jean le valiant, riot of the ranks

Portrait Gallery: After a short stint with the Boston Bruins in 1934-35, Jean Pusie was traded back to Montreal, for whom he’d started his NHL career in 1931. Back at Boston Garden, Pusie and his Canadiens teammates posed with a portrait of Pusie in a Bruins uniform. I don’t know who everybody is here, but starting at left at the back we’re seeing: not sure, not sure, Paul Runge, Wilf Cude, Jack McGill, Aurèle Joliat, Pit Lepine. Middle, from left, not sure, not sure maybe Jean Bourcier, Johnny Gagnon, Pusie portrait, Leroy Goldsworthy, Wildor Larochelle. Front, from left: Sylvio Mantha, Art Lesieur, Joffre Desilets’ head, Pusie himself, Walt Buswell. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

A player of small abilities is something they used to call Jean Pusie, back in the far-off 1930s, that and very popular. He was said to fool around a lot, which may have pleased the people in the stands but eventually wore out the welcome of coaches and managers, of league administrators, of referees (not necessarily in that order). Sort of like Sean Avery, then, except for widely beloved and altogether a sunnier spirit? Maybe more of an Eddie Shack. Hockey historian Andrew Podnieks, for one, is not impressed: Pusie was a man, he wrote in Players, his voluminous 2003 gazetteer of all-time NHLers, “who made such a bizarre ass of himself on the ice that he is as much myth as man, as much comic as player.”

Born in Montreal  on Saturday, October 15, 1910, Pusie played defence for more 26 different teams between 1927 and 1947, most of them in minor leagues, Castors and Panthers, Cubs, Arrows, Renards, Monarchs, Tecumsehs.

I don’t know, though. Does he really deserve such an outright dismissal? There were also Rangers and Bruins and Canadiens in there, too. Pusie’s NHL career amounted to just 68 games in all, scattered across a 17-year horizon, but he could play. In 1931 he did duty in three of the five games that won Montreal the Stanley Cup. In 1934, Boston coach Frank Patrick was talking him up as “one of the most dangerous players in the game, with an extraordinarily fast and accurate shot.” And while Pusie managed just a single NHL goal over the years, he knew how to put the puck in the net. In 1933, he scored 30 goals to lead the WCHL.

He was a good lacrosse player, too, and a boxer. In 1933, not long after the Rangers signed him, Pusie made his debut as a professional wrestler, taking on a New York rival, Harvey Blackstone, and taking him down, mostly by way of (and I quote) terrific flying tackles.

Back in a hockey context,anticsis a word you often see nearby his name, which was often rolled out to full length, especially in American papers, Jean Baptiste Pusie.

Sometimes, too, they called him Gene in the U.S., where the sportswriters also had their brazen fun with his Quebec accent, to the point where (in 1939) it was deemed appropriate for The St. Louis Star and Times to render an answer he gave a reporter this way:

“I weel tell de troot. In de pazz, I have fight the referee; I have hit de fan; I have go home to Canada, for all of which I am verra sor-ree.”

Some of the other phrases associated, adjectivally, with his name over the years include:

  • a versatile athlete who goes in for wrestling on the side (1933)
  • giant defence player (1934)
  • huge rookie for the Rangers (1934)
  • the bristling and the pugilistic (1934)
  • the riot of the Canam ranks (1935)
  • Jean The Valiant (1936)
  • a swashbuckling Frenchman (1939)
  • hockey “bad boy” (1939)
  • the rogue of the American Association (1939)
  • Le Grand Jean (1943)
  • the most colourful clown in all hockey history (1953)
  • the bounce-’em-hard type (1956)
  • a 75-carat kook; a jokester and superb showman (1980)
  • an amusing fellow from Chambly (1992)

The unpredictable Jean Pusie dates to a 1940 report that details his refusal to pay a fine of $50. “Never have I paid a fine before,” Pusie declared. “There is no need to start now.” He was in the employ of the Vancouver Lions by then, in the PCHL, where Cyclone Taylor was president — he was the one to sanction Pusie, and suspend him for a game, after a fight. The Lions paid the fine, in the end, deducting it from Pusie’s wages.

