billy burch took his skates to bed

No Sudden Coughing: In 1928, Billy Burch did his best to recommend Lucky Strikes to hockey’s tobacco-craving players.

Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.

Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.

Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.

I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:

For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.

When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.

He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.

In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.

Billy Babe Burch Ruth

They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.

So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.

Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.

Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.

 

buddy o’connor: a hart, a byng, a razzle dazzle past

Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.

By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”

McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”

Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.

Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.

But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.

O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”

O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.

Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”

In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.

Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.

 

 

 

a man for all seasons

Big Train: Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Lionel Conacher was … well, incredible doesn’t quite do it justice. “As an outstanding all-round athlete, Conacher starred in wrestling, boxing, lacrosse, baseball, and football,” an admirer noted in 1954, “and became one of the greatest defencemen of his day in professional hockey. He was better than average as a sculler and swam well. He once galloped 100 yards in 10.4 seconds in full baseball togs. He won praise from Jack Dempsey after boxing four rounds with the heavyweight champion.” Hockeywise, he won two Stanley Cups, with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and again the following year when (above) he suited up for Montreal’s Maroons. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994, he and Carl Voss share the distinction of being the only two athletes to have had their names engraved on both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

severely jarred, badly wrenched: the life and sore times of howie morenz

An unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck, I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:

I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?

Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.

In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.

That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?

Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:

His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.

(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)

Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.

In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.

The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”

Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,

Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.

In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.

Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.

In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,

Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.

The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.

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sont où? in 1934, montreal definitely had no interest in trading howie morenz

Hawkish: Montreal said they’d never trade star Howie Morenz, but in 1934, when Morenz decided the fans didn’t want him any longer, Canadiens traded him to the Chicago Black Hawks.

Trade Howie Morenz? Are you crazy? The very idea is — I mean, that would be like shipping, I don’t know, Wayne Gretzky out of Edmonton in, say, 1988. Ludicrous.

In 1934, the Montreal Canadiens swore up, down, and sideways that it would never happen. How could it? The team had had an underwhelming season, for them, bowing out to the eventual champions from Chicago in the quarter-finals.

Morenz, who was born on this day in 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, was playing his eleventh year with Montreal, and it had been a rough one for him. At 31, the man whose newspapers epithets had matured into the old thunderbolt and the veteran speedball had scored just nine goals, missing time with a bad ankle, more with a fractured thumb. He and coach Newsy Lalonde were supposedly feuding. Was it possible that some of the boos wafting down from the high gallery were intended for Morenz? In March, he hinted that maybe he’d had enough; could be that the time had come to hang up his skates for good.

Still, Morenz was Morenz, a superstar, beloved in Montreal, just two years removed from having won back-to-back Hart Memorial trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player. Sportswriters across the NHL voted him the league’s speediest player that year (Busher Jackson of Toronto came second).

In April, as his Black Hawks battled with the Detroit Red Wings for the championship, Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin let it be known that he’d like Morenz to play for, and had made Montreal an offer. New York Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick was said to be interested, too.

That’s when Canadiens’ co-owner Joseph Cattarinich did his best to quash the idea that Morenz could ever leave Montreal. The team, he declared, had no desire to sell or trade their iconic centreman.

That’s not how the hockey writers understood it, though. There was a rumour that Montreal was interested in Chicago wingers Mush March and/or Paul Thompson —probably, too, they’d want some cash. At Toronto’s Globe, Mike Rodden was hearing that the Maple Leafs might be in the mix, too. The well-connected sports editor — he also happened to be an active NHL referee — had it on good authority that Cattarinich and his partner, Canadiens’ managing director Leo Dandurand, would be interested in a swap that brought the Leafs’ Joe Primeau to Montreal. But Rodden couldn’t see the Leafs’ Conn Smythe agreeing to that.

A month later, it was all out in the open. “We have received several flattering offers for Morenz,” Dandurand told the Montreal Gazette at the NHL’s annual meeting in Syracuse, New York. “But we want players, not money, and if we do not get adequate playing replacements, we will have Morenz with us next season.”

