bob gainey: what you get if you turn guy lafleur inside out

On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.

A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”

The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)

“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.

Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?

“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”

Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”

Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.

Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”

“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”

Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.

“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”

He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.

Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.

Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”

He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.

It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.

In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:

It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do

This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”

Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:

(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)

(Painting by Timothy Wilson Hoey, whose work you’re advised to investigate further, at  www.facebook.com/ocanadaart and ocanadaart.com)

word watch: when don cherry says dangle

Dangler: Sweeney Schriner in his Maple Leafing days. “A picture player,” Conn Smythe called him. “He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers.”

I don’t know how many tirades, total, Don Cherry launched last night on Hockey Night in Canada, I just caught the one, after the early games had come to an end. Vancouver had baned Toronto, barely, 2-1, while in Montreal, Canadiens scourged Detroit 10-1. Winger Paul Byron scored his first NHL hattrick in the latter, and all his goals were speedy. Highlights ensued as Cherry and Ron MacLean admired his fleety feet.

Cherry: Look at how he outskates guys. I mean, this guy can really … skate … dangle, as they say. I’m, a, now watch …

MacLean: Now, let’s be clear, when you say dangle, you mean he can wheel.

Cherry: [Irked-more-than-usual] I’m saying he can … Everybody knows that played the game for a long time, dangle means … And [thumbing at MacLean, about to refer to incident that nobody else has knowledge of] you remember John Muckler comin’ in, sayin’, what are you, nuts, skates fast. The guys that are in the game now, they really don’t know the game, I’m not getting’ into that …

Anybody that says dangle and it’s “stickhandling” doesn’t know the game. I just thought I’d throw that in.

So. Interesting discussion. To recap: Don Cherry is ready to go to vocabulary war with anyone who doesn’t agree that there’s only one true hockey definition for a fairly common word, and it’s not the one that most people think it is, which proves how ignorant they are, i.e. very.

Cherry’s correct on this count, at least: dangle has long been a word in hockey referring to the speed with which a player skates. Here, for instance, is the venerable Vern DeGeer, Globe and Mail sports editor, writing in 1942:

Sid Abel, the talented left-winger for Detroit Red Wings, watched Saturday’s Bruins-Leafs game from the Gardens press box … Sid did not attempt to conceal his open admiration for Syl Apps, the long-striding speed merchant of the Leafs … “I think most players are pretty well agreed that Apps can dangle faster than any skater in the league,” said the observing Sid …

And from Bill Westwick of The Ottawa Journal in 1945, talking to Billy Boucher whether Maurice Richard was as rapid as Howie Morenz:

He takes nothing away from Richard. “He can dangle, breaks very fast, and is a top-line hockey player. But they can’t tell me he moves as fast as Howie. I’ve yet to see anyone who could.”

On the other side — what we might call the anti-Cherry end of things — most recent dangles you’ll come across, in print or on broadcasts, involve a player’s ability to manipulate a puck. If you want to go to the books, Andrew Podnieks’ Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007) mentions skillful stickhandling in its dangle definition, and The Hockey Phrase Book (1991) concurs.

As does Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. “You know what,” he was saying in 2015, talking about then-Canuck Zack Kassian. “He can dangle and make plays.” A year earlier, Detroit defenceman Brendan Smith had a slight variation as he hymned the praises of teammate Gustav Nyquist: “He’s a hell of a skater, he’s a great puck-mover, he makes great plays, he’s got great skill, he can dangle you, he’s hard to hit, he’s wormy or snakey, whatever you want to call it.”

Can we agree, then, even if Don Cherry might not, that dangle has more than one hockey application? Is that a compromise we can get behind without further hoary accusations regarding who and who doesn’t know the game.

The dictionaries, it’s true, need to make room for Cherry’s definition alongside theirs.

On the other side, it’s not as though Cherry’s sense of the word is the original or even elder one. In fact, as far back as 1940 you can find The Ottawa Journal using dangle to mean stickhandling. And here’s Andy Lytle from The Toronto Daily Star jawing with Conn Smythe that same year about some of his Leaf assets:

He waxed lyrical over [Billy] Taylor whom he calls “a player with a magnificent brain” and [Sweeney] Schriner whom he says emphatically and with gestures is the best left winger in the game today.

“Schriner,” he enthused, “ is the maestro, the playmaker deluxe who is so good he can distribute his qualities amongst [Murph] Chamberlain and [Pep] Kelly until they too play over their heads.”

“He can dangle a puck.”

“Dangle it,” exclaimed Conny, now thoroughly stirred, “I tell you I’ve never seen anything comparable to his play for us in Detroit last Sunday night. It was a revelation in puck-carrying. He was the picture player. He isn’t like Apps going through a team because Schriner does it with deliberate skill and stick trickery. He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers. Apps is spectacular, thrilling because of his superlative speed. Schriner is the same only he does his stuff in slow motion so everyone can enjoy him.”

In other words, Apps may have been able to dangle, but Schriner could dangle.

 

hockey players in hospital beds: maurice richard, trop fragile pour la nhl

This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.

At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:

Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …

Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:

The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.

Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”

The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):

The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.

