just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

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going nowhere: twelve blockbusting nhl deals that almost were (but not quite)

Here’s Your Hat:  With 23-year-old rookie Frank Brimsek having made the Boston net his own in October of 1938, the Bruins were looking to move their 35-year-old veteran Tiny Thompson. The buzz was that Toronto might swap him for defenceman Red Horner, though both teams denied it. In November, Thompson did pack his suitcase and bid Boston bye-bye, headed for Detroit in a deal that brought back from the Red Wings goaltender Normie Smith and US$15,000 cash.

Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.  

October, 1983

It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”

Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.

August, 1980

The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.

In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”

Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).

May, 1973

Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.

Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”

Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.

April, 1970

Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.

This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.

And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”

A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”

Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”

And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”

May, 1963

It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.

That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.

For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.

“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”

Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”

At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.

February, 1952

Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.

That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.

January, 1950

Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.

February, 1949

Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.

Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”

Dream On: While it lasted, Toronto newspapers enjoyed the idea that Richard might be lured to the blue-and-white.

He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”

Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.

“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”

Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”

November, 1947

The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.

October, 1933

The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”

April, 1929

Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”

He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.

A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.

January, 1929

Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:

It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.

A great cheer went up at this statement.

It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.

don’t know anybody when a hockey game starts

Northern Rock: Gus Mortson spent his first six seasons as a stalwart of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence before a 1952 trade took him to Chicago for a further six seasons, three of which he served as captain. His friend Ted Lindsay ended up as a teammate in Chicago during Mortson’s final season there. He played a single season — his last — in Detroit, 1958-59.

Ted Lindsay and Gus Mortson were old pals from up north in Ontario, played together as juniors at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, spent summers together prospecting for gold. Didn’t matter, once they skated out on NHL ice as opponents. “I don’t know anybody when a hockey game starts,” was Lindsay’s view of it, voiced in 1947.

Born on this day in 1925 in New Liskeard, Ontario, Mortson was 90 when he died in 2015. He joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as a defenceman in October of 1946, by which time Lindsay had already been a Detroit Red Wing for two seasons. When they met in Mortson’s debut, Lindsay welcomed his friend to the NHL with a cross-check that cut his nose. A frisky 21 at the start of that inaugural year, Mortson was, by the end of the regular season, the league’s leader in amassing penalty minutes. Nugget seems to be the nickname the newspapers preferred for him at the time, short for The Gold Nugget Kid; later, he’d also answer to Old Hardrock.

Mortson and Lindsay would clash (and exchange punches) more than once in their subsequent NHL careers, including on an infamous occasion when the Leafs and the Red Wings met in the first round of the ’47 playoffs.

Here, from The Windsor Star, is Doug Vaughan’s account of the proceedings that roiled the fourth game of the semi-final:

Rough-going Ted Lindsay put the match to the fuse when he cut down Gus (Nugget) Mortson, Leaf defenceman, and got away with it. Mortson came up fighting mad and not caring whom he hit — as long as the individual was wearing a red sweater. The innocent victim happened to be Bill Quackenbush. Mortson gave him a terrific cross check and the Wing rearguard had to be assisted from the ice with a wrenched left knee.

Mortson was given a two minute penalty. He was just sitting down in the box when Gordie Howe of the Wings skated over to the boards. Howe took a punch at Mortson. The Leaf player punched back. Policeman William Kamian grabbed Mortson by the throat. Players from both teams swarmed across the ice to see what was going on. Two Toronto scribes joined in the fray. Mortson punched the policeman. The policeman fought back. Somebody hurled a chair from the box seats back of the penalty box. It bounced off Mortson’s back and hit Roy Conacher of the Wings, who was standing out on the ice, on the nose. Additional policemen swarmed into the run-way to help restore order.

When peace and calm reigned once again the insane individual who had hurled the chair had been lugged off to the hoosegow by the police and Howe and Mortson were each given ten minutes [sic] misconduct penalties. Fortunately nobody was serious injured.

Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman wasn’t on hand in Detroit that night, but that didn’t keep him from filing his own vivid dispatch. If nothing else, it’s a master-class in period jocularity, a true classic from the catalogue of reporting NHL chaos as if it were all part of a big vaudeville act. The prose is entertaining, still, 72 years later. Without steering off into finger-wagging, may I also submit that the guffawing acceptance of the league’s long business-as-usual acceptance of violence manages (still) to astonish me?