The Associated Press got quite a different message. “Howie Morenz will not be with us,” Dandurand was quoted as saying in their Syracuse dispatch. “He is still a great hockey player and three clubs are seeking to buy him. We set a price of $50,000 when Chicago Black Hawks made inquiries, but later said we would accept $35,000 and title to Mush March. Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs also are bidding for Morenz.”

So that was that. Not immediately, but eventually.

The bargaining took a few months. Summer passed without any further news. In September, as Morenz turned 32, the hearsay had it that (i) Boston was getting Morenz in exchange for centre Marty Barry, unless (ii) Chicago got the deal done by sending March and winger Lolo Couture Montreal’s way, though possibly (if Dandurand got his way) it might be that (iii) Morenz and defenceman Marty Burke would be going to the Black Hawks for a pair of defencemen, Roger Jenkins and Lionel Conacher.

October had arrived by the time the actual trade was announced. Chicago it was for Morenz, along with Burke and goaltender Lorne Chabot. In return, Canadiens got Conacher, Jenkins, and winger Leroy Goldsworthy. Conacher wasn’t long a Hab; Dandurand flipped him almost immediately to the cross-town Maroons, who also got Herb Cain, in exchange for the rights to McGill University star Nelson Crutchfield. Dandurand wasn’t finished yet, according to the Gazette: he was trying to pry Dit Clapper away from Boston. (Update: he didn’t do it.)

“Morenz has given our club eleven years of faithful and at the same time brilliant service,” was Dandurand’s stilted statement on the man who’d come to define his team, its speed and its élan. Morenz himself was said to be peeved not to have been consulted before the trade, but he did duly report to Chicago, where Major McLaughlin was very pleased. “Morenz will fit into our system perfectly,” he enthused. “He still has plenty of speed, and with our frequent changing of forward lines, will be of huge value.” There was talk, too, that he’s soon be taking over as coach.

The fit was not perfect; we know that now. In January of 1935, Dandurand told James Burchard of New York’s World-Telegramthat it was Morenz who’d asked for the trade.

“They booed Howie last year and the year before,” Dandurand said. “The Montreal spectators didn’t realize he was hurt and couldn’t give his best. A highly sensitive player, Howie came to me and said, ‘Probably a change would do me good.’” Morenz had in fact made no protest when he’d learned that he was going to Chicago, Burchard reported; he said that Dandurand told him that Morenz felt that Montreal didn’t want him any more.

After all those luminous years as a Canadien with the number 7 on his back, Morenz wore 3 in Chicago for a season-and-a-half in which he failed to thrive. In early 1936, the Black Hawks traded him to the New York Rangers for winger Glen Brydson.

Morenz’s stint in a Ranger sweater, numbered 12, didn’t really work out either. By the fall, he was back in Montreal, suiting up once again, when the season started in November, in his old number seven, with his old wingers by his side, Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat.

He was nervous before the game, he confessed. “I tried to lie down and have a nap Saturday afternoon, like I always do before games, but it was no go,” he said. “I couldn’t stay quiet a minute. It’s sure great to be back.”

Canadiens beat the Bruins 2-0 on the night. They didn’t score, but (as the Gazette’s correspondent noted) “the veteran line of Morenz, Joliat, and Gagnon, reunited after two years, received a thunderous welcome from the gathering and it responded with a sparkling display, Joliat’s all-round game, Gagnon’s neat stickhandling and several bursts of his oldtime speed by Morenz were a feature of their play.”

Montreal, it turned out, did want him. “Once again the old war cry of the north-end section, ‘Les Canadiens sont là,’ echoes through the Forum.”

Stars, Aligned: In November of 1936, after two years apart, the line of Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat reunited.

lionel conacher at the 1921 grey cup: great that we’re winning, gotta get to the rink

Train Stop: Lionel Conacher spent only one of his 13 NHL seasons in Chicago, 1933-34, but it was long enough to help the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup.

