The Montreal Canadiens headed into the 1940 NHL season with optimism — though, of course, what else were they going to embrace, having finished the previous campaign plumb last in the seven-team NHL?
They did have a new coach at the helm, the great Dick Irvin, and as the team’s training camp wound down towards the start of the new season, he was talking … well, he sounded a little defensive, to be honest. “We’ll have a team by November 3,” he said; “we won’t be any pushovers.”
He did have an impressive rookie class at his disposal. That fall, Canadiens added 20-year-old centre Johnny Quilty, who end up winning the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, along with a few other quality assets (and future Hall-of-Famers) in centre 23-year-old Elmer Lach, defenceman Ken Reardon, 19. Also making his debut: 24-year-old right winger Joe Benoit, who was born on a Sunday of today’s date in 1916.
With Irvin at the helm, Montreal did improve that year, clambering into the playoffs … before clattering out, in the first round, at the hands of the Chicago Black Hawks. Quilty finished as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals and 34 points in 48 games, just ahead of the veteran captain Toe Blake (12 goals, 32 points) and Benoit (16 goals, 32 points).
As one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players, Benoit deserves more recognition than he’s been accorded to date. If we’re talking about the league itself, that recognition is — well, non-existent. At this late date, the NHL still, for some reason, chooses to ignore the stories of trailblazers like Buddy Maracle, Jim Jamieson, Johnny Harms, and Benoit.
His story, Joe Benoit’s, seems to have started in the northern Alberta community of Egg Lake, though he grew up (like Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla) in St. Albert, to Edmonton’s north. The records I’ve reviewed aren’t entirely clear on his family’s history. His father’s mother was Métis. In 1921, when Joe was four, the Census of Canada lists his father’s “origin” as French and the rest of the family (his mother and four siblings) as Cree.
Later, the story of young Joe’s hockey origins was told this way: with no arena in St. Albert or even an outdoor rink, he puckhandled through the streets. “Benoit learned his hockey with a homemade stick and a piece of ice as a puck, stickhandling his way up and down the main street of the tiny western hamlet. He developed his stickhandling wizardry by flipping the pieces of ice out of reach of paws and jaws of two gambolling dogs. This was Joe’s only opposition until he went to the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in 1935, where he had his first taste of team play.”
That’s from 1943. No telling now how romanticized a scene-setting that is. There’s no explicit mention, you’ll note, of skates, though subsequent retellings added those, too.
Benoit’s NHL career was noteworthy, interrupted as it was by war and service (and hockey) with the Canadian armed forces. He played just five seasons in the big league, all of them with Montreal. He was the right winger for the Canadiens’ top line in the early ’40s, skating with Lach and Toe Blake on the original Punch Line, before a bright young prospect by the name of Maurice Richard took his place. Benoit’s best season was 1942-43, which he finished with 30 goals and 57 points. The year he returned to the NHL, 1945-46, Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but a back injury kept him out of the playoffs, and his name wasn’t among those stamped in the silverware.
Back between his street-skating years in St. Albert and his first turn on Montreal Forum ice, Benoit, who died at the age of 65 in 1981, did win a couple of notable championships. In 1938, his Trail Smoke Eaters burst out of B.C. Western Kootenay Hockey League to win the Allan Cup, the national senior title.
That earned the team the right to represent Canada the following year at the World Championships, which they did, embarking on a truly remarkable odyssey through Europe on the brink of the war.
Sailing from Halifax aboard the Duchess of York in mid-December of 1938, the Smokies eventually made their way to Switzerland in the new year, where they defended the world title won the previous year by the Sudbury Wolves and by the Kimberley Dynamiters the year before that. In 1939, Trail went undefeated in eight games, beating Germany, Czechoslovakia (twice), and the United States along the way.
Glory to that, but that’s not the remarkable part. Before they set sail for Canada on the Duchess of Richmond in April of 1939, the Smoke Eaters barnstormed their way around Europe, playing 70 games in three-and-a-half months. In Scotland and England they skated, and through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.
Along the way, they compiled a record of 67-1-2, with their only loss coming by a score of 4-1 in London against an all-Canadian team, the Wembley All-Stars.
Joe Benoit counted the only goal for Trail that night. All told, he scored some 60 goals on the tour, leading all the Smoke Eaters in scoring, including a couple of other future NHLers in left winger Bunny Dame, who’d join Benoit in Montreal, and right winger Johnny McCreedy, who served a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mere months from the outbreak of war, the hockey players returned to Canada happy but tired, with tales to tell. “The players criticized the food in Germany,” the Regina Leader-Post noted, “where they said a lack of butter, white bread, and meat existed.”
