“I can’t talk about it,” said Cecil Hart, coach of the Canadiens. “It is terrible — a thunderbolt.”
It was 84 years ago, late on another Monday night of this date, that the great Howie Morenz died at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc of complications after he fractured his left leg in an accident at the Forum in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of January. He was 34.
Funeral services were held at the Forum three days later. Ten thousand mourners were on hand in the arena, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 thronged the route as the cortege made its way to Mount Royal Cemetery for the burial.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, March 9, Morenz’s teammates somehow managed to get through their scheduled game against the Montreal Maroons. (The Maroons prevailed by a score of 4-1.) Aurèle Joliat, Morenz’s loyal left winger and his fast friend, was out of the line-up on the night with a leg injury, but he was back for Montreal’s Saturday-night meeting with the New York Rangers, wherein Canadiens prevailed 1-0 on a goal from Morenz’s long-time right winger, Johnny Gagnon.
That’s the night that the photograph above may well have been posed, showing Joliat and coach Hart gazing on Morenz’s forlorn gear. “The wait is in vain, the Meteor is extinguished,” read the caption above a version that ran on the Sunday in Le Petit Journal.
Leo Dandurand would tell the story that he’d been the one to put the 7 on Morenz’s sweater back when the Stratford Streak first signed on to play with Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. “Remembering that Morenz’ contract was dated July 7, 1923 (which was also my birthday),” the Montreal owner, manager, and sometime coach later wrote, “I assigned him sweater number seven the first day he reported to Canadiens.”
A whole constellation of early Canadiens stars had worn the number seven going back to the beginnings of the team in 1910, including Jack Laviolette, Jimmy Gardner, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Malone, Howard McNamara, and (the last before Morenz) Odie Cleghorn.
When Morenz departed Montreal for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934, Dandurand declared that no other Canadien would wear the number again. As Dandurand told it in 1953, he meant forever, though at least one contemporary newspaper account from the fall of ’34 suggests that the understanding at the time was that it would go unworn as long as Morenz continued playing in the NHL. Either way, by various accounts, sweater number seven remained hanging in the Montreal dressing room for the duration of Morenz’s two-year odyssey to Chicago and then New York.
He reclaimed it when he (and Cecil Hart) rejoined Montreal in the fall of 1936. When he was injured in January, it returned to its hook when he departed the Forum on his way to hospital.
In the wake of his death, Canadiens immediately declared that his number would be worn no more, making Montreal’s seven the third NHL number to be retired, after Ace Bailey’s Toronto six and Lionel Hitchman’s Boston three, both of which were so honoured in the same week (Bailey first) in February of 1934.
In November of 1937, Canadiens did amend their numerical position, slightly, making clear that when Howie Morenz Jr. ascended to play for the team, he would inherit his father’s number.
Howie Jr. had celebrated his tenth birthday that year. He did, it’s true, show promise as a centerman in later years, skating with the Montreal Junior Canadiens as well as the USHL Dallas Texans before a degenerative eye condition put an effective end to his chances of reaching the NHL.
November of ’37 saw the NHL stage the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at the Forum. A team of NHL All-Stars beat a team combing Maroons and Canadiens by a score of 6-5 in front of a crowd of 8,683 fans. Some $20,000 was raised on the night for the Morenz family. Former Canadiens owner (and goaltender) Joe Cattarinich paid $500 for the Morenz’ equipment and sweater, which he then handed over to Howie Jr.
The program for that Memorial evening included this photograph, just above, purported to be the only one in existence to have caught Morenz from the back while he wore his celebrated seven. It’s a good image, even if it isn’t, in fact, so very exclusive — I’ve seen Morenz showing his back in other photographs going back to the ’20s.
It was on a Thursday night of this date 84 years ago that the great Howie Morenz broke his left leg in a game at Montreal’s Forum pitting Morenz’s Canadiens against the Chicago Black Hawks. Removed to Hôpital Saint-Luc, Morenz spent a little over a month in treatment before he died on March 8, 1937, of pulmonary embolism. Adapted from my 2014 book Puckstruck, here’s an accounting of his January 28 injury.
Morenz sobbed when Leo Dandurand traded him, in 1934, to Chicago. He was supposed to be slipping, and the coach had replaced him between linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, the fans were booing.
He was pretty good in Chicago, but he didn’t get along with the owner. At about this time, in March of 1935, he turned again to freelance journalism. Back in Montreal he and Joliat had contributed columns to La Patrie, but now Morenz addressed a bigger, manlier audience by way of Esquire.
We’ll accept that Morenz was moved to write the piece himself, no ghostwriters to mediate his positively chipper tone, and that when he talked about himself in the third person, he meant it. The big news he had to deliver is a surprise: having lost all three fights he started the year before, Morenz has decided to give up fighting. “Yes, from now on I’m a pacifist, a hold-backer.” By the way, for those of you out there who thought that the fighting was a fake, “part of the show, fancy embroidery,” well, hold on just one minute, buster. He makes it all sound so jolly, so much fun, even the scene when the fleet winger meets the defenseman’s “solid, unlovely hip” and “the forward’s breath leaves his body with a ‘woof’, as he goes buckety-buck-buck and crashes into the boards.” On he prattles, and on, tickled as can be to be talking hockey, even when it’s to acknowledge that “Father Time easily overhauls the fastest mortals.”
A year later Chicago traded him to the Rangers — another sad step down, it looked like, on the staircase out of hockey. But then the Canadiens brought him back in September of 1936. He was 34. Cecil Hart was in again as the coach, his old friend, and he reunited Morenz with Joliat and Gagnon. By Christmas the Canadiens were at the top of the league, with Morenz one of the leading scorers. “I’m going the limit right now,” Morenz himself said. “I’m giving the fans everything I’ve got. The end may be in sight but the heart is still sound. You know what I mean.”