The snow was deeper at this year’s Grey Cup in Ottawa than it was in 1921, when the game was played at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, but the outcome was the same: Argooooooooooos.

In ’21 the game played out on December 3, with the Argos prevailing 23-0 over a different Alberta team, the Eskimos of Edmonton. A hockey fan’s view of the afternoon’s proceedings might focus on 21-year-old Argo halfback Lionel Conacher. He was, The Ottawa Journal’s correspondent reported, “the greatest ground gainer” on the day. He scored a touchdown in the first quarter and another in the second, and maybe would have had a third if he hadn’t been tripped. He also contributed a drop-kick field goal.

“Conacher has the happy faculty of being able to take a pass while at full speed and some of his catches on Saturday were sensational,” the Journal continued. Also of note: the Daily Star recorded that Conacher was “shaken up several times and forced to retire.” So, concussed? Maybe. Doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.

Also of hockey note: another Argo, 27-year-old middleback Alex Romeril, would in later years serve (if only briefly) as coach of the Maple Leafs when they turned in 1927 from St. Patricks. He later served as an NHL referee. Romeril’s Grey Cup was hindered somewhat by a charley horse, though (said the Star) “he tried hard all the way.”

On that triumphant Saturday in 1921, Romeril’s sporting day didn’t end on the football field. Like Conacher, he still had a senior hockey game to play that night. The two Argo teammates may actually have left the Grey Cup game early to make it to the ice. There, at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, they lined up as rivals as Romeril’s Toronto Granites took on Conacher’s Aura Lee in an early-round game for the annual Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association Trophy.

Aura Lee had another future NHL star in the line-up that night in Billy Burch. Conacher scored a goal, but it wasn’t enough. With NHLer-to-be John Ross Roach starring in the net and the future Olympic and Montreal Maroons stand-out Dunc Munro on defence, Romeril’s Granites carried the day by a score of 4-2.

Conacher would have to wait to add his name to the Stanley Cup: it was 1934 before he helped Chicago win the championship. He did it again with the Montreal Maroons in 1935. The only other man to achieve that fairly incredible double is Carl Voss. He won the Grey Cup with Queen’s University in 1924 before gaining the Stanley Cup, also with Chicago, in 1938.

Conacher, of course, would continue to share his efforts between sports. All of them, just about. He wrestled and, also in 1921, boxed heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in an exhibition.  Coancher continued to play football, lacrosse, and baseball up to and beyond time he finally decided to give the NHL a go. He got his start there with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925. He was also a New York American in his time, before retiring, in 1937, a Maroon.

Splendor In The Grass: Conacher is fêted (that must be what’s going on here, no?) as a member of Toronto’s Hillcrest baseball team, circa 1920.

 

when pittsburgh and ottawa first met, 1925: a cataract of noise was unloosed

Legged Work: Roy Worters, a.k.a. Shrimp, was the star the first time teams from Pittsburgh and Ottawa met in the NHL in December of 1925.

As Penguins and Senators prepare to open their NHL Eastern Conference Final tonight in Pennsylvania, history recalls that Ottawa and Pittsburgh have met four times previously in the playoffs (going back to 2006-07) and that the Penguins hold the advantage (winning three series to Ottawa’s one). The Penguins made their NHL entrance in 1967, of course, which makes the Senators relative newcomers: they debuted in 1992. Fetching further back, both Ottawa and Pittsburgh iced teams in the NHL’s first decade. The original Senators were there from the start in 1917, winning the Stanley Cup in 1927, and they played on until 1934, when they upped skates and departed for St. Louis. Pittsburgh got its initial team in 1925 when the erstwhile USAHA champions, the Yellow Jackets, transformed into the NHL Pirates. The team lasted five seasons in the league before a sale took them across Pennsylvania to become the Philadelphia Quakers. The new team lasted just a single season before folding in 1931.

