Nels Stewart shoots, Normie Smith stymies; that’s Wings’ centreman Gord Pettinger arriving late to the action. Stewart’s New York Americans did end up prevailing on this night at Madison Square Garden in early February of 1937, with the lowly Amerks outlasting the defending Stanley Cup champions from Detroit by a score of 3-2.
Smith, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1988, got his NHL start with Montreal’s Maroons before going on to play seven further seasons — winning two Cups — with Detroit. Though the NHL’s official recordkeeping doesn’t extend back far enough to recognize it, Smith holds the record for most saves in a game. On March 24, 1936, in the NHL’s longest-ever game, the Wings beat the Maroons 3-2 in the sixth overtime when Mud Bruneteau beat Montreal’s Lorne Chabot. Chabot had rerouted 67 shots before that, while Smith barred 90.
The puck hit the captain of the Boston Bruins square on the jaw and he headed for the bench. The pain the big defenceman was in was obvious to anyone watching, but he finished the game. X-rays later revealed that the jaw was fractured, but that wasn’t going to deter him, and he was soon back on the ice as his team battled for the Stanley Cup.
No, not Zdeno Chara.
As Pam Coburn was recalling on Friday, the Bruins’ 20th captain isn’t the first to play in the Stanley Cup finals while wearing special headgear to protect a less-than-intact jaw: Lionel Hitchman got there first, the team’s second captain, in the spring of 1930. An Ottawa-area writer and former CEO of Skate Canada, Coburn knows the story well, having just published a Hitchman biography, Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Hero, that makes the compelling case that the stalwart defenceman’s absence from the Hockey Hall of Fame is a wrong that ought to be righted. She also happens to be Hitchman’s granddaughter.
As Chara prepares to put his face, once again, to the fore in tonight’s sixth game in St. Louis, a quick review of Hitchman’s historical hurt is what we’ll undertake here. He was 28 in 1930, playing in his sixth season as a Bruin, the third as captain. If Eddie Shore, his brilliant, combustive partner on the Bs’ blueline, got most of the headlines in those years, Hitchman was considered by many to be league’s most effective and hardest-to-bypass defenders.
The Bruins, you may remember, were the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1930. At the beginning of March, cruising towards the end of the regular season, they brought along a 14-game unbeaten run to their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. It was in extending that streak with a 2-1 win that Hitchman suffered his damage, and Shore was the one to inflict it. In the second period, during an Ottawa attack, Hitchman fell to friendly fire: the puck that struck Hitchman came off Shore’s stick.
As mentioned, he finished that Saturday game, though by the next day the Bruins were announcing that, based on the breakage that team physician Dr. Joe Shortell was seeing in his x-rays, Hitchman wouldn’t be back in action until the playoffs.
That was almost right. Hitchman missed four games before making his return for the Bruins’ final regular-season date, on Tuesday, March 18, at home to the New York Rangers. Though their winning streak had ended earlier in the week with an overtime loss to Chicago, the Bruins were back on track again, walloping New York 9-2. The captain wore the headgear pictured here, above. After having missed almost three weeks, Hitchman was his usual steady self, “the same defensive star” as ever, according John Hallahan of Boston’s Globe, “his poke and sweep checks being as brilliantly executed as before his injury.”
Of note: the Rangers’ best defenceman was also back on the ice with a sore jaw to protect. Ching Johnson had broken his in a February collision with the Bruins’ Dit Clapper, only making his return to the line-up in the Rangers’ previous game. The device that he wore wasn’t so much a helmet as — well, in New York’s Daily News, Noel Busch described it as “a brown bib or choker of some sort, patterned after a horse collar and intended to ward off any injuries to his tender portion.”
Hitchman subsequently played in all six of Boston’s playoff games that spring. They first faced the Montreal Maroons, overwhelming them in four games. The limits of Hitchman’s headgear were apparent in both the second game, when a Montreal stick cut him over the left eye for two stitches and the fourth, during which Nels Stewart caught the Boston captain over the right, adding seven new stitches to his forehead.
The Bruins met the Canadiens in the final. Despite Hitchman’s best efforts, they couldn’t defend their title, falling in two straight games to the mightier of the Montreals. John Hallahan was at the Montreal Forum to see the decisive game, which saw Montreal prevail 4-3 after a puck that Cooney Weiland put past George Hainsworth was deemed to have been kicked in and so disallowed.
“After the final bell,” Hallahan wrote, “the players condoled and congratulated each other. Capt Lionel Hitchman and Manger [Art] Ross raced to the Canadiens’ dressing room to congratulate the winners.”
(Top image courtesy Pam Coburn)
It was on this day in 1950 that Gordie Howe was grievously injured in a clash with Toronto’s Ted Kennedy, falling head-first into the boards at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on the opening night of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Rushed to Harper Hospital, Howe was soon in surgery, where neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Schreiber saved his life by draining fluid building up near the brain. In the memoir that writer and broadcaster Paul Haavardsrud ghosted on Howe’s behalf in 2014, the patient recalled being aware of the noise of the operation, and pressure on his head. “My most vivid memory from the 90-minute operation,” the tale is told in Mr. Hockey: My Story, “is hoping they’d know when to stop.”
