mclaughlin’s all-Americans: making the chicago black hawks great again

Newlyweds: Irene Castle and Major Frederic McLaughlin, circa 1923, the year of their marriage.

(A version of this post appeared on page D3 of The New York Times on June 12, 2017.)

Long before President Donald J. Trump turned a protectionist eye to the iniquities of Canadians, another opinionated American tycoon decided that he had had enough. Eighty years ago, the cross-border irritant wasn’t Nafta or softwood lumber. As Major Frederic McLaughlin saw it, Canada was flooding American markets with too many hockey players.

In 1937, his short-lived America-first campaign was all about making the Chicago Black Hawks great again.

Canadians have long and fiercely claimed hockey as their own, a proprietary technology that also happens to be a primary natural resource. But the game’s south-of-the-border veins run deep, too. The first organized American game is said to have been played in the 1880s at St. Paul’s, a prep school in Concord, N.H.. The first fully professional league was based in Michigan, in 1904, though most of the players were Canadian.

When the N.H.L. made its debut in 1917 with four Canadian teams, it counted a lonely three Americans among 51 players.

“The climate is not suitable for hockey in the United States,” Lester Patrick (b. Drummondville, Quebec), the longtime Rangers coach and manager, explained in 1928. Unfair as it might be, Canadian boys donned skates at age 3.

“They start skating from the ankles, then with the lower leg up to the knee and at maturity they skate from the hip,” Patrick said. “It is an evolutionary process of time.”

“The Americans,” he held, “start too late to develop a full-leg stride.”

None of that mattered, of course, when it came to the potential profitability of American markets. The N.H.L.’s sometimes rancorous rush south saw Boston’s Bruins as the first United States-based team to join, in 1924. Pittsburgh’s Pirates and New York’s Americans followed in 1925 before the Rangers debuted in 1926, along with teams in Detroit and Chicago.

In Chicago, McLaughlin emerged as the majority shareholder. The McLaughlins had made their fortune on the Lake Michigan shore as coffee importers. In the 1850s, most American coffee drinkers bought raw beans and roasted them at home. W.F. McLaughlin was one of the first to sell pre-roasted coffee. When he died in 1905, his elder son took the helm of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee with Frederic, the younger son, aboard as secretary and treasurer.

Harvard-educated, Frederic found fame in those prewar years as one of the country’s best polo players. In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin served in the Illinois National Guard.

A year later, the United States went to war with Germany, and McLaughlin joined the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, taking command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. Trained in Chicago and England, the division reached France just in time for peace to break out in 1918.

Postwar, McLaughlin returned to Chicago society as a prized catch among bachelor millionaires. But he gained national attention after secretly marrying Irene Castle, a ballroom dancer and movie star revered as America’s best-dressed woman.

As president of Chicago’s N.H.L. team, he reserved naming rights, borrowing from his old Army unit’s tribute to an 18th-century Sauk warrior. From his polo club, the Onwentsia in Lake Forest, Ill., he plucked the distinctive chief’s-head emblem that still adorns Black Hawks sweaters.

“Oh, boy, I am glad I haven’t got a weak heart,” McLaughlin is reported to have said at the first hockey game he ever attended, in November 1926, just a month before Chicago’s NHL debut. His newly minted Black Hawks were in Minneapolis, playing an exhibition that featured Canadian men named Moose and Rusty and Tiny.

Stickmen: Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert (b. Kitchener, ON) consults coach Clem Loughlin in the mid-1930s.

McLaughlin and his fellow investors bought a ready-made roster to get their franchise going: 14 players who had spent the previous winter as the Western Hockey League’s Portland Rosebuds, men named Dick and Duke and Rabbit from Canadian towns called Kenora and Snow Lake and Mattawa.

While owners in New York and Boston hired old Canadian hockey hands to run their teams, McLaughlin decided he would do the job himself. Asked whether his team was ready to compete for a championship, he said, “If it’s not, we’ll keep on buying players until it is.”

The Blackhawks started respectably enough, making the playoffs in their inaugural season. Coaches came and went in those early years, while McLaughlin cultivated a reputation for ire and eccentricity. Still, after only five N.H.L. seasons, Chicago played its way to the finals. Three years later, in 1934, the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup.

