spit take: nels stewart, newsy lalonde, and a jolt of tobacco juice in jakie forbes’ eye

Poison Control: A 1952 magazine ad for Pleasant Moments whisky celebrated Nels Stewart’s 1931 record-setting outburst with this imaginative view of one of the two goals he scored within four seconds to lead his Montreal Maroons to a win over the Boston Bruins. (Artist: John Floherty Jr.)

By early afternoon, the signs at Montreal’s Forum were already up: Standing Room Only. “And long before the referees called the teams together at centre ice to start the game, all this space had been grabbed up,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil would recount. “It was a complete sell-out Saturday night. And those 13,000 fortunates witnessed a mighty spectacle that crammed action and thrills into every minute of play.”

Playing a leading role that night in January of 1931: Nels Stewart, star centreman for Montreal Maroons and the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP. In a battle between two of the NHL’s best teams, Stewart, who was born in Montreal on a Monday of yesterday’s date in 1902, powered his team to a win over the visiting Boston Bruins with a third-period outburst, setting a record for speedy scoring that stands to this day.

That being the case, today’s another day that I’ll be pleased to gripe that Stewart doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His absence from the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Players in league history tells you everything you need to know about that marred memorial. Stewart won a Stanley Cup with the Maroons in 1926 and was the first man to win the Hart Trophy twice. Along with his seven seasons in Montreal, Stewart played another five for the New York Americans along with four for Boston where, though the Bruins themselves have forgotten it, he captained the team. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison overtook Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Toronto Telegram columnist Ted Reeve grew up with Stewart in the Beaches, in Toronto’s eastern end. “The best natural all-round athlete I have ever seen in Canada,” Reeve called him.

“Extremely deceptive,” was Frank J. Selke’s verdict, “the brainiest player I have ever known.”

Selke also testified that Stewart “couldn’t backcheck a lick.”

“He is worthless as a defensive player, always has been,” Herb Manning wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939. “There is nothing streamlined about him. He lumbers along like a truck on a steep grade. He always seems to be ten feet behind the play, whether they are going backward or forward.”

But?

“But a split second is all the time he requires to complete a chore in the enemy zone.”

He got his chores done, scoring 324 goals in 650 regular-season NHL games, nine more in 50 playoff games.

In Montreal, he centred the famous S line, flanked by Hooley Smith and Babe Siebert. “Babe and Hooley did most of the work,” Stewart later said, “because I was a shambling six-footer who took relays from the corners.”

In 1938, the Ottawa Journal wrote about his “careless, almost lazy style,” noting also that “no goalie ever feels at ease while he is lurching and wandering around the vicinity of the net.”

Ottawa Senators goaltender Clint Benedict: “Nels liked to park and take a puck and fire it quick.”

“Nels was one helluva hockey player,” New York Rangers centreman Frank Boucher said. “He was almost impossible to move once he got in front of the net.”

Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle consulted former Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard on Stewart’s virtues in 1932, when Gerard was coaching the New York Americans.

“Big and wide of beam,” was Burr’s description of Stewart, whose playing-days metrics came in at 6’1’’, 200 pounds.

No other player in the National Hockey League practices his loafing around the nets of the enemy. He doesn’t look dangerous. He isn’t a fast skater or a hard shot. But he does all his playing from the other fellow’s blue line.

“Watch him lift his shoulder to draw the goalie out,” warns Gerard, his old Montreal boss. “That’s why he scores so frequently — he makes the goalminder make the first move. But watch further. Nels never shoots from the shoulder. He just flips his wrist.”

Boston bought him in 1932. “He is a two-fisted fighting player,” coach Art Ross said at the time, “and the greatest inside player in the game.”

Greatest Inside Player in the Game: Montreal Maroons’ star Nels Stewart as he actually looked in the early 1930s.

Which brings us back to that night at the Montreal Forum in 1931, Saturday, January 3. Nearly halfway through the season’s schedule, the visiting Bruins were heading up the league’s American section, while the Maroons were atop on the Canadian side, neck-and-neck with the Canadiens, defending Cup champions.

Maroons prevailed, 5-3, despite going into the third period trailing 3-1. D.A.L. MacDonald wrote up the game for the Montreal Gazette, and he speculated that if the frenzied Montreal fans had any regrets, they might have centred on the hurry with which the home team turned the game around.

First winger Jimmy Ward scored. Six minutes later, Stewart stepped up after Hooley Smith slammed a shot into Tiny Thompson’s pads. “The rebound dropped barely a foot in front of the Boston goalie and big Nelson Stewart was in like a flash to flip the puck over his prostrate form,” was how MacDonald saw it. “If Nels had scooped it up with a dessert spoon he couldn’t have done it more neatly.”

That tied the game. Four seconds later, Stewart scored the winner. It went like this:

From the face-off once again, Stewart slipped a pass over to Smith that left the Boston front rank behind and at the defence back came the disc to Nelson. The big fellow rode right in on Thompson and the goalie never had a chance. Another flip of those steel wrists and Maroons were in front to stay.

Two goals in four seconds. “Shades of Frank McGee!” MacDonald enthused. “For quick scoring feats and high-powered excitement, Nelson the Great has few equals.” It would, indeed, take 64 years for another NHLer to match Stewart’s record. No, not Gretzky or Lemieux: in1995, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Deron Quint scored a pair of goals in four seconds versus the Edmonton Oilers to slip into the record book alongside Stewart.

Is there any indication that in scoring his brisk brace, Stewart might have distracted or disabled Tiny Thompson by spitting tobacco juice into his unsuspecting eye?

No, none. Though that is a stratagem that is persistently attributed to Stewart in latter-day accounts of his career. Mostly it’s offered up as passing proof of his cunning and/or outright nastiness, often with a hint of admiration — if not any specificity.

The general tobacco-spitting charge shows up in Stewart’s Wikipedia profile, for instance. Floyd Conner slots it into Hockey’s Most Wanted (2002), with his own twist: the eye-spitting was motivated by Stewart’s “contempt” for goaltenders. In his 2012 book, Next Goal Wins, Liam Maguire goes out on a limb of his own to venture that the nickname Old Poison derived directly from “his habit of spitting chewing tobacco into the eyes of opposing goaltenders.”

