montreal, 1920: beyond the shadow of a drought

New Digs: All was ready for the opening of the Montreal Canadiens new arena in January of 1920 … until a municipal strike cut the city’s water supply.

Montreal Mayor Médéric Martin asked that the waterworkers wait until after the holidays to walk off the job, but on New Year’s Eve of 1919, at 7 p.m., the unhappy municipal employees telephoned to say that they could delay their strike no longer.

So began what local newspapers would soon be calling Montreal’s “water famine,” a mid-winter crisis that quickly dried out Canada’s largest city and turned things desperate as hospitals, firehouses, homes, and businesses turned their taps in vain. In 1920 as now, hockey was no essential service, but it’s why we’re here, so it’s my duty to report the collateral damage: on this day 102 years ago, the Montreal Canadiens postponed the game they were scheduled to play against the Toronto St. Patricks, thereby delaying (again) the NHL debut of Canadiens’ brand-new arena.

Going into the league’s third season, the Canadiens were already on the third arena of their short NHL tenure. Water was only secondarily involved in the demise of the first two, which both burned down.

In early 1918, fire had razed the Westmount Arena, incinerating most of the Canadiens’ equipment in the process — their skates were spared, having been sent out for sharpening. The destruction of the arena at the corner of Saint-Catherine Street West and Wood Avenue (about two kilometres, or a 26-minute walk from Canadiens’ present-day home at the Bell Centre) also spelled the end for Montreal’s other original NHL team: after just four games, Sam Lichtenhein’s Wanderers folded that first winter.

The cause of that fire was deemed to be faulty wiring in the Wanderers’ dressing room.

For their part, the Canadiens made a move east to the arena where they’d started, in 1909: the Jubilee, a distance of just over five kilometres from the Bell Centre, at the corner of Saint-Catherine East and what’s now rue Alphonse-D. Roy. While the Westmount could accommodate some 4,300 spectators, the Jubilee only had room for about 3,000.

It was at the Jubilee that the Canadiens wrapped up an NHL championship in March of 1919, defeating the Ottawa Senators 4-2 to clinch the title in five games. Four days later, George Kennedy and his team boarded a train at Montreal’s Windsor Station, bound for Seattle (by way of Vancouver) and that year’s fatal, unfinished Stanley Cup finals.

It was later that same April that the Jubilee caught fire. The Gazette had the story next day. “Sweeping from St. Catherine street to Notre Dame street, the flames soon ate their way through the entire structure, which was of wood supported by iron beams. The beams soon crumpled under the heat and the building collapsed.”

The cause wasn’t immediately known. Police detectives interviewed striking carters who’d been loitering around the nearby Canadian Northern Railway station, but they were soon cleared of suspicion. The Montreal Star noted that another fire, earlier in the year, at the arena’s bandstand, was the fault of “irresponsible boys who had managed to get in the rink and had set the fire while playing with matches or cigarettes.”

This time around, survivors of the conflagration apparently included a pair of nets.

Canadiens owner and manager George Kennedy was 39 when he died in October of 1921, two-and-a-half years after his 1919 bout with Spanish flu.

Canadiens’ owner and manager George Kennedy had been hit hard in the Seattle outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall, and lingering of effects of his April illness would factor into his death at the age of just 39 in 1921. But by autumn of 1919, he was well enough to be preparing for a new NHL season, mailing out contracts to his players and working on finding them a new home.

One possibility had evaporated in September when the backers of a project at a familiar address decided to postpone their plan build on Atwater at Saint-Catherine Street West — i.e. directly adjoining the site of the roller rink and outdoor skating rink that had been operating since 1908 as the Forum. I’m not sure that much has been made of this aborted effort that might have seen the Canadiens make their home at Cabot Square five years before the new Forum was built with an original capacity of 9,300.

As it is, of course, it would be 1926 before the team moved to its most famous home, a mere 1.6 kilometres from today’s Bell Centre.

Another prospective arena was said to be in the works at a site east of the Forum. There was also word that the Canadiens might be considering playing at least part of the upcoming season elsewhere, out of town.

In November of 1919, as the NHL’s annual meetings got underway at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, the Gazette noted that Kennedy was busy negotiating terms with the management of the new (still under-construction) Mount Royal Arena. This was horse-racing promoter Tom Duggan’s project, situated on the south side of Mont-Royal avenue between Clark and St. Urbain Streets, on the site of former exhibition grounds and lacrosse fields — a journey on foot of 3.6 kilometres from the Bell Centre.

Duggan was eager to secure an NHL team of his own. When he couldn’t land one in Montreal, he eventually acquired rights for teams in Boston and New York. The former he sold to grocery magnate Charles F. Adams, who parlayed them into the Bruins; retaining the latter for himself, he pitched in with bootlegger Bill Dwyer to launch the New York Americans.