Key to Chicago’s winning formula was McLaughlin’s decision to replace himself with a veteran (Canadian) coach and manager, Tommy Gorman.

“I’m sending myself to the cheering section,” McLaughlin grinned, announcing his midseason surrender in 1933. “I’m convinced that I’m just an amateur in hockey. It’s been a case of the blind leading the blind as far as my influence on the team goes.”

The joy of victory did not linger. Gorman resigned, and Charlie Gardiner, the team’s beloved goaltender, died at 29.

Charged with the reconstruction was a former Black Hawk defenseman, Clem Loughlin, a son of Carroll, Manitoba. Hired in the fall of 1934, he was Chicago’s 11th coach in nine years. The team remained largely Canadian during his regime, with several talented American exceptions, including Doc Romnes and the goaltender who arrived in 1935, Mike Karakas.

A photograph promoting Loughlin’s 1936-37 squad bore the slogan “Lightning On Skates.” When the season opened, Chicago’s still largely Canadian roster struck for a pair of listless ties. Then they started losing in earnest. By Christmas, they had won only two of 16 games.

The new year brought no relief. Coach Loughlin threatened a shake-up and then shook, releasing center Tommy Cook, an eight-year veteran accused of “failure to keep in playing condition” and “lax behavior.”

The remaining Hawks won a couple of games before reverting to type. Mulched in Montreal, trimmed in Toronto, they returned to Chicago to lose again and solidify their hold on last place in the league’s American division.

That’s when McLaughlin announced that he had an answer, or at least a vision. Having already lobbied the N.H.L. to replace Canadian referees with Americans, he divulged his plan to shed the yoke of northern tyranny: within two years he would have only American boys skating for the Black Hawks. And he would be changing the team’s nickname to Yankees.

“I think an all-American team would be a tremendous drawing card all over the league,” McLaughlin said.

He was also said to be annoyed that his Canadian veterans rejected the daily calisthenics he insisted they needed.

“We’ve found out you can’t make athletes out of hockey players,” he declared, “so we’ll try to make hockey players out of athletes. Give me a football player who can skate and we can show this league a lot of hockey.”

He already had a so-called “hockey factory” up and running, with five prototype Minnesotans and Michiganders in training on the ice and at Chicago’s Y.M.C.A. These were men in their 20s named Bun and Butch and Ike. Plucked from quiet amateur careers, none of them had yet shown particular signs of stardom. In command was Emil Iverson, a former Danish Army officer who’d coached college hockey in Minnesota and — briefly — the pre-Gorman Hawks.

Meanwhile, the Hawks went to New York, where they hammered the Americans, 9-0. The Americans, as it happened, were almost entirely not — Roger Jenkins of Appleton, Wis., was the only exception. Chicago’s goals were all scored by importees.

Ridicule was brewing in Canada. John Kieran, a columnist for The New York Times, reported that the north-of-the-border consensus was that an all-American team would dominate at “the same time that the Swiss navy equals the combined fleets of the United States, Great Britain and Japan in total tonnage and heavy armament.”

Coach Loughlin stood by his boss. “It isn’t as silly as it sounds by any means,” he said. “I contend that most hockey players are made, not born.”

By March, the future had arrived. With the Hawks out of the playoffs, McLaughlin decreed that his five factory-fresh Americans would debut against Boston.

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It went well — for the Bruins, who prevailed by 6-2. The Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings wired Frank Calder, the president of the league, to protest Chicago’s use of “amateurs” while other teams were still vying for playoff positions.

Boston Coach Art Ross called McLaughlin a “headstrong plutocrat.”

“I have been in hockey 30 years,” he railed, “and never in its entire history has such a farce been perpetrated on a National Hockey League crowd.”

He demanded Chicago refund the price of every ticket —“that’s how rotten the game was.”

“I don’t know whether our constitution will allow the cancellation of an owner’s franchise,” Ross continued, “but if it does, I’ll do everything I can to see that the board of governors do it.”

