in the league any good.”
Smythe wanted to help, what’s more. “We are going to give him whatever help we can in player deals.” Maybe Irvin and the Canadiens could use Charlie Conacher, for instance, or Murray Armstrong?
“If he figures Conacher or Armstrong will fit,” Smythe prattled away, “then he can have them, and also two or three other players on our roster.”
Irvin must have figured otherwise. He went about reshaping the Canadiens without his former boss’ aid. In November, his new Montreal charges started off by tying Boston 1-1 at the Forum. They followed that up with four losses and an overtime tie before powering by the New York Americans 3-1 on November 23. The teams played again in New York the next night and Montreal lost by a score of 2-1.
“The rearguard has been the main grief of the made-over Habitants,” Harold C. Burr opined in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rookies Alex Singbush, 19-year-old Ken Reardon, and Tony Graboski were inexperienced, liked to rush the puck too much. Star winger Toe Blake was in slump, too — that didn’t help. The best part, Burr thought: these Habs never quit fighting. “That’s one of the attributes of this young team — the old scrappiness.”
Irvin had vowed that the team would make the playoffs in ’41. The season was shorter then, of course, 48 games, so the margin for error was tight. Then again, six of the league’s seven teams got qualified for the post-season, so all Montreal had to do (and did) was to go 16-26-6 and edge out the woeful (and soon-to-be-extinct) New York Americans for the final playoff berth. (Facing the Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal fell in three games.)
Montreal would eventually get themselves turned around. In the fall of ’42, Canadiens added a young rookie named Maurice Richard to the fold. Two years after that, the team was at the top of the NHL standings when the season ended in March. And in April of 1944, they defeated the Chicago to win the Stanley Cup.
Before that, during the bleak years, hope does seem to have been more eternal in its bloom than in modern-day Montreal.
Deep into November of 1938, English Montrealers awoke to read in The Gazette that Canadiens had lost their sixth straight game in New York the previous evening, 2-1 to the Rangers. Never mind: even the New York papers were said to be reporting that Montreal had played the Rangers off their skates for a good part of the game. Jim Burchard of The Telegram said the visiting team lacked only luck, while The Herald-Tribune felt they just needed a bit more polish in their finishing. “They muffed half a dozen scoring chances,” Kerr Petri wrote. Coach Cecil Hart was certain his boys would beat the Americans in the next game, that very night. “On the basis of last night’s form, we can do it,” he said. “We’re going to win plenty of games after that one, too. And if we had any of the breaks last night, the first victory might be ours already.” (The Americans whomped them, instead, 7-3.)
Four years later, almost to the day, Dick Irvin was telling the hockey writers that the 2-1 loss in Detroit that left the Canadiens adrift at 0-4-2 was cause for … encouragement. “One can’t be satisfied by obtaining only two points out of a possible 12, but they are improving. They played good hockey in Detroit, had more chances, I think, but the other guys got the decision — and that’s what counts.”
A year after that, November of 1941, and the 0-4-1 Canadiens had the Rangers coming in. “Despite the fact Canadiens have not yet won a game,” The Gazette noted, “the box-office at the Forum reported yesterday prospects for a big crowd tonight are bright.”
Montreal lost that one, 7-2. Still, as he’d done a year earlier, Irvin did guide the team once more into the playoffs. Think of that as Max Pacioretty and Carey Price lead their 2017 Canadiens out onto the ice tonight.
Gordon Sparling directed Hockey Stars’ Summer, a 1951 ASN “Canadian Cameo,” with Andy O’Brien contributing the script.
Blanket Statement: Members of the doubly captained 1947-48 Canadiens show off blankets (in Habs colours, of course) given by Ayers Limited, the famous woolen mill in Lachute, Quebec. At the back are, from the left: Glen Harmon, Billy Reay, Butch Bouchard, Toe Blake, Roger Leger, Bill Durnan, Elmer Lach, and (on quality control) Maurice Richard. Bedspreaded up at the front are Ken Reardon and Bob Fillion.
Toronto would win the Stanley Cup that year — a strange sentence to write and believe in, today. This was 1947, April. The Canadiens were the defending champions, and they started the Finals strongly enough, prevailing at home by a score of 6-0. The Leafs rallied themselves to win four of the next five games, including the one depicted here, a 2-1 victory secured at Maple Leaf Gardens by a Syl Apps goal in overtime. “The game started off on a hectic note,” Jim Vipond accounted next day in The Globe and Mail, “and Referee Bill Chadwick, who handled a competent game, had his work cut out to prevent a riot.” In the moments before the camera found its focus, Kenny Reardon, ebullient Montreal defenceman, boarded Toronto’s rookie left winger Joe Klukay, “qui s’est frappé (La Patrie reported) violemment sur la clôture.” That’s him on the stretcher — you can just spy his nose through the arms of an attendant teammate. He was knocked out, Montreal and Toronto reporters mostly agreed, and his scalp wanted stitching.