If you were writing this as fiction, you’d never write it so starkly obvious. He’s supposed to have told Frank Selke that he was quitting. “It’s getting too tough.”
Montreal played in Chicago on Sunday, January 24, 1937. Hobbled by a knee injury, he still managed to star, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 decision for Montreal. “Siebert’s got his knee strapped up,” Morenz said of teammate Babe Siebert before the game, “and I got me a new knee put on for the winter, but we’ll win.”
Two nights later, the Canadiens beat Toronto 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “The Canadiens had the upper hand when they had Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Johnny Gagnon on the ice,” the Gazette reported. Joliat scored a pair of goals, with Morenz assisting on both. Babe Siebert said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen Morenz play. “The Morenz-Joliat-Gagnon line was the whole show, and we defencemen hardly got up a sweat so well were the forward lines going.”
On the Thursday, the Canadiens were back home to host Chicago. Morenz’s knee was heavily bandaged. In the first period, he was down at the south end of the Forum, towards St. Catherines Street. Nowadays there’s a rule to stipulate that the boards shall be constructed in such a manner that the surface facing the ice shall be smooth and free of any obstruction or any object that could cause injury to players. In those years, though, it was more of a tongue-in-groove design, as seen in the photograph above, and therein lay the danger.
As Montreal winger Toe Blake saw it from the Montreal bench, Morenz went looping behind the Black Hawks net when he lost his balance and fell into the boards where Chicago’s Earl Seibert “kinda fell on him.” The Montreal sportswriter Andy O’Brien saw one of Morenz’s skates dig into the boards, then he rolled over and the leg snapped. Joliat was on the ice: as he saw it, Morenz lost his footing, went down, put his feet up as he slid into the boards, the heels of his skates stuck in the boards. Somebody checked Earl Seibert, who fell on Morenz’s legs, which broke the left one.
Clarence Campbell was the referee that night. The way the future NHL president described it, Seibert dove headlong at Morenz, knocking him down, skate stuck, buckety-buck-buck.
There was a novelist in the house, too, on the night, Hugh MacLennan: he remembered (as a novelist might) a little smile on Morenz’s lips. “But once too often he charged into the corner relying on his ability to turn on a dime and come out with the puck. The point of his skate impaled itself in the boards. A defenseman, big Earl Seibert, accidentally crashed over the extended leg and broke it.”
MacLennan added another detail: “Howie’s head hit the ice with a sickening crack and he was carried out.” Unless Joliat and Gagnon helped him up and off. That’s another version that’s out there.
In the dressing room, there was a scene so stylized that somebody should paint it to hang up alongside Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.” Morenz was, apparently, a little more lucid than the general. He lay on the rubbing table, smoking a cigarette. “I’m all through,” he’s supposed to have muttered, “all finished.” Don’t blame Seibert, he said. “It was an accident. My skate caught.” Joliat thought it was his wonky right knee that had betrayed him. Johnny Gagnon had tears in his eyes. Babe Siebert kept saying, “Hang on, Howie, hang on, Howie.” Small boys wept in the Forum corridor as they took Morenz out, and though he was crying too, he gave a cheery way on his way to the ambulance that took him to Hôpital Saint-Luc.
His ankle was cracked and he had four broken bones in the leg. Or it was a compound fracture with the bones shattered in two places slightly above the ankle and below the knee. The papers had differing reports, and it must have been hard to make sense of it all, which may be why La Patrie saw fit to publish x-rays of Morenz’s fractures.
Were there two, four, five? It still wasn’t entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.
“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.”
Two days after the crash, the rest of the Canadiens travelled to New York and Boston, where they beat the Americans and the Bruins, which Howie appreciated. Gagnon and Joliat wrote to him every day they were away and when they got back to Montreal, they went to visit. Dr. Forgues was satisfied with the progress of his patient’s recovery, Joliat reported in his La Patrie column. “Howie is most enthusiastic,” he wrote.
The Winnipeg Tribune added an unsettling Forum update that same week. “An X marks the spot that performers in the Montreal Forum are avoiding,” ran the unbylined item. “A member of the Forum’s ice-sweeping staff put a mark on the boards where Howie Morenz’s skate dug into the wood when the Canadien veteran broke his leg. … A few nights later, Cam Dickson, a Montreal Senior Group player, hit the identical spot and broke his arm.”
The great Howie Morenz was born on this date in 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, in southwestern Ontario, when it was a Sunday. While he did most of his speediest skating for the Montreal Canadiens, Morenz did also stray, notably to Chicago, when he played a season-and-a-half. He was 33 at the end of January, 1936, when the Black Hawks traded him to the New York Rangers in exchange for winger Glen Brydson.
“How much has Morenz left in his aging legs?” Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eaglewondered. With the Rangers sinking in the standings, manager Lester Patrick was seen to be grasping at straws, “drafting an old, old hoss to put new life in the spavined Rangers.” The great but waning Morenz, Parrott pointed out, had been shopped to and turned down by every team in the league. It was said that Tommy Gorman of Montreal’s Maroons weren’t even willing to give up utility forward Joe Lamb.
In the first game he played as a Ranger, Morenz faced none other than his old mates from Montreal. “Old Time Morenz Dash Aids To Down Canadiens,” the Gazette headlined its dispatch from Madison Square Garden. Shifting from centre to left wing, he lined up alongside centre Lynn Patrick and right winger Cecil Dillon on New York’s top line. Wearing number 12 on his back rather than his old Montreal seven, he soon showed the crowd of 11,000 some of his old stuff, with (as the Gazette saw it) “an exhibition of end-to-end rushing that brought back memories of his hey-day when he was the greatest figure in the game.”
Here’s how Harold Parrott of the Daily Eagle opened his report: “The answer is: Morenz can still fly!”