Unsanctioned by the league, the Hawks went to Toronto, where loudspeakers blared “Yankee Doodle” as “the cash customers prepared for a comedy,” one correspondent reported. Ike Klingbeil of Hancock, Mich., scored a Chicago goal in a losing effort, though a Canadian critic deemed his skating “stiff-legged.”

The new-look Hawks got their first win at home, outlasting the Rangers, 4-3. That night at least, the Times allowed that McLaughlin’s experiment might not have been so far-fetched after all.

The Hawks themselves weren’t entirely contented. A New York reporter listened to a Canadian veteran on the team grumble about the new Americans. “We score the goals and make the plays and they do nothing but a lot of spectacular heavy back-checking,” he said, “but they get all the headlines and all the praise.”

Chicago lost its final two games, finishing a proud point ahead of New York’s even-worse Americans. When the playoffs wrapped up, the Stanley Cup belonged to a Detroit team featuring one American among 21 Canadians with names like Hec and Mud and Bucko.

Come the off-season, the Major gave Clem Loughlin a vote of confidence, right before the coach decided he preferred a return to wheat-farming and hotelkeeping back home in Canada.

Chicago’s five experimental Americans were released. None of them played another N.H.L. game.

The team’s new coach was appropriately unorthodox, for McLaughlin: Bill Stewart, born in Fitchburg, Mass., was best known to that point as a Major League Baseball umpire who carried a wintertime whistle as an N.H.L. referee.

McLaughlin’s wife sued him for divorce that summer, which may have distracted the Major from his all-American plan. In any case, Stewart announced that it was on hold, and the team would continue as the Black Hawks.

When the new hockey season opened, the team started slowly. By March of 1938, they surprised most pundits when they beat the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup.

The trophy itself was absent from the final game, so the champions had to wait to hold it high. Eight of Chicago’s 18 players that season were Americans, men named Doc and Virgil and Cully, who had learned their hockey in Minnesota towns called Aurora, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake.

No N.H.L. champion would count more Americans until last year, when the Pittsburgh Penguins had 10.

(Note: Chicago’s NHL team was Black Hawks for the first 60 years of its history; Blackhawks became one word in 1986.)

 

you naturally hope it can turn things around: a field guide to hiring and firing boston coaches

Rodden + Patrick 1935 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boards Meeting: Boston coach Frank Patrick, at his command post on the Bruin bench, confers with referee Mike Rodden at the Garden, c. 1935. This was still a time before coaches patrolled behind the bench and their players; mostly, they sat alongside them. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.

Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.

“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”

Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).

Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.

While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).

That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”

After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.

“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”

The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.

Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”

Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.

“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”

So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.

“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”

ross-cooney-version-2

He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.

Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.

Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.

Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.

Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”

Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet,  owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”

Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.

Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.

“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”

I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.

“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”

Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”

When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”

Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.

“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.

Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”

Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”

“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”

Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”

“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”

Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”

Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.

That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

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peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

hockey players in hospital beds: ching johnson on the fire-escape

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

“Ching Johnson, heaviest and oldest player in major league hockey, has spent 29 weeks of his career in hospitals.”
• Norman Thomas, “Ye Sport Sandwich,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 16, 1937

I’m not going to catalogue all of Ivan Johnson’s hockey ailments here — this isn’t the time for that, and it isn’t the place. Regarding that introductory tally of Norman Thomas’, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny his calendar calculation for the Hall-of-Fame defenceman better known as Ching. What I can confide is what a newspaper aside dating to 1926 alleged, just as Johnson was just starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers: that the hockey he’d played to that point had conferred “27 scars.” That’s a number that — maybe it’s just coincidence — recurs in a 1938 edition of Time: “in twelve seasons of big-league of big-league hockey he has had bones broken in 27 different parts of his body.”

Hockey hurt more in the early years of the NHL: the game was sharper, blunter, more broadly brutal in the damage it inflicted on the professionals who played it. That’s part of the Ching Johnson story. The abandon he played with had something to do with his hospital tenancy, too. He enjoyed throwing his body at oncoming forwards. Frisky was one of his adjectives, and bumptious was another. He was tall, 5’11”, and what contemporary newspapers liked to call husky and/or burly — paired as he often was in his first years as a Ranger with Taffy Abel, he was half of what The New York Times called “the beefiest combination defense in the game,” a blueline bulwark that brought some 461 pounds to bear (at least 210 of them were Johnson’s).

