long live the king

Bench Boss: King Clancy was a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman before he took up a whistle as an NHL referee. He’s pictured here in 1953, the year he was hired to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. He served three middling seasons behind the Toronto bench before he was succeeded by Howie Meeker, whereupon he took a job as assistant GM for the Leafs. Clancy died on a Saturday of this date in 1986, at the age of 84. Meeker, it so happens, was 97 when he died on November 8, 2020, a Sunday.

gaoledtenders: a short history of time served

Box Seats: Chicago’s Mike Karakas was the last NHL goaltender to serve out a penalty, in New York in 1936. That’s Rangers’ trainer Harry Westerby standing by and, in the hat, Ranger coach and GM Lester Patrick.

Clint Benedict’s violations were out in the open, many of them, whether he was upsetting Corb Denneny behind the net or (another time) dropping Toronto captain Frank Heffernan “with a clout on the dome.”

In the decisive game of the 1923 Stanley Cup finals, with Benedict’s Ottawa Senators on the way to beating the WCHL-champion Edmonton Eskimos to claim hockey’s ultimate trophy, referee Mickey Ion sanctioned the goaltender for a first-period slash on Edmonton defenceman Joe Simpson. “Benedict tried to separate Joe from his legs behind the goal,” Andy Lyle wrote in the Edmonton Journal. This particular game was being played under eastern (NHL) rules, so Benedict headed for the penalty bench.

Foul but no harm: with Ottawa nursing a 1-0, Benedict’s teammates were able to defend the lead without their goaltender’s help. This was at the end of the famous series during which Senators defenceman King Clancy ended  playing defence, forward, and goal. In a 1997 memoir written with Brian McFarlane, Clancy describes the moment that he headed for the latter: Benedict chucked over his goalstick and said, “You take care of this place ’til I get back.”

After that, Clancy’s time was mostly an exercise in standing around, though not entirely. In the memoir, Clancy recalls that when, at one point, he smothered the puck near the net, Ion threatened him with a penalty.

But while Clancy says that he didn’t face a single Edmonton shot, contemporary accounts tell a different tale. By Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman’s account, Clancy faced down two Edmonton shots. “Once Joe Simpson whipped in a long one,” he wrote, “whereupon ‘King’ dropped his stick, caught the puck with the skill of a baseball catcher, and tossed it aside while the crowd roared its approval.”

Count it, I guess, as the first shared shutout in Stanley Cup history.

Nowadays, when it comes to penalties for goalies, the NHL rule book gets right to the point with Rule 27:

Minor Penalty to Goalkeeper — A goalkeeper shall not be sent to the penalty bench for an offense which incurs a minor penalty, but instead, the minor penalty shall be served by another member of his team who was on the ice when the offense was committed. This player is to be designated by the Coach of the offending team through the playing Captain and such substitute shall not be changed.

But for the first three decades of NHL history — in the regular season as well as in Stanley Cup play— goaltenders themselves served the penalties they were assessed, departing the ice while a teammate did his best to fill in.

This happened more than a dozen times in those early years, and was cause for considerable chaos and excitement. In the 1920s, Clint Benedict was (as mentioned) often in the mix, while in the ’30s, Lorne Chabot featured prominently. Among the temporary goaltenders, King Clancy continued to stand out, along with Sprague Cleghorn. Goals would have been easy to score in these circumstances — you’d think. In fact, none was scored on the first eight occasions — it wasn’t until 1931, when Chicago’s Tommy Cook punished the Canadiens, that anyone was able to take advantage of an absent goaltender to score.

Despite what you may have read in a recent feature on NHL.com, the last time a goaltender went to the box wasn’t in March of 1932, after a particular fractious game in Boston, though the NHL did adjust some language in the rule book that year.

No, the final goaltender to do his own time would seem to have been Mike Karakas of the Chicago Black Hawks at the end of December in 1936. After that — but we’ll come back to the shifting of the rules that went on for more than a decade before goaltenders were fully and finally excused from going to the box.

Ahead of that, herewith, a helpful review of the NHL’s history of goaltenders who were binned for their sins, listed chronologically from earliest to last, starting in the league’s second season on ice and wandering along to its 20th.

None of the six goalies who tended nets during the NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was penalized. That’s worth a note, if only because, until the rule was changed a couple of weeks into the schedule, goalies were forbidden, on pain of penalty, from falling to their knees to stop the puck. Benedict, again, was front and centre in the discussion that led to the change. In the old National Hockey Association, his collapses were as renowned as his penalties. Indeed, in announcing in January of 1918 that goaltenders would now be allowed to “adopt any attitude” to stop the puck, NHL President Frank Calder made specific mention of Benedict before going on to explain the rationale for the change. “Very few of the teams carry a spare netminder,” Calder explained, “and if the goaler is ruled off it means a long delay in equipping another player, and in a close contest would undoubtedly cost the penalized team the game. The old rule made it hard for the referees, so everybody will be helped.”

Free to flop, Benedict was left to find other means of catching the attention of referees. Which he duly did:

Tuesday, February 18, 1919
Ottawa Senators 4 Toronto Arenas 3 (OT)
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referees: Lou Marsh, Steve Vair

The NHL was a three-team affair in its second season, and not exactly robust, at that: the anemic Toronto Arenas ended up dropping out before the season was over, suspending operations with two games left to play in the schedule. Their sparsely-attended penultimate game — no more than 1,000 fans showed up — saw Ottawa’s goaltender penalized with ten minutes left in the third period. Yes, this was unruly Benedict once again: with Toronto leading 2-1, he was sanctioned for upsetting Corb Denneny behind the Ottawa net, incurring a three-minute penalty (that was a thing, then).

Ottawa defenceman Sprague Cleghorn took over Benedict’s net. The Ottawa Journal: “Torontos tried hard but their sharp shooters were kept at long range by the defensive work of the Senators. Finally goalkeeper Cleghorn himself secured the puck and made an end to end rush, almost scoring.” An added detail from the Citizen: with Cleghorn absent on his rush, Senators’ winger Cy Denneny took to the net where he stopped at least one shot. After Benedict’s return, Toronto stretched their lead to 3-1 before Ottawa got goals from Frank Nighbor and (not one to be denied) Sprague Cleghorn before Punch Broadbent sealed the win for the Senators in overtime.

Hors De Combat: Seen here in the first uniform of Montreal’s Maroons, Clint Benedict was an early protagonist when it came to goaltenders serving time in penalty boxes.

Saturday, January 24, 1920
Ottawa Senators 3 Toronto St. Patricks 5
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Cooper Smeaton

The call on Clint Benedict this time, apparently, was for slashing Toronto captain Frank Heffernan. Referee Smeaton had already warned him for swinging his stick at Corb Denneny before sending Benedict to the penalty bench. The Ottawa Citizen described the goaltender as having swung his stick “heavily,” catching Heffernan across the forehead, while the Journal saw Heffernan go down “with a clout on the dome.” The Toronto faithful, the Globe reported, weren’t pleased: “the crowd hissed and hooted him.” Sprague Cleghorn was still manning the Ottawa defence, but this time it was winger Jack Darragh subbed in while Benedict served his three minutes. The Journal noted several “sensational stops,” and no goals against.

Wednesday, February 1, 1922
Montreal Canadiens 2 Ottawa Senators 4
Laurier Avenue Arena, Ottawa
Referee: Lou Marsh

“At times,” the Ottawa Journal reported, “Sprague Cleghorn played like a master and at other times like a gunman.” It was Cleghorn’s violence that made headlines this night, drawing the attention of Ottawa police, who showed up in Montreal’s dressing room after the game. Cleghorn was a Canadien now, turning out against his old teammates (including Clint Benedict in Ottawa’s goal), and proving a one-man wrecking crew. He accumulated 29 minutes in penalties for transgressions that included cutting Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard over the eye with a butt-end; breaking Frank Nighbor’s arm; and putting Cy Denneny out of the game in its final minutes. For the latter, Cleghorn was assessed a match penalty and fined for using indecent language. Canadiens managing director Leo Dandurand turned back the police who tried to apprehend Cleghorn, telling them to come back when they had a warrant.

Amid all this, Cleghorn also stepped into the Montreal net after Georges Vézina was sent off for slashing King Clancy. Notwithstanding the Ottawa Citizen’s verdict, calling Cleghorn “the present day disgrace of the National winter game,” Montreal’s Gazette reported that as an emergency goaltender he “made several fine stops.”

Saturday, March 31, 1923
Ottawa Senators 1 Edmonton Eskimos 0
Denman Arena, Vancouver
Referee: Mickey Ion

Clint Benedict’s Stanley Cup penalty was for a second-period slash across the knees of Edmonton’s Bullet Joe Simpson. (The Citizen: “the Ottawa goalie used his stick roughly.”) After multi-purpose King Clancy, stepped in, as mentioned, to replace him, his Senator teammates made sure that Edmonton didn’t get a single shot on net.

Saturday, December 20, 1924
Montreal Maroons 1 Hamilton Tigers 3
Barton Street Arena, Hamilton
Referee: Mike Rodden

Montreal Daily Star, 1924.

