the nhl’s first noël: christmas day, 1920

Scored, Sat Upon: Toronto’s Babe Dye, c. 1920.

“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”

NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very firsttime was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.

A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.

Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.

Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”

Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.

Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.

In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”

Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he alsoplayed “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”

For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”

Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”

The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”

While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”

This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”

“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”

madison square garden, 1925: flashes of cerise, magenta, nile greens

Net Gain: Shorty Green of the New York Americans scores the first goal at the new Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, December 15, 1925. That’s Montreal’s Billy Boucher trying to catch him, with goaltender Herb Rheaume (making his NHL debut) failing from the front. Note the array of well-dressed fans behind the boards.

A French-Canadien aggregation, known as ‘Les Canadiens,’ will meet the New York team in mortal combat, but in reality it will be an all-Dominion battle, as most of the high-priced players who sport the spangles of the New York club were imported from Canada at great expense.

• Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Tuesday, December 15, 1925

New York’s brand-new rink had already hosted a six-day bicycle race and a basketball game by the middle of December in 1925, along with three bouts of boxing, but it wasn’t until NHL hockey debuted there that the party really got started, 93 years ago last night, when the expansion New York Americans hosted the reigning league champions from Montreal.

Tex Rickard was the man who built the third Madison Square Garden, 18 blocks north of the present MSG, and he didn’t stint on pomp for opening night. A year later, he’d launch a second, longer-lasting New York hockey team, the Rangers, but in 1925 the Americans were the only hockey game in town. Festooned with ribbons and bunting, the new rink Rickard had built to house the team was (Montreal’s Gazette) “dressed up in its best holiday togs, “a picture of a temple of sport” (The New York Times); pro hockey (“jaded New York’s newest plaything”) was making “its debut under the most glittering circumstances,” the Gazette advised.

Reporting for The Ottawa Citizen, Ed Baker enthused that the new rink seemed like “an overgrown theatre;” it was “just as magnificent as the grandest playhouse.” The Gazette: “Just before game time, the spacious lobby looked like the foyer of the opera. Fashionably gowned women were there in furs and jewels. It was a hockey crowd de luxe. Flashes of cerise, magenta, nile green, scarlets and royal purple coloured the boxes. Vendors ambled among the spectators with their apples and oranges and souvenir hockey sticks.”

“It was swank plus,” James Burchard of The World-Telegram would later recall, “in a setting of ermine and evening dress.”

Military bands marched out on the ice to play the anthems. Clad in scarlet and busbies, the 44-piece Governor-General’s Foot Guards struck up “God Save The King,” while their counterparts from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (92 pieces + a bugle-and-drums corps of 35) took care of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Band Stand: Canadiens and Amerks stand amid bandsmen during the opening ceremonies. Howie Morenz is the Montrealer standing attentively just back of the front flagman. Closer up, spying at the camera, that’s New York goaltender Jakie Forbes.

The crowd was the largest in NHL history to that point — though just how many fans it contained remains something of a mystery. The New York Daily News would report 20,000 “shrieking people,” while reports in several Canadian papers put the count at 19,000. The New York Times was among those who numbered the attendees at 17,000. Amid all this shifting math, The Ottawa Citizen noted that the Garden could seat 15, 352 for hockey, though (according to the Americans’ team treasurer) if there had been 25,000 more seats to sell for opening night, they would have gone like hot cakes.

Whatever the actual attendance, the excitement was such that (this from the Gazette) “the world’s record crowd was willing to pay prices ranging from $1.50 for the uppermost balcony seats to the seeming lofty toll of $11.50 for choice box seats to see a spectacle to which it was foreign.” Organized as a benefit for the Neurological Institute Society of New York, the game put some $40,000 into their coffers.

Scheduled to start at 8.30 p.m., the actual game didn’t get going until just after nine. The Citizen’s Ed Baker had it that President Calvin Coolidge was slated to do the honours of dropping a ceremonial puck, but then — “he was unable to attend.” Instead, New York Mayor John Hylan presided over the city’s first ritual NHL face-off, attended at centre ice by New York’s Billy Burch and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens.

Canadiens were the reigning NHL champions that winter, thought they had failed the previous spring in their bid to wrest the Stanley Cup from the Victoria Cougars of the WCHL. The new season hadn’t started well for Montreal, with Georges Vézina, their beloved and highly effective veteran goaltender, having collapsed in the season’s very first game in November.

