Let’s be honest: caught up in the chaos of Christmas, we all forgot. That today’s Ottawa Senators missed a chance to mark an important historical milestone doesn’t seem so strange, I guess, in this year of capitalized turmoil — though can we grant Eugene Melnyk & co. the benefit of the doubt and surmise that they skipped the celebrations on purpose, preferring to do it up properly when next year’s centenary rolls around? Assuming that’s the case, let’s keep our observance of the 99th anniversary here brief, recognizing, simply, that on the night of December 23, 1919, as the Ottawa Senators hosted Toronto’s St. Patricks to open the NHL’s third season, the great Frank Nighbor put his famous hook-check to use in the first period to thief the puck from Ken Randall and slap it decisively past goaltender Howie Lockhart. The goal itself was important, winning a game for Ottawa that would end 3-0, and the Senators would use this auspicious start to go on to both NHL and Stanley Cup championships that year. Those should be duly venerated when the time comes, but our business here, today, is to honour and revere the truly first-class way in which Nighbor’s goal was celebrated that winter’s night in 1919. In those days, when Ottawa still knew how to treat a superstar, Nighbor was called to centre ice after the game to receive his rightful due. For having scored that inaugural goal that season, Pembroke’s own peerless peach received from the hand of Mr. A. E. Ford of the Interprovincial Flour Mills Company a reward such as a modern-day hockey sharpshooter might only dream of taking home from the rink:
If you want to talk hook-checks, as you well might, the man you need to know about is Jack Walker, born on this date in 1888, when it was a Tuesday, in Silver Mountain, Ontario, up on the Lakehead, not far from what was then Port Arthur — modern-day Thunder Bay. He died in 1950, aged 61.
If he’s not now a household name, he was in his day, a century or so ago. Three times teams he skated for won the Stanley Cup: the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914, the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917, and the Victoria Cougars in 1925. Mostly Walker played on the west coast, in the PCHA; his NHL career was a slender one, lasting 80 regular-season games over two seasons in the mid-1920s when he joined the Detroit Cougars.
Walker did ascend to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1960, which is to say he was voted in. Hard to know from here how much of the case for his place in the pantheon has to do with the hook-check, but as a hook-check enthusiast I’m going to err on the side of a lot.
I wrote about the hook-check in my 2014 book Puckstruck— also over here, where I did some explaining about definitions and techniques. While Frank Nighbor is sometimes credited with having been the first to ply it on a regular and efficient basis, it seems clear that Walker was in fact the progenitor, and that when Nighbor joined Port Arthur in 1911, the Pembroke Peach learned if from him. Nighbor said as much himself, later on, sort of, talking about Walker’s poke-check, which is related but different, though they’re often conflated, even by the Hall-of-Famers who used them to best effect.
You don’t see much mention of hook-checking in accounts of that earliest Cup, but by 1917, Walker’s name was synonymous with it. Hook check star is an epithet you’ll see in the weeks leading up to the championship series. That came in March, when the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens travelled west to play for all the hockey marbles with a roster that featured Georges Vézina, Harry Mummery, Newsy Lalonde, and Didier Pitre.
Lining up Hap Holmes, Cully Wilson, and Frank Foyston, Seattle prevailed in four games, with Montreal’s only victory coming in the opening game. The score therein, 8-4, doesn’t exactly have the ring of a defensive struggle, but Walker was said to have stood out. This from the wire report in The Ottawa Citizen:
In purely defensive play, Jack Walker, with his clever hook-check, was [sic] the Seattle’s star. Walker took the puck away from the best stick handlers the Flying Frenchmen could produce as easily [as] taking off his hat and it was his work that spilled most of the offensive hopes of the Canadiens.
It was apparently contagious: all the Mets were hooking the second game. After Seattle won that one 6-1, The Vancouver Sun’s Royal Brougham opened his dispatch this way:
“Beaten by the Hookcheck,” might be an appropriate title of tonight’s struggle because it was the clever of this bit of hockey strategy combined with sheer speed and aggressiveness that put the Mets on an even basis with the invaders for the Stanley Cup.
“Every time,” he continued, “a visiting forward got the puck and ankled up the ice, swish, some local skater would slide along and hook the elusive pill from the Canadiens stick leaving the duped player bewildered.”