Sounds like a brute, I know. But Johnson was fast, too, and if we loiter, for a moment, on the skill that went with his physical dynamism, we can find his boss in New York, Lester Patrick, likening him to Babe Ruth. “Great boy, Ching!” he gushed to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1928. “He has only one superior as a stick-handling defenceman and that is Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins.” Ten years later, a Ranger teammate, Bill Cook, classed Johnson as the greatest hockey player he’d ever seen.

But. Hospitals. There is one in particular I’m heading for, though not before a few more paragraphs to gather momentum. Maybe, to start, a sampling of vintage newspaper headlines from the Ching Johnson Injury Archive:

Injured

Johnson Injured In Hockey Clash

Blesse Dangereusement Samedi Soir

Johnson Unable To Rejoin Ranger Sextet This Season

Injured, He Stars

If he was a hockey Babe Ruth, it’s also the fact that there were oft-hurt ballplayers — Del Bissonette was one — who were referred to as the Ching Johnson of baseball, as in much-mended.

Ching Johnson injuries we’re not going to discuss, too much:

• the collarbone he broke in a collision with Charlie Langlois of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke in 1926;

• three of his ribs, damaged when he tripped Herb Drury of the Pirates in 1928 and (as The Pittsburgh Press had it) Drury’s “feet flew up and crashed into Johnson’s side;”

• the jaw Dit Clapper’s shoulder smashed in 1930, causing a dislocation and compound fracture that attending doctors (according to Ranger publicist Jersey Jones) used 80 inches of copper wire to repair;

• the forehead that Detroit’s Ebbie Goodfellow clipped with his stick in the playoffs in 1933 which left him, Johnson, “looking as though a horse had kicked him in the forehead” (said The Associated Press), leaving a scar that carved “in a livid crescent from the top of his nose to near his left eyebrow” in which five stitches could be counted.

Something else we’re not really going to get into: Johnson’s many stitchings, other than to say he himself denied having taken on 1,000 in his career, as was sometimes claimed by others on his behalf. “Where could they put them?” he said in 1937. “I’ve had only 374.”

His lack of meanness is important to emphasize, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been any spite in him. “Johnson,” wrote Horace Lavigne in La Patrie, “is a gentleman on the ice and he never abuses his strength or his bulk.” He bodychecked with bonhomie, sometimes helping those he’d knocked down back to their feet. When he rushed the puck, Lavigne went on, it was “with the impetuosity of an overflowing torrent.”

If you study the Ching Johnson literature you come across many sentences regarding his good nature and perpetual smile, which was said to grow as the going got rougher. “Often,” said his 1979 obituary in The New York Times, “when Mr. Johnson was knocked down, he would flash a grin that bespoke his delight at the contact.” A 1932 Le Canada dispatch almost scans as poetry:

Haynes et Johnson en collision;
Ching n’en perd pas son sourire,
Haynes non plus. Mais,
de l’équilibre, c’est autre affaire.

•••

Johnson was about to turn 30 in early December of 1928, when he took to the ice at the Montreal Forum. The new NHL season was just six games old and the Rangers were in town to take on the local Maroons. When the two teams had faced each in the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring, it was the Rangers who’d prevailed. At 4-1-1, they were off to strong start in the new season, though it was the Maroons who’d handed them their lone loss so far.

Other game notes? Dave Trottier, star winger of Canada’s 1928 Olympic team, was making his home debut on the Maroons’ left wing.

Also in the house, front and centre in Forum crowd that numbered about 12,000: Su Alteza Real Don Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, cousin to King Alfonso XIII. With his wife, Infanta Doña Beatrice, and their son, Prince Alvaro, and a small retinue of retainers, Don Alfonso was on a North American tour when he stopped in Montreal. Mayor Camillien Houde met him at the train station, along with his host, Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, general manager of the Bank of Montreal.

The visitors spent a busy two-and-a-half days, touring the Royal Victoria Hospital and their host’s bank, attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica — and taking a pew at Saturday night’s hockey game, where the band opened the proceedings by playing of the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem.