Clint Benedict, again. He was a Montreal Maroon by now, and still swinging; this time, in Hamilton, he was sent off for (the Gazette alleged) “trying to get Bouchard.” Eddie Bouchard that was, a Hamilton winger. Maroons captain Dunc Munro stepped into the breach while Benedict cooled his heels, and temper. The Gazette: “nothing happened while he was off.”

Saturday, December 27, 1924
Ottawa Senators 4 Toronto St. Patricks 3
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Lou Marsh

For the first time in NHL history, Clint Benedict wasn’t in the building when a penalty was called on a goaltender. He was in Montreal, for the record, taking no penalties as he tended the Maroons’ net in a 1-1 tie with the Canadiens that overtime couldn’t settle.

Offending this time was Senators’ stopper Alec Connell, who was in Toronto and (the Gazette said) “earned a penalty when he took a wallop at big Bert Corbeau. The latter was engaged in a fencing exhibition with Frank Nighbor late in the second period when Connell rushed out and aimed a blow at the local defence man. Connell missed by many metres, but nevertheless, he was given two minutes and Corbeau drew five. ‘King’ Clancy then took charge of the big stick and he made several fine saves, St. Patricks failing to score.”

During the fracas in which Connell was penalized, I can report, Ottawa’s Buck Boucher was fined $10 for (the Toronto Daily Star said) “being too lurid in his comments to the referee.” The Star also noted that when, playing goal, Clancy was elbowed by Jack Adams, the temporary Ottawa goaltender retaliated with a butt-end “just to show the rotund Irish centre player that he wasn’t at all afraid of him and wouldn’t take any nonsense.”

Saturday, February 14, 1925
Hamilton Tigers 1 Toronto St. Patricks 3
Mutual Street Arena, Toronto
Referee: Eddie O’Leary

In the second period, Hamilton goaltender Jake Forbes was penalized for (as the Gazette saw it) “turning [Bert] Corbeau over as the big defenceman was passing by the Hamilton goal.” Hamilton winger Charlie Langlois was already serving a penalty as the defenceman Jesse Spring took the net, but the Tigers survived the scare: “Both Langlois and Forbes got back on the ice without any damage being done while they were absent, the other players checking St. Pats so well that they could not get near the Hamilton net.”

Wednesday, December 2, 1931
Montreal Canadiens 1 Chicago Black Hawks 2
Chicago Stadium
Referee: Mike Rodden, Bill Shaver

Montreal Gazette, 1931.

A first for Chicago and indeed for the USA at large: never before had an NHL goaltender served his own penalty beyond a Canadian border. Notable, too: after seven tries and more than a decade, a team facing a substitute goaltender finally scored a goal. On this occasion, it was a decisive one, too.

The game was tied 1-1 in the third period when Montreal’s George Hainsworth tripped Chicago winger Vic Ripley. With just three minutes left in regular time, Ripley, who’d scored Chicago’s opening goal, hit the boards hard. He was carried off.

Hainsworth headed for the penalty bench. He had a teammate already there, Aurèle Joliat, so when defenceman Battleship Leduc took the net, the situation was grim for Montreal. The Gazette:

Albert Leduc armed himself with Hainsworth’s stick and stood between the posts with only three men to protect him. His position was almost helpless and when [Johnny] Gottselig and [Tommy] Cook came tearing in, the former passed to the centre player and Cook burned one past Leduc for the winning counter. Then Joliat returned and Leduc made one stop. When Hainsworth came back into the nets, Canadiens staged a rousing rally and the final gong found the champions peppering [Chicago goaltender Charlie] Gardiner unsuccessfully.

Tuesday, March 15, 1932
Toronto Maple Leafs 2 Boston Bruins 6
Boston Garden
Referee: Bill Stewart, Odie Cleghorn

Boston saw its first goaltender-in-box when, three minutes in, Toronto’s Lorne Chabot was called for tripping Boston centreman Cooney Weiland. “The latter,” wrote Victor Jones in the Boston Globe, “entirely out of a play, was free-skating a la Sonja Henie in the vicinity of the Leaf cage.” Toronto’s Globe: “The Leafs protested loudly, but Stewart remained firm.”

It was a costly decision for the Leafs. At the time, a penalty didn’t come to its end, as it does today, with a goal by the team with the advantage: come what might, Chabot would serve out his full time for his trip.

Victor Jones spun up a whole comical bit in his dispatch around Leaf coach Dick Irvin’s decision to hand Chabot’s duties (along with his stick) to defenceman Red Horner. The upshot was that Bruins’ centre Marty Barry scored on him after ten seconds. Irvin replaced Horner with defenceman Alex Levinsky, without discernible effect: Barry scored on him, too, ten seconds later. When King Clancy tried his luck, Boston captain George Owen scored another goal, giving the Bruins a 3-0 lead by the time Chabot returned to service.

There was a subsequent kerfuffle involving Toronto GM Conn Smythe, a practiced kerfuffler, particularly in Boston. He’d arrived late to the game, to find his team down by a pair of goals and Clancy tending the net. Smythe ended up reaching out from the Toronto bench to lay hands on referee Bill Stewart, who (he said) was blocking his view. Backed by a pair of Boston policemen, the Garden superintendent tried to evict Smythe, whereupon the Toronto players intervened.

“For some minutes,” Victor Jones recounted, “there was a better than fair chance that there would be a riot.” Bruins’ owner Charles F. Adams arrived on the scene to keep the peace and arrange a stay for Smythe who was allowed to keep his seat on the Leaf bench (in Jones’ telling) “on condition he would not further pinch, grab, or otherwise molest” the referee.

Boston didn’t squander its early boon, powering on to a 6-2 victory.

A couple of other notes from Jones’ notebook: “Stewart may have ruined the game, but he called the penalty as it’s written in the book and that’s all that concerns him.”

Also: “The best crack of the evening was made by Horner, after the game in the Toronto dressing room: ‘You fellows made a big mistake when you didn’t let me finish out my goal tending. I was just getting my eye on ’em, and after four or five more I’d have stopped everything.”

Leaf On The Loose: Lorne Chabot was a habitual visitor to NHL penalty boxes in the 1930s.

Sunday, November 20, 1932
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 New York Rangers 7
Madison Square Garden III, New York
Referees: Eusebe Daigneault, Jerry Goodman

The Leafs were the defending Stanley Cup champions in the fall of 1932, but that didn’t help them on this night in New York as they took on the team they’d defeated in the championship finals the previous April. This time out, Lorne Chabot’s troubles started in the second period, when he wandered too far from his net, whereupon a Rangers’ winger saw fit to bodycheck him. Cause and effect: “Chabot was banished,” Toronto’s Daily Star reported, “for flailing Murray Murdoch with his stick.” (Murdoch was penalized, too.)

Leafs’ winger Charlie Conacher took to the net, and in style. “He made six dazzling stops during this [two-minute] time,” Joseph C. Nichols reported in the New York Times, “playing without the pads and shin-guards always worn by regular goalies.” When Chabot returned, Conacher received a thundering ovation from the New York crowd. Chabot worked hard on the night, too, stopping a total of 41 Ranger shots. Unfortunately, there were also seven that got past him before the game was over.

Thursday, March 16, 1933
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 Detroit Red Wings 1
Detroit Olympia
Referee: Cooper Smeaton, Clarence Bush

Lorne Chabot’s next visit to the penalty box came during what the Montreal Gazette graded one of the wildest games ever to be played at the Detroit Olympia. In the third period, when Detroit centreman Ebbie Goodfellow passed the Leaf goalmouth, Chabot (wrote Jack Carveth of the Detroit Free Press) “clipped him over the head with his over-sized stick.”

“That was the signal for Ebbie to lead with his left and cross with his right,” Carveth narrated. “Chabot went down with Goodfellow on top of him.”

Both players got minor penalties for their troubles, which continued once they were seated side-by-side the penalty box. “After they had been separated,” wrote Carveth, “a policeman was stationed between them to prevent another outbreak.”

Just as things seemed to be settling down, Detroit coach Jack Adams threw a punch that connected with the chin of Toronto’s Bob Gracie, who stood accused of loosing “a vile remark” in Adams’ direction. “Players from both benches were over the fence in a jiffy but nothing more serious than a lot of pushing developed.”

Toronto winger Charlie Conacher took up Chabot’s stick in his absence. “But he didn’t have to do any work,” according to the Canadian Press. “King Clancy ragged the puck cleverly,” and the Wings failed to get even a shot at Conacher. They were already ahead 1-0 at the time, and that’s the way the game ended, with the shutout going to Detroit’s John Ross Roach.

Tuesday, November 28, 1933
Montreal Maroons 4 Montreal Canadiens 1
Montreal Forum
Referees: Bill Stewart, A.G. Smith

Lorne Chabot may have moved from Toronto to Montreal by 1933, but he was still battling. On this night, he contrived to get into what the Montreal Daily Star called a “high voltage scrap” with Maroons centreman Dave Trottier. The latter’s stick hit Chabot on the head as he dove to retrieve a puck in the third period, it seems. “Thinking it intentional,” the Gazette reported, “Chabot grabbed one of Trottier’s legs and pulled him to the ice with a football tackle. They rose and came to grips.” Later that same brouhaha, Chabot interceded in a fight between teammate Wildor Larochelle and the Maroons’ Hooley Smith, whereupon (somehow) Trottier and Larochelle were sentenced to major penalties while Smith and Chabot earned only minors.

