It was on a Sunday of this date in 1939 that the Boston Bruins upended the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 3-1 at Boston Garden to win their second Stanley Cup, with Roy Conacher scored the winning goal to wrap up the best-of-seven series 4 to 1. “The scenes following the sounding of the final bell almost beggar description,” Victor Jones wrote in his dispatch for the Boston Globe. “Conny Smythe hopped the dasher and ran over to congratulate Arthur H. Ross, while the players shook hands all around, firecrackers rent the air, fans screamed and shouted, while the band broke in to ‘Paree.’” NHL president Frank Calder presented the Cup to Ross, who handed it to captain Cooney Weiland. “The trophy was lugged off to the Bruins’ dressing room,” Jones went on, “where Sam Simon, the Garden concessionaire, lost no time in filling it and refilling it and refilling it with the finest vintage champagne.” This image of that night doesn’t catch any of that, unfortunately. Standing from left to right are goaltender Frank Brimsek, Jack Crawford, Eddie Shore, and (on the other side) Jack Portland, and Ray Getliffe. Arrayed in front, from the right, are Conacher, Mel Hill, Charlie Sands, Cooney Weiland, Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, and Bill Cowley. Down in front that’s a single-skated Milt Schmidt alongside Gord Pettinger and Flash Hollett.
(Top image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
As the modern-day Boston Bruins get ready to host the up-to-the-moment Chicago Blackhawks tonight at TD Garden, let’s cast back, quickly, to a 1948 version of the rivalry at the old Boston Garden. The two Blackhawks in view aren’t so easily identifiable, but I’ll guess that’s Red Hamill up front and (maybe?) Bud Poile farther back. The Bruins are led by the helmeted Jack Crawford, with Clare Martin (19), Woody Dumart (14), and (way back) Wally Wilson (22) among his followers. Tonight’s meeting is the 591st between the teams, with Boston having made the better of the match-up since 1926 by a count of 268-230-79-4. The Bruins have outscored the Blackhawks, too, in toto, 1,859 to 1,785. At home, the Bruins are 168-92-34-0 all-time versus the Blackhawks, having scored 1,058 goals to Chicago’s 830 in those 294 games.
Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL neither were they a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.
So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.
It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.
Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.
Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)
Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.
Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)
Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.
“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.
Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”
Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”
Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.
“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”
And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”
But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.
Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”
None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.
Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”
For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.
So as previously discussed, Jack Crawford, Boston defenceman of yore, was bald — “very, very,” according to Stan Fischler — and that’s why he wore a helmet. There’s lots in the way of anecdote to back all this up in the hockey books, if you get around to consulting them. Longtime Beantown broadcaster Fred Cusick mentions it in his 2006 memoir, Voice of the Bruins, for instance: Crawford wore the helmet “for cosmetic reasons,” he writes, “having lost his hair as a young man.” Turns out Ultimate Hockey (1999) quotes Crawford himself (no source offered) on the origin story: “When I played football as a teenager for St. Mike’s, the paint would peel off inside of my helmet and the doctors say that some chemical in the paint triggered the skin infection that caused all of my hair to fall out over the years.”
It is true that in most of the photographs you’ll find — the ones I’ve seen, anyway — Crawford has his helmet firmly in place. Also that — as in this one, from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive, or this one — from what you can discern of what’s beneath the headpiece, his hair looks decidedly scant. But then (also in the Hall), there’s this photo showing quite a coif.
It’s the one you’ll see reproduced, as it happens in Andrew Podnieks’ voluminous historical ledger Players (2003). Podnieks, who’s typically very detailed in his biographical sketches, makes no mention in Crawford’s entry of any hair loss — the defenceman wore his helmet, he maintains, because he’d suffered a concussion early on in his career. Again, there’s no source provided for this.
To yesterday’s question of whether Crawford was bald but then grew back his hair; acquired a toupée; and/or had his photograph touched up — well, I don’t really have any definitive answer on that. If only to further/muddle the mystery, I can offer up for examination the photograph that tops the post. There’s no date on it, but given the players lined up, it would have to have been taken between 1940 and 1942. That’s Crawford on the far left, wearing number 6 and what looks to be as healthy a head of hair as Dit Clapper’s impressive do alongside him. Clapper’s, we know, is authentic, and Crawford’s (can we agree?) looks genuine enough. Could it be artful? I can’t really decide. Zooming in, below, you can see that an editorial hand seems to have darkened the horizon of Clapper’s hairline to distinguish it from the background. In Crawford’s case, I go back and forth. If someone did go to the trouble of painting it in — well, then, all I can say is bravo.
