headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.

At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

concussion number one

No-one was spotting for concussions when the NHL first skated into being a hundred years ago: that’s not how hockey worked in 1917. But just because nobody was keeping track back then doesn’t mean that hockey-player brains weren’t being jarred with as frightening a regularity then as now. Hockey history doesn’t have much to say about early head injuries, beyond a few, famous, frightening incidents, like the night in 1933 that Toronto’s Ace Bailey nearly lost his life. For all we’ve read about the NHL’s inaugural two games on December 19, 1917, and about the first goal scored in league history (Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers got it), have you ever seen a reference to the league’s maiden concussion? I wondered about that, and about who might have been first. As I wrote for The Toronto Star over the weekend — the article’s online here — the best evidence we have points to Harry Hyland’s head. The Wanderers’ winger scored the NHL’s first hattrick that night, and ended up with a total of five goals in Montreal’s 10-9 win over Toronto. But the puck wasn’t going his way all night, as it happened: late in the game the Montreal-born future-Hall-of-Famer would also feel its bite.

noble cause

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As the adjectives continue to flock to Auston Matthews in the wake of his four-goal debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, the rookie offered up one of his own. The writers called him elite and incredible, sizzling, his performance was magical, spectacular, unforgettable, and NHL-record and historic. Writing the headlines for this morning’s Toronto newspapers, editors contributed Auston-ishing and Marvellous Matthews and Matt Trick to the conversation. Matthews himself? “It’s pretty surreal,” he told reporters in his becalmed way after the game.

“Auston Matthews Sets Goal Record in NHL Debut” The Globe and Mail’s Thursday front page declared above the fold. The Toronto Star’s had him as becoming the “first player to score four goals in NHL debut.” As mentioned last night here and elsewhere, Matthews’ isn’t quite the all-time goal-scoringest debut in NHL history: Joe Malone and Harry Hyland scored five apiece on the NHL’s very first night back in December of 1917. That made it, eventually, into some of the reporting last night, and figures into the late paragraphs of most of the stories online and in print yesterday.

There were some who saw reason to qualify what Malone and Hyland achieved as Lisa Wallace of La Presse Canadienne did in this morning’s La Presse: “Les deux avaient précédemment évolué dans l’Association nationale de hockey.” Some observers, like Darren Millard from Sportsnet, were amused by the notion that anyone might bother to reach back 100 years to find an historical precedent for something that was happening here and now. An adjectival fix (modern-day) seemed to satisfy others, like The Arizona Republic, which celebrated a native son on the front of the morning edition:

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Historian Eric Zweig is the long-time managing editor of the NHL’s annual Official Guide and Record Book. He has a good explainer on where Matthews’ feat fits (or doesn’t quite) into the directory of deeds.

Also in need of further explication: Reg Noble.

The pride of Collingwood, Ontario, he played on that first NHL night in 1917 as a dynamic member of Toronto’s original NHL team, known as the Arenas and also the Blueshirts or just plain Blues. Looking back at newspaper accounts of Toronto’s opening game versus the Montreal Wanderers, I saw that Noble was down as having scored a Matthewsesque four of his team’s goals in their (Leafslike) 10-9 loss. I was quick to make Noble’s claim, which nobody else seemed to be advancing and wasn’t on the NHL books.

Upon further review, it looks like Noble didn’t score four. Or did, only to have credit for one of them rescinded. Or could have, maybe, but it was hard for witnesses to see. Unless it was the scorer’s fault — did he mess up? Whatever happened, Noble’s fourth goal did not pass into history or the NHL archives.

So let the record show that Noble scored a mere three goals on December 19, 1917. While we’re at it, also maybe can we concede that the record is generally more smudged that we’d like? Easy to fault bygone chroniclers who weren’t as attentive to detail as we might wish them to have been, to bewail the paucity of corroborating tweets and GIFs. That doesn’t change anything, though: the reports from Montreal are as vague as they were before we started carping.

arena-dec-1917The accounts we have can’t agree on how many spectators were on hand at the Westmount Arena on the night. “A very small number” was as much as The Ottawa Journal could bring itself to divulge. “Barely 500,” La Patrie counted, while a wire report that appeared in The Toronto World and elsewhere had the crowd at “about 700.” Le Canada? “Hardly more than 1200 fans.”

When it came to the scoring, the local papers repeated the Toronto Daily Star summary in which Noble’s name was attached to Toronto’s first, sixth, seventh, and ninth goals. In its short game report, La Patrie identified 22-year-old Noble as “l’ex-Canadien” (he’d played the 1916-17 NHA season for the Habs). He was “active” and carried himself “like a veteran” — “he deserved a better fate.”

“By himself, he had four goals for Toronto.”

The Wanderers’ Art Ross was the star of the night, in Le Canada’s books, though he scored just a single goal. Noble got no special mention, but then nor did Montreal’s own five-goal hero Harry Hyland. He was knocked out at one point, according to The Ottawa Journal, when an errant puck “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye.”