Canadiens eventually signed up for a five-year residency upon the natural ice of the Mount Royal Arena, though as of late November there were still rumblings that the new facility wouldn’t be ready and that Canadiens might be forced to go into hibernation for a year.

George Kennedy put those to rest: he insisted that the new arena would be ready for service by Christmas Day. With Montreal’s 1919-20 home season due to open on Saturday, December 27 against the Ottawa Senators, it would be a near run thing, and so it wasn’t such a surprise when, in mid-December, Kennedy asked that the game be switched to Ottawa’s Arena, which it duly was.

The new date for Montreal’s home opener was set for Saturday, January 3. “Contractors are rushing work on the rink, and flooding as started yesterday,” Ottawa’s Citizen reported on the last day of the old year. “All the seats are in and the electrical fixtures are now being installed.”

The Mount Royal would have room for 6,000 or so; in George Kennedy’s cheerful telling that fall, its only shortcoming was that it would never accommodate all the fans who so dearly loved his team.

As work on the building went on, the January 3 game, too, was pushed off, re-scheduled for the following Monday.

That was the game that the water strike nixed. This was a long-burbling wage dispute that came to a boil on New Year’s Eve: it was after the city administration told employees in the aqueduct department that they should accept the city’s latest offer or resign, about 100 engineers, firemen, oilers, coal passers had walked off the job.

While city officials claimed that Montreal’s water supply would not be affected, they were wrong. In the chaos of the early hours of the strike, boilers cooled, steam stopped, turbines slowed, pistons broke, reservoirs emptied. “The pumping stations were abandoned,” as a miffed editorial in the Gazette told it, “part of the city was deprived of water, and all the city was put in danger from fire.”

It would be almost a week before the sides settled and Montreal’s water levels returned to normal. The Canadiens were just another local business caught up in the crisis. On Monday, Tom Duggan explained that, given the situation, the Mount Royal Arena couldn’t get its ice ready for NHL hockey. With no water coming in from the city’s reservoirs, the Arena was relying on the private Montreal Water and Power Company for its flooding supply, and that was only available between three and five in the morning. With that, while the surface might be playable — and indeed, for several amateur leagues was, all that week — George Kennedy decided that it wasn’t up to professional snuff.

“The reason we did not play yesterday,” he explained as the week went on, “was that the ice was too rough then to risk valuable players on.”

That’s mostly all. When the Canadiens did finally play their home opener on the following Saturday, January 10, 1920, they did it with aplomb, before a full house, trouncing the Toronto St. Patricks by a score of 14-7. Canadiens’ winger Didier Pitre had the distinction of scoring the first goal in Mount Royal Arena history, while Newsy Lalonde, his coach and captain, ended the night with six goals.

Newsy Flash: Canadiens’ coach and captain Newsy Lalonde inaugurated the Mount Royal Arena in January of 1920 with a six-goal performance against the Toronto St. Patricks.

“Montreal once more has an adequate arena for hockey,” was the dry estimation of the Montreal Daily Star. “The seats are piled more steeply upon one another than they were in the old Westmount Arena, but they afford an obstructed view of the ice. The principal weakness is the backs, which circus-like are too low, but this it is said was due to a misunderstanding and will be remedied as soon as possible.”

“The ice surface is somewhat smaller than that of the Westmount Arena.”

“Under the prevailing conditions,” the Gazette decided, “the arena management furnished a good sheet of ice.”

The Canadiens made up their postponed game against the Quebec Bulldogs the following Monday, adding a 7-3 win to their account.

It’s with Montreal’s next home game that we’ll end, on Saturday, January 17, 1920, when the Ottawa Senators were in town. Riding a three-game winning streak, Canadiens made it four that night with a 3-2 win. Their new home, unhappily, didn’t perform as well as it might have.

The Montreal newspapers didn’t pay it much due, or seem too concerned; it was bigger news in Ottawa.

“People got a lot of excitement,” as the Ottawa Citizen framed it, “that was not on the program.”

In the second period, Ottawa’s star defenceman Eddie Gerard picked up the puck, rushed Georges Vézina’s net, unleashed a shot. The Citizen:

There was a squeak of splintering wood as hundreds in the ‘bleachers’ crammed forward to see where the puck had gone, then someone began to scream and about a hundred wild-eyed hockey fans were precipitated when the balcony railing gave way down into the pit of the rink. Weight on the floor when the railing cracked, caused a portion of the stand itself to collapse, whereupon more of the spectators tumbled down about fifteen feet. Women began to scream, fearing that the whole rink was giving in, and Referee [Lou] Marsh stopped the play while police appeared from many corners and rushed out on the ice. Officials, players, and the police, as well as rink management showed a cool headed judgment, and within a few minutes it was seen that nobody had been injured, though it was miraculous that many were not seriously hurt. Fortunately, however, there was no panic of any kind, though many rushed for the exits, but there were a large number of nerve-racked women, several of whom had to be assisted out of the rink. These were sitting in the East end when the floor above them gave way, to send nearly a hundred boys and men head over heels upon them. After about ten minutes, order was restored and play resumed and there appeared no further difficulty. The police lined up in front of the portion that had loosened and managed to keep the crowd back. Doctors were on hand but they were not needed.