There was much debate in 1950 about just what had happened on the ice that night. (In later years, the incident would be fodder for the pages of comic books.) Many witnesses at the Olympia held that Kennedy had high-sticked Howe with purpose, sending him into the boards, though Kennedy swore it wasn’t so. Howe’s version, circa 2014: “As I recollect it, I believe his stick hit me, but I don’t blame him for it. He was just following through on a backhand and trying not to get hit. Hockey’s a fast game and sometimes things happen.”
While Howe recovered (and, above, tended his mail) in hospital, Detroit went on without him to beat Toronto in seven games. They did the same to the New York Rangers to win the 1950 Cup, the Red Wings’ first since 1943. “As close as I came to shuffling off into the sunset at the tender age of 21,” Howe narrates in My Story, “I bounced back relatively quickly from surgery.” He joined Detroit for training camp that fall, donning a helmet, if only for a short spell, on the advice of his doctors.
Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL neither were they 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.
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.”
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.
Every year it declares itself, as November ebbs away, sure as U.S. Thanksgiving, and this year was no different.
If you’re on Twitter and you have a taste for hockey history, then it may be that on Friday last, amid the day’s holiday leftovers, you saw a reference to the Legend of Eddie Shore’s Five Fighting Majors (An NHL Record). Maybe you also took in some of the replies and comments that attended the observance of the supposed anniversary: many of them, if you missed out, contained lusty endorsements of old-time hockey and its glorious bygone bad-assery.
The focus of all this is a game that the Boston Bruins played on November 23, 1929 against the Montreal Maroons at the old Forum. Although Shore didn’t, that night, accrue five majors or drop his gloves to fight five separate opponents, this was an exceedingly violent game. If it’s worth studying, it may be as an exemplar of the NHL’s troubling tendency (a big one in the 1920s) to veer into violence above and beyond the business-as-usual shoving and punching and grievous hacking and swinging of sticks that the league and its fans were more or less used to. It might have offered a chance for professional hockey to look itself in the eye and think about effecting real change. Instead, the NHL followed in a tradition it holds dear, one that’s still cherished to this day: it did nothing.
What’s not in doubt, looking back at what happened that night 89 years ago — well, several things. The game — and in particular, the third period — was vicious. Whether the malice was aforethought or of the moment, the Maroons do seem to have been intent on forcing Shore from the ice in the direction of a hospital. It’s true, too, that the referees charged with keeping the peace and reproving those who disturbed it failed in their work.
Veteran Maroons’ defenceman Buck Boucher later said it was the roughest game he’d ever played in. Fist-fighting doesn’t seem to have featured in the mayhem, so far as the written record shows. Mostly, the antagonists appear to have held onto their sticks and used them to do the damage they meant to do. Montreal trainer Bill O’Brien had been handling hockey teams for 27 years — as long as Eddie Shore had been alive at that point— and he said that never had he seen players so battered by butt-ends as on this November night.
So far as records being set? Shore took three minor penalties on the night, but didn’t incur one fighting major, let alone five. Indeed, for all the game’s turmoil, referees George Mallinson and Leo Heffernan assessed not a single major that night.
A visit to the NHL’s archive of historical game data at NHL.com confirms that (here). A review of contemporary newspaper accounts — what men who were at the game wrote and published in its immediate aftermath — doesn’t support the idea that’s so dear to the hearts of hockey-fight enthusiasts, viz. that Eddie Shore fought — i.e. dropped the gloves + exchanged punches with, or used sticks to fence against — five different Maroons on the night, thereby setting some kind of shining standard of bellicose derring-do.
Eddie Shore was many things as a hockey player. He was only in his fourth season with the Bruins in 1929, but already it was clear that he was a superstar, one of the NHL’s first. His talents, I guess, had limits, but those were far beyond most of his contemporaries. He also had a temper and a lack of fear that all these years later strike you at times — well, me — as almost monstrous. Reading about his exploits on the ice in the 1920s and ’30s conjures the image of a swiftly skating mean streak. All of which is to say that when it comes to hockey’s violent side, Shore was usually front and centre. “He is 185 pounds of rather husky bone, muscle and sinew,” wrote Ralph Clifford in The Boston Traveler, “and is willing to trade bumps, legal and illegal, with anyone on skates.”
He was, in a word, game. Maybe that qualifies the events we’re talking about here, but it doesn’t really explain them. “It was a whole clan against one man,” Le Canada reported, “and that’s what made the whole affair revolting. It was obvious that it was no longer hockey but a program to get rid of Shore.”
Shore’s injuries were widely reported: along with various facial cuts and what La Pressecalled “painful but non-serious bruises,” he suffered (from the Gazette) “a broken nose, the loss of four teeth that had been originally on a bridge, and a slight concussion.”
Also injured in the game were two of the other leading men: Babe Siebert, playing wing for Maroons, ended up with a broken toe, a bruised rib, and a blackened eye (swollen “just about closed”). Montreal’s Dave Trottier also came away in some distress, which the Montreal Gazette later specified with this (possibly non-clinical) diagnosis: a butt-end administered by Shore “shoved a bone in on his lungs which resulted in the Maroon winger having a hemorrhage after the game. Trottier was still spitting up blood yesterday.”
