Wartime Wing: Ken Kilrea was born in Ottawa on a Thursday of this date in 1919. He followed his older brothers Hec and Wally to the NHL, making his debut as a 20-year-old with the 1938-39 Detroit Red Wings. Hec, 31, was in the Motor City line-up that year, too, though Wally, who was 29, had departed the team at the end of the previous season. (Legendary junior coach Brian Kilrea was a nephew, son of the eldest Kilrea brother, Jack.) Young Ken, a left winger, played parts of five seasons with the Red Wings; he’s pictured here in his last campaign, 1943-44, when NHLers doubled as billboards for U.S. war bonds. Kilrea’s other war service included a stint with the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps that saw him skate (and win a 1943 Allan Cup) with the Ottawa Commandos on a team that also featured the talents of Sugar Jim Henry, Ken Reardon, Mac and Neil Colville, and Bingo Kampman. Ken Kilrea died at the age of 70 in 1990.
The RCAF Flyers proved themselves to be Canada’s best senior hockey team in 1942 when they won the Allan Cup. The Flyers benefitted from what might be classed a wartime windfall: among the Ottawa-based airmen at their disposal that season were all three members of one of the NHL’s most effective forward lines, the erstwhile Krauts (and Boston Bruins) Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer. When another stacked military team succeeded the Flyers as Allan Cup champions the following year, it was thanks, in large, part to goaltender Sugar Jim Henry. After winning the 1941 Allan Cup with the Regina Rangers, Henry had played his rookie year in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Inducted into the Canadian Army in the summer of ’42 (above, to the right), he was posted to Canada’s capital where he suited up (above, left) for the Ottawa Commandos. Replacing the Ottawa Senators in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, the Commandos had their wings clipped a little when, to begin the season, the league decreed that teams could only ice four players with NHL experience in any given game. (That limit was later raised to six.) The Commandos had plenty of options: along with Henry, the former NHLers they iced that season included Montreal Canadiens’ veteran Ken Reardon, brothers Mac and Neil Colville (New York Rangers), Jack McGill (Bruins), Alex Shibicky (Rangers), Gordie Bruce (Bruins), Joe Cooper (Rangers and Black Hawks), Bingo Kampman (Maple Leafs), Polly Drouin (Canadiens), Gordie Poirier (Canadiens), and Ken Kilrea (Red Wings). The team the Commandos beat in the Allan Cup finals was a military one, too, Victoria Army, and they boasted a bevy of erstwhile NHLers, too — including Nick Metz (Maple Leafs), Joffre Desilets (Canadiens), and Bill Carse (Rangers and Black Hawks) — but not quite enough.
Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL they weren’t exactly a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.
So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.
It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.
Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.
Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)
Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.
Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)
Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.
“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.
Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”
Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”
Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.
“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”
And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”
But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.
Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”
None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.
Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”
For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.
“No comment,” Clarence Campbell said in November of 1949 in the wake of the rhubarbary in Chicago that saw two Montreal players, Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle, arrested and jailed. The NHL president said that he wouldn’t have anything to say until he’d heard from referee Bill Chadwick.
Other than, well, he did want to warn fans. On that, yes, he had comment. “If people go looking for trouble,” he said, “they’ll always get it.” He was talking to George Grbich, I guess, who’d leapt to ice after being struck and bloodied by Reardon’s stick. “There’s simple protection for him if he stays in the seat allotted to him. And anyway, a man without skates is a pretty inadequate citizen on the ice.”
“No fans need get involved unless they choose to do so.”
The game in Chicago was on the Wednesday. Friday, when Canadiens arrived back in Montreal, Campbell invited Reardon, Gravelle, and Billy Reay to pay him a visit at his office in the Sun Life Building. Reay had swung his stick, too, in Chicago, and taken a penalty, but avoided arrest. The meeting wrapped up without any statement forthcoming for press or public.