Suffering from thetuberculosis that would kill him the following spring at the age of 39, Vézina had departed Montreal and the NHL for the last time, bound for his hometown, Chicoutimi. Since then, Canadiens had made do with the league’s emergency goaltender, Alphonse (Frenchy) Lacroix. On their arrival in New York, five games into the season, they were sitting in last place in the seven-team league, six points adrift of the league leaders, though just two back of the fourth-place Americans. Lacroix had been excused; for their first Madison Square turn, Montreal had a new man ready to start in goal, Herb Rheaume, who’d been starring to that point for an amateur Quebec team, the Sons of Ireland.

He worked out all right on the night, winning his debut in Madison Square’s, and keeping his place in the Montreal nets for the remainder of the season — though neither he nor any of his talented teammates would be able to haul the Habs out of last place or into the playoffs.

Go-Time: New York’s Billy Burch faces Montreal’s Howie Morenz in the game’s opening face-off. Aligned well-back at the far end are Montreal wingers, a becapped Aurèle Joliat (nearest the camera) and Billy Boucher. New York’s defencemen have deployed so far back that they’re out of the frame.

Rheaume did, for the record, concede the first goal in MSG history, to Shorty Green, almost twelve minutes into the first period. That’s it depicted above, and maybe from the frozen frame you’ll draw your own conclusions on how it went down. Contemporary accounts (as usual) diverged on the exact circumstances.

The New York Times: “He carried the ice up the ice, gliding swiftly and gracefully through the Canadiens until he was at the Montreal net, where, by a tricky little shot, he sped the rubber past Rheaume for a goal.”

The Montreal Gazette: “Shorty Green sent the Americans into the lead when he stick-handled his way the full length of the rink to shoot a high one past Rheaume, after eleven minutes.”

The great Paul Gallico was on the hockey beat for The New York Daily News. Here’s what he saw: “Shorty Breen [sic] coddled the puck clean down the rink, personally conducted it through the legs of three Canadiens, stopped short, slapped it away from the ankles of the last enemy defense line and suddenly swiped it into the goal from the side, a pretty shot.”

The lead didn’t last, with Billy Boucher (“flashy Montreal wingman” and the game’s “outstanding light,” according to the Gazette) potting a pair of second-period goals past New York goaltender Jakie Forbes before Howie Morenz completed the scoring for Montreal in the third.

Cooper Smeaton and Lou Marsh were the referees. First penalty in the new rink: Montreal’s Sylvio Mantha earned a first-period minor for holding Billy Burch. In the second, Shorty Green and Billy Boucher engaged in what the Times rated “a melee;” the Citizen said they “attempted fisticuffs” — either way, they served out minors.

Was New York’s Ken Randall knocked unconscious? Even when hockey was raising money for neurological care and research, the game didn’t pay head trauma too much mind, and so with a nonchalance typical of the day, the Times seemed to suggest that Randall was out cold without worrying too much about it — he was “laid out for a moment but resumed playing.” The Citizen, meanwhile, mentions a potential concussion of Shorty Green’s in the third: Morenz hit him near centre and he needed assistance getting to the bench. “He appeared to have suffered a hard blow on the head that dazed him.”

The evening marked a debut, too, for the new Prince of Wales Trophy, which Montreal took home along with their victory, with New York’s incoming mayor, Jimmy Walker, presenting the cup to Montreal captain Billy Coutu at the game’s conclusion. Canadiens would hold it only until the end of the season, when it went to the team that won the NHL championship. In 1926, that happened to be Montreal’s other team, the Maroons.

But for the struggle on the ice between Canadiens and Americans, the evening was deemed (by the Gazette, at least) “a sort of international love feast.”

Between periods, the greatest of speedy skaters, Norval Baptie, put on an exhibition of “fancy skating” with his partner, Gladys Lamb. After the game, the Canadian Club of New York hosted a ball at the Biltmore Hotel at Grand Central Station. Paul Whitman and his band entertained the two thousand guests who were said to have convened for that, including the players from both teams. “They all wore their tuxedos like a Valentino,” reported the Citizen’s Ed Baker.

The Daily News covered the hotel festivities on Wednesday’s social page, naming names and highlighting the fashions and jewels they wore. “The party broke up about three o’clock this morning, and society generally voted the whole affair a success.”

