mr. geniality: a serious canadien, louis berlinguette survived the spanish flu that shut down the 1919 stanley cup

Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde got most of the goals the Montreal Canadiens scored in their pursuit of the 1919 Stanley Cup, five of the ten they recorded in the five games they played against the Seattle Metropolitans in another plaguestruck spring, before the series was abandoned. But give Louis Berlinguette his due: on March 24, in the third period of the third game of the never-ended finals, the 31-year-old left winger took a pass from teammate Didier Pitre and fired the puck past Seattle goaltender Hap Holmes.

Born in Sainte-Angélique, Quebec, on a Thursday of this date in 1887, Berlinguette and his teammates played two more torrid games that week. It was on the following Monday that the series was suspended before a sixth game made it to the ice: like his captain, Lalonde, teammates Joe Hall, Jack McDonald, and Billy Coutu, as well as team manager George Kennedy, Berlinguette was confined to his bed at the Georgian Hotel, suffering from symptoms of Spanish flu.

On the Wednesday, the Canadiens were reported to be “resting easily,” with Lalonde, Coutu, Kennedy, and Berlinguette said to be only “slightly ill.”

“Their temperatures were reported normal last night,” one wire report noted, “and the doctor expects them to be up in a few days.”

Another dispatch that appeared across the continent went like this:

Two great overtime games have taxed the vitality of the players to such an extent that they are in poor shape, indeed, to fight off the effects of such a disease as influenza.

However, the Canadiens are being given the very best of care, nurses and physicians being in attendance at all times on them and every other attention is being shown the stricken players.

By Thursday, another Canadien, forward Odie Cleghorn, had taken sick, and manager Kennedy’s condition was worsening. McDonald and Hall were in Providence Hospital, the latter with a temperature of 103.

Friday, Kennedy was feeling better, while Coutu and Berlinguette were reported to be out of bed. But Hall had developed pneumonia; his condition was “causing doctors much concern.” He didn’t improve. He died that Sunday, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at the age of 38. Two days later, at his funeral in Vancouver, alongside Newsy Lalonde and Billy Coutu, Louis Berlinguette served as one of his pallbearers.

The news from Seattle on April 2, 1919, the day after the final game of the Stanley Cup finals was curtailed.

Didier Pitre and goaltender Georges Vézina had already, by then, taken a train back to Montreal. Jack McDonald’s brother had died in March, possibly of influenza, while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Siberia; Jack’s recovery kept him in hospital in Seattle until mid-April. After the funeral, Lalonde and Cleghorn and Coutu Berlinguette caught the Montreal train in Vancouver and travelled together, though Coutu got off in Sault Ste. Marie and Berlinguette in Mattawa, his off-season home.

While the NHL was only in its second season in 1919, Louis Berlinguette was a veteran of the Canadiens’ line-up. He was in his seventh season with the team, after starting his pro career in 1909 with the Haileybury Comets. There he played, if only briefly, with Art Ross and Paddy Moran, before moving on to play for Galt and the Moncton Victorias. With both those teams he played for (but didn’t win) the Stanley Cup. He joined Canadiens in 1912. In the ensuing years, before the league expired in 1917, no skater played more games in the National Hockey Association than Berlinguette.

He did win the Stanley Cup on his third shot at it: along with his 1919 teammates Vézina, Bert Corbeau, Pitre, and Lalonde, Berlinguette was in the Canadiens’ line-up that defeated the Portland Rosebuds for the 1916 championship.

Berlinguette was speedy on his skates, and know for his checking, which on at least one occasion earned him the epithet blanket: that’s what you’ll find if you fish into the archives. He wasn’t a prolific goalscorer: his best showing came in 1920-21, when he notched 12 goals and 21 points in 24 regular-season games, tying him for second in team scoring with Didier Pitre behind Newsy Lalonde.

A dowdy distinction that will always be his: in 1922, Berlinguette was responsible for the NHL’s very first automatic goal.

Canadiens were hosting the Hamilton Tigers at Mount Royal Arena on the night. In the first period, Hamilton defenceman Leo Reise swooped in and beat the Montreal defence in front of Vézina, “apparently destined for a certain goal,” as the Gazette saw it. Except, nu-uh:

Louis Berlinguette hurled his stick from the side, knocked the puck off Reise’s stick, and, in conformity with a rule passed four years ago, Tigers were awarded a goal by Referee [Cooper] Smeaton. This is the first time in the history of the NHL that such a ruling has been made.

