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 domention 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 Vézinawas 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 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)

supper body injury

The NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was, unavoidably, a year of firsts.

Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers scored the league’s very first goal, and his teammate Harry Hyland notched its original hattrick while suffering (possibly) its earliest maiden concussion. The Wanderers’ coach and captain was Art Ross, and he took the NHL’s earliest penalty, though nobody seems to have noted down, officially or otherwise, just how he transgressed.

For all their trailblazing, the Wanderers didn’t survive, of course: in early January of 1918, they made their mark even as they erased it, becoming the first NHL franchise to fold.

That left the infant league with just three teams: Torontos, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens. Later in January, the storied Canadiens made history as the first NHL club to fall sick on an eastbound train as a result of supping on a bad batch of broth in Canada’s capital.

There’s not much more we know. How did the sickness manifest itself? Where on the line between Ottawa and Montreal did it strike? Which early Habs suffered? What was the name of the restaurant that served the quease-causing potage? What kind of soup was it?

That we do know, actually: the soup was a tomato soup.

For its opening act in 1917-18, the NHL divided its 22-game regular season schedule into two. As the end of January approached, Montreal stood atop the standings with 14 points ahead of Toronto (12) and Ottawa (six). On the Monday night of January 21, Canadiens visited Ottawa for an 8.30 date with the Senators.

The 6,000 fans who packed Dey’s Arena that night saw a bevy of future of Hall of Famers. Ottawa’s line-up featured Clint Benedict in goal in back of Eddie Gerard, Jack Darragh, and Cy Denneny. Georges Vézina guarded the Montreal goal, with Joes Hall and Malone working in front of him alongside Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. Paced by a hattrick from defenceman Hall, Canadiens solidified their lead by beating the home team by a score of 5-3. The game was mostly without incident, which is to say none of the notorious malefactors involved, including Hall and his Montreal teammates Billy Coutu and Bert Corbeau, were caught swinging their sticks at their rivals, or butt-ending them, as they tended to do, to fearful extent. “The cleanliness of the hockey appeared to tickle the big crowd,” the Ottawa Citizen was pleased to report the next morning.

It’s thanks to the report, above, from the Canadian Press that we know that the winners went for a post-game feed that included the fateful soup. If only we knew more. Where did they eat? What else was on the menu? Did all nine players eat the soup or just the six reported to have been indisposed? Who were the unfortunates, and who was spared?

Joe Malone: Sidelined by a soup?

Dey’s Arena was on Laurier Avenue in those years, facing the canal, occupying the southwest corner near the modern-day Confederation Park. Is it fair to surmise that they bunked nearby, taking their late supper in their hotel’s restaurant? Probably, though that doesn’t really help us much. Then, as now, there are plenty of hotels in that area of downtown Ottawa. Did the 1918 Canadiens alight at the Chateau Laurier? That wasn’t far from the rink, though the Windsor Hotel at Metcalfe and Queen would have been closer. Or what about the Russell House Hotel that still then occupied the corner of Sparks and Elgin? From a hockey history perspective, that would be satisfying: it was at a banquet at the Russell House, of course, that the Lord Stanley’s donation of a challenge cup was first announced in 1892. Then again, the Canadiens may have been lodged at an entirely different hotel. And indeed, on their way back there after the game, it’s true too that they could have stopped in at any local restaurant along the way. The New Idea, for instance, located at the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe, ads for which appear in the pages of Ottawa newspapers around this very time, featuring the slogan “For Quality, Quantity, and Quick Service.”

Not that I’d want to impugn their soup, even retroactively, without further evidence. What I can say is that this was wartime, remember. The First World War had been seething for more than three years, and November’s armistice was still, at this point, ten months away. While the Canadian government didn’t impose food rationing on the general population in aid of the nation’s war effort, the federal Food Board was, by early 1918, limiting hotel and restaurant menus.

An article in the Citizen a week before the Canadiens fell ill explained the lengths that local eateries were cutting back. “The purpose of the food controller in laying restrictions on hotels and restaurants,” it reported, “was to effect a saving in the three commodities most needed by the men at the front and by the Allied people — beef, bacon, and wheat, and to awaken the public conscience to the need of the hour.”

For at least three months, it seems, restaurants in the nation’s capital had been going beefless and bacon-free on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the Chateau Laurier, to conserve flour, no bread was being served at breakfast “except rolls and corn muffins,” while at lunch and supper, patrons were allowed nothing but “rolls and perhaps a couple of slices of brown bread.”

People didn’t mind, said the manager of the Russell House, where bread cutbacks were also in effect. “Bread is by no means a necessity in the hotel meal,” he confided. “I find that it is only eaten when people are waiting for the next course.”

Soupwise? All I can tell you is that the Chateau in earliest 1918, white flour was no longer being used to thicken soups and sauces: “cornstarch and arrowroot are taking its place,” the Citizen says.

