He was, in his day, hockey’s best-paid player, a speedy right wing with a serious goal-scoring habit and a shot that was said to be the hardest in all the land. Born in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, southwest of Montreal, on a Saturday of this very date in 1883, Didier Pitre was a Hockey Hall of Famer who made his name in the young years of the 20th century. He played with the Montreal Canadiens when they got their start in the old NHA in 1910, lining up at point (i.e. a defenceman) as a 27-year-old when the team played its very first game in January of that year, a 7-6 win over Cobalt at the Jubilee Rink. That turned out to be a false start, in fact: when a rival league folded that same week, the NHA expunged the Cobalt game from its books, and Canadiens relaunched against Lester and Frank Patrick’s Renfrew Creamery Kings. Montreal lost that game, 9-4, with Pitre scoring a goal. He would soon be making a cool $3000 a hockey season at a time when most NHA salaries were paying $800 to $1000. You’ll see references to the power of his shot, if you go browsing in old newspapers, including mentions of his having blasted pucks through backboards, though I haven’t seen specific accounts of when or where that might have been. His feats of scoring when he actually hit the net were prodigious through the years of the First World War, when he and Newsy Lalonde took turns leading Canadiens in scoring. Pitre’s best goal-gathering year was 1914-15, when he scored 30 in 20 regular-season games. Pitre played 13 seasons with Montreal, winning a Stanley Cup in 1916. He was still with the team in 1917 when the NHA subsided to be almost instantly replaced by the NHL. As a 34-year-old, he scored 17 goals in 20 games in that inaugural season to finish the season third among Hab goalscorers behind Joe Malone and Lalonde. Pitre played five more seasons with Montreal before hanging up his skates at 39 in 1923.
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?
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.
As Toronto’s Maple Leafs skate out to face the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, would we note that this is the sixth time in the NHL’s 101-year history that a Toronto team has gone to Montreal on a February 9 to do battle with Canadiens? We would. And here’s some encouraging news for the visitors: only once has a Toronto team lost on this date in that city.
About those previous February 9 games, let’s note that they were played at four different rinks in Montreal, starting with the Jubilee Rink in 1918. The Mount Royal Arena saw two different games (in 1921 and ’24); the Forum (1985) and Bell Centre (2013) hosted the old rivals on one occasion each before tonight. Toronto’s team was the Maple Leafs for the previous two meetings, of course, but before that, in the ’20s, they were the St. Patricks. On that first February 9 game, during the NHL’s first season, they were the plain old Torontos, informally a.k.a. the Blueshirts. Four of the five games up have been played on Saturdays; in 1921, February 9 was a Wednesday.
Georges Vézina was Montreal’s goaltender the first three times Torontos and Montreals met, with (respectively) Hap Holmes, Jakie Forbes, and John Ross Roach guarding the far net. In 1918 (according to The Ottawa Journal), Montreal’s legendary backstop was “the saddest man in the rink.” His brother Pierre was in town, it seems, to watch the game, along with his Chicoutimi team, and Georges’ wife had made the trip, too, to watch her husband. But: “George [sic] fell down,” the Journal reported, “and played only a fair game.”
In 1921, when the St. Patricks skated to a 5-3 win, Babe Dye led the way with a hattrick that Reg Noble and Sprague Cleghorn padded with goals of their own. Newsy Lalonde scored a pair of goals for Canadiens.
Vézina finally got a February 9 win against Toronto in 1924; 5-3 was the score. Sprague Cleghorn got a goal in that one, but he’d switched teams since the last time, so it counted for Montreal, for whom Aurèle Joliat and Howie Morenz also counted. Babe Dye was still a St. Patrick, and he scored a goal in his team’s losing effort. Art Ross would soon have another job, managing, coaching, and generally inventing the Boston Bruins, but that was still in the future: on this night, he was the referee.
After 1924, it was 61 years passed before another Toronto team arrived in Montreal on February 9 to take on Canadiens, which gets us to 1985. Tim Bernhardt was in the Toronto goal that night, facing Montreal’s Doug Soetaert, as the Leafs won 6-2. Leaf winger John Anderson scored the decisive goal.
The last time the two teams met in Montreal on this date was in the lock-out marred 2012-13 season. The Leafs’ victory on that occasion was a lopsided one, 6-0. Three players who’ll feature tonight were on the ice back then, Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher for Montreal, along with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri. If you have a memory of that game, it may not be of James Reimer’s 37-save shutout; the big news, unfortunately, had to do with the allegation that Toronto winger Mikhail Grabovski bit his Canadiens counterpart Max Pacioretty.
Bruce Arthur wrote about the incident in The National Post, describing the “vigorous scrum midway through the third period, Max Pacioretty wrapped his ungloved forearm around the face of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and for a second, it was just one of the writhing arms in the mess, which happens in pretty much every game. Grabovski allegedly opened his mouth and clamped down, which does not. The Canadiens have reportedly sent the NHL a picture of Grabovski’s dental work imprinted on Pacioretty’s arm.”
In the thick of it, Grabovski got a roughing penalty and a 10-minute misconduct for his troubles. The NHL looked into it, later, but nothing came of that: whatever it was that Grabovski was doing with his mouth, the league decided there was no conclusive evidence of a bite.