“There should be better protection along the rinkside for players from fans,” said Dick Irvin, Canadiens’ coach. His view, other than that the whole business “was really not much,” was that it was all accidental. Well, the damage to George Grbich, at least. Irvin:
“Grbich stood up in his seat with one foot on the railing, reached over the netting which fronts the promenade seats and grabbed Kenny Reardon by the shoulder-pad. The pad was pulled off the shoulder. Reardon went off-balance, swung around and his stick struck Grbich on the head.
“It opened quite a cut and friends of the spectator started to swarm over the netting and out on the ice.”
That was when Gravelle got involved, waggling his stick. “But,” Irvin said, “he didn’t hurt anybody and neither did Billy Reay who took a cut at one of these jerks but missed him.”
Irvin had news, too, of Grbich having come around to the Montreal dressing room after the game for a chat and some forgiveness. Head bandaged, blood on his lapels, Grbich said he was a Czech who’d played hockey back home. Said, too, as Irvin heard it, that “he was a great admirer of Reardon, really meaning to wish him well — but we figured this was a lot of baloney.”
Irvin continued: “Reardon had been in a scuffle with Ralph Nattress just before this and I guess the guy got excited. Anyway, he shook hands.”
Sportswriter Andy O’Brien wanted fans to be fair. Writing in The Montreal Standard, he opined that the whole affair had been “grossly exaggerated.” Players took all kinds of razzing from fans, and some of what they heard was truly filthy. “I have no sympathy for the fan who isn’t fair,” O’Brien wrote, and if a fan decided to punch, grab, or insult “a tensed-up athlete” then it was “a two-way deal.”
In Reardon’s defence, he also wanted to point out that the Canadiens’ defenceman was a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, where he excelled at handball and squash, and membership at that august club was restricted to “gentlemen” — so there.
By Saturday, Clarence Campbell was back to keeping his counsel — and commanding everybody else’s, too. He expressed his “extreme displeasure” at the publicity surrounding events in Chicago. He was particularly irked by the jailhouse photos from Chicago; that kind of thing, he felt, “is bad for hockey.”
Uh huh. As opposed to the smacking of spectators with hockey sticks?
“Meanwhile,” said The Ottawa Citizen, “the NHL chief ordered all concerned to refrain from comment on the fracas until the case is cleared up.”
The time for that came not quite two weeks later. Montreal was back in Chicago to play the Black Hawks, which they did on the Sunday night. On the ice, the visitors acted like “little gentlemen,” according to Edward Burns from the local Tribune. And the Hawks? “Mild characters, too.” The game ended 0-0. Referee Butch Keeling called a bevy of minor infractions in the first period, and assessed Montreal winger Rip Riopelle a misconduct for abusive language. There were no penalties in the second or the third.
The legal case was supposed to get going on Monday morning, November 14, but then George Grbich didn’t show up at Municipal Court, so the proceedings were put over a day so that he could be found.
Tuesday: still no Grbich. The news was that he’d upped and sold his Chicago property and moved to Butler, Wisconsin. The charges of assault with a deadly weapon against Reardon and Gravelle were heard without him.
Complainants Anthony and John Scornavacco were there, and so was Peter Zarillo. Anthony owned a tavern, Zarillo was a taxi-driver; no word on how John passed his days. When they told Judge Joseph B. Hermes that their grievance was with Gravelle alone, he declared Reardon’s charge nolle prossed (not prosecuted), leaving Gravelle to face the music on his own.
The overture had Reardon testifying about the hand that had reached over the rail and grabbed his sweater. He said,
“I spun around and though that my stick hit the screen. And then I saw that a man was bleeding. The man [this was Grbich] yelled at me that he was okay. Just then another man climbed over the barrier and came at me as though he wanted to fight. I dropped my stick and gloves, but the officials ordered the man off the ice before he got to me. I heard a scuffle and then saw a spectator stand up and try to throw a chair over the barrier.”