The Montreal Gazette offered a few more piquant details along with a slightly different damage report. No mention in the Gazette of any of the stand collapsing, only that “fifty feet of light wooden railing” gave way, causing spectators to tumble. The wire netting that protected fans from stray pucks broke their plunge.

The spectators, after the surprise of their fall, climbed back good humouredly into their seats and pulled up the railing with them, placing it in such a position that it would not fall again. None of them, however, jumped to their feet again during the game.

As for casualties, the Gazette enumerated a pair of broken eyeglasses and a single torn overcoat.

Officials and policemen did, in the Montreal version, make sure that nobody was injured.

Two women, however, preferred to leave, and Referee Marsh escorted them across the ice before resuming the game. The damage done to the gallery was slight.

Not Quite: Canadiens and Bulldogs didn’t get on the ice on January 5, 1920, despite the ads touting the game in Montreal newspapers. When the postponed game was played a week later, Montreal prevailed by a score of 7-3.

 

ice age

After two Covid-skewed seasons, the NHL gets back to something like regular programming tonight with the launch of a new winter campaign. It’s 104 years since the NHL first put to ice, in December of 1917, with four teams, all of them in eastern Canada, of which only three were around at the end of the 22-game regular season. Pandemics notwithstanding, it’s a whole new world now, with the newfound Seattle Kraken bringing the NHL’s membership up to 32 teams. They’ll each play 82 games — probably? maybe? — for a total of 1,312 before the playoffs get going next May. All being well, the league will pause in February for the best of its players to go to Beijing to play for Olympic gold.

Pictured here: an illustration from a Boston Bruins program from 1938-39. This year’s edition of the Brus start up on Saturday, October 16, when they host the Dallas Stars at TDGarden. Not to promise anything, or to jinx it, but in ’39 coach Art Ross ended up steering the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship.

as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton-born (and B.C.- and Swiss-based)  photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. For more of his work, visit http://scottconarroe.com. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”

 

zamboniversary: on this night in 1955, a new era in ice-cleaning began at montreal’s forum

The hockey highlights were, if you’re wondering, few and far between: when the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Thursday of this very date in 1955, the two old rivals ended up in what the Gazette’s Dink Carroll was only too irked to declare “that bane of hockey, the scoreless tie.”

The Leafs, to their credit, laid down a stifling defensive blanket over the powerful first-place Canadiens, gaining a point in the process and helping their own third-place cause. Toronto also, incidentally, set a new league record: their 22 ties were the most any team had accumulated in an NHL season. Not that any of this impressed the 14,332 fans on hand in Montreal on the night: their verdict was recorded in the volume of peanuts, programs, and newspapers flung on the ice at the end of the game. “One disgusted spectator tossed in a couple of pig’s feet,” Carroll noted.

Which brings us, however loopingly, to the point: no, not the fact that in another week’s time, the Forum would be filled with the ire, tear gas, and Clarence Campbell-antipathy that fed and fired up March 17’s Richard Riot.

That was a whole other Thursday. This one, March 10, we mark for the altogether less-ruinous reason that it saw the Canadian NHL debut of everybody’s favourite ice-resurfacer, the Zamboni.

It was in California that rink-owner Frank Zamboni spent most of the 1940s getting a prototype invented and built on the chassis of a U.S. Army jeep before he was ready to launch in 1949. The first one to arrive in Canada went to Quebec’s Laval College in 1954, and that same fall Boston Garden became the first NHL rink to put one into service. The Monster, the staff called that one. The Boston Globe reported that “Helo Grasso, the pilot, is being urged to wear a crash helmet.”

A little ice-upkeep history seems in order here, duly dedicated (why not) to David Ayres. In the first few decades of the NHL, the ice was most often scraped and swept rather flooded during games. From the time the Forum opened in 1924, maintenance staff deployed their own distinctive 15-foot birch brooms, as highlighted here by NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs:

These were still in use, apparently, in the late 1930s, bemusing visiting reporters like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s George Currie:

Even the ice-scrapers are different up here. They sweep the snow off the ice with long, broomlike bunches of tree branches. Between the periods, the ice has more snow sweepers on it than hockey players during the actual play.

An important if undercelebrated moment in ice-cleaning history came in 1940, in September, when the NHL’s Board of Governors gathered in New York ahead of the new season. Among other new rules and procedures decreed there was one that insisted (as CP reported) “that the ice surface be sprayed between periods, instead of scraped or brushed, except when two teams have a mutual understanding that spraying is not necessary.”

Tommy Gorman was running the Canadiens that year, and when the games got going in November, the Gazette took note of the “new ice-making machines” he’d enlisted for duty between periods: “They’re sort of hot-water wagons dragging sacks behind, and they do a great job on the ice.”