Boston captain Lionel Hitchman took a stick to the head in the first period, resulting in a cut near an eye. All but unremarked amid the uproar surrounding Shore is the possibility that both goaltenders — Boston’s Tiny Thompson and Clint Benedict of Montreal — suffered concussions during the game. Both men, of course, continued on after their brief respective respites, because that’s what you did as an NHL goaltender in 1929, until you no longer could.
The two teams did have a busy history of enmity. A mean-spirited game in January of 1928, for example, featured Boston defenceman Sprague Cleghorn butt-ending Maroons’ forward Hooley Smith (no penalty was called). Shore and Siebert feuded the night away, too: by the Montreal Gazette’s telling, one of their clashes in the third period saw Siebert apply stick and glove to Shore’s face. “Referee [Dr. Eddie] O’Leary waved Siebert off for a minor. Shore went to the ice as if badly injured. Referee-in-Chief Cooper Smeaton, who officiated when Alex Romeril was held up by a late train, took command and booted Siebert’s penalty to a major. Shore got up and continued in the play.”
NHL President Frank Calder had already suspended Siebert once that season, ten days for attacking Billy Boucher of the New York Americans with his stick; now, having incurred his third major of the season, Siebert faced a further one-game suspension for (as wire report put it) “belting Shore across the face with the flat of his stick.”
Another Bruins-Maroons meeting in February of 1929 was noteworthy (said the Gazette) for cross-checks, butt-ends, and “indifferent” refereeing. Hooley Smith served two minors, Shore four. Shore was Smith’s “old pet aversion,” said The Ottawa Journal; The Canadian Press recounted that the two of men were involved in “a private feud” all game. “In fact, Shore, reputed to be one of the most brilliant hockeyists in the game today, was a marked man throughout, and Smith was not the only Maroon player that paid special attention to the big fellow.”
The Gazette did on this occasion log Shore’s habit for playing “possum every chance he got.” Sometimes it helped his cause, but not always. “It looked pretty bad when the referees didn’t fall for his little spasms of emotional acting.”
The season was still young when the Bruins travelled to Montreal towards the end of November of 1929. The defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston had won all three of their games to begin the campaign, while the Maroons had a record of 2-2. Art Ross’ roster, coming into Montreal, was a diminished one, with Harry Oliver laid low with the grippe and George Owen left behind in Boston: a former Harvard University football star, he had a gig writing up his old team’s big game with Yale for the Boston Globe. So it was with just two defencemen that Boston lined up at the Forum, meaning Shore and Lionel Hitchman played every minute — save those, of course, when they were sitting on the penalty bench or lying bleeding in the dressing room, about to depart for the hospital.
Contemporary newspaper accounts don’t illuminate the game in anything approaching complete its colour and detail, but they’re what we have to guide us. My review of what did and didn’t happen relies on accounts from six main Montreal newspapers: the English-language Gazette and Herald as well as, in French, Le Canada, La Presse, La Patrie, and Le Devoir. These are fairly substantial reports, if not exactly consistent. Three of these were bylined: the Herald (Baz O’Meara), La Patrie (Horace Lavigne), and Le Devoir (X.E. Narbonne).
The Boston papers I’ve examined include issues of The Boston Traveler,The Evening Transcript, and The Daily Boston Globe, none of which seems to have had a correspondent of their own in Montreal at the Forum. The Globe, for example, relied on an Associated Press account of the action. Other prominent Canadian papers (Ottawa’s Citizen and Journal; the Toronto Globe and Star) ran short wire reports from the Canadian Press.Beyond those, you’ll find that accounts appearing in farther flung newspapers keep it short and distilled. Précised in Monday’s Winnipeg Tribune, the game that Manitobans read about was merely “thrilling” and “hard-hitting.”
For two periods, the teams battled (as the Gazette told it) like bulldogs, at lightning speed. That Boston won the game 4-3 was the least of the news when it was all over. “As hectic a struggle as Forum ice has witnessed in many a moon,” was the word from Montreal’s Gazette next day, under this vivid subhead:
Contest Stopped in Third
Period While Blood Is
Scraped From Ice.
Most of the havoc occurred in the third period. But most of the penalties — six of the game’s 12 minors — were handed out in the second. The NHL’s database is not so helpful that it names the infractions involved, and newspaper summaries aren’t any help either. One of the French-language chronicles helps out somewhat on this count. Shore’s two second-period penalties were called, respectively, when he “brought down” right winger Merlyn Phillips and then Hooley Smith. In the third: “Shore shoved Trottier and was banished.”
Was this last penalty roughing, maybe, or interference? I can’t say. The French verb used here is an excellent one, bousculer. What seems clear is that Shore’s third-period bousculade followed some that both Smith and Trottier visited on him without being penalized.
Smith was first. Here, translated, is how Le Canada saw that exchange:
Smith knocked over Shore and gave him a cross-check. He escaped without punishment. Art Ross tried to pull him back but he insisted on continuing. He was all bloody. Smith charged Shore again and again withdrew without punishment.