(Top photo, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
Lots of NHLers donned helmets in the 1930s: call it the Ace Bailey Effect. Bailey, of course, was a fleet Toronto winger who nearly died after Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him down in December of 1933 and his head hit the ice. Carried off the ice at Boston Garden, Bailey’s survival was very much in doubt as he underwent the two skull surgeries that ended up saving his life, though he never played another hockey game.
Many players across the league adopted helmets in the months that followed; lots of them ended up abandoning them after a brief trial.
The Bruins actually had a regular helmet-wearer before Bailey went to ice in George Owen, who served as the team’s captain in 1931-32.
Afterwards, they had Jack Crawford, captain for three seasons through to 1950. He didn’t start his career as a Bruins’ defenceman until 1938, and he arrived in the league with headgear in place.
Born on this date in 1916, Crawford hailed from the western Ontario hamlet of Dublin, not far up the road from Howie Morenz’s hometown of Mitchell. He would go on to play all of his 13 NHL seasons with Boston, winning two Stanley Cups along the way, in 1939 and 1941. In 1946, he was named to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team. He died in 1973 at the age of 56.
For Crawford, wearing a helmet was a matter (at least in part) of modesty. It all stemmed from a youthful mishap caused by … a helmet. He played schoolboy football in Toronto in the early 1930s — possibly at St. Mike’s, where he was a Junior B Buzzer? Along with several teammates, he suffered a reaction to the paint used on the football helmets, causing the loss of his hair, and he wore a leather hockey helmet ever after to cover the lack.
Just how bald was he?
A Boston Globe article from 1938 explaining the situation says “practically.”
“Jack very, very bald,” Stan Fischler has written. “The helmet did a very, very good job of concealing his pate.”
“Completely bald,” Fischler has also said, in a different book, explaining that he was “so embarrassed by it that he decided to wear the headpiece.”
A reminiscence from a 1970 edition of The Boston Globe recalled this:
Whenever his helmet was knocked off the capacity crowd would react when they saw his totally bald head. There was just something eerie about hearing 14,000 gasp “Oooooh!”
All of which makes this photograph from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive a bit of a … head-scratcher. It’s the only one I can recall seeing that shows Crawford without the helmet. He first wore number 5 for the Bruins before switching (as above) to 19 for a single season, 1938-39. After that he was 6, which means this photo was taken at some point between 1939 and 1950, probably in Toronto by one of the Turofsky brothers.
So what’s with the hair? Did he at some point manage to grow this array? Acquire a hairpiece? I can’t say so with any real authority, but spying as closely as I can, my bet is on the stranger still possibility that somebody — by request or on their own initiative? — did some inky photo-doctoring here to restore Jack Crawford’s lost thatch.
Bobby Bauer shot the puck, backhanded, and Tiny Thompson stopped it, with his eyebrow.
Without that errant puck, hoisted by a teammate, and the damage it caused (that’s it, above), who knows how the fortunes of the Boston Bruins might have turned out in 1938? If he’d stayed intact, Tiny Thompson might have kept the Boston net, as planned, rather than ceding it to young Frank Brimsek. Of course, if that had happened, would the Bruins have gone to win the Stanley Cup the following spring?
This is a story that doesn’t answer that question, because it can’t. All it really aims to navigate is what happened to Tiny Thompson, who was born this week in 1903 in Sandon, British Columbia, in the first weeks of the 1938-39 NHL season. Also? How his circumstances coincided — collided? — with those of another distinguished goaltender, Normie Smith, who decided, in the end, that maybe he didn’t want to be a goaltender after all.
At the end of October that year, with the new season was a week away, Art Ross’ Boston Bruins were preparing for the campaign ahead as the consensus favourites to win the Stanley Cup. They’d come close in the spring, but not close enough, losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoff semi-finals. Chicago had taken the Stanley Cup.
Manager Ross hadn’t had to do much in the way of reloading. The veterans of his line-up included captain Cooney Weiland and defencemen Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore, and the young forwards of the Sauerkraut line were back, Bauer, Milt Schmidt, and Woody Dumart.
In goal, Thompson, who was 35, had been defending the Bruin net for ten years. He was up at the top of his game, having just won his fourth Vézina Trophy, the only goaltender in NHL history at that point to have won so many. Asked that very fall to name a team of the best NHLers he’d ever seen, New York Americans’ manager Red Dutton chose Thompson as his goaltender — the only active player in an elective line-up that included forwards Bill Cook, Dick Irvin, and Aurèle Joliat along with defencemen Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn.
Other Thompson claims to fame: he was the first NHL goaltender to have been pulled for an extra attacker (in 1931) as well as the pullee of record (probably) when the trick actually work out for the first time and a goal was scored (in 1937).