More or less the same apparatus, that is, that was in operation at Toronto Maple Leafs Gardens well into the ’60s:

The Zamboni that made its debut 65 years ago tonight was a Model E, the 29th to roll off the company’s production line following the introduction of the one-and-only Model A in ’49.

“This gadget does everything but talk on an ice surface,” the inventor himself was saying a few days before that Montreal launch.

The man at the wheel of the $10,000-machine — about $97,000 in today’s money — was Forum superintendent Jim Hunter. In the days of the old brooms, he said, cleaning the ice was a job for eight to ten men. Now, he could do the work in six or seven minutes, he said. “The real beauty of the machine is that it takes only one man to operate. It also gives the ice a much smoother finish than a crew of men working with the present hot-water barrels.”

Wheelman: Jim Hunter at the wheel of the original Forum Zamboni in 1961.

surrendered to the storm king: snowbound with the 1924 ottawa senators

Polar Express: Not, in fact, the CN train that the Ottawa Senators got stuck on in February of 1924. Not even a 1924 train, in fact: this reasonable facsimile of the Ottawa train is a 1927 CN locomotive from Saskatchewan. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

The people came early and they came eager, six thousand of them, maybe more, packing the Mount Royal Arena to its frigid rafters. Mostly they were men, as I suppose, men in neckties and overcoats — and hats. In 1924, that’s who mostly went to midweek hockey games in Montreal — men, wearing their hats and their 1924 moustaches. It’s hard not to dream this whole scene in black-and-white, as shadowy-plain and slightly sped-up as stuttery 1924 newsreel, but of course it was all in colour. I’m not actually all that certain just how universal the moustaches were — the moustaches, I confess, are largely speculative, no matter how clearly they’re formed up in my imagination.

The band played. The people waited. The ice — it must have been hard to see the ice so blank and empty for solong without leaping the boards for a dash across. Eight o’clock came and went, and half-past. The music was brassy and jolly and wafted in the hazy evening air of the rink, coalesced, coiled, rose to the rafters and condensed with the smoke and the smells and the chatter of men, all the nattering men, up there in the rafters, which it warmed, along with the adventurous boys who had climbed into these same rafters. That’s largely guesswork, too, much of that last part, in particular regarding the rising and warming properties of the music, if not the boys in the rafters — contemporary newspaper accounts do mention the boys and their audacious climbing.

It was a Wednesday in February in Montreal: that we know. February 20, 1924 was the factual date of this waiting and alleged wafting. Some of the names of some of the waiters from that night we know. There was a Joliat, a Vézina, a pair of Cleghorns, a Morenz. None of them was in the rafters, of course. They were all in the home team’s dressing room, wearing skates, red sweaters, no moustaches. I’ve just checked again, and it’s confirmed: the 1923-24 Montreal Canadiens iced an entirely unmoustached line-up.

Aurèle Joliat was possibly hatted, which is to say capped: he often was, in those years, when he worked the wing for Montreal. Sprague was one of the most dangerously violent hockey players in history, as you probably know; his brother Odie, was a singular stickhandler. In 1924, Howie Morenz was a 21-year-old rookie, while Georges Vézina was 37, with just two more years to live before his death in 1926 from tuberculosis. I’m sorry to cite that, even all these years later. Leo Dandurand was the coach of the Canadiens that year. I’m thinking of him propping the dressing-room door open so that the team could better hear the band and whatever 1924 songs they were playing — “Rose Marie,” maybe, or the “Pizzicato Polka,” maybe “Rhapsody in Blue?”

That February night in Montreal, the hockey players and their coach, all the people from the rafters on down, the brave band — they all waited together to see whether the reigning Stanley Cup champions would be showing up, or not, to play some hockey.

Spoiler alert: not.

In a time of nationwide rail disruptions, as snow falls and winds swirl across 2020 central Canada, let’s mark what followed and what did betide back in the NHL’s 1923-24 season, the league’s sixth, when winter played its part in shaping the schedule.

Ninety-six years ago, there were only four teams in the NHL mix, as opposed to today’s 31, three of them — Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton — rooted in Ontario, while the other, Montreal, was at home in Quebec. The regular season, then, saw teams play 24 games apiece, starting in mid-December, wrapping up in early March.

The weather took its toll early on. With Ottawa opening its new Auditorium that year, at the corner of Argyle Avenue at O’Connor Street, Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena was the only NHL rink still to be relying on natural ice. Having held their training camp in Grimsby, Ontario, the Canadiens returned home to an unseasonably warm December. With no ice to play on, they scrambled to take their early-season home games on the road. That worked in some cases, but not all, and just before Christmas, the scarcity of ice saw them postpone their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. Team officials calculated the loss of revenue for that game at $5,000 — about $74,000 in nowadays money.

Winter eventually took hold, and the Arena got its ice. In February, with the hockey season in full fling, the weather intervened again.