Cut though he was, Shore carried on. “His injuries,” Le Canada was convinced at this point, “were insignificant.”
Trottier came at him next. Le Canada describes “a strong cross-check” that wounded Shore above the eye.
La Patrie’s version of this:
Towards the middle of the third period, Trottier planted his stick in Shore’s face, cutting him deeply over the eye. It took a minute for the referees to stop the game, and Shore’s face was dripping with blood.
La Presse saw this intervention as somewhat more forceful. Near Montreal’s net, Trottier struck Shore “with a blow of the stick that would have felled an ox.”
This heinous assault was carried out under the eyes of referee Leo Heffernan and he did not even make a comment to the attacker. It is hard to believe that the blow was accidentally struck.
Along with these individual attacks, Smith and Trottier may also to have teamed up for more Shore-mauling. Baz O’Meara of The Montreal Star saw this:
Smith and Trottier sandwiched Shore and gave him plenty of butt end. He was sent reeling and was groggy when he came up. He was taken out by Art Ross and blood was streaming from his eyes as he went to the side for repairs.
The correspondent from La Presse couldn’t understand why Boston’s marquee defenceman remained in the game. “From the reporters’ gallery,” he wrote, “as from any prominent spot in the rink, you could see that Shore was barely standing on his legs.” Others noted that Ross’ efforts to pull Shore from the game were met by the defenceman’s refusal to withdraw.
It was almost over — so close. Under the heading “Siebert’s Villainous Act,” La Patrie told of the game’s furious finale. With a minute to play, down by a goal, “the Maroons were making unheard of efforts to equal the score.” There’s a lively shifting of tenses here on the page, past to present, present back to past:
Shore is everywhere, multiplying himself to stop his opponents. Suddenly, Siebert goes up the centre of the ice and Shore goes to meet him and blocks him. For an answer, Siebert raises his stick and hits Shore on the nose. The Bruins’ defense player bleeds in abundance, and even falls on the ice. The blow was struck under Mallinson’s gaze, five feet from him, and the least that the culprit should have had was a major punishment. But then the game was stopped several seconds later, when it was apparent that Shore was not getting up again. When he was helped to his feet, a pool of blood marked the ice, and it had to be scraped to remove it.
That’s the lengthiest of the accounts I’ve looked at describing the incident that ended the night. Others feature what seems to be conflicting information — did Shore make it off the ice on his own or was he borne? These include:
• La Presse’s, wherein Siebert “pitilessly” cross-checked Shore’s nose. “The victim collapsed to the ice in a pool of blood and his teammates then carried him to their dressing room.”
• Le Canada: “There was a melee and Shore was seriously injured. Siebert gave him a cross-check to his face. The game ended a few seconds later.”
• Le Devoir: “Siebert was especially distinguished by his wild action in the final minutes of the game as he deliberately attacked Eddie Shore, applying a cross-check full in the face with the result that the defence player’s nose was broken and he lost a large amount of blood.”
• The Gazette says only that “Shore was cut down and so beaten that he lay prone on the ice.” (An accompanying aside asserts that Shore had, earlier in the game, gone unpunished when he “smack[ed] Siebert over the Adam’s apple when he lay prone on the ice behind the Boston cage.”)
• The Montreal Star: “Then in the final couple of minutes of the third period, Shore was victim to a high stick and was knocked down again. Siebert delivered the wallop. Shore was given a great hand as he went over to get attention. The ice was smeared with blood. He had another bad cut over his eyes. Siebert escaped without a penalty.”
• The Boston Globe’s AP report leaves it at “Siebert checked Shore heavily and the Bruin defense man was assisted off the ice by his teammates, leaving the ice stained with blood where he fell.”
While the hockey players travelled, the newspapermen prepared their columns for Monday morning’s editions. For Shore, the local papers had praise and commiseration: “the courageous athlete,” they called him, “brave” and “intrepid,” “a fortress in front of [Tiny] Thompson,” even “poor Shore.”
But this was mostly secondary: they had blame to lay. Montreal’s French-language press was particularly scathing when it came to calling out those deemed responsible for what La Pressecalled the “revolting butchery” and a “slaughter.” Le Canada’s writer was likewise sickened: he’d seen many “regrettable scenes” in the 20 years he’d been watching hockey, but none that surpassed what he’d viewed on this night.
A plurality of fans leaving the Forum were, from what X.E. Narbonne of Le Devoir could tell, “disgusted” with the “treacherous, anti-sporting, and repugnant tactics” practiced by members of the team they supported. Several spectators were reported to have sought out Boston coach Art Ross after the game to volunteer to testify about the attacks on Shore, if witnesses were needed for prosecutions. A pair of Boston city councillors who happened to be attending the game also stepped up to offer testimony on Shore’s behalf.
The papers reserved most of their disgust for referees Mallinson and Heffernan for allowing the violence to escalate. La Presse spoke of their “unspeakable indifference.” Ralph Clifford of The Boston Traveler described how, usually, two capable referees would split the work on the ice, with one man watching the puck and the other the players. “In this case,” he declared, “both must have been watching the puck, for Shore did not have the puck at any time that he was slashed or butted.”
