herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

It was on a Friday of this same date in 1891 in Winnipeg that Herb Gardiner was born in 1891. If you haven’t heard of his stardom as a defenceman on the ice in Calgary and Montreal, well, here’s an introduction to that. Gardiner, who died in 1972, aged 80, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. A quick browse across his biography shows that the adjectives stellar and two-way and consistent were sometimes applied to his efforts on the ice, along with the noun rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, as well as the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is two days late, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract.

Gardiner took Georges Vézina’s number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, which is a little surprising, but there it is: the team didn’t retire it from circulation after the iconic goaltender’s death in March of 1926. (Herb Rheaume, Vézina’s successor in Montreal’s net, inherited the number before Gardiner arrived; the following year, 1926-27, Montreal’s new goaltender was George Hainsworth, who wore 12.)

Gardiner played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won that contest, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantries he exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and goaltender Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy for league MVP that was named for the father of Montreal’s coach. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to offer it, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first.

As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September.

The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth in 1927, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

stratford’s streak

Statuesque: It was 85 years ago today, on Monday, March 8, 1937, that Howie Morenz, inimitable Canadiens’ centre,  died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc, a dreadful complication of the much-broken ankle he’d suffered on the ice a month earlier. He was 34. Alongside homages to Lafleur, Richard, and Béliveau, Morenz’s statue stands before the Bell Centre in Montreal. (Image: Stephen Smith)

someone with more sense than bravado: clint benedict, conn smythe, and the 1929 mask mandate that never was

Benny In The Nets: After playing seven NHL seasons (and collecting three Stanley Cups) with the Ottawa Senators, Clint Benedict joined the Montreal Maroons in 1924.

This is the first of a two-part series on the NHL’s original masked man, and how in 1929 the NHL almost (but not quite) came to mandate protection for all its goaltenders.

Olive Benedict might have blamed herself when her husband Clint went down in Montreal that January night in 1930, but it was mischance — and a puck Howie Morenz fired — that actually felled the 37-year-old goaltender for the Montreal Maroons and precipitated the painful end of his long and illustrious NHL career.

That came, the end, nine weeks later when, on a Tuesday, 92 years ago this past week, Benedict played the 390th — and final — game of his Hall-of-Fame career, during which he played in five Stanley Cup finals, winning four of those, three with the (original) Ottawa Senators and another with the Montreal Maroons.

In hockey history, that final game of Benedict’s is also annotated as the end of the goaltender’s desperate two-week experiment with the first face-mask in league history. Five games that lasted. It would be 1959 — 29 years later — before Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante donned his famous mask in an actual game, jump-starting a new era in the NHL.

Why was the NHL (and hockey generally) so slow in adopting masks to protect the well-being (and faces) of goaltenders? Institutional conservatism, I guess. Hubris would figure in as a major factor, too, I might say, even if Clint Benedict wouldn’t. Asked in 1964 about the possibility of any such stigma having been attached to goaltenders erring on the side of self-preservation, the old goaltender (he was 71) wasn’t having any of it. “Nah,” he told an inquiring reporter, “we took such a beating anyway that nobody would have thought it sissified. No, it was just a case of not developing one that was practical.”

Even before Benedict tried out his mask, the 1929-30 campaign looked like being a pivotal one for goaltenders, with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner, coach, GM, and force-of nature Conn Smythe in a leading role. Not much has been made of this, over the years, but that fall, mere months before an infant Jacques Plante celebrated his first birthday, there was an effort afoot to require the league’s goaltenders to wear masks.

From the start, the 1929-30 season was a challenging one for Clint Benedict, who was playing in 13th NHL season, the 18th, if you felt like counting his years in the NHA, too. In November of ’29, just as the season was getting going, he left a game in Ottawa after the first period after what was described as “a violent attack of indigestion.” Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to play: reported to have been ailing all day, he took the ice “in a weak condition,” as Montreal’s Gazette described it.

Flat Walsh replaced him that night, and went on holding the fort as Benedict recovered, as it was subsequently reported, from a case of ptomaine (food) poisoning. Something he ate in Boston, he said. He lost eight pounds, missed eight games.

