It was the New York teams battling it out, Rangers versus Americans, that Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, December 16, 1937, with the visiting team prevailing by a score of 2-0 — which is to say, the Rangers. “A speedy, well-played contest that was packed with action,” is how The New York Times accounted for it. Ching Johnson was playing his first game as an American on this night, after 11 years a Ranger, and he almost scored. Dave Kerr is the Ranger goaltender at the centre of things here, covering up to stymie the Amerks’ John Gallagher. Kerr, who was 27 at the time, with a Stanley Cup and a Vézina Trophy both still in his future, died at the age of 68 on a Thursday of this date in 1978. Just a few months after this smothering, he’d become just the second hockey player to grace the cover of Time magazine. Also in the frame? Arriving late are Rangers Lynn Patrick (9) and Ott Heller (3), with Sweeney Schriner (11) of the Americans following up with Art Coulter. Tussling in front: Cecil Dillon of the Rangers and the Americans’ Hap Emms, the latter in his only shift of the game. According to the Times, Toronto manager Conn Smythe was in the house this night, and at the end of the game he offered Lester Patrick the sum of $20,000 if the Ranger boss would sell son Lynn to the Leafs. The answer was a no.
Though it’s dated to 1933, I’m going to venture that this short and magnificent British Pathé newsreel of the antique New York Rangers is in fact a little older than that, and that the show of scurrying, leaping, and colliding that the players enact for the cameras goes back to either 1926-27, the team’s first season in the NHL, or its second, 1927-28.
Though it’s unusual to see them skating at full fling, many of the original Rangers who figure in the action here are unmistakable, whether it’s Frank Boucher steaming in on Ching Johnson, or Bill Cook going after the puck when Boucher goes flying in another sequence. Who’s the defender on the latter play? His sweater shows number 12, which in those initial Ranger seasons belonged to Leo Bourgault. It’s the goaltender who would seem to confirm that this is footage of earliest Rangers. While the camera gives us a good gaze at his gear, it doesn’t linger on his face. The cap you see in the long shots is familiar, and the stance, too, which is to say the crouch he assumes waiting for the play to approach. And yes, Lorne Chabot, who guarded the Ranger nets for most of their first two seasons in the NHL, did sport the number 2 on his sweater. It’s only towards the end of the clip that you get a good look at Chabot’s long, mournful mug. Crashing the net are wingers Murray Murdoch (#9) and Paul Thompson (#10).
Whether or not there was a special ambulance waiting for him, Chabot was famously unfavoured in April of 1928, during the second game of the Stanley Cup finals, when a shot by Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught him in his unprotected eye, and he was taken to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. That was the night the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach, Lester Patrick, took an emergency turn in the net — more on that here. With Joe Miller taking Chabot’s place for the remainder of the series, the Rangers won the Cup. Chabot never played another game for the Blueshirts. Convinced that his career was over, the Rangers sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for John Ross Roach. Far from finished, Chabot played another decade in the NHL before he retired in 1937. Only 11 other goaltenders in NHL history have recorded more career regular-season shutouts than Chabot’s 71.
Andy Aitkenhead was born on a Sunday of this date in 1904 in Glasgow in Scotland, though Saskatchewan is where he grew up and learned the goaling trade. As a young man in the 1920s in Saskatoon, he worked the nets for teams called Quakers, Nationals, Empires, and Sheiks, catching the attention, eventually, of Lester Patrick in New York, who signed him up for the Rangers. He seasoned two years in Portland, Oregon, before graduating to the NHL — that’s him here in his PCHL Buckaroos raiment. The glad news is that as a 28-year-old rookie Aitkenhead backstopped the Blueshirts to their second Stanley Cup to finish up the 1932-33 campaign, working all 48 of the team’s regular-season games and a further eight in the playoffs, winning 29 of those 56 encounters.