“The players had never seen so many soldiers before,” reported Vancouver’s Province, quoting an unnamed player: “It was terrible in Germany — soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.”
“The streets were full of the them,” the Province continued, “and windows full of uniforms. England was busy digging tunnels as a precaution against air-raids and gas attacks.”
First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.
Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.
This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.
He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.
But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.
This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.
Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.
The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?
There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:
The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.
Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.
Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.
Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.
Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.
His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.
On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.
Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.
You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.
Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)
Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.
When Elmer Lach first stepped up to centre the Montreal Canadiens’ powerful Punch Line in 1943, his wingers were Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. The combination was a new one, though not the name. Going back at least as far as the 1939-40 campaign, the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League had a Punch Line of their own, with Buddy O’Connor flanking Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. All three of them, of course, would eventually graduate to play for the Canadiens, with O’Connor going on to win Hart and Lady Byng trophies as a New York Ranger. Then in 1942-43, when O’Connor and Heffernan were both skating for Montreal, the team’s top trio was a Punch Line featuring Lach down the middle with Blake and Joe Benoit as his wingers. Maurice Richard took Benoit’s place the following year when the latter enlisted to serve with the Canadian Army.
Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1918 in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, Lach had made his NHL debut during the NHL’s 1940-41 season, during part of which he played on a line with left winger Tony Demers and, on right, (the other, non-Detroit Red Wings) Jack Adams. The following year, ’41-42, Lach and Demers combined with rookie Richard to form the line shown posing in the photograph here. All three players having been injured during the previous year — Lach and Richard on the ice, Demers in an automobile accident — they were dubbed, naturally, the Broken Bone Line.
It’s possible (if not probable) that when the Hockey Hall of Fame proclaims a new class of inductees on Tuesday of next week, Buddy Maracle will be among them. Maracle, you’ll maybe recall, was Mohawk, from Ayr, Ontario, and seems to have been the first Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. His stint with the New York Rangers in 1931 was short (just 15 games), and he died in 1958, facts that would appear to argue against his recognition by an institution that favours prolonged NHL service and doesn’t, these days, tend toward posthumous choices. It’s the case, too, that while Maracle seems to have been a very good player, he wasn’t a great or generational talent. His claim, should it succeed, would be akin to Willie O’Ree’s: if Maracle were to be honoured, it would be as a hockey pioneer.
It could happen. A comprehensive nomination package did go to the Hall in Maracle’s name earlier this year (brief disclosure: I contributed a supporting letter). And Maracle’s story has been gaining more and more attention across the hockey world and beyond. If it wasn’t exactly a secret before 2017, it was fairly obscure and threadbare.
That started to change when Fred Sasakamoose was named a member of the Order of Canada as that year ended. Deserving as that vice-regal acknowledgment was (and by no fault of Sasakamoose’s), the messaging that went along with it was insistently erroneous as institutions that should have known better — looking at you, Rideau Hall and the NHL — blithely identified Sasakamoose as having blazed a trail that, in fact, Maracle had already blazed two decades earlier.
As a matter of history, the oversight wasn’t a good look for the NHL. The league might have attended to their lapse quickly and unobtrusively — maybe as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative they launched in February of 2018 to promote diversity and inclusion in the game.
If nothing else, Maracle’s story is a fascinating one that highlights just how hard it was for an Indigenous athlete to make his way to the top of his sport in the 1920s and ’30s. Instead, the league continued to ignore Maracle. Over at their editorial department, a February, 2018 profile of Fred Sasakamoose on NHL.com re-upped the notion that the distinguished former Chicago Black Hawk is “the NHL’s first Indigenous player.” I guess that’s still the official line: more than a year later, the story hasn’t been corrected.
The fact that at least four other Indigenous players would seem to have preceded Sasakamoose onto NHL ice (Maracle, Joe Benoit, Jimmy Jamieson, Johnny Harms) isn’t any slight on him or the remarkable things that he’s achieved in his life. It’s possible that the NHL believes that by highlighting — or even acknowledging? — Maracle’s story they might discomfit or embarrass Sasakamoose, and that’s why they’ve kept quiet.
If that’s the case, I don’t think it really makes sense. Facts are facts and flouting them does no-one any good. Media mentions of Fred Sasakamoose don’t always, now, automatically identify him as the first Indigenous NHLer. But it’s also true that the word on Maracle isn’t widespread, and keeps not showing up in newspapers and magazines and online. Assuming that the NHL knows and is assiduously interested in being true to its own history, many in the media do still take the league’s lead in ignoring Buddy Maracle.
