à la douce mémoire

This 1926 Georges Vézina memorial postcard was sold at auction last month in Montreal for close to C$1,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Georges Vézina died 93 years ago, early in the morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926, at the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi. It was just four months since Vézina, who was 39, had tended goal for the last time for the Montreal Canadiens, departing the ice after a period in Montreal’s season-opening game in November of 1925 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, never to return.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Montreal for Chicoutimi in early December, he spent his last days in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. His Canadiens teammates planned to visit, but it’s not clear that they made it before he died; Montreal manager and coach Leo Dandurand — a close friend of the goaltender’s — does seem to have made the journey.

A Montreal reporter who visited Vézina in early March found him in a bad way, pale and weak, though peaceful enough under the watch of his wife of 20 years, Marie, and in the care of Drs. Riverin and Tremblay. The paper held off running of a photograph of the stricken goaltender until after this death — more on that here — but did publish a long, heartbreaking, and quite remarkable dispatch from Chicoutimi a week before the end.

“His case is desperate,” one of the doctors confided; it didn’t seem likely that he would survive the month.

“Formerly, he was always calm in his goal,” the reporter reported. “Neither the most exciting phases of a game nor the most distressing moments could deprive him of this firm, concentrated attitude. It’s still the same.”

“Georges knows he is going to die and he is resigned.”

The piece continues at some length, not only including (as you might expect) a detailed biographical sketch of the legendary goaltender, but also (as you might not) an itemized accounting of the family’s finances. There’s this exchange, too, from the hospital:

Georges has his full knowledge and a perfect clarity of spirit. At times, his face writhes horribly. As we approached his bed, he looked up. We looked at him and he asked:

“How’s Leo?”

“He’s fine.”

Georges gathered his strength and asked us clearly:

“Tell Leo,” he said in a low voice, “that I want to see him, absolutely. That he should come with all the players, all my comrades. I want to speak to them.”

As these few words exhausted him, we were about to retire when he signaled us to stay. His eyes lit up a little. Gathering all his strength, he asked us in a very low voice:

“Did the Canadiens win last night?”

The Canadiens had lost. But how to say this to Georges when he was there, on his bed of suffering, waiting with a tragic anxiety, and almost begging an answer in the affirmative answer?

We told a virtuous lie: “Yes, the Canadiens won!”

Georges smiled and gave a sigh of relief. His face flushed. But the gaiety soon disappeared, driven away by a fit of grief.

“What score?” he asked.

“Four to two.”

“If you knew how tired I am,” he said in a whisper.

Georges no doubt meant that the many defeats of the Canadiens weighed heavily on him.

As he was exhausted, we left him.

The game in question here did end 4-2 for Montreal — but it was the Maroons who prevailed at the Forum on the night of March 13, 1926, handing Canadiens their 12th loss in a row. Back in November, Frenchy Lacroix had replaced the irreplaceable Vézina, but he had subsequently given way in Montreal’s net to Herb Rheaume.

madison square garden, 1925: flashes of cerise, magenta, nile greens

Net Gain: Shorty Green of the New York Americans scores the first goal at the new Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, December 15, 1925. That’s Montreal’s Billy Boucher trying to catch him, with goaltender Herb Rheaume (making his NHL debut) failing from the front. Note the array of well-dressed fans behind the boards.

A French-Canadien aggregation, known as ‘Les Canadiens,’ will meet the New York team in mortal combat, but in reality it will be an all-Dominion battle, as most of the high-priced players who sport the spangles of the New York club were imported from Canada at great expense.

• Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Tuesday, December 15, 1925

New York’s brand-new rink had already hosted a six-day bicycle race and a basketball game by the middle of December in 1925, along with three bouts of boxing, but it wasn’t until NHL hockey debuted there that the party really got started, 93 years ago last night, when the expansion New York Americans hosted the reigning league champions from Montreal.

Tex Rickard was the man who built the third Madison Square Garden, 18 blocks north of the present MSG, and he didn’t stint on pomp for opening night. A year later, he’d launch a second, longer-lasting New York hockey team, the Rangers, but in 1925 the Americans were the only hockey game in town. Festooned with ribbons and bunting, the new rink Rickard had built to house the team was (Montreal’s Gazette) “dressed up in its best holiday togs, “a picture of a temple of sport” (The New York Times); pro hockey (“jaded New York’s newest plaything”) was making “its debut under the most glittering circumstances,” the Gazette advised.

Reporting for The Ottawa Citizen, Ed Baker enthused that the new rink seemed like “an overgrown theatre;” it was “just as magnificent as the grandest playhouse.” The Gazette: “Just before game time, the spacious lobby looked like the foyer of the opera. Fashionably gowned women were there in furs and jewels. It was a hockey crowd de luxe. Flashes of cerise, magenta, nile green, scarlets and royal purple coloured the boxes. Vendors ambled among the spectators with their apples and oranges and souvenir hockey sticks.”

“It was swank plus,” James Burchard of The World-Telegram would later recall, “in a setting of ermine and evening dress.”

Military bands marched out on the ice to play the anthems. Clad in scarlet and busbies, the 44-piece Governor-General’s Foot Guards struck up “God Save The King,” while their counterparts from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (92 pieces + a bugle-and-drums corps of 35) took care of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Band Stand: Canadiens and Amerks stand amid bandsmen during the opening ceremonies. Howie Morenz is the Montrealer standing attentively just back of the front flagman. Closer up, spying at the camera, that’s New York goaltender Jakie Forbes.