He set up Dillon’s opening goal in the first period, then beat Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude for a goal of his own on the powerplay. After Montreal got goals from Pit Lepine and Georges Mantha, the game went to overtime, with Dillon scoring again to decide the matter.
Parrott caught up to him in the dressing room:
“I have not played in two weeks,” he explained, as trainer [Harry] Westerby wrapped steaming hot towels around his swollen ankle after the game. “So I say to myself: ‘You go like Hell soon in game, before legs tire.’ By gosh, I did it!”
Morenz scored in New York’s next game, too, a 4-2 home win over the Maroons, notching his sixth of the season. That was all, so far as his New York goal-scoring was concerned: he scored no more in the next 16 games he played as the Rangers finished the season out of the playoffs.
Come the fall, Morenz was back in Montreal. Suiting up once again for one final season, he had his old number seven on his back, along with a pair of familiar wingers at his side, Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat.
Star centre Howie Morenz wasn’t there — he was on his way, from Cleveland — and right winger Art Gagne had yet to depart his off-season home in Prince George, B.C. A couple of highly touted new recruits hadn’t arrived in Montreal, either: defenceman Herb Gardiner (coming from Calgary) and (from Saskatoon) goaltender George Hainsworth. Still, first-year Montreal Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart made a start with what he had that last week in October of 1926, convening his in-town charges for what the local Gazette classed “a limbering-up session on the gymnasium floor” of the National AAA Club House on Rue Cherrier at St. Andre.
With the NHL season set to open in Boston on November 16, Hart was aiming to have his players hit the ice at Mount Royal Arena by the first of the month. They never got there, as it turned out: in the last days of October, Canadiens announced that they were breaking their lease at the Arena to make a move to the bigger and newer west-end Forum, where they’d share the ice with the Maroons. Surveying his roster, Hart felt that he still had one hole to fill, at left wing, where he wanted someone to relieve Aurèle Joliat when he tired. Young Leo Lafrance was the man he had in mind; once he’d negotiated his arrival from Duluth of the Central Hockey League, Hart would (as the Gazette opined) “be able to sit back and survey his 1926-27 edition of the Canadiens with equanimity, as he will have a balanced squad with two players for every position.”
(Image: Classic Auctions)
Trade Howie Morenz? Are you crazy? The very idea is — I mean, that would be like shipping, I don’t know, Wayne Gretzky out of Edmonton in, say, 1988. Ludicrous.
In 1934, the Montreal Canadiens swore up, down, and sideways that it would never happen. How could it? The team had had an underwhelming season, for them, bowing out to the eventual champions from Chicago in the quarter-finals.
Morenz, who was born on this day in 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, was playing his eleventh year with Montreal, and it had been a rough one for him. At 31, the man whose newspapers epithets had matured into the old thunderbolt and the veteran speedball had scored just nine goals, missing time with a bad ankle, more with a fractured thumb. He and coach Newsy Lalonde were supposedly feuding. Was it possible that some of the boos wafting down from the high gallery were intended for Morenz? In March, he hinted that maybe he’d had enough; could be that the time had come to hang up his skates for good.
Still, Morenz was Morenz, a superstar, beloved in Montreal, just two years removed from having won back-to-back Hart Memorial trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player. Sportswriters across the NHL voted him the league’s speediest player that year (Busher Jackson of Toronto came second).
In April, as his Black Hawks battled with the Detroit Red Wings for the championship, Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin let it be known that he’d like Morenz to play for, and had made Montreal an offer. New York Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick was said to be interested, too.
That’s when Canadiens’ co-owner Joseph Cattarinich did his best to quash the idea that Morenz could ever leave Montreal. The team, he declared, had no desire to sell or trade their iconic centreman.
That’s not how the hockey writers understood it, though. There was a rumour that Montreal was interested in Chicago wingers Mush March and/or Paul Thompson —probably, too, they’d want some cash. At Toronto’s Globe, Mike Rodden was hearing that the Maple Leafs might be in the mix, too. The well-connected sports editor — he also happened to be an active NHL referee — had it on good authority that Cattarinich and his partner, Canadiens’ managing director Leo Dandurand, would be interested in a swap that brought the Leafs’ Joe Primeau to Montreal. But Rodden couldn’t see the Leafs’ Conn Smythe agreeing to that.
A month later, it was all out in the open. “We have received several flattering offers for Morenz,” Dandurand told the Montreal Gazette at the NHL’s annual meeting in Syracuse, New York. “But we want players, not money, and if we do not get adequate playing replacements, we will have Morenz with us next season.”
The Associated Press got quite a different message. “Howie Morenz will not be with us,” Dandurand was quoted as saying in their Syracuse dispatch. “He is still a great hockey player and three clubs are seeking to buy him. We set a price of $50,000 when Chicago Black Hawks made inquiries, but later said we would accept $35,000 and title to Mush March. Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs also are bidding for Morenz.”
So that was that. Not immediately, but eventually.
The bargaining took a few months. Summer passed without any further news. In September, as Morenz turned 32, the hearsay had it that (i) Boston was getting Morenz in exchange for centre Marty Barry, unless (ii) Chicago got the deal done by sending March and winger Lolo Couture Montreal’s way, though possibly (if Dandurand got his way) it might be that (iii) Morenz and defenceman Marty Burke would be going to the Black Hawks for a pair of defencemen, Roger Jenkins and Lionel Conacher.
October had arrived by the time the actual trade was announced. Chicago it was for Morenz, along with Burke and goaltender Lorne Chabot. In return, Canadiens got Conacher, Jenkins, and winger Leroy Goldsworthy. Conacher wasn’t long a Hab; Dandurand flipped him almost immediately to the cross-town Maroons, who also got Herb Cain, in exchange for the rights to McGill University star Nelson Crutchfield. Dandurand wasn’t finished yet, according to the Gazette: he was trying to pry Dit Clapper away from Boston. (Update: he didn’t do it.)