“As the duel developed and personal feuds kindled into flame,” the Gazette would say, “practically everything went, including cross checking and open butt ends in opponents’ eyes, yet no penalties were given.”
“Both clubs agree,” Clifford offered, “that had officials been prompt in putting down the high sticks and other cute little innuendoes which virile hockey players sometimes inject into a red hot game, that no injury would have been done to any player.”
NHL supremo Frank Calder deserved some scorn, too — the man paid $12,500 to run the NHL certainly had to answer, La Presse said, for “culpable negligence” in appointing such terrible referees.
The papers didn’t spare the Maroons: La Patrie decried Trottier’s and Siebert’s “brainless” behaviour, La Presse their “wild acts of savagery.” The latter delineated the dishonour and shame they’d brought down on themselves and their team. There was much speculation regarding how long Siebert would be suspended, and whether it might be for life. Trottier deserved some kind of sentence, too, probably. Both men would, La Presse said, have ample opportunity while they sat out to “meditate on their inhumane acts.”
Also brutal (“to a lesser degree, certainly”): Nels Stewart, Red Dutton, Merlyn Phillips, and Hooley Smith.
Ross was livid. I’ve seen reference to a heated radio interview he gave when he got back to Boston, but I don’t know what he said there. Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam quotes his outrage without sourcing it: “The hockey displayed by the Maroons was a crime. It was brutal. Eddie Shore was knocked out four times.” As in unconscious? I don’t think that’s his meaning here: a Boston Globe write-up about Ross’ ire doesn’t quote him directly but says that it stemmed from “the fact that Shore was hurt four times and that he finally had to be carried from the ice.”
Ross made his report to Bruins’ owner and president Charles F. Adams, who duly submitted a formal protest to Frank Calder specifically citing Babe Siebert’s conduct. There was some urgency to the matter: the two teams were due to meet again on Tuesday, November 26, just three days after the hurly-burly at the Forum.
As for the Maroons, it should be noted that the Montrealers had their own narrative of what happened at the Forum. Here’s Ralph Clifford in November 26’s Boston Traveler:
The Maroons are peeved at being called vicious, or perpetrators of frightfulness. They declare that they are as much sinned against as sinning and that if certain of the Bruins were hurt it is because they were beaten to the punch. To a man they indignantly deny that there was any attempt to “get” Shore or any other member of the Bruins and whatever Shore or any other player got was merely what he was attempting to hand out to the Maroon players.
Would Siebert play? What about Smith and Trottier? All three did, in fact, line up for the Boston re-match, tender lungs and all. Frank Calder decided against suspending Siebert: as he explained it to Adams, “statements of the Shore-Siebert clash were so highly contradictory that the Montreal player was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.”
Eddie Shore hoped to skate in the rematch. He was home all day Monday, under the care of Bruins’ physician Dr. Martin Crotty. Shore wasn’t talking, but The Evening Transcript reported Tuesday morning that he was ready to go. “The only drawback out of his injuries is that the broken nose impairs his breathing.” If he did skate, it would be with a football helmet (“equipped with a nose protection”) borrowed from the Harvard University team.
Ralph Clifford noted Shore’s silence in Tuesday’s Traveler:
He has not uttered a single chirp about last Saturday’s game. He won’t even admit that he played. Surely the player who took such a beating as he got and won’t squawk to offer the tiniest alibi or make any statement is deserving of admiration. There are not many in the game who would let an opportunity like this go by without making a bid for sympathy, but the Edmonton Express is as mum as the Sphinx over the whole matter.
In the event, Shore only made it as far as the stands at Boston Garden, watching from a box with his wife, Kate, as the teams took the ice. George Owen took his place on defence. Anticipating that the 15,000 home fans on hand might try to take revenge on the Maroons in Shore’s name, the Bruins brought in extra police to keep the peace. As for Shore’s teammates, A. Linde Fowler reported in The Evening Transcript that Adams and Ross would “send their players on the ice with strict orders to play straight legitimate hockey, with no attempts at retaliation for what happened in Montreal.”
There was a local view, too, that the visitors weren’t to be feared. “When playing away from the Forum,” Fowler reflected, “the Maroons do not put on their rough stuff. In fact, they are about as meek an outfit as there is in the NHL while playing abroad.”
Just in case, Calder assigned head NHL referee Cooper Smeaton to work the game alongside George Mallinson. Smeaton started the night by assembling the teams at centre-ice to (the Globe) “read the riot act amid the hoots and jeers of the capacity crowd.” Whatever fireworks were expected, this second Maroons-Bruins summit “was devoid of real rough work.” Babe Siebert was booed, and “came in for much razzing,” but “attended to his knitting,” contributing an assist on Nels Stewart’s first-period goal.
The thermometer in the Garden didn’t help the home team, the Globe reported: the heat in the rink was “almost depressing,” and may have contributed to the Bruins’ lethargy. When it was over, Boston had lost its first game of the young season by a score of 6-1.
They righted themselves four days later in Pittsburgh. With Shore back in the line-up and scoring a goal, the Bruins beat the Pirates 6-2 .