In back-to-back games to begin the month, Ottawa had lost to Montreal 1-0 on the road and overturned them 4-0 at home. As they prepared to face them again towards the end of the month, Ottawa (as happens in hockey) was missing key players in defenceman Georges Boucher, recovering from a knee injury, and star centreman and captain Frank Nighbor, who was out with a bad wrist.

Still, they were in fairly good shape as the season wound down. Only the top two teams would play for the NHL championship come March, with the winner carrying on to vie against the best team from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

With a fortnight left in the regular-season, with five games to play for each team, the defending Stanley Cup champions from the nation’s capital were riding atop the standings, with Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks eight points adrift, four points up on the lagging Hamilton Tigers.

Wednesday they were due to meet the Canadiens in Montreal. As happens in Canadian Februarys, a blizzard that had concealed western Ontario on the Tuesday was on the move east. Newspapers would tell the tale over the course of the next few days. Snow that fell across the province to a depth of 30 centimetres was whipped by 80-kilometre-an-hour winds that didn’t relent for 24 hours, making for the worst blizzard to hit Ontario since 1905. Six trains were stuck on the tracks between Toronto and Hamilton; Owen Sound was cut off. Toronto’s streetcars were stopped in their tracks, and most of its taxis. Two thousand telephones were knocked out of commission.

“The large army of the city’s unemployed saved the city’s bacon,” the Montreal Gazette contended, “and 6,000 of them — all that could be rounded up were turned loose with shovels to open the streets. It is estimated that the storm will cost the city $100,000 merely on [the] snow shovelling account.” (That’s close to $1.4-million in 2020 dollars.)

Capital-City Champs: The 1923 Stanley Cup winners, a year before they ended up stuck in the snow. Posed in the back row, left to right, are team president Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Petie Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, Harry Helman.

Ottawa’s hockey team had, originally, been scheduled to depart for Montreal on Wednesday’s 3.30 p.m. Canadian National express. Normally, that would have seen them into Montreal’s Windsor Station by 6.30, with plenty of time to spare before any puck dropped at the rink up at the corner of St. Urbain and Mount Royal. With the weather worsening, Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman rounded up his players to get out early, catching the noon train from Ottawa’s Union Station, across from the Chateau Laurier, where the Senate of Canada is now temporarily housed.

That earlier train should have delivered the hockey players to Montreal by 3.30 p.m. As it was, the CN express was late arriving from Pembroke, so didn’t depart Ottawa until 1.30. It didn’t get far — at Hurdman, just across the Ottawa River, the train and its cargo of hockey players were delayed waiting for a railway snowplow to lead the way east down the track.

Farther along the river, at Rockland, a frozen water-tank precipitated another stop. The journey continued, but not for long: just past Hawkesbury, with nearly 100 kilometres or so still to go, a plow from Montreal stalled on the westbound tracks, blocking both the Ottawa express it was leading and the progress of the eastbound trains.

Passengers from both trains joined railway crewmen to clear the way, but it was no use, the snow and the wind behind it were too much. “The snowdrifts blew back on the tracks as fast as they could be removed,” Ottawa papers recounted the next day. Conveniently for them, they had a man on the scene, a former Citizen sports editor, no less: Ottawa GM Tommy Gorman himself, who would somehow manage to file his crisis copy in time to make the Citizen’s Thursday front page.

It was 5 p.m. when the train was stopped. Senators who took up shovels were Cy Denneny, who’d end up leading the league in scoring that year, and his fellow forward Jack Darragh, along with defenceman Frank (a.k.a. King) Clancy — future Hall of Famers, all three — and Ottawa’s trainer, Cosey Dolan.

In vain. “The battle against the elements was hopeless from the start and after two hours work,” continued Gorman’s lusty telling, “a complete surrender to the storm king had to be admitted.”

It was bad news for all the crew and passengers. For the hockey players trying to get to the rink on time, there was the additional concern of not being able to get word to Montreal. It was impossible: the nearest telephone was 10 or 11 kilometres away, and many of the lines were down anyway.

Snowbound, the passengers and crew, hockey-playing and non, waited, and waited some more.

Along with the weather, the hockey players were enveloped by both humour and pathos. That’s from Gorman’s Citizen dispatch, too, though I kind of wish I’d thought of it.

The Senators shared their carriage with a bridal party from Ottawa. “The little bride stood the first part of the journey with smiles, but finally curled up and passed the night in one corner of the coach, with confetti and paper streamers scattered around the car.”

They also had the Honourable Arthur Cardin with them, the Liberal MP for Richelieu who was serving in Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. He was reported to be in a good mood throughout the evening’s ordeal.

Also aboard was a new mother travelling from Pembroke on the way to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital with her baby. This is pathos portion of the program, now — and the pay-off coming up right behind it, too. We don’t know the name of the mother, or of her child, just that the latter was on the bottle and, at a certain point, the former ran out of milk for her. Or him. The dining car couldn’t help — their dairy situation was no better.