Sportswriter Jim Coleman was someone who admired Pusie’s performance artistry. Called on to take a penalty shot, as he sometimes was, Pusie would preface his attempt by shaking hands with every member of his own team as well as the goaltender he was about to shoot on. “He’d circle the entire rink TWICE at high speed,” Coleman wrote, “pick up the puck and blast it at the goalie from 20-foot range. If he scored, Jean would circle the rink, waving his stick triumphantly at the crowd.”

“Pusie was at his best in his early days of pro hockey,” Bill Roche wrote in 1953, “when all his stuff was spontaneous. Later on, it got to be an act, and he turned into something of a showboat. A smart lad, despite his tomfoolery Jean Baptiste soon realized that his comedy could be developed produce more publicity than his straight hockey ability, in which he was lacking. He finally carried things too far, got into trouble more than once by tangling with cash customers and the police, and thus he disappeared from the hockey scene.”

That’s a reference, the last part, to Pusie’s stint in St. Louis in 1939. He was 27 by that time, and the Flyers there, then, were a good team, the reigning AHA champions, with Joe Matte in the line-up, and also Fido Purpur.

Carried things too far is one way of describing Pusie’s post-Christmas adventures that season. The question that nobody seems to have raised at the time is, even if he didn’t find himself in court in December, how did he avoid it in February and/or March?

Sorry; to be fair, he did go to jail, in Wichita, Kansas, just briefly. And his case did surface in court, too, though Pusie himself was absent. That was in February.

But first things first: a month earlier, he got into a fight with the Tulsa Oilers goaltender, Porky Levine, during which he spent some time kicking Levine. On the way to the penalty box, Pusie tripped the referee, Davey Davidson, punched him in the head. The league fined Pusie $100 for that — he paid, or his team did — and suspended him for 10 days.

In Wichita, in February, the Flyers were in to play the local Skyhawks, and a fan — or fans — threw a steel chair — maybe several chairs. One of them hit Pusie, on the head. Pusie counterattacked, with his stick. Hit a fan, on the head. Zola Moore was the fan’s name. He was 23. He ended up suing Pusie, the Flyers, and Wichita under Kansas’ mob law, seeking $5,000 in damages. (I can’t find a record of the outcome.) On the ice, there was no penalty on the play; when order was restored, Pusie finished the game. The team from Wichita lodged a protest about that, but by then Detective Captain Le Roy Bowery of the Wichita police had already arrested Pusie, charged him with aggravated assault. Flyers coach John McKinnon posted a $500 bond to spring him from jail.

There was no suspension this time, though Pusie did remove himself from the line-up, his team, the country, headed for his home in Chambly, Quebec, south of Montreal — all because, he declared, in that same game, his own goaltender, Hub Nelson, had reprimanded him for failing to stymie a Wichita rush.

Back home, he stewed in his snit for a bit. While he was gone, Judge John Hurley heard his case in Wichita’s Police Court. A local lawyer entered a guilty plea on his behalf and Judge Hurley fined him $450 plus $1.90 in court costs. That came out of the money that his coach had put up originally, as far as I can tell.

It’s hard to gauge how people felt about all this, people who were paying attention, whether they were appalled, wondered if hockey had a problem that was larger than Pusie, puzzled over the conundrum of how hockey assaults so rarely seemed to be considered actual assaults. There was a certain measure of outrage at hockey’s violent excesses that echoed in St. Louis in and around these events in ’39, if not much specific surprise when someone like Jean Pusie carried things too far, and farther. In Canada, news of Pusie running amok was often reported in a wry he’s-at-it-again tone, raising no alarms.

In the wake of Pusie’s first game back with the Flyers at the end of February, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a photo showing him being restrained by the president of the team and a member of the St. Louis Police Department’s Mounted Division, to keep him out of a melee that other players had started.

They couldn’t contain him for long. He was in a fight the next game, against the St. Paul Saints.

