(big) trainspotting

Stars + Stripes: Born in Toronto on this date in 1900 (it was a Thursday, then), Lionel Conacher was known as The Big Train in his sporting youth, and he whistled his way to stardom at every venue he visited, excelling at football, wrestling, boxing, lacrosse, baseball, sculling, swimming, and track. Oh, and hockey: his Hall-of-Fame career as a defenceman spanned 12 seasons in which he won a pair of Stanley Cup championships, with the Chicago Black Hawks (in 1934) and Montreal’s Maroons (’35). With Joe Miller and Carl Voss, Conacher is one of the only three players in history to have had their names inscribed on both the Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup. Conacher was Liberal MPP in Ontario, too, and went on to serve five years as a federal MP representing Toronto’s Trinity riding until his death, which came at the age of 54, during a parliamentary softball game.

strolling lord stanley

Out And About: Members of the Chicago Black Hawks takes the Stanley Cup for a stroll in October of 1938. From left, they are: Baldy Northcott, Joffre Desilets, Bill Mackenzie, Ab DeMarco, Russ Blinco, Johnny Gottselig (with Cup), Alex Levinsky (with other part of Cup), Carl Voss, and Roger Jenkins.

The clock was showing 9.45 p.m. on this night, 84 years ago, when veteran Chicago centreman Carl Voss took a second-period pass from Johnny Gottselig and batted the puck past Toronto goaltender Turk Broda. Though there remained half a game still to play, Voss’ goal would prove the winner as the Black Hawks went on to a 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs on that April night in 1938 to claim the team’s second Stanley Cup with a 3-1 series win.

The throng at Chicago Stadium was 17,204 strong that night. But for all the happy hullabaloo that enveloped the ice, Chicago didn’t actually take possession of the storied Cup that night: as we’ve told it here before, the silverware was languishing back in Toronto, and only arrived in Illinois two days after Carl Voss sealed the deal for the Black Hawks.

Do It Again: An account of Jenkins’ 1938 jaunt with Mike Karakas.

The Black Hawks did get in a parade, of sorts, midday on the Wednesday, April 13. Back in 1934, Hawks’ defenceman Roger Jenkins had promised goaltender Charlie Gardiner that if Chicago won the Cup that year, he’d trundle Gardiner around the city’s downtown Loop in a wheelbarrow. He was — as seen below — as good as his word.

As he was, again, in 1938, treating goaltender Mike Karakas to a ride, this time. Reports from this follow-up foray vary: did they go for five blocks or just the one? It was one o’clock in the busy afternoon, and the hockey players, it was widely reported, tied up traffic on State Street for several minutes.

The Black Hawks got to visit with the Stanley Cup again in the fall of 1938, October, just before the team departed Chicago for a training camp at the University of Illinois at Champaign. That’s when the photograph that tops this post was taken: after the team lunched, the players went walkabout, trophy and (for some) luggage in hand.

Coach Bill Stewart wasn’t there: he was back home in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recovering from a bout of appendicitis, and would join the team later. The new season brought new faces to Chicago’s line-up, and some of them are seen here on the stroll, too: Baldy Northcott, Joffre Desilets, Ab DeMarco, and Russ Blinco hadn’t been with the Black Hawks when the won the Cup the previous April.

Carl Voss and Roger Jenkins are, notably, on hand. Also of interest is the storefront the players are passing here: McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee was, of course, the business concern of Black Hawks’ founder Major Frederic McLaughlin.

Barrow Boys: In April of 1934, after Chicago won its first Stanley Cup, Black Hawk defenceman Roger Jenkins fulfilled his promise to take goaltender Charlie Gardiner for a wheelbarrow ride around the city’s downtown Loop. Presiding at left is pipe-smoking teammate Lionel Conacher.

 

 

collateral damage: a faceful of rocket richard’s stick, and gloves, and other adventures with an nhl whistle

Purpled Hayes: That’s rookie referee George Hayes on the ice in January of 1947 at Maple Leaf Gardens, struck down by Maurice Richard’s flying stick. Attending the patient is linesman Eddie Mepham. Richard looks on with interest and, I think, concern; that’s the Rocket’s stick still airborne behind Hayes. Leafs’ #7 is Bud Poile.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won the game, but it was this photograph of stickstruck referee George Hayes that ended up making the front page of the Globe and Mail on the morning after, 75 years ago this week.