He didn’t miss a game the following year, either, despite suffering a nervous breakdown this month in 1934. Details of just what happened aren’t easy to discern from contemporary reports, though the newspapers of the day were all too pleased to blithely bandy the goaltender’s mental health across their columns. “Andy Aitkenhead’s nervous system has broken under the strain of National League hockey,” Vancouver’s Province reported mid-March as the Rangers prepared to start the playoffs and the defence of their title. Patrick denied it, even as he scrambled to find an emergency replacement. Heading into their final regular-season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rangers had lost six of their previous ten games; “Andy hasn’t been going so well lately” is as much as the manager would say. As Patrick sought permission from the NHL to bring in Alec Connell, the recently retired veteran of nine NHL campaigns, the newspapers cast their headlines across the continent:
New York Rangers’ Goalie / Suffers Attack of ‘Jitters’ (Edmonton Journal)
Andy Aitkenhead Suffers / From Nervous Breakdown (Boston Globe)
Aitkenhead Out of Game (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix)
Maple Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe thought it was all a, well, con, a case of Patrick trying to bend the rules and acquire a new goaltender after the NHL trade deadline had passed. “Nobody in all the world of sport can do such utterly unthinkable things except that doggone Lester,” Smythe brayed from Toronto. “He excites my admiration damn near every time he moves, and he moves frequently.”
As it turned out, Connell couldn’t get away — he had a regular job, as secretary of the Ottawa Fire Department. Aitkenhead was back in net for the Toronto game, and while the Rangers lost, 3-2, he stopped 41 shots while inspiring a brighter set of headlines in the days that followed:
Andy’s Jitters Not Permanent (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)
Aitkenhead Is Recovering (Winnipeg Tribune)
Andy Aitkenhead Beating Nerves (Edmonton Journal)
“Aitkenhead’s display lessened somewhat Patrick’s anxiety for the youngster,” the wires reported, “that examination by doctors had caused. Letters from the doctors said Aitkenhead’s reflexes revealed a high degree of nervousness although a physical examination failed to disclose any organic weakness. Encouragement was offered by the statement it might be a passing condition curable by rest.”
And that was pretty much it. Paul Gallico weighed in with a jolly column in the New York Daily News, but mostly,the discussion of Aitkenhead’s well-being sank away out of the news.
As for rest, he didn’t get much that March, starting both of New York’s playoff games later that same week. In a series to be decided by total goals, he and his Maroons’ counterpart Dave Kerr shared in allowing not a one in the first game in Montreal: the Daily News reported that, “though highly keyed up,” Aitkenhead was “magnificent” in stopping 26 shots to guarantee that the game ended 0-0 — while also commending his “coolness.” Five days later, when the teams met again at Madison Square Garden, the Maroons eliminated the Rangers with a 2-1 win secured by a third-period goal by Earl Robinson.
Andy Aitkenhead’s goaltending career had another six years to run, though he only ever played 10 more games in the NHL. The Rangers stumbled out of the gate to start the 1934-35, and they were a dismal 3-7 in December when the Rangers bought Dave Kerr from the Maroons and sent Aitkenhead packing. “I am far from satisfied that the fault was all Andy’s,” Lester Patrick said. “However, when a goalie lest as many get by him as Andy did, you know what happens. All I can say is, I’m sorry.”
Aitkenhead found his way back to the Buckaroos’ net in PCHL Portland, and he played there through to 1941. That’s where he stayed settled, too, after his retirement. Andy Aitkenhead died at the age of 64 in 1968.
(Top image: Oregonian/Barcroft Studios. Oregon Journal; Lot 1368; Box 371; 0371N013)
A glorious episode for the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night — unless, possibly, was it was the most embarrassing loss in the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Either way, Carolina’s 6-3 win over the faltering Leafs at Scotiabank Arena was a memorable night for 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver) David Ayres, who stepped in to make eight saves and earn the win after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.
Ayres’ achievement was roundly celebrated, and rightly so. In the giddy aftermath, some of the history surrounding emergency goaltenders in the NHL was trundled out, in TV studios and on social media. The league’s PR account was quick to proclaim Ayres’ debut as the most elderly in all the (regular-season) annals … before posting an update a few minutes later, recognizing Lester Patrick aged playoff appearance … before deleting the Patrick amendment.
On the embarrassment side of the ledger, there was mention, too, that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to lose to an EBUG — an emergency back-up goaltender.
Not so. Neither is Ayres the first emergency goaltender to win an NHL game, as has been reported.