On the ice, Maroons’ goaltender Clint Benedict was the star of the game, per The Gazette, “turning aside one drive after another with a brilliance that was uncanny.”

The game was fast. Also: rugged and robust and even peppery, but: not rough. Ching Johnson was a big part of this, and of the spectacle. “He is booed lustily by the fans,” The Gazette noted, “but they all admire him for a clean, hard playing, good natured defenceman, who smiles through fortune and adversity in hockey.”

The latter struck in the second period. With the game still goalless, Johnson took the puck and skated for the Montreal net, where a defenceman named Henry Hicks poke-checked him. The Gazette:

The Maroon defenceman started for the Ranger goal, and Johnson, somewhat off balance, kept on towards the corner behind the Maroon net. He could not get himself straightened out and crashed into the boards.

A later account described how the “pachydermic and bald defense ace” fell and slid feet first into the boards: “The weight of Johnson’s huge body carried such impetus that the ankle shattered under the strain.”

There were other Ranger casualties on the night: Taffy Abel didn’t return for the third period, and was reported to have suffered a gash from a skate to his left ankle, while left winger Butch Keeling went down with a (Montreal Gazette) “severely wrenched shoulder,” the right one. Torn ligaments, said the doctors later, when they looked.

Nels Stewart scored a goal for the Maroons before the second period ended, and he put another past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach early in the final period before Red Dutton made it 3-0.

That’s how it ended. The champions were beaten again. The Ottawa Journal rated Dave Trottier “fairly impressive,” particularly in the third; he also took two penalties. For Don Alfonso, well, he’d seen hockey before, in St. Moritz and Chamonix, but that was nothing like this.

“It is wonderful,” he said, “and we have all enjoyed every minute of the game.” He and his wife had both been touched to hear their anthem played. “We appreciated immensely the kindly touch and all that it meant.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was in a hospital that the Spaniards hadn’t seen, the western unit of Montreal General on what was then Dorchester Street. X-rays confirmed that his ankle, the left one, was indeed broken.

He wouldn’t be back playing for most of the rest of the season, The New York Times reported subsequently, and with Taffy Abel said to be gone for ten days, Rangers coach and GM Lester Patrick’s line-up was down to two defensemen, Leo Bourgeault and Myles Lane. For their next game, in Boston, the Rangers played with a reduced roster, 11 men. Abel’s and Keeling’s names were noted in the boxscores, though I don’t think either one of them got on the ice. The Bruins won that one, 2-0.

Johnson stayed in Montreal, resting his enplastered leg. The day after his teammates took on Boston, a photographer from La Patrie found the patient in his bed and pointed his camera. That’s it, above: Johnson looks comfortable, if a little unfocussed.

Later the same day, when the hospital caught fire, he’d be on the run. Continue reading

cold comfort

glad rangers

The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1940, it’s true, but mostly their standing during the years of the Second World War was lowly: from 1943 through the spring of 1945, the team finished last in the NHL every time. The worst ever to have worn Ranger sweaters, GM Lester Patrick called those teams. Heading into the post-war, he had reason, at least, for hope. Returning from military service were many of the stalwarts of that Cup-winning team from back in ’40, including Alex Shibicky, Mac and Neil Colville and Patrick’s own sons, Muzz and Lynn. Lesser lights back from the wars included the wingers shown above expressing their pleasure at being back on NHL ice at Madison Square Garden: left is Hal Brown, 25, from Brandon, Manitoba and, on the right, and Toronto-born Alan Kuntz, 26. In goal, the Rangers had Jim Henry and Chuck Rayner coming in to replace the ’44-45 partnership of Ken McAuley and Doug Stevenson. And rookies looking to make the team for the first time included Edgar Laprade and Cal Gardner. It took another whole year, as it turned out, for the Rangers to ascend from the basement, moving into fifth ahead of Chicago in 1946-47. Another year after that, they even made the playoffs. By 1950, they were improved enough to play for the Stanley Cup — though they did, of course, lose in the finals to Detroit.

messrs. belvedere

belvedere handball pkstrk

A hidden gem! A setting said to be distinctive for guests on business and leisure alike! Unparalleled location in the heart of Manhattan! Rates starting at around US$167 per night!