Toronto’s latter-day Leafs are feeling fine, having handily beaten New York Islanders and Rangers on Wednesday and Thursday this week to strengthen both their confidence and the chances that they’ll be playing playoff hockey in a couple of months.
Would it be muddying the mood if we were to cast back a hundred years to summon up a colossal loss from this day in 1918, during the franchise’s original season? Yes? Sorry.
The NHL schedule was divided in halves that first NHL year. Only three of the four teams that had started the season in December were still standing by this point in 1918: with the Montreal Wanderers having withdrawn in early January, it was the Toronto Hockey Club, Montreal Canadiens, and Ottawa Senators left in the loop. February 2, a Saturday, had Toronto meeting Canadiens in Montreal. Two days later, on Monday, Toronto would host Ottawa, wrapping up the league’s tumultuous first demi-season. The second half would get going the following Wednesday. That would a shorter schedule, eight games for each team as opposed to the 14 the survivors had played in the opening section. In March, the winner of an NHL championship series would then play the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.
Going into the February 2 game, Charlie Querrie’s Toronto squad still had a shot at overtaking Canadiens at the top of the standings. The Ottawa Journal was good enough to do the math for the Torontos: all they needed to do to overhaul Montreal was (a) win both of their final two games and (b) score 32 goals in so doing.
The weather that weekend in Montreal was February cold, with northwest winds and snow expected. The news was warlike: from France, tidings of hostile artillery at the front near Lens; in Russia, Bolshevik gains at Odessa. The latest casualty lists just in from Ottawa counted 97 Canadians, including 15 killed in action; seven died of wounds; one accidentally killed; one presumed dead. None of them were Montrealers, though five of the wounded were. Draftees, meanwhile, were streaming in from outside the city, many of them English-speaking, and headed for the Guy Street barracks, where they were being enlisted to the Army’s 1st Depot Battalion. Egg authorities were reporting that the city’s supply was waning, and could run short within two weeks; butter was also wanting. At Recorder’s Court, Nellie O’Hara was fined $500 for “having cocaine in her possession for other than medical purposes;” she had been trying to sell it to passersby on De la Gauchetière Street when Constable Blanchette arrested her.
At the Jubilee Rink at the corner of Saint-Catherine and Marlborough, the Torontos didn’t quite get the job done that needed doing. The game “was free from roughness,” The Globe chronicled, but “too one-sided to be exciting.” “Listless” was the adjective the paper hoisted to its headline; Montreal’s Gazette bannered its column on the evening’s proceedings with the subhead “Uninteresting Game.” The crowd was small, the drubbing (of Toronto) outright. For Montreal, it was (as The Ottawa Journal framed it) “a common canter.”
Final score: Canadiens 11, Torontos 2.
The fact that Montreal was missing Newsy Lalonde, fourth in NHL goal-scoring to that point, didn’t matter. Joe Malone was leading the league, and he scored four Canadiens’ goals, with Didier Pitre adding a further three. The Journal appreciated Malone’s stickhandling as “wizardry that hasn’t been equalled on Montreal ice this season.”
For all the humdrum headlines, it wasn’t a night entirely lacking for excitements. Earlier in the week, when the teams met in Toronto, Montreal defenceman Joe Hall and Toronto winger Alf Skinner had ended the game under arrest, charged by police for common assault after a stick-fight left Skinner unconscious on the ice. Subsequently released under suspended sentence by Magistrate Ellis, the two players started Saturday’s game by making a show of meeting at centre ice to shake hands.
Not everybody endorsed the peace: during the second period, amid calls from the gallery for Hall to re-punish Skinner, the game was interrupted. As the Journal’s man on the scene saw it:
Some plutocrat in the gallery had brought with him a large-sized bottle of gin. When the expensive beverage had been disposed of, the owner either let the bottle fall or threw it out on the ice and it went whizzing past the head of Alf Skinner, missing him only by a couple of inches, and smashing to pieces on the ice. The game was stopped and a dozen policemen rushed to the scene. Didier Pitre had a friend in the gallery who pointed out the party alleged to have thrown or dropped the bottle and Pitre in turn pointed him out to the police. The man was hauled out of his seat without ceremony and hustled from the rink, after which the game proceeded.
Also of note on the night: Montreal defenceman Billy Coutu got a major for speaking unkind words to referee Tom Melville.
For Toronto, I think it’s worth excusing goaltender Hap Holmes. He faced Montreal’s barrage “valiantly;” several of his stops were rated by the Journal critic as “spectacular.” One of the defencemen in front of him, Harry Mummery, hurt his knee falling into the boards early on, and he wasn’t much use after that.
And Toronto did only have two extra players on the bench on the night. Three if you want to count Reg Noble, Toronto’s leading goal-scorer, who sat there for the entire game in his uniform without playing. Coach Querrie was already peeved at him for, quote, breaking training rules. When Noble showed up late at the rink for the game, Querrie sat him out for the first two periods. The coach relented, apparently, in the third, and wanted Noble out there on the ice. This time, it was the player who refused to play. Querrie threatened to fine him $100, but he refused to budge. As the man in the newspaper said, “the blues had to struggle along without him.”