It was in Smiths Falls, Ontario, that Don McKenney was born on this date in 1934 — a Monday, then — which means that the former centreman is 87 today. He made his entrance to the NHL with the Boston Bruins in the 1954-55 season as a 20-year-old, finishing second that year in the voting for the Calder Trophy behind Eddie Litzenberger, who’d split his season between Montreal and the Chicago Black Hawks. McKenney scored 20 or more goals for the Bruins in six consecutive seasons, and that was the source of his nickname, Slip, which the Boston Globe clarified in 1960 referenced his ability to slide pucks past goaltenders. For goals and good graces, he won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1960. McKenney served as the team’s captain for two seasons in the early 1960s. He was the 16th captain in club history, for the record — not, as the Bruins’ faultily maintain, the tenth. His 13 NHL seasons also included stints with the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues.
A birthday today, yes, for Wayne Gretzky, who’s 60, and many happy returns to him. But another extraordinary (if under-remembered) talent born on this date, in 1893, when it was a Thursday? The pride and glory of Pembroke, Ontario, centreman and hook-check artist extraordinaire Frank Nighbor. The Peach, they used to call him, as well as the Percolator and Peerless; sometimes, in contemporary accounts of his hockey exploits, all three words show up in alliterative aggregate. He won his first Stanley Cup in 1915, when he played with Vancouver’s Millionaires, before returning east to star with the Ottawa Senators, with whom he won four more Cups, in 1920, ’21, ’23, and ’27. In 1924, was the first ever recipient of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. The following year, when Lady Byng decided to donate a trophy to the league in the name of gentlemanly hockey played with supreme skill, Nighbor won that, too. Just for good measure, he won it again the following year, in 1926.
Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.
Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.
Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.
I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:
For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.
When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.
He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.
In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.
They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.
So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.
Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.
Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.
Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, and Ryan O’Reilly of St. Louis are the finalists in the running for the 2020 edition of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, which is intended to recognize NHL players whose superior skills coincide with exceptional sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. With the NHL set to announce the winner today, maybe a gesture to the 1958 Lady Byng laureate might be in order, Camille Henry, who also happens to have died on a Thursday of this date in 1997, of diabetes, at the age of 64.
The best of Henry’s 14 years in the NHL saw him wearing New York Ranger blue, though he also skated for the Chicago Black Hawks and St. Louis Blues. In addition to the ’58 Lady Byng that recognized his mix of good manners and superior skills, claims for his fame might also include the Calder Trophy he won as the NHL’s top rookie in 1954. They might reference, equally, the chase he took up in 1960 when a high-spirited fan smacked him in the face with his own stick. That incident came a year after the portrait here was taken, or two years after yet another newspaper article made the rounds focussing on his weight, or lack thereof. Spoiler alert: at 24, Henry was on the smaller side, 5’7”, “a scrawny-looking French-Canadian youngster,” as profiled by an unnamed Associated Press correspondent, “who answers to the nickname of Camille the Eel.”
This was January of 1958, when Henry’s 23 goals happened to be more than anyone else had scored in the NHL to that point, ahead of Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Dickie Moore of Montreal. (Both would end up passing Henry by season’s end; he finished the year with 32 to Howe’s 33 and Moore’s 36.)
“Camille weighs about 149 pounds soaking wet,” the AP explained, “which he usually is after most of the games in the bruising, contact-filled sport.”
Henry’s view? “I figure being light helps me,” he said. “I can sometimes squeeze in among the bigger men, get my stick in the way of the puck and get it past the goalie. If I was heavier I might not be able to maneuver so well.”
(Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343730)
August 4 was a Thursday in 1921, and the weather was fine: the morning edition of Montreal’s La Patrie promised that, despite some rain in Alberta and Saskatchewan, “il fait généralement beau et modérément chaud par tout le Dominion.”
The national news that summer’s day was of forest fires on the rampage near Dawson City in the Yukon, and also around Springhill Mines, Nova Scotia. From Toronto’s Don Jail came word of the hanging, on Wednesday, of two men, named Hotrum and McFadden, who’d been convicted of shooting a drugstore-owner, name of Sabine, they’d been robbing. “It was stated,” the Gazette reported, “that Hotrum smiled as he left the death cell.”