Welcome to life as an NHL official in the late 1940s. Well, the turbulent times of Hayes, anyway, whose start in the league was auspicious for all the wrong reasons, and whose temperament, — and/or lifestyle — and/or suspicion of doctors — didn’t seem to promise much in the way of a long career.

And yet, and yet: in the course of a 19-year career, Hayes would become the first NHL linesman to work 1,000 games. All told, he skated in 1,549 NHL games, regular-season, playoff, and all-star.

The scene above? On Wednesday, January 15, 1947, just months into that tenure, Hayes was working the whistle in Toronto as the Leafs entertained the Montreal Canadiens. Syl Apps and Gaye Stewart got the goals Toronto needed, but (said the Globe’s Jim Vipond) goaltender Turk Broda was “the main factor” in Toronto’s 2-1 win. It cemented the Leafs’ hold on first overall in the NHL, with Montreal standing second.

Here’s Vipond on the mishap depicted here, which Hayes suffered in third period:

Five stitches were necessary to close the gash which split open his left eyebrow. He returned to finish his job after being patched up in the Gardens hospital. Hayes was struck by Maurice (The Rocket) Richard’s stick which accidentally flew out of the Montreal player’s hands. A fraction of an inch lower and the referee might have lost an eye.

Fans at Maple Leaf Gardens booed the very notion of the 32-year-old referee as it was announced that he’d been hurt. For Vipond, that was a “new low for sportsmanship” in Toronto sporting annals. “And the mild clapping when he returned stitched up only partly atoned for the misdemeanor.”

Born in 1914 in Montreal, Hayes grew up in Ingersoll, Ontario. “I could skate before I could walk,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1975. He learned his officiating chops in the OHA and AHL. In 1946, he was considered one of the top amateur referees in Canada. He was, no question, of the busiest: through the 1945-46 season, he officiated 105 games, including the Memorial Cup final, travelling some 32,000 kilometres that year as he attended to his duties.

It was interim NHL President Red Dutton who signed him to a big-league contract in April of ’46. The salary was $2,000 a year, with a bonus of $25 paid for each game he refereed.

By the time Hayes started his new job that fall, former NHL referee Clarence Campbell had taken the helm of the NHL. The six-team league, which played a 60-game schedule, employed just four referees that year: Hayes joined King Clancy, Bill Chadwick, and Georges Gravel on the whistle-blowing staff, who were supported by a dozen or so linesmen.

It was as a linesman that Campbell first eased Hayes into his new job, through October and November of ’46. He got his first assignment as a referee in Boston, where on a Wednesday night, November 27, he adjudicated a 5-2 Bruins’ win over the New York Rangers. He seems to have done just fine, which is to say he managed to stay out of the papers. Let the record show that the very first infraction he whistled was committed by Bruins’ centre Milt Schmidt, a cross-check.

It was one of only two penalties Hayes called on the night, which presumably pleased Campbell who, to start the season and his regime, had declared that he’d told his referees to err on the side of silence. “There’ll be a full 60 minutes of action,” he promised. “I’ve instructed all officials to keep the game moving and to lay off the whistle unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

The first blood Hayes spilled in his NHL career would seem to have been on New Year’s day of 1947, when he was reffing Leafs and Red Wings in Toronto. “Gorgeous George essayed to wrestle [Leaf] Bud Poile and [Wing] Pete Horeck — both at the same time — and finished up counting his teeth carefully,” Jim Coleman wrote in the Globe and Mail. Actually, he got a stick in the nose in the melee and the game was delayed while he went in search of patchwork.

The encounter with Richard’s stick came next, which had Coleman calling him “a scarred hireling.” Following in quickish succession was another game featuring Montreal, this one in Detroit, in which Canadiens’ Ken Mosdell was so irked by a penalty that Hayes had assessed him that the centreman (as the Gazette described it) skated hard against Hayes’ leg and had him stumbling” Hayes stayed up; Mosdell got a 10-minute misconduct for his efforts.