Benedict was back in December, but in his second game of his return, he went down again. Painful as it sounds, he got back up on his skates in short order, this time. He was playing brilliantly, by all reports, frustrating the Boston Bruins at the Forum, when he sprawled to stop Dit Clapper and took the puck full in the face. “Benny dropped,” the Gazette reported, “and lay still as if he had been shot dead.” He was unconscious on the ice, revived, repaired to the dressing room. With no concussion protocol or common sense to keep him there, Benedict returned to finish the game.

He was back in action three nights later, on January 7, at the Forum, against the Canadiens. This was the night his wife, Olive, was looking on from a seat just behind his first-period net, a reluctant witness who’d travelled from her home in Ottawa. It was the first game she’d attended in six years, and one of just a dozen or so she’d ever been to in the course of her husband’s lengthy career. It may have been, as one Montreal newspaper suggested, that she thought she brought him back luck, but it might just as well have been that she preferred not to see the dangers he faced every night on the job.

On this night, the game wasn’t yet a minute old when Howie Morenz swept onto Maroon ice and fired the puck. “A smoking shot,” the Montreal Star’s reporter called it; “got him straight between the eyes and smashed the bridge of his nose,” the Gazette detailed. “The impact of the drive could be heard in the far reaches of the building,” the Star said. Players from both teams carried Benedict to the dressing. There was a great mess of blood.

Damage Report: The Montreal Star headline for the game on January 7, 1930. Canadiens’ sporting gesture was tnot to rush sickly substitute Flat Walsh as he suited up in Benedict’s place.

While Benedict’s wounds were being tended, the Maroons dispatched a taxi to retrieve Flat Walsh, who was home in bed, recovering from a bad bout of flu. He arrived at the Forum wearing an overcoat over his pyjamas, changed into his gear, pulled on a cap. “He was almost tottering on his pins,” said the Star, “with his grave face showing a grey pallor beneath his upturned visor. Unsteadily he braced himself for a few practice shots, and then went on to stardom.” After a half-hour delay, that is, hockey resumed, with the Maroons winning by a score of 2-1, and thereby taking over first place in the Canadian side of the NHL standings from their Montreal rivals.

The Star checked in next day at the LaSalle Hotel, just east of the Forum on Drummond at St. Catherine, where Benedict was resting under his wife’s care. “An examination today revealed his nose badly broken with a V-shaped cut that required five stitches, and the flesh is torn all the way down the nose.” The next day, the couple left for Ottawa, where Benedict would spend his convalescence.

He’d miss 15 games this time, over the course of six weeks, with Flat Walsh and (for one game) Abbie Cox, lent by Montreal’s IHL farm team, the Windsor Bulldogs, standing in his stead.

Neither of them saw fit to protect their faces in the wake of Benedict’s injury. In the wider hockey world, discussion of the need for and practicalities of masks had been going on for years. Goaltending in the NHL has never been an easy way of making a living, but in the 1920s and 1930 it was particularly dangerous. Battered by pucks, scythed by skates, run into and over by barrelling opponents: the men who volunteered to man the nets were constantly being jarred, cut, knocked out.

They came to, groggily acknowledged their surroundings, were patched up: mostly, they finished a game they’d started. It happened all the time, in those years.

“I remember at least four times being carried into the dressing room to get all stitched up and then going back in to play,” Benedict said in 1962. “There were some other times, too, but I don’t remember them.”

Much of the mayhem has faded away from modern memory. For its part, the NHL doesn’t, at the best of times, display a nuanced or even particularly reliable memory of its own history, and when it comes to unflattering aspects of the historical game — extreme violence, concussions, other grievous injuries — it’s not as if the league is interested in curating … any of it.

When it comes to early NHL goaltenders, the league will occasionally highlight agony-adjacent events. The emergency foray that New York Rangers coach Lester Patrick made at the age of 44 into the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, for instance, is a polished gem of popular hockey history, even if the details of how he was called to duty aren’t always so well remembered. A shot from Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught the regular Ranger goaltender, Lorne Chabot, in the face that night. It was several days before doctors were satisfied that he wouldn’t lose his left eye. Guarding the goal for Montreal that night: Clint Benedict.