Reardon didn’t say who the first man was, the one he almost fought; the attempted-chair-thrower he identified as Anthony Scornavacco.
Leo Gravelle said he didn’t see Reardon or Grbich, but he did see the unknown man on the ice.
“I did not strike any of the spectators,” he told the court. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.”
The Scornavaccos remembered otherwise: Gravelle’s stick hit their arms and their shoulders, they said. But referee Chadwick and linesman Doug Young gave stepped up to say that they remembered what Gravelle remembered: no spectators were struck.
I’d like to know (but probably never will) whether Zarillo’s tie was introduced into the record, the one that was supposed to have been “torn” by one of the hockey sticks wielded by one of the Canadiens.
For an hour-and-a-half the evidence spooled out. When it was Judge Hermes’ turn to decide where it all led, he dismissed the charge against Gravelle.
“It is the prerogative of the American fan to boost his team and heckle opponents,” he ruled, “but from the testimony presented here it is evident that the complainants were the aggressors.”
And that was all, the end of it. There was word from the Scornavaccos that they intended to pursue a civil case against Gravelle, but I can’t find any trace of that. Montreal’s acquitted Canadiens were soon on a train to Toronto, where their Canadiens had a Wednesday-night game against the Leafs. As for Clarence Campbell and what his comment might have been on the outcome — whatever he thought, I haven’t come across any record of it.
It was a fracas is what it was, according to some of the people who were on hand to see what happened and write about it: some of them also rated it a rhubarb and a melee and a hoodlum outbreak. Chicago’s Daily Tribune either couldn’t sum it up in a word or two, or preferred not to: there was no bigger headline on next day’s front page than the one given Victory-in-Europe billing across eight columns: PLAYERS SLUG HOCKEY FANS.
However you want to frame the events at Chicago Stadium on this very date in 1949, any statistical summary of the proceedings should really reflect the number of Montreal Canadiens who ended up in jail (two) along with the score of the game (Chicago 4, Montreal 1).
Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle were the Canadiens incarcerated after time had ticked away to end the game. Chicago police from the Warren Avenue precinct arrested their teammate Billy Reay, too, briefly, before releasing him. There are famous photos of Reardon and Gravelle behind bars, with Canadiens coach Dick Irvin and Hawks president Bill Tobin in front of them. Tobin was the one who paid $200 to bail the boys and promised to see that they returned to Chicago to face justice. Here’s one version; others come with bonus hamming.
Good, maybe, that they could find some fun in the situation, given that the players had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and that there were other photos taken that same night, like the one at the top here, of men like George Grbich with bandaged heads who didn’t happen to be professional hockey players.
How had it come to this? In the regular heedless hockey way, I guess is the general answer. More specifically, well (also in the regular hockey way), there were various versions of the second-period unrest. The Tribune had it that Reardon ran into Chicago’s Roy Conacher against the boards. Reardon told police that someone grabbed him, so he swung his stick.
Montreal’s own Gazette quoted him saying this: “As I skated by, swung my stick instinctively. I thought I had busted it against the screen. I was the most surprised person in the world when I saw I’d bloodied somebody.”
That was Grbich. Bleeding from the head, he was seen to leap the boards to go after Reardon, whereupon ushers intervened along with hockey players, including Billy Reay, who got a misconduct from referee Bill Chadwick for directing what the Gazette called “a wild swipe of his stick” at — maybe fans, maybe Black Hawks. Reardon, for his part, wasn’t penalized on the play. Nor was Leo Gravelle, described by the Tribune as having swung his stick at spectators, striking a tavern owner and his nearby brother. Also struck: a taxi-driver, whose tie was torn.
I’ve seen a handwritten note that Reardon sent many years later describing what happened with Grbich. Here’s how he choose to recall the incident:
This fan stood up on top of the boards and grabbed me around the neck while I was carrying the puck along the boards. I hit him on his head when he spun me around. I hit him accidentally but the fan had no business tackling me while I was in action.