“Morenz has given our club eleven years of faithful and at the same time brilliant service,” was Dandurand’s stilted statement on the man who’d come to define his team, its speed and its élan. Morenz himself was said to be peeved not to have been consulted before the trade, but he did duly report to Chicago, where Major McLaughlin was very pleased. “Morenz will fit into our system perfectly,” he enthused. “He still has plenty of speed, and with our frequent changing of forward lines, will be of huge value.” There was talk, too, that he’s soon be taking over as coach.
The fit was not perfect; we know that now. In January of 1935, Dandurand told James Burchard of New York’s World-Telegramthat it was Morenz who’d asked for the trade.
“They booed Howie last year and the year before,” Dandurand said. “The Montreal spectators didn’t realize he was hurt and couldn’t give his best. A highly sensitive player, Howie came to me and said, ‘Probably a change would do me good.’” Morenz had in fact made no protest when he’d learned that he was going to Chicago, Burchard reported; he said that Dandurand told him that Morenz felt that Montreal didn’t want him any more.
After all those luminous years as a Canadien with the number 7 on his back, Morenz wore 3 in Chicago for a season-and-a-half in which he failed to thrive. In early 1936, the Black Hawks traded him to the New York Rangers for winger Glen Brydson.
Morenz’s stint in a Ranger sweater, numbered 12, didn’t really work out either. By the fall, he was back in Montreal, suiting up once again, when the season started in November, in his old number seven, with his old wingers by his side, Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat.
He was nervous before the game, he confessed. “I tried to lie down and have a nap Saturday afternoon, like I always do before games, but it was no go,” he said. “I couldn’t stay quiet a minute. It’s sure great to be back.”
Canadiens beat the Bruins 2-0 on the night. They didn’t score, but (as the Gazette’s correspondent noted) “the veteran line of Morenz, Joliat, and Gagnon, reunited after two years, received a thunderous welcome from the gathering and it responded with a sparkling display, Joliat’s all-round game, Gagnon’s neat stickhandling and several bursts of his oldtime speed by Morenz were a feature of their play.”
Montreal, it turned out, did want him. “Once again the old war cry of the north-end section, ‘Les Canadiens sont là,’ echoes through the Forum.”
“Cette année, c’est terminé.” That was Michel Bergeron writing last week at TVA Sports about — of course — the Montreal Canadiens and the dismal season they’ve been lurching through. With 28 games to go in the season, the likelihood of Montreal making the playoffs was a wretched two percent going into Saturday’s game against Nashville. By this morning, post-shootout-loss, it had drooped to 1.2.
The autopsying has been underway for a while now, which has to be painful for the patient. When Carey Price hasn’t been injured, he’s been — how to put this, so it’s polite? — not quite himself. Max Pacioretty has been someone else, too, which nobody would be complaining about if that someone were Steve Shutt or Toe Blake, but no, sorry, that hasn’t been the case, and so the talk is, as it has been, that is/should be/must certainly find himself traded away before the NHL’s February 26 trade deadline.
Jonathan Drouin, meanwhile, is still looking for his inner Pierre Larouche, while Joe Morrow’s Jacques Laperriereitude has been erratic at best. P.K. Subban has been P.K. Subban, it’s just that he’s been P.K. Subbaning it on Broadway in Nashville rather than more locally on Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal.
Columnists and commentators, pundits and podcasters — most of the Montreal chatterati has written the year off. For Bergeron, the worry now is the future. “L’an prochain,” he wonders, “les Canadiens feront-t-ils les séries? Très difficile de répondre oui à cette question.”
At the Montreal Gazette, Jack Todd is one who’s been gazing back. If only in 2003, then-GM Bob Gainey hadn’t drafted so cautiously, and/or known what we know now. The result of his bumbling back then?
Two appearances in an Eastern Conference final and a quarter-century without a parade. That was not the goal when Gainey took over and began his career by drafting Andrei Kostitsyn with the 10th pick overall, while Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, and Corey Perry were still on the table in the first round alone, then taking Cory Urquhart with Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber still out there.
Somehow, the Canadiens have to come out of the carnage of this season with a quality centre to fill that hole in the donut on the top line — and, somehow, they need to close the charisma gap.
Another Gazette writer thinks it’s time Canadiens did what they’re doing in New York. Maybe you saw the letter that Rangers’ president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton posted for fans of the team last week, the one that began, ominously if honestly enough, “We want to talk to you about the future.” It went on to outlining what may be coming in the way of tearing down a team that’s 23.6 percent headed for the playoffs.
Brendan Kelly wants a letter like that:
Team president Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin should take a page out of the New York Rangers’ playbook and come clean to their fans for the travesty that is the 2017-18 Habs. Better yet, they should concede that their plan has failed and that the time has come to rebuild this team.
It may be in the mail. In the meantime, can we consider that there’s nothing so new under Montreal’s cold winter sun? It won’t boost any playoff percentages, nor calm any restive hearts or keyboards to hear it, but Canadiens have been here before.
In February of 1933, for instance.
Leo Dandurand was the man in charge back then. He co-owned the team, with partner Joseph Cattarinich, who’d once (way back) tended the Canadiens’ goal. Dandurand had coached the team in the early 1920s, and continued to manage the roster after he gave that up. Over the course of a decade, his Canadiens won three Stanley Cups. The last of those weren’t such ancient history in ’33, either: Dandurand’s teams were back-to-back champions in 1930 and ’31.
In ’32, they’d topped the standings during the regular season only to fail at the first fence they faced in the playoffs.