That’s the pitch browsers online can find looking for a booking at New York’s Belvedere Hotel, which I wasn’t, recently. I can’t say one way or the other whether it’s the place for you; what I can report, confidently, is that if you do go, your hopes of emulating these early New York Rangers, above, and getting in a game of handball on the roof is zero.

There is a gym at the Belvedere: indeed, the hotel’s website says it’s “proud” to have one, “encouraging health-conscious guests to maintain their active lifestyle while traveling and dining out.”

I guess handball’s heyday has come and mostly gone, but I had a moment’s reverie in which you could still catch a game on high at the Belvedere.

The woman I talked to there when I phoned seemed worried by my rooftop questions. “No,” she told me, “there’s no tennis court.” Handball. “Nope.” When did it close? Did she know? Did someone know? What’s up there now? Anybody I can talk to who can talk about the history of the hotel? I was panicking her, though. “Honestly,” she said, “nobody that’s here has ever seen anything like that.”

•••

That’s Ching Johnson here, of course, on the left, with Bill Cook leaping high over his fallen brother, Bun. All three had been with the Rangers since their inaugural season, 1926-27. It was 1929 now, springtime, and the team was girding to defend the Stanley Cup title it had won the previous year over the Maroons of Montreal. Bun Cook was 25, his brother (the Ranger captain) and Johnson older, 32 and 30, respectively. The team couldn’t quite pull off the defense, falling in that year’s two-game final to the Boston Bruins.

The Belvedere, at 319 West 48th Street, was new in the late 1920s. “The Outstanding Success of the City,” bragged a newspaper ad from those years, before getting down to details: 450 baths complemented the Belvedere’s 450 rooms, all of which were outside rooms, featuring two large windows. The Moderately Priced Restaurant served a Peerless Cuisine. You could get a large double room for US$6 a day; furnished suites with serving pantries ran anywhere from US$35 to US$150.

Times Square wasn’t far and, more to the point, Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden was just a block north up 8th Avenue. Handball was just the start of it — over the years, many hockey players would call the Belvedere home. Following, a few notes on that and other Belvedere/hockey associations.

•••

In early April of 1928, just before the Rangers went into Stanley-Cup battle with the Montreal Maroons, the Belvedere and its inimitable menu played host to a hockey awards dinner. At this time, the NHL proper awarded three individual trophies, the Hart (for league MVP), the Vézina (goaltender allowing the fewest goals), and Lady Byng (high skill and gentlemanly conduct), but these weren’t those.

First among honourees on this night were handballing defenceman Ching Johnson, who took the Paramount Theatre Trophy as MVP of the New York teams, Rangers and Americans. The Broadway director and producer (and native-born Newfoundlander) John Murray Anderson sponsored that one, with the New York Hockey Writers Association taking care of the voting. Out of 26 ballots cast, Johnson’s name was on 12, while the two centreman, the Rangers’ Frank Boucher and the Amerks’ Normie Himes, appeared on seven each.

Boucher was the highest scoring New Yorker that year, finishing third in the NHL chart behind Hart-winner Howie Morenz and his Canadiens teammate, Aurele Joliat, and that was good enough to win him the Belvedere Hotel Trophy. (His Cook wingers, Bun and Bill, were runners-up.) But while Boucher would that same year win the first of his seven Lady Byng Trophies (in 1935, they actually gave him trophy, ordered a new one), on this night Boucher had to concede the Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy to Harold Darragh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton seems to have been responsible for deciding this one, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report calls his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Darragh, a winger, was sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.

Bandleader and hockey fan Paul Whiteman presided over the proceedings — or as the Daily Eagle called him, “corpulent ‘Oom’ Paulie Whitehead,” who made Ching Johnson look like a mere “mite.”

•••

In the late 1930s, the Belvedere played host to an annual dinner given by the NHL for the aforementioned New York Hockey Writers Association. At the 1938 edition, Rangers GM Lester Patrick unveiled his proposal for an all-new playoff format. Harold Parrott wrote it up for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In fact, the Silver Fox of the ice rinks was practically lopsided after expounding his playoff theories to hockey writers last night with the aid of calculus, logarithms, a financial expert he brought along for the purpose — and a lot of patient good humor.