With two minutes left in the game and Maroons up by three goals, Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde elected not to fill Chabot’s net. Maroons couldn’t hit the empty net, though winger Wally Kilrea came close with a long-distance shot that drifted wide.

Sunday, December 27, 1936
Chicago Black Hawks 0 New York Rangers 1
Madison Square Garden III
Referee: Bill Stewart, Babe Dye

“One of hockey’s rarest spectacles,” New York Times’ correspondent Joseph C. Nichols called the second-period tripping penalty that was called when Chicago’s Mike Karakas tripped New York’s Phil Watson. Filling in for Karakas was none other than Tommy Cook who, you might recall, scored a goal against Battleship Leduc in 1931 when he’d replaced Montreal’s George Hainsworth. This time, Nichols reported, the net might as well have been empty for all the chances the rangers had to score. With Chicago’s Johnny Gottselig, Paul Thompson, and Art Wiebe doing yeoman’s work on the defensive, Cook faced no shots during his stint as a stand-in — the last one, as it turned out, in NHL history.

Both Sides Now: Chicago centreman Tommy Cook was the first NHLer to score a goal with a goaltender in the box, in 1931. In 1936, he was also the last player to take a penalized goaltender’s place.

Tracing the evolution of the NHL’s rule book generally involves a certain amount of sleuthing. James Duplacey’s The Rules of Hockey (1996) is helpful up to a point, but it’s not it’s not without bugs and oversights.

This is specifically the case, too, when it comes to goaltenders and their penalties. When in 1918 goaltenders were freed to fall to their knees without risk of punishment, this freedom never enshrined in writing. For most if not all of the league’s first decade, the only language in the rule book governing goaltenders had to do with holding the puck — not allowed — and the face-off arrangement that applied if they dared to commit this misdemeanor.

This changed in 1932, after that Leaf game in Boston in March when Toronto’s three emergency goaltenders yielded three goals and Conn Smythe got into (another) melee. Did he draft or drive the addition of the paragraph that was added to the rule book that year? It’s possible. It was procedural only, and didn’t change the way things had been done since the beginning. The language added to Rule 12 read:

If a goal-keeper is removed from the ice to serve a penalty the manager of the club shall appoint a substitute and the referee shall be advised of the name of the substitute appointed. The substitute goal-keeper shall be subject to the rules governing goal-keepers and have the same privileges.

The last part does suggest that stand-ins would be within their rights to strap on goaltending pads, and maybe that happened, though I’ve never seen any archival or anecdotal evidence that it did in any of the instances cited above.

Goaltenders were boxed on four more occasions (as we’ve seen) after this change in rule-book wording. It was six years later that the sentencing of rule-breaking goaltenders changed materially, in September of 1938. No goaltender had, to date, ever been assessed a major penalty, but if that were to happen, the new rule stipulated that he would go to the box, with his substitute accorded all the privileges of a regular netminder, “including the use of the goal-keeper’s stick and gloves.”

And for lesser infractions? Now The Official Rule Book declared that:

No goal-keeper shall be sent to the penalty bench for an offence which incurs a minor penalty but instead of the minor penalty, a penalty shot shall be given against him.

It didn’t take long for the statute to get its first test, once the 1938-39 season got underway. There was, it’s true, some confusion on the ice when the Detroit Red Wings hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, the reigning NHL champions, on Thursday, November 24.

It was a busy night for referee Clarence Campbell. The future NHL president wasn’t a favourite in Detroit, as Doc Holst of the local Free Press outlined:

Anytime Mr. Campbell is referee on Mr. [Jack] Adams’ ice, you can wager your grandma that there will be plenty of difficult problems and that he will never solve them to the satisfaction of the Red Wings. He’s their ogre, no matter how the other club praises his abilities.

Campbell infuriated both teams on this night. In the first period, he disallowed a goal that the Wings’ Marty Barry thought he’d score. Next, Campbell awarded the Wings a penalty shot after Hawks’ defenceman Alex Levinsky held back the Wings’ Ebbie Goodfellow on his way in on Chicago’s Mike Karakas. Levinsky objected so vociferously that Campbell gave him a ten-misconduct. Mud Bruneteau took Detroit’s penalty shot: Karakas saved.

Things got even more interesting in the third. It started with Detroit’s Pete Kelly skating in on the Chicago net and colliding with Karakas. Doc Holst: “The two of them came out of the net and started to roll, Pete holding on to Mike for dear life. The only thing Mike could think of was to tap Pete on the head with his big goalie stick.”

Campbell penalized both, sending Kelly to the box for holding and awarding Detroit a penalty shot for Karakas’ slash. The Wings weren’t having it — they wanted the Chicago goaltender sent off. “Campbell pulled the rule book on the Wings,” a wire service account of the proceedings reported, “and showed them goalies do not go to penalty boxes” Once again Mud Bruneteau stepped up to shoot on Karakas and, once again, failed to score. The Red Wings did eventually prevail in the game, winning 4-2, despite all the goals denied them.

Goaltenders did keep on taking penalties, some of them for contravening a new rule added to the books in 1938 barring them from throwing pucks into the crowd to stop play. In Detroit, if not elsewhere, this rule was said to be aimed at curbing the Red Wings’ Normie Smith, who’d been known in his time for disposing of (said the Free Press) “as many as a dozen pucks a night over the screen.” Chicago’s Karakas was, apparently, another enthusiastic puck-tosser.

And so, in February of 1939, Clarence Campbell called Wilf Cude of the Montreal Canadiens for flinging a puck over the screen against the New York Americans. Cude took his medicine and kicked out Johnny Sorrell’s penalty shot. In January, 1941, when Toronto’s Turk Broda tripped Canadiens’ Murph Chamberlain, he was pleased to redeem himself by foiling a penalty shot from Tony Demers.

The NHL continued to tweak the rule through the 1940s. In September of ’41, the league split the penalty shot: now there were major and minor versions. The major was what we know now, applied when a skater was impeded on a clear chance at goal. The player taking the shot was free to skate in on the goaltender to shoot from wherever he pleased. A minor penalty shot applied when a goaltender committed a foul: he would be sentenced to face an opposing player who could wheel in from centre-ice but had to shoot the puck before he crossed a line drawn 28 feet in front of the goal.

By 1945, the rules had changed again, with a penalty shot only applying when a goaltender incurred a major penalty. That meant that when, in a February game in New York, referee Bill Chadwick whistled down Rangers’ goaltender Chuck Rayner for tossing the puck up the ice (just as prohibited as hurling it into the stands), Rayner stayed in his net while teammate Ab DeMarco went to the penalty box. From there, he watched  Chicago’s Pete Horeck score the opening goal in what ended as a 2-2 tie.

This continued over the next few years. Boston’s Frank Brimsek slung a puck into the Montreal crowd and teammate Bep Guidolin did his time for him. Detroit’s Gerry Couture went to the box when his goaltender, Harry Lumley, high-sticked Boston’s Bill Cowley. In the October of 1947, in a game at Chicago Stadium between the Black Hawks and Red Wings, Chadwick saw fit to call (in separate incidents) penalties on both team’s goaltenders, Lumley for tripping (Red Kelly went to the box) and Chicago’s Emile Francis for high-sticking (Dick Butler did the time).

A few days later Francis was penalized again, this time against Montreal, after a “mix-up” with Canadiens’ winger Jimmy Peters. By some accounts, this was an out-and-out fight, though Peters and Francis were assessed minors for roughing. Is it possible that referee Georges Gravel downgraded the charge to avoid the spectacle of Francis having to face a penalty shot for his temper?

The rule does seem generally to have fallen into disrepute in these final years before it was rewritten. Witness the game at Maple Leaf Gardens in January of 1946 when the Leafs beat the Red Wings 9-3 in a game refereed by King Clancy. Late in the third period, Detroit’s Joe Carveth took a shot on the Leaf goal only to see it saved by goaltender Frank McCool. The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer described what happened next:

The puck rebounded back to Carveth’s stick as a whistle sounded. Carveth fired the puck again. It hit McCool on the shoulder. The Toronto goalie dropped his stick and darted from his cage. He headed straight for Carveth and enveloped the Detroiter in a bear hug that would have done credit to one of Frank Tunney’s mightiest wrestling warriors, and bore him to the ice.

DeGeer’s description of the aftermath came with a derisive subhed: Who Wrote This Rule?

The sheer stupidity of major hockey rules developed out of the McCool-Carveth affair. Carveth was given a two-minute penalty for firing the puck after the whistle and an additional two minutes for fighting. A major penalty shot play was given against McCool. Carl Liscombe made the play and hit the goalpost at McCool’s right side. There’s neither rhyme nor reason for such a severe penalty against a goaltender, but it’s in the rule book.

Carveth was in the penalty box when the game ended. First thing the former Regina boy did was skate to the Toronto fence and apologize to Frank for taking the extra shot after the whistle.