Pirates and Senators met for the first time in early December of 1925, at Ottawa’s Auditorium. The home team prevailed 1-0. Here’s a look:

“Those bold buccaneers from Pittsburgh showed canny cutlasses,” opined The Ottawa Journal. Local reviews also called the Pirates “pesky” and remarked that the team, while speedy, lacked scoring. Pittsburgh coach Odie Cleghorn had been enthusiastic from the first, though he’d done his best to try to manage Pittsburgh expectations even as he enthused about his charges.

“Don’t expect too much of them at the start,” he’d said in November, “because what they need more than anything else is a couple of games. We will outspeed any team in the league and just as soon as some of the rough edges are worn off, you can quote me as saying we will take a whole lot of beating.”

They beat Boston and Montreal’s usually mighty Canadiens when the season got underway before losing in overtime to the New York Americans. That got them to Ottawa.

Six thousand fans were on hand —“remarkable good considering the weather,” thought the Journal: it was raining.

The Ottawa Citizen: “It was a great hockey match, one of the best ever witnessed in Ottawa’s magnificent Ice Palace, and it will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to have been present.”

Lionel Conacher had remained a star of football and lacrosse field while captaining the Yellow Jackets, and he’d surprised some when he opted to turn professional with the Pirates in 1925. The Citizen’s review:

The big boy is sound as a defensive player, a good puck-carrier, a fairly fast skater and dangerous on the offensive, as he packs a wicked shot. Conacher’s only weakness appears to be his unsteadiness on his skates. But, for such a big and powerful athlete, he is an exceptionally clean player.

“Painfully keen,” said the Journal’s man on the scene, “a good strong skater, if a trifle awkward.” He was to commended for knowing how to “husband his energy and use it at the proper time.”

Ottawa defenceman King Clancy had been injured in the team’s previous game against Boston. He’d been in hospital with a torn muscle in his back but was allowed to attend the Pittsburgh game as spectator. He went to the Ottawa dressing room after the first period, determined to get into the game; coach Alex Currie said no.

Hooley Smith dropped back from right wing to cover for Clancy. Also starting for the Senators were Frank Nighbor, Hec Kilrea, and Cy Denneny. Five of Ottawa’s nine players on the night would end up in the Hall of hockey Fame; Conacher and goaltender Roy Worters were Pittsburgh’s future Famers. Odie Cleghorn was the Pirate coach.

The Ottawa Journal noted that Frank Nighbor and Conacher were at one another throughout the game, staging “several lively bumping duels, with honours fairly evenly divided.”

Star of the game? The Pirates’ Roy Worters. “Many Legged,” the Journal called him, as well as “Argus-eyed.” How many shots did he stop? “Fully fifty.”

Ottawa’s netminder was Alec Connell. “Unspectacular” was the word the Journal attached to his shutout performance; he also got “a regular bulwark.”

Another Ottawa defenceman, Ottawa captain George Boucher, scored the game’s only goal in the third period. “Buck,” they called him. He rushed from deep in his own end, fired a shot ankle-high just as Pittsburgh defenders Roger Smith and Conacher closed in on him.

The rink was loud in the first two periods, the Journal’s correspondent noted. In the third, it got louder still:

When Boucher finally broke the knot and gave Ottawas the game, old pandemonium who has done such tried and true service in the past sounded like a mere whisper alongside the cataract of noise that was unloosed. The cheer wave continued for over a minute, and the man who beggared description would have to grope for words to adequately impress the scene on what should by now be a thoroughly aroused throng of readers.

Back in Pittsburgh, despite the loss, the reviews for the Pirates were warm. “No longer are the Pirates a mystery team,” said The Press. “They established themselves as a real hockey team, one which will be troublesome for any team to beat any place and under any conditions.”

The win sent Ottawa to the top of the seven-teamed NHL standings. Like the Montreal Canadiens they’d collected six points, but the Senators were undefeated after three games while Montreal had lost one of four. Pittsburgh, at 2-2, held third place.

Ottawa prevailed the next time the teams met, and the next time after that, too. The scores were 5-0 and 1-0 respectively, with Connell refusing to allow even a single goal. It was February 2, 1926 before Roy Worters was able to return the favour, when Pittsburgh finally beat Ottawa for the first time by a score of 1-0.