Face-First: Montreal goaltender Herb Rheaume stymies New York’s Ken Randall with the help of Habs’ captain Billy Coutu.

toronto’s 1918 stanley cup champions: good when they were good, but when they were bad, they were rotten

Mutual Street Champs: Dated for the year after their inaugural Stanley Cup championship, this composite portrait of the 1917-18 winners includes Rusty Crawford and Jack Adams, though they were ruled ineligible to play in the final against Vancouver. Note the commemorative sweaters the players sport. By the time this photograph was published, the Torontos had undergone a name change, gaining a nickname, the Arenas, they hadn’t had during that original season.

The NHL’s first season was all over by the middle of March in 1918, when the team from Toronto edged the Montreal Canadiens in a famously brutal two-game final. A hundred years ago, the hockey season didn’t end there: next up, the team known as the Blueshirts or plain old Torontos took on the Vancouver Millionaires, champions of the Pacific coast, in a five-game Stanley Cup final. That rates a review like the one we’ll get into here below. Also worth recalling, as we’ll do later on today in a follow-up, is the fact that in the days that followed Toronto’s Stanley Cup victory — possibly even before the winning team saw the trophy they’d just won — the NHL played its first all-star game, followed by its second and its third. Not that those games seemed to have commanded much attention at the time. And in the years since, they’ve faded away to the point of having been almost entirely forgotten.

A Stanley Cup is a Stanley Cup, and a hundred years ago the team from Toronto won the very first one of the NHL era. The victory was an unlikely one, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t earned. The result wasn’t controversial, exactly, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t contentious. Played at the end of March in 1918, under two significantly different sets of rules, the inaugural Stanley Cup series involving NHL teams saw Toronto enjoy the advantage of playing all five championship games in their home rink. The ice was soft, and the hockey often brutal. If you were going to affix an asterisk to the result, you’d want to put all that in the accompanying footnote, along with something about the relative lack of excitement that attended Toronto’s triumph.

There was no parade in Toronto in 1918. It’s not even clear that the victorious team even had the satisfaction of gazing on the Stanley Cup let alone raising it aloft when they won — the trophy may well have back in Vancouver through the end of the final, safe in the keeping of the jewelers at Henry Birks and Sons, waiting to be shipped to the winners … eventually. Toronto’s players did share in some of the profits from the first three games of the final, with each man taking home a tidy $289.12 for their Cup-winning efforts — about $4,500 in modern-day money.

The deciding game was played on the second-to-last day of March, a Saturday. The champions must have enjoyed their Sunday, which led, inevitably, to the first day of April on the Monday.

The local papers announced the victory, but didn’t exactly blare the news. The sports pages of several prominent papers paid as much attention to dog-show results as they did to hockey glory. It would have been funny as April fooling, except that it was in earnest. Some 300 dogs had taken part in the Toronto Kennel Club’s 15th annual show, and the prize-winners included cocker spaniels named Perfecto and Sir Douglas Haig, a beagle called Smithfield Patience, and the whippet Granite Beauty. According to the Dog Fanciers’ Column in The Telegram, it was the mastiff named Boadicea who took top honours in the Open Bitches division.

•••

The NHL wasn’t exactly created in a flash of light and immaculate goodwill. It was conceived, instead, as part of a sly business maneuver, in the privacy of a Montreal hotel room, by a coven of businessman intent on squeezing out a colleague who annoyed them. Toronto almost missed out on a franchise — Quebec very nearly supplanted them in what was, to start off with in November of 1917, a four-team league.

This was wartime, of course, and so the ice under professional hockey was precariously thin. As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole question of just how sports should be conducted during the upheaval was very much in play. Did a hockey league like the NHL divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or was it vital to morale? While the NHL survived its inaugural season, the league’s president, Frank Calder wasn’t confident by the time it was over that the following winter would see it continue into a follow-up: he was convinced in the early months of 1918 that the government planned to order professional hockey curtailed until hostilities ceased.

It was a rough year, that first one. A rink burned down in Montreal, incinerating the future of one team, the Wanderers, along with its equipment. The gear belonging to their fellow tenants, the Canadiens, was spared: they happened to be on the road when the fire struck. Canadiens moved to a new rink, but the Wanderers expired within days, midway through the schedule, leaving three teams to finish out the year.