The team they iced the following year still had most of the winning timber intact
George Hainsworth was 37, sure, but he was still playing every game, and in ’31-32 he’d won more of them (25) than anyone else tending an NHL net. Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, and Battleship Leduc were stalwarts, still, on defence. Upfront, Canadiens had Howie Morenz, Aurele Joliat, and Johnny Gagnon as their leading line.
Hockey, of course, was only one of Dandurand’s guiding interests. He was heavily into horses that ran, owned race tracks, spent his winters, increasingly, in the southern U.S. In January of ’33, he was down in New Orleans, ensconced for the season at Jefferson Park.
Or maybe not. Canadiens were struggling in the early days of the new year, stuck in last place in the NHL, down at the bottom of the five-team Canadian Division.
Pundits like Walter Gilhooly of The Ottawa Journal were ready to pronounce that “the great Canadien comet that flared over the hockey firmament” had passed. Coach Newsy Lalonde wasn’t panicking, though. Following a 6-1 loss in Detroit, he was reported to be confident, quote, that the team would soon shake its losing ways. But: “If weaknesses are apparent anywhere in future, I will take immediate measures to remedy such a condition.”
Lalonde was shuffling his lines that month, extracting Morenz from the top line with Joliat and Gagnon, slotting in Pete Lepine. Dandurand was back in town, too, to monitor the situation. Canadiens won a couple of games, but they couldn’t keep it going. By the end of January they were looking to the Providence Reds of the lower-loop Can-Am League for a boost. Lalonde reportedly had designs on drafting in an entire line of theirs, the one featuring Gus Rivers, Hago Harrington, and Leo Murray.
Dandurand went two-thirds of the way, sending forwards Armand Mondou and Leo Gaudreault to Providence in exchange for Murray and Harrington.
The team continued its indifferent play into February. The situation wasn’t hopeless: with 20 games remaining in the 48-game schedule, Canadiens were level, now, with Ottawa, lurking just five points behind the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans. String some wins together and Canadiens would be right back into the thick of it.
It wasn’t happening, though. They lost, and badly, to the Americans and Maroons in succession. It was with the latter defeat that the team seemed to cross a line of Dandurand’s.
Time to for a change.
“To Dismantle/ Famous Team” was the couplet atop a photo of Dandurand in The Winnipeg Tribune. The word from Montreal was grim: he was ready to rid the roster of as many as five underperforming players, “asking waivers” in the parlance of the day, though he wasn’t yet naming names. Having lost 7-2 to their cross-town rivals, the players were reported to “gloomy, dispirited” when Dandurand came in to see them in the dressing room.
He’d watched, he told the players, waited, hoped the team could turn themselves around. Now, drastic measures were in order. “Dandurand stated he knew the weak spots on the team,” the Tribune reported, “and speedy action would ensue to strengthen these positions.”
You can see why the players’ emotions would be running strong: “one or two all but broke down.”
Dandurand announced that wasn’t going to fire Newsy Lalonde: the coach had his confidence. Rumours of imminent trades bustled around Montreal, involving … everybody, up to and including Howie Morenz, who’d been great to start the season but had tailed off in the new year.
The uproar in the press wasn’t what it is today, but that’s not to say the players weren’t scrutinized, one by one. Pit Lepine had been suspended, briefly, for “breaking training rules,” a euphemism you often see in early NHL days that sometimes alludes to hangovers, though it might just as well be that Lepine overslept. Either way, he was playing better now, as was Sylvio Mantha, who’d started the season slowly. The best you could say, apparently, for Gagnon and Joliat was that they’d been inconsistent. Battleship Leduc, too: spectacular in one game, he was ineffective the next.
Hainsworth had to shoulder some of the blame, too. I don’t know whether he was pleading his case or just mentioning the math he’d been doing in his spare time, but that desolate February the goaltender did mention to an attentive reporter that he estimated that since he’s started his career in 1912, he’d faced 18,500 shots.
At first, Dandurand’s dismantling involved another influx from Providence. He brought in defenceman Bob Trapp and forwards Art Alexandre and Gizzy Hart. The new-look Canadiens beat Toronto 2-0 after that, which was good, though they followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Chicago, after which Dandurand fined Johnny Gagnon $200 for not showing sufficient interest in the game he was playing.
A trade this week in 1933 saw veteran defenceman Marty Burke depart for Ottawa in exchange for blueliners Harold Starr and Leo Bourgeault.
With Gagnon rumoured to be the next one to move, Canadiens beat Detroit 6-2 and Ottawa 6-0. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on how that worked: “A few changes and a hair-raising string of forcible ejection threats, including sale by auction of more than one star, lifted Canadiens to peak from in jig-time.”
Down they crashed a week later. The verb smother featured in the stories from Boston that final week of February, along with the noun walloping, as the Bruins beat Montreal by a score of 10-0. Here’s Walter Gilhooly whooping it up in The Ottawa Journal:
Ten goals to noting is something that French ears will hardly be able to credit. Crapeau de mer, par bleu, and sacre nom d’un chien! There must be something very sick with those Canadiens. Maybe they are not getting enough pea sup. Perhaps they are getting too much, but something is very wrong with that team.
The other night when they defeated Ottawas they looked like a good bet for a play-off position. Now Leo Dandurand will be tearing what’s left of his hair and throwing it all over the dressing room floor. It’s nothing, however, to where he may throw some of his hockey players before another season comes.
In Montreal, the reviews rated it “almost unbelievable” and “about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” You had to cast back to 1920 for a debacle so dire, when Newsy Lalonde was in a Canadien uniform for an 11-3 drubbing at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa. (Canadiens suffered another 10-0 Ottawa schooling in 1921.)
It was the worst performance in Hainsworth’s history of bombardment, the third period in particular, when seven of the 17 shots that came his way passed him by.