Impossible to say whether this had any effect on the Canadiens. How did they know it was the soup that turned their stomachs? That, to me, is the nub of the whole thing. Did Jack Laviolette look over his spoon and wince his suspicion at Louis Berlinguette that something was up with the bisque? Could it be, perhaps, that club captain Newsy Lalonde, going on instinct, tried and failed to wield his authority with a plea for the team to order the untainted cream of mushroom instead of the tomato?

We just don’t know. Tuesday morning, the players boarded the train, whereon some of them sickened. They would have been home in about two hours. Montreal newspapers don’t seem to have noted their plight.

On Wednesday, Canadiens played a return date against Ottawa at the Jubilee Arena on St. Catherine Street East. Only Lalonde was missing from the Montreal line-up, though the reason for his absence doesn’t seem to have been soup-related: he had what the Citizen (painfully) refers to as “a spiked foot.”

Ottawa dominated this time out, prevailing by a score of 4-3. “The result came as a surprise,” reported the hometown Gazette; Canadiens were “listless.” The Ottawa papers took a slightly different view, crediting the victory to the stalwart work of captain Eddie Gerard, who played almost the entire game, and goaltender Benedict, who withstood an unrelenting Montreal barrage in the third period. “Canadiens set a smashing pace,” the Journal reported. “Canadiens piled in with everybody but Vézina and it looked as if they might batter in a goal by sheer weight.”

Joe Malone did score a pair in the final frame to tie the score, but Harry Hyland, who’d joined Ottawa after the demise of the Wanderers, got one back to make the difference. It as the fifth time the two teams had met in the history of the NHL, and Ottawa’s very first victory over Montreal.

dear ottawa senators: wash your pants

How to solve a problem like the Ottawa Senators? A hundred years ago, as the NHL headed into its third season, a helpful fan of the city’s original Sens thought he’d share his blueprint by way of his local newspaper. The he is a guess, based on this is 1919 we’re talking about and, also, because men.

Some notes for the margins: the league was a four-team affair that year, with a 24-game schedule that faced-off late in December. Pete Green was Ottawa’s new coach for 1919-20, insofar as this was his first season steering in the team in the young league: in the team’s pre-NHL days, he’d been involved with seven Stanley Cup-winning teams as trainer and coach going back to 1903.

Jack Darragh, a winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, had been playing for Ottawa since 1910, but now, at 29, he was negotiating a new contract by talking about retiring. He signed just before the season got underway. Darragh, who played all but one game that season, at home and away, finished fifth in NHL scoring.

The Senators were in the market for another defenceman: by mid-December, Coach Green was looking to add a man on the line to aid captain Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn. He didn’t, in the end, electing to move a forward back to help out, Georges Boucher.

I can’t speak to the state of the roof at Dey’s Arena, which stood on what is today Laurier Avenue on the site of Confederation Park. I can report that in April of 1920, the Senators did win their first NHL Stanley Cup beneath it, defeating the PCHL’s Seattle Metropolitans in five games. Jack Darragh decided it in the last of those: his game-winning goal was one of three he scored in a 6-1 Senators’ romp. I don’t have good information on whether or not his pants had been recently laundered.

jack darragh: ottawa’s own, the boy with the bruised forehead

Jack Darragh helped Ottawa’s original Senators win four Stanley Cups in his time (and theirs), and for those efforts (and others) he was duly inducted into the Hall of Hockey Fame in 1963. Ottawa-born on a Thursday of this date in 1890, Darragh was an industrious right winger who only ever played for teams in hometown, suiting up for the amateur Stewartons and Cliffsides before he signed with the National Hockey Association’s Senators in 1910.

He was fast on his skates, they say, deft with pucks, insistent in his checking. He also has the shared distinction of having staged the NHL’s very first contract hold-out — on the very night the new league made its debut, no less. Hosting the Montreal Canadiens at their Laurier Avenue rink on December 19, 1917, the Senators skated into the first period with just a single substitute on the bench while Darragh and teammate Hamby Shore continued to haggle with management over the salaries they’d be paid. They’d resolved their differences in time for the second period, when both players made their debuts. Having built a 3-0 lead over the shorthanded home team, Canadiens went on to win the game 7-4.

Darragh finished that first NHL season as one of Ottawa’s leading scorers, and he’d keep that up over the course of four ensuing seasons. Known for his penchant for scoring key goals, he notched the decisive pair in the 2-1 win that beat the Vancouver Millionaires in the fifth game of the finals and secured the 1921 Stanley Cup for Ottawa.

That was supposed to be Darragh’s final professional game. His day-job was as an accountant with the Ottawa Dairy Company, and he kept doing that when he’d given up hockey. He kept hens, for a hobby, and I have it on good authority that I’m willing to cite here that “he had a wonderful pen of Rhode Island Reds.” When he went to the rink through the winter of 1921-22, it was to coach or referee.

He changed his mind in the fall of 1922, unretiring and returning to NHL ice to play parts of two more seasons. He was dogged in his final year, 1923-24, by a broken right kneecap, and the word was that he planned to retire again. He died at the age of 33 in June of 1924 of peritonitis.