Stan Fischler has been one of the more enthusiastic purveyors of the expectorating story over the years; it repeats throughout his broad oeuvre. Here it is in his The All-New Hockey’s 100 (1998):

It was not uncommon for Stewart to chew a wad of tobacco, produce juice, and then spit it unerringly in the eyes of a goalie as he shot the puck.

None of the above mentions is sourced; not one identifies a particular instance which any first-hand accounting to back up the chewing/juicing/spitting combo that Stewart is reputed to have employed to such (purported) devilish effect. None of the authors cited above seems to have done any digging of their own. If they had, they’d have found that no-one seems to have been taking note of Stewart’s spitful habit when he was actually playing: my scourings of contemporary newspaper accounts from Stewart’s active years in the 1920s and ’30s haven’t turned up even a fleeting mention of any tobacco-chewing let alone spitting.

The legend does (fittingly?) crop up in the five-part hockey-history TV series that Vancouver’s Opus Pictures produced in 1996, Legends of Hockey, and my guess (it’s mostly a guess) is that it’s from this (also unsourced) documentary that the subsequent literary mentions originated and proliferated. (Wikipedia’s mention of Stewart’s adventures in chaw footnotes it.) The second episode includes short biographies of several colourful hockeyists, including Eddie Shore, Red Horner, and Ol’ Poison himself. You can click in to review it here, starting at the 27:26-minute mark, where you’ll soon hear narrator Alan Maitland intone:

As well as being poison around the net, the Montreal Maroons’ Nels Stewart had the nasty habit of spitting his chewing tobacco in the goalie’s eyes. Never a great skater, never a great checker, he was still a lethal goalscorer.

As Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star wrote back in 1996, Legends of Hockey is, as a whole, a delightful confection. Specifically citing Stewart and his alleged spitting, Woolsey also notes that “in the off-hand fashion of such productions, this pungent detail is presented without elaboration. Legends delivers with more similar tidbits of history, whetting the appetite. What it might not explain meatily, the series suggests delectably.”

Is it possible that there’s truth at the root of the legend, wherever that might lie? Of course. But without any first-hand account of where Stewart might have been chewing his tobacco and loosing it on contemptible goaltenders, or when, or who the goaltenders might have been, I’ll be wary of treating the tale as fact. I don’t mind James Marsh’s formulation in his biography of Stewart in The Canadian Encyclopedia:

The story that he spat tobacco juice in the eyes of opposing goalies may be apocryphal but apparently is in keeping with his temperament on the ice.

If Newsy Lalonde merits a mention here (and he does), it’s because he’s a, well, key witness in the larger case — as well as a prime suspect.

Lalonde, of course, was one of hockey’s greatest talents, as well as another fairly glaring absentee from that centenary list from 2017. His pro career on ice started as early as 1906, and he went on to play seven NHL seasons, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens, before it was over in the late 1920s. He was famously uncompromising — which is one generous way of saying that he played the game violently and often with what still looks like, over the distance of years, breathtaking spite.

Not that he was (apparently) alone in his willingness to twist rules or (as the case may be) soak them in tobacco juice in those early decades. Long after he’d hung up his skates he was still recalling the transgressions of opponents like Paddy Moran, Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender for the Quebec Bulldogs and a fellow Hall-of-Famer. Here’s Lalonde reminiscing in 1951, as reported in the Montreal Gazette:

“Paddy chewed tobacco,” Newsy said, “and he could hit a keyhole at 40 paces. You had to duck when you skated behind his cage or he’d get you right between the eyes.”

Lalonde elaborated on this theme a decade later. This time he was talking to Andy O’Brien for a feature on hockey malice for Weekend Magazine.

“Paddy [Lalonde said] was in a class by himself by himself when it came to chopping toes of opposing forwards who came within range, and in those days the skate toes weren’t  so well padded. But his pet skill was squirting tobacco in your eye.”

In 1961, Newsy Lalonde implicated Paddy Moran for his chaw crimes.

What would it have cost Any O’Brien to press for just a few more details? As it is, I guess Lalonde’s long-range memories do get us closer to a confirmed case of tobacco-juice-in-the-eye without pinpointing anything precisely. The best we might be able to hope for on that count focusses again on Newsy Lalonde, though he’s not (and probably shouldn’t be expected to be) implicating himself this time. It’s another goaltender of old giving evidence here, Jakie Forbes, who was playing for the Toronto St. Patricks in the early 1920s when Lalonde was skating for — and captaining and coaching — the Canadiens.

Forbes’ news wasn’t exactly fresh when he got around to reporting it: one version I’m looking at dates to 1969, 50 years after the fact, when Forbes was 72, and the other is from Trent Frayne’s 1974 book The Mad Men of Hockey.

Both accounts are, it has to be said, fairly vivid, even if they don’t perfectly match up.

The first, from a genial Globe and Mail retrospective, has Forbes telling his tale this way to writer James Young:

The game is much faster now, but not nearly as rough as it was. In one game at the old Mount Royal rink in Montreal, Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went skating out to protest to the referee and skated right into him, knocking both of us down. He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net.

The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side of me, spit his tobacco juice in my face and when I fell skated around me to score in the open net.

Trent Frayne’s framing of this same tale five years later isn’t quite the same; it does up the colour balance.

“He was,” Forbes says this time, by way of introducing Lalonde, “the dirtiest son of a bitch I ever played against.”

In Frayne’s version, Forbes stopped Lalonde and the puck was headed back the other way. As Lalonde rounded the net to follow it, he paused to punch Forbes squarely — and hard — in the face.

“Blood spurted from the goaler’s nose,” Frayne writes, “and he took off after Lalonde, brandishing his stick like a lariat.”

The referee is named as Cooper Smeaton, and he does get knocked down. Jumping up, he’s quoted threatening Forbes:

“Get back in the goal, you crazy little bugger,” he shouted at the five-foot-five goaltender, “or you’re out of the game.”

Frayne adds some fine points to the final act of the piece, too. Near the end of the game, with Canadiens leading 4-1, Lalonde broke in with the puck. Forbes was ready for him, “readying an axe-swing at Lalonde’s head.”

But at the last instant the flying Lalonde spat a long stream of tobacco juice into Jakie’s face, circled the net laughing, and pushed the puck into the goal past the sputtering Forbes.