Never fear: Conductor Dion of the CNR faithfully volunteered to venture out into the blizzard to see what he could find. The train crew, Gorman attests, were great (Roadmaster Munroe gets a shout-out, too, though no first name). Once more, Clancy and Denneny stepped up, insisting on joining the mission. Gorman’s account tells that remarkable tale while also leaving us wanting so much more:

… they tramped nearly a mile in snow up to their waists before they reached a farm house and got the resident out of his slumbers. He readily turned over his available supply, and in less than an hour the party were back at the train with a supply of milk that brought gladness to the heart of the distracted mother. Denneny fell down a well during his travels and had to be hauled out, and both he and Clancy were all in when they returned.

It was two-thirty in the morning by the time the track was cleared sufficiently for the Ottawa express to start out … back west, towards Ottawa. Three o’clock had struck by the time the rescued train made Hawkesbury, where it paused again.

Well Met: Cy Denneny, who led the NHL in scoring in 1923-24, despite having fallen down a well on a mercy mission to fetch milk for a baby in need.

As might be expected for the middle of a wintry night, the local restaurants were all closed. That didn’t keep foraging parties from setting out. “Canadian National Railway officials confiscated a big box of bread, intended for a local firm, and turned it over to the dining car staff,” Gorman wrote. The hockey players had successes of their own: “Frank Clancy landed back after their raid on the town with a can of soda crackers under his arm and [defenceman] Spiff Campbell succeeded in rounding up butter and eggs.”

By four a.m. the travellers were once again on their way east. They arrived in Montreal at 8.30. Fourteen hours after departing home, the Senators, Gorman tells us, “were hustled over to the Windsor Hotel and the players tumbled into their beds with instructions that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

Wednesday night’s crowd at Mount Royal Arena had been patient. When word began to pass that the Senators hadn’t reached the rink, the fans settled in for the wait. “It was a good humoured gathering,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the rooters in the east and west end sections making full use of every possible incident to create entertainment to pass away the time, while the band performed valiantly, one selection following one another [sic] in quick succession as the musicians did their bit to fill the gap.”

After an hour, some of the fans, a restless few, left the rink, though most stayed on. A line-up grew outside the box office as fans went looking for refunds.

At 10 o’clock, with no further word of where the Senators might be, Montreal coach Leo Dandurand stood up alongside the presiding referee, Art Ross, to declare that the game would be postponed until Thursday night. Hold on to your ticket stubs, Dandurand mentioned in passing, they’ll be honoured then. The Gazette:

Spectators who did find themselves in a dilemma were those who threw away their stubs, and not a few were seen late in the evening frantically searching around the chairs for the lost coupons.

Thursday night, Ottawa was still shorthanded, dressing just nine players for the rescheduled game. George Boucher was back, but not Frank Nighbor. With Boucher and Lionel Hitchman taking care of defending goaltender Clint Benedict, Clancy shifted to centre.

The rink was, again, jammed to its 1924 rafters. “Little sympathy was shown the Senators by the crowd for the hardships they experience Wednesday,” the Gazette noted, “and when they took the ice last night they were greeted with good-natured boos.” All in all, the waylaid visitors performed as if they’d spent a night in a snowdrift after having fallen down a well: “Ottawa was never in the picture.”

Maybe, too, were they confident enough in their lead in the standings to allow themselves a night of letting up and coasting? The Gazette considered the possibility. “At any rate the Ottawas gave the impression of not being interested in the tussle. The forwards, barring King Clancy, lacked their customary aggressiveness; Hitchman played carelessly and even Benedict was off colour. Canadiens’ third goal was practically a gift from the Ottawa goalkeeper.”

Montreal captain Sprague Cleghorn scored that one, his second of the game, to increase a lead that Aurèle Joliat had given Canadiens. There were no more goals after the first period, and 3-0 for Montreal was how the game ended. The natural ice got stickier as time went on: “players from both teams found difficulty in keeping their feet and frequently overskated the puck.”

Two nights later, back home again, Ottawa beat the Canadiens 1-0 on a goal by Punch Broadbent. But while the Senators held on to their lead in the standings, they couldn’t turn their seasonal dominance into playoff success. In March, when the two teams ended up facing off for the NHL title in a home-and-home series, it was Montreal who came out on top, winning both games.

The Canadiens went on to meet the Calgary Tigers in the Stanley Cup Finals later on that month, sweeping both of the games they played towards the end of March. Winter wasn’t quite finished having its say that year: due to poor ice at the Mount Royal Arena, the Tigers and Canadiens caught the train to Ottawa, where they played the conclusive game of the 1924 season at the Auditorium.

