chicago’s opening act, 1926: the going was sticky

A crowd of 7,000 was on hand at Chicago’s Coliseum on a night like this 96 years ago as the Chicago Black Hawks made their NHL debut on Wednesday, November 17, 1926 against the Toronto St. Patricks. The two captains shook on it before the game got going: that’s Chicago centreman (and future NHL coaching great) Dick Irvin on the left along with Toronto’s Bert Corbeau. “The Chicago team showed better combination and condition than their opponents,” was the report wired back to Toronto’s Globe after the expansion Black Hawks had prevailed by a score of 4-1.

Hughie Lehman was manning the Chicago net that night; the goals came from George Hay, Irvin, Gord Fraser, and Rabbit McVeigh. John Ross Roach did his best between the Toronto pipes. Scoring for the St. Pats was another coach-to-be, Hap Day, playing the right wing as he did in those days before he dropped back to the defence.

“The ice in the second period started to melt a bit,” the Chicago Tribune noted, “and the going was sticky and the puck jumped and rolled frequently making shots difficult and accuracy in passing almost impossible.” Trib correspondent Frank Schreiber wasn’t overly impressed by either aggregation, all in all. “Both teams fought hard,” he wrote, “but neither displayed more than an average attack or defence.”

hailing howie

Son of the Father: Ten-year-old Howie Morenz Jr. stands by Canadiens’ captain Babe Siebert on the night of November 2, 1937, when NHLers paid tribute to young Howie’s late father and namesake in the Howie Morenz Memorial Game. Morenz’s sweater, skates, and stick were auctioned off in aid of the effort to raise money for the Morenz family. Second from left is Maroons’ GM Tommy Gorman. Second from the right is Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart with (I think) Maroons’ winger Earl Robinson next to him. (Image: BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

“No tone of mourning attended the game,” Ralph Adams wrote next morning in the Montreal Daily Star. “True, a sad feeling filled he heart as Howie Morenz Jr. skated about the ice prior to the match. The image of his father, young Howie gave an indication he may carry on his father’s great talents on the ice.”

It was 85 years ago today, on Tuesday, November 2, 1937 that the Howie Morenz Memorial Game was played at Montreal’s Forum in memory of the Stratford Streak, who’d died eight months earlier at the age of 34.

A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team that mixed Maroons and Canadiens: 6-5 was the final on the night. The winners got goals from Charlie Conacher (Toronto), Dit Clapper (Boston), Cecil Dillon (Rangers), Sweeney Schriner (Americans), Johnny Gottselig (Chicago), and Marty Barry (Detroit). Scoring for the Montrealers were Morenz’s old linemate Johnny Gagnon with a pair, along with Canadiens’ captain Babe Siebert and Habs Paul Haynes and Pit Lepine. Normie Smith (Detroit) and Tiny Thompson (Boston) shared the All-Stars’ net, while Wilf Cude (Canadiens) and Bill Beveridge (Maroons) handled the gosling for the Montreals.

The only penalty of the game was called on Toronto defenceman Red Horner, for a hook on Pit Lepine. Former Canadiens d-man Battleship Leduc had taken up as referee and made the call; when Horner was in the box, Leduc apologized, saying that he’d actually intended to sanction Schriner.

“In the heat of the grand display where speed, speed, and more speed gave the game all the excitement of a regular game, no one forgot Howie,” Ralph Adams wrote. “He was there. He was in the thick of the fastest rush, in the wildest scramble in front of the goals. All that Howie represented in hockey was in the game.”

Towards the end of November, it was announced that a total of $26,595 had been raised for the Morenz family.