Ahead of the season, Montreal’s troubled Maroons talked of migrating to St. Louis, or maybe Cleveland, but the league turned them down, so they’d suspended operations, leaving seven teams. Patrick wanted the NHL to collapse the remaining teams into one division (previously they’d been divided into American and Canadian halves) with the team that finished on top declared league champion. All seven teams would them compete for the Stanley Cup, with the first-place finisher leaping past the first round with a bye while — importantly — not missing out on its share of ticket profits. Revenue was an important feature of the plan, with teams’ percentages based on (as far as I can discern) a formula accounting both for regular-season and how far they advanced in the playoffs. “The Ranger boss,” Parrott wrote, “figures this will make the teams hustle until the season’s last whistle.”

Interesting that Patrick was sharing with the writers before he took it to the NHL and the teams involved. “Manager Patrick,” noted The New York Times in its report, “is hopeful that his plan will be accepted, although at first blush it seems a most radical and fantastic one, he himself declared.” If the NHL did put this Patrick plan to a vote, it failed to pass. The league did end up rejigging divisions that year, decanting two into one, but when the playoffs came around in the spring of 1939, only the top six teams were in. Last-place Chicago had to watch as Boston went on to beat Toronto in the finals.

•••

The Belvedere is where Stan Fischler got his start to his career in hockey journalism, books, broadcasting and general, all-around mavening. He writes about this in New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players (2015). As a Brooklyn College student in the early 1950s he not only joined a Rangers fan club organized by team publicist Herb Goren but launched a club newspaper with a pair of willing friends. “This gave us entrée to interview players,” he recalls, the first being Ed Kullman, “cross-examined in his suite at the Belvedere Hotel.”

•••

Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times called on Fischler’s formidable Ranger memory when he wrote Don Raleigh’s obituary in 2012. “Bones Raleigh was the quintessential antihero,” Fischler said of the former centreman, Kenora-born, who captained the Rangers and scored back-to-back overtime winners in the team’s losing struggle with Detroit in the 1950 Stanley Cup finals. “He was an intellectual; he would write poetry on the Staten Island Ferry. He would get the puck behind his net and just wend his way up ice on spectacular rushes. Problem was, Bones being so skinny, by the time he got inside the enemy zone, he was usually body checked. But we didn’t mind because he was our guy.”

For much of his ten-year NHL career, he was one of many Rangers to make a hockey-season home at the Belvedere. Klein talked to teammates Harry Howell and Pentti Lund, among others. They both remembered him calling in teammates to his suite for pre-game strategy sessions. He was a book-reader and a bon vivant, loved life in New York, enjoyed the sense of humour:

“Old Bones Raleigh, he used to be our cook in the hotel,” Howell said. “He used to buy the groceries, and we’d pay him. One night, he gave a huge can of peaches to the players, and we thought, Boy, this is really something. So Bones, before we ate the peaches, said, ‘Now you guys realize you each have to give me 12 cents per peach.’ We all knew what he was like and just laughed.”

•••

I’m assuming that Raleigh was on hand at the Belvedere on the last night of 1952 as the Rangers, with wives and girlfriends, heralded the new year. Frank Boucher was there, the Rangers’ GM now, and so was Bill Cook, his coach, who’d almost died twice in the year gone by thanks to irate bulls and exploding tractors. The Leafs and Rangers had played to a 3-3 tie that night but while Toronto’s hockey players had packed up and travelled on to Boston after the game, several of her hockey writers had stayed on to party at the Belvedere. The Globe and Mail’s Gord Walker was one of them, which is how we know that Gladys Gooding was at the piano when the time came to sing Auld Lang Syne, when Rangers captain Allan Stanley wore a plastic fireman’s hat to welcome the midnight. “There was quite a noise for a while,” Walker wrote. “It died down shortly because he wives kissed their husbands, and the girl friends kissed their escorts and the Toronto hockey writers shook hands with each other.”