Back to 1938. For all the veterans in his line-up, Ross wasin the renewal business, as hockey managers have to be. He liked what he was seeing from young forwards Mel Hill, Pat McReavy, and Roy Conacher. Towards the end of training camp, he also acquired right winger Harry Frost, who’d led the U.S. amateur champion Hershey Bears in scoring a year earlier.
In goal, Ross had Frank Brimsek standing by. Just turning 23, he’d been serving his apprenticeship in the Internal-American Hockey League. Now he seemed ready enough for the big stage to spark a rumour that Ross was going to trade Thompson to Toronto in exchange for defenceman Red Horner. Ross did no such thing: with the season approaching, he made clear that Thompson would be the Bruins’ first-choice backstop, with Brimsek minding the nets for the IAHL Providence Reds, while also spelling off Thompson through the season. The writing that seemed to be on the wall still seemed to be off in the distance: as The Pittsburgh Press reported it, just before the season got underway “Ross believes Brimsek will have Thompson’s job in the Bruin cage in another year.”
He barely had to wait a month, as it turned out — and that Bobby Bauer backhand was the start of it.
The Bruins were finishing up two weeks of preparation in Hershey, in Pennsylvania, as October drew to its end. From there they travelled to Pittsburgh for an exhibition game against the (Larry Aurie-coached) Hornets of the International-American League. Art Ross was feeling good, declaring that the Bruins had enjoyed “the best training season in history.”
“If we can just get past Pittsburgh without any mishaps,” he said, “Boston fans are going to see a Bruins team in the best shape it has ever been [sic] at this time of year.”
“We must have set some sort of record for this training season,” he went — making a point of knocking wood as he did so. “We didn’t have a single injury. Not a player missed a single practice session, and the results are apparent in the way the boys are flying. From Eddie Shore down to our new kids, every one of them is ready to go.”
The Bruins won in Pittsburgh, and handily, 8-2. Roy Conacher collected a hat trick and Milt Schmidt scored two of his own. That was the Saturday. Sunday they arrived back in Boston for a final exhibition game, this one at the Boston Garden against the amateur Boston Olympics.
The Bruins prevailed by a score of 7-2, with Porky Dumart collecting a hat trick. The coach’s son, 21-year-old Art Ross Jr., was vying for a place on the Olympics’ roster and he took the net for the third period, but that doesn’t appear to have fazed his father’s employees — Dumart put two by him and Jack Portland added another.
At the other end of the rink, Tiny Thompson came through okay — it was after the game that he was wounded. The Bruins stayed on the ice to scrimmage and that’s when the goaltender, sprawled on the ice, stopped Bobby Bauer’s backhand with his starboard eyebrow.
Bruins’ physician Dr. Marty Crotty sewed five stitches. His opinion? He didn’t think it would keep Thompson out of the season opener, Thursday in Toronto. “As a precaution, though,” Herb Ralby wrote in the morning-after Boston Daily Globe, “the Bruins will hold on to Frankie Brimsek.”
Monday: Thompson insisted on practicing with the team, though the eye was swollen almost shut. “Tiny may be ready to play by Thursday night,” Ross was saying, “but we won’t take the slightest chance of his hurting it again.” Brimsek wasn’t needed in Providence before the weekend. “So he may as well come along with us.”
Also going to Toronto would be Bruins’ new “Baby Line,” featuring Conacher, McReavy, and Hill. “There’s only one way to put the kids to the test,” said Ross, “and that’s out on the ice.”
Not wanted on the voyage — or at least not getting on the train at Boston’s South Station — was Eddie Shore. Having started training camp, Shore now stopped to make the point that he wasn’t satisfied with what the Bruins were paying him. A couple of years earlier, he’d been the NHL’s highest-paid player, making a reported $10,000 a year. Injured and not so effective, he’d taken a cut in pay the year before — possibly as much as $4,000. Now he wanted his old salary back — and refused to sign his contract until he got it.
So Art Ross called up Jack Crawford to take his place in Toronto.
Born and raised in Eveleth, Minnesota, Frank Brimsek had never yet played a game in Canada. He’d only ever travelled north of the border once before. Thursday night , Ross started him in net as the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.
Brimsek kept the net for the Bruins’ next game, in Detroit, and he was superb in Boston’s 4-1 win there in which Normie Smith guarded the Red Wing goal, bravely but in vain.