Like everybody else writing about the game, Le Canada noted Toronto’s dreadful goaltending. Sammy Hebert started the game, but after what the Journal rated a “mediocre” first period (he allowed five goals), in came Art Brooks. “Sammy Hebert couldn’t stop a flock of balloons,” someone at the game advised the Daily Star, “and Brooks wasn’t any better.”

Ross’ goal was “one of the prettiest of the evening,” testified The Ottawa Journal’s witness, failing to file specifics: “an individual effort in which he outguessed the Blue defence” was as much as he was willing to say.

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The Journal’s summary is the only one I’ve seen that varies from the Noble-scored-four norm. It’s a complete muddle, missing one Toronto goal entirely and attributing another to someone called “Neville” when no-one of that name was lined up for either team — although the referee was Lieutenant Tom Melville. In this version, Reg Noble is down for just two goals.

To further confound its stats-minded readership, same day, same edition, the Journal ran a list of the NHL’s leading scorers that tallies ten for Torontonians.

Back in Toronto, the Daily Star was sowing some confusion of its own. A suggestion that Noble’s famous four goals might not last into posterity appears in a dissenting opinion in the December 20 Star two columns to the left of the game summary in which they’re reported.

“Just how good Cameron and Noble were at Montreal last night is indicated by the fact that they got three goals each,” writes the Star’s anonymous contradictor. “Charlie Queerie [sic] says that Dennenay [sic] got the other three, but the official summary credits Skinner with one.”

Whether or not he scored four that first night, Noble did turn in a stellar season for the eventual NHL and Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Credited with just the three, he ended the regular season with 30 goals in 20 games, finishing third in goals and points in the league, behind Canadiens’ Joe Malone and Cy Denneny of Ottawa.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing: in February of 1918, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie fined Noble and teammate Harry Cameron $100 each for what the papers called “breaking training.” That could include anything, of course, from oversleeping to refusing to do push-ups to smuggling a bottle of gin onto the powerplay in the game against Canadiens. What we do know is that Noble’s fine was doubled when he continued to defy the boss.

There were injuries, too, notably at the end of the season, when Noble was reported lamed in the last game of the regular season when Ottawa’s Rusty Crawford kicked him with his skate — while, puzzlingly, Crawford was trying “to get” teammate Eddie Gerard.

Still, as the season wound down, The Ottawa Journal was picking Noble out of the crowd to praise. Not only was he big and fast and tricky on the stickhandle, he checked back hard, scored goals without being selfish, “and has a lot of hockey knowledge stored in his noodle.”

Noble has played beautiful hockey this winter and though fans hear and think more of Malone, Lalonde, Nighbor, and a couple of others, the blue-clad boy appears to have a little on them all as an around player. Reg Noble for ours, if we have asked [sic] to pick out the most effective player in the NHL today.

The modern-day Maple Leafs get set to announce, today, their list of the best 100 players in their history. Will Auston Matthews’ name be among them? I’m guessing that Reg Noble’s won’t be. Who remembers him? There’s always a chance, of course, that he’ll be back in the news as soon as tomorrow night, when Matthews makes his home debut against the Boston Bruins. Reg Noble’s came on another Saturday, December 22, 1917, when Toronto beat the Ottawa Senators 11-4. Don’t tell Matthews, but in his second game, Reg Noble scored four goals.

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Hospital chaplain Rev. W. Mann visits Reg Noble at Toronto General in April of 1960; nurse Nancy Beatty looks on. (Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

a matthews (modern-day) marvel

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Reg Noble, 1917-18

Auston Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, though they weren’t quite enough to beat the Ottawa Senators: the home team scored five to win the game in overtime.

Calling the game across Canada on Sportsnet, Paul Romaniuk was quick to declare that Matthews, 19, had set a new NHL record: no-one before had scored so many goals ever before in their first game in the league.

That’s not true, of course: three players did so, even if it was a very long time ago: on the very first night of NHL action, December 19, 1917. All four of the league’s teams were playing, with the Montreal Canadiens beating the original Senators 7-4 while the Montreal Wanderers overwhelmed Toronto’s Arenas 10-9. Harry Hyland scored 5 goals in that latter game for Montreal, while Toronto’s Reg Noble notched four; for the Canadiens, Joe Malone finished with five, too.

By the time tonight’s game was over, as the excited dispatches started to appear online, Hyland and Malone were duly acknowledged, if only grudgingly — they were aged, it was pointed out, 28 and 27 years old respectively, and had had plenty of big-league experience already playing in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association. Sportsnet was still claiming the all-time NHL record for Matthews during the Edmonton-Calgary broadcast that followed the Toronto-Ottawa game and on through the latenight round-ups, but most others reports were allowing that the record is “modern-day.”

Reg Noble’s name was mostly missing from tonight’s mentions — maybe because it doesn’t appear in the NHL’s own record book, according to Eric Hornick, a statistician on New York Islanders’ home broadcasts. We’ll see whether Noble gets due, too, ancient-day or not.

Wanderers 10, Torontos 9: from the Toronto Daily Star, December 20, 1917

Wanderers 10, Torontos 9: from the Toronto Daily Star, December 20, 1917