The NHL made another change ahead of the 1949-50 season: from then on, major penalties, too, that were incurred by goaltenders would see a teammate designated to serve time in the box rather than resulting in a penalty shot.

bootle rocket

Stars & Smiths: April 2 was a Wednesday in 1902, and that’s the day that Alex Smith was born, in Bootle, on Liverpool’s Merseyside. It was across the unfrozen ocean in Ottawa that he grew up, and took to ice, evolving eventually into a defenceman. He joined the local Senators in 1924, and won a Stanley Cup in 1927 as part of a defensive foursome that also included King Clnacy, Ed Gorman, and Buck Boucher. In all, Smith played parts of eight seasons in Ottawa. He also suited up for the Detroit Falcons and Boston Bruins before playing one last NHL campaign with the New York Americans in 1934-35.

king toot

Whistleblower: Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of King Clancy, superstar NHL defenceman, long-serving referee, sometime coach. Born in Ottawa on a Tuesday of this date in 1902, Clancy played a decade with his hometown Senators in the 1920s, winning two Stanley Cup championships, before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1930. With the Leafs, he skated a further seven seasons and got in on another Cup. The photo here dates to April of 1947, when Clancy was 45 and reffing in the finals that saw Toronto dismiss the Montreal Canadiens four games to two. (Image courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

aide-mémoire: a short history of nhl assistant coaches

Mike Nykoluk was an up-and-coming 21-year-old forward when he played for the Winnipeg Warriors of the old WHL in 1955-56, a team loaded with former NHLers, including goaltender Ed Chadwick, defenceman Bill Juzda, and forwards Bill Mosienko and Paul Masnick. Also manning the Warrior blueline that year was a former New York Ranger, 30-year-old Fred Shero, who was just about to launch a coaching career that would take him to Philadelphia in the early 1970s.

It was there, of course, that Shero would contriveto guide the Flyers to successive Stanley Cup championships, in 1974 and ’75. Nykoluk was there for those, too, you might remember: following his brief NHL career (32 games with the ’56-57 Toronto Maple Leafs) and a longer cruise (16 seasons) in the AHL, Shero had hired him as an assistant coach in June of 1972.

Mike Nykoluk, I’m sorry to say, died last week at the age of 87. In 1978, he followed Shero when he went to New York to coach the Rangers. Mostly he was referred to (again) as an assistant, though Shero preferred to call him a co-coach. Eventually, between 1981 and 1984, Nykoluk got his chance to be the boss, seeing service through parts of four seasons as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Something he was not: the NHL’s first assistant coach.

That’s a claim that has been often repeated over the years, with confidence. Eric Duhatschek, for instance, in a 2017 Globe and Mail feature about the evolution of the role of coaches in the NHL declared that Shero had “hired the first official full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, in 1972.” History doesn’t agree.

Reminders of Nykoluk’s (supposed) trailblazering resurfaced last week, too, so maybe time for some clarifying. For all his achievements through the years, Nykoluk wasn’t even close to being the NHL’s original assistant coach.

Jeff Marek, Sportsnet’s esteemed hockey broadcaster, keeps a careful eye on hockey’s history, and he was attentive in seeing the record corrected …

… up to a point.

Because while Al McNeil and Doug Harvey did indeed precede Nykoluk as NHL assistants, others went before. Many others. Onward into the obscurity.

The first? That distinction would seem to belong to Dick Carroll, in Toronto, all the way back in the league’s inaugural season, 1917-18. There’s some cloudiness to this, so bear with me, if you will.

To start with, some straightening out of terminology is in order: in those early decades of pro hockey, teams tended to have one man who both coached and took care of player personnel, and he was usually called (in the baseball way) the manager. This was true, for example, in the mid-1920s, with icons like Art Ross in Boston, Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers, and Jack Adams in Detroit.

Toronto’s manager for the 1917-18 season was Charlie Querrie, who happened to be the man who ran Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, home to the new team. Querrie was appointed in early December of ’17, two weeks before the NHL’s opening night. Dick Carroll’s appointment as Querrie’s aide was announced at the same time.

So there it is: Dick Carroll was the NHL’s first assistant coach.

Ottawa’s Journal reporting the news (and misspelling the name) in December of 1917.

If that’s clear enough, here’s some cloud to obscure things: as the modern-day Maple Leafs recount it, Carroll was head coach in 1917, steering the team through its first 40 games and onward through to 1919. Querrie’s 1917 service is recognized in the team’s list of GMs; as a coach, he’s recognized for two later tours he served in the ’20s, by which time the team had turned into the St. Patricks.

Got that?

Wrong, I’d say, in my nitpicking way, with a kicker to the effect that, by failing to acknowledge the way things used to be, the Leafs have (not for the first time) muddled their own history.

Further fogging things is the fact through the course of the 1917-18 season, Toronto’s bench was anything but settled.

Charlie Querrie had taken the job in Toronto on the understanding that he’d be free to operate without the interference of Eddy Livingstone, the NHA owner, Toronto hockey eminence, persona non grata — it was to ostracize and spite Livingstone that the NHL was formed in the first place in November of 1917. Livingstone’s ongoing meddling seems to have prompted Querrie’s resignation at the end of December, after Toronto had played just three NHL games, leaving Dick Carroll in charge: the assistant coach was now the coach.

Unless Querrie didn’t quit.

Newspapers that had reported that Querrie was finished were soon correcting the record to say that he was still on the job, or would be again as soon as the team’s owners at the Montreal Arena Company guaranteed him that Livingstone would really, truly, be kept away from the team. Querrie also seems to have sought to download some of the coaching he was doing to Carroll.

This all seems to have taken some negotiating, leaving Carroll in charge. Querrie did return to the fold, but as of January of 1918, Carroll does seem to have assumed day-to-day — and game-to-game — control of the team, with Querrie moving more into the realm of — well, yes, what we would today recognize as GMing.

That April, when Toronto won the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era, accounts of the final series only confirm this division of labours: Carroll was coach, Querrie was manager. Glory to them both, along with a footnote or two: Querrie’s NHL’s coaching record should include those first three games that he coached, the very ones that constitute Carroll’s entire tenure as the league’s original assistant coach.

Hawk’s Nest: Helge Bostrum (left) and Clem Loughlin in May of 1934. The caption on this photo, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune: ‘Loughlin’s appointment as the new manager of the Chicago Blackhawks was confirmed yesterday morning. Helge Bostrum, former Hawk defense star, will be his assistant.”

Next in the NHL’s long line of assistant coaches? A non-definitive listing might look to Boston.

Sprague Cleghorn was 37 in 1927, playing out the last year of his long, distinguished, and very brutal career with the Boston Bruins. He was team captain again that year, as he had been previously, and he had a new role, too, as manager Art Ross’s (playing) assistant. Cleghorn was running practices and stood in as interim coach for several games in early 1928 when Ross was home with a stomach ailment. So he seems to have been second among assistant coaches.

Born in Copenhagen, Emil Iverson went from head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team in the 1920s to being hired as the NHL’s first full-time physical director when Major Frederic McLaughlin brought him on with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1930. Iverson was appointed head coach after that (the league’s first European-born pilot), only to be replaced in 1933 by Tommy Gorman … whom Iverson continued to serve as assistant.

Gorman departed in 1934, having won the Stanley Cup. When Clem Loughlin was named his successor, the newly retired Chicago defenceman Helge Bostrum signed on as his assistant.

More and more teams in the ’30s were hiring deputies, a review of newspaper archives shows, some of them who were still playing, some others fresh off hanging up their active careers. To wit:

Bill Cook aided Lester Patrick with the New York Rangers in 1936-37, with Frank Boucher stepping in to take up the same role the following season, ’37-38.

Frank Boucher’s Ranger role was reported in September of 1937.

Larry Aurie served as a playing assistant to Jack Adams with the Detroit Red Wings in 1938-39.

Paul Thompson was Chicago coach Bill Stewart’s playing assistant that same season.

When the Montreal Canadiens shifted coaches in the latter stages of that season, swapping in club secretary Jules Dugal to replace Cecil Hart, Babe Siebert was named captain and playing assistant.

In Chicago in 1938, Carl Voss was hired to assist Paul Thompson, now the coach of the Black Hawks. And in 1941, Helge Bostrum resurfaced as an assistant to Thompson.

The Bruins had a run of distinguished assistants through the ’40s and ‘50s, with Dit Clapper, Jack Crawford, and Milt Schmidt all appointed to the role at one point or another.

In 1958-59, Bert Olmstead served as a playing assistant to Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach. King Clancy, too, served Imlach and the Leafs the same role in Toronto in the ’60s, as well as working as assistant GM.

This is, again, no official register, but it does make clear that at least 17 men served as assistant coaches in the NHL before Mike Nykoluk started in Philadelphia in 1972.

I don’t know exactly how the Nykoluk glitch get into regular rotation, but it seems it started at the source. Discussing the hiring that June, 50 years ago, Flyers GM Keith Allen is quoted in several newspaper reports as confirming Nykoluk as a pioneer, with Fred Shero weighing in on the breakthrough, too. Why not add an assistant? “Football and baseball have assistant coaches,” Shero opined, “and those sports are not as physical or mentally demanding as hockey.”

The error was enshrined early on in the local literature. The Flyers’ 1975-76 yearbook, for instance, casually mentions it.

In Full Spectrum, a comprehensive history of the team from 1996, Jay Greenberg scales it back a bit: Nykoluk is identified there “one of the NHL’s first assistant coaches.”

Keith Allen is quoted as crediting Flyer owner Ed Snider for the hire. “Eddie came from football, where they had assistant coaches, and thought Freddie could use some help,” Allen recalled. “Mike had never been fast enough to play in the NHL,  but he was a smart player and I had a lot of respect for him.”