Thompson played his first game in New York, which ended with the Bruins losing to the Americans. Nothing to panic about, of course, though the first goal was one that Thompson, as they say, would have liked to have had back. Napping was a word that appeared in The Boston Daily Globe’s account of what Thompson may have been doing when Lorne Carr sent the puck at him from out by the blueline — “a slow, knee-high shot that found a place in the corner of the net.”
Thompson redeemed himself next a game in a 1-1 overtime tie in the Bruins’ home opener against Toronto, which he preserved with what the Globe called “one of the most remarkable stops of his long career.” Eddie Shore was a spectator. Unable to make any headway with their star, Bruins’ management had put the matter in NHL President Frank Calder’s hands, but Shore still wasn’t signed.
With Thompson seeming to have claimed back his net, Boston beat Detroit and their new goaltender, Harvey Teno, 4-1. Thompson then beat the New York Rangers 4-2. With just a single loss in seven games, the Bruins seemed to be rolling, even without Shore in the fold. The fans hadn’t forgotten him: even as the Bruins piled up the wins, they were chanting his name.
Tiny Thompson was in goal again when Boston beat the New York Americans, 8-2. That was a Thursday, the last week of November. It was Thompson’s last game as a Bruin. By Monday, he’d been sold to Detroit, where the Red Wings had been living through a goaltending drama of their own. Normie Smith was their mainstay, had been for three years, during which he’d won a Vézina Trophy while helping his team win two Stanley Cups.
For all that past glory, the 1938 season had begun badly: the Red Wings lost their first four games. The Rangers were responsible for the last of those, in New York. Later that same night, Smith failed to return to his room at the Piccadilly Hotel and in the morning, when his teammates caught the train for Montreal, Smith missed that.
Adams fined him $150 and announced that he was calling up 24-year-old Harvey Teno from the IAHL Hornets. This was the first fine imposed on a Red Wing in years, Doc Holst of The Detroit Free Press explained:
Since 1935 Adams has had a strict rule on the club forbidding even one glass of beer. There is a $50 fine for its violation. The club now is the only one in the league that forbids players beer after hockey games. Serious trouble experienced by Adams players in the old days brought about the strict rule.
Not that he was suggesting anything in particular regarding Normie Smith: he, Holst insisted, had a reputation for “strict sobriety.”
Smith made it to Montreal in time to play. He explained that he’d been staying with friends on Staten Island and had simply overslept. Adams heard him out, but gave Teno the start. Smith watched from the stands as the Red Wings won 7-1. That made it easier, I suppose, for Adams to decide that he was sending to Smith to Pittsburgh to punish his peccadillos.
So Teno played in Boston, facing Tiny Thompson and Eddie Shore, too: he was back on defence after having agreed to what was reported to be a $12,000 contract. Returned to his perch as the NHL’s best-paid player, he sparked the Bruins to a 4-1 win. Thompson also starred.
That didn’t dampen the rumours. One of them reached Montreal’s Gazette, who had it that with (i) Brimsek’s ascendance and (ii) the fact that Thompson didn’t get along with Eddie Shore, Art Ross was (a) about to accept Jack Adams’ offer of $15,000 cash for Thompson, unless he (b) already had.
He hadn’t, though. Word from Boston was that fans were outraged at the notion of losing Thompson, and several sportswriters added their doubts to the debate.
The lobbying seems to have registered with Art Ross, if only up to a point. As Doc Holst told it, Ross had turned Adams down four times before changing his mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of Monday, November 28. With Eddie Shore’s new contract to pay for, Ross told Adams he’d take his $15,000, along with either Normie Smith or IAHL Pittsburgh goaltender Jimmy Franks.
“We regret that we were forced to dispose of Tiny,” Ross told reporters later on that morning. He was soon quelling an insurrection within his remaining roster. “First they took Marty Barry,” defenceman Dit Clapper was quoted as saying, “and now it’s Tiny. Well, I’m going to ask Art Ross to sell me, and I don’t care where I go.”
Clapper stayed, in the end. As for Thompson, Ross gave him a $1,000 “bonus” as he prepared to leave town. The goaltender was pleased, too, to be headed for a new opportunity, he said. “I should last a few more years there than I would in Boston.”
Boston had no choice but to cull their crowded crease, Jack Adams said. Brimsek, he felt, would be ensconced there now for 14 years. “Thompson,” he said, “should be good for five more years.”
It was a stint that Thompson started well, notching a 4-1 win with Detroit over the Stanley-Cup-champion Black Hawks. “Thompson,” went the Detroit Free Pressdispatch from Chicago, “did everything with grace and ease and directed the defence as calmly and coolly as though he had been in the Detroit nets his entire career.”