Ottawa was at the top of the league when the season ended with Pittsburgh holding third place. Come the playoffs, the Pirates went out at the hands of the Montreal Maroons, who then beat the Senators for the NHL title and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup, which they did, beating the WHL’s Victoria Cougars for the championship.

 

 

 

 

a monkey wrench, a hardboiled egg: only missed my head by a foot

ross-a

Rossman: Photographed here in the 1930s.,Art Ross was  coach and manager and spirit of the  Boston Bruins from their 1924 start. 

The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.

That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?

Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.

The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.

The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”

That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 79, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”

Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”

All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.

He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400.  He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued to do on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patricks to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t know, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his initial  investment.

Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.

The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.

“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.

In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared. Continue reading

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Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Bill Gadsby, the Hall-of-Fame defenceman who died last week at the age of 88, suffered for his art. He hit his opponents hard during his 20 years on NHL bluelines, as the obituaries and appreciations duly noted, and that had its costs. Not that he complained. “If your going to give it,” the insufficiently proofread cover of his 2003 autobiography quotes him, “you’d better be able to take it.”

Gadsby’s career damages included the two broken legs, four smashed toes, nine fractured noses — unless, maybe, were there 11 of those, to match the 11 thumbs he injured?

Also, his stitches. At The Hockey News last week, Ken Campbell was quick to crown Gadsby as “the unofficial owner of the all-time league high in stitches with 650.” Dave Stubbs from NHL.com agreed, though he did couch the claim a little more, citing Gadsby’s “unofficial Original Six record of roughly 650 stitches sewn into his face.” In  his obituary for The New York Times, Richard Goldstein, who had nothing to say about records, told his readers that “Gadsby incurred some 640 stitches, many in his face.”

I write here as someone who’s spent some time browsing the medical tolls that hockey exacts from its players as well as the ways in which they’ve figured in the history and the lore of the game. I covered stitch-counting in the book that shares a name with this blog, sewed it up, maybe you’d say — or I would. Still, I’m glad to go through it all again.

First up: what’s the right number when it comes to accounting for the stitches Gadsby needed to bind all his bodily cuts and tears over the course of his NHL career?

The Hockey Hall of Fame website doesn’t hovers over a big but inexact number: “He reputedly received more than 600 stitches to his face.” Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends.com can get behind that, even if he’s not willing to limit the count to the face: Gadsby “took approximately 600 stitches due to high sticks and flying pucks.”

Pelletier does say that the defenceman was cut for 12 stitches in his very first NHL game, in 1946, when he debuted for the Chicago Blackhawks. I can’t find anything to back that up, and if it happened, Gadsby forgot about it, too. In that autobiography of his, The Grateful Gadsby, his very own as-told-through-Kevin-Allen story, he recalls that he assisted on a Pete Horeck goal. “Other than that I can’t tell you much about the game. Probably I had too many butterflies to record much in my memories.”

How many butterflies? Sorry, no, stick to stitches. On that, the book is precise: 640 is the number we get on chapter one, page the first. Two pages on:

The reason I know how many stitches I had is that my dear wife, Edna, kept a log of how many times I was hurt, just like some spouses keep a list of birthdays and anniversary dates. That was just part of our life.

Later, with an insurance policy, Gadsby’s stitches proved profitable, as I’ve also written before — but maybe that calls for a separate elaboration, to follow.

Next question, for now: is Gadsby’s 640 some of kind of individual record among players, Original Six or otherwise?

Hockey’s stitch lit goes back almost as far as the organized game itself. Cully Wilson is a name that arises prominently from the early years. A two-time Stanley Cup winner in pre-NHL days, he had the accounting advantage of newspapermen keeping a running total of his sutures. Here’s The Calgary Daily Herald in 1926:

Wilson started his professional hockey career in 1912, and the first year out he was cut for 12 stitches.