Helpmeet: A team-issued photo of Al McNeil, who appointed an assistant to Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Ruel in 1970 and, a few months later, succeeded him.

 

such a violent contact game: clarence campbell holds court at the statler hotel, 1951

Hearing Room: Ted Lindsay, NHL President Clarence Campbell, and Bill Ezinicki in Campbell’s suite at Boston’s Statler Hotel on the afternoon of Saturday, January 27, 1951. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Reasons hockey players ended up in hotel rooms in the 1950s: they were on road trips, with hours to kill before the game, or recuperating after it was all over, maybe it was the old Bismarck Hotel in Chicago, or the Croydon, could be that they were living there, in the Kimberly in New York, where some Canadian Rangers used to shack up during up the season, or in the Belvedere on 48th, or the Roosevelt on 45th, in the Theatre District. The Montreal Canadiens often put up at the Piccadilly, also on 45th, that’s where, in 1951, Maurice Richard grabbed a referee by the name of Hugh McLean “by the throat or tie,” to quote one account of the fracas — though I think that was in the lobby.

In Toronto, Richard and his teammates used to stay at the Royal York. The Mount Royal Hotel on Peel Street was a haven for NHL teams visiting Montreal in those years. The Sheraton-Cadillac in Detroit was where the Red Wings threw a big testimonial bash for Jack Adams in 1952 on the occasion of his having devoted a quarter-century to the cause of the wingéd wheel.

And in Boston? For years, hotelwise, hockey central was the Manger (rhymes with clangour), neighbouring the old Garden, which was built atop the city’s busy North Station. “Who could forget Boston and the old Manger Hotel where we stayed?” Canadiens’ captain Butch Bouchard wondered, years later. The coming and going of trains below would tremor the hockey players all night in their beds, he recalled. The Bruins used to convene there, too, in 1956, for example, when coach Milt Schmidt ran his training camp at the Garden. Herbert Warren Wind wrote about it in Sports Illustrated:

To make sure that his players were thinking of hockey, hockey, hockey, Schmidt made it mandatory for every member of his squad to live in the Hotel Manger, which adjoins the Garden. He moved in himself, the better to enforce a strict curfew of 11 p.m. Furthermore, every man had to be up by 7 — there would be none of that lolling in bed and skipping breakfast and then trying to slide through morning practice without a good meal to fuel you.

In his 2020 memoir, Willie O’Ree remembered arriving at the Manger in the fall of 1957 for his first NHL camp. “I’d never seen so much marble in my life. It was first-class, and just staying there made me feel as if I were already a full-fledged member of the Bruins.”

The Manger is where Bruins legend Eddie Shore is supposed to have chased another player through the lobby waving a stick— I’m not clear on whether it was a teammate or rival. It’s where, in his refereeing years, King Clancy got into a fight with Black Hawks’ coach Charlie Conacher. And the Manger was the scene of another momentous moment in Bruins history in 1947, when another Boston hero, Bill Cowley, summarily quit the team and his hockey career in a dispute with Bruins’ supremo Art Ross at a post-season team banquet.

Could it be that it was due to this long record of ruckus that NHL President Clarence Campbell chose to stay away from the Manger’s fray? I don’t have good information on that.

What I can say is that, in January of 1951 — 71 years ago last week — Campbell checked himself into the calmer — more commodious? — confines of the Statler Hotel, which is where he and a couple of his (concussed) players posed for the photo above. The Statler is about a mile-and-a-half south of the Manger and the Garden, down by Boston Common. The latter was razed in 1983; the Statler is Boston’s Park Plaza today.

And how did Campbell come to be entertaining Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki (while showing off the bathroom of his suite) on that long-ago Saturday afternoon?

It all started two days earlier, in Detroit, where Lindsay’s Red Wings had been hosting Ezinicki’s Bruins.

The Red Wings were leading the NHL, eight points ahead of second-place Toronto; the Bruins were 23 points back, fourth-placed in the six-team loop. Three of the league’s top six scorers wore Red-Wing red that season, names of Howe and Lindsay and Abel; Milt Schmidt was Boston’s leader, eighth in the league. The game ended as a 3-3 tie, with Howe and Abel adding assists to their collections.

Scoring wasn’t what this game would be remembered for. “At Detroit, there was more brawling than hockey playing.” That was the Canadian Press’ reporting next day. Enlivened was a word in the version The New York Times ran: an NHL game “enlivened by a bruising battle between Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki.”

“Fist fighting has no honest place in hockey,” Marshall Dann of Detroit’s Free Press wrote while also allowing that, for those in the 10,618-strong crowd who enjoyed hockey’s violence, what ensued was “probably … the best battle at Olympia this season.”

Ezinicki was 26, Lindsay a year younger. They’d been teammates once, winning a Memorial Cup championship together with the (Charlie Conacher-coached) 1944 Oshawa Generals. In 1949, playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ezinicki had led the NHL in penalty minutes, with Lindsay not far behind, in seventh place on the league list.

A year earlier, 1949-50, only Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers had compiled more penalty minutes than Ezinicki; Lindsay had finished third, a minute back of Ezinicki. Wild Bill the papers called him; the Associated Press identified Lindsay (a.k.a. Terrible Ted) as Detroit’s sparkplug. They’d clashed before in the NHL: in a 1948 game, in what the Boston Globe qualified as a “joust,” Lindsay freed four of Ezinicki’s teeth from his lower jaw.

In the January game in 1951, it was in the third period that things boiled over between the two malefactors. To start, they had exchanged (in Dann’s telling) “taps” with their sticks. “The whacks grew harder and finally they dropped sticks and gloves and went at it with fists.” Three times Lindsay seems to have knocked Ezinicki down: the third time the Boston winger’s head hit the ice, knocking him out.

Referee George Gravel assessed match penalties to both players for their deliberate efforts to injure each other. Both players were assessed automatic $100 fines.

In the aftermath, Red Wings physician Dr. C.L. Tomsu closed a cut from Lindsay’s stick on Ezinicki’s forehead with 11 stitches. He threaded another four into the side of Ezinicki’s head, where it had hit the ice, and four more inside his mouth. He also reported that Ezinicki had a tooth broken off in the violence.

Before departing Detroit, Ezinicki had his skull x-rayed; no serious injury was revealed, said his coach, Lynn Patrick. It took several days — and another x-ray — for Boston’s Dr. Tom Kelley to discover that Ezinicki’s nose was broken.

Lindsay took a stitch over one eye, and got treatment “for a scarred and bruised right hand.”

The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll reported that Lindsay stopped by the Olympia clinic as Ezinicki was getting his stitching.

“Are you all right?” Lindsay asked. … The angry Ezinicki growled, “I’m all right,” and Lindsay left.

The Boston Daily Globe reported that the two had dropped their gloves and “slugged it out for more than a minute.” A Canadian Press dispatch timed the fighting at three minutes: “the length of a single round of a boxing match.”

None of the immediate (i.e. next-day) reports included the term stick-swingfest. That was a subsequent description, a few weeks after the fact, in February. Much of the reporting was couched in standard-issue hockey jovialese, as though the two men’s attempts to behead one another were purely pantomime.

The two teams were due to meet again in Boston two nights later, on the Saturday night, but before the two teams hit the ice, NHL President Clarence Campbell called for a hearing at the Statler to decide, hours before the puck dropped, on what today would be called supplemental discipline. The match penalties that referee Gravel had assessed came with automatic suspensions, but it was up to Campbell to decide how long the offenders would be out.

Campbell had been planning to be visiting Boston, as it turned out, on his way down from NHL HQ in Montreal to a meeting of club owners scheduled for Miami Beach. So that was convenient. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss would conduct the hearing into what had happened in Detroit, then Campbell would come to his decision.

We Three: Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

And so the scales of what passed for NHL justice weighed the evidence. Ezinicki and Boston coach Lynn Patrick were scheduled to appear in Campbell’s suite at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, with Lindsay and Detroit coach Tommy Ivan following at 1 p.m. George Gravel was also on deck to report what he’d witnessed.

In the event, the teams were late arriving in Boston — their train from Detroit was delayed for five hours after hitting a car at an Ontario rail crossing — and proceedings had to be hurried along.

It would have been mid-afternoon when the scene above ensued. No-one else spoke to the reporters who assembled to hear the verdict: this was Clarence Campbell’s show.

“Everything has been said,” Ezinicki offered. Lindsay: “Nothing to say.”

“Neither of them had a whisper to offer in defence of their actions,” Campbell said.

The Boston Globe reminded readers that Campbell, himself a former NHL referee, had a lawyerly past, and that in 1945, just before assuming the NHL presidency, he’d been a Canadian Army prosecutor at the German war crime trials.

“There are three factors to be considered in settling a case of this kind,” he began. “First, the amount of incapacitation; second, provocation, and third, the past records of the players.”

“I don’t feel there was any real incapacitation in this instance,” Campbell continued. “I’m sure that Ezinicki would be able to play all right against the Wings if he were allowed.” (Ezinicki later concurred, for the record: he said he felt “all right.”)

“I don’t consider either of these men had provocation. They went at each other willfully.”

“These two fellows’ previous records are hard to exceed, not for one but for all seasons.”