From the start, the league was missing some of hockey’s best talents. In 1917-18, the NHL lacked many of the game’s greats, some of whom were in uniform, while others missed that first season through injury. Still others were happily ensconced out on the Pacific coast, preferring to ply their sticks in the very good rival league, the PCHA, that Frank and Lester Patrick were running out there, to the continuing irritation of the eastern owners.

A lot of that first NHL season was played on iffy ice in arenas that were poorly lit and shrouded in cigarette smoke. Attendance was up and down.

And the hockey? A lot of it was brutally violent. At its worst, it prompted Toronto police to arrest Montreal’s Joe Hall and his hometown antagonist, Alf Skinner, after they used their sticks to batter one another about their respective heads when Canadiens visited Toronto’s Arena Gardens at the end of January.

And yet for all that, the NHL’s first fans did some legendary talents perform. Almost half of the 44 players who suited up that year would eventually find their way into hockey’s Hall of Fame, including Joe Malone and the sublime Frank Nighbor, Art Ross and Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, Newsy Lalonde, and goaltenders Clint Benedict and Georges Vézina.

Coached by Dick Carroll, Toronto’s roster counted on the superior skills of future Hall-of-Famers Harry Cameron and Reg Noble. In support they had Harry Mummery and the merciless Ken Randall, Corb Denneny (who could fly), and Skinner (a deft stickhandler when he wasn’t under arrest). Later in the season, manager Charlie Querrie bolstered the line-up with the addition of three more Hall-worthy talents in Jack Adams, Rusty Crawford, and goaltender Hap Holmes.

With other goaltenders, a pair of them who failed to distinguish themselves, Toronto started the season with a 10-9 loss to the Wanderers in Montreal. Even before the Wanderers dropped out and saw many of their players dispersed, Canadiens dominated the first half of the season. The three teams that survived it played 14 games, which took them to early February.

For the second half, Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa embarked on an eight-game schedule. When that wound up in March, Toronto was atop the table. That set up a NHL final, Montreal versus Toronto in a home-and-home match-up, which would produce a champion to take on its counterpart from the PCHA for the Stanley Cup.

Assuming, of course, that Toronto could be bothered to participate. Charlie Querrie wanted to play the final game in Toronto, and part of his posturing involved a languid assertion that he didn’t mind forgoing the championship and settling for an exhibition series against Ottawa. He didn’t really put much stock in the Stanley Cup anyway — it didn’t matter to himif the NHL skipped the whole thing entirely.

Querrie got his way, in the end, along with a success that few had foreseen. After upsetting Canadiens in Montreal by a count of 7-4, the Torontos lost the return game at home, 4-3. It was enough to command the NHL championship on total goals. They would meet the PCHA Vancouver Millionaires for the Lord Stanley’s famous cup.

Getting ahead of themselves and events, perhaps, Montreal had already negotiated to play the Stanley Cup games in Vancouver, but Toronto had no interest in going west. So the Millionaires came to them.

The line-up they brought with them was an impressive one, headlined by Cyclone Taylor, who’d led the PCHA in scoring. Vancouver’s other future Hall-of-Famers were Mickey MacKay, Barney Stanley, and goaltender Hughie Lehman.

Long before the advent of the NHL, eastern and western clubs had fought over players. They also played under fundamentally different sets of rules, including those governing offside rules and how penalties should properly be served. Out west, teams iced seven players aside, whereas the NHL went with six.

The 1918 final would see both sets of rules on display. As had been the case in 1917, when the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans hosted and beat the NHA Montreal Canadiens, the teams would start by playing six-man hockey and then alternate through the rest of the best-three-out-of-five series.

Eagle-Eye: Hughie Lehman later kept goal and even coached the Chicago Black Hawks, but in 1918, the puckstopping he did was all for Vancouver’s PCHA Millionaires. (Image: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-777)

And so it was under NHL code that Toronto beat Vancouver 5-3 on the night of Wednesday, March 20. They did so without Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford, signed after February 1 and thereby ruled out of playing in the entire final. The fans at Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street were disappointed, reportedly, by Cyclone Taylor’s lacklustre performance. Though he scored a pair of goals, he didn’t show his speed, and had trouble remembering that, under NHL rules, he couldn’t skate ahead of the puck.