His next outburst was his final one that year in St. Louis. It came at the end of March, when the Flyers were facing the Tulsa Oilers in the finals. The second game, in Oklahoma, is the one we’re focussed on here. In the first period, referee Stan Swain called Pusie for slashing. To say that Pusie objected doesn’t quite capture the moment insofar as his objection involved knocking Swain to the ice. “This precipitated a near riot,” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “and grave trouble might have occurred had not Swain recovered after being unconscious on the ice for five minutes and resumed his duties as official.”

For knocking a referee out cold, Pusie was assessed a match penalty. And while Tulsa police did escort him from the arena, it was to protect him from local fans — he wasn’t, this time, charged for his assault. Pusie was subsequently suspended, despite his protests of innocence. “But I do not attack heem,” the St. Louis Star and Times heard from the accused. “Do not say Jean Pusie heet heem, he only poosh heem, an’ he fall.”

He appealed the suspension. His appeal was rejected, with emphasis: Pusie was, the AHA made clear, banned from the league for life.

And so, while his Flyers teammates got down to wrapping up the championship, Pusie changed gears, announcing that he’d signed up for a series of wrestling bouts across the U.S. Midwest.  He only ended up in a single match, as it turned out, conquering Young Joe Stecher from Boston at the St. Louis Coliseum. The Star and Times was only too pleased to hear him philosophize after it was all over. “I do not like to fight rough in the razzle reeng,” Pusie said, in reporter Ray Gillespie’s rendering. “Why should I try to hurt de odder fellow for only one hundred books. We both moost make a leeving.”

Otherwise, that pre-war summer of ’39, Pusie was in the news for familiar reasons: in June, playing in Quebec’s Provincial Lacrosse League, he was tossed out of a game for pushing referee Paul Jacobs. (Jacobs, it’s worth mentioning in passing, was a hockey player, too, and may have been, though probably not, the first Indigenous player to skate in the NHL.)

With the fall came news that St. Louis had traded Pusie to Vancouver of the PCHL. He fought there, incurred more fines, as detailed above, and generally carried with his brand of carrying things too far. He still had seven more years of pro hockey in him, at this point. He even got back to St. Louis: in 1941, in light of wartime manpower shortages, an AHA pardon paved the way for a return to the Flyers. Jean Pusie died at the age of 45 in Montreal in 1956.

One more detour, around one other loop, before we leave him. This is going back to 1931, when he made his debut in Canadiens colours at the age of 20. He’d been in the Montreal stable for a couple of seasons, but it wasn’t until December of 1930 that he made his first NHL appearance. He played six regular-season games that season while seeing regular duty with the Galt Terriers of the Ontario Professional Hockey League.

Montreal recalled him in early April to bolster their defence as they took on the Chicago Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup finals. The Canadiens were, of course, successful in defending their title, dispensing with the Black Hawks in five games. Pusie dressed for three of those — and yet his name wasn’t one of the 28 that would end up being stamped on the Cup itself.

I wondered about that. Why didn’t Pusie rate the recognition along with teammates Howie Morenz, George Hainsworth, Wildor Larochelle, and the rest? Right winger Bert McCaffrey was the other Canadien whose name was left off the Cup that year, but then he’d only played in the regular season, and wasn’t called on for any of Montreal’s ten post-season games, so there’s a trace of logic there.

I checked in with Craig Campbell, manager of the Doc Seaman Resource Centre and Archives at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which is where the Cup is at home when it’s not out and about with the current champions. No, he confirmed, Pusie’s name is not on silver band that enumerates the ’30-31 winners. Furthermore, the Hall has no documentation noting why he might have been left off. “It’s a mystery,” Campbell e-mailed.

Mining the archives, I may have found an explanation. It doesn’t seem fair, but it could just be the reason Pusie’s effort in showing up and getting into his gear for 60 per cent of Canadiens’ successful campaign in ’31 wasn’t rewarded: he never got on the ice.

Heading into the Cup finals after a five-game semi-final against the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens were a battered bunch. Winger Armand Mondou was in hospital with what the AP described as “wrenched chest muscles,” while Battleship Leduc, stalwart defender, was out with what they were still calling a “brain concussion:” he’d collided with Dit Clapper and hit his head on the ice.