Closer to home, on the Montreal waterfront, vessels tied up included the Minnedosa, the Cornishman, and the Canadian Seigneur; the shipping news disclosed that others, includingthe Mina Brea, the Bosworth, and the Canadian Commander, were headed into harbour.
An open-air dance was on the cards that week, in the Summer Garden, the Jardin d’Été, at the corner of Sherbrooke and Saint-Laurent. At the pictures, the New Grand was featuring David Powell in Appearances, while the Belmont had Marie Doro starring in Midnight Gambols.
In foreign news, the world was reeling from the shock of the death in Naples on August 2 of Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, at just 48. Others headlines brought tidings from Dublin, where Éamon de Valera was taking steps to declare himself President of the Republic.
In London, the seventh anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany was noted but — for the first time since 1918 — not observed with any ceremony.
From Liverpool came news that Lord Byng of Vimy and Lady Byng were aboard the Empress of France, setting sail for Canada so that he could take up his duties as the new governor-general. The couple, along with their beloved spaniel, Pax, was expected to arrive in Quebec on August 11, where Prime Minister Arthur Meighen would greet them before the couple journeyed on to Ottawa the following day.
Lord Byng, of course, had commanded the Canadian Corps through the Vimy campaign of 1917. “A very simple living man, modest and retiring,” the press was reporting that week. “He has also a passion for tree-felling.”
As for Lady Byng, she had a new novel due out in the fall, Barriers, that McClelland & Stewart would be publishing. The winter ahead would also make her a hockey fan. Introduced to the defending Stanley Cup champion Ottawa Senators in December, she was soon taking a regular seat in the vice-regal box at Dey’s Arena, developing a devotion to the team, even as she came to wish that the game itself might conduct itself in a more gentlemanly way. With that in mind, before her husband’s tenure came to an end in 1926, she’d donate the trophy that bears her name.
Not noted in any Montreal newspaper columns that eventful week in 1921: the birth of a baby in Montreal’s east end on this day, all those 99 years ago, a first son for a young carpenter named Onésime Richard and his wife, Alice.
Joseph Henri Maurice was what they’d call their boy, known as Maurice, mostly, in his earliest years. Later, of course, when the world saw him on skates, and the intensity with he roared towards the goal with the puck on his stick, he was simply the Rocket.
Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.
By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”
McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”
Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.
Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.
But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.
O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”
O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.
Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”
In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.
Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.
Born in Mine Centre up on Ontario’s Lakehead on a Friday of this date in 1919, Edgar Laprade was a reluctant NHLer. The Montreal Canadiens tried hard to sign him in the 1940s, after he’d led the Port Arthur Bearcats to an Allan Cup championship, but he joined the Canadian Army instead. He resisted the advances of the New York Rangers for a while, too, before eventually signing in 1945. Living in New York was “a headache,” he said in 1947, but that didn’t keep him from excelling on its ice: Laprade won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1945-46, as well as a Lady Byng, for peacefulness, in 1949-50, when he served one two-minute penalty through 60 games. That a was a relatively raucous year, for him: three times in his 10-year NHL career he made it through an entire season without taking a penalty. Laprade was a four-time All Star. Better late than never, Hockey’s Hall of Fame finally got around to welcoming him in 1993.
The closest he came to winning a Stanley Cup was in 1950, when the Rangers slipped into the playoffs and upset Montreal to earn the right to meet the Detroit Red Wings in the finals. Laprade was the Rangers’ top scorer that year, but in a late-February game against the Chicago Black Hawks, he tore a ligament in his left knee. He returned to action as the regular season wound down in late March, only to re-hurt the knee in another meeting with Chicago when Bill Gadsby tripped him.
“Laprade attempted to take his place on the Rangers’ offensive but quickly withdrew to the dressing room,” The New York Times reported of that incident. “There he was examined by Dr. Vincent A. Nardiello who stated that the player had suffered a torn lateral ligament in his left knee ‘and definitely would be unavailable for the Stanley Cup games.’”
Sporting a bulky brace, Laprade played in all 12 of the Rangers playoff games, finishing among the team’s top scorers. The Rangers couldn’t quite finish the job, losing in double overtime in Game 7 in Detroit, scuttled by Pete Babando’s definitive goal.
Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.
Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”
With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.
Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:
• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”
Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:
Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.
• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”
The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”
Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:
One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.
• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.
After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”
And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.
• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.
“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”
• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.
The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.