Around this same time, it was reported that Campbell had taken the league’s newest referee aside for a chat in the wake of criticism (notably from the Detroit Red Wings) that Hayes was letting too much go in the games he was overseeing.

If so, Hayes seems to have got the message: at the end of the next game he reffed, a torrid one between Toronto and Chicago, he announced that he was augmenting the penalties he’d assessed with $25 fines to four players who’d been brawling. (His accounting, as it turned out, was slightly off: one of those punished was Leaf left winger Nick Metz, though it was his teammate and younger brother, right winger Don Metz, who’d been in the melee.)

George Hayes’ rookie season didn’t end quietly. That February, in another fractious game between Toronto and Montreal, he gave the notoriously peaceable Leaf captain Syl Apps a 10-minute misconduct. Here’s the Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson describing what happened:

Apps, who had only one minor penalty up to Sunday, received his misconduct after a shoving and high-sticking bee in the Canadien end. Not on the ice at the time the fracas began, Apps said that as team captain, he skated out to talk to the referee after the whistle had blown. Hayes, he said, told him the penalty was for having too many men on the ice. No penalties were given participants in the fracas.

According to Jim Coleman, as Apps skated to the penalty box, Montreal’s designated rankler Murph Chamberlain followed along to apply his needle: “There goes the Byng trophy, Syl, old boy.”

Maybe so, maybe not: what’s true is that when the post-season votes were tallied that year, Apps was second to Boston winger Bobby Bauer. Hayes’ iffy misconduct was, by then, missing from Apps’ charge-sheet: upon review, Clarence Campbell deemed that Hayes had erred and so erased the penalty from the league’s records. That was an NHL first at the time and, as far as I know, it hasn’t happened again.

March of 1947 had its own trials for Hayes. After a playoff game between Montreal and Boston, Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke declared his officiating “the worst I’ve seen in my life.”

Rocket Richard again figured in the narrative, though this time he was the one who was cut, in a clash at the boards with Boston’s Ken Smith. The former felt the latter deserved a major, but Hayes called a minor, and when Richard slapped his stick on the ice in disgust, Hayes drew one his 10-minute misconducts from his quiver. Asked about Hayes after the game, Selke said, “Clarence Campbell shouldn’t have sent out a child to do a man’s job.”

Campbell came out in defence of Hayes on that occasion: he had “handled the game quite competently.” But the following season, Hayes was back working as an NHL linesman, mostly, his reffing assignments much reduced. Not that he was, on the lines, protected from further harm: in the first weeks of the 1947-48 season, he was either pushed or punched by Montreal defenceman Butch Bouchard, who was duly fined $50.

In 1954, Hayes got to rekindle his relationship with Rocket Richard. This was late December, just three months before Richard punched another linesman, Cliff Thompson, in the face on the way to a match penalty and the suspension that exploded in an eponymous riot. It was Leafs and Canadiens again, in Toronto, and Richard was sparring with Leaf centre Bob Bailey who, as the Rocket later told it, gouged at his eyes. Here’s Richard’s account of what happened next, from his 1971 Stan-Fischler-assisted memoir:

When I got up I was madder’n hell. But I couldn’t see very well. George Hayes, the linesman, was trying told hold me off, and that got me even angrier, because all I wanted to do was get back at Bailey. Hayes didn’t mean any harm to me but I was furious over anybody trying to hold me so I went after Hayes. I didn’t hit him with my fist; just my gloves with a sort of “get away, man, you’re bothering me” kind of push. I just didn’t want to see anybody around me. But Hayes was big and strong and he managed to keep me away. I got fined good for that one and, even worse, I didn’t catch up with Bailey.

“Molesting an official” was the charge entered by Clarence Campbell in fining Richard a total of $250 for that incident.

Hayes was an imposing figure on the ice in his day, 6’3’’, 200+ pounds. “Ox-like” was a description invoked at the time of his death, in 1987. “He used to smell trouble,” NHL referee Art Skov said then. “He’d step between players. He knew how to talk to guys like the Rocket and calm them down. He saved me and a lot of other referees a lot of trouble.”

Break It Up: Linesmen Mush March (left) and George Hayes attend a scuffle during the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Black Hawks at Chicago Stadium in December of 1950. “There were several fights in the final period resulting from the Hawks’ general frustration at not being able to score,” UPI noted in a write-up of the game, “but no one was hurt.” Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt, who’d end up winning the Hart Trophy that year as NHL MVP, atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing. Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing.