Other highlights: Toronto’s Harry Meeking tripped Taylor and then (by a Toronto account), falling as well, accidentally brought his stick down on Taylor’s back. Taylor retaliated by slashing his assailant, two, three times, before Ken Randall intervened to punch Taylor. Hughie Lehman played well in the Vancouver net, and also attacked Noble, who still managed to score a couple of goals on the night, and fell and hurt his shoulder.

Toronto fans were impressed by Mickey MacKay. “He was easily the fastest thing on the ice,” noted The Toronto World. But: “the game was not as interesting as most fans would like.” There was sympathy for Vancouver’s situation. “Train-weariness and the strange eastern rules had a lot to do with the Pacific coast players’ showing.”

Playing by their rules, the Millionaires got their revenge three nights later, posting a 6-4 win. “The weather in Toronto has been very mild,” Vancouver’s Daily World reported, “and the ice is heavy, a marked difference from the ice on which Vancouver has been playing on the coast.” The coastal view had the visitors looking 50 per cent better than they had in the first game.

The wounded included the judge of play — an extra referee — Tom Melville, whose face Harry Mummery accidentally cut with his skate, and a rinkside Toronto spectator, whose ear Alf Skinner shot a puck into (“no damage resulted,” said the World).

Mickey MacKay had another banner night, scoring three goals for Vancouver while showing (said a Vancouver correspondent) “dazzling speed, wonderful stickhandling, good judgment.” Alf Skinner scored three for Toronto.

Vancouver’s Daily World described this game as “one of the roughest games of the season.” There was “a fray that developed into a regular Donnybrook,” though I don’t know who was involved. In the third period, Ken Randall smashed Taylor across the arm, dropping him to the ice and, soon after that, forcing him out of the game. Vancouver’s Si Griffis shot a puck at Corb Denneny “for no reason whatever.” Hughie Lehman was observed attempting “to cut down nearly every player that bored in on net.”

Without expressing too much shock, The Globereported that the game had “bristled with rough, brutal, illegal tactics in which good hockey apparently was the last feature considered by the players of either team”

Neither team approved of the work that referee George Irvine put in that night; both said they wouldn’t have him back for another. The other official on the ice, Art Ross, was frank about what he’d seen. “The Blues gave a most brutal exhibition,” he said, “and unless the western club gets absolute protection from the referee, they will all be killed.”

Particularly offensive? Toronto captain Ken Randall, whom Ross fined $15 for “using foul and abusive language.” Mummery wasn’t much better: Ross noted that his efforts were “so crude and brutal” that he’d been booed by his team’s own faithful.

There was some question whether Cyclone Taylor would be healthy enough to play in the third game after all the punishment he’d taken. He was able, in the end, and did play, scoring another pair of goals in Vancouver’s losing effort on a Tuesday, March 26. The final score (under eastern rules) was 6-3.

According to The Globe, despite “occasional outbursts of ill-feeling,” the temper of the game was “mild as milk” compared to what had transpired previously. Harry Cameron was a stand-out for Toronto, scoring their first goal on a “sensational rush,” while Ran McDonald was Vancouver’s best player.

Final verdict: “It was a clean, fast fixture, with the Toronto forwards outfooting the Vancouver lot.”

Western rules were back in effect for the fourth game on March 28, a Thursday, when Vancouver overran the home team by a score of 8-1. The Globe rated it a poor display, if fairly placid.

The home team just couldn’t keep up: “Vancouver ran all over them with speed and had a bag of tricks that left the Blue Shirts gasping.” The Millionaires, said Toronto’s World, “made the Torontos look like a juvenile team.” They tried a three-man defence at one point, with Ken Randall playing out in front of Harrys Mummery and Cameron, but that didn’t seem to help.

Mickey MacKay once again impressed for Vancouver: “He tore up and down the ice like a crazy man.” Barney Stanley and Lloyd Cook each scored a pair of goals for the Millionaires, as did Taylor.

It was Vancouver’s Daily World that was reporting that the host city may have been wearying of the championship. “Interest in the series is waning locally,” was their report, “as the demand for seats is not large.” Toronto also followed up the loss by lodging a “formal objection” against referees Art Ross and George Irvine. Another western dispatch had it that Toronto manager Charlie Querrie was threatening that his players would use the final game to “get” unspecified Millionaires.