All The Excitement of a Regular Game: That’s Detroit goaltender Normie Smith on the deck, defending the goal of the NHL All-Stars at the Morenz Memorial game on November 2, 1937. As for his teammates in white, it’s hard to tell who that is at far left, but closer in is (crouched) Toronto’s Hap Day and (possibly) Art Chapman of the NY Americans. Obscured is #6, Boston’s Dit Clapper. For the Montrealers, #10 is Earl Robinson (Maroons) and (helmeted, #8) Pit Lepine. (Image: Fonds Conrad Poirier, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

april 16, 1949: last call

Salut: Filling the Stanley Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens in April of 1949, that’s Toronto Maple Leafs PR manager Spiff Evans. Steered by coach Hap Day (right), the Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in four games that spring to earn their champagne. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1266, item 132800)

begin again

Captains Converge: Opening night of the 1928-29 NHL season saw the hometown Maple Leafs hosting the Chicago Black Hawks at Arena Gardens on Toronto’s Mutual Street. Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, W.D. Ross, was on hand to drop the first puck; that’s him here, posing alongside Leaf leader Hap Day and his Black Hawk counterpart, Dick Irvin. Both captains were returning to the ice after serious injuries the previous year, with Day having had a tendon in his right heel nearly severed by a skateblade and Irvin suffering a serious skull fracture. On this night, Leafs prevailed by a score of 2-0, getting goals from Andy Blair and Shorty Horne. This would be Irvin’s final year as a centreman, as he laid away his skates to take full-time to coaching. Three years later, he’d be behind the Leaf bench, leading the team to a Stanley Cup championship. Day’s career as a defenceman would carry on for another nine seasons; he’d have to wait until 1942 to claim his first Stanley Cup as Toronto’s coach.

prize guys

A Cup For the Captain: A birthday today for Syl Apps, who was born in Paris, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1915. This photograph dates to April of 1947, when a 32-year-old Apps led his Leafs in wresting the (stove-pipe) Stanley Cup from the Montreal Canadiens in six games. It was Toronto’s second championship in three years. Partly painted out for publication purposes is Toronto coach Hap Day. Apps played one more year — and raised one more Cup — before calling quits on his NHL career in 1948. (Image: Turofsky, courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

the nhl’s first finn, only almost a leaf, was also the coach who didn’t get the gold in 1936

“They are stepping along nicely,” Al Pudas said that day, having put his team though their paces ahead of their opening game. It was 1936, February. The 36-year-old coach was confident. “This is the strongest club I’ve ever had,” he said.

Spoiler alert: Pudas, who died on a Thursday of this date in 1976 at the age of 77, didn’t get the gold medal he, his team, and all of Canada was expecting. Maybe you know the story of the ’36 Olympics, which were in Germany, and how they ended Canada’s golden hockey streak. There’s more on that, here and here, if you’re interested. What we’ll say here is that to that point, teams sporting the maple leaf on their sweaters hadn’t lost a game let alone a gold medal in four Olympics, going back to Antwerp in 1920. Also, this: the fact the fact that the ’36 team could only manage silver wasn’t really Pudas’ fault.

Before he was a coach, Pudas was a referee. Before that he played, mainly on the wing. He did most of his skating in the ’20s, for teams in Port Arthur, though the fact that he was summoned in late 1926 to the NHL means that he was the league’s very first Finnish-born player: born in Siikajoki in Finland in 1899, Pudas had emigrated to Canada with his family before he turned two.

Pudas was playing right wing for the Windsor Hornets of the Canadian Professional Hockey League in December of 1926 when the Toronto St. Patricks signed him. They brought in left winger Butch Keeling at the same time. Both made their debut in a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins at Toronto’s Arena Gardens. Pudas wore number 14 during his short stay with Toronto, which lasted just four games. By mid-January of 1927 he was back in the Can-Am with Windsor, which means that he was only almost a Maple Leaf: it would be another month before Conn Smythe and his partners swooped in to acquire the team and switch the team’s identity almost overnight.