Exhibit A: in March, when the NHL’s Canadian media partners from Sportsnet took their Hometown Hockey show on the road to Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Maracle was left, unaccountable, out of the picture. It was a remarkable day and an historic one: the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s broadcast in Plains Cree of the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes marked the first time that an NHL game went to air in an Indigenous language.
And on an occasion so fully focussed on the future, present, and past of Indigenous hockey, the man who blazed such a crucial trail was entirely, inexplicably absent. Buddy Maracle didn’t rate so much a mention during Hometown Hockey’s extensive coverage that day.
It may be that when the Hockey Hall announces its 2019 class on Tuesday we’ll learn that Buddy Maracle’s time has come, along with — who else’s? Maybe will Reggie Leach, the first Indigenous superstar, finally get his due? Or Rick Middleton? I might bet on Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards making the cut, if I were betting. And, no question: Hayley Wickenheiser. Is this the year Andy Moog gets the call, or Tom Barrasso? What about Seth Martin, J.C. Tremblay, Claude Provost, Lorne Chabot? And then, of course, there’s the perennial clamour for Paul Henderson.
It’s worth saying that the Hockey Hall of Fame is a sovereign state, independent of the NHL, and that it (in theory) thinks and acts for itself, makes its own choices, follows its own stars. I’m not suggesting that if Maracle and his story don’t break through next week it should be seen in a nefarious light. What it will mean is exactly this: his nomination didn’t get enough votes.
Whatever happens, the Hall has quietly shifted its narrative in the past year. Pre-2018, if you’d steered your way over to the Hall’s extensive online biographical dictionary of all-time NHLers, here’s what you would have read for Fred Sasakamoose:
and Buddy Maracle:
I can’t say just when the change was made, but it’s been several months now since the Hockey Hall of Fame adopted a new line and started informing visitors on their respective player pages (Sasakamoose’s here and Maracle’s here) that while “Fred Sasakamoose is among the first Indigenous people to appear in an NHL game,” “Henry Elmer ‘Buddy’ Maracle holds the distinction of being the first Indigenous person to appear in an NHL game.” So that’s some kind of progress.
Update, October, 2020: The Hall of Fame has now done away entirely with the player biographies that used to appear on the site. Not sure when that excising happened, exactly, but if you click on those links above they’ll show you statistics only.
No more will Canadiens play in Montreal this season: it’s all over there for another year. The team does have one last road game, in Toronto on Saturday, but at the Bell Centre, it’s all over, now, but the raw, animal moaning.
Amid the disappointment of a inferior year, the team did find some achievement to celebrate this week, and there was silverware to go with. Brendan Gallagher was named winner of this year’s Molson Cup, team’s de facto Player of the Year award, as measured by three-star selections.
Paul Byron got the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy, by which local media celebrate a player whose exploits have gone otherwise unsung — or, as the team phrases it, the member of the team who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honour.
The Molson dates back to 1973, when Ken Dryden won it. Since then, it’s been awarded to many likely achievers (Guy Lafleur and Carey Price, seven times each one) along with some others who qualify as lesser lights — Wayne Thomas, Steve Penney, Cristobal Huet.
Named for the venerable newspaperman who worked his words in both Montreal-Matinand Le Journal de Montreal, the Beauchamp was established in the 1981-82 season, when Doug Jarvis was the inaugural winner. Others who followed him have included the quietly contributing likes of Craig Ludwig, Lyle Odelein, Jan Bulis, and Steve Begin.
Further back in Canadiens history? The Montreal branch of Mappin and Webb, jewelers and silversmiths, does seem to have donated trophies on the Molson model in the 1920s with a notion of recognizing local excellence. Details are sketchy, but the lost, lamented Maroons seem have embraced this more than Canadiens. Babe Siebert won the Maroons’ Mappin and Webb Trophy as team MVP in 1928, while Jimmy Ward was the man for the Maroons in 1931.
The only instance of Canadiens awarding a Mappin and Webb Trophy that I can trace is at the end of the 1927-28 season. Ahead of their last regular-season game at the Forum, before they went out and whupped Ottawa 4-0, Canadiens paraded the year’s haul of hardware — and pets.
NHL President Frank Calder handed over the O’Brien Cup, still the prize in those years for the NHL team finishing first overall. As the league’s top goaltender, George Hainsworth collected his second consecutive Vézina Memorial Trophy. In reporting that Howie Morenz got the Mappin and Webb, the Gazette noted that it specifically recognized his MVPlaying during the team’s homegames.
Also, that the crowd at the Forum was pleased to see Morenz acknowledged, giving him “a stirring ovation.” La Patrie: “une immense acclamation salua ce geste.”