His sentences? Campbell noted that the punishments he was handing down were the most severe of his five-year tenure as NHL president. Lindsay and Ezinicki were each fined $300 (including the original $100 match-penalty sanctions) and both were suspended (without pay) for the next three Boston-Detroit games. The fines were, in fact, more akin to peace bonds: so long as they behaved themselves, Lindsay and Ezinicki could each apply to have $200 of their fines returned to them.

“It depends upon their records the remainder of the season,” Campbell said, “if they’re not too proud to ask for it.”

Campbell did have some sharp words for the linesmen who’d been working the game in Detroit, Mush March and Bill Knott, who’d failed to quell the disturbance. “An order has been sent out reminding linesmen rules call for them to heed instructions in their rule books which say they ‘shall intervene immediately in fights,’” he said.

Campbell did, finally, have an important policy distinction to make before he concluded his sentencing session at the Statler Hotel. “I want to emphasize,” he told the writers gathered, “that I’m handing out these penalties entirely for the stick-swinging business and not for their fist-fighting.”

“In 1949, when there was a mild epidemic of match penalties, the board of governors instructed me to stiffen up on sticking incidents. I’m following that policy.”

“We want to stamp out the use of sticks. We’re not so concerned with fists . Fighting is not encouraged,” Campbell explained, “but it is tolerated as an outlet for the high spirits in such a violent contact game.”

It was the end of February by the time Ezinicki and Lindsay had served out their suspensions and were back on the ice to face one another in a game in Boston. They restrained themselves, I guess: neither of the antagonists featured in the penalty record or write-ups generated by the 1-1 tie that the Red Wings and Bruins shared in.

Campbell had a busy schedule all the same as February turned to March in ’51.

He took a suite at Toronto’s Royal York as the month got going and it was there that he decreed, after hearing from the parties involved (including referee Gravel, again), that Maple Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson would be suspended for two games and fined $200 for swinging his stick at Adam Brown of the Chicago Black Hawks.

“It appears to me as if he had a mental lapse,” Campbell said of Mortson.

Next up, a few days later, Campbell was back in his office in Montreal to adjudicate Maurice Richard’s New York hotel run-in with referee Hugh McLean.

During a game with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that week, the Rocket had objected to a penalty he’d been assessed. For his protestations, he’d found himself with a misconduct and a $50 fine.

Later, when Richard happened to run into McLean in the lobby of the Piccadilly Hotel on 45th, just west of Broadway, he’d accosted him.

Campbell fined Richard $500 on a charge of “conduct detrimental to the welfare of hockey.”

Yes, he decided, Richard had appl wrote in rendering his decision, “that Richard did get McLean by the throat or tie …. Richard’s action in grabbing McLean was accompanied by a lot of foul and abusive language at the official which was continued through the entire incident lasting several minutes, and during which several women were present.”

Campbell did chide press coverage of the incident, which had been, he found, “exaggerated” the situation, since no blows had actually been landed in the fracas.

Campbell did say a word in defence of his referee, saying that Richard’s conduct was “completely unjustifiable.” His fine, Campbell insisted, would serve both as punishment for his bad behaviour and as a warning to other hockey players not to attack referees on the ice, or in hotels — or anywhere, really, at any time.

Justice League: Back row, from left, that’s Detroit coach Tommy Ivan, NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss, referee George Gravel, Boston coach Lynn Patrick. Up front: Ted Lindsay, Clarence Campbell, Bill Ezinicki. Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

 

 

a peach blossoms in ottawa

Capital Champs: A birthday today for the man in the lower left corner, sometimes called the Pembroke Peach, Frank Nighbor, who was born where the Muskrat River meets the Ottawa on a Thursday of this date in 1893. A scintillant centreman, he was 34 in 1927, playing in his 15th season for Ottawa’s mighty Senators as they beat the Boston Bruins to collect their fourth Stanley Cup in eight years. Nighbor was the first man to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, in 1924, and a year later he collected the very first Lady Byng. Seven of the 12 players in this portrait ended up in the Hall of Fame, including Nighbor, captain Buck Boucher, King Clancy, Cy Denneny, goaltender Alec Connell, Hooley Smith, and the future architect of the Detroit Red Wings, Jack Adams.

collateral damage: a faceful of rocket richard’s stick, and gloves, and other adventures with an nhl whistle

Purpled Hayes: That’s rookie referee George Hayes on the ice in January of 1947 at Maple Leaf Gardens, struck down by Maurice Richard’s flying stick. Attending the patient is linesman Eddie Mepham. Richard looks on with interest and, I think, concern; that’s the Rocket’s stick still airborne behind Hayes. Leafs’ #7 is Bud Poile.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won the game, but it was this photograph of stickstruck referee George Hayes that ended up making the front page of the Globe and Mail on the morning after, 75 years ago this week.

Welcome to life as an NHL official in the late 1940s. Well, the turbulent times of Hayes, anyway, whose start in the league was auspicious for all the wrong reasons, and whose temperament, — and/or lifestyle — and/or suspicion of doctors — didn’t seem to promise much in the way of a long career.

And yet, and yet: in the course of a 19-year career, Hayes would become the first NHL linesman to work 1,000 games. All told, he skated in 1,549 NHL games, regular-season, playoff, and all-star.

The scene above? On Wednesday, January 15, 1947, just months into that tenure, Hayes was working the whistle in Toronto as the Leafs entertained the Montreal Canadiens. Syl Apps and Gaye Stewart got the goals Toronto needed, but (said the Globe’s Jim Vipond) goaltender Turk Broda was “the main factor” in Toronto’s 2-1 win. It cemented the Leafs’ hold on first overall in the NHL, with Montreal standing second.

Here’s Vipond on the mishap depicted here, which Hayes suffered in third period:

Five stitches were necessary to close the gash which split open his left eyebrow. He returned to finish his job after being patched up in the Gardens hospital. Hayes was struck by Maurice (The Rocket) Richard’s stick which accidentally flew out of the Montreal player’s hands. A fraction of an inch lower and the referee might have lost an eye.

Fans at Maple Leaf Gardens booed the very notion of the 32-year-old referee as it was announced that he’d been hurt. For Vipond, that was a “new low for sportsmanship” in Toronto sporting annals. “And the mild clapping when he returned stitched up only partly atoned for the misdemeanor.”

Born in 1914 in Montreal, Hayes grew up in Ingersoll, Ontario. “I could skate before I could walk,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1975. He learned his officiating chops in the OHA and AHL. In 1946, he was considered one of the top amateur referees in Canada. He was, no question, of the busiest: through the 1945-46 season, he officiated 105 games, including the Memorial Cup final, travelling some 32,000 kilometres that year as he attended to his duties.

It was interim NHL President Red Dutton who signed him to a big-league contract in April of ’46. The salary was $2,000 a year, with a bonus of $25 paid for each game he refereed.

By the time Hayes started his new job that fall, former NHL referee Clarence Campbell had taken the helm of the NHL. The six-team league, which played a 60-game schedule, employed just four referees that year: Hayes joined King Clancy, Bill Chadwick, and Georges Gravel on the whistle-blowing staff, who were supported by a dozen or so linesmen.

It was as a linesman that Campbell first eased Hayes into his new job, through October and November of ’46. He got his first assignment as a referee in Boston, where on a Wednesday night, November 27, he adjudicated a 5-2 Bruins’ win over the New York Rangers. He seems to have done just fine, which is to say he managed to stay out of the papers. Let the record show that the very first infraction he whistled was committed by Bruins’ centre Milt Schmidt, a cross-check.

It was one of only two penalties Hayes called on the night, which presumably pleased Campbell who, to start the season and his regime, had declared that he’d told his referees to err on the side of silence. “There’ll be a full 60 minutes of action,” he promised. “I’ve instructed all officials to keep the game moving and to lay off the whistle unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

The first blood Hayes spilled in his NHL career would seem to have been on New Year’s day of 1947, when he was reffing Leafs and Red Wings in Toronto. “Gorgeous George essayed to wrestle [Leaf] Bud Poile and [Wing] Pete Horeck — both at the same time — and finished up counting his teeth carefully,” Jim Coleman wrote in the Globe and Mail. Actually, he got a stick in the nose in the melee and the game was delayed while he went in search of patchwork.

The encounter with Richard’s stick came next, which had Coleman calling him “a scarred hireling.” Following in quickish succession was another game featuring Montreal, this one in Detroit, in which Canadiens’ Ken Mosdell was so irked by a penalty that Hayes had assessed him that the centreman (as the Gazette described it) skated hard against Hayes’ leg and had him stumbling” Hayes stayed up; Mosdell got a 10-minute misconduct for his efforts.

Around this same time, it was reported that Campbell had taken the league’s newest referee aside for a chat in the wake of criticism (notably from the Detroit Red Wings) that Hayes was letting too much go in the games he was overseeing.

If so, Hayes seems to have got the message: at the end of the next game he reffed, a torrid one between Toronto and Chicago, he announced that he was augmenting the penalties he’d assessed with $25 fines to four players who’d been brawling. (His accounting, as it turned out, was slightly off: one of those punished was Leaf left winger Nick Metz, though it was his teammate and younger brother, right winger Don Metz, who’d been in the melee.)