The other news of the week was that Bruins’ president Charles F. Adams presented his hardy defenceman with a cheque for $500. This much-reported gift was said to be based on an admiring calculation of “$100 for each scar received,” according to Boston’s Globe. In an accompanying letter, Adams “spoke of the untiring efforts and high sportsmanship of the star since he joined the Bruins.”
Shore promptly cashed the cheque and shared the money among his teammates, “believing that every one of them was subjected to the same treatment” he’d suffered.
That’s almost all. In Boston if not anywhere else speculation lingered that the league might yet take action against Babe Siebert and/or make change rules to check the violence that seemed to be on the rise — or perhaps just look into improving the quality of the referees. The league’s Board of Governors met in Chicago in December of 1929 and there was some conjecture that the events of November 23 might be on the agenda. Maybe they were; nothing came of it.
A coda: after all his years with Montreal followed by a short stint with the New York Rangers, Babe Siebert was traded to Boston in December of 1933. For the Bruins, it was a bit of an emergency measure. With Eddie Shore’s indefinite suspension that month for his attack on Toronto’s Ace Bailey, the Bruins found themselves short on manpower.
So that’s what happened, back in November of 1929.
As for what didn’t, I can’t say where the apparently immortal myth of Shore’s five fighting majors first bloomed, just that it weeds Twitter every November 23, as it probably will again next year.
The fable of five fights seems to be seeded in, and mutated from, a lively description of the November 23 game that appears on page 69 of Liam Maguire’s 2001 book What’s The Score? A One-of-a-Kind Compendium of Hockey Lore, Legend, History, Facts, Stats. This account includes many of the same scenes and circumstances mentioned above, along with several that don’t show up in any of the contemporary accounts I’ve considered. What’s The Score? doesn’t cite sources, so it’s not clear where the outlier incidents originated.
Maguire doesn’t, to be clear, mention major penalties. His original claim for November 23, 1929 is that “Shore made hockey history with five separate fights in one game.” To wit: he exchanged punches with (in order) Maroons Buck Boucher, Dave Trottier, Hooley Smith, Red Dutton, and Babe Siebert.
Maguire has written elsewhere that it was no less of an authority than Aurèle Joliat who got him going on this in the first place. They were friends back in the 1980s and one night — December 12, 1985, in fact —the conversation turned to Sprague Cleghorn. Joliat declared that Eddie Shore was not only a better fighter than old Sprague, but had once, long ago, taken on five Maroons in a single raucous game. Maguire was surprised, and intrigued. “There was no record of this, no way to check it up. Seemed impossible.”
He duly dug up the details, he says, by consulting the second volume of Charles Coleman’s Trail of the Stanley Cup (1969), wherein he eventually came across the potted account of the 1929 game — this one — that seemed to fit the bill he was after.
It was at Ottawa’s public library, trawling microfiche, that Maguire subsequently turned up an account in a Montreal newspaper that backed up and fleshed out the story. He can’t recall which one it was, just that it confirmed the Maroons’ mandate to put Shore out of the game. And: “The story also detailed the incidents with Boucher, Smith, Siebert, Trottier, and Dutton.”
And the fact that so many Montreal newspapers that took a deep and even passionate interest in this game, along with others from Boston and beyond, don’t offer any evidence of this?
“It’s my contention,” Maguire says, “that Shore dropped the gloves in all five of those confrontations.”
That last assertion dates back a couple of years, to another late November, when Twitter was once again minorly abuzz with the spurious anniversary. I took the bait, bit, ended up, eventually, in a back- and-forth with Maguire that was exactly as edifying as any social-media back-and-forth ever is. I suggested that notwithstanding my admiration for Aurèle Joliat, I was having difficulty getting past the, well, history of the thing, and how primary accounts from 1929 failed to corroborate what Maguire was telling me and Twitter.
“Gotta go with the Trailand what I read,” was one response Maguire posted as a closing argument. Also: “You may choose to disagree.” Charles Coleman, he felt, still proves out his dream of Eddie Shore’s quintuple fight-night. “They were altercations. Violent. Sticks involved. For me, fights.”
I was back on the case on Twitter last Friday, as was Maguire. He’s sticking to his story:
So as previously discussed, Jack Crawford, Boston defenceman of yore, was bald — “very, very,” according to Stan Fischler — and that’s why he wore a helmet. There’s lots in the way of anecdote to back all this up in the hockey books, if you get around to consulting them. Longtime Beantown broadcaster Fred Cusick mentions it in his 2006 memoir, Voice of the Bruins, for instance: Crawford wore the helmet “for cosmetic reasons,” he writes, “having lost his hair as a young man.” Turns out Ultimate Hockey (1999) quotes Crawford himself (no source offered) on the origin story: “When I played football as a teenager for St. Mike’s, the paint would peel off inside of my helmet and the doctors say that some chemical in the paint triggered the skin infection that caused all of my hair to fall out over the years.”
It is true that in most of the photographs you’ll find — the ones I’ve seen, anyway — Crawford has his helmet firmly in place. Also that — as in this one, from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive, or this one — from what you can discern of what’s beneath the headpiece, his hair looks decidedly scant. But then (also in the Hall), there’s this photo showing quite a coif.