Skov, who started as a linesman in the later 1950s, remembered Hayes telling him and his fledgling colleagues never to touch Richard, no matter what. “Talk to him, talk about anything,” Skov recalled Hayes saying, “the weather, the news, anything, but never handle him. When the Rocket was mad, he was mad. He might do anything.”

Obituaries would, eventually, cite Hayes’ individualism, hot temper, his stubbornness, love of argument, his drinking.

There was the story of his days as a talented amateur baseball player playing for the Tillsonburg Pandrieds in southern Ontario. Those came to an abrupt halt in 1940 when he took exception to the effrontery of an Aylmer second baseman. “I hauled off and broke his nose,” Hayes later recalled. In the ruckus that ensued, Hayes picked up an umpire and (as he told it) threw him over a fence.

Lionel Conacher was chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission at the time, and it was the former NHLer who banned Hayes from playing any sports. By the time he was re-instated, he’d taken up as a hockey official.

The episode, Hayes said, taught him “tolerance for the player’s point of view.”

“I wanted to treat them the same as I’d like to be treated.”

Whisky (Canadian Club) and beer (Molson’s) were his drinks. There was the story that when Hayes started working the lines in the NHL, Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss thought that putting him under King Clancy’s wing might regulate his intake. “Campbell knew King didn’t drink,” Hayes had once recalled,” and I did. But he didn’t know that King would sit up with me until five in the morning and drink ginger ale.”

“Hayes makes no secret of his drinking,” a 1965 profile reported, adding Hayes’ own disclaimer. “Sure, I took drinks after a game,” he said. “Who doesn’t? The players do, the officials do. This is a tough racket. But I’ve never taken a drink before a game. I’ve never been in a bar before a game.”

Hayes was fined, apparently, for having a friendly post-game drink with a couple Chicago Black Hawks, Pierre Pilote and Frank Sullivan: $50.

He got into trouble in 1961 for his travel habits: Campbell suspended him for two weeks for going coach on trains to games instead of riding first class while still charging the NHL for the more expensive ticket. At the time, Hayes insisted it wasn’t about the money. “I just can’t sleep in a sleeper, but I can sleep in a day coach.”

That may have been so; he also later said that all the officials were doing it. “the league only allowed us $10 a day and that was supposed to pay for the hotel, meals, taxis, and our laundry. We went in the hole every day. That’s why I rode day coaches — to make up the losses.”

“It would make you $20 or $30 per trip.”

Campbell said that NHL officials had no choice in the matter: they needed a good night’s sleep before a game. “We want officials who are fit and in proper condition to work,” he said.

In 1963, Carl Voss docked Hayes $50 for taking the ice unshaven for an afternoon game.

If it doesn’t sound like a sustainable relationship that Hayes and his employers had, well, no, it wasn’t. It came to its professional end in 1965 when Campbell required all NHL officials to undergo an eye test and Hayes refused.

“Hell,” he protested, “I’ve tested my eyes for years in bars reading the labels on whisky bottles. I can still do it, so who needs an eye test? A guy is an inch or two offside and I can call it from 85 feet away. There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight and there never has been.”

“We all took the test, except George,” Art Skov said in 1987, “and nobody could talk him into it. The part of it is, the guy doing the test was a war buddy of referee Eddie Powers and, even if you were blind as a bat, he was going to give you a good report.”

Campbell wasn’t backing down, either. Again, Hayes was suspended, though this time there was no going back. He never worked another NHL game.

“My name was mud,” he said. “They were going to get me one way or another.”

Nineteen years he’d worked the NHL ice. Towards the end, the job that had started at a base salary of $2,000 was paying him $4,000 a year for working 80 games. Linesmen were by then getting $50 for any additional games they toiled at, $100 for a playoff game. For 1963-64, Hayes made about $6,300 all in.

In his exile, Hayes returned to the family farm in Beachville, in the Ingersoll area. He refereed benefit and oldtimers’ games. He became a sports columnist for the Sentinel-Review in nearby Woodstock, Ontario, weighing in regularly to barrack Voss and Campbell. A 1967 profile said that he walked ten miles a day while noting that it was five miles from his gate to the Ingersoll Inn, his favourite pub, and that he didn’t drive.