Going into the game that would decide the 1918 Stanley Cup champion, on Saturday, March 30, PCHA President Frank Patrick went on the record to state categorically that Vancouver would accept nothing but a victory. Querrie, for his part, declared himself that his team would “win or bust.”

With all that had gone on before, the two teams had failed to agree on who should referee the final game, so it was left for Stanley Cup trustee William Foran to appoint the officials. He settled at first on Tom Melville and Harvey Pulford, but then couldn’t get in touch with Melville, so drafted in Russell Bowie instead.

Neither man was keen to take part. “I had trouble inducing them to do so,” Foran confessed.

Their instructions were to keep the game clean at any cost. For all their reluctance, the two former greats of the game — both would be inducted in the Hall of Fame for their exploits as players — delivered on the job they didn’t want to do. They performed “without fear or favour,” said The Telegram, where their work was praised as the best the city had seen all season.

The first period, scoreless, did feature a display of skating by Cyclone Taylor that the Globe said delighted the crowd with “stops, starts, and turns that seemed only possible for a contortionist.”

After Toronto’s Alf Skinner scored in the second, his team did its best to rag the puck, play out the clock, but Cyclone Taylor scored to tie the game. When Corb Denneny scored in the third to restore Toronto’s lead, the skill he used to outwit Hugh Lehman was said to constitute one the greatest pieces of individual play ever seen at the Arena.

Vancouver pressed after that, with Taylor and MacKay coming close, but Toronto held their fort. Harry Mummery’s shot-blocking came in for special mention: he was operating as “a sort of advance goal-tender, throwing himself in front of shots.”

Reports of that final game in 1918 fail to report the kind of frenzying we’d expect to see today if a Toronto team were to win a Stanley Cup. No doubt players and managers were pleased to beat Vancouver, and that fans allowed themselves a certain amount of hooting along with a measure of hollering in the aftermath.

There was, again, a war on, and that has to have sobered the celebration. As of Monday, April 1, 1918, it had been underway for 1,340 days. The fighting may have been far away in France, but Toronto was filled with soldiers, the unblooded (recruits perfecting their marching and trench-fighting before they shipped out) as well as the wounded (recovering in local hospitals) and the dead (returned, some of them, from France for local burial).

Ahead of the hockey and the award-winning dogs, the pages of Toronto’s first April papers were filled with news of French battlefields and others closer to home.

Canadian troops were holding the line at Arras and Vimy Ridge in the face of German offensives. Meanwhile, battalions were being rushed from Toronto to Quebec City to help police the anti-conscription riots there. Under the headline “New Toronto Names in Casualty Lists,” The Telegram listed 22 local men, five of them recently killed in action, the others “gassed and wounded.”

Twenty-year-old Harold Meyrick of 334 Wellesley Street East was one of the gassed, a former hardware clerk who’d been serving as a driver with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Lieutenant Jack Newcombe of 79 Brunswick Avenue had been with the British Army’s Royal Engineers when he died in France on March 21, the day after Toronto’s first Stanley Cup win. He was 24, the same age as Corb Denneny.

•••

The reviews of the 1918 Stanley Cup final were mixed, even in the Toronto papers. The champions and their rivals from Vancouver were evenly matched, decided The Telegram, with outstanding goaltending at both ends. There was too much close-checking, in the end, for the hockey to be described as exciting; it was, finally, “nothing to rave over.”

The debrief from Toronto’s Daily Star allowed that Vancouver had adapted to alien rules better than the home team. They’d also outscored Toronto through the five-game series by a count of 21 goals to 18. The praise accorded the victorious Torontos was this: “when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are rotten.”

Toronto’s fans, to their credit, had been fair-minded, giving “wonderful support” to the visitors. “They cheered their good work to the echo and booed and hissed the local players when they roughed it up. They sat hard on the referees whom they did not like and generally had a whale of a time, but at no time did any except a few rowdies roast or verbally abuse the visiting players.”

Was it true that local interest had flagged during the course of the final? The crowd at that last game was a mere 4,500 in a rink with capacity for 7,500. “Perhaps it was because Toronto fans have become fed up on hockey,” ventured The Telegram, “or perhaps it is because they figured the world’s titular series was being drawn out into five games in order to get the gates.”