“The fans screamed for a major penalty,” Vipond wrote, “and an electric tenseness seemed to fill the big Carlton Street sports palace. The game was less than five minutes old.” Reardon went to serve a minor; Klukay was carried from the ice.
Neither man was gone long. The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll took a slightly more jaded view than some others: Klukay responded to Reardon’s hit, he wrote, with “the dying swan act and … he was back before the period was over.”
Also putting in an appearance above are Montreal’s Butch Bouchard (leaning over the patient) along with Toe Blake (observing, glove on stick), Glen Harmon (8), and Buddy O’Connor (10).
Apps’ winning goal came after 16 minutes and 36 seconds of overtime. Jim Vipond circulated through the Leafs’ dressing room afterwards, where he saw an exhausted Toronto coach, Hap Day, and a happy, Coke-drinking Conn Smythe. “It isn’t funny,” Day told Vipond, with no further explanation. “I’m proud of the whole team,” Smythe said.
Klukay was in the shower. Vipond hollered in to ask about his injury and Klukay hollered back out. “Nothing to it,” he said, “just my head.”
The Montreal room was more subdued. With the extra period, they should have missed their train home, but the 11.10 to Montreal was holding for them. The Canadiens dressed quickly and headed for Union Station.
The blond Bomber the papers called him, sometimes, and fine and industrious and the fast-skating wing man. A Canadien and a Red Wing who played four-and-a-half NHL seasons, Léo Gravelle died on October 30 at the age of 88. One of his nicknames was The Gazelle.
“Léo Gravelle swished in Glen Harmon’s shot” is a sentence you might have seen after Montreal beat Chicago in 1947. He was born in Aylmer, Quebec. Witnesses who watched him play called him an extraordinary and sprightly skater. And of course there’s the time, in Chicago, that teammate Kenny Reardon hit a steelworker in the stands with his stick and the steelworker’s friends tried to throw a chair at him and Gravelle went to Reardon’s aid, and the two players ended up in jail, charged with assault with a deadly weapon. “I did not strike any of the spectators,” Gravelle said, later. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.” (The charges were dropped.)
In May of 2007, Léo Gravelle was the guest of honour at the annual meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research in Ottawa. Speaking to an audience that included two Howie Morenzes (son and grandson of the original) as well as the hockey artist Mac McDiarmid, and the man who knows more about minor-league hockey than anyone in the whole world, Gravelle talked about his life in hockey. It was like a spell he was speaking, an incantation. “I’ve had a good life,” he began, and
A lot of people, they think it’s easy, the start in life. When I was six years old, it was hard times. We didn’t have electricity until I was 17 years old. When it comes time to play, I’m gonna tell you the truth. In those days the skates are not like today. It’s just a leather thing. When it gets wet it expands. I had to wear my cousin’s skates. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was my turn. I put on six pairs of socks. I don’t know if you still have your mother or not, but after you lose her you miss her a lot. I had a good father. Sometimes he had to walk from Hull to Aylmer after working his day’s work. We didn’t have radios. I was an office boy. I used to run everywhere. We had a hockey team. I will tell you what we used to do. Shinpads, it was a piece of felt. Hockey sticks, we were paying 25 cents. Excuse me, ladies, if I’m swearing sometimes. I was an altar boy for eight years. Have you heard of a hockey game after midnight mass? It was the choir versus the altar boys. In the morning when I got up there was an apple, an orange, and a piece of paper. Thank you, Lord. What do you get for Christmas today? I was working for the government, office boy, 39 dollars a month. My first suit cost me 39 dollars, so my mother had to pay my streetcar for the next month. I was playing Juvenile at 17 years old. Port Colborne. At St. Mike’s the coach was Joe Primeau. When you win the Memorial Cup, a fellow has to be proud. I went to the Montreal Royals. I had a line with Floyd Curry and Howard Riopelle. I could name you some names. When you play for a team like Montreal, they can decide to send you to Buffalo. They sent me to Houston. We win the United States Hockey League championship. The next year they brought me up to Buffalo. Then I graduate back to Montreal. Then this guy, Kenny Reardon. He used to call me Gravel. We did some damage. That was another thing that went by. I got traded for Bert Olmstead. I think I can brag about this. I’m the only one who played with Howe and Richard. Sid Abel was injured. I played with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Then Sid Abel came back. I sat on the bench for 13 games. Then they sent me down to Indianapolis. Jack Adams said, Léo Gravelle will never play another game in the NHL. I never did. I learned one thing in my life, when you go in to get a job, when they tap you on the back, that means they don’t want you. But I’ve had a good life. What I’ve told you today, it’s from the bottom of my heart. The Rocket could score on his knees. Gordie Howe was sort of a brute. They were two good guys for me. I don’t know how I’ve still got my nose, my face. Black Jack Stewart, he picked me up and drove me into the end. I didn’t know where I was.