Leo Dandurand showed a brave face. “It was just one of those bad games,” he said. “There are no excuses: the fault can be laid to no particular player’s door. Hainsworth was not to blame, he was given weak protection. The team as a whole played poorly. But it’s out of our systems. We have eight home games left and five away. I think we can gain points in the majority of them and I think we can still make the playoffs. And the team thinks so, too.”
Dandurand’s command of the schedule was a little off: Montreal, in fact, had six home games remaining, six on the road. He did get the part about the playoffs right: Montreal went 6-4-2 to pip the Americans and the Senators for the last post-season spot on the NHL’s Canadian side. Their exit was speedy: on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers dispensed with them in two games.
Leo Dandurand had another couple of years before he got out of the harrowing business of owning the Montreal Canadiens. He still had some adventures ahead of him before he sold the team two years later, of course, including threatening to move the team to Cleveland and, even more shocking insofar as it actually happened, trading away Howie Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks.
A syndicate headed by Ernest Savard eventually bought the team in the fall of 1935. The new coach was the old defenceman Sylvio Mantha, who planned to still play as he guided the team. It would be another ten years before Canadiens would raise the Stanley Cup in triumph again, but nobody knew that then, of course. Hopes were high, as they perennially are in Montreal, where Canadiens are and always have been the process of re-inventing themselves. We’ll end, why not, with a newspaper headline as the 1935-36 season got underway: “Make-Over in Ownership, Management and Personnel Expected to Transform Flying Frenchmen Into Dangerous NHL Contenders.”
The anniversary last week of the death of Aurèle Joliat might elsewhere have triggered an impassioned rant highlighting the outrage and injustice associated with the little left winger’s absence from the list the NHL published earlier this year of its 100 best all-time players. Not here. That’s not to dispute that when Joliat died at 84 on June 2, 1986, hockey lost the greatest of its left wingers — official puckstruck.com policy, in fact, agrees that it did. The case for Joliat’s greatness, a solid one, is buttressed by the resumé the man whose name was often anglicized to Aurel built skating (mostly) alongside Howie Morenz: it includes the three Stanley Cups he helped Canadiens win, his Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1934, all those goals, his elevation to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, & etcetera.
But we’re not going to get into that here. Today, we’ll focus instead on two other important matters relating to Joliat’s 16-year NHL career: his weight and his hat.
If once the Ottawa-born winger towered over Montreal Canadiens’ history, he was never what you’d call an imposing physical specimen. Check in with today’s standard reference sites — hockeyreference.com or nhl.com — and you’ll find Joliat listed as standing 5’7” and displacing 136 pounds. That’s small — slight, even. During his playing days, The Mighty Atom was a nickname he bore, and you’ll find many contemporary newspaper accounts in which he appears as Montreal’s “mite wingman.”
“Probably the tiniest player in the National League,” the Detroit Free Press tagged him in 1934, as ridiculous an insult to Roy Worters (5’3”/135 lbs.) as you’re going to see today, but never mind. Eddie Gerard played with Joliat in Ottawa before both men graduated to stardom in the NHL. “If he should walk into this room now,” he testified in 1932, “the last thing you’d take him for would be a hockey player, with his thin, pale face and frail body.”
“I don’t believe even with his hockey togs on he weighs 145 pounds.”
It’s not unusual to see the weights of hockey players bandied at length in newspaper accounts from the early decades of the 20th century. Makes sense — in an age before TV, with radio broadcasting still in its infancy, fans who weren’t seeing games live and in person relied on prose descriptions of play and players far more than we do today.
Still, even in that context, Joliat’s weight seems to have been oddly, ongoingly, in focus. Not only that: the way it fluctuated in the press seems to suggest that at least one prominent newspaper kept bathroom scales at the Montreal Forum in order to monitor his mass.
Watching Joliat play in the spring of 1924, PCHA President Frank Patrick sized him at 155 pounds. That’s as high a number as I’ve ever seen quoted. By 1929, Charles Grafton of Detroit’s Free Press had him down to 135 in a feature that bore this helpful subhead:
Joliat One Of The Light Men Who Overcomes Weight Handicap By Fast Thinking
By 1930, he’d lost a bit more newspaper poundage: “weighs only 130 pounds,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Joliat and his teammate Johnny Gagnon, Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin advised in 1931, “weigh only 136 and 139 pounds respectively.” Another year, another headline, this time from a 1932 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Joliat’s 138 Pounds Are Very Deceptive if You Don’t Know Hockey
Up and down went the newspaper scales as the decade moved on. “Weighs only 135 pounds,” said Dunkirk, New York’s Evening Observer in 1933. “Probably the smallest player in the circuit at 133 pounds” (Detroit Free Press, 1934). “Weighs only 135 pounds” (Chicago Tribune, 1935). “Weighs only 130 pounds” (NEA, 1938).
Joliat was 37 when he retired in the spring of 1938. As the hockey season neared that fall, he professed he didn’t know what was next for him. “My plans are indefinite,” he said as September struck, still holed up at his vacation camp in the Gatineau hills. “I will be in Montreal Monday, when I may decide what to do.”
He ran a grocery store, eventually, in Montreal’s west end, and thought about opening a night club (but didn’t). After a few years, he’d return to NHL ice as a linesman. Later still, he worked as a ticket agent at Ottawa’s train station.
In 1941, when he gave up the store, he announced a new plan: he was thinking of taking up as a ski instructor. He told a reporter that he’d lost eight pounds in just the previous month, and his reasoning was that the outdoor life at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians might help to restore his health. He was down to 129 pounds. “If I kept losing weight like that,” he said, “in another year, there wouldn’t be anything of me left.”
“Colourful Canadien,” Montreal’s Gazette headlined him, the day after his death in 1986. His final numbers? “Five-foot-six and 135 pounds at his heaviest.” His stature, readers learned, had been an on-ice asset. “He used his small size to his advantage, stickhandling around large defencemen and tucking the puck between their legs.”