On the night, Grbich was tended by Dr. Mitchell Corbett, who closed the cut on his head with ten stitches. Described by the Tribune as an unemployed steelworker, the wounded man apparently stuck around until the end of the game. He and Reardon met, shook hands, were photographed (below and here, too). Grbich confirmed that Reardon’s stick has “clouted” him, but no worries: “I’m not mad at anybody.” He had to head to hospital for x-rays, but before left, he told police he wasn’t interested in pressing charges.
The other fans who’d been involved weren’t quite so forgiving. Anthony Scornavacco was the tavern-owner, and with his brother, John, and the taxi-driver, Peter Zarillo, he’d marched right out of the Stadium over to the Warren Avenue police station to complain about the Canadiens. That was enough for Sergeant James Smith, apparently. Having heard their story, he sent Detectives Joseph Gordon, Joseph Sidlo, and Peter Garamone over to the rink to make the arrests. When Grbich wouldn’t add his name to the complaint, Patrolman Hugh Frankel signed in his stead.
A court date was set for later in November, when the Canadiens were due back in town for another meeting with the Hawks. Stay tuned; we’ll get to that (here). In the meantime, Montreal had a train to catch for home, where they were hosting the Boston Bruins.
Over at South Shore Hospital, Dr. Nicholas Columbo was still waiting to get George Grbich’s results back. He was keeping him there, just to be on the safe side. Dr. Columbo said he suspected that the patient had a “slight concussion” to go with his stitches.
In the months leading up to D-Day, preparing for the battle the would sweep the enemy from northwestern Europe, Canadian troops did what Canadians do: they played hockey.
This was 1944, end of February. The troops of the 3rd Canadian Division and supporting units were, as the security-conscious datelines read on the dispatches that fed the newspapers back home, “Somewhere In England.” On the specific ice of the Sports Stadium at Brighton, the Canadian Army Overseas championships got underway with a set of brassy special guests in the stands: joining Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the acting commander of the First Canadian Army, was the man in charge of all British and Commonwealth forces for the upcoming invasion, General Sir Bernard Montgomery.
The opening game of the best-of-three finals was played on a Tuesday night, pitting the Cameron Highlanders against B Group, Canadian Reinforcement Unit. They didn’t have a name to romance the imagination, maybe, but the CRU team dominated on the ice, posting an 8-4 victory.
Leading the way was the man a Canadian Press correspondent called “a fast-skating private with a deceptive shift:” H.W. Proulx scored three times and collected two assists. He had some big-name help in a trio of former NHLers. Captain Gordie Poirier, 29, and Corporal Ken Reardon, 22, had both played for the Montreal Canadiens, while 24-year-old Lieutenant Gordie Bruce was a Boston Bruins alumnus.
These three had only been in England for a few weeks, though they were, all three, veterans of military hockey success. They’d helped the mighty Ottawa Commandos to an Allan Cup championship in 1943 on a team that had counted goaltender Sugar Jim Henry along with NHLers Bingo Kampman, Neil and Mac Colville, Polly Drouin, Alex Shibicky, and Joe Cooper.
In England, the Reinforcements won the second game, too, the following night, to take the series. Six thousand Canadian soldiers were in the building to see it. The score this time was either 8-2 or 9-2 — both showed in subsequent press reports, possibly to confuse the enemy. Did General Montgomery attend both games? Maybe so; again, the record isn’t crystally clear. He was certainly at the Wednesday game, at which he was reported to have spent “most of the evening hanging over the boards.” Brighton’s rink was small — 25 feet shorter than most Canadian rinks, by some accounts — and a military reporter noted that this made “both teams look fast enough to burn down the rink.” Proulx was a stand-out again: “the equal of NHL players, and faster.”
