howie morenz, 1937: father time easily overhauls the fastest mortals

Hab Down: Howie Morenz hits the ice at Madison Square Garden in March of 1934, not quite three years before his death. His collision here was with New York Americans’ defenceman, number 3, Bill Bridge. Looking on is New York forward Bob Gracie.

It was on a Thursday night of this date 84 years ago that the great Howie Morenz broke his left leg in a game at Montreal’s Forum pitting Morenz’s Canadiens against the Chicago Black Hawks. Removed to Hôpital Saint-Luc, Morenz spent a little over a month in treatment before he died on March 8, 1937, of pulmonary embolism. Adapted from my 2014 book Puckstruck, here’s an accounting of his January 28 injury.

Morenz sobbed when Leo Dandurand traded him, in 1934, to Chicago. He was supposed to be slipping, and the coach had replaced him between linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, the fans were booing.

He was pretty good in Chicago, but he didn’t get along with the owner. At about this time, in March of 1935, he turned again to freelance journalism. Back in Montreal he and Joliat had contributed columns to La Patrie, but now Morenz addressed a bigger, manlier audience by way of Esquire.

We’ll accept that Morenz was moved to write the piece himself, no ghostwriters to mediate his positively chipper tone, and that when he talked about himself in the third person, he meant it. The big news he had to deliver is a surprise: having lost all three fights he started the year before, Morenz has decided to give up fighting. “Yes, from now on I’m a pacifist, a hold-backer.” By the way, for those of you out there who thought that the fighting was a fake, “part of the show, fancy embroidery,” well, hold on just one minute, buster. He makes it all sound so jolly, so much fun, even the scene when the fleet winger meets the defenseman’s “solid, unlovely hip” and “the forward’s breath leaves his body with a ‘woof’, as he goes buckety-buck-buck and crashes into the boards.” On he prattles, and on, tickled as can be to be talking hockey, even when it’s to acknowledge that “Father Time easily overhauls the fastest mortals.”

A year later Chicago traded him to the Rangers — another sad step down, it looked like, on the staircase out of hockey. But then the Canadiens brought him back in September of 1936. He was 34. Cecil Hart was in again as the coach, his old friend, and he reunited Morenz with Joliat and Gagnon. By Christmas the Canadiens were at the top of the league, with Morenz one of the leading scorers. “I’m going the limit right now,” Morenz himself said. “I’m giving the fans everything I’ve got. The end may be in sight but the heart is still sound. You know what I mean.”

If you were writing this as fiction, you’d never write it so starkly obvious. He’s supposed to have told Frank Selke that he was quitting. “It’s getting too tough.”

Montreal played in Chicago on Sunday, January 24, 1937. Hobbled by a knee injury, he still managed to star, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 decision for Montreal. “Siebert’s got his knee strapped up,” Morenz said of teammate Babe Siebert before the game, “and I got me a new knee put on for the winter, but we’ll win.”

Two nights later, the Canadiens beat Toronto 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “The Canadiens had the upper hand when they had Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Johnny Gagnon on the ice,” the Gazette reported. Joliat scored a pair of goals, with Morenz assisting on both. Babe Siebert said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen Morenz play. “The Morenz-Joliat-Gagnon line was the whole show, and we defencemen hardly got up a sweat so well were the forward lines going.”

News of Morenz’s injury from January 29, 1937.

On the Thursday, the Canadiens were back home to host Chicago. Morenz’s knee was heavily bandaged. In the first period, he was down at the south end of the Forum, towards St. Catherines Street. Nowadays there’s a rule to stipulate that the boards shall be constructed in such a manner that the surface facing the ice shall be smooth and free of any obstruction or any object that could cause injury to players. In those years, though, it was more of a tongue-in-groove design, as seen in the photograph above, and therein lay the danger.

As Montreal winger Toe Blake saw it from the Montreal bench, Morenz went looping behind the Black Hawks net when he lost his balance and fell into the boards where Chicago’s Earl Seibert “kinda fell on him.” The Montreal sportswriter Andy O’Brien saw one of Morenz’s skates dig into the boards, then he rolled over and the leg snapped. Joliat was on the ice: as he saw it, Morenz lost his footing, went down, put his feet up as he slid into the boards, the heels of his skates stuck in the boards. Somebody checked Earl Seibert, who fell on Morenz’s legs, which broke the left one.

Clarence Campbell was the referee that night. The way the future NHL president described it, Seibert dove headlong at Morenz, knocking him down, skate stuck, buckety-buck-buck.

There was a novelist in the house, too, on the night, Hugh MacLennan: he remembered (as a novelist might) a little smile on Morenz’s lips. “But once too often he charged into the corner relying on his ability to turn on a dime and come out with the puck. The point of his skate impaled itself in the boards. A defenseman, big Earl Seibert, accidentally crashed over the extended leg and broke it.”