George Hayes’ rookie season didn’t end quietly. That February, in another fractious game between Toronto and Montreal, he gave the notoriously peaceable Leaf captain Syl Apps a 10-minute misconduct. Here’s the Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson describing what happened:

Apps, who had only one minor penalty up to Sunday, received his misconduct after a shoving and high-sticking bee in the Canadien end. Not on the ice at the time the fracas began, Apps said that as team captain, he skated out to talk to the referee after the whistle had blown. Hayes, he said, told him the penalty was for having too many men on the ice. No penalties were given participants in the fracas.

According to Jim Coleman, as Apps skated to the penalty box, Montreal’s designated rankler Murph Chamberlain followed along to apply his needle: “There goes the Byng trophy, Syl, old boy.”

Maybe so, maybe not: what’s true is that when the post-season votes were tallied that year, Apps was second to Boston winger Bobby Bauer. Hayes’ iffy misconduct was, by then, missing from Apps’ charge-sheet: upon review, Clarence Campbell deemed that Hayes had erred and so erased the penalty from the league’s records. That was an NHL first at the time and, as far as I know, it hasn’t happened again.

March of 1947 had its own trials for Hayes. After a playoff game between Montreal and Boston, Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke declared his officiating “the worst I’ve seen in my life.”

Rocket Richard again figured in the narrative, though this time he was the one who was cut, in a clash at the boards with Boston’s Ken Smith. The former felt the latter deserved a major, but Hayes called a minor, and when Richard slapped his stick on the ice in disgust, Hayes drew one his 10-minute misconducts from his quiver. Asked about Hayes after the game, Selke said, “Clarence Campbell shouldn’t have sent out a child to do a man’s job.”

Campbell came out in defence of Hayes on that occasion: he had “handled the game quite competently.” But the following season, Hayes was back working as an NHL linesman, mostly, his reffing assignments much reduced. Not that he was, on the lines, protected from further harm: in the first weeks of the 1947-48 season, he was either pushed or punched by Montreal defenceman Butch Bouchard, who was duly fined $50.

In 1954, Hayes got to rekindle his relationship with Rocket Richard. This was late December, just three months before Richard punched another linesman, Cliff Thompson, in the face on the way to a match penalty and the suspension that exploded in an eponymous riot. It was Leafs and Canadiens again, in Toronto, and Richard was sparring with Leaf centre Bob Bailey who, as the Rocket later told it, gouged at his eyes. Here’s Richard’s account of what happened next, from his 1971 Stan-Fischler-assisted memoir:

When I got up I was madder’n hell. But I couldn’t see very well. George Hayes, the linesman, was trying told hold me off, and that got me even angrier, because all I wanted to do was get back at Bailey. Hayes didn’t mean any harm to me but I was furious over anybody trying to hold me so I went after Hayes. I didn’t hit him with my fist; just my gloves with a sort of “get away, man, you’re bothering me” kind of push. I just didn’t want to see anybody around me. But Hayes was big and strong and he managed to keep me away. I got fined good for that one and, even worse, I didn’t catch up with Bailey.

“Molesting an official” was the charge entered by Clarence Campbell in fining Richard a total of $250 for that incident.

Hayes was an imposing figure on the ice in his day, 6’3’’, 200+ pounds. “Ox-like” was a description invoked at the time of his death, in 1987. “He used to smell trouble,” NHL referee Art Skov said then. “He’d step between players. He knew how to talk to guys like the Rocket and calm them down. He saved me and a lot of other referees a lot of trouble.”

Break It Up: Linesmen Mush March (left) and George Hayes attend a scuffle during the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Black Hawks at Chicago Stadium in December of 1950. “There were several fights in the final period resulting from the Hawks’ general frustration at not being able to score,” UPI noted in a write-up of the game, “but no one was hurt.” Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt, who’d end up winning the Hart Trophy that year as NHL MVP, atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing. Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing.

Skov, who started as a linesman in the later 1950s, remembered Hayes telling him and his fledgling colleagues never to touch Richard, no matter what. “Talk to him, talk about anything,” Skov recalled Hayes saying, “the weather, the news, anything, but never handle him. When the Rocket was mad, he was mad. He might do anything.”

Obituaries would, eventually, cite Hayes’ individualism, hot temper, his stubbornness, love of argument, his drinking.

There was the story of his days as a talented amateur baseball player playing for the Tillsonburg Pandrieds in southern Ontario. Those came to an abrupt halt in 1940 when he took exception to the effrontery of an Aylmer second baseman. “I hauled off and broke his nose,” Hayes later recalled. In the ruckus that ensued, Hayes picked up an umpire and (as he told it) threw him over a fence.

Lionel Conacher was chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission at the time, and it was the former NHLer who banned Hayes from playing any sports. By the time he was re-instated, he’d taken up as a hockey official.

The episode, Hayes said, taught him “tolerance for the player’s point of view.”

“I wanted to treat them the same as I’d like to be treated.”

Whisky (Canadian Club) and beer (Molson’s) were his drinks. There was the story that when Hayes started working the lines in the NHL, Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss thought that putting him under King Clancy’s wing might regulate his intake. “Campbell knew King didn’t drink,” Hayes had once recalled,” and I did. But he didn’t know that King would sit up with me until five in the morning and drink ginger ale.”

“Hayes makes no secret of his drinking,” a 1965 profile reported, adding Hayes’ own disclaimer. “Sure, I took drinks after a game,” he said. “Who doesn’t? The players do, the officials do. This is a tough racket. But I’ve never taken a drink before a game. I’ve never been in a bar before a game.”

Hayes was fined, apparently, for having a friendly post-game drink with a couple Chicago Black Hawks, Pierre Pilote and Frank Sullivan: $50.

He got into trouble in 1961 for his travel habits: Campbell suspended him for two weeks for going coach on trains to games instead of riding first class while still charging the NHL for the more expensive ticket. At the time, Hayes insisted it wasn’t about the money. “I just can’t sleep in a sleeper, but I can sleep in a day coach.”

That may have been so; he also later said that all the officials were doing it. “the league only allowed us $10 a day and that was supposed to pay for the hotel, meals, taxis, and our laundry. We went in the hole every day. That’s why I rode day coaches — to make up the losses.”

“It would make you $20 or $30 per trip.”

Campbell said that NHL officials had no choice in the matter: they needed a good night’s sleep before a game. “We want officials who are fit and in proper condition to work,” he said.

In 1963, Carl Voss docked Hayes $50 for taking the ice unshaven for an afternoon game.

If it doesn’t sound like a sustainable relationship that Hayes and his employers had, well, no, it wasn’t. It came to its professional end in 1965 when Campbell required all NHL officials to undergo an eye test and Hayes refused.

“Hell,” he protested, “I’ve tested my eyes for years in bars reading the labels on whisky bottles. I can still do it, so who needs an eye test? A guy is an inch or two offside and I can call it from 85 feet away. There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight and there never has been.”

“We all took the test, except George,” Art Skov said in 1987, “and nobody could talk him into it. The part of it is, the guy doing the test was a war buddy of referee Eddie Powers and, even if you were blind as a bat, he was going to give you a good report.”

Campbell wasn’t backing down, either. Again, Hayes was suspended, though this time there was no going back. He never worked another NHL game.

“My name was mud,” he said. “They were going to get me one way or another.”

Nineteen years he’d worked the NHL ice. Towards the end, the job that had started at a base salary of $2,000 was paying him $4,000 a year for working 80 games. Linesmen were by then getting $50 for any additional games they toiled at, $100 for a playoff game. For 1963-64, Hayes made about $6,300 all in.

In his exile, Hayes returned to the family farm in Beachville, in the Ingersoll area. He refereed benefit and oldtimers’ games. He became a sports columnist for the Sentinel-Review in nearby Woodstock, Ontario, weighing in regularly to barrack Voss and Campbell. A 1967 profile said that he walked ten miles a day while noting that it was five miles from his gate to the Ingersoll Inn, his favourite pub, and that he didn’t drive.

He was bitter but not surprised at being overlooked year after year by the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I’ve been blackballed,” he told a reporter in the spring of 1987 when Matt Pavelich became the first NHL linesman to be inducted. “You don’t get any money for it,” Hayes said, “so I don’t really care if I ever get elected. But I’m not bragging when I say I should be in it.”

Georges Hayes died that year, in November. He was 73, though he insisted until the end that he was 67. He had circulation problems in his legs, and had developed gangrene, but he refused to see a doctor, let alone visit a hospital. “George was just as stubborn as always,” his widow, Judy, told a reporter in the wake of his death.

“George just didn’t believe in doctors,” Art Skov said. “We had a tough time getting him sewed up when he’d get cut during games.”

“Nobody could ever tell George what to do,” Matt Pavelich said. “He had no faith in doctors or hospitals. He wanted things in his own hands and that was that, his way or no way.”

No-one from the NHL showed up for Hayes’ funeral, or sent a condoling word, though a phalanx of veteran officials was on hand: Skov and Pavelich, Bruce Hood, John D’Amico, Scotty Morrison, Ron Wicks.

A year later, George Hayes did find his way into the Hall of Fame, a member of the class of 1988 that also included Guy Lafleur, Tony Esposito, Brad Park, Buddy O’Connor, and Philadelphia Flyers’ owner Ed Snider.