Also? “Mr. Joliat became famous for wearing a tuque while playing.”
That was wrong, of course, and still is. A tuque. Joliat’s hat was in fact — well, take your pick of comtemporary descriptions, which range from “a black peaked-hat” and “his old baseball cap” to “a polo cap” and “the blue peaked cap that has become a landmark around the circuit” to “that tight-fitting piece of headgear with its sombre visor.”
There’s some suggestion that he wore it to cover up a bald-spot, though nothing conclusive: it may just have been habit. Rivals quickly learned how to knock Joliat off his game.
“The players of other teams made it a point to aim for that cap,” Harold Burr wrote in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1932.
Punch Broadbent, now with the Canadian Flying Corps, reached perfection at the trick. All he had to do was skate close to Joliat, nudge upward with his elbow and the cap would fall to the ice.
It didn’t matter if Joliat had possession of the puck. He would always let it go, stoop down and replace his cap. But he has discovered a way this Winter to circumvent his tormenters. He doesn’t wear the cap any more.
This was big news across the NHL. “The enemy players stared when Aurel was seen without his black cap,” John Kieran wrote in The New York Times.
Jack Carveth of Detroit’s Free Press had a different explanation for Joliat’s stowing of the cap: it was all about curing a scoring slump.
I’m not so sure about that, though: Joliat scored Montreal’s only goal in the first game of the season that 1931 November with his hat in place. Canadiens then went to Toronto, where Joliat, now bareheaded, again scored the team’s lone goal. He counted three hatless assists in a 5-2 win over the Montreal Maroons, and scored against Boston in his team’s next game, too. I can’t say whether he’d put the cap back on by then or not, just that he did go back to it at some point. He replaced it with a helmet for a few games in 1937 after hurting his head in a fall, but otherwise the remaining years of his NHL career were hatted.
In February of 1934, he played his 500th game, and before the puck dropped to set Canadiens and Maroons going, there was a ceremony at centre Forum ice. NHL President Frank Calder was there, along with other dignitaries. Canadian Press:
Referee Mike Rodden of Toronto summoned Joliat with a wave of his hand, and the mighty atom, who is playing his 12th season with Canadiens, pulled his black cap over his eyes and skated over to receive a beautiful loving cup presented by his teammates, and a handsome chest of silver and a golf bag, tributes of his many friends and admirers among the fans.
“Ten to nothing is a score that requires some explanation.” I’m not sure that’s something the modern-day Montreal Canadiens have been telling themselves today, after last night’s 0-10 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets — seems like they may be more interested in getting to tonight’s game with Philadelphia to play their way out of having to account for last night’s debacle. That opening line dates back, in fact, to 1921, when a correspondent from The Ottawa Journal watched Canadiens of an earlier incarnation the very first time they lost by that disconcerting margin.
That it’s happened four times now in Canadiens history is, in its way, impressive. But precedents don’t make it any easier to deal with, for the team or for its fans. The wording they saw this morning in the headlines of Montreal newspapers was enough to curdle the stoutest Hab-loving heart. Pulvérisé was how La Presse framed the game, in which Canadiens’ back-up goaltender Al Montoya suffered through the entire excruciating game; Le Journal de Montreal opted for Piétinés à Columbus and, decked below, Le Canadien subit une raclée.
Over at The Gazette the dispatch from Ohio was spiked throughout with the words crushed, embarrassing, humiliated, trainwreck, ass-kicking, total meltdown. Columnist Pat Hickey noted that Friday also marked coach Michel Therrien’s 53rd birthday. “I don’t remember being a part of a game like that,” said Therrien. “There’s not much positive to take from it.”
Back home at the Bell Centre Saturday night, Al Montoya took the night off, leaving Carey Price to fend off the Flyers by a score of 5-4. It was the first time in the annals of Montreal’s 10-0 losses that the same goaltender who’d suffered the defeat hadn’t retaken the net for the next game. A look back:
December 24, 1921
“Ottawas achieved a clear cut and decisive victory over Canadiens by the mammoth score of 10 to 0 Saturday,” was the hometown Ottawa Journal’s opening take on the first of Montreal’s historical whompings — the Canadiens were, in a word, smothered.
It was Christmas Eve, just three games into the new season. Both teams had a win and a loss under their belts. Ottawa was the defending Stanley Cup champion; Montreal’s powerful (if slightly aged) line-up featured Georges Vézina in goal with Sprague Cleghorn and Bert Corbeau on defence while forwards included the legendary Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. In a day when a different kind of analytics held sway, much was made of the weight players carried into battle, and The Ottawa Journal noted that Montreal averaged an impressive 176 pounds per man while the team’s aggregate tonnage came in at 2,465.
Ottawa was fast and from the start had Montreal “puffing like grampuses.” In the third, the Habs looked “juvenile.” The Senators had several bright rookies, including Frank “King” Clancy, deemed the architect of the rout by one local paper. Scoring the second goal in the opening period, “he brought the crowd to their toes in a thunderous cheer.”
Cy Denneny scored three goals for Ottawa, and Frank Nighbor added a memorable one (“it was a cuckoo,” to be exact). Goaltender Clint Benedict was good, “as a happy as a kid with a Christmas stocking” with his shutout; Nighbor’s poke check and Punch Broadbent’s determined backchecking were also cited by the Journal as playing decisive parts in the home side’s win. For the third game in a row — the entire season to date — Ottawa took no penalties. All in all, the crowd of 5,000 was “tickled giddy.”
Vézina? “The Chicoutimi Cucumber looked more like a well perforated slab of Roquefort. Vez stopped plenty, but he was handling drives from inside his defence that kept him on the hop, and was frequently forced out of his nets in desperate sorties, trying to split the Ottawa attack.”