The fans had further tributes to offer. In those earliest NHL decades, the die-hardest of the Canadiens’ faithful occupied the 50-cent seats in the upper gallery of the Forum’s north-end. They were, largely, French-speaking and working-class, and they proudly identified as the Millionaires.
Apart from devotedly hailing their heroes, these fans often rewarded the Montreal players, as they did on this night in 1928. George Hainsworth was the pre-game recipient of a four-leaf clover, described in the papers as both “massive” and “metallic.”
Better yet was what the fans had in store for Morenz’s linemate Aurèle Joliat.
He, delightfully, was presented with a black cat, on a string. The Gazette reported that giftand giftee “immediately got into a scratching battle.” La Patrie said nothing of that, describing the cat (in translation) as “big” with“nice, smooth fur,” an altogether “beautiful beast.” Also: “Joliat, a little surprised at the gift at first, accepted it with good humor and offered to take good care of it.”
I’d be glad to know (a) the cat’s name, as well as (b) what became of it and (c) did anyone think that making such a fuss over a black cat boded ill for the team’s playoffs run? Please get in touch if you have leads. I can confirm that while Canadiens did pass on a bye to the semi-finals, they were eliminated there in two games by the Maroons, who in turn failed to beat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.
One last stop on a tour of in-house recognitions of old might take us to October of 1942. Canadiens had gone 11 years without a championship at that point, and would be waiting another two seasons before they found themselves raising the Cup again. Still, Dick Irvin’s players were apparently feeling loose and confident enough as their pre-season wound down to take a poll among themselves to predict at least some of what was to come in the campaign ahead.
This was, I think, an enterprise cooked up by a newspaperman (Dink Carroll, possibly) from the Gazette, where the results were published. The consensus among the players was that they’d finish the season with 56 points. Most of them, 10, thought that this would be good enough for third place in the six-team NHL, while four predicted they’d finish second. Just one was bold enough to say they’d come in first. (As it turned out, Canadiens finished the 50-game schedule with 50 points, good enough for fourth place and the last playoff spot.)
Individually, 11 of 15 players voted that goaltender Paul Bibeault would be the team’s outstanding player. (Winger Joe Benoit, with two, came second.) Bibeault did end up playing in all 50 games, finishing with a record of 19-19-12, which was good enough (I guess), though among his NHL peers, the only statistical categories he led at season’s end were the ones headed Most Losses(he tied with Toronto’s Turk Broda) and Goals Against.
Also in their pre-season poll, the players decided that Gordie Drillon, newly acquired from the Leafs, would lead the team in goals, with 23, followed by Benoit (22) and captain Toe Blake (21). (In fact, Benoit got 30, Drillon 28, and Blake 23.)
The players voted Jack Portland and Elmer Lach as the fastest skaters among them. Benoit was deemed best stickhandler, while Buddy O’Connor was the best puck-carrier. Rating penalty-killers, they couldn’t decide between Charlie Sands and Ray Getliffe, pictured here. They each collected seven votes.
Seventy-four years ago tonight, Maurice Richard had a terrible night.
That’s not the anniversary that tends to be observed, of course. Seems like people prefer to recall that it was on a night like this in 1943 that Montreal coach Dick Irvin debuted a brand new first line, one featuring wingers Toe Blake (left) and Maurice Richard (right) centred by Elmer Lach, that would soon come to be known, then and for all time, as the Punch Line.
October 30 was a Saturday in 1943, and it was opening night for four of the NHL’s six teams. Montreal was home to the Boston Bruins. After an injury-plague start in the Canadiens’ system, Richard, 22, was healthy. Having played just 16 games in 1942-43, he was ready to start the season as a regular. The Canadiens had lost some scoring over the summer: Gordie Drillon was gone and so was Joe Benoit, both gone to the war. The latter had scored 30 goals in ’42-43, leading the Canadiens in that department as the right winger for Lach and Blake. That line was already, pre-Richard, called Punch, with Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald claiming that he’d been the one to name it.
Richard didn’t recall this, exactly. In autobiography Stan Fischler ghosted for him in The Flying Frenchmen (1971), Richard erred in saying that he took Charlie Sands’ place on the Punch Line rather than Benoit’s.
Roch Carrier added a flourish to the story in Our Life With The Rocket (2001), a poetic one even if it’s not entirely accurate.
Richard’s wife Lucille did (it’s true) give birth to a baby girl, Huguette, towards the end of October of 1943, just as Montreal’s training camp was wrapping up in Verdun. True, too: around the same time, Richard asked coach Irvin whether he could switch the number on his sweater. Charlie Sands wasn’t a Punch Liner, but he was traded during that final week of pre-season: along with Dutch Hiller, Montreal sent him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Phil Watson. Richard had been wearing 15; could he take on Sands’ old 9? “He’d like that,” Carrier has him explaining to Irvin, “because his little girl weighs nine pounds.”