It’s the one you’ll see reproduced, as it happens in Andrew Podnieks’ voluminous historical ledger Players (2003). Podnieks, who’s typically very detailed in his biographical sketches, makes no mention in Crawford’s entry of any hair loss — the defenceman wore his helmet, he maintains, because he’d suffered a concussion early on in his career. Again, there’s no source provided for this.
To yesterday’s question of whether Crawford was bald but then grew back his hair; acquired a toupée; and/or had his photograph touched up — well, I don’t really have any definitive answer on that. If only to further/muddle the mystery, I can offer up for examination the photograph that tops the post. There’s no date on it, but given the players lined up, it would have to have been taken between 1940 and 1942. That’s Crawford on the far left, wearing number 6 and what looks to be as healthy a head of hair as Dit Clapper’s impressive do alongside him. Clapper’s, we know, is authentic, and Crawford’s (can we agree?) looks genuine enough. Could it be artful? I can’t really decide. Zooming in, below, you can see that an editorial hand seems to have darkened the horizon of Clapper’s hairline to distinguish it from the background. In Crawford’s case, I go back and forth. If someone did go to the trouble of painting it in — well, then, all I can say is bravo.
(Top photo, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
Lots of NHLers donned helmets in the 1930s: call it the Ace Bailey Effect. Bailey, of course, was a fleet Toronto winger who nearly died after Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him down in December of 1933 and his head hit the ice. Carried off the ice at Boston Garden, Bailey’s survival was very much in doubt as he underwent the two skull surgeries that ended up saving his life, though he never played another hockey game.
Many players across the league adopted helmets in the months that followed; lots of them ended up abandoning them after a brief trial.
The Bruins actually had a regular helmet-wearer before Bailey went to ice in George Owen, who served as the team’s captain in 1931-32.
Afterwards, they had Jack Crawford, captain for three seasons through to 1950. He didn’t start his career as a Bruins’ defenceman until 1938, and he arrived in the league with headgear in place.
Born on this date in 1916, Crawford hailed from the western Ontario hamlet of Dublin, not far up the road from Howie Morenz’s hometown of Mitchell. He would go on to play all of his 13 NHL seasons with Boston, winning two Stanley Cups along the way, in 1939 and 1941. In 1946, he was named to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team. He died in 1973 at the age of 56.
For Crawford, wearing a helmet was a matter (at least in part) of modesty. It all stemmed from a youthful mishap caused by … a helmet. He played schoolboy football in Toronto in the early 1930s — possibly at St. Mike’s, where he was a Junior B Buzzer? Along with several teammates, he suffered a reaction to the paint used on the football helmets, causing the loss of his hair, and he wore a leather hockey helmet ever after to cover the lack.
Just how bald was he?
A Boston Globe article from 1938 explaining the situation says “practically.”
“Jack very, very bald,” Stan Fischler has written. “The helmet did a very, very good job of concealing his pate.”
“Completely bald,” Fischler has also said, in a different book, explaining that he was “so embarrassed by it that he decided to wear the headpiece.”
A reminiscence from a 1970 edition of The Boston Globe recalled this:
Whenever his helmet was knocked off the capacity crowd would react when they saw his totally bald head. There was just something eerie about hearing 14,000 gasp “Oooooh!”
All of which makes this photograph from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive a bit of a … head-scratcher. It’s the only one I can recall seeing that shows Crawford without the helmet. He first wore number 5 for the Bruins before switching (as above) to 19 for a single season, 1938-39. After that he was 6, which means this photo was taken at some point between 1939 and 1950, probably in Toronto by one of the Turofsky brothers.
So what’s with the hair? Did he at some point manage to grow this array? Acquire a hairpiece? I can’t say so with any real authority, but spying as closely as I can, my bet is on the stranger still possibility that somebody — by request or on their own initiative? — did some inky photo-doctoring here to restore Jack Crawford’s lost thatch.
“I guess it’s discretionary,” Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was saying earlier this winter. He’d been asked by a reporter about goalie interference, what it looks like, how to identify it in the wild. He was calm, as he tends to be. He was also, as he doesn’t, mostly befuddled. “I couldn’t tell you what’s a penalty and what’s not. That’s something that I don’t understand.”
The NHL can’t be pleased that this kind of bewilderment has emerged as a central theme of the centenary it’s celebrating this year. What the league would prefer, I’m guessing, is for a magical intervention whereby all goalie interfering would cease, and thereby all the complaining, too, that players and coaches and fans and commentators are doing.
Failing that, NHL general managers last week took a run at refining the protocol for reviewing purported cases of goalies being jounced, jarred, and otherwise jolted. The GMs want to take the decision-making on what’s happening in and around creases out of the hands of referees on the ice and pass it over to the league’s all-seeing hockey operations headquarters in Toronto. That’s now been approved, apparently, and will be the way things are done starting this week.