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street in December of 1926. From left to right, they are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey. A few months later, when Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided the St. Pats would now be Maple Leafs, Pudas’ NHL career was over, and he was back in the Can-Am loop. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9948)

 

drill bit: the leafs fall in, 1928

In any other October, the NHL season would be just getting going instead of settling into the off-season … but then this is 2020, and everything’s bent out of shape. In 1928, when the NHL didn’t drop the puck on the new season until mid-November, October was the month teams stretched themselves in playing form. The Toronto Maple Leafs migrated to Port Elgin, on the Lake Huron shore, to get themselves readied in those years, as I wrote about once here and in the pages of The Globe and Mail. Taking charge of the team’s fitness regime that years as well as several subsequent others was Corporal Joe Coyne of the Royal Canadian Regiment, seen here standing over his Leaf charges. They are, starting in front, from the left: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Second row: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Art Smith. Third: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Gerry Lowrey. At the back: Alex Gray and Danny Cox.

quaffing from the stanley cup: would a lot of shared consumption be a problem?

Bottoms Up: Readying the Stanley Cup for action in April of 1949 is Toronto Maple Leafs PR manager Spiff Evans. Steered by coach Hap Day (right) and managing director Conn Smythe (middle), the Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in four games that year to earn the championship and the right to sip. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 3015)

“I’d like to have a dollar for every time the Stanley Cup has been filled with champagne.”

When Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, said that in 1942, hockey’s most cherished trophy had already been won more than 80 times in its 48 years of history, going back to 1893, when the Montreal Hockey Club laid original claim on the Cup. Calder was in a storytelling frame of mind rather than a profiteering one, regaling reporters with tales of Cup shenanigans, some of them involving Lord Stanley’s chalice being misplaced, or maltreated, some of which may even be true. Calder wasn’t at the time harbouring a reliable quaff-count; his point was presumptive, recognizing that however hallowed a symbol it may be, the Stanley Cup will never escape its original self and purpose as a drinking vessel.

All of which gets us around to the question of the night: can you truly be said to have won the Stanley Cup if you don’t end up merrily slurping sparkling alcohol from its silvery bowl?

Seventy-seven times the Cup, in several incarnations, has been awarded since Calder spoke his piece in 1942. With a lock-out having washed out the 2005 season and Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning made it 78 last when they dispensed with the Dallas Stars in Edmonton to win these perturbed playoffs and receive the Cup from Calder-heir Gary Bettman, putting an end, finally, to the 2019-20 NHL season.

And, yes, champagne (and beer) was decanted into the Cup and duly poured out, into and onto the happy faces of the new champions. Was there ever any doubt that they  would partake, despite what public health officials might advise in, say, a surging  pandemic such as we’re in?

Not really.

No-one needs reminding how unlikely the whole idea of completing the hockey season seemed back in March and April when COVID-19 interrupted everything. Even when the NHL looked north for a bubbled restart at the beginning of August there was no guarantee that the summer’s emergency experiment would work out.

The NHL deserves credit for the fact that it has. Prudent planning, strict procedures, stringent testing, good luck: they’ve all played a part in getting the league to this point. When, back in August, I talked to some NHL high-ups for a New York Times feature I was working on, they were assuming nothing.

“I’m just hopeful we get to that point,” Dr. Winne Meeuwisse, theNHL’s chief medical officer told me when I raised a question about possible protocols involved in the eventual presentation of/sipping from the Cup. “We’re a long way away from that, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.”

Embed from Getty Images

Everybody I spoke with emphasized that health and safety were — and would remain — the top priority.

I asked Dr. Meeuwisse specifically about infectious disease and risk and all the potential for Cup handling, passing around, kissing, and, yes, drinking from.

“Would hoisting the Cup be a problem? No. Would a lot of shared consumption be a problem? It probably would be.”

I asked the NHL’s deputy commissioner, too, Bill Daly.

“That’s a fair question,” he said. Without offering specifics, he suggested that it just might be something that the league would indeed regulate … maybe. The full quote: “For better or for worse, we’re roughly six or seven weeks away from having to deal with that. I think we have some time to figure that out. Quite frankly, I think that’s been a recurring theme in terms of our approach to the pandemic from the start, which is we want to remain nimble. We want to react, or be in a position to proact, where you can, but when as we learn more and new things become evident or apparent to us, we can and have you know proven to this point where we can we can adjust on the fly.”

