gawky gus rivers: singer of songs, poison to rangers

Gus Rivers only played parts of three campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens — a total of 104 games, regular-season and playoffs — but you have to credit his timing: at the end of two of those seasons, 1930 and ’31, he helped the Canadiens to win Stanley Cup championships.

A Winnipegger, Rivers was, we know, born on this date, November 19 — but was it 1909, as many of the standard references record, or a year earlier? I’ll tend towards the latter: birth records from Manitoba and his U.S. military draft registration have Rivers originating in 1908. His hockey lineage isn’t in doubt: before he got to the NHL, Rivers played for the Elmwood Millionaires, the University of Manitoba, and the perfectly named Winnipeg Winnipegs. He was 22 in January of 1930 when the Canadiens signed him.

He’d started as a forward in Manitoba, before shifting back to defence; Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart put him to work on the wing when he got to Montreal. Upon his arrival, it was noted in the local Gazette that his “real name” was Gustave Desrivieres, though there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond anecdotal evidence that this was the case — it’s possibly that this was purely a fiction perpetrated by the Canadiens for the interest of their French-Canadian fans, in the tradition of declaring Howie Morenz’s background as Swiss. A year later, in the wake of another Stanley Cup triumph, the Gazette included this in their biographical round-up of the victors:

Gus was born in Winnipeg and played amateur hockey from 1924 to 1930 when he was recommended to Canadiens and signed by them. He came here under the name of Gustave Desrivieres and for a time he was thought to be French. Some of the American hockey writes still think so.

Rivers scored his first NHL goal on the last night the 1930 regular-season schedule, when the Canadiens dispatched the New York Americans by a score of 8-3. Teammate Howie Morenz scored five that night, so the fact that Rivers’ landmark tally didn’t get a whole lot of play in the press next day maybe isn’t so surprising. His second goal was more of a headliner: later that same month, Rivers scored the overtime winner that put an end to what to that date the longest game in NHL history, capping 68 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death hockey as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to open their Stanley Cup semi-final. Here’s the Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro describing how it went down:

Signed by Canadiens this season, Gus Rivers watched almost every game from the bench. He’d never got his chance to play. A shy, retiring chap, his favorite occupation on the team’s journeys was to sit in a corner of the car all alone and render the popular ditties to himself with feeling. Between times he received the joshing of all members of the team with a broad, good-natured smile.

It was this youngster that Manager Cecil Hart, of the Canadiens, put on the ice in the overtime session after all of the Flying Frenchmen were tottering on their feet. Rivers dashed out on the ice, ran the Rangers ragged for a while, then when Aurele Joliat and Sylvio Mantha struggled up the ice, he skated in front of the Rangers net. The rubber came his way from Mantha’s stick, and after 128 minutes of battling, the game was finally settled when Rivers slammed that puck past John Ross Roach.

The applause from a nerve-wracked crowd was deafening. But more significant was the fact that the Canadiens, exhausted and tottering, lifted the gawky youngster on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room, Gus Rivers had achieved recognition at last.

Rivers didn’t have too many more NHL goals in him — he only score four more in his career — but he did sink another overtime winner past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach, this one at Madison Square Garden in January of 1931.

In the wake of Montreal second successive Cup that spring, L.S.B Shapiro projected a big future for Rivers. “Gus possesses a neat poke check. He breaks fast and is dangerous around the goals.”

“From present indication,” the Gazette’s man gushed, “he will stand among the Morenzes and the [Pit] Lepines before many years have passed.”

As it turned out, while Rivers started the following season with Montreal, he finished it with the Providence Reds of the Can-Am League. He never made it back to NHL ice and after five further seasons with the Reds, he stowed his skates as a pro. Gus Rivers stayed on in Rhode lsland after his hockey career ended and, in 1985, that’s where he died. He was 75.

the lightning game

That the New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens three games to one in March of 1932 and advanced to play Toronto in the Stanley Cup final has no bearing on tonight’s meeting between the two teams, of course. If you’re a Canadiens’ fan, it might give you a bad, twitchy feeling all the same. Courage: those antique Rangers ended up losing to the Maple Leafs.