He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.

Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”

(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and lacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

•••

The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

pall

Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”

 

aurèle joliat: tiny, but hockey star

The anniversary last week of the death of Aurèle Joliat might elsewhere have triggered an impassioned rant highlighting the outrage and injustice associated with the little left winger’s absence from the list the NHL published earlier this year of its 100 best all-time players. Not here. That’s not to dispute that when Joliat died at 84 on June 2, 1986, hockey lost the greatest of its left wingers — official puckstruck.com policy, in fact, agrees that it did. The case for Joliat’s greatness, a solid one, is buttressed by the resumé the man whose name was often anglicized to Aurel built skating (mostly) alongside Howie Morenz: it includes the three Stanley Cups he helped Canadiens win, his Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1934, all those goals, his elevation to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, & etcetera.

But we’re not going to get into that here. Today, we’ll focus instead on two other important matters relating to Joliat’s 16-year NHL career: his weight and his hat.

If once the Ottawa-born winger towered over Montreal Canadiens’ history, he was never what you’d call an imposing physical specimen. Check in with today’s standard reference sites — hockeyreference.com or nhl.com — and you’ll find Joliat listed as standing 5’7” and displacing 136 pounds. That’s small — slight, even. During his playing days, The Mighty Atom was a nickname he bore, and you’ll find many contemporary newspaper accounts in which he appears as Montreal’s “mite wingman.”

“Probably the tiniest player in the National League,” the Detroit Free Press tagged him in 1934, as ridiculous an insult to Roy Worters (5’3”/135 lbs.) as you’re going to see today, but never mind. Eddie Gerard played with Joliat in Ottawa before both men graduated to stardom in the NHL. “If he should walk into this room now,” he testified in 1932, “the last thing you’d take him for would be a hockey player, with his thin, pale face and frail body.”

“I don’t believe even with his hockey togs on he weighs 145 pounds.”

It’s not unusual to see the weights of hockey players bandied at length in newspaper accounts from the early decades of the 20th century. Makes sense — in an age before TV, with radio broadcasting still in its infancy, fans who weren’t seeing games live and in person relied on prose descriptions of play and players far more than we do today.

Still, even in that context, Joliat’s weight seems to have been oddly, ongoingly, in focus. Not only that: the way it fluctuated in the press seems to suggest that at least one prominent newspaper kept bathroom scales at the Montreal Forum in order to monitor his mass.

Watching Joliat play in the spring of 1924, PCHA President Frank Patrick sized him at 155 pounds. That’s as high a number as I’ve ever seen quoted. By 1929, Charles Grafton of Detroit’s Free Press had him down to 135 in a feature that bore this helpful subhead:

Joliat One Of The Light Men Who Overcomes Weight Handicap By Fast Thinking

By 1930, he’d lost a bit more newspaper poundage: “weighs only 130 pounds,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Joliat and his teammate Johnny Gagnon, Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin advised in 1931, “weigh only 136 and 139 pounds respectively.” Another year, another headline, this time from a 1932 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Joliat’s 138 Pounds Are Very Deceptive if You Don’t Know Hockey

Up and down went the newspaper scales as the decade moved on. “Weighs only 135 pounds,” said Dunkirk, New York’s Evening Observer in 1933. “Probably the smallest player in the circuit at 133 pounds” (Detroit Free Press, 1934). “Weighs only 135 pounds” (Chicago Tribune, 1935). “Weighs only 130 pounds” (NEA, 1938).

The Evening News, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, weighs in, 1935.

Joliat was 37 when he retired in the spring of 1938. As the hockey season neared that fall, he professed he didn’t know what was next for him. “My plans are indefinite,” he said as September struck, still holed up at his vacation camp in the Gatineau hills. “I will be in Montreal Monday, when I may decide what to do.”

He ran a grocery store, eventually, in Montreal’s west end, and thought about opening a night club (but didn’t). After a few years, he’d return to NHL ice as a linesman. Later still, he worked as a ticket agent at Ottawa’s train station.

In 1941, when he gave up the store, he announced a new plan: he was thinking of taking up as a ski instructor. He told a reporter that he’d lost eight pounds in just the previous month, and his reasoning was that the outdoor life at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians might help to restore his health. He was down to 129 pounds. “If I kept losing weight like that,” he said, “in another year, there wouldn’t be anything of me left.”

•••

“Colourful Canadien,” Montreal’s Gazette headlined him, the day after his death in 1986. His final numbers? “Five-foot-six and 135 pounds at his heaviest.” His stature, readers learned, had been an on-ice asset. “He used his small size to his advantage, stickhandling around large defencemen and tucking the puck between their legs.”

Also? “Mr. Joliat became famous for wearing a tuque while playing.”

That was wrong, of course, and still is. A tuque. Joliat’s hat was in fact — well, take your pick of comtemporary descriptions, which range from “a black peaked-hat” and “his old baseball cap” to “a polo cap” and “the blue peaked cap that has become a landmark around the circuit” to “that tight-fitting piece of headgear with its sombre visor.”

There’s some suggestion that he wore it to cover up a bald-spot, though nothing conclusive: it may just have been habit. Rivals quickly learned how to knock Joliat off his game.