Was Canadiens goaltender George Hainsworth, in fact, the first NHLer to don a mask in January of 1929 after his nose was broken by his teammate Aurèle Joliat in a pre-game warm-up? I’ve delved into that possibility to some depth here; the short answer is probably not.

But something was building around that time. I’m not sure you can call it momentum, given how slowly the evolution of hockey masks progressed in the game’s early years. My friend Eric Zweig, hockey historian extraordinaire, has written about Ev Marshall in Calgary in 1899, who is (to date) the first documented goaltender to mask up.

There were others after that, though not many. Some who sought protection did so to safeguard the glasses they wore, and glass-protectors were common in amateur hockey (and in particular on U.S. college ice) through the years of the First World War and into the 1920s. (Not all historians allow that these qualify as masks.) In any case, as with hockey helmets, there was no organized effort to develop a purpose-built hockey mask.

In 1920, the Ontario Hockey Association did add a rule permitting goaltenders to wear masks. It’s possible that some judicious soul took advantage of that provision as soon as it was passed. What we do know with certainty is that during the 1926-27 season, Lawrence Jones did. A stopper of pucks for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League, he was noted (in Ottawa’s Journal) as “one of the few net guardians in the sport who wears a baseball mask.”

That same year, suiting up for the women’s team at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, goaltender Elizabeth Graham famously donned a fencing mask.

In the unprotected NHL, pucks kept on hitting goaltenders in the face, which was bad for them, generally. More specifically, if they were injured seriously enough that they ended up missing games, that was bad for their teams which, in most cases, didn’t keep a full-time back-up on the roster.

Something had to change, and almost did, two months before Clint Benedict went down with the injury that ended up, finally, shifting the balance. Playing protagonist again in November of 1929 was Lorne Chabot. He was with the Toronto Maple Leafs now, gearing up with his teammates to open the season against the Chicago Black Hawks. The Globe described the mishap at the Leafs’ final pre-season practice at Arena Gardens:

The big goal-guardian was struck in the face by one of Charley Conacher’s terrific drives and was practically knocked unconscious. He quickly recovered, however, but it was necessary to put four stitches in the wound that was opened up in his cheek. He will play tonight, however, although he may present a bandaged appearance.

And so he did, helping his team to a 2-2 tie on a night that Conacher was making his NHL debut (and scoring a goal). Leafs GM and coach Conn Smythe, meanwhile, was working on a plan.

That same fall, the NHL had adjusted its “anti-defence” rules, hoping to speed up the game, increasing scoring opportunities and thereby, goals. To open up play (and specifically confound the packing-of-the-defence scheme perfected by Pete Green and his Ottawa Senators with their “kitty-bar-the-door” strategy”), the new rule stipulated that only three defenders (including the goaltender) were permitted in the defensive zone when the puck was elsewhere. This meant that forwards couldn’t precede the puck into their own zone: they had to wait to enter with the play.

Another rule barred goaltenders from holding pucks that came their way. Previously, they’d been permitted to hang on to a puck for three seconds before casting it away to a teammate or a corner. Now, they had to release the puck instantly, or pay the penalty of a punitive face-off ten feet in front of their net, with no defenders allowed on the ice between the goal and the puck-drop.

What all this meant for goaltenders, Smythe said, was more shots and more danger. (The league seemed to acknowledge this in its amended rules: where previously goaltenders were allowed ten minutes to recuperate from an on-ice injury, an extra five minutes was now added in the case that the goaltender had to be replaced.) The Gazette in Montreal explained Smythe’s position: “To prevent a serious accident,” Smythe wanted to mandate that goaltenders “be protected as much as possible by headgear and especially constructed masks.” To that end, he had a proposal he was going to present at the next meeting of the NHL’s governors that would compel all goaltenders to wear masks.

According to the Gazette’s report, Smythe had the support of “several managers in the NHL.” The problem was one of social stigma as much as anything else: goaltenders themselves were reluctant to be the first to take up a mask. “If all teams were compelled to do so,” the dispatch concluded, “it would be quickly adopted.”