Plow Now: A railway snowplow also not exactly related to the ordeal of the Ottawa Senators, but even unplaced, undated, illustrative all the same, no? (Image: Alexander Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-138699)

greening the game

This week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman sit down with Ron Francis, GM of the NHL’s new and yet-unnamed Seattle franchise for a wide-ranging discussion of what’s coming on the west coast. They discuss Francis’ decision to join the project and how he’s staffing the new team, and about the state-of-the-art new rink they’re fashioning out of the old KeyArena. They touch on whether Kraken might be in the cards as a name (could be, Francis divulged, but maybe not) and Marek’s notion of raising a banner to the rafters to honour the Stanley Cup the Seattle Metropolitans won in 1917.

There’s talk, too, of movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a co-founder and co-majority owner of the Seattle team, and what he might bring to the hockey table. “I think he’s excited to be a part of this,” Francis says, “I think he’s excited to help shape the organization as it moves forward, whether it’s colours, how it’s presented on TV, names, you name it.”

Which leads Marek to wonder about how radical some of the changes he might float could be. Could we see NHL games played on colourful ice instead of the wintry white we’re used to? Francis suggests that might be something that a Bruckheimer-inspired Seattle might indeed be aiming to introduce.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s recall, why not, that NHL ice hasn’t always been so pallid as appears is now. In the earliest decades of the league, the ice tended to be murky. Here’s a description from The New Yorker in 1925, when the New York Americans debuted at Madison Square Garden (the Rangers would join them there as tenants the following year):

The ice, by the way, is coffee-coloured, and as the evening progresses, grows to look more and more like a big cake of maple sugar the mice have scratched up.

And one from Boston’s Herald in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup:

The Garden ice, as usual, was dark brown. Boston and New York Garden have something to learn from Montreal Forum. There the floor is painted white under the ice and visibility is increased greatly.

On the New York end of things, that seems to contradict another New Yorker dispatch from early in 1926, reporting that “whereas a month ago the ice was a dirty and disturbing brown, it has lately become nice and white.”

“The procedure, until recently,” the item continued, “was to run a couple of inches of water over the concrete and freeze it, with the result that the concrete showed through a shabby chocolate colour.”

The rumour was that Garden owner Tex Rickard had arranged for milk to be mixed in with the water wasn’t to be credited: the deal was that rink staff were now freezing an inch of ice, painting it white, then freezing a further inch or so atop the paint.

Just when other NHL rinks got into the blanching of the ice isn’t clear — by one report I’ve seen, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden didn’t start whitening the ice until 1949.

Jerry Bruckheimer take note: 66 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings did play two regular-season games at the Olympia on green ice.

To be more specific: pastel green.

Edmonton Journal headline from January of 1953.

This was in early 1953. The first reference to this that caught my eye was in a French-language account, and the word that stood out was combattre. The thought I had, naturally enough, was bien sûr, c’est logique, bonne idée. I assumed that hockey had reached one of its breaking points, where the game on the ice had grown so tetchy and tempestuous that the league would try anythingto calm the tempers of its players, including dyeing the ice as green and soothing as grass.

The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions that season. Almost 50 games into the 1952-53 season, they were battling the equally mighty Montreal Canadiens for first place in the league standings. The last Saturday in January was when they first skated out on green ice, beating the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0. The next night they did it again, walloping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on the tinted ice. Already topping league scoring, Gordie Howe helped himself to two more goals and three assists against the Leafs.

If the cool of the green of the ice was supposed to bring down the thermometer of the players, well, let’s just note referee Jack Mehlenbacher did call seven roughing penalties before the night was out, sanctioning several noted hotheads in so doing, including Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Marcel Bonin and Toronto’s Fernie Flaman.

The Globe and Mail weighs in.

In fact, the experiment of greening the ice wasn’t about mood-altering, at all. The combattre that caught my eye had to do with reduction that combat. As Red Burnett of the Toronto Star explained, “it was designed to cut the white glare that bounced off the eyeballs of customers in the upper balcony seats.” Locally, TV viewers of WXYZ broadcasts of Red Wings’ games had also complained that the white ice was hard to watch. The idea to tint it green was said to come from a Detroit newspaper photographer.

So with the NHL’s blessing, the Olympia’s ice-man, Red Tonkin, gave it a go, mixing in 15 gallons of green paint instead of the usual white with the 400 gallons of water he froze to make the playing surface.

According to Burnett, the colouring was “hardly visible to the naked eye.” The players were said to approve, and NHL president Clarence Campbell deemed the experiment a success, though that’s as far as it went. Four days after beating the Leafs, the Olympia ice was its regular chalky colour as the Red Wings tied the New York Rangers 3-3.

Toronto Star headline, quoting “one office wag.”

falling through the ice: yow! crash! (crack, crackle) help! holy smoke!

Headed out this week for some pond hockey, a little lake puck? Know that if you’re centrally situated in North America and it’s big wide-open shinny settings you’re after, looks like Lake Erie is your best bet. As of Sunday, some 90 per cent of everybody’s favourite fourth-largest Great Lake was locked up in ice, according to analysis by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Throw in Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario, and out superlative lakes are, overall, 29.5 per cent frozen. That’s way up from last year at this time, when the number was 11 per cent.