Seattle won the third game by a score of 4-1. It was the same story. “Jack worked his old hook-check so well and so frequently,” was the word in Vancouver’s Daily World, “that he checked the very life out of the Frenchmen’s offence.”
Going into what was the final game, Royal Brougham was already handing out laurels. “If Seattle wins the Stanley Cup, the glory should go to Jack Walker, the hook-check artist of the Metropolitans who, during the last two games has practically stopped every Frenchmen’s rush.”
Seattle went out in style, taking the decisive game and the Cup with a 9-1 win. Let’s leave the Daily World to give the man his due, if that’s what this does:
Jack Walker’s work has been an outstanding feature of the entire series, and Jack was up to all his tricks last night. He kept the hook-checking working with such monotonous regularity that it almost got tiresome, and he finally succeeded in making one of his shots good and broke through for a goal.
Nobody remembers Jack Walker now, though he’s in hockey’s Hall of Fame. He’s the man who originated and perfected the hook-check, though that’s not something hockey people talk about now, either, much less try on the ice. It’s lost like Atlantis. I wrote about Walker and the hook-check between hardcovers in Puckstruck and since then I’ve tried to explain it in more detail, too.
Mike Rodden said that hook-checkers invariably made better centreman. They tended to be more popular with their teammates, too, he said, naming names like Frank Nighbor, Joe Malone, Billy Burch, and Hooley Smith. He doesn’t explain it further, the connection between hook-checking and popularity. I guess it makes sense: if you’re a forward who makes the effort to skate back and help with the defending, yes, that’s going to endear you to your mates.
Nighbor is a favourite of mine. He’s better remembered than Walker, partly because he played so long and so well in the NHL while Walker stuck mostly to the Pacific Coast Hockey League. Nighbor won five Stanley Cups before he retired in 1930, not to mention — although I think I will —the first ever Hart Trophy and the first two Lady Byngs.
Nighbor partisan though I am, I do take issue with Mike Jay of the Vancouver Daily World and will seek here to correct his error of January, 1914, when he profiled Nighbor as though Jack Walker never existed and he was the man who developed the hook-check. In Jay’s defence, Nighbor was on the west coast at the time, playing for the Vancouver Millionaires, while Walker was still in Toronto, playing for the Blueshirts, and wouldn’t join the Seattle Metropolitans. Nighbor, we know, had learned the hook-check from Walker when they were teammates, first in Port Arthur and later as Blueshirts — but I guess nobody told Mike Jay so. Nighbor tried to, sort of, as you’ll see, but it didn’t really take.
To his credit, Jay did get Nighbor talking about his methodology, to an extent that I haven’t seen anywhere else, which makes this excerpt from Jay’s effusive ambulatory Daily World interview with a 20-year-old Frank Nighbor an important addition to the hook-check archive.
“Hello, Mr. Nighbor!” greeted the interviewer.
“Oh, hello! How are you?” returned the gentleman addressed, and he fell into step with the interviewer and continued up the street.
“Fine, never felt better in my life. How’s your arm?” And the scribbler of notes indicated the injured member.
“Getting better now. Doctor says I can play on Friday, but it’s taking chances.” The tape was off the hand, and Nighbor demonstrated the fact that he could move his hand well enough.
“So you don’t know whether or not you will play?” The pencil pusher got ready to take notes.
“I don’t know just when I’ll play again. I am not certain,” replied Nighbor, working his fingers to get the joints in action.
“Oh, by the way,” said the interviewer, as if he had suddenly remembered the reason of his walk in the rain, and as if he had had no previous intention of getting any notes, “can you give me an outline of your hockey career?”
“Sure! I come from the Ottawa Valley. I first played hockey with Pembroke, in Ontario. We won the championship that year. Then the next year I played in Port Arthur. We won the championship that year. In nineteen hundred and twelve I played with the Torontos.”
“Did you win the championship that year? asked the interviewer.
“No, we took a change and lost it. In the spring of last year I was out here and — well, this year I am here,” concluded Frank Nighbor.
“Good! Now, can you give me some sidelights of your career — that is, little incidents that — ? asked the interviewer.