I talked to Phil Pritchard, too, the Hockey Hall of Fame vice-president and curator who’s better known as the Keeper of Cup. “As we get closer,” he said, “we’ll see what rules and regulations we have to put into effect.”

I get it. Who, exactly, was going to tell Steven Stamkos, or Pat Maroon, that after 65 days sequestered in their Canadian bubbles, far from friends and family and fans, they weren’t allowed to touch their lips to the Cup in all the traditional ways?

Dr. Meeuwisse well understood the challenge. “At that point,” he told me a month ago, “is a player going to care enough about it to alter their behaviour?”

Dr. Andrew Morris was someone else I consulted in August. He wasn’t professionally involved in the NHL’s return to the ice, but he’s a fan and, as an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health and University Health Network, an interested observer.

Would the champions bow to best preventive practices and forgo the clutching of the Cup, the kissing, the swigging, maybe just wave to it across the distance in the dressing room?

“I think they’ll say, ‘We’ll live with the risk here,’” Dr. Morris. And that’s true for this disease in general: there are public health issues, and then there are people’s own personal risk assessment issues.”

 

leafs in bud

Man of the Book: Ed Fitkin’s Kennedy bio appeared in 1949, five years after the man they called Teeder made his playoff debut as an 18-year-old.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs launching 18-year-old Nick Robertson into the NHL tonight — he’ll be in the line-up for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup Qualifier, making his big-league debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets — would we turn back for a moment to another youthful premiere in club history? Of course we would, and it would be a March night in 1944, when the great Ted Kennedy made his first playoff start for the Leafs.

The future Leaf captain and Hart-Trophy winner who’d go on to win five Stanley Cups with Toronto was, like Robertson, 18 when he played that first playoff game of his, though Kennedy was in fact younger on his debut than his modern-day counterpart by seven months or so.

Worth noting: Kennedy wasn’t the only 18-year-old in the Leafs’ line-up that night in the ’40s. Nor was he the youngest Leaf in the game.

This was wartime, of course, and with many NHL players having departed the league for military service, all six teams found themselves hard-pressed for manpower.

Desperate for skaters, the Leafs had signed a couple of 17-year-olds that season, including winger Eric Prentice, who (it so happens) grew up to be the father of the late federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier Jim Prentice. Prentice Sr. is still the youngest player to have played for the Leafs.

A bevy of 19-year-olds had seen Leaf service during the regular season in 1943-44, too, including a goaltender, Jean Marois, and winger Bud Poile, the future GM of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks whose son, David, is president and GM of the Nashville Predators.

To open playoffs that night in ’44, the Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished the regular season atop the NHL standings, a full 33 points ahead of third-place Toronto.

Though he was making his first playoff start, 18-year-old Ted Kennedy had played almost the entire regular season for the Leafs, contributing 25 goals and finishing fourth in team scoring. Joining him at centre in blue-and-white was another veteran, 18-year-old Jack Hamilton, who’d played his first playoff game for the team a year earlier, when he was 17. Also at centre for the Leafs that night was 20-year-old Gus Bodnar; left winger Don Webster was 19.

The youngest Leaf on the ice that night was the other 17-year-old in the Leafs’ stable, defenceman Ross Johnstone. A year earlier he’d been playing for the OHA’s Oshawa Generals, coached by former Leaf titan Charlie Conacher, as they vied for (but lost) the Memorial Cup against the Winnipeg Rangers of the MJHL.

The oldest Leaf player that night in Montreal in 1944? Right winger Lorne Carr was 33 while left winger and team captain Bob Davidson had just turned 32.

The Leafs did get off to a good series start, all those 76 years ago, surprising Montreal in their own building and beating them 3-1.

“Spirit,” Leaf coach Hap Day explained afterwards, “is the quality that we have the most of, and that’s what paid off dividends.”