Dissatisfaction with the NHL’s and PCHA’s duelling sets of rules was widespread. Without a uniform code, The Telegram offered, “the series for the Stanley Cup will never be satisfactory.” The NHL’s Frank Calder agreed: the sooner it was seen to, the better. “Perhaps an arrangement may be reached before President Patrick goes west again,” Calder said.

Patrick seemed willing, travelling to Montreal for further discussions. The two men made headway: by April 10, Frank Patrick was saying that the PCHA was willing to play six-man hockey during future Stanley Cup series. The two sides came to agreements on other key matters, too, from offsides and how penalties should be served to the question of whether players should be allowed to kick the puck so long as they didn’t do it near the goal. In Patrick’s opinion, Stanley Cup finals should in future be kept to three games — but that was still to be determined. Further talks were planned; meanwhile, Patrick said, the western league reserved the right to continue playing by its own rules in its own league.

And so the NHL’s tumultuous first season came to its natural end. April 1 was a Monday in triumphant Toronto. At the rink on Mutual Street, staff was removing the ice: preparations were underway (per The Ottawa Journal) “to turn the big Arena into the dancing garden.”

The hockey players, meanwhile, prepared to disperse. Harry Mummery was headed to Winnipeg to resume his real-life job as a CPR engineer. Jack Adams had managed to play the latter half of the NHL schedule even though he was serving in the Artillery, and he was headed, now, to London, Ontario, to join his battery. Reg Noble was going home to Collingwood, Harry Cameron to Pembroke. Others were home already in Toronto, where Ken Randall worked as a plumber, and Alf Skinner for the City.

The Millionaires, too, were on their way, home to Vancouver and off-season employment — or, in Barney Stanley’s case, to a job at the Edmonton City Dairy.

By the Tuesday, though, many of those best-laid plans had shifted. The off-season would have to wait: there was more hockey to be played. By the end of the week, Toronto’s world champions would suit up against an all-star team for a series of games that would sink into obscurity almost as soon as it was completed. No-one recalls it now, but in 1918, the NHL took its show on the road, venturing for the first time across the southern border to the United States for its first, forgotten all-star weekend.

Next up: on the road with the NHL’s first all-stars.

 

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

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

• NHL Public Relations, February 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on a night like this, in 1918: montreal 11, toronto 2

Tor Stars: The Toronto Hockey Club, as it lined up in January of 1918. Back row, left to right: Harry Cameron, Alf Skinner, coach Dick Carroll, Harry Mummery, Reg Noble, captain Ken Randall. Front: Hap Holmes, Harry Meeking, coach Charlie Querrie, Corb Denneny, Sammy Hebert.

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.”

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.

At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

men o’ the north: barrels of speed and classy stickhandling, and weight is their middle name

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As the NHL looks ahead to its centenary in 2017, the last week of 2016’s December marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the final dysfunctional season of the NHA, its now lesser-known and largely unloved predecessor. As the First World War entered its fourth ruinous year, the National Hockey Association opened its 1916-17 with six teams, five of which might be fairly classified as conventional franchises along with an entirely unlikely sixth. Joining Montreal’s Canadiens and Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa’s Senators and the Toronto Blueshirts on the eastern Canadian ice that winter was a team representing the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Raised in Ontario’s near-north and headquartered, originally, at North Bay, the battalion adopted the moniker Northern Fusiliers, a name that served the hockey team, too, along with Men O’ The North and just plain Soldiers. The story of how a team of Canadian infantry was (briefly, while it lasted) one of professional hockey’s powerhouses is a fascinating one that I wrote about recently in The New York Times. It’s one I’ll be reconnoitering in greater detail here, too, starting with (why not) the team’s first foray on ice ahead of the season’s opening. The NHA schedule had been published, with league play due to get underway on Wednesday, December 27. Across the league, rosters were still taking shape and indeed at the end of November, a nasty string of disputes over players had thrown the 228th’s participation into doubt. That was out of the players’ hands: they just wanted to keep skating.

The Soldiers hit the ice for practice at the Arena on Mutual Street in early November, the earliest Toronto pros had ever started their preparations in the city hockey history, some said. Even then they were being touted as favourites to win the championship of the NHA barely a month after their application to join the league was accepted.