And so when the series opened at Chicago Stadium on a Friday, April 3, Pusie was one of five defencemen in the 13-man Canadiens line-up. Coach Cecil Hart mostly went with just three of them to secure Montreal’s 2-1 win, relying on the Mantha brothers, Sylvio and Georges, and Marty Burke. “Arthur Lesieur was on the ice only for a few minutes altogether,” the Ottawa Journal reported. As for Pusie, Hart “hesitated to try the youngster.”

Two days later, when the Black Hawks evened the series in a game that went into double overtime. Pusie was again in the line-up; La Patrie subsequently noted that “management did not use him.”

Back in Montreal, the teams went to three overtimes before Chicago’s Cy Wentworth settled the matter in the Black Hawks’ favour. At one point, with Lesieur and Sylvio Mantha both serving penalties, coach Hart deployed forwards AurèleJoliat and Pit Lepine alongside Burke rather than blood Pusie. “Although in uniform,” La Patrie recounted next day, he “never had the opportunity to take the ice.”

He never got another chance. Though Battleship Leduc had, according to the Gazette, spent more than two weeks in hospital, he and his rattled brain returned to the line-up for the fourth game of the series and the fifth, both of which Montreal won to claim the Cup.

Pusie appeared in just a single game for Canadiens the following year. He’d wait two years after that before making his return to the NHL ice as a New York Ranger.

Le Grand Jean: Pusie and friend at Boston Garden. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

the view from here

Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em: Photographer Richard Merrill’s image of spectators at a Boston Bruins game comes with a date appended, February 14, 1937. The trouble there is that the Bruins were on the road that Sunday night, at Chicago’s Stadium. They did get home to their own Garden for a date with the Rangers the following Tuesday, February 16. The Bruins won their third in a row on that night, beating the Rangers 3-2 in front of a crowd topping 12,000. “When the Bruins paraded onto the ice to the familiar strains of ‘Paree,’” the Boston Globe noted, “they received the season’s most enthusiastic ovation.” Dit Clapper and Bill scored for the home team, with Leroy Goldsworthy notching the winning goal. Butch Keeling and Alex Shibicky were the Ranger marksmen. (Image: © Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)

that wonder-working bird

The Edmonton Hockey Team: The WCHL Eskimos as they lined up in 1925-26. From left: Bobby Boucher, Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, Herb Stuart, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Art Gagne, Johnny Shepard, Spunk Sparrow, Ernie Anderson, Lloyd McIntyre, Bobby Benson.

Born in Hartney, Manitoba, on a Wednesday of this date in 1897, Spunk Sparrow won an Allen Cup in 1916 on the 61st Battalion team that Joe Simpson starred on. Emory was Sparrow’s given name, if you’re wondering; he was a right winger; he died in 1965 at at the age of 67. As a pro, Sparrow mostly played in the old WCHL in the early 1920s, turning out for the Regina Capitals (Dick Irvin and Rabbit McVeigh were teammates), Calgary’s Tigers (alongside Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner), and the Edmonton Eskimos pictured above. He played briefly for Boston, joining Art Ross’s fledgling Bruins in 1925 for six games. He scored some goals in his day, and was oft-penalized and several times suspended — “a sterling hockey player,” the Winnipeg Tribune called him, “but a rather difficult man to handle.” The flaxen flash was an epithet the Edmonton Journal applied to him in 1924 on the occasion of his having scored a handsome goal against Calgary. It was so good, apparently, that one of the paper’s writers saw fit to dash off a poem in his honour, “An Ode To Spunk.” It opened like this:

Tell me, stranger, have you heard
Of that wonder-working bird?
Not the peacock or the wren
Or the brilliant guinea-hen.
It’s the bird who saves our souls
Gets badly-needed goals —
Sparrow!

fifteen games a ranger: buddy maracle, in and out of the nhl

In A Minors Key: The Springfield Indians, probably in their 1928-29 configuration. Back row, from the left, best as I can tell, that’s coach Frank Carroll, Frank Waite, Harry Foster, Leroy Goldsworthy, and Laurie Scott (?). Front, from left: Buddy Maracle, Wilfrid Desmarais, Andy Aitkenhead, Clark Whyte (?), Art Chapman.