Fast forward 14 years:

Two more stitches have been added to Cully Wilson’s carved visage, and the total in his face has risen to 80, the greatest record of any player in the history of hockey.

Sometimes mentioned as Wilson’s heir is Walter Smaill, once of the Cobalt Silver Kings and Montreal’s Wanderers, said to have accumulated 168 stitches in a career that only lasted 137 games.

Next up: Helge Bostrom, defenceman for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was on record as having sustained 100 stitches in 1931 when a skate cut three of the four tendons in his left leg in a collision with Earl Seibert of the New York Rangers and Dr. H.O. Clauss’s repair work added either 140 or 145 more to his tally.

In the late 1930s, Ching Johnson was said to have been — well, more stitched than not. An excitable columnist once said his sewings went as high as 5,000. I don’t know what Johnson thought of that, but he did respond, in 1937, to a report that he’d taken 1,000 in his time. “Where could they put them?” he’s quoted as having said. “I’ve had only 374.”

Lionel Conacher catalogued his career of pain for Maclean’s in 1936, including:

a total of more than 500 stitches in my face and head, another 150 or so in the rest of my gnarled anatomy.

A case might be made (as I wrote in Puckstruck) for Gordie Howe, who was declared on a 1968 magazine cover to be “Hockey’s Man Of 1,000 Stitches.” Howe’s own calculations are more modest — and unsettled. The biography on his website says that in years on the ice he amassed “500 stitches in his face alone.” That jibes with what Howe says in an “authorized autobiography” he wrote with Tom DeLisle in 1995, and … Howe!

 In another one, written with Paul Haavardsrud’s help, he begs to differ with himself. “Over my career,” he confides in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014),

I figure I’ve taken more than 300 stitches to my face alone. [Wife] Colleen wondered if that might qualify me for a Guinness world record, but I told her I knew some goalies that definitely had me beat. For what it’s worth, as a connoisseur on the subject I can tell you that not all stitches are created equal. I labeled the area than ran from my nose to below my mouth as the triangle of pain. Taking stitches there was no kind of fun. Getting sewn up in a place with fewer nerve endings, like the forehead, is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting shift. I don’t know how to explain it. What kind of audit would have been involved in this kind of adjusted reporting? Either way, of course, five hundred or three, it’s a lot. “One year I had 50 stitches in my face,” Howe told Larry Bortstein of Family Weekly in 1970. “That was a bad year. A good year is when I have 10 or less.”

Eddie Shore? His count, too, fluctuates. Was it 600? You’ll also find estimates across the years ranging from 900 through 987. Trent Frayne says 964; Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam tells us he was “cut 100 times, receiving 978 stitches.”

That last one is the number that surfaces most often — including in The Catholic Digest in 1951. Other writers are content with resonant approximations. Austen Lake, for instance: “In a rough sum, he had more stitches in his flesh than a tailor needs to make an overcoat.”

That’s probably enough for now, even as I own that we haven’t talked about the goaltenders. Let’s leave it at this: I haven’t yet happened on any, even from the desperate, maskless days pre-1959, claiming more than 500.

As for latter-day challengers, Hall-of-Fame defenceman Rod Langway is one I hadn’t come across before. He was starting into the second-last of his 15 NHL seasons in 1991 when he talked to Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post about his close encounters with monofilament.

“Over 1,000,” Langway said calmly.

Over 1,000?

“Oh sure,” he said. “I’m close to 100 already this year. No, probably closer to 70. I took 11 in the ear in the opener against Philadelphia, these eight in the nose, that’s 19.

Langway made some cursory calculations in his head and said, “I’ve gotten stitched in seven of the 19 games I’ve played.”

Australia's Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

Australia’s Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

sinned » binned

Time Share: Lionel Conacher of the Montreal Maroons, left, shares the penalty bench with Roger Jenkins of the Bruins, serving out their sentences together during the 1935-36 season. Possibly it was on the night of December 10, 1935, when the Bruins blanked the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-0. Art Ross had warned the lowly Bruins that if they didn’t show something that game, the changes would ring. Red Beattie scored both Boston goals on the night, which ended with Conacher flailing at a front-row spectator who (as the newspapers put it next day) “clipped” him from behind. The benches cleared. There was “a free-for-all.” It was “furious.” It last “a full minute.”