“Sorry, old man, but I am not guilty,” interrupted the hockey player.
“Well, then, tell me about your shot — no, never mind that — tell me about your method of checking. I believe that you are the originator of the ‘hook’ check, are you not?”
“I have always used it, if that’s what you mean,” answered Nighbor.
“No; what I mean is, give me an account of how you work it.”
“Well, I always skate low and lay my stick close to the ice. I have a long reach and I put my stick out and take the puck,” explained Nighbor.
“That easy?” queried the interviewer, incredulously.
“That easy,” smiled Nighbor.
“Gee! Simple when you know how, isn’t it?” the interviewer remarked. Nighbor still smiled. The ‘hook’ check is so hard that only the originator is able to use it. Nighbor is the only man in either the Coast or the National hockey leagues that uses it.
The method is to follow the opponent who has the puck and as that opponent starts to go to the side of a man coming towards him from the goal, the man coming from behind lays his stick almost flat on the ice and hooks the puck away suddenly and turns up the ice towards the other goal. Frank Nighbor is the only player who can successfully use it. Others have tried and failed. It requires a long reach, a quick eye and the ability to stop suddenly while skating fast in one direction and take a directly opposite direction.
Then another style of back checking which Nighbor uses, but which is used by several other players like Ernie Johnson and [Didier] Pitre, is the ‘poke.’ This consists of skating backwards before a rushing forward and then suddenly jabbing the stick on the farther side of the opponent’s stick and taking the puck away.
The ‘poke’ style has been used for many years but the ‘hook’ check is a new innovation. Newsy Lalonde said that after the Torontos beat the Canadiens in 1912 that it was due to Nighbor’s style of back checking that won the game for Toronto. The way Newsy worded it was: “Frank Nighbor beat the Canadien hockey team.”
Then Frank Nighbor has a shot that tells, but he does not figure in the scoring so much as he does in the assist column. He is the cleanest player in the Pacific Coast Hockey League and his title to clean playing is acknowledged by every player in the league. Besides that he is the youngest hockey player in professional hockey in Canada and he takes care of himself. Just on account of that reason Pete Muldoon, the Vancouver hockey team trainer, says that “Nighbor will be playing hockey long after other players start drawing their pensions.”
A reader writes: what, exactly, is a hook check?
It’s a fair point. If you’ve roamed as far as page 87 in the hardcovered Puckstruck, you’ll have learned things about Frank Nighbor and Jack Walker and their hook-checking exploits that you never knew before without having been provided on the page with an actual definition of the lost, lamented art.
“The passage about the hook check drove me crazy!” read the e-mail that came in from Kingston this week. Steven Heighton was perplexed. “I mean, what IS a hook check? You never say. I wanted to try it out in my game today . . .
“I suspect the omission was deliberate; you’re playing on the poignancy of an aspect of the game being utterly lost. The omission is in fact Borgesian, or Nabokovian (two other writers who never wrote about hockey.) Aesthetically, your strategy is sound, but on the level of pure athletic curiosity, I still want to know.”
Much as I like Borgesian — okay, I like Nabokovian, too — the truth is that the lack of a definition is one more oversight of mine. The hook-check file in my office is filled with hook-check facts and info; some of it just never got into the book.
In Let’s Play Hockey (1957), Lynn Patrick and Leo Monahan suggest that players be versed in five important checks. In order, they’re the hook, the poke, the sweep, the stick lift, and the body.
It consists of a defender going down on one knee, extending his stick flat on the ice and hooking the puck away from the carrier. When properly executed the hook check is a pretty play to watch and a hook-check artist will come up with the puck nearly every time.
Simple to say it, harder to execute. Go ahead, try it. Also in the file I find the following cautionary tale from 1923. Harry Hellman was a substitute right winger for the Ottawa Senators. The team was preparing for a Stanley Cup semi-final in Vancouver when:
… Hellman suffered a serious flesh wound in the face during practice. In hook-checking [teammate and master hook-checker Frank] Nighbor, he lost his balance and fell on Nighbor’s skate, cutting open his cheek and injuring his nose. Hellman is in St. Paul’s Hospital here, and it will be impossible for him to play again this season.