“The players of other teams made it a point to aim for that cap,” Harold Burr wrote in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1932.

Punch Broadbent, now with the Canadian Flying Corps, reached perfection at the trick. All he had to do was skate close to Joliat, nudge upward with his elbow and the cap would fall to the ice.

It didn’t matter if Joliat had possession of the puck. He would always let it go, stoop down and replace his cap. But he has discovered a way this Winter to circumvent his tormenters. He doesn’t wear the cap any more.

This was big news across the NHL. “The enemy players stared when Aurel was seen without his black cap,” John Kieran wrote in The New York Times.

Jack Carveth of Detroit’s Free Press had a different explanation for Joliat’s stowing of the cap: it was all about curing a scoring slump.

I’m not so sure about that, though: Joliat scored Montreal’s only goal in the first game of the season that 1931 November with his hat in place. Canadiens then went to Toronto, where Joliat, now bareheaded, again scored the team’s lone goal. He counted three hatless assists in a 5-2 win over the Montreal Maroons, and scored against Boston in his team’s next game, too. I can’t say whether he’d put the cap back on by then or not, just that he did go back to it at some point. He replaced it with a helmet for a few games in 1937 after hurting his head in a fall, but otherwise the remaining years of his NHL career were hatted.

In February of 1934, he played his 500th game, and before the puck dropped to set Canadiens and Maroons going, there was a ceremony at centre Forum ice. NHL President Frank Calder was there, along with other dignitaries. Canadian Press:

Referee Mike Rodden of Toronto summoned Joliat with a wave of his hand, and the mighty atom, who is playing his 12th season with Canadiens, pulled his black cap over his eyes and skated over to receive a beautiful loving cup presented by his teammates, and a handsome chest of silver and a golf bag, tributes of his many friends and admirers among the fans.

 

mars fatal

mars fatalHowie Morenz died late on the night of Monday, March 8, 1937, in his hospital room at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. Many Montrealers would have first known the shocking news next morning through the pages of Tuesday’s morning paper, The Gazette, Le Canada, La Patrie. None of them had much light to cast on just what had happened, how the leg Morenz had fractured in late January on the ice at the Forum could now have killed him. His doctor reported that his heart and his pulse had been normal on Monday, according to La Patrie, and yet he’d died in his sleep.

Amid the many tributes and reviews of Morenz’s career, La Patrie also saw fit to remind readers that there’s no more mournful month in Montreal Canadiens’ history than March. It was just 11 years, after all, since legendary goaltender Georges Vézina had died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, four months after opening the 1925-26 season in the Montreal net. Seven years before that, Canadiens’ notorious 37-year-old defenceman Joe Hall had succumbed to pneumonia he’d contracted while suffering from Spanish influenza.

A terrible thing that was, of course, if not entirely fair to March. La Patrie had a key detail wrong: Hall actually died on April 5, 1919.

Back on March 19, he was still resting in his room in Seattle’s Georgian Hotel, one of several Canadiens to have sickened while the team was battling the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup. Transferred to the Providence Hospital in early April, Hall was saidto be improving, his temperature a steady 103. With five games of the six-game Stanley Cup series in the books, the ravaging flu had by then forced Montreal to forfeit the deciding game on April 1. When Seattle manager Pete Muldoon refused to accept the forfeit, the championship was abandoned.

On April 3, Montreal manager George Kennedy announced that his players were not all, as rumour had it in Eastern Canada, on the verge of death. Hall’s condition had, however, worsened. “He still has a chance for his life,” The Vancouver Daily World wrote the day before he died, “and he is fighting hard.”

In 1937, Canadiens were scheduled to play the Maroons the night after Howie Morenz died. The team planned to cancel, but Mary Morenz insisted that her husband would have wanted the game to go on. Two days later, on Thursday, his body would lie in state at centre ice in the Forum, but on Tuesday it was hockey night.

The referees and players on both teams wore arm-bands; ushers and program-sellers had black ribbons pinned to their jackets.

Canadiens president Ernest Savard spoke to the crowd of 10,000. “It is with sincere regret and deep emotion that we announce the death last night of the one and only Howie Morenz,” he said. “He was a gentleman and the finest hockey player ever known.”

Two minutes of silence followed his words. “The monotonous whirling of the ventilating fans alone broke the stillness,” The Canadian Press reported, “until the drums of the Victoria Rifles began to roll. Then, the bugles sounded Last Post.”

Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude cried, The Gazette noted, “unashamedly,” and defencemen Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert “had to skate to his side and talk to him.”

In the dressing room, coach Cecil Hart said, “You know, boys, there is little I can say on an occasion like this.” He told them to “forget all your troubles, to go out there and play — play as Howie would have played if he were here.”

“The game that followed helped make those in the Forum a bit forgetful of the tragedy of the night before,” was the way The Gazette described it. “A fighting Canadien team saddened by the loss and minus two regulars, Aurel Joliat and Toe Blake, hurled itself at Maroons.” They couldn’t overcome: the final score was Maroons 4, Canadiens 1.