Mortson, in Coleman’s telling, was penalized for “mopery and gawk.” In the penalty box,

he indulged in some ineffectual fisticuffs with Gordon Howe. At this juncture, Mortson was gozzled by a Detroit newspaperman and a Detroit constable.

In the turmoil a customer hurled a chair which splattered on the penalty-box rail and hit Referee George Hayes and Roy Conacher. It is alleged, then, that our two confreres, W. Thomas Munns and James Vipond, swarmed to the fray.

Munns was the Globe’s sports editor, Vipond a reporter. Coleman took down their testimony, including this from Vipond:

“Mortson took a swing at Howe and then Mortson was gozzled by a Detroit newspaperman. A Detoit policeman gozzled Mortson, too, and was lugging him around by the next and massaging his noggin with the other hand. Now, I realized that Mortson is a wild and vicious character, and would most certainly break the copper into small pieces, so I went to the copper’s assistance. I put both arms around his neck and tugged him away gently, just so that he would be out of harm’s way. There is a rumour to the effect that I hit him, but this is false and unjust — a fly was perched on the constable’s cheek, and I was attempting only to dislodge it before the fly stamped on his eyeball.”

It took Toronto one more (relatively peaceable) game to eliminate Detroit and move on to meet (and beat) Montreal for the Stanley Cup that year. Before they left the ice at the end of the semi-final series, fans and writers and at least one photographer noted the renewal of Mortson’s and Lindsay’s friendship:

helmets for hockey players, 1947: richard and lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos

Top Gear: Elmer Lach, on the right, fits linemate Maurice Richard with the helmet he wore for all of two games in 1947. Lach’s, just visible at the bottom of the frame, didn’t have quite so long a career on NHL ice.

Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL they weren’t exactly a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.

So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.

It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.

Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.

Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)

Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.

Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)

Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.

“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.

Nokomis’ Own Dandy: Lach in his helmet on the day of its debut, November 27, 1947.

Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”

Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”

Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.

“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”

And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”

Boxed: Maurice Richard sits out his third-period elbowing penalty during the November 27 game at the Forum.

But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.

Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”

None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.

Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”

For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.

Tusslers: Richard and Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson … hard to say what they’re up to, actually. A bit of vying, I guess; some grappling?

wing-ding

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fonds

Pushback: He was still often Gordon Howe in the press in 1947, starting into his second NHL season working the right wing for the Detroit Red Wings, though Gordie was starting to take hold more and more in the hockey pages. Didn’t matter either way, I’ll guess, to Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson, seen here in November of that year on Maple Leaf Gardens ice, doing his best to separate the puck from Howe’s possession. The Leafs prevailed 5-3 on the night, with Howe contributing an assist on a goal Ted Lindsay scored, and serving out two minutes for a minor penalty.

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 120324)

seeing red

There are uglier hockey photographs, bloodier, brutaller. But this intimate image of Red Kelly lashing out at Toronto’s Vic Lynn in Detroit in 1950 has to be one of the most intense portraits in the archives of raw hockey rage. The fact that it’s not quite in focus only adds to the rush of the moment, and the danger. It’s a hard photograph to study without flinching: Kelly might just follow through and hit you. And of course what we’re looking at is likely only the half of it, in terms of rage: the camera doesn’t show the extent of Lynn’s ire, much less any of the general rancor and violent feeling that had filled up the Olympia that night.

It was the end of March, 1950, and the Leafs and Red Wings were playing their second game in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto had won the first game in Detroit by a score of 5-0. This game went the other way, 3-1. A subhead in next morning’s (Toronto) Globe and Mail:

Detroiters Bludgeon Way To Boisterous Victory In Mean-Mannered Game

It wasn’t just the loss motivating the Red Wings. That first game was the one in which 21-year-old Gordie Howe was grievously injured. Trying to hit Toronto Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, he, Howe, fell into the boards. The Globe and Mail called it a mishap, reporting that he’d suffered a “stiff concussion” along with a shattered cheekbone and a broken nose.