Today, if you look him up in the Hall’s register of honoured members, you’ll find Hayes remembered as a “controversial, colourful, proud, and competitive” character who “loved hockey with his every breath.” He’s credited there, too, as a trailblazer in collegial politesse: he was, apparently, the first official to hand-deliver pucks to his colleagues for face-offs, rather than toss or slide them over.

making waves on the montreal blueline

Born in 1902 in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield in Quebec on a Saturday of this date, Albert Leduc was a pillar of the Montreal defence for nine years, starting in the mid-1920s, winning two Cups with Canadiens along the way. (He also played short stints with the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers.) Accounts of his antics on the ice sometimes included the phrases “his legs working like pistons, Albert dashes down and swerves at no defence” (1931) and “crashed Paul Thompson into the fence so hard in the first period that said fence was broken” (1933). As a 23-year-old rookie, he scored ten goals in 1925-26, second among all NHL defencemen that year, outscoring Lionel Conacher, King Clancy, and Sprague Cleghorn.

The first money he was ever paid for playing hockey? Leduc had a story he told about that in 1935, by which time he was coaching in the Can-Am league. Back in his teenaged years, while he was still a schoolboy during the First World War, Leduc was a bright enough hockey prospect to be invited to play in an exhibition game against the NHA’s barnstorming Montreal Wanderers. The venue was Ormstown, Quebec, about 20 kilometres from home. It was a big opportunity that young Leduc didn’t mean to miss, and so to get to the game, he hired a horse on credit, counting on being paid for his hockey efforts. But: when he arrived, he was told his talents weren’t needed.

“I am stricken,” Leduc recounted in the ’30s, as told in a contemporary newspaper reporter’s rendering of Leduc’s diction, “I protest. I cry out. I cry out so loud that the great Arthur Ross come along and say, ‘Hey, what is all this?’”

A powerhouse defenceman in his own right long before he started with the Boston Bruins, Ross, the Wanderer captain for many of those wartime years, listened to Leduc’s tale of woe and unpaid horse-rental.

“The great Mr. Ross, he tell me: ‘O.K. for the ’orse. Cry no more but shut up. You play for us. We need a guy with a ’orse and maybe you better bring the ’orse on the ice with you.’ But I think he joke, though Mr. Ross always look very stern.”

So Leduc played for the Wanderers in Ormstown, scored a goal, even. “After the game, the great Mr. Ross comes to me and he says: ‘How much for the ’orse?’”

“I say: ‘Five dollar fix everything,’ and what do you think now? The great Mr. Ross say: ‘Here, kid, give those ’orse a few oats,’ and he hand me fifteen dollar. I am broke down at such kindness. I pay for my ’orse, I have a profit.”

in harmony: in 1923, eddie gerard led ottawa’s original senators in song, all the way to a stanley cup

Ottawa’s Musical Ride, 1923: Posing in front of their CPR carriage “Neptune,” Ottawa’s Senators arrive in Vancouver in March of 1923, on their way to claiming the Stanley Cup. They ( and their friends) are, from left: Baz O’Meara (Montreal Star), Ed Baker (Ottawa Citizen), owner Ted Dey, manager (and stand-in coach) Tommy Gorman, Cy Denneny, Clint Benedict, Punch Broadbent, Harry Helman, Lionel Hitchman, King Clancy, captain Eddie Gerard, Billy Boucher, Buck Boucher, Frank Nighbor, trainer Cozy Dolan.

There was no better team in hockey through the 1920s than the Ottawa Senators, who won four Stanley Cups in eight years with a line-up stacked with future Hall-of-Famers. Coached by the brilliant (and sadly undersung) Pete Green through the first years of the NHL’s first decade, the Senators counted on a core of supremely skilled players in those years that included Clint Benedict in goal, King Clancy and Lionel Hitchman on defence, and Cy Denneny, Frank Nighbor, and Jack Darragh on the forward line.

Captaining the team through those first three championships was the anchorman of the defence, Eddie Gerard. Born in Ottawa on a Saturday of this date in 1890, Gerard deserves a bigger fame, better broadcast, than he has nowadays. The modern-day Senators could get things going — and should — by retiring his number 2 and raising it to the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre. Then again, according to me, they ought to be hoisting a whole wardrobe’s worth of sweaters to honour that golden age, including Nighbor’s number 6, Cy Denneny’s 5, and Darragh’s 7, just for a start.

Gerard played his last NHL season in 1923, when, aged 33, he steered the Senators their third Cup in four years. (He actually got his name on four straight Cups, but that’s a tale for another day.) It was early March when the Senators beat the Montreal Canadiens in two games to take the NHL title, whereupon the team boarded a CPR train for Vancouver.

On arrival to the coast, Ottawa surpassed the PCHL Vancouver Maroons in four games to earn the right to meet the Edmonton Eskimos in for the Stanley Cup, which they collected by way of a two-game sweep of the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos.

On the rails heading west, the Senators were accommodated in a special carriage, the “Neptune.” It’s worth noting that they left two prominent members of their team behind in the capital: winger Jack Darragh and coach Pete Green were both unable to make the trip west. Canadiens winger Billy Boucher did join the Senators for their Stanley Cup swing — he was from Ottawa, after all, a brother to Senators’ defenceman Buck Boucher — but didn’t, in the end, play a single game on the coast. So Ottawa had just nine players available for the six games they played on their way to winning the Cup.

It wasn’t easy. During the finals, Harry Helman cut his foot and was unable to play. Buck Boucher and Lionel Hitchman played through injuries, while Eddie Gerard suited up for the last two games despite torn ligaments in a shoulder that was also doubly fractured. In the deciding game, after Clint Benedict was penalized for chopping at Joe Simpson’s skates, 20-year-old Ottawa defenceman King Clancy took a turn in goal, proving himself to be uniquely versatile — earlier in Ottawa’s undermanned visit to the coast, he’d also taken turns at centre and on both wings as well as doing his regular duty as a defender.

Back in Ottawa that April, Eddie Gerard was invited to address the regular Wednesday-night meeting of the youngsters of the Canuck Club at the YMCA. His young audience sat on the gym floor to listen to the Senator captain tell them (as the Ottawa Citizen reported it) “that the first man signed on by the Ottawa players before starting out West was ‘Mr. Harmony,’ and he said that without harmony nothing could succeed.”

His message was, of course, about playing as a team, with a shared purpose — but it was also about, well, harmonies.

Turns out that the Senators packed a small piano for their train journey west, with Gerard and trainer Cozy Dolan as principal performers, ably accompanied by Lionel Hitchman on violin, Clancy on harmonica, and Helman on drums. “This might appear on paper as a joke orchestra,” Citizen sports editor Ed Baker wrote, “but it is not. It’s a real honest to goodness band.”

Gerard recalled this a decade later, when he was coaching the New York Americans. “Harmony on a hockey club,” he told Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1931, “is half the battle. And one kind of harmony brings another. I like to sign singing players. If they knock around together off the ice, they’re liable to fight for another on it. Conversely, the player who curses his teammate in the hotel and on the trains isn’t going to pass him in front of the goal when he should.”

That’s when he remembered the musical rides of the ’20s. The Senators had shunted west in 1921, too, also (I guess) with a piano aboard? “All the fellows could sing,” Gerard testified in 1931, “but I think Sprague Cleghorn had the best voice. Our trainer, Cozy Dolan, could play anything from the big drum to the little piccolo.”

One more (non-musical note), on a matter of historical housekeeping: shouldn’t Tommy Gorman get the credit for coaching the Senators to that 1923 Cup? With Pete Green staying home in Ottawa, manager Gorman does seem to have taken charge on the Ottawa bench for those western playoff games that year. And yet in most of the standard records, Gorman’s coaching career is listed as beginning in 1925, when he took over the New York Americans. Seems like deserves the credit for the work he did in that regard for the Senators, too, in claiming that Stanley Cup.

 

 

 

 

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

jumping jimmy

Jimmy Orlando played six seasons on defence for the Detroit Red Wings, helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1943. Born in Montreal in 1915, Orlando died on a Saturday of this date in 1992 at the age of 77. His wife noted that week that he’d watched hockey right up the end of his life. “He thought they were all overpaid, I’ll tell you that,” Doris Orlando said. “His favourite was Mario Lemieux.”

Uncompromising might be one word for Orlando’s approach to the game when he played, excessively violent two more. He led the NHL penalty minutes the last three seasons of his career. In Chicago in 1941, after he punched a fan and knocked him unconscious, he went unpunished by league or law. A year later, at Maple Leaf Gardens, he infamously swung his stick at Toronto rookie Gaye Stewart’s head, who swung his back at Orlando’s. Photographer Nat Turofsky was on hand to document the bloody aftermath. Both players were assessed match penalties, and each was summarily fined $50 by referee King Clancy.

Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman called for NHL president Frank Calder to ban Orlando outright. “If the president and directors of the league fail to act swiftly and firmly, they might as well close up shop.” Calder waited almost a week to come to his decision: Orlando and Stewart were each ordered to pay $100 to the Red Cross or any other war charity, and Orlando was barred from playing games in Toronto while Stewart was forbidden to represent the Leafs in Detroit — “until further notice.” Those sentences lasted not quite four months — Red Dutton rescinded them when he stepped in as interim NHL president after Calder’s death in February of ’43.