The turn of the calendar from January to February brings Hockey Is For Everyone™ — “a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey.” There’s a hashtag, there are websites (here and here), a mobile museum; there are events and programs planned around the league, throughout the month. Ambassadors have been named, one for each NHL team; others are drawn from women’s hockey, the media, as well as from the ranks of the league’s distinguished alumni.

Fred Sasakamoose is one of the latter. His story and achievements have both been widely chronicled, and there’s no questioning his contributions or commitment as a hockey pioneer and change-maker. Last year, he was a worthy (and past due) recipient of the Order of Canada. To point out (again) that Sasakamoose doesn’t seem, in fact, to have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player doesn’t diminish his achievements, or affront his dedication to many causes, hockey and otherwise, over the years. The NHL doesn’t want to get into it, apparently: in recent months, the league’s position on its own history so far as it involves Buddy Maracle and his apparent breakthrough has been — no position at all. You’ll find his statistics archived on NHL.com, but no word of his story, beyond those bare numbers. I’ve asked both the league and the New York Rangers, for whom Maracle played in 1931, about whether they have plans to recognize and/or honour his legacy. They don’t.

Maybe there’s a debate to be had, maybe not: the NHL is nothing if not steadfast in staying as aloof as possible from the history. This month, still, wherever he’s introduced in the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone outlay, Fred Sasakamoose remains “the NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.”

Here (again): Buddy Maracle’s story. A version of this post first appeared in the January 7, 2019, edition of The Hockey News.

Buddy Maracle’s time as an NHLer lasted not quite two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history and statistics. A review of the records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over the North American map in a career that lasted nearly 20 years. What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something that the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as having been the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 85, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

And yet history suggests that at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose into the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of just who might have been the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s very beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in the league’s second season in 1918. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did indeed practice with Charlie Querrie’s team in the pre-season, but the evidence that he actually made it to regular-season ice is sparse, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defence for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born centreman, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. Manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea; either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was the man briefly in charge of assembling a roster. The man who’d go on to invent and shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings played an NHL game. Smythe did recruit Taffy Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seems to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in Toronto’s Mercantile League. As it was, 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Ranger farm team that fall.

There’s much that we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Much of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for The Ayr News who took an interest in the Maracle story early last year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s researches that we understand that young Albert Maracle and his family, Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point Albert married Elsie Hill; their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September of 1904.

The family subsequently headed north, to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his hockey-playing start, first at high school, then as a junior with the North Bay Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by Elmer in those years, though the course of his career he began to show up in contemporary newspapers as Bud, Clarence, Moose, and (inevitably) Chief. Buddy seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s Can-Am Hockey League affiliate team in Springfield, Massachusetts — which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of him from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and his speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him,” The Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team, and becoming a favourite with the fans for his industry and failure to quit. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided that he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many contemporary newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight: over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox, and “the last Mohican.”

“Redskin Icer” was another epithet that featured in press reports of Maracle’s exploits. Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters were also only too pleased to couch their columns with references to warpaths and wigwams, war whoops, tomahawks, and scalps.

Assessing just how much of this was idle stereotyping and how much pointedly racist is beside the point: casual or otherwise, it’s all more or less insidious. As nasty as it reads on the page in old newspapers, how much worse must it have been for Maracle in the moment? When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’”

Maracle got his NHL chance towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

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duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league

“McDavid looks like he’s different than everybody else. Last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league was Bobby Orr. I was nine years old. And this guy’s faster than the whole league, and it’s incredible to watch.”

• Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, November 2016

shamokin_news_dispatch_tue__feb_8__1927_Last Wednesday, when it mattered, Connor McDavid flew down the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to score the overtime goal that beat the Florida Panthers. Earlier that night, McDavid had notched the 100th point of his burgeoning NHL career in what was his 92nd game in the league. While it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky-good — he did it in just 61 games — it’s a feat that puts McDavid fourth among active players, behind Alex Ovechkin (77 games), Sidney Crosby (80 games), and Evgeni Malkin (89 games).