MacLennan added another detail: “Howie’s head hit the ice with a sickening crack and he was carried out.” Unless Joliat and Gagnon helped him up and off. That’s another version that’s out there.

In the dressing room, there was a scene so stylized that somebody should paint it to hang up alongside Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.” Morenz was, apparently, a little more lucid than the general. He lay on the rubbing table, smoking a cigarette. “I’m all through,” he’s supposed to have muttered, “all finished.” Don’t blame Seibert, he said. “It was an accident. My skate caught.” Joliat thought it was his wonky right knee that had betrayed him. Johnny Gagnon had tears in his eyes. Babe Siebert kept saying, “Hang on, Howie, hang on, Howie.” Small boys wept in the Forum corridor as they took Morenz out, and though he was crying too, he gave a cheery way on his way to the ambulance that took him to Hôpital Saint-Luc.

His ankle was cracked and he had four broken bones in the leg. Or it was a compound fracture with the bones shattered in two places slightly above the ankle and below the knee. The papers had differing reports, and it must have been hard to make sense of it all, which may be why La Patrie saw fit to publish x-rays of Morenz’s fractures.

Were there two, four, five? It still wasn’t entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.”

Two days after the crash, the rest of the Canadiens travelled to New York and Boston, where they beat the Americans and the Bruins, which Howie appreciated. Gagnon and Joliat wrote to him every day they were away and when they got back to Montreal, they went to visit. Dr. Forgues was satisfied with the progress of his patient’s recovery, Joliat reported in his La Patrie column. “Howie is most enthusiastic,” he wrote.

The Winnipeg Tribune added an unsettling Forum update that same week. “An X marks the spot that performers in the Montreal Forum are avoiding,” ran the unbylined item. “A member of the Forum’s ice-sweeping staff put a mark on the boards where Howie Morenz’s skate dug into the wood when the Canadien veteran broke his leg. … A few nights later, Cam Dickson, a Montreal Senior Group player, hit the identical spot and broke his arm.”

 

hockey players in hospital beds: maurice richard, trop fragile pour la nhl

This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.

At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:

Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …

Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as he headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:

The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.

Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”

The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):

The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.

He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.

Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”

(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)

this week: blessé au bas du corps

CBJPITposter

“I don’t mind seeing pucks,” Minnesota Wild goalstopper Devan Dubnyk said this month. “That’s what I’m here to do.”

Frank Seravalli of TSN.ca got talking to 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers.

Q: You said a couple years ago that you’d like to play until you’re 50. Is that still realistic?

A: I know I’m going to play to 50. I know that — if I don’t get injured. I never said I’m going to play here (in the NHL) until I’m 50. That’s a different story. You can always play ’til 50. There’s a lot of guys that play until 60, you know, just beer hockey.

Q: But what about the NHL?

A: I don’t think I could go until 50. It’s very tough.

Sidney Crosby is at war with Mario Lemieux, according to reports emerging from Pittsburgh, or at least they’re feuding or … mutually miffed? We don’t have a lot of details, so let’s try to get it right, the what-we-know. They’ve fallen out. There’s been a falling out.

Former player Matthew Barnaby is the source for this, at SiriusXM. Could be because they disagree about who’s coaching in Pittsburgh, or else … maybe it’s the 2014 playoffs that soured the relationship. Does this mean Crosby will be traded? “That,” says Barnaby, “I don’t know.”

Someone asked Mario Lemieux about all. “It’s absolutely not true,” he said. “It’s silly.”

Jagr is the cover story in the new issue of Sportsnet magazine, where his age/agelessness is again front and centre. “The time between when I quit hockey and I die,” he tells Kristina Rutherford, measuring air with his hands, “I want it to be the shortest.”

Jagr goes on:

“If I can play til I die, that’s what I will do. What else are you gonna do? Even if you retire, you still will have to go work out, and maybe harder than you do when you play hockey because you don’t wanna look ugly and fat. At least I don’t want to.”

Fans in Toronto are selling blue-and-white striped socks with Mike Babcock’s head at the ankle. They’re called Babsocks, obviously. One of the principals, Jake Mednick, explained the rationale to Sportsnet.ca. “There’s been a lot of negativity, especially last season, around the team, around the organization — and it wasn’t as fun to be a fan anymore,” he said. “We want everyone in the city to have fun and feel good to be Leafs fans.”

No word so far on what the coach himself thinks. He did have a thought, in recent weeks, to add to the flaring debate around how to fertilize scoring in the NHL: bigger nets. Others advocated for slimming down the gear that goaltenders are permitted to pack on.