I’m not saying you should. Head out on a Great Lake, I mean. Safer to skate at the park, or on someone’s backyard rink. In Toronto, where the harbour is frozen over for the first time in years, the message from police regarding natural ice is the plain and perennial one: no ice is safe ice. History and hockey literature have lots to say about this — lots and lots. Picture books, too, and horror movies, and archives.

There’s also a rich library of comic books to instruct us in the hazards inherent in taking the good old hockey game out on the bad old treacherous ice. Today’s exemplar is a 1949 edition of New Heroic Comics, a dead-serious venture from your friends at Famous Funnies Inc. For such a bright and colourful publication, it’s actually a terrifying piece of work. The through-the-ice story is just the start of a harrowing 48-page handbook of true-life havoc and misfortune featuring accounts of runaway horses (“Hooves of Horror”), men overboard (“Soldier Rescues Sailor”), riptides (“Riptide”), flash floods (“Canyon Rescue”), and high-rise calamity (“Elevator Firetrap”).

The good news is that everybody gets out okay. That’s the point, of course: heroes prevail. They stop the stallion, drive their jeep into the canyon, force the doors of the elevator. The hockey story celebrates 18-year-old Philip McAuliffe Jr., a member of the Boston College hockey team out for a New Year’s Day skate with some pals on a Massachusetts lake when the inevitable happens. That’s him in the red sweater, going after poor Johnny, and (I’m pleased to report) hauling him to safety. In a later panel, McAuliffe gets a silver medal for his efforts, from the state Humane Society. “That was a brave thing you did, young man!” says the comics-doctor tending his wounds. “You’re a real hero!”

“Thanks, doctor,” comics-Philip says, “but it really wasn’t anything.”

falling through the ice: bob the good-natured bay

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He was doing his job, that’s all. A Tuesday in January of 1929, and Bob, as usual, was hauling the scraper across the ice at Boston’s Public Garden, getting it ready for skaters under the supervision of his driver, James Ward. “The big good-natured bay,” is how the Daily Globe recognized him, Bob, “favourite with all the children.” But on this day, as he neared the shore on the rink’s Arlington Street side, he went through. James Ward couldn’t help him, but as luck had it, Patrolman Arthur Blood from the Back Bay Police Station happened by and soon had the call out for reinforcements.

I’m not going to leave you hanging: Bob got out fine. Patrolmen Noyes, Regan, Gervan, and Maguire all lent a hand, roping up Bob’s legs and hauling him free. Although, from the photograph, some firemen were in on it, too. Nothing to worry about, in any case, according to The Globe:

After Bob was steady on his feet, officer Blood took him to the Animal Rescue League on Carver St., where he was given first-aid treatment. He was found to have suffered no serious injury.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

falling through the ice: lucky I have this hockey stick

rescue

“We’re coming,” Joe shouted. “Don’t be afraid.” And as he skated he tried to remember all he had learned at Scout meetings about rescuing people who broke through the ice.

“It’s lucky I have this hockey stick,” he thought, for as he drew nearer the terror-stricken child and felt the thinner ice begin to crack beneath him, he carefully went down flat on his stomach and held the stick out in front of him, pushing it slowly closer and closer to the hole. Once his heart was in his mouth, for the little red head disappeared and he was terrified lest the current should sweep the child under the ice, beyond all hope of rescue. The little boy was plainly growing weaker, but even such feeble attempts as he was able to make to clamber out of the hole kept breaking the ice around him.

At last Joe shoved the hockey stick close enough. “Hang on,” he pleaded. “Hang on to the stick. Just grab it with both hands and Joe will pull you out all right.” He kept his voice calm so the frightened, freezing child who had been sobbing piteously and thrashing into deeper danger in his panic, quieted for a moment — long enough to notice the stout stick on the jagged ice in front of him.

• Skating Today (1945), M.R. Renick, illustrated by Raymond Vartanian

falling through the ice: chilliest of the horror sequences

omen

In Damien: Omen II, the dubious appeal of the original — a toddler turns out to be the son of the devil — is missing. The sequel takes place approximately seven years later and the toddler is now a teenage brat. Frankly, there’s nothing particularly surprising or horrifying about a teenager in league with the devil. Also, the commotion the kid inspires this time is not particularly frightening. A crow eats an old woman. Big deal.

• Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1978

Before Damien has finished this time, there have been approximately a dozen new victims, a couple of whom have succumbed to what appears to be internal disorders while others have been sliced in half, stabbed, burned, impaled, gassed, pecked (by a nasty crow) and in the film’s most inspired moment of cinematic nonsense, drowned beneath the clear ice of a Wisconsin lake.

• Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 10, 1978

Chilliest of the horror sequences — imaginatively achieved — a drowning scene during an ice hockey game.

• Bernie Harrison, The Washington Star, February 5, 1980