Detroit GM Jack Adams told it this way, later, to Trent Frayne from Maclean’s:

Toronto’s Ted Kennedy was carrying the puck near the boards. Howe sped toward him, cutting diagonally across the ice. A fraction of a second before the impact, Kennedy drew himself up, and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. Gordie lay limp on the ice, bleeding from his nose and eye. Later, in hospital, there was every indication that he was dying. He was unconscious, vomiting, had a broken cheekbone and nose, and a brain specialist operated, boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridor all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.

The Red Wings said it was Kennedy’s dirty fault. They said that Kennedy had butt-ended Howe.

Why did Kennedy pass by the Detroit bench to say sorry? That, for Red Wings coach Tommy Ivan, was all the confession he needed. “If he didn’t hit Howe with his stick, why did he skate over and apologize? I’m not saying it was deliberate, but it was a check made with the butt-end of Kennedy’s stick. He isn’t the only player in the league who checks with the butt. Lots of them do.”

Kennedy testified: “I was skating in to shoot when Howe and Jack Stewart of the Wings converged to check me. I got by them all right and never touched Howe. The first I knew of it was when a teammate shouted to me that Howe was down on the ice.”

The Leafs’ Garth Boesch offered, helpfully, that he thought that maybe Stewart might have inadvertently clipped Howe with his stick.

Kennedy: “I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood, and I couldn’t help but think what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn’t badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn’t and as I have always regarded Ivan as a sensible, level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry Howe was hurt, but that I wasn’t responsible.”

Sid Abel said what he had to say on the ice, chopping at Kennedy’s ankle when the game resumed. He took a slashing penalty for that. After that, Leaf coach Hap Day kept Kennedy on the bench.

NHL president Clarence Campbell, who was at the game, made it known that he was looking into the incident. He talked to both teams and called the game officials to his hotel for a two-hour confab, referee George Gravel and stand-by Butch Keeling, linesmen Sammy Babcock and Ernie Le Maitre. The first three gave formal statements; Le Maitre said he didn’t see what happened. Then Campbell gave a press conference: the first ever in league history, he said, to be called to discuss an injury to a player.

Campbell’s version: Jack Stewart started up the ice with the puck. Kennedy checked him, took the puck the other way. Stewart tried to waylay him, failed. Just as Kennedy crossed the blueline, Howe cut toward him, skating fast. Kennedy passed the puck, backhand. Brushing Kennedy slightly, Howe crashed heavily into the fence, fell to the ice. Stewart fell on top of him as the play continued.

Campbell said he believed the evidence showed that it was physically impossible for Kennedy to have hit How with the butt of his stick. He chided Tommy Ivan, but understood, assuming he’d accused Kennedy “in a fit of anger.”

Campbell said he was keeping the investigation open: “We are willing to hear evidence from any interested parties and will not make any final decision until we talk to Kennedy and Howe. It may be that one of the player’s statements would offer other facts that would throw an entirely different light on the case.”

Doctors weren’t sure, at this point, whether Howe’s career was over. They were reluctant to say.

Gordie’s mother had a sunnier outlook. “He seemed just like my old Gordie,” Mrs. A.C. Howe told the newspapermen after visiting her boy at Harper Hospital. She’d flown in from Saskatoon with her daughter, Gladys. “His first words were, ‘Why, mom, what are you doing here?’”

Another terribly head-injured hockey player was asked for an opinion. “Helmets are not necessary,” Ace Bailey said. “Hockey players carry so much armor already, they can’t bear any more.”

Toronto’s mayor, Hiram McCallum, phoned Ted Kennedy in Detroit to say the things that mayors say. The people were behind him. They knew he was blameless. “They are 100 per cent behind you all the way and know you will go on and continue to play wonderful hockey.”

“We regret very much the injury to Howe,” he continued, “as he is a great player, but at the same time know that he was the aggressor in attempting to crash you on the boards.”

So that’s the background. The Wings had vowed that they’d win the second game on March 30 for Howe, and they did that, but while the teams played some hockey, mostly in the first period, the second and third were the ones to generate the next day’s headlines: Blood-spilling Contest (The Globe and Mail), Pier 6 Brawl Fiasco (Toronto Daily Star), Free-For-All Fights Bring 19 Penalties as Detroit Six Evens Play-off Series (New York Times).