As for Normie Smith, he’d played a single penitent game with Pittsburgh for Larry Aurie’s Hornets, a 5-0 loss away to the Hershey Bears. The Pittsburgh Press reported “a most amusing goal” that got by him:
Normie Smith had stopped Wally Kilrea’s shot at the goal mouth, and feeling that he had cleared sufficiently, he paid no more attention, leaning against his goal net and chewing gum. Sammy McManus, sparkplug of the Hershey Bears, coming up halfway between the face-off spot and the crease, flicked the puck in for Hershey’s fourth goal. The crowd laughed for more than half a minute.
That can’t have helped Smith’s mood, much less his confidence. That had been suffering for a while, according to Doc Holst. The Red Wings had had a rough 1937-38 season and with the poor start to the new season, the fans in Detroit had been booing the goaltender. “Smith, normally good natured and philosophical,” Holst noted, “has taken the criticism as the natural course of events until recently, when it was observed that it had begun to more than just get under his skin.”
After the Hershey loss, Smith returned to Detroit, where he and Teno both practiced with the team ahead of the Red Wings’ Thanksgiving game against Chicago. With Teno playing so well, Adams said, it was hard not to stick with him. Smith, he decided, would head back to Pittsburgh for at least one more game.
But Smith wasn’t having any of it. “I won’t play minor-league hockey,” he said. “I am either good enough to play for the Red Wings or not at all. I told Jack at the start of the season that when I had to play minor-league hockey, I was through. And I am. Detroit is my home and my living is here and I intend to stay.”
And so, aged 30, Normie Smith called it quits. He had a job — “a responsible position,” the Free Presssaid — at the Ford Motor Company, and so he dedicated himself to that. “I intend to keep in shape and if Jack ever needs me to play in the nets in an emergency, I will play. I want to be a Red Wing or nothing.”
He remained unmoved a few days later when he heard that he may have been traded to Boston. He wanted no part of them, either.
“I can’t make him go if he doesn’t want to,” Adams said. Jimmy Franks doesn’t seem to have made it to Boston, either — in the end, as far as I can determine, it was a straight cash deal.
Regarding the longevity of Adams’ new goaltender, his forecast was a little off. Thompson played just two seasons with Detroit before he was supplanted by Johnny Mowers. He left to coach the AHL Buffalo Bisons.
As for Brimsek, he began his Boston career by backstopping the Bruins to the 1938-39 Stanley Cup. He lasted five years with the team before signing up to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard for the duration. After the war, he returned for four more Bruin seasons before a final one in Chicago in 1949-50.
Normie Smith did make it back to the Red Wing net, eventually. After four years out of the NHL, he returned to the only team he ever wanted to play for, appearing in six games over two seasons from 1943 through 1945.
(Top image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)
Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.
True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.
Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.
What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.
Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.
In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.
“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”
The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”
A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.
None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”
It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.
The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.
In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.
“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”
If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.
That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”
December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.
Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”
They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.
And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.
Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.
Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”
It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.
At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.
Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.
A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.
Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)
Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.
He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”
Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”
This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.
At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:
Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …
Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as he headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:
The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.
Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”
The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.
Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):
The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.
He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.
Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”
(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)
The Waiting Game: Members of the (best guess) 1943-44 Boston Bruins watch the game at hand, awaiting their turn on the Garden ice. Players from left: Norm Calladine, Herb Cain, Yank Boyd, Bill Cowley, Jack Crawford, Bep Guidolin.
(Image: © Arthur Griffin. Reproduced by permission of the Griffin Museum of Photography. Photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
(Image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
Boston Cream: Never mind the world at war, the big hockey news in Boston in the winter of 1939-40 was that, in his 14th year as leader and idol of the Bruins, Eddie Shore was on his last turn. It wasn’t a particularly glorious ending: Shore played in just four Boston games that year and though the Bruins said they’d never trade him (right up to the moment they did), he ended the year (and his career) with the New York Americans. Without the man they were calling Old Mr. Hockey, a new generation of Boston stars took the team to the top of the NHL standings, where they finished the regular season. With his 22 goals and 52 points in 48 games, centreman Milt Schmidt led the league in scoring, followed in the charts by Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, his two Kraut-Line wingers, each with 43 points. The Bruins couldn’t keep it going in the playoffs, though, losing out in the first round to the eventual champions, the New York Rangers. Above, in hats and spiffy jackets, a bevy of Bruins gather in a Garden stairwell. Front, from left, that’s: Jack Crawford, Schmidt, Bauer, and Dumart. Behind, left to right: Flash Hollett stands with Art Jackson, Frank Brimsek, Roy Conacher, Jack Shewchuk, and Dit Clapper.
(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)