Not to jinx anything, but it was all downhill from there for Toronto. Montreal swept back to win the next four games and the series, before continuing on to beat the Chicago Black Hawks and win the Stanley Cup. In the game that decided the series against the fledgling Leafs, Montreal swamped them by a score of 11-0.

working for the honour, on and off the ice

Born in Winnipeg on a Wednesday of this date in 1927, Jim Thomson was starting his 12thseason working the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline when he was named captain of the team in the fall of 1956. At 30, he was a four-time Stanley Cup-winner by then, and twice he’d been named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Coach Howie Meeker recommended his promotion to the captaincy ahead of the new season, succeeding Sid Smith. “This being a young team,” Meeker wrote to Leafs’ supremo Conn Smythe, “I think more than ever we should have a captain who can set an example on and off the ice for the kids.” Thomson had proved himself to be the Leafs’ best defenceman at training camp, the coach continued. And: “He is the only one of the possible captain candidates working for the honour on and off the ice.”

And so it was that Thomson, pictured here with his wife, June, proudly showing off his C’d sweater, took up as the Leafs’ on-ice leader. The season, unfortunately, didn’t go so well: the team stumbled from the start, and ended up out of the playoffs. By time it was all over, Smythe had accepted responsibility for what he called “a year of failure” — while summarily axing Meeker and long-serving GM Hap Day. As for Thomson, he signed on during the season as secretary for and Leafs’ representative to Ted Lindsay’s fledgling players’ association. When the players went public in February of 1957, Thomson soon found out what his boss thought of the whole business. Benched and stripped of his captaincy, Thomson was soon sold into exile, joining Lindsay and others on the NHL’s island of Broken Toys, a.k.a. the Chicago Black Hawks. “I find it very difficult to imagine,” Smythe railed, “that the captain of my club should find time during the hockey season to influence young hockey players to join an association that has no specific plans to benefit or improve hockey.”

Thomson played a year for the Black Hawks for he hung up his skates in 1958. He died in 1991 at the age of 64.

lemons and turnips greeted bert corbeau

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when these four posed in early December of 1926 at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena. The following February, Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided change was order. Just like that, in mid-season, green-and-brown St. Patricks turned to blue-and-white Maple Leafs. Above, looking stern, left to right, are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey.

Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, on this date in 1894 — it was a Friday there, then — Bertram Orion Corbeau was better known in his hockey-playing years as just plain Bert, as well as by his distinctive nickname: Pig Iron. His mother was Fanny; his father, Francois, made a busy living as a carriage-maker, undertaker, and furniture-store owner, and later, in the 1920s, served as mayor of Penetanguishene. A defenceman whose adjectives included sturdy (1916), husky, and blond backwoodsman (both dating to 1917), Bert Corbeau signed with the NHA Canadiens in 1914, helping Montreal win a Stanley Cup in ’16. He worked the Canadiens’ blueline in the team’s earliest NHL years, before Montreal sold him to the Hamilton Tigers ahead of the 1922-23 season. Traded the following year to the St. Patricks, he played his final four NHL seasons in Toronto. It’s a dubious distinction, but noteworthy all the same: in 1925-26 he became the first player in NHL history to amass more than 100 penalty minutes in a single season (he finished with 125 that year, just ahead of Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons, who had 121.)

Corbeau went on to serve as an NHL referee and, subsequently, as a minor-league coach in Ontario and with Atlantic City of the Eastern U.S. Hockey League. Bert Corbeau drowned at the age of 48 in September of 1942 when the 75-foot launch he owned and was piloting in the waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron capsized. Vern DeGeer remembered him in the pages of The Globe and Mail the day after the shocking accident, in which a total of 25 men died. “Although the barrel-chested, sandy-haired son of Penetanguishene was one of the roughest and toughest of the men of iron that jolted and jarred their way through major pro puck competition in the gory era of the sport,” DeGeer wrote, “Corbeau was a thoroughbred campaigner. Friend and foe respected the raw courage of the man.”

Headliner: Corbeau’s ongoing feud with Punch Broadbent of the Senators coloured a February, 1920 visit by Canadiens to Ottawa.