Triangulating with a few of the details provided by Frayne, it’s possible to key in a couple of games from the two seasons Forbes spent with Toronto. The first time he played Canadiens in Montreal was on Wednesday, March 10, 1920, a night on which the local Gazette found plenty in his performance to praise: “Forbes the Youngest Goaler in NHL Made Many Brilliant Stops at Mount Royal Arena,” reads a subhead from the next morning’s dispatch.

Too bad for Forbes, Montreal won, 7-2, with Lalonde scoring a hat trick. But contemporary accounts mention no high sticks, punches, or other hijinks. Also, the referee that night was Harry Hyland. So that’s probably not the night in question.

A better bet altogether is a game from almost a year later, a Monday-nighter played on February 28, 1921. It was noteworthy affair on several counts. A former U.S. president was one of the 5,000 spectators on hand, for one thing: what’s more, William Howard Taft was “in position to have a good view” of a first-period fight between Toronto’s Ken Randall and Didier Pitre of Montreal.

It was a thoroughly bad-tempered occasion even before the teams hit the ice. Toronto was lending winger Cully Wilson to Canadiens that season, but just before the game, with centreman Corb Denneny ill and unable to play, the St. Pats tried to claim Wilson back for their own line-up.

NHL President Frank Calder was in the building and presided over a summit in the referee’s room. The Montreal Star mapped the terrain:

If he played with Canadiens, Toronto would protest him. If he played with Torontos, Canadiens would no doubt protest him, and if he refused to play with Torontos, whose property he was, he would be suspended. The president, however, refused to counsel him what to do, and told him to suit himself, bearing in mind that he was Toronto’s property.

Wilson sat out and, indeed, never suited up for either Montreal or Toronto again: the following season he turned out for the Hamilton Tigers.

In Montreal in 1921, the game went sourly on without him. “There were many unparliamentary clashes,” the Star reported. The Mount Royal Arena’s natural ice deteriorated as the game continued, too. In the second interval, the Star’s reporter watched as “the men who were supposed to scoop the snow off the ice only got water for their pains, and when the third period began, the ice was like mud. When a man fell he got up sopping wet.”

It was in the second period that Forbes and Lalonde first sparred, though whether it was a high stick or a punch that the latter perpetrated isn’t clear. Press reports make no mention, either, of a collision between Forbes and Smeaton. “Lalonde was given a minor for charging Forbes,” is as much as we get from the Gazette, though with an interesting coda: “Lalonde was booed for his attack on the net custodian.” (Le Droit: “Lalonde was hissed when he jostled Forbes.”)

In Trent Frayne’s telling, the game ended 5-1 for Montreal, which wasn’t the case on this night. Lalonde did score Canadiens’ final goal, towards the end of the third, to complete a 4-0 Montreal win (and Georges Vézina shutout). As the Star had it, “Lalonde’s brilliant lone-handed shot finished the scoring.”

But if reporters present saw Lalonde score, none of them would seem to have noticed him spit his tobacco or laugh, and nor did they catch Forbes’ sputtering as he failed to foil him. That doesn’t mean that a spit-assisted goal isn’t part of hockey history which remains, after all, mostly a matter of the many moments, savoury or not, that go unrecorded.

Famous Five: Lined up from left, Newsy Lalonde, Lester Patrick, Odie Cleghorn, Frank Calder, and Cooper Smeaton, circa the … early 1930s? (Image: La Presse)

 

 

 

sons of sea-captains, butchers, hod-carriers, haberdashers: a short history of managing in montreal

My Back Pages: In his dotage and his dressing gown, Léo Dandurand surveys (with Mme. Dandurand?) the scrapbooks of his past, circa the early 1960s.

The Montreal Canadiens fired GM Marc Bergevin yesterday, two dismal days after the team made some unhappy history: Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres meant that Montreal’s 12 meagre points in 22 games are the fewest the team has gathered to open a season in all of the 104 years it’s played in the NHL.

Bergevin, who lasted nine years in the job, ended his tenure with a gracious statement. “The last years have been high in both emotions and learnings,” it read, in part. “You have witnessed my journey leading the organization. You won’t be surprised to hear me say it has not been a long, quiet river, and at times, it felt like we were living in a TV show. Despite the challenges, the organization I led with passion always fought back. For me, each experience, good or bad, made me a better leader.”

Seventeen men have now managed the Canadiens since the club was founded in 1909. For those keeping count, 12 of Montreal’s historical GMs were born in Quebec, four in Ontario, while one (Léo Dandurand) originated in Illinois. Five of them played for the team before they moved into the team’s executive suite, Bob Gainey being the most recent of those.

Before owner Geoff Molson names an 18th GM, here’s a quick journey back down the river with Bergevin’s predecessors in the job, going back to Montreal’s NHA start:

• Joseph Cattarinich was a goaltender, the Canadiens’ very first, in 1910, though he didn’t last long between the Montreal posts: he was soon supplanted by Teddy Groulx and, the following season, Cattarinich and Jack Laviolette signed up Georges Vézina, a stripling goaltender from Chicoutimi, to take care of future Montreal’s puckstopping. Son of a Croatian sailor, Cattarinich was an owner, subsequently, of racehorses and the tracks they ran on, Laviolette was known in business, apparently, as The Silent One and also Silent Joe. He was co-owner of the Canadiens between 1921 and 1935; in the ’30s he was in on a brief effort to put an NHL team in Cleveland.

Jack Laviolette, Hall-of-Fame defenceman, was a playing manager when managers were also, sort of, coaches, too. His on-ice career ended when he lost a foot in a car accident in 1918. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that didn’t keep him from refereeing the benefit game that was organized on his behalf in 1921.

Grapple Group: George Kennedy, on the left, alongside Belgian wrestler Constant Le Marin, circa 1910.

• George Kennedy, son of a sea-captain, was born George Kendall: he changed his named when he got into wrestling. He was good at that, a Canadian amateur champion before he turned to managing other wrestlers, and lacrosse teams, and buying the Canadiens, which he did in 1910, paying Ambrose O’Brien $7,500.