“Somewhat surprised by this sentimental outburst, Dick Irvin agrees.”
Here’s where Carrier strays. To celebrate Huguette’s arrival, he writes, Richard promised to score a pair of goals in the Canadiens’ season-opening game: one for mother, one for daughter. “The Canadiens defeat the Bruins,” Carrier fairytales, “three to two. Maurice has scored twice. And that is how, urged on by a little nine-pound girl, the Punch Line takes off.”
Huguette’s birthday was October 23, a Saturday. The following Wednesday, Richard did burn bright in the Canadiens’ final exhibition game, which they played in Cornwall, Ontario, against the local Flyers from the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Maybe that’s when he made his fatherly promise, adding an extra goal for himself? Either way, the Canadian Press singled him out for praise in Montreal’s 7-3 victory: “Maurice Richard, apparently headed for a big year in the big time, paced Dick Irvin’s team with three goals in a sparkling effort.”
That Saturday, October 30, 1943, the home team could only manage to tie the visiting Bruins 2-2. Montreal had several rookies in the line-up, including goaltender Bill Durnan, who was making his NHL debut. Likewise Canadiens centre Fern Majeau, who opened the scoring. Herb Cain and Chuck Scherza replied for Boston before Toe Blake scored the game’s final tally. The Boston Daily Globe called that one “a picture goal” that same Blake skate by the entire Boston team. “The ice was covered with paper and hats after the red light flashed.”
That was the good news, such as it was. Leave it Montreal’s Gazette to outline what didn’t go so well. “Four Bruins Are Casualties,” announced a sidebar headline alongside the paper’s main Forum dispatch, “Maurice Richard Has Bad Night.” Details followed:
Ott Heller returned, as promised. The Rangers were playing in Montreal that Saturday night, February 14, 1942, against the last-place Canadiens, so it qualified as an upset when Montreal came out on top by a score of 5-3. Eyeing the line-up, you don’t see a Hab team for the ages: the top line had Terry Reardon between Toe Blake and Joe Benoit. Buddy O’Connor scored a couple of Hab goals, and there were fights. Listed in the line-up among the spares, Heller didn’t figure in the newspaper accounts: he made no news. Some of them make it sound like he kept to the bench the whole game, which I guess is possible. Or maybe he was pencilled in to play and didn’t, at the last minute, feel right.
The Rangers caught the train home and the following night, Sunday, they met the Brooklyn Americans at Madison Square Garden. There was a trophy they played for in those years, New York teams, the winner of the season’s series got the William J. MacBeth Memorial Cup, and this would be the night they handed it over. It already belonged to the Rangers — they’d won five out of six games already that year — but the Americans measured out some revenge on the night by winning this one by a score of 5-1. Heller did play on this night, partnered with Neil Colville; Bill Juzda sat as the Rangers’ fifth defenceman. Heller played about 12 minutes and was, again, unnewsworthy.
“We’re in a slump,” said coach Frank Boucher, “no doubt of that. I only trust we shake it off before somebody catches us.”
Tuesday they had the Canadiens coming in. “The boys in the gallery,” advised Kerr N. Petrie of The New York Herald Tribune, “are busy getting their banners ready for ‘Ott Heller Night.’” The night of Heller’s injury in January, of course, they’d called off a tribute in fear of jinxing “the hard-working defense horse of the Manhattan Blues” (The New York Daily Mirror), so I suppose the feeling was that now they were clear to proceed hexfree.
Before he hurt his shoulder, Ranger management had been talking him up as a candidate for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Jim Hurley at The Daily Mirror thought maybe he’d had better years behind him. Still:
Heller is a workman who certainly rates the highest praise for his consistently good performance over a 12-season period and the festivities tonight are quite in order.
His problem, maybe, was that fans with unschooled eyes couldn’t discern his contributions. He was hiding in plain sight. Hurley again:
Since he lacks the splash and color of some rearguard workers, and the murderous mien of others, the fans have no conception of Heller as a glamor player. His best endorsement comes from rival players and coaches, who are cognizant of the consistently steady game he turns in.
The Rangers, at least, were going to give him a trophy, inscribed “To Ehrhardt (Ott) Heller in appreciation — N.Y. Rangers,” and also (Hurley reported) “a nice boodle of defense bonds.” His teammates had presents for him, too, and the fans were planning “demonstrations.” The Brooklyn Americans (interestingly) were all planning to attend, along with 1,000 members of the Rovers Rooter Club — fans of the Rangers’ New York farm club. Continue reading