Featuring for the disappointed Camerons was Terry Reardon, 24, Ken’s elder brother. He’d played in the NHL, too, before he’d enlisted, for Boston and then Montreal. In the effort to stymie the CRU he’s said to have stayed on the ice for the full 60 minutes — two nights running. This gave him time to fight with his brother — “a real go,” according to one witness, who reported that Ken gave Terry a black eye.
Monty had seen worse. At least, when the time came to award medals to victors and runners-up alike, he said, “This is one of the cleanest game I have ever seen.” He also took the opportunity to remind the men of their greater purpose. “If we can produce the team spirit when the Second Front starts,” he said, “we should not be long about it.”
That’s what he was there for, of course, rallying the troops, boosting morale. Ahead of the invasion, he was in the middle of a four-day visit to Canadian troops under his command. He’d commanded Canadian troops in ’43 in Sicily and before that, too, in England. “I am always delighted to have Canadians around,” he’d say later. He’d even played a bit of hockey, in his time — well, field hockey.
Ross Munro of the Canadian Press went along with him this time and sent word back to Canada of how, “on a dozen village greens,” he “met and talked to thousands of Canadian invasion troops” in a get-acquainted tour.
In a special train with Royal priority, the commander of the British group of armies for the Western European invasion sped from one second-front camp area to another and several times a day he spoke to groups of several thousand Canadians.
In battledress, standing atop a jeep,
he told them he wanted to see them and wanted them to see him — that they were going to fight together and should get to know each other. The talk was simple, clear and sprinkled with humor and joshing.
As impressed as he might have been by the display of Canadian hockey, Montgomery knew that it wouldn’t serve as a metaphor for a wider British audience. Later in March, he stepped up to stir the nation with this solemn statement:
We are preparing to take part in the biggest tug-of-war the world has ever seen, and if anyone should let go of the rope, then we lose the match.
How long will the pull last? No-one can say for certain. It may last a year, it may take longer. But it will be a magnificent party and we shall win. It will be a proper job for proper men.”
He had a battle-cry to suggest, too, “for the nation:”
“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”
There’s a howling you’ll hear when the Montreal Canadiens start an NHL season with a run of 1-6-1. Fans lend their fury to the high machine-buzz of hockey-media frenzy, and and there’s an echo down there in the NHL’s basement where the Canadiens and the three sad points they’ve earned to date languish. The whole din of it gets amplified, as everything does, when you put it online. And history can’t resist raising a nagging voice, too.
Today its refrain is this: should these modern-day Canadiens lose tonight’s game at the Bell Centre to the visiting Florida Panthers, they’ll match the ’41-42 Canadiens for season-opening futility. That was the last time Montreal went 1-7-1 to start a season.
Lots of people have lots of good ideas. Captain Max Pacioretty should either start scoring/lose his C/get himself reunited on a line with centre Philip Danault/see to it that he’s traded to Edmonton as soon as possible, maybe in exchange for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. GM Marc Bergevin needs to address the media/find a sword and fall on it/reverse-engineer the trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.
Amid the clamour, coach Claude Julien was calm, ish, yesterday. “We’re all tired of losing, I think that’s pretty obvious,” he told reporters circling the team’s practice facility at Brossard, Quebec. “You know we really feel that we’re doing some good things but we’re not doing good enough for 60 minutes and we need to put full games together.”
Back in ’41, sloppy starting had become a bit of a Canadien tradition. With Cecil Hart at the helm, the team had launched its 1938-39 campaign by going 0-7-1. A year later they got going in 1939-40 with an encouraging 4-2-2 record before staggering through an eight-game losing streak followed by twin ten-game winless runs. In 1940-41, getting underway for new coach Dick Irvin, Canadiens sputtered out to a 1-5-2 start.
Irvin had just coached the Leafs to another Stanley Cup final when he quit Toronto for Montreal in the spring of ’41. He’d started his Leaf reign by winning a Cup in 1932 and in eight subsequent seasons, he’d steered his teams to six Stanley Cup finals.
Why would he want to take charge of a team that The Globe and Mail’s Ralph Allen called “a spent and creaking cellar occupant”?