Last Sunday, mostly for fun, McDavid took part in the Oilers’ annual Skills Competition. Matthew Benning was the quickest of Edmonton’s backwards-skaters on the day; Milan Lucic showed the hardest shot. When it came to racing face-forward ’round the ice at Rogers Place, Benoit Pouliot (13.895 seconds) and J.J. Khaira (13.941) were fast. McDavid, by no real surprise to anyone, proved faster, make it around the rink in a time of 13.382 seconds.

That got Joe Pack of Sportsnet wondering: how does McDavid’s speed compare to NHLers of this age and others?

He duly noted that Detroit’s Dylan Larkin took a turn of the ice at the 2016 all-star game in a time of 13.172 seconds, outdoing Mike Gartner’s 1996 mark of 13.386. But? Overlooked, Pack submits, is the fact that

Larkin, and last year’s crop of contestants, got an advantage no other skaters before had: they began from the far blue-line, only to have the clock start once they hit the red line. Gartner, and every other skater at the competition over the years, started from the red line.

So Larkin’s record, I’m suggesting, should have an asterisk attached. Gartner’s record has apparently been broken by McDavid.

The real test, of course, will come in next week’s all-star game. “Still,” Pack writes, “the conversation around McDavid’s speed has begun in earnest. Is he the fastest in the game now? Is he the fastest ever?”

While we wait to find out, maybe is a look back in order? Beyond 1996, even?

The annals of speedy hockey-player skating are incomplete. The documentation, shall we say, isn’t superb. And while hockey players have tested themselves to see how fast they go for almost as long as the NHL’s, the conditions (as Pack points out) haven’t exactly been standardized. Some have stood still on their start line, others have skated to it at full fling. Some have carried pucks as they careened against the clock — not McDavid or Larkin or most of the recent racers. Technology has changed: hand-held stopwatches have been replaced by precision timers with electronic eyes. All of which makes it hard to line up McDavid’s feat (if that’s something you felt like doing) in order to compare it with those of, say, a Howie Morenz or a Hec Kilrea.

Still, back we go.

In 1945, Montreal Canadiens’ centre Buddy O’Connor won a one-lap, flying-start, puck-carrying race around Ottawa’s Auditorium in a time of 14.8 seconds. Teammates Elmer Lach (15.0) and Maurice Richard (15.2) came in after him; defenceman Leo Lamoureux was disqualified when he lost the puck.

Maple Leaf Gardens hosted what the papers called a speed test at the end of January, 1942. The Leafs had played Thursday and would be back on the ice in earnest Saturday, but on this Friday night the occasion was charitable, with 13,563 fans showing up in support of a memorial fun for the late Toronto sportsman Robert Ecclestone.

The evening’s entertainment featured a 20-minute scrimmage of (mostly) oldtimer Leafs.

The racing involved a puck-carrying contest with players flying to the start. There were seven of them, active NHLers from each team: Syl Apps (Toronto); Flash Hollett (Boston); Sid Abel (Detroit); Tommy Anderson (Brooklyn Americans); Lynn Patrick (New York); Max Bentley (Chicago); Jack Portland (Montreal).

They wore their uniforms but not all of their regular padding. The former Ottawa Senators’ star who presided at the finish-line did so under his current title: RCAF Squadron-Leader Punch Broadbent held the stopwatch.

Each man skated twice, initially. None of them broke 15 seconds in the first round, which also saw Hollett momentarily lose control of his puck and a fall by Abel. In the second heat, Apps and Patrick both blazed around at 14.8 seconds. In the tie-breaker, Patrick slowed to 15 seconds while Apps stuck to 14.8.

So that pleased the local fans. The ovation, The Globe and Mail testified, “has seldom been matched at any time.”

(Not everyone was so impressed. When The New York Post chimed in, it was to say that the event could hardly be considered “the last word” in speedsters, given that Chicago’s Doug Bentley and Milt Schmidt of Boston weren’t involved.)

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