Hamilton soon added another goal, but Berlinguette’s teammates eventually righted the ship: Newsy Lalonde and Odie Cleghorn, with a pair, saw to it that Montreal won the game, 3-2.

“He has been popular wherever he has played,” Montreal’s Gazette summed up in 1926, as Berlinguette’s playing days wound down. “Not a brilliant star, he was a hard-working, serious player who attended strictly to hockey, but with it always commanded the respect of players and crowd alike.”

Towards the end of his career, 1924-25, he spent a season with the fledgling Montreal Maroons, and the following year, his last in the NHL, he jumped to another expansion team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his old teammate Odie Cleghorn was the playing coach. While the Maroons’ Nels Stewart won the Hart Trophy that year as the league’s MVP, the Gazette acknowledged a nod to Berlinguette in the voting:

A striking tribute to his popularity was the action of one of the judges … who when filing his votes for the league’s most useful player, gave one for Berlinguette purely on his personality and the service he had rendered the Pittsburgh club on and off the ice through his geniality.

He signed on in the fall of 1926 as the playing coach of Les Castors de Quebec in the Can-Am League. He subsequently worked a whistle as an NHL referee, and later coached the Fredericton Millionaires in the New Brunswick Hockey League, though not for long. In 1930, he turned his efforts from hockey to work full-time for Ontario’s forestry service. Louis Berlinguette died in Noranda in 1959 at the age of 72.

Montreal’s 1918-19 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Manager George Kennedy, Didier Pitre, Louis Berlinguette, Billy Coutu, Jack McDonald, trainer A. Ouimet. Front row, from left: Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde, Odie Cleghorn, Bert Corbeau, Joe Hall, Georges Vézina.

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)

les méprisables

hatersYes, that’s right, the Montreal Canadiens are looking good, sitting up atop the Eastern Conference, even if they did lose last night in a shootout to Ottawa. Cheers to you, Brandon Prust! Way to play, Alex Galchenyuk! Great going, Lars Eller! And yet as natural as it is to cherish the Habs and their success, there are those who take a dimmer view. Art McDonald, for one. Instead of toasting the team’s health and happiness, he might be one to note that today is the day, back in 1910, that Les Canadiens lost by a score of 15-3 to the Haileybury Hockey Club. As he did, in fact, in his comprehensive 1988 Montreal Canadiens Haters Calendar, dedicated “to those who believe there are only two teams in hockey — their favourite team and whoever is playing the Montreal Canadiens.”

With an anti-Hab barb for each day of the year, the calendar does its best to bring down even the sunniest supporter.

February 20: Birthdate of Gilles Lupien, the worst Canadiens’ player of recent years. (1954)

June 14: Canadiens pass up Mike Bossy in the NHL draft. (1977)

July 15: Canadians laugh at a ridiculous Grecian Formula ad featuring ex-Canadien Rocket Richard. (1981)

September 14: North America adopts the Gregorian Calendar, featuring February 29 in leap years. Canadiens are winless on this date. (1752)

An accountant who described himself as a former Montrealer transplanted to Halifax, McDonald professed to have spent 500 hours compiling his record of the team’s ignominy. “It’s been a labour of love,” he told The Hockey News in 1987.

As for that loss to Haileybury, it came during the Canadiens inaugural season, when they played in the short-lived National Hockey Association. They finished last in the seven-team league, McDonald would be glad for you to know. As the Canadiens’ own historical website observes, Montreal met Haileybury twice, noting a 9-5 win at the beginning of February while conveniently leaving out the subsequent 15-3 smothering. Didier Pitre skated for the Habs that year, and Newsy Lalonde, too, who ended up leading the league in scoring. Neither man was on hand in Haileybury, though. “On the French team,” a witness reported, “no player starred.” Jack Laviolette did his best but “was unable to pull off any spectacular skating stunts being too closely watched.” Still, the score was tied 3-3 at the half before the local team ran wild. They weren’t a bad bunch, with Art Ross at point and Skene Ronan playing cover. Alex Currie scored six goals that night and Nick Bawlf another five. And Art Throop. He may not have appeared on the score-sheet, said our reporter, but “also played a great game.”