As manager Kennedy shaped the team that won Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup in 1916. “A natural humorist,” he was called in 1921, alongside a tale of a retort of his from a year earlier, during a particularly feisty spell in the NHL rivalry between Ottawa and Montreal. When the Senators’ secretary wired to wonder how many tickets the Canadiens would require for an upcoming game in Ottawa, the reply Kennedy sent back was: “None. None of my friends want to see you or your yellow team again.”

Kennedy was sickened in Seattle in 1917 in the outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall and stopped the Stanley Cup finals. He never really recovered his health after that: Kennedy died in 1921 at the age of 39.

• With partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau, Léo Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921 (for $11,500) after George Kennedy’s untimely death. Dandurand  was, in his time, a busy man, the owner of many horse racing tracks, a boxing and wrestling promoter, and (in 1946) founder of the Montreal Alouettes.  In his 14 years managing the Canadiens, Dandurand oversaw three Stanley Cup championships. Among other things, he’s remembered as the man who brought Howie Morenz to Montreal and the owner of a restaurant called Drury’s. Dandurand forbade his players from driving cars because of the risk of leg and hand cramps.

Silverwear: Canadiens owner and sometime GM Ernest Savard receives the Kennedy Cup from NHL president Frank Calder in March of 1938. Named for Montreal’s original owner/GM, the Kennedy recognized the annual winner of the season series between Maroons and Canadiens. With the demise of Maroons in ’38, this was the trophy’s last hurrah. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Ernest Savard was a stockbroker and sometime owner of Montreal’s baseball Royals, who headed up the syndicate that bought the Canadiens for $165,000 in 1935 from Dandurand and Cattarinich. An “expert golfer,” the Gazette called him that year, and “outstanding sportsman.” He served as GM for just a year before handing over to Cecil Hart; one of Savard’s first moves was to name Canadiens captain Sylvio Mantha as the team’s (playing) coach. The appointment, intoned the Ottawa Journal, “was believed to be the start of a re-organization program which it is hope will make the club a dangerous factor in the coming campaign.”

In 1937, when talk arose of Montreal’s two teams possibly amalgamating, Savard said that the Canadiens would never change their name.

• Cecil Hart, an insurance man, coached the Canadiens to a pair of Stanley Cups before he came back to manage them in 1937, insisting that he’d only take the job if the team brought back Howie Morenz to play. Lester Patrick called him “one of the best managers who ever sat on a hockey bench.”

• Jules Dugal was the Canadiens long-time secretary and business manager in 1930s who did some stand-in coaching when Leo Dandurand was indisposed. In 1938, the Montreal Gazette reported that he crossed words with Chicago Black Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin during a heated game at the Forum and also “whipped off his glasses and prepared to trundle into battle” when Bill Tobin, Chicago’s business manager, taunted him.

As Canadiens GM, Dugal got into a hoo-ha in 1940 with Bill Stewart in a game in New York after the referee claimed that Dugal had sent out the Canadiens to “get me” because “I put him out of the arena five years ago and he’s never forgotten.” After the game, Stewart stormed into the Habs’ dressing room, furious about the curses Dugal had been yelling at him and challenging him to a fight, which Dugal didn’t accept. About sending players after the ref, Dugal said, “I’d be crazy to do anything like that. Much as I dislike the man, I would not do a thing like that.”

Tommy Tune: Canadiens GM Tommy Gorman added a musical note to hockey games at Montreal’s Forum, installing a Hammond organ and hiring Ray Johnson to play it. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Tommy Gorman won a gold medal in lacrosse at the 1908 Olympics. He was a sportswriter and editor at the Ottawa Citizen, too, not to mention, before that, a parliamentary page, at the age of nine. “The other boys used to stuff me in wastepaper baskets,” he recalled. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier is supposed to have seen him bloodied from the bullying and told him to keep the peace.

Gorman started his management career with his hometown Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, winning three Stanley Cups along the way. In 1934, he coached the Chicago Black Hawks to their first Cup; the following year, he was at the helm of the Montreal Maroons when they won the Cup. He coached the Maroons until they folded in 1938 before joining the Canadiens in 1940, overseeing more Cup wins in 1944 and ’46. All in all, Gorman won seven Stanley Cups with four teams.

Desk Job: Frank Selke at work in his Forum office in 1946. Note the photos of Maurice Richard and Bill Durnan adorning the wall at his back. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Frank J. Selke stood 5’4” in skates. In the later 19th century, his parents emigrated from Poland, when it was still a part of the German Empire. In Berlin, Ontario — it’s Kitchener, now — Selke’s father worked as a labourer and a hod-carrier on construction sites. Selke worked construction himself, and as an electrician; later on, when he wasn’t rearing hockey teams, he raised fancy chickens, Patridge Wyandottes and Golden Pencilled Hamburgs.

For years he worked for Conn Smythe in Toronto, but then they fell out, and in 1946 Selke resigned and joined Montreal as GM. “I’ve never liked the Leafs since we left Toronto for Montreal,” his wife, Mary, told Vern DeGeer in 1964, “but we won’t go into that. Just say I’m a dedicated rooter for the Canadiens. I stand up and cheer like everybody else when we score a goal. And I don’t mind telling you I can boo the referees, too, when they make a mistake.” In Montreal, Selke was on the job for nine Stanley Cup championships. In 1948, he said in a speech that if the boys of Europe had been taught team games and learned how to make national heroes of men like Howie Morenz, “there would be no Hitlers or Stalins necessary for them.”

Draftee: In 1973, Montreal GM Sam Pollock (left) drafted Peterborough Petes winger Bob Gainey eighth overall in the NHL’s amateur draft. Thirty years + a month + four GMs later, Gainey would take over as Canadiens’ GM.

• Sam Pollock, another nine-time Cup winner, was an English haberdasher’s son. Appointed to the job of Montreal GM in 1964, he was described as a roly-poly little man, as well as a nervous one who often chews on a handkerchief during an interview or a meeting. At 16, when he showed up try out for the Montreal Junior Royals, the coach took one look at him and told him to go home. Everybody assumed that Ken Reardon would be Selke’s successor, but no, wrong. Pollock brought Ken Dryden to Montreal and wangled the trade that allowed the Habs to draft Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson.