The crowd was the largest in NHL history to that point — though just how many fans it contained remains something of a mystery. The New York Daily News would report 20,000 “shrieking people,” while reports in several Canadian papers put the count at 19,000. The New York Times was among those who numbered the attendees at 17,000. Amid all this shifting math, The Ottawa Citizen noted that the Garden could seat 15, 352 for hockey, though (according to the Americans’ team treasurer) if there had been 25,000 more seats to sell for opening night, they would have gone like hot cakes.

Whatever the actual attendance, the excitement was such that (this from the Gazette) “the world’s record crowd was willing to pay prices ranging from $1.50 for the uppermost balcony seats to the seeming lofty toll of $11.50 for choice box seats to see a spectacle to which it was foreign.” Organized as a benefit for the Neurological Institute Society of New York, the game put some $40,000 into their coffers.

Scheduled to start at 8.30 p.m., the actual game didn’t get going until just after nine. The Citizen’s Ed Baker had it that President Calvin Coolidge was slated to do the honours of dropping a ceremonial puck, but then — “he was unable to attend.” Instead, New York Mayor John Hylan presided over the city’s first ritual NHL face-off, attended at centre ice by New York’s Billy Burch and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens.

Canadiens were the reigning NHL champions that winter, thought they had failed the previous spring in their bid to wrest the Stanley Cup from the Victoria Cougars of the WCHL. The new season hadn’t started well for Montreal, with Georges Vézina, their beloved and highly effective veteran goaltender, having collapsed in the season’s very first game in November.

Suffering from thetuberculosis that would kill him the following spring at the age of 39, Vézina had departed Montreal and the NHL for the last time, bound for his hometown, Chicoutimi. Since then, Canadiens had made do with the league’s emergency goaltender, Alphonse (Frenchy) Lacroix. On their arrival in New York, five games into the season, they were sitting in last place in the seven-team league, six points adrift of the league leaders, though just two back of the fourth-place Americans. Lacroix had been excused; for their first Madison Square turn, Montreal had a new man ready to start in goal, Herb Rheaume, who’d been starring to that point for an amateur Quebec team, the Sons of Ireland.

He worked out all right on the night, winning his debut in Madison Square’s, and keeping his place in the Montreal nets for the remainder of the season — though neither he nor any of his talented teammates would be able to haul the Habs out of last place or into the playoffs.

Go-Time: New York’s Billy Burch faces Montreal’s Howie Morenz in the game’s opening face-off. Aligned well-back at the far end are Montreal wingers, a becapped Aurèle Joliat (nearest the camera) and Billy Boucher. New York’s defencemen have deployed so far back that they’re out of the frame.

Rheaume did, for the record, concede the first goal in MSG history, to Shorty Green, almost twelve minutes into the first period. That’s it depicted above, and maybe from the frozen frame you’ll draw your own conclusions on how it went down. Contemporary accounts (as usual) diverged on the exact circumstances.

The New York Times: “He carried the ice up the ice, gliding swiftly and gracefully through the Canadiens until he was at the Montreal net, where, by a tricky little shot, he sped the rubber past Rheaume for a goal.”

The Montreal Gazette: “Shorty Green sent the Americans into the lead when he stick-handled his way the full length of the rink to shoot a high one past Rheaume, after eleven minutes.”

The great Paul Gallico was on the hockey beat for The New York Daily News. Here’s what he saw: “Shorty Breen [sic] coddled the puck clean down the rink, personally conducted it through the legs of three Canadiens, stopped short, slapped it away from the ankles of the last enemy defense line and suddenly swiped it into the goal from the side, a pretty shot.”

The lead didn’t last, with Billy Boucher (“flashy Montreal wingman” and the game’s “outstanding light,” according to the Gazette) potting a pair of second-period goals past New York goaltender Jakie Forbes before Howie Morenz completed the scoring for Montreal in the third.

Cooper Smeaton and Lou Marsh were the referees. First penalty in the new rink: Montreal’s Sylvio Mantha earned a first-period minor for holding Billy Burch. In the second, Shorty Green and Billy Boucher engaged in what the Times rated “a melee;” the Citizen said they “attempted fisticuffs” — either way, they served out minors.

Was New York’s Ken Randall knocked unconscious? Even when hockey was raising money for neurological care and research, the game didn’t pay head trauma too much mind, and so with a nonchalance typical of the day, the Times seemed to suggest that Randall was out cold without worrying too much about it — he was “laid out for a moment but resumed playing.” The Citizen, meanwhile, mentions a potential concussion of Shorty Green’s in the third: Morenz hit him near centre and he needed assistance getting to the bench. “He appeared to have suffered a hard blow on the head that dazed him.”

The evening marked a debut, too, for the new Prince of Wales Trophy, which Montreal took home along with their victory, with New York’s incoming mayor, Jimmy Walker, presenting the cup to Montreal captain Billy Coutu at the game’s conclusion. Canadiens would hold it only until the end of the season, when it went to the team that won the NHL championship. In 1926, that happened to be Montreal’s other team, the Maroons.

But for the struggle on the ice between Canadiens and Americans, the evening was deemed (by the Gazette, at least) “a sort of international love feast.”

Between periods, the greatest of speedy skaters, Norval Baptie, put on an exhibition of “fancy skating” with his partner, Gladys Lamb. After the game, the Canadian Club of New York hosted a ball at the Biltmore Hotel at Grand Central Station. Paul Whitman and his band entertained the two thousand guests who were said to have convened for that, including the players from both teams. “They all wore their tuxedos like a Valentino,” reported the Citizen’s Ed Baker.

The Daily News covered the hotel festivities on Wednesday’s social page, naming names and highlighting the fashions and jewels they wore. “The party broke up about three o’clock this morning, and society generally voted the whole affair a success.”

Face-First: Montreal goaltender Herb Rheaume stymies New York’s Ken Randall with the help of Habs’ captain Billy Coutu.