Since this is such a big anniversary year, maybe the NHL should be doing more to commemorate the history of its skaters crashing, inadvertently or not, into its goaltenders. In that direction, I’m offering up this photograph, from December of 1937, when the Montreal Canadiens met the local Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Seen here is Montreal attacking the Rangers’ net in the third as Pit Lepine buffaloes past New York goaltender Dave Kerr on the way to scoring Canadiens’ second goal. Babe Pratt is the Ranger defenceman to the fore, with stick raised; the Montrealer partly obscured by the net is possibly Toe Blake, who assisted on the goal.
I don’t know if there was a review — none of the newspapers accounts I’ve consulted mention any. “Lepine poked the puck into the cage,” is the most detailed account I’ve seen of the goal.
If that is Lepine. Another item I’ve come across from later on this same season might cast some doubt on that — maybe.
Look at the head of the player crashing past Dave Kerr. The resolution of the image isn’t so sharp, but you can see that there’s something going on up there. Assuming that’s not a monkly tonsure, then he’s probably wearing a helmet. If so, it doesn’t look like a wholly protective model, sitting as it seems to be mostly to the back of Lepine’s head. The Detroit Red Wings experimented with a head-protector like that earlier in the 1930s, so it could be one of those.
Another possibility? Just a month after the game depicted here, in January of 1938, a keen-eye New York reporter noted that Toe Blake was sporting “perhaps the oddest headgear” in the NHL. “It is made of a discarded set of shoulder pads,” he advised, “one fibre cup on the front of his head, the other in back. He finds this contraption lighter than a helmet.”
So is this maybe Toe Blake crowned with shoulder-pads we’re viewing here? I guess it’s possible too that Lepine could have taken a page from his winger’s stylebook and fashioned his own colloquial headgear. Either way, whoever it is, and whatever he’s wearing, Dave Kerr doesn’t look too impressed. That’s clear enough.
Alex Levinsky was in his mid-20s by the time he joined the Chicago Black Hawks in the mid-1930s, a veteran defenceman whose adjectives included big and bumping and hardrock, and whose headgear here — I don’t know, looks to me like it’s a borrowed football helmet rather than bespoke hockey apparatus. Born in Syracuse, New York, Levinsky grew up in Toronto, on Markham Street, where he was living in his parents’ house when he made his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the winter of 1931. He’d been all-round star athlete at the University of Toronto, won a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1929, enrolled at Osgoode Hall with a mind on a law career. Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe talked him into sticking to the ice. Levinsky was the league’s only Jewish player when he joined the Leaf defence, though not the first in NHL history: Charlie Cotch, Sam Rothschild, and Moe Roberts preceded him, possibly others. Joining Hap Day, Red Horner, and King Clancy on the Leaf blueline, Levinsky won a Stanley Cup in 1932. He was New York Ranger briefly before he ended up with Chicago. When Bill Stewart took up there as coach in the fall of 1937, he quietly set aside Major Frederic McLaughlin’s mandate for an all-American roster along with the uniform that Levinsky’s wearing here. That may or may not have had something to do with the surprise the Black Hawks sprang the following spring, surprising Levinsky’s old team from Toronto to win the Stanley Cup.
(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.
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.”
Call him the Flower, Mozart, something of a hockey maniac, pride of Thurso: how ever you care to tag him, Guy Lafleur turns 66 today. Most famously, of course, he was a Canadien, but after 14 seasons in Montreal, he did, you’ll recall, retire from retirement in 1988 to play three more seasons, first with the New York Rangers, then in Quebec with the Nordiques, before re-retiring for good in 1991. Lafleur did wear a helmet as a junior scoring sensation, notching 130 goals in 62 games in his final year with the Quebec Remparts. But after a slow start in the NHL, he eventually shed the headgear for good. I wrote a bit about this in Puckstruck, to this effect:
I don’t know whether Guy Lafleur could have taken his place among Canadiens greats wearing the bobbleheaded helmet he sported when he first played in the NHL. In 1974, at training camp, the story goes that he forgot it one day in his hotel room. He’d been a bit of a dud up to then, and the sportswriters were ready to write him off. Without his helmet, blond hair flowing free, he played with joy and with verve. The writers cheered. There, then, he decided he’d never again cover his head.
Biographer Georges-Hébert Germain writes about this in Overtime: The Legend of Guy Lafleur (1990). “As though by magic he had rediscovered the pleasure of playing.” It wasn’t what was on his head, of course, so much as in it. “But the helmet would be banished as a negative fetish for him, a bearer of unhappiness.” This was the age of the Flyer brawn and brutality, of course, and Canadiens’ management wanted Lafleur to put the helmet back on. “He would hear none of it — it was a burden, slowed him down.”
Guy’s dad wasn’t pleased, as noted in his autobiography. “I’ve always been afraid to see Guy play without a helmet,” Réjean Lafleur confided in Guy Lafleur: Mon Fils (1981). He and his wife worried when they saw him bareheaded, “especially when he falls or he’s checked against the boards.” When he asked Guy why, he said he’d damaged his helmet and the team hadn’t got him a new one yet. “I never much believed in the story,” his dad solemnly wrote.
(Image: Guy Lafleur by Serge Chapleau, graphite and watercolour on paper, 43.1 x 35.5 cm, © McCord Museum)