Phrases portraying Darragh’s exploits on the ice sometimes intimated, in 1915, say, that “when Jack is right, there is not a player in the Association that has anything on him.” At other times, in 1920, he was described as the “handy all round man of the squad,” and also as “the ice cream expert” — referring, that last one, to that aforementioned ability for scoring timely goals that won games for his team.

A 1917 dispatch suggested that in a game against the Montreal Wanderers he may not have extended himself until the second period expired, but thereafter “shot up and down the ice like a rocket, scoring the last goal of the match.”

Maybe, finally, can we reflect his prowess as a checker by way of a game from 1913 when Ottawa downed the Montreal Canadiens thanks in large part to Darragh’s bottling of Canadiens’ star Didier Pitre? He was unconscious that night — literally. Praising Darragh’s effort, The Ottawa Citizen continued on from an appreciation of goaltender Percy LeSueur’s part in the triumph:

Jack Darragh was another tower of strength. Jack matched youth and stamina against the speed and strength of Pitre and had the better of the big Frenchman in every page of the one-side story. Darragh was badly battered, but whenever Pitre attempted his fancy work he found the boy with the bruised forehead and scarred face there to outskate and outbrain him. Darragh’s checking back was [sic] in a feature of the game. Pitre tried to put him away with a wicked blow in the third session, but Darragh jumped to his feet and was in the thick of it one minute after he had been stretched out cold behind his own nets.

my first hockey game: admiral of the fleet the earl jellicoe

The homage to the Navy will be on display throughout the historic outdoor game, from the on-field décor to the in-game ceremonies to the more than 500 U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) midshipmen in attendance. The NHL regulation rink sits atop a Navy-inspired aircraft carrier flight deck complete with model fighter jet.

• NHL Public Relations, February 28, 2018

So the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing the Washington Capitals tonight in Annapolis, Maryland, in order to celebrate … U.S. naval might?

I have no special objection to the NHL theming its latest game in the Stadium Series in this way, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. Does it seem just a little forced, though, even for the NHL? I wasn’t paying attention, I guess, as closely as I might have been. A couple of weeks ago, when I saw the smart all-white duds the Leafs will have their ratings wearing tonight, I didn’t know that they had the Royal Canadian Navy’s motto (“Ready, Aye, Ready”) stitched inside the collar let alone that the design is supposed to allude to our Naval Ensign.

By the time I registered, earlier this week, that the game is being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Russian President Vladimir Putin was out and about touting his new and invincible arsenal, including speedy underwater drones capable of carrying nuclear bombs. For just a moment there it seemed vaguely possible that if the NHL’s military parading had nothing to do with global arms races before Alex Ovechkin’s favourite strongman started missile-rattling, maybe it would now be enlisted to the effort. I waited in vain, as it turned out, to hear that tonight’s venue had been shifted to a rink frozen atop the actual flight deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford as she cruised up and down Chesapeake Bay.

To get into the maritime spirit, how about a sea shanty from hockey’s history? Well, a sail-past, at least, of the NHL’s third season, involving one of the First World War’s most prominent personalities, a true naval hero. That should serve, shouldn’t it, for something?

John Jellicoe’s our man, born in Southampton in England in 1859. Hockey was still untamed, which is to say unruled and disorganized, wandering in the wilds, when Jellicoe got his first job with the Royal Navy at the age of 13, as a midshipman, in 1872. I’m not going to paddle through the whole of his career here, though I am going to glory, for just a moment, in the names of some of the ships he sailed on in his time: HMSes Britannia and Colossus, Sans Pareil, Ramillies, Centurion, Albermarle.

He survived the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was shot in the lungs and should have died but didn’t — “defied his doctors” is a phrase attached to this episode, which you should look up, between periods, instead of bothering with Coach’s Corner.

He was a protégé of Admiral Jackie Fisher’s, and very involved in modernizing the Royal Navy, a big proponent of dreadnoughts, & etc. Winston Churchill was First Sea Lord when Jellicoe took command of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet in August of 1914. In 1916, he was in command at the Battle of Jutland — that’s your second-intermission reading assignment.

He was a small man, and taciturn, and (I’ve learn from a 1915 profile) shaved “so carefully that they say his face is cleared for action.” His voice was soft and pleasant and he scarcely raised it to give an order. “Under no circumstance,” the same feature asserts, “has he ever been seen in a rage.” He was a man of so few words, apparently, that a dark joke during the First World War maintained that if the Germans were to prevail, Admiral Jellicoe would not be able to say the words “I surrender.”

The war had been over for a year when, aged 60, he and his wife, Florence, visited Canada in November of 1919. Sailed in, of course, aboard the battle-cruiser HMS New Zealand, arriving in Victoria to great fanfare. He eventually made his way east (terrestrially, by train), where he was attended with more pomp and ceremony while talking a lot about naval policy and shipbuilding, and what we here in the Dominion should and could be doing, and also gave a public lecture at Massey Hall on “Sea Power,” for which reserved seats cost 25 cents.

But — hockey. In early December, after dinner at the King Edward Hotel on King Street, the Jellicoes and their party, which included Mayor Tommy Church, headed north to Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Continue reading

duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”