Change Of Chair: Sam Pollock and his successor in the GM’s chair, Irving Grundman, circa 1978. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Irving Grundman spent seven years as managing director of Montreal’s Forum before he took over from Pollock. Many people thought that Scotty Bowman would get the job, or maybe Ron Caron, but wrong, no. Before he got into rink-running, Grundman ran bowling alleys. He was 50 when he succeed Pollock, described in a profile that years as “a medium-built man” with “gray hair and blue eyes.” His clothes were “handsomely tailored;” his office, on the Forum’s second floor, featured “beige carpeting and beige drapes and several mighty modernistic and expensive paintings on the walls.”

“I grew up near the intersection of Pine and Saint-Laurent in the northeast end of the city,” Grundman attested. “It’s a tough neighbourhood. He was a butcher. I worked for him for 14 years, getting up early in the morning, going to the meat market and plucking chickens. When I look back on those days, running the Canadiens is not a tough job.”

• Serge Savard’s grandfather, Adélard, was a buttermaker in Landrienne, Quebec, who some Sundays refused to eat his supper, as a recent Savardian biography tells it, “feeling that he hadn’t accomplished enough on the weekly day of rest.”

Serge Savard’s association with the Canadiens began as a top prospect when he was 15, and he went on to win eight Stanley Cup championships playing on the team’s defence, overseeing another two as GM. In May of 1995, five months before Savard lost his job, team president Ronald Corey wrote him a memo that began, “The season that ended May 3 was certainly the most disappointing in the history of the Canadiens. We took a step backwards and also suffered significant financial losses.”

• As a player, Réjean Houle’s adjectives were exuberant and effective. As general manager in Montreal, he traded away Patrick Roy, Mike Keane, Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse, and Pierre Turgeon. He had tears in his eyes in 2000, when he was fired. “I did the best I could to put together a team within the budget I had,” he said, “and I think we’re in the middle third of the NHL.”

“When a team loses,” he went on, “the coach and the general manager are held responsible, but I think the players have to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether they did the job.”

“I’m 51 and this is the first time in my life I’ll be getting up and I won’t have a job to go to. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t have any hobbies. I’ve always enjoyed working.”

• The Boston Bruins picked André Savard, sixth overall in the 1973 NHL amateur draft, two spots ahead of Montreal’s choice, Bob Gainey. A centreman, Savard played a dozen NHL seasons for the Bruins, Sabres, and Nordiques. As Montreal’s GM, he brought in Jan Bulis, Andreas Dackall, and Doug Gilmour, among others, and discarded Brian Savage, Trevor Linden, Shayne Corson. After three years as Canadiens’ GM, Savard went into a meeting with club president Pierre Boivin to present his plan for the future of the team and came out having agreed to step down.

• “Gainey’s back? Yes! It’s going to be different now.” That was a Montreal taxi driver, quoted in 2003, en route to the South Shore on the June day that Savard stepped aside to make way for the Habs’ legendary winger to make a Montreal return. Gainey’s mother worked at his hometown newspaper, the Peterborough Examiner; his father spent 40 years in shipping and receiving for Quaker Oats. Gainey’s playerly adjectives were hardworkingpainstakinghonest, flawless. He won five Stanley Cups and captained the team. In 1981, Viktor Tikhonov said he was the best player in the world. In Peterborough, as a junior, he got a job putting up TV aerials after he quit the one at a clothing store. “I didn’t sell too many clothes,” he said. “I guess I didn’t have the gift of the gab.”

“I can’t separate myself from my history,” he said when he took over as GM. Yes, he’d played on some famous teams in his time. “But this is new. The city has changed since I left Montreal. The team has changed. I’ve changed. We’re going to have to get to know one another.”

His plan? “We’re going to take the younger players and we’re going to improve them and we’re going to make them better. We’re going to push the players to do the things that need to be done to be a good team. It’s about tomorrow. It’s not about the 1970s … the 1980s or the 1950s.”

Seven years later, 2010, Gainey stepped down mid-season. “I’ve done my best,” he said, “and now it’s time for me to pass the torch.” Was it too soon? “If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier or a little later, I’d prefer earlier.”

• Pierre Gauthier was next. He’d co-managed the Canadian team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and oversaw hockey operations in Ottawa and Anaheim before returning to Montreal, his hometown. In California, when he was assistant GM of the fledgling Mighty Ducks, he fined team employees and players $100 each time they used the word “expansion,” because he thought it sounded like an excuse for losing.

When he arrived in Ottawa, he objected to players wearing big numbers on their sweaters, and caused Radek Bonk (76), Alexandre Daigle (91), and Stanislav Neckar (94) to reduce to 14, 9, and 24, respectively. Otherwise, he kept enough of a low profile with the Senators to earn the nickname The Ghost. “He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Gauthier,” an Ottawa reporter, Wayne Scanlan, wrote in 2012, a vegetarian in a steak-and-beer fraternity.” The flow continued when Gauthier got to Montreal, where columnist Jack Todd called him “a pint-sized bottle of vinegar.” As Canadiens GM, Gauthier was the man who fired the coach, Jacques Martin, who spoke French to hire another one, Randy Cunneyworth, who didn’t.

• Gauthier himself was fired in May of 2012. Introducing his replacement that month, team owner Geoff Molson said that the hiring of Marc Bergevin “represents the first step in re-establishing a culture of winning in Montreal.” Asked at the same press conference just how long it would take to turn the Canadiens’ fortunes around, Bergevin said, “I don’t have a time frame, but my vision of this team is that it has a good nucleus. To rebuild something, you start from scratch. I believe the pieces we have are good.”

Drafting: Alongside (from left) Canadiens director of player personnel Claude Ruel and coach Jacques Lemaire, GM Serge Savard announces a pick at 1983 draft at the Forum. Canadiens picked Alfie Turcotte in the first round that year; Claude Lemieux and Sergio Momesso in the second; John Kordic in the fourth round; and Vladislav Tretiak in the seventh. (Image: © Serge Savard)

 

 

 

 

gawky gus rivers: singer of songs, poison to rangers

Gus Rivers only played parts of three campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens — a total of 104 games, regular-season and playoffs — but you have to credit his timing: at the end of two of those seasons, 1930 and ’31, he helped the Canadiens to win Stanley Cup championships.