He was bitter but not surprised at being overlooked year after year by the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I’ve been blackballed,” he told a reporter in the spring of 1987 when Matt Pavelich became the first NHL linesman to be inducted. “You don’t get any money for it,” Hayes said, “so I don’t really care if I ever get elected. But I’m not bragging when I say I should be in it.”

Georges Hayes died that year, in November. He was 73, though he insisted until the end that he was 67. He had circulation problems in his legs, and had developed gangrene, but he refused to see a doctor, let alone visit a hospital. “George was just as stubborn as always,” his widow, Judy, told a reporter in the wake of his death.

“George just didn’t believe in doctors,” Art Skov said. “We had a tough time getting him sewed up when he’d get cut during games.”

“Nobody could ever tell George what to do,” Matt Pavelich said. “He had no faith in doctors or hospitals. He wanted things in his own hands and that was that, his way or no way.”

No-one from the NHL showed up for Hayes’ funeral, or sent a condoling word, though a phalanx of veteran officials was on hand: Skov and Pavelich, Bruce Hood, John D’Amico, Scotty Morrison, Ron Wicks.

A year later, George Hayes did find his way into the Hall of Fame, a member of the class of 1988 that also included Guy Lafleur, Tony Esposito, Brad Park, Buddy O’Connor, and Philadelphia Flyers’ owner Ed Snider.

Today, if you look him up in the Hall’s register of honoured members, you’ll find Hayes remembered as a “controversial, colourful, proud, and competitive” character who “loved hockey with his every breath.” He’s credited there, too, as a trailblazer in collegial politesse: he was, apparently, the first official to hand-deliver pucks to his colleagues for face-offs, rather than toss or slide them over.

eddie shore: perfectly built for hockey

Born in 1902 on a Sunday of this date in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina, the volatile Eddie Shore won a pair of Stanley Cup championships with Boston; four times he was handed the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable asset.

“Undoubtedly the greatest individual player in the game,” Niven Busch called Shore in 1929, when Boston’s number 2 was in full fettle.

“This Eddie Shore is an odd chap,” Busch pronounced in the pages of The New Yorker. “He was born at a Hudson Bay Station, and as soon as he had made some money playing hockey, he went back to Saskatchewan and bought a big farm there. He works on his farm in the summer, and does well at it for a fellow whose agricultural experience after boyhood consisted of such glimpses of the country as he was able to get from the locomotive cabs in which he was a fireman. Last year Boston paid him twelve thousand dollars and this year he asked for five thousand more, and got most of it — how much was not announced. At seventeen thousand dollars, if that’s what they pay him, he is the highest-paid player in hockey, as well as the ablest. In spite of what you can say for Dutton, Bourgault, Johnson, or Lionel Conacher, he is the only defenceman who also ranks as a great forward. He is perfectly built for hockey; not particularly heavy in the shoulders, but with a solid, barrel-shaped trunk, tremendous legs, and wide hips. He and Conacher are natural rivals. Both about the same size and equally aggressive. Conacher, an all-round athlete, good at baseball and lacrosse, and one of the best football players in Canada, is far better known in the North than Shore, who has made the most of his reputation in the United States.”

(Image, from 1937: Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)

 

making waves on the montreal blueline

Born in 1902 in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield in Quebec on a Saturday of this date, Albert Leduc was a pillar of the Montreal defence for nine years, starting in the mid-1920s, winning two Cups with Canadiens along the way. (He also played short stints with the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers.) Accounts of his antics on the ice sometimes included the phrases “his legs working like pistons, Albert dashes down and swerves at no defence” (1931) and “crashed Paul Thompson into the fence so hard in the first period that said fence was broken” (1933). As a 23-year-old rookie, he scored ten goals in 1925-26, second among all NHL defencemen that year, outscoring Lionel Conacher, King Clancy, and Sprague Cleghorn.