As for Montreal’s forwards, Didier Pitre stood out. He “played hard,” the Journal allowed, “and while he has to bend forward to see his skates, uncoiled some whistling drives that would have knocked Benny’s roof into the south-end seats had they hit on the cupola.”
Newsy Lalonde seemed “passé” to the Ottawa eye — though to the correspondent from Montreal’s Le Canada, he was brilliant and gave one of the best performances of his career.
There was hope for Montreal, on the western horizon. Leo Dandurand was Montreal’s managing director (he was also one of the team’s new owners) and word was that he’d signed up an Ottawa youngster by the name of Aurèle Joliat who’d been playing out in Saskatoon.
In the end, he wouldn’t play for the Canadiens for another year, and so he was of no help when the Canadiens played the Senators again four days later at the Mount Royal Arena. This time they lost in overtime, 1-2, with Punch Broadbent beating Vézina for the winning goal — on a “flip shot from the side.”
February 21, 1933
It was another 11 years before Montreal conspired against themselves to lose so large again, but not everything had changed: Leo Dandurand was still the team’s managing director and smothered was still the best word (in The Winnipeg Tribune this time) for a game Canadiens managed to lose by ten goals to none.
Would it surprise you to hear that the blood was running bad between Montreal and Boston back in the winter of ’33? They’d played a pair of games back in January, with the Canadiens winning the first, 5-2, at home before succumbing a few days later (2-3) in Boston. That second game was particularly nasty, with Boston defenceman Eddie Shore in a leading role. The crosscheck on Johnny Gagnon and the fight with Sylvio Mantha was the just beginning; the referee and judge of play were both injured at Shore’s hands. Bruins’ coach Art Ross was ill and missed the game. In a complaint to NHL president Frank Calder, Dandurand accused Boston owner Charles F. Adams of instigating the ugliness.
In the aftermath, Shore was fined $100 and told to behave: “Pres Calder intimated,” The Boston Globe advised, “that if Eddie starts any more rumpuses he will most likely draw indefinite suspension.” The referee, Cooper Smeaton, was reported to be resting in bed with two fractured ribs. He just happened to have been on duty back in 1921 for that inaugural 10-0 showing.
It was with all this in the near background when Montreal went back to Boston in February and lost 10-0.
The Boston Daily Globe didn’t gloat, too much: the headline that called the game a slaughter also turned the focus from the losers to the 16,000 fans looking on at Boston Garden. For them, it was A Goal-Scoring Treat.
Bruins who enjoyed themselves particularly included Marty Barry (five points) and Dit Clapper (four). Shore contained himself, collecting two assists, a tripping penalty, and a cut over the eye.
The only shot that troubled Tiny Thompson was directed at him accidentally by a teammate, Vic Ripley.
Back in Montreal, The Gazette didn’t said what had to be said. “The Flying Frenchmen put on about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” Along with Dandurand, coach Newsy Lalonde might have been one to recall that wasn’t quite so. Howie Morenz played as though “his speedy legs were shackled” (Boston paper took the view that he was “effectively bottled.” Boston reporters commended Canadiens’ goaltender George Hainsworth for “unusually fine saves” on Dit Clapper and Red Beattie. Back in Montreal, the Gazette noted that he had 17 shots fired at him during the third period. “He missed seven of them to cap the most wretched performance of his career.”
The Canadiens trudged home. Two days later, when they hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, Hainsworth was back at work. He had an injured ankle, it turned out, and the Gazette divulged that it caused him “acute pain throughout.” Still, he stopped 14 shots in Montreal’s 2-0 win for his sixth shutout of the season. Continue reading
“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. His wingers, in fact, were smaller than him: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, the Black Cat, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”
More on Morenz’s Montreal flyweight sidekicks from Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 20, 1931:
Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.
It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.
“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.
“Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.
So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.
“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.
A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.
“One hundred and thrity-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.
Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the descriptin of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”
End of December, 1938, the Chicago Black Hawks are in Montreal to play the Canadiens. These are two of the worst teams in the league at the time, just as a note on the side: when it’s all over in mid-March, they’ll be worst (Chicago) and second-worst (Montreal) overall. Finishing 15-24-9, the Canadiens will still actually make the playoffs, which doesn’t seem right, or does, depending on how zealous a fan you are. In December, the team is mired in what one local paper identifies as its second deplorable slump of the season. They’re having trouble scoring, and they don’t know why. Toe Blake will end up as the league’s leading scorer, but at the moment he’s as baffled as everybody: if the nets were rink-wide, he says, they’d still be missing. Without getting himself traded to Calgary, teammate Paul Haynes takes the Mike Cammalleri view: “It’s the defeat psychology. Passes and shots that ordinarily would be clicking are going awry, maybe only by a fraction of an inch, but it’s just enough. Nothing breaks right or smoothly when you are down.” As the team is headed onto the ice, Blake notices a silver horseshoe mounted on a wooden base inscribed with the words “Good Luck.” “How long has that been there?” he demands, to which the stick-boy who thought it might be helpful has to own up: “About two weeks.” Blake tears it off the wall, drops it in the garbage. Too late: Chicago wins anyway, 4-1.
But, debris: during the game, Montreal goalie Claude Bourque has Black Hawks’ leading scorer Johnny Gottselig in front of him with the puck when the threat doubles: Gottselig suddenly seems to have two pucks at his disposal. Bourque picks the right one, apparently, and makes the save. Later he learns that the second, sudden puck is in fact an apple, tossed by a fan. Also on this night Montreal’s Johnny Gagnon, the Black Cat, is debating with referee Clarence Campbell when he’s hit on the head by what’s later described as “a very hard lemon” intended (as Gagnon insists) for Campbell.