A Winnipegger, Rivers was, we know, born on this date, November 19 — but was it 1909, as many of the standard references record, or a year earlier? I’ll tend towards the latter: birth records from Manitoba and his U.S. military draft registration have Rivers originating in 1908. His hockey lineage isn’t in doubt: before he got to the NHL, Rivers played for the Elmwood Millionaires, the University of Manitoba, and the perfectly named Winnipeg Winnipegs. He was 22 in January of 1930 when the Canadiens signed him.

He’d started as a forward in Manitoba, before shifting back to defence; Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart put him to work on the wing when he got to Montreal. Upon his arrival, it was noted in the local Gazette that his “real name” was Gustave Desrivieres, though there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond anecdotal evidence that this was the case — it’s possibly that this was purely a fiction perpetrated by the Canadiens for the interest of their French-Canadian fans, in the tradition of declaring Howie Morenz’s background as Swiss. A year later, in the wake of another Stanley Cup triumph, the Gazette included this in their biographical round-up of the victors:

Gus was born in Winnipeg and played amateur hockey from 1924 to 1930 when he was recommended to Canadiens and signed by them. He came here under the name of Gustave Desrivieres and for a time he was thought to be French. Some of the American hockey writes still think so.

Rivers scored his first NHL goal on the last night the 1930 regular-season schedule, when the Canadiens dispatched the New York Americans by a score of 8-3. Teammate Howie Morenz scored five that night, so the fact that Rivers’ landmark tally didn’t get a whole lot of play in the press next day maybe isn’t so surprising. His second goal was more of a headliner: later that same month, Rivers scored the overtime winner that put an end to what to that date the longest game in NHL history, capping 68 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death hockey as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to open their Stanley Cup semi-final. Here’s the Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro describing how it went down:

Signed by Canadiens this season, Gus Rivers watched almost every game from the bench. He’d never got his chance to play. A shy, retiring chap, his favorite occupation on the team’s journeys was to sit in a corner of the car all alone and render the popular ditties to himself with feeling. Between times he received the joshing of all members of the team with a broad, good-natured smile.

It was this youngster that Manager Cecil Hart, of the Canadiens, put on the ice in the overtime session after all of the Flying Frenchmen were tottering on their feet. Rivers dashed out on the ice, ran the Rangers ragged for a while, then when Aurele Joliat and Sylvio Mantha struggled up the ice, he skated in front of the Rangers net. The rubber came his way from Mantha’s stick, and after 128 minutes of battling, the game was finally settled when Rivers slammed that puck past John Ross Roach.

The applause from a nerve-wracked crowd was deafening. But more significant was the fact that the Canadiens, exhausted and tottering, lifted the gawky youngster on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room, Gus Rivers had achieved recognition at last.

Rivers didn’t have too many more NHL goals in him — he only score four more in his career — but he did sink another overtime winner past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach, this one at Madison Square Garden in January of 1931.

In the wake of Montreal second successive Cup that spring, L.S.B Shapiro projected a big future for Rivers. “Gus possesses a neat poke check. He breaks fast and is dangerous around the goals.”

“From present indication,” the Gazette’s man gushed, “he will stand among the Morenzes and the [Pit] Lepines before many years have passed.”

As it turned out, while Rivers started the following season with Montreal, he finished it with the Providence Reds of the Can-Am League. He never made it back to NHL ice and after five further seasons with the Reds, he stowed his skates as a pro. Gus Rivers stayed on in Rhode lsland after his hockey career ended and, in 1985, that’s where he died. He was 75.

hold the swiss

A birthday today for the legendary Howie Morenz, born in Mitchell, Ontario, in southwestern Ontario, on a Sunday of this date in 1902. His heritage was Teutonic, but (as Morenz narrated in a feature for Esquire in 1935) “when I broke into the league with Les Canadiens in 1923, the World War was recent enough in memory to cause the club officials to worry about my acceptance by the team’s adherents, inasmuch as I am of German descent. So they promptly labeled me The Swiss Flash. Thereafter, when questioned about my racial ancestry, I said that I came from Switzerland, where I had developed agility by leaping from Alp to Alp.” The image here featured in La Presse in 1927.

wildorness

The stars that shone brightest in Montreal in the 1920s and ‘30s were, of course, Howie Morenz and Aurele Joliat. Their teammate, right winger Wildor Larochelle, did his work lower down in the firmament, garnering fewer headlines: his name was more likely to feature in passing in reports from Forum ice, as it did in Montreal’s Gazette in 1934 when Larochelle got a nod for turning in “his usual hard-skating, hard-working display” in a game against the St. Louis Eagles. 

He did do some first-line service in his time, replacing Johnny Gagnon on the wing with Joliat and Morenz, and scored some goals — his best year in that regard was 1931-32, when he tallied 18 in 48 regular-season games. Born in Sorel, Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1905, Larochelle played parts of 11 seasons with the Canadiens, debuting in 1925 and helping in the effort that brought back-to-back Stanley Cup championships to Montreal in 1930 and ’31. Montreal sold him to the Chicago in 1935. He played parts of two seasons with the Black Hawks before his NHL career came to its end in 1937. 

Reading Room: Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle, and Aurele Joliat in a studious pose circa the 1930s. 

mite is right

“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. Howie’s linemates, in fact, were even more diminutive than he was: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, nicknamed the Black Cat for his speed and his coiffure, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”

Widen your eyes, if you would, then, for Gagnon, whose birthday falls today: born in Chicoutimi on a Saturday of this date in 1905, he was a Canadien for ten years through the 1930s, which means that he was in on Montreal’s 1931 Stanley Cup. He also saw duty, briefly, for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Goalswise, he had his best year, notching 20, the season of Morenz’s untimely death, 1936-37. 

Gagnon went on, later, to serve as a scout for the New York Rangers. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.

Back to the ’30s and his gig as a flyweight partner to Howie Morenz. Here’s Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January of 1931 about the Stratford Streak’s wingers and the rivalry (possibly exaggerated) around what they displaced:

Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.

It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.

“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.

 “Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.

So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.

“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.

A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.

“One hundred and thirty-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.

Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the description of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”

In A Minor Key: Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat.

a cup for the canadiens, 1931: busses from battleship

Back-To-Back: George Hainsworth pitched the shutout, Johnny Gagnon scored the decisive goal, and just like that, on a Tuesday night of this date in 1931, the Montreal Canadiens claimed their second consecutive Stanley Cup by defeating the Chicago Black Hawks 2-0 at the Forum. “This is a marvellous team,” said coach Cecil Hart in the aftermath. Howie Morenz scored Montreal’s insurance goal on the night, and both he and Gagnon were rewarded for their efforts by teammate Albert (a.k.a. Battleship) Leduc: as the Gazette reported, the bulky defenceman “embarrasses his mates with his spontaneous gestures whenever a goal is scored. Gagnon and Morenz each received hearty kisses from the Battleship after they got their tallies.”

le fameux numéro 7

Forum Lament: Canadiens coach Cecil Hart and his faithful left winger, Aurèle Joliat, contemplate Howie Morenz’s Forum locker in the days after his shocking death in March of 1937.

“I can’t talk about it,” said Cecil Hart, coach of the Canadiens. “It is terrible — a thunderbolt.”

It was 84 years ago, late on another Monday night of this date, that the great Howie Morenz died at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc of complications after he fractured his left leg in an accident at the Forum in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of January. He was 34.

Funeral services were held at the Forum three days later. Ten thousand mourners were on hand in the arena, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 thronged the route as the cortege made its way to Mount Royal Cemetery for the burial.

Two days earlier, on Tuesday, March 9, Morenz’s teammates somehow managed to get through their scheduled game against the Montreal Maroons. (The Maroons prevailed by a score of 4-1.) Aurèle Joliat, Morenz’s loyal left winger and his fast friend, was out of the line-up on the night with a leg injury, but he was back for Montreal’s Saturday-night meeting with the New York Rangers, wherein Canadiens prevailed 1-0 on a goal from Morenz’s long-time right winger, Johnny Gagnon.

That’s the night that the photograph above may well have been posed, showing Joliat and coach Hart gazing on Morenz’s forlorn gear. “The wait is in vain, the Meteor is extinguished,” read the caption above a version that ran on the Sunday in Le Petit Journal.

Leo Dandurand would tell the story that he’d been the one to put the 7 on Morenz’s sweater back when the Stratford Streak first signed on to play with Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. “Remembering that Morenz’ contract was dated July 7, 1923 (which was also my birthday),” the Montreal owner, manager, and sometime coach later wrote, “I assigned him sweater number seven the first day he reported to Canadiens.”

A whole constellation of early Canadiens stars had worn the number seven going back to the beginnings of the team in 1910, including Jack Laviolette, Jimmy Gardner, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Malone, Howard McNamara, and (the last before Morenz) Odie Cleghorn.

When Morenz departed Montreal for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934, Dandurand declared that no other Canadien would wear the number again. As Dandurand told it in 1953, he meant forever, though at least one contemporary newspaper account from the fall of ’34 suggests that the understanding at the time was that it would go unworn as long as Morenz continued playing in the NHL. Either way, by various accounts, sweater number seven remained hanging in the Montreal dressing room for the duration of Morenz’s two-year odyssey to Chicago and then New York.

He reclaimed it when he (and Cecil Hart) rejoined Montreal in the fall of 1936. When he was injured in January, it returned to its hook when he departed the Forum on his way to hospital.

In the wake of his death, Canadiens immediately declared that his number would be worn no more, making Montreal’s seven the third NHL number to be retired, after Ace Bailey’s Toronto six and Lionel Hitchman’s Boston three, both of which were so honoured in the same week (Bailey first) in February of 1934.

In November of 1937, Canadiens did amend their numerical position, slightly, making clear that when Howie Morenz Jr. ascended to play for the team, he would inherit his father’s number.

Howie Jr. had celebrated his tenth birthday that year. He did, it’s true, show promise as a centerman in later years, skating with the Montreal Junior Canadiens as well as the USHL Dallas Texans before a degenerative eye condition put an effective end to his chances of reaching the NHL.

November of ’37 saw the NHL stage the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at the Forum. A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team combing Maroons and Canadiens by a score of 6-5 in front of a crowd of 8,683 fans. Some $20,000 was raised on the night for the Morenz family. Former Canadiens owner (and goaltender) Joe Cattarinich paid $500 for the Morenz’ equipment and sweater, which he then handed over to Howie Jr.

The program for that Memorial evening included this photograph, just above,  purported to be the only one in existence to have caught Morenz from the back while he wore his celebrated seven. It’s a good image, even if it isn’t, in fact, so very exclusive — I’ve seen Morenz showing his back in other photographs going back to the ’20s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

howie morenz, 1937: father time easily overhauls the fastest mortals

Hab Down: Howie Morenz hits the ice at Madison Square Garden in March of 1934, not quite three years before his death. His collision here was with New York Americans’ defenceman, number 3, Bill Bridge. Looking on is New York forward Bob Gracie.

It was on a Thursday night of this date 84 years ago that the great Howie Morenz broke his left leg in a game at Montreal’s Forum pitting Morenz’s Canadiens against the Chicago Black Hawks. Removed to Hôpital Saint-Luc, Morenz spent a little over a month in treatment before he died on March 8, 1937, of pulmonary embolism. Adapted from my 2014 book Puckstruck, here’s an accounting of his January 28 injury.

Morenz sobbed when Leo Dandurand traded him, in 1934, to Chicago. He was supposed to be slipping, and the coach had replaced him between linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, the fans were booing.

He was pretty good in Chicago, but he didn’t get along with the owner. At about this time, in March of 1935, he turned again to freelance journalism. Back in Montreal he and Joliat had contributed columns to La Patrie, but now Morenz addressed a bigger, manlier audience by way of Esquire.

We’ll accept that Morenz was moved to write the piece himself, no ghostwriters to mediate his positively chipper tone, and that when he talked about himself in the third person, he meant it. The big news he had to deliver is a surprise: having lost all three fights he started the year before, Morenz has decided to give up fighting. “Yes, from now on I’m a pacifist, a hold-backer.” By the way, for those of you out there who thought that the fighting was a fake, “part of the show, fancy embroidery,” well, hold on just one minute, buster. He makes it all sound so jolly, so much fun, even the scene when the fleet winger meets the defenseman’s “solid, unlovely hip” and “the forward’s breath leaves his body with a ‘woof’, as he goes buckety-buck-buck and crashes into the boards.” On he prattles, and on, tickled as can be to be talking hockey, even when it’s to acknowledge that “Father Time easily overhauls the fastest mortals.”