The first money he was ever paid for playing hockey? Leduc had a story he told about that in 1935, by which time he was coaching in the Can-Am league. Back in his teenaged years, while he was still a schoolboy during the First World War, Leduc was a bright enough hockey prospect to be invited to play in an exhibition game against the NHA’s barnstorming Montreal Wanderers. The venue was Ormstown, Quebec, about 20 kilometres from home. It was a big opportunity that young Leduc didn’t mean to miss, and so to get to the game, he hired a horse on credit, counting on being paid for his hockey efforts. But: when he arrived, he was told his talents weren’t needed.

“I am stricken,” Leduc recounted in the ’30s, as told in a contemporary newspaper reporter’s rendering of Leduc’s diction, “I protest. I cry out. I cry out so loud that the great Arthur Ross come along and say, ‘Hey, what is all this?’”

A powerhouse defenceman in his own right long before he started with the Boston Bruins, Ross, the Wanderer captain for many of those wartime years, listened to Leduc’s tale of woe and unpaid horse-rental.

“The great Mr. Ross, he tell me: ‘O.K. for the ’orse. Cry no more but shut up. You play for us. We need a guy with a ’orse and maybe you better bring the ’orse on the ice with you.’ But I think he joke, though Mr. Ross always look very stern.”

So Leduc played for the Wanderers in Ormstown, scored a goal, even. “After the game, the great Mr. Ross comes to me and he says: ‘How much for the ’orse?’”

“I say: ‘Five dollar fix everything,’ and what do you think now? The great Mr. Ross say: ‘Here, kid, give those ’orse a few oats,’ and he hand me fifteen dollar. I am broke down at such kindness. I pay for my ’orse, I have a profit.”

locomotive at large

Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.

In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.

He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.

After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.

A writer for  Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:

I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.

Theme Park: Conacher and his legacy are commemorated in a midtown Toronto park.

(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

best friend a goaltender ever had

Here’s to the blockaders, hats off to their instinct to impede, all hail the higher calling of self-sacrificing interception, and all the fine arts involved in getting in the way of predatory pucks travelling at the speed of punishment.

There will never be a hall of fame for hockey shot-blockers, but maybe would someone organize, I don’t know, a vestibule or a … pantry? It would have to big enough to accommodate Horace Merrill, from the earliest days of the NHL, along with Lionel Conacher, Bucko McDonald, Earl Seibert, Al Arbour, Bob Baun, Rod Langway, Mike Ramsay, Craig Ludwig — oh and the greatest obstructionist, maybe, of them all, Bob Goldham.   

Born in Georgetown, Ontario, northwest of Toronto, on a Friday of this date in 1922, Goldham was renowned for his willingness to drop in front of pucks during his 12-year career as a defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Black Hawks, and Detroit Red Wings. He played a part in two of the Leafs’ Stanley Cup championships in the 1940s and was a key component with three more Cup-winning teams with Detroit through the ’50s. 

“Goldham was like another goalie back there,” Scotty Bowman recalled in the ’90s. He himself credited Bucko McDonald with having schooled him in just how and when to throw himself in front of a shot. Here’s a sequence showing Goldham with the Wings putting in the work (and paying the price).

He played until 1956, announcing his retirement on the train back to Detroit from Montreal after the Canadiens dethroned the Red Wings and took the Stanley Cup for themselves. He was 33, with a job lined up as a salesman with a Toronto construction firm. Detroit GM Jack Adams praised him as “one who gave his everything in every game as the bulwark of the defence.” 

Looking back over his own career, Goldham noted that he would have liked to have won more Stanley Cups. He had this to report, too: “You know, I’ve never played with a fellow I didn’t like. I’ve played against fellows I didn’t like, but never with one.”

Goldham later went to serve as a popular analyst on Hockey Night in Canada when it was still a CBC enterprise. He died in 1991 at the age of 69.  

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 him 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 shares the distinction with Carl Voss and Joe Miller of being the only three 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

Bedridden: Chicago’s Mush March sent Howie Morenz crashing into the boards in March of 1934, sending Montreal’s star centre to hospital with a gash in his wrist and a broken thumb. Seen here the next day in a Chicago hospital alongside nurse Ruth Johnson, Morenz was said to be talking of retiring from hockey, though he soon denied that. “You can say,” he told reporters, that I am good for five — make it four, just to be sure — years more.”

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.