For the challenge, presumably. Better money? Main Leafs man Conn Smythe was, in public at least, magnanimous — strangely so, to the extent that The Gazette ran his comments under the headline “Smythe in New Role/ As Aide to Canadiens.” It quoted him saying that Montreal had asked his permission to offer Irvin the job. “The Maple Leaf club’s reaction,” he continued, “was that we hated to see Irvin go but we felt that the sorry condition in which the Canadiens had found themselves wasn’t doing any team in the league any good.”
Smythe wanted to help, what’s more. “We are going to give him whatever help we can in player deals.” Maybe Irvin and the Canadiens could use Charlie Conacher, for instance, or Murray Armstrong?
“If he figures Conacher or Armstrong will fit,” Smythe prattled away, “then he can have them, and also two or three other players on our roster.”
Irvin must have figured otherwise. He went about reshaping the Canadiens without his former boss’ aid. In November, his new Montreal charges started off by tying Boston 1-1 at the Forum. They followed that up with four losses and an overtime tie before powering by the New York Americans 3-1 on November 23. The teams played again in New York the next night and Montreal lost by a score of 2-1.
“The rearguard has been the main grief of the made-over Habitants,” Harold C. Burr opined in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rookies Alex Singbush, 19-year-old Ken Reardon, and Tony Graboski were inexperienced, liked to rush the puck too much. Star winger Toe Blake was in slump, too — that didn’t help. The best part, Burr thought: these Habs never quit fighting. “That’s one of the attributes of this young team — the old scrappiness.”
Irvin had vowed that the team would make the playoffs in ’41. The season was shorter then, of course, 48 games, so the margin for error was tight. Then again, six of the league’s seven teams got qualified for the post-season, so all Montreal had to do (and did) was to go 16-26-6 and edge out the woeful (and soon-to-be-extinct) New York Americans for the final playoff berth. (Facing the Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal fell in three games.)
Montreal would eventually get themselves turned around. In the fall of ’42, Canadiens added a young rookie named Maurice Richard to the fold. Two years after that, the team was at the top of the NHL standings when the season ended in March. And in April of 1944, they defeated the Chicago to win the Stanley Cup.
Before that, during the bleak years, hope does seem to have been more eternal in its bloom than in modern-day Montreal.
Deep into November of 1938, English Montrealers awoke to read in The Gazette that Canadiens had lost their sixth straight game in New York the previous evening, 2-1 to the Rangers. Never mind: even the New York papers were said to be reporting that Montreal had played the Rangers off their skates for a good part of the game. Jim Burchard of The Telegram said the visiting team lacked only luck, while The Herald-Tribune felt they just needed a bit more polish in their finishing. “They muffed half a dozen scoring chances,” Kerr Petri wrote. Coach Cecil Hart was certain his boys would beat the Americans in the next game, that very night. “On the basis of last night’s form, we can do it,” he said. “We’re going to win plenty of games after that one, too. And if we had any of the breaks last night, the first victory might be ours already.” (The Americans whomped them, instead, 7-3.)
Four years later, almost to the day, Dick Irvin was telling the hockey writers that the 2-1 loss in Detroit that left the Canadiens adrift at 0-4-2 was cause for … encouragement. “One can’t be satisfied by obtaining only two points out of a possible 12, but they are improving. They played good hockey in Detroit, had more chances, I think, but the other guys got the decision — and that’s what counts.”
A year after that, November of 1941, and the 0-4-1 Canadiens had the Rangers coming in. “Despite the fact Canadiens have not yet won a game,” The Gazette noted, “the box-office at the Forum reported yesterday prospects for a big crowd tonight are bright.”
Montreal lost that one, 7-2. Still, as he’d done a year earlier, Irvin did guide the team once more into the playoffs. Think of that as Max Pacioretty and Carey Price lead their 2017 Canadiens out onto the ice tonight.