While the acronym didn’t exist nine decades ago, the tendency for goaltenders to fall to injury goes back (of course) to the earliest days of the NHL. In those early years, of course, teams carried but a single goaltender. So when your mainstay took a puck to the face, say, as Lorne Chabot did in the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, while facing the Montreal Maroons the Stanley Cup Finals, quick decisions were called for.
In that case, when Chabot couldn’t continue, it was the aforementioned Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach and GM, who stepped into the breach. He’d previously subbed in on the Rangers’ defence, but this was his goaling debut in the NHL. He won it, 2-1, which meant that the Maroons lost.
But before that, Montreal lamented Maroons had already lost, previously, in the regular season, to an emergency goaltender.
And as compelling as David Ayres’ story may be, Moe Roberts’ may be more remarkable still.
Actually, I don’t know about that — just seeing now that in addition to being a Zamboni driver whose last competitive service was (per The Hockey News) “an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record.” And, also, he’s a kidney transplant survivor.
Roberts’ is a pretty good chronicle all the same, starting with his 1925 journey (as rendered in the Boston Post) “from obscurity to the glare of the calcium in the short space of 28 minutes.”
Identified, generally, at the time we’re talking here as Maurice, he seems actually to have been born Morris— so maybe we’ll just go with Moe, the diminutive he’d go by later in life. One of the first Jewish players to skate in the NHL, he was about to turn 20 in December of 1925, a son of Waterbury, Connecticut, who’d attended high school in the Boston suburb of Somerville, played goal for the hockey team, the Highlanders. He’d worn the pads, too, during the 1924-25 season for the Boston Athletic Association, backing up Frenchy Lacroix, who’d later find himself stepping into the Montreal Canadiens net vacated by Georges Vézina.
NHL teams mostly carried just a single goaltender in those years, of course, though spares and back-ups did start to become more common toward the end of the decade. Wilf Cude would eventually be designated league back-up, available to any team that needed an emergency replacement, but that was still several years in the future, and wouldn’t really have helped in the Boston Arena this night in any case. Whether Roberts was on hand at the rink on Tuesday, December 8, or had to be summoned in a hurry — I don’t know. He seems to have been unaffiliated at this point — one contemporary account styles him as the Boston A.A.’s former “substitute and inactive goalie.”
Either way, the NHL’s two newest teams were playing that night, early on in their second campaign. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Maroons’ winger Babe Siebert collided with the Bruins’ goaltender, Charlie Stewart, who was also a dentist and so, inevitably, nicknamed Doc. Here’s the Boston Globe’s view of the matter:
Dr. Stewart in stopping a shot by Seibert [sic], was bumped by the latter as he raced in for the rebound. The two players went down in a pile. Dr. Stewart was unable to get up. After a long delay it was discovered that he had been so badly injured he would be out for the rest of the game and possibly for some time. Young Roberts was found and did yeoman work.
Montreal’s Gazette diagnosed Stewart’s trouble: “Doc Stewart was led off the ice with his left leg hanging limp. Later it became known that he had a bad cut, requiring several stitches ….”
Roberts got “a big hand” as he warmed up, the Gazette reported, “with all the Bruins firing testing shots at him.” The first hostile shot he faced was a long one from the stick of Maroons’ centre Reg Noble, and the stop “met with loud acclaim.”
There’s no record of how many shots Roberts faced in his period-and-a-bit of relief work — the Gazette has him “under bombardment” in the third — just that he deterred them all. Winger Jimmy Herberts scored for the Bruins, making Roberts a winner in his emergency debut.
His luck didn’t last. With Stewart unable to play, Roberts started Boston’s next game, three days later, in Pittsburgh, when the local Pirates overwhelmed him by a score of 5-3.
With Doc Stewart declaring himself ready to go for Boston’s next game, Roberts’ NHL career might have ended there and then. On the contrary, it still had a distance to go — across three more decades.
Moe Roberts eventually caught on with teams in the minor Can-Am Hockey League, guarding goals for Eagles in New Haven and Arrows in Philadelphia through the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s. Towards the end of the 1931-32 NHL season, when the New York Americans were visiting Montreal, when regular goaltender Roy Worters fell ill, the Amerks borrowed the Maroons’ spare netminder, Dave Kerr, for their meeting with (and 6-1 loss to) the Canadiens.