The photograph here — guessing — is from earlier, the second period, after this happened:

jenkins conacher

(Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

 

this week: is god a jets fan?

elixir

“Hej, Heja, Heja, Cracovia Mistrzem Hokeja,” chanted the fans in Poland this week, after Cracovia Krakow beat GKS Jastrzebie in game seven of the finals of the Polish national championships.

“I’ve never even been at an NHL playoff game,” one of Toronto’s goalies, James Reimer, told one of The Toronto Star’s columnists, Rosie DiManno.

“Is God a Jets fan?” a reporter from The Free Press asked Winnipeg’s team chaplain this week. Great question. “I’ve always been taught that God loves everybody and God loves all the teams,” said Lorne Korol. “And in fact we pray for a spirit of competition for our players, we pray that they would leave it all on the ice for that audience of one, the one being God. And we pray for their safety, both on and off the ice. But we never pray for victory or good weather.”

Alex Ovechkin explained a 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders this week. “Holtsy play unbelievable, make the biggest save, keep us in the game and big win,” he said.

“The history of icing is a harrowing one, involving horrible injuries and even death,” wrote Jeff Z. Klein in The New York Times. This after Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen was injured in a race to touch up a puck for icing. Puzzled Damien Cox from The Toronto Star: “Guy hurt on icing, immediate calls for rule changes; guy gets brain injury in a fight, ho-hum, part of the game #absurd”

On Hockey Night in Canada, Ron Maclean called Toronto’s Nazem Kadri “Nazem-a-taz.” Kadri had just scored a hattrick against Ottawa, so he was happy, as were his teammates, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, who stood behind him. “Hard-hat hockey,” is what Toronto plays, said McLaren. Don Cherry was there, too, and he kissed Kadri.

Before that, Maclean said to Kadri, “Your parents knew, your teachers knew, in London, that that was kind of, that you had the spit, you had the self-confidence, and you didn’t take losing lightly, so … congrats is the simplest way to say it.”

“Thank you,” said Kadri, as well as “Lups is a great player” and “My old man’s a pretty gritty guy, too.”

“Who taught you to hit?” Maclean had asked him, “because I know you were good at volleyball and basketball.”

The New York Rangers were having troubles scoring goals, so reporters on the beat asked coach John Tortorella why. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

A puck, slapshot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, flew into Sidney Crosby’s jaw, which broke, shedding teeth and blood. Everybody grimaced. Nobody wanted to think the worst. Crosby left the game.

“I just know,” said his coach Dan Bylsma, after the game, “he had some issues with his teeth. Just from the replay I know that.”

Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle wondered, “Is that the hockey gods sending a message?” Continue reading

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Bambino & Friends: Eddie Shore and his wife Kate chat with Babe Ruth himself, clad in Boston Braves colours, in April of 1935.

It wasn’t the hockey players they were trying to impress in 1925 when they called Bullet Joe Simpson the Babe Ruth of hockey. If they’d wanted to do that, they would have announced he was the Cyclone Taylor of hockey or maybe the Scotty Davidson. To some people who saw him play, Davidson was the best ever, barring none, which is intriguing to hear because, well — Scotty Davidson? But: Babe Ruth. 1925 was the year that bootlegger Big Bill Dwyer and his buddies bought the roster of the Hamilton Tigers and replanted it in Manhattan as the New York Americans. Tex Rickard needed a new attraction to fill his Madison Square Garden and hockey, he and Colonel John Hammond had decided, was it. To a New Yorker who’d never seen a game before, Cyclone Taylor wasn’t going to mean much. Everybody understood the dominance of Ruth, the swagger of the most famous Yankee of all — which still doesn’t explain how the team came to have two Babe Ruths playing for them that year. Continue reading