In the second period, with his team leading 3-0, Detroit defenceman Lee Fogolin tripped Ted Kennedy. As referee Butch Keeling whistled a penalty, Ted Lindsay showed up to cross-check the Leaf captain. Leaf Gus Mortson: flew at Lindsay. Sid Abel: rushed in, fists flying. Grabbing Kennedy and holding him to help out the Wings: an irresponsible fan. Wing Leo Reise: bludgeoned Jim Thomson across the head and shoulders with his stick. Jim Vipond from The Globe and Mail called it “a donnybrook of the worst order and a black mark against organized hockey.”

He went on:

This writer has often avowed that no player would intentionally injure another, but not after tonight. There could be nothing more brutal and deliberate than the Detroit players’ attempt to even a trumped-up injustice to one of their mates.

Out of it all, Reise and Thomson drew majors and Lindsay, Kennedy and Fogolin two minutes each. Abel escaped scot free, as did battler Mortson.

The Leafs scored in the third, but it was the last-minute melee that got all the press. To start, Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki exchanged a few wallops. Everybody piled in then, including Red Wings’ usually even-tempered defenceman: Red Kelly. He started a separate feud with Vic Lynn, which gets us back to that original image. Is it possible that the photographer was on the ice, standing just behind Lynn? Probably not. Below, we see, remarkably, what would seem to be the instant of Kelly’s onslaught from behind. Vipond says that Kelly’s victory was decisive: Kelly “tossed Lynn to the ice, straddled him and threw his punches.”

The referee wasn’t impressed — or not watching. “Again Keeling was lenient to the extreme. He pinned minor sentences on Ezinicki, Juzda and Lindsay, sending them to their dressing rooms. It is doubtful if Keeling saw the Kelly-Lynn preliminary bout.”

Ted Kennedy wasn’t talking much afterwards. “The game’s over,” he said. “They won it.”

“Such violence hardly seems possible in sport. Yet there it was.” The next day, The Globe and Mail devoted its lead editorial to lament, excoriating the Red Wings for their outrages, the referees for not punishing them properly, the NHL for not taking a tough enough stand: For The Good of the Game was the headline.

Tommy Ivan insisted he hadn’t instructed his players to go after anyone. “I can only repeat that I did not have any thought of my players seeking revenge. You can confirm this statement by talking to my players. Responsible lads like Red Kelly will back me up.”

Clarence Campbell warned that the feuding had to stop. If it continued, he said, there would be fines and suspensions. Also, for the third game, he was putting an extra referee on the ice in place of one of one of the linesmen. And any player bickering on his way to the penalty box would receive a misconduct.

“Hockey is a tough and rugged game at the best of times,” Campbell said, “but the stick-swinging which took place … has no place in the game at any time.”

That seemed to help: for the third game, in Toronto, lapsed back to hockey. “In contrast to the blood-letting, brawls and bickering of the initial two tilts in Detroit,” Al Nickleson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “only three minor penalties were issued, two to Leafs, in a sparkling, close-checking display.”

The Wings won the one after that. By then, Howe was ready to speak up. A week after his brain surgery, his doctors had removed the No Visitors Allowed sign from the door of his hospital room, and he was free to tell reporters what he knew. It wasn’t a whole lot. “All I remember is chasing after Kennedy. I don’t remember being struck or hitting the boards.”

“Kennedy is too good a hockey player to deliberately injure another player.”

On the subject of his future, he promised he’d be back. “Sure, I’ll be playing next season — a player has got to expect a few bumps.”

The Red Wings ended up winning the series in seven games. By the end of April, they’d won the Stanley Cup, their fourth, beating the New York Rangers in seven games. When Clarence Campbell handed the trophy to Wings’ captain Sid Abel, the fans in the rink called for goaltender Harry Lumley to join him. Then they insisted on GM Jack Adams, coach Ivan, and vice-president Jim Norris. Finally the cry arose: “We want Howe,” and Gordie Howe walked out on the ice in his street clothes.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, wearing 4, at left, unleashes on the Leafs' Vic Lynn.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, at left, unleashes on the Leafs’ Vic Lynn.