Worters still wasn’t available two days later when the Amerks met their New York rivals, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden, so they called up 26-year-old Roberts from New Haven. Maury and also Morrie the papers were calling him by now, and he was brilliant, stepping into Worters’ skates. From the Brooklyn Times Union:
He filled them capably at all times, sensationally at some, bringing down volleys of applause from the assemblage during the play and receiving ovations when he came on the ice for the second and third periods.
The Americans won the game 5-1.
While Roberts didn’t see any more NHL action that season, he did return to the Americans’ net the following year, starting five games in relief after Roy Worters broke his hand, and recording his third career win.
That still wasn’t quite the end of Roberts’ NHL story. Flip forward to 1951. Five years had passed since Roberts had played in a competitive game, in the EAHL, and he was working, now, as an assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks.
When the Detroit Red Wings came to town that November, Harry Lumley took the Chicago net to face Terry Sawchuk down at the far end. Neither man had been born when Roberts played in that first NHL game of his in 1925. Now, 26 years later, he was about to take shots in his ninth (and finally final) big-league game.
Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had put pucks past Lumley by the end of the second period; the score was 5-2 for the Red Wings. Suffering from a bruised left knee, the Black Hawks’ goaltender stayed put in the third, ceding his net to Moe Roberts. Chicago continued to lose right up until the end — but Roberts stopped every shot he faced.
At 45, Roberts was making history, then and there, as the oldest player ever to have suited up for an NHL game, exceeding Lester Patrick’s record of having played for the New York Rangers in a famous 1928 playoff game in 1928. Roberts, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, remains the oldest man to have played goal in NHL history, ahead of Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley, though a couple of skaters have surpassed him since 1951: Chris Chelios played at 48 and Gordie Howe at 52.
If many of the standard online references (including NHL.com) list Eddie Shore’s birthdate as November 25, 1902, the facts favour a Sunday of this date in 1902. So happy birthday to the man they called the Edmonton Express. The photo here shows him when he was 36, in 1939, playing out the last few years of his spectacular career as a defenceman for the Boston Bruins. He was playing in his 13th and penultimate season for Boston that year, making a salary of $7,000 (the league maximum), which works out to about $130,000 in today’s dollars. In the spring of the year, he’d help the Bruins win their second Stanley Cup, their first since 1929. This day in that year, it so happens, is the infamous one on which the Montreal Maroons stopped short of killing Shore.
Almost a decade later, Shore’s brand of hockey was as physical and unyielding as ever. He was, as ever, a punishing and occasionally vicious opponent. He suffered, too, for his sins; the story of the bandaging seen here attests to that. It dates to March of ’39, when the Bruins were battling the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup semi-final series.
Having topped the NHL’s regular-season standings, the Bruins only played a single playoff series that year on the way to the championship round. Under the league’s quirky playoff format, they rode a bye to the semi-final against the second-place Rangers while four teams that had finished lower down in the table battled through two rounds on the other side of the bracket. Dispensing with the Rangers, Boston went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn the Cup.
But that was later. The Bruins/Rangers series was the first in the NHL’s 22-year history to go to seven games. It’s the fourth game we’re concerned with here, played on Tuesday, March 28, 1939, at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The Rangers prevailed on the night by a score of 2-1, with left winger Lynn Patrick scoring the winner shorthanded in the second period.
In those years, the Rangers featured a plurality of Patricks. Father Lester was still coaching and GM’ing a team while he counted on Lynn, 25, and his defence-playing brother, 23-year-old Murray — a.k.a. Muzz — in his line-up.
It was Muzz who featured in the game’s first period, along with Shore, when the hockey gave way to chaos.
Newspaper accounts trot out all the old epithets: melee, pitched battle, and free-for-all. Canadian Press called it a “five-star punching bee,” while the Associated Press went with “one of the largest and bloodiest fights in a good many years. The New York Times settled on “the mass fist-fight.”
To sum up: it was just another old-time instance of hockey players swinging sticks and fists to concuss one another, after which a few penalties were called, repairs more or rendered, and everybody carried on despite the damage done.