Bright Idea: A Montreal newspaper reports on Smythe’s modest 1929 proposal.

There’s no reason to believe that Smythe didn’t follow through on this effort. If he did, details of the discussion didn’t filter out to the newspapers, and no decision on mandatory masks was taken. NHL President Frank Calder did oversee a meeting of league governors in mid-December in Chicago, but no mention of masks or mandates surfaced in the press that week. And Smythe, it seems, was in Montreal anyway, coaching the Leafs in a 3-1 loss to the Maroons and earning himself a fine of $50 for haranguing referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary.

As urgent as Smythe’s push for a mask mandate had seemed, it … evaporated? Maybe he did present his proposal to the league and failed to rally enough support. Could he have been persuaded in the interim that the goaltenders themselves didn’t like the idea? We don’t know.

And so the mask debate faded away into the background again … for a month. “Some day the league will authorize masks for netminders as baseball does for its catchers, and these accidents will be avoided.” That was the Gazette, in its original report of Morenz’s shot and Benedict’s resulting distress in January of 1930.

Baz O’Meara weighed in the following day in his Montreal Star column. “So far no mask has been made which gives the maximum of protection, and the minimum of discomfort,” he wrote. “Still someone with more sense than bravado will come out some night and set a new fashion in protection to eyes and noses — but it won’t be till someone invents a better mask than any that can be utilized at present.”

Masked Man: Clint Benedict poses with his mask in 1930.

Benedict was on the case, of course, commissioning a sporting goods firm to make him a sensible apparatus with which he could return to the Maroons net. The record hasn’t, over the years, had much more to say in the way of specifics than that.

According to several accounts, the firm was in Boston — that’s what Jim Hynes and Gary Smith report in their book Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask (2008), though they don’t list a source. Another history, Douglas Hunter’s lavish A Breed Apart: An Illustrated History of Goaltending (1995), mentions Boston, but also notes a second possibility: that the Maroons’ trainer (not named, but it would have been Bill O’Brien) “modified a black leather face mask boxers wore in sparring by riveting a thick black bar across the front to protect Benedict’s nose and cheekbone.” Again, no sources are listed.

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Benedict mask.

There is this famous contemporary photograph of Benedict showing off his mask. As Hunter points out, the Hockey Hall of Fame has in its collection another mask of a slightly different design that it says belonged to Benedict. Is that one a prototype, then, or an alternate mask? In 1932, Benedict announced that he was contemplating a hockey comeback with the aid of a whole new mask — maybe that’s what the Hall has?

One photograph I hadn’t seen until I came across it recently in the pages of a Montreal newspaper from February of 1930 must have been taken at the same time as the one above. Benedict has the same distant gaze in this new one, but his cap is off: you can see the head-strap that held the mask in place, or not — in at least one of the games in which the mask served, the strap failed and had to be taped.

Even more interesting than the photograph is the short article that accompanies it. It may not solve any of the small puzzles associated with Benedict’s mask — indeed, on a point or two, it stirs up new questions. There’s insight here, too, though, into the makings of Benedict’s mask that I haven’t seen before in my scourings of archival records.

That’s for another post, though, I think, on another day. Stand by.

 

sturdy marty burke: small for a defenceman, packs a hefty bodycheck

Marty On Madison: Born in Toronto on a Saturday of this date in 1905, Marty Burke won a pair of Stanley Cup championships playing the d for the Montreal Canadiens, in 1930 and in ’31. After Montreal wrapped up the latter final by beating the Chicago Black Hawks , the local Gazette lauded Burke’s ability to shut down attacking opponents “quietly and effectively.” He was 5’8″ in those years, 160 pounds: though “small for a defenceman and he packs a hefty bodycheck and his steadying qualities have proved an inspiration to his team.” For seven Canadien seasons, Burke roomed with teammate Howie Morenz, and when Montreal traded the Stratford Streak to Chicago in 1934, Burke went, too, in a deal that also landed the Hawks Lorne Chabot. Burke spent five seasons with the Black Hawks before spending his final NHL season, 1937-38, back in Montreal.

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 (where he wore number 3) and then New York (where he was 12).

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, included here, 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.