Apart from the quality of their roster, it would be the fittest by far. The Ottawa Journal acknowledged the advantage that all the teams were calculating:

with a summer’s military training under their belt and with them doing gym work now as well as getting in an occasional practice on the ice, [the 228th] is bound to be in the best possible condition when the season opens.

From the NHA’s point of view, adding the 228th as a franchise made the straightest kind of sense. These were, after all, some of the best players in the land. They also lent the league patriotic cover during a time in which the debate about whether professional sports should be carrying on as usual was a real and active one.

And yet even after the Soldiers came aboard, their place in the league remained unsettled through November. Not all of the NHA’s civilian teams were willing to cede the hockey rights to players who, before they’d donned khaki, had been on their books. Canadiens seemed resigned to having lost Goldie Prodgers, Howard McNamara, and Amos Arbour to the khaki, but Toronto and its contentious owner Eddie Livingstone wasn’t as serene when it came to Duke Keats, Archie Briden, and Percy LeSueur. Wrangling over Keats in particular would nearly scupper the 228th’s NHA plan altogether, and it wasn’t until the end of November that the Northern Fusiliers finally backed down and ceded Keats and Briden to the Blueshirts.

Even so, the line-up as it was shaping up in the months ahead of the season’s opening was an impressive one. “The 228th Battalion could present as strong a team as ever played in the NHA,” Ottawa’s Journal was telling readers as early as September. Sergeant Percy LeSueur, 34, was pencilled in as the goaltender, a two-time Stanley Cup winner destined to end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Baz O’Meara also called him, in 1944, “the handsomest man who ever stood in front of a corded cabin.”) The brothers (and fellow lieutenants) McNamara (a.k.a. the Dynamite Twins) manned the defence. Slated for the attack were Sergeant Goldie Prodgers, Lieutenant Art Duncan, Amos Arbour, and Gordon Meeking.

In November, the team snapped up Eddie Oatman, who’d starred at centre for the 1915-16 season with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds, the team the Montreal Canadiens had beaten to claim the Stanley Cup. The 228th already counted three members of that Canadiens team in its ranks in Arbour, Howard McNamara, and Prodgers.

As The Toronto News told it, the latter pair travelled to Oatman’s home in Tillsonburg, Ontario, to persuade Oatman to forgo a return to the west coast. Why not join their campaign, instead? There would be controversy, later, regarding the terms of Oatman’s agreement with the battalion, and indeed whether he’d enlisted in the Army at all. He had, signing his attestation papers on November 1, with teammate Jack Brown standing by as his witness. According to the News, upon their arrival back in Toronto, the recruiters and their star catch made only the briefest stop at the 228th quarters before heading for Arena ice, where Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone watched the “Big Five” (the McNamaras, Prodgers, Oatman, and Keats) “take a whirl on skates.” Prodgers for one was reported to be “as enthusiastic as a schoolboy;”

now that Oatman has been added to the ranks, he can see nothing but another championship before they go overseas.

When the Soldiers weren’t skating, they were working out under the direction of Sergeant Frank Carroll’s direction at the West End YMCA at the corner of Davenport and College. Carroll, a former boxer with a Canadian welterweight title to his name, was a trainer of some repute in Toronto sporting circles. He’d tended the Toronto Blueshirts when they won the Stanley Cup in 1914 as well as working a summertime job for the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s AA International League. After the war, he’d take on the same role for Toronto’s inaugural NHL team, the Arenas, where his brother Dick was coach.

Given all the trouble the 228th got into regarding the propriety of icing a professional hockey team and the permission to do so, it’s worth noting that the battalion did seek permission through the chain of command before getting involved in celebrating an Allies’ Carnival at the Arena in early December. Organized by the 204th (Beavers) Battalion, it featured as its centerpiece a hockey game in which the 228th deploying against a select military team drawn from the 204th and other battalions quartered at Toronto’s lakeshore Exhibition grounds. Organized and led by a former OHA star, Lieutenant Herbie Birmingham, the All-Stars counted a ringer, too, in their ranks: Bruce Ridpath, the first captain of Toronto’s original NHA team and a Stanley Cup winner with Ottawa in 1910-11.

A crowd of 5,000 were on hand for the game. The referee was Harvey Sproule, another future coach of the NHL Arenas. In this, the Soldiers’ first test, they passed colourfully, and with pomp. “The 228th can hardly be improved upon,” decided the correspondent from Toronto’s World.

mcnamaras

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