It all got going halfway through the period, when the score was tied 1-1. Joseph Nichols from the Times testified that the situation began mildly enough with Bruins’ defenceman Portland meeting pesky Rangers forward Phil Watson in a corner back of the Bruins’ net. But let’s go to the eyewitness account that Lynn Patrick gave many years later:
I can see it now: Jack Portland and Phil Watson got into a high-sticking duel down in the 49th Street — 8th Avenue corner of the rink.
Shore, who never liked Watson anyway, went charging into it. As soon as Muzz saw that, he went in and pulled Shore off. As he did, Eddie swung at him. Muzz let his big one go … booooom. Shore was out for the rest of the period, but he came back wearing a lot of plaster across his face.
Victor Jones of the Boston Globe saw it from a different perspective. His account went like this:
… there’s no doubt that the Rangers started the jam and that they concentrated their best efforts on Shore.
The original battlers were Jack Portland and Phil Watson, who engaged in a bumping and high-sticking duel in the corner.
That blew over and Portland was skating away when [Bryan] Hextall climbed up his back. Shore then went over to aid Portland in his affair with the two Ranger forwards and this was the signal for Murray Patrick and Art Coulter, the Ranger defence pair, to skate the length of the ice and gang up on Shore.
Eddie of course got all the worst of it. He’s no match for Murray Patrick, former Canadian boxing champion, with his fists. He was outweighed 20 or 30 pounds and for a while seemed to be fighting the whole team single-handed.
Mickey Ion was the referee. He fell to the ice, or was knocked down, twice before the fracas was over. Restored to his skates, Ion assigned six major penalties, to Shore, Jack Portland, and Gord Pettinger of the Bruins, as well as to New York’s Phil Watson, Muzz Patrick, and Dutch Hiller.
Shore went to the dressing room for medical attention, so Ray Getliffe sat on the penalty bench in his stead.
As mentioned, Patrick did have a particular punching pedigree: in 1935, in Edmonton, he boxed his way to the Dominion Heavyweight crown with an upset TKO of Tommy Osborne, the challenger from Quebec. A contemporary account of the championship bout is as instructive as it is dispiriting, an historical case study for retrospective concussion spotters and students of punch-drunk syndrome alike.
Four years later, in New York in ’39, Shore was almost certainly concussed when he returned to the ice midway through the second period. “I told him not to play any more after it happened,” Boston coach Art Ross later said. “But he insisted on getting out there again. He was fighting mad.”
Edmonton Eddie’s dented and bent prow was Harold Parrott’s jovial description in the next morning’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It was smeared over on the right side of Eddie’s face by three Muzz Patrick punches, and only a band of adhesive tape held it back in place when Shore returned to the wars.
Papers in New York, Boston, and beyond would spend the next several days cultivating a discussion of just how Shore had sustained his damage. “Patrick didn’t do that,” the man himself told Parrott, gesturing to his nose, which he said had been shattered “for about the tenth time.”
“Watson hit me with the butt-end of his stick even before the scrapping started.”
But Muzz Patrick was adamant. “I hit him three clean shots. I felt his nose give way.”
Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Globe later got Patrick on the record regarding his erstwhile boxing career. He tracked him down in the coffee shop of the Manger Hotel, next to Boston Garden, where Patrick started off by saying, “I’m a hockey player, not a fighter.”
“Sure,” he said, “I used to box as an amateur, but I haven’t fought since 1935, and the fight the other night was the first I’ve had since I quit boxing.”
Following up his Canadian heavyweight crown with several other titles, he’d considered trying to represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was having trouble with his own nose, though, and underwent surgery for a deviated septum.
So that was what ended his career in the ring?
“Oh, no,” Muzz Patrick told Hurwitz, “my mother was against it. She never liked it from the start. It was all right for me to come home from a hockey game with seven stitches in my head, but if I ever came home from a fight with a little black eye, it was terrible. I gave it up for her.”
(Top image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography; photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.
That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.
Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.
Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:
This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.
Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.
Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.
We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.
“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”
If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.
I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.
It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.
All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.
Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”
Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.
The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.
Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.
Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.
No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”
By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.