Said Mike McKenna, sometime NHLer now netminding for the AHL’s Portland Pirates:

“I’ve become completely numb to any pending goalie equipment regulation changes. I’ll play in whatever as long as I’m not getting hurt.”

ECW announced a pair of memoirs they’ll be publishing down the road, in September of 2017: Greg Oliver is assisting Gilles Gratton on Gratoony The Loony, while Sportsnet’s Ken Reid is sidekicking Dennis Maruk: The Unforgettable Story of Hockey’s Forgotten 60-Goal Man.

Also in the works from ECW for 2016: David Dupuis and Waxy Gregoire have been working with Hall of Fame defenceman and erstwhile coach Red Kelly to tell his story.

Stu Cowan from Montreal’s Gazette reported that the Canadiens’ new captain, who’s taking lessons in French this fall, has been greeting reporters with a confident “Bon midi.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs and their goaltenders are working with the man who revamped/rescued Devan Dubnyk’s aforementioned game. The National Post’s David Alter reported that in September, the Leafs officially enlisted the services of “puck-tracking guru” Lyle Mast.

His specialty is something called head trajectory, which is … well, keeping an eye on the puck that’s trying to get by you. It sounds much more interesting when Mast describes it, though, at his Optimum Reaction website:

“Head trajectory impacts the ability to efficiently execute every aspect of your training, development and game play, based on your setup. It empowers the athlete to train on the values of efficiency versus just speed and seeing the puck versus just looking at it. It exposes the difference between being able versus unable to execute your save and post-save responses, eliminating delays.”

Saving and/or post-responding, Montreal puck-seer Carey Price hurt his lower body in some way that required a week’s rest and recovery away from the ice. “It’s always nice to come home,” he said before that. “I always miss the smell of the mountains.”

Price disclosed his injury, which is to say Montreal did, announcing that he’d been hurt in an end-of-October game against Edmonton. Or, sorry: he sustained the injury. He didn’t disclose his injury, which is also to say that Montreal didn’t, to the extent there was no press release describing where and how it hurt, when and wherefore. Because — of course not. Why would you pinpoint your own weaknesses for other teams? Carey Price’s ailments are proprietary information.

“Pricey est fait fort,” tweeted P.K. Subban. “Tout ce qu’on sait pour l’instant, c’est qu’il est évalué.”

Also in Minnesota, Jason Pominville hasn’t been scoring goals. “You have to dig deep and find a way,” he advised The St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Right now I’m kind of in that boat where pucks aren’t finding me, and when they are, they’re bouncing. I’ve just got to find a find a way to put one in.”

“Blessé au bas du corps,” said La Presse Canadienne.

“The thing is,” confided Montreal coach Michel Therrien a couple of days later, “it’s nothing major. He had some treatment and said Friday morning that he had a certain amount of pain, so the medical staff didn’t take any chances and kept him off the ice. He went to see the doctor when we returned and our medical team recommended that he take a week off.”

The week turned into three. The diagnosis continued undisclosed, non-divulged, irrevealed. Mike Condon, Montreal’s back-up, was asked to fill in. “I’m not going to try and be Carey,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can.”

He was, nevertheless, pretty good, going 5-1-2 in the eight games Price missed in November. Price went to New York with his father, Jerry, to get a second opinion, which very well could have cheered him, or confirmed what he already knew, or even, possibly, surprised everyone. For most of us it was nothing new insofar it was (of course) kept secret.

“We’re not the Russian Red Army team,” Leafs’ winger Brad Boyes mentioned a week or two back, or several, in hearing of Stephen Whyno from The Canadian Press, “so we’ve got to make sure that we’re out there playing our style, our game.”

“We’ve had some shots and chances,” said Taylor Hall, regretting an Edmonton Oiler loss to St. Louis, “but not enough to create momentum for our team. It’s disappointing.”

When Price returned to the Montreal net last week, he helped the Canadiens beat the New York Islanders. “Carey Price was Carey Price,” Therrien said afterwards.

He beat them again over the weekend, and then he beat the Rangers, mostly — in that game, a 5-1, he gave way to Condon after two periods.

So everybody wondered, as Sportsnet.ca did:

whats going on

“The reason it’s all so hush-hush,” Renaud Lavoie from TVA Sports told TSN, “is nobody knows what’s going on.”

Which makes sense.

Someone from Montreal’s Gazette spotted Price limping through the lobby of the team hotel Thursday morning.

All Therrien would say was that, yes, it was that previous injury nobody really wanted to talk about in the first place. “He tweaked it.”

Lavoie said that it was pretty definitely the right leg, the right knee is what people who knew these things knew, though Lavoie was also thinking there was more to it than that, could be a combination of things, a hip, a groin. “If you look at him right now, there’s a lot of question marks.” Continue reading