A year later Chicago traded him to the Rangers — another sad step down, it looked like, on the staircase out of hockey. But then the Canadiens brought him back in September of 1936. He was 34. Cecil Hart was in again as the coach, his old friend, and he reunited Morenz with Joliat and Gagnon. By Christmas the Canadiens were at the top of the league, with Morenz one of the leading scorers. “I’m going the limit right now,” Morenz himself said. “I’m giving the fans everything I’ve got. The end may be in sight but the heart is still sound. You know what I mean.”

If you were writing this as fiction, you’d never write it so starkly obvious. He’s supposed to have told Frank Selke that he was quitting. “It’s getting too tough.”

Montreal played in Chicago on Sunday, January 24, 1937. Hobbled by a knee injury, he still managed to star, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 decision for Montreal. “Siebert’s got his knee strapped up,” Morenz said of teammate Babe Siebert before the game, “and I got me a new knee put on for the winter, but we’ll win.”

Two nights later, the Canadiens beat Toronto 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “The Canadiens had the upper hand when they had Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Johnny Gagnon on the ice,” the Gazette reported. Joliat scored a pair of goals, with Morenz assisting on both. Babe Siebert said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen Morenz play. “The Morenz-Joliat-Gagnon line was the whole show, and we defencemen hardly got up a sweat so well were the forward lines going.”

News of Morenz’s injury from January 29, 1937.

On the Thursday, the Canadiens were back home to host Chicago. Morenz’s knee was heavily bandaged. In the first period, he was down at the south end of the Forum, towards St. Catherines Street. Nowadays there’s a rule to stipulate that the boards shall be constructed in such a manner that the surface facing the ice shall be smooth and free of any obstruction or any object that could cause injury to players. In those years, though, it was more of a tongue-in-groove design, as seen in the photograph above, and therein lay the danger.

As Montreal winger Toe Blake saw it from the Montreal bench, Morenz went looping behind the Black Hawks net when he lost his balance and fell into the boards where Chicago’s Earl Seibert “kinda fell on him.” The Montreal sportswriter Andy O’Brien saw one of Morenz’s skates dig into the boards, then he rolled over and the leg snapped. Joliat was on the ice: as he saw it, Morenz lost his footing, went down, put his feet up as he slid into the boards, the heels of his skates stuck in the boards. Somebody checked Earl Seibert, who fell on Morenz’s legs, which broke the left one.

Clarence Campbell was the referee that night. The way the future NHL president described it, Seibert dove headlong at Morenz, knocking him down, skate stuck, buckety-buck-buck.

There was a novelist in the house, too, on the night, Hugh MacLennan: he remembered (as a novelist might) a little smile on Morenz’s lips. “But once too often he charged into the corner relying on his ability to turn on a dime and come out with the puck. The point of his skate impaled itself in the boards. A defenseman, big Earl Seibert, accidentally crashed over the extended leg and broke it.”

MacLennan added another detail: “Howie’s head hit the ice with a sickening crack and he was carried out.” Unless Joliat and Gagnon helped him up and off. That’s another version that’s out there.

In the dressing room, there was a scene so stylized that somebody should paint it to hang up alongside Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.” Morenz was, apparently, a little more lucid than the general. He lay on the rubbing table, smoking a cigarette. “I’m all through,” he’s supposed to have muttered, “all finished.” Don’t blame Seibert, he said. “It was an accident. My skate caught.” Joliat thought it was his wonky right knee that had betrayed him. Johnny Gagnon had tears in his eyes. Babe Siebert kept saying, “Hang on, Howie, hang on, Howie.” Small boys wept in the Forum corridor as they took Morenz out, and though he was crying too, he gave a cheery way on his way to the ambulance that took him to Hôpital Saint-Luc.

His ankle was cracked and he had four broken bones in the leg. Or it was a compound fracture with the bones shattered in two places slightly above the ankle and below the knee. The papers had differing reports, and it must have been hard to make sense of it all, which may be why La Patrie saw fit to publish x-rays of Morenz’s fractures.

Were there two, four, five? It still wasn’t 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.”

Two days after the crash, the rest of the Canadiens travelled to New York and Boston, where they beat the Americans and the Bruins, which Howie appreciated. Gagnon and Joliat wrote to him every day they were away and when they got back to Montreal, they went to visit. Dr. Forgues was satisfied with the progress of his patient’s recovery, Joliat reported in his La Patrie column. “Howie is most enthusiastic,” he wrote.

The Winnipeg Tribune added an unsettling Forum update that same week. “An X marks the spot that performers in the Montreal Forum are avoiding,” ran the unbylined item. “A member of the Forum’s ice-sweeping staff put a mark on the boards where Howie Morenz’s skate dug into the wood when the Canadien veteran broke his leg. … A few nights later, Cam Dickson, a Montreal Senior Group player, hit the identical spot and broke his arm.”

 

old poisoneer

Goalgetter: I don’t know that Nels Stewart gets the credit he deserves as a goalscorer. He scored 34 in 36 games in his first year in the NHL, 1925-26, and a couple of years after that he put away 39 in 44 games. If there had been a trophy recognizing the NHL’s best rookie that first year, 23-year-old Stewart would have won it, but since there wasn’t, he made do with leading the league in scoring, collecting the Hart Trophy as MVP, and helping his Montreal Maroons win a Stanley Cup championship. Born in Montreal on a Monday of this same date in 1902, Stewart centred Babe Siebert and Hooley Smith on Montreal’s famous S Line through the ’20s. He won a second Hart in 1930. Later he skated for the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison bypassed Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart died in 1957 at the age of 54, so his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1962 came posthumously.

hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.

He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.

Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.

Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.

It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.

Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.

Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.

Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.

Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.

 

 

billy burch took his skates to bed

No Sudden Coughing: In 1928, Billy Burch did his best to recommend Lucky Strikes to hockey’s tobacco-craving players.

Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.

Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.

Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.

I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:

For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.

When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.

He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.

In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.

Billy Babe Burch Ruth

They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.

So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.

Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.

Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.