If it is 1932 that this British Pathé newsreel shows. If, as the title card tells us, it was a game played on New York ice and “CANADA (Montreal)” beat “AMERICA in play-off for Stanley Trophy — in the fastest game on earth!” … well, that didn’t happen in ’32. Montreal, two-time defending champions, only managed to win the first game that year, and that was at home. They then lost the second game, 4-3 (in epic overtime), before heading for the old Madison Square Garden and losses of 1-0 and 5-2. I think what we’re watching here is the middle New York game. That’s defenceman Ott Heller, number 14, we see scoring, as he did. A recent call-up from the Springfield Indians, he also scored in the next game, a pair of goals, but Montreal centre Pit Lepine didn’t play in that one, and he’s here in ours, number 9, at the opening face-off. (He’d collide with the Rangers’ Bill Cook before the night was out, breaking a leg.)

That said, L.S.B. Shapiro’s description of Heller’s goal in The Gazette doesn’t perfectly match up with what we see in skittering black and white:

The fair-haired rookie took the puck at his own defence, rushed down centre ice in a brilliant burst of speed and split the Canadien defence as though with a knife to burst in on Hainsworth. The goalie dived to save, but Heller played the shot with the wisdom of a veteran and flipped the puck over the goalie’s hurtling body high into the far corner of the nets. The exact time was two minutes and eight seconds after the start of the second period.

Close enough, I guess. Joseph Nichols from The New York Times saw it a little more succinctly. Heller picked the puck in his zone and sped along “the north lane.” Then:

Marty Burke advanced to check him, but the Ranger defense man feinted cleverly and evaded his eager opponent. Gaining a clear path for a shot, Heller rifled the puck past George Hainsworth, the Canadiens goalie, to register in 2:08.

When the final game of the series was all said and done, Heller was being hailed, again, as the difference-maker. The Gazette:

The brilliant reign of the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal ended in the coronation cheers of a new king of New York sportdom for, while the Canadien veterans, were fighting their hardest in the face of fatigue and painful injury, the flying feet and the tricky shift of 21-year-old Eberhardt (Ott) Heller proved the mainspring of the New York Rangers’ attack …

Hats off to him. Still, for me, Heller wins only supporting-actor laurels for his British Pathé performance. I’m much more interested in Ching Johnson’s headlong rush and Howie Morenz’s sinuous skating. Best of all, though, is George Hainsworth’s fantastic disgust with the puck in the moments after it has so brutally betrayed him.

under the influenze

On The Rhode: Mickey Murray (fourth from the right) lines up with the 1929-30 edition of the Providence Reds. Teammates include Johnny Gagnon (second from left), Gizzy Hart (fifth), and Art Chapman (seventh from right). The coach is Sprague Cleghorn (light overcoat). (Credit: Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society, http://www.rireds.org)

On The Rhode: Mickey Murray (fourth from the right) lines up with the 1929-30 edition of the Providence Reds. Teammates include Johnny Gagnon (second from left), Gizzy Hart (fifth), and Art Chapman (seventh from right). The coach is Sprague Cleghorn (light overcoat). (Credit: Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society, http://www.rireds.org)

Peterborough’s hockeyness has yielded 38 NHLers, including ironmen whom the Hockey Hall of Fame deems crafty (Steve Larmer); sudden playoff scoring wonders (John Druce); rugged customers (the HHoF on Steve Webb); doughty face-off artists with country superstar wives (Mike Fisher); and the best all-around player in the world, ever (as Viktor Tikhonov called Bob Gainey in 1981; okay, he didn’t say ever).

But let’s be honest: we don’t really do goaltenders in Peterborough. Forge them, I mean, polish them up, send them out into the world to shine. It’s just never been a specialty of ours. If you look to the ledger there are only three who got to the NHL. Zac Bierk was the longest lasting, playing 47 games for Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Phoenix between 1997 and 2004. He won nine of those — I was going to say just nine, but that seems harsh. Bierk was large-framed and quick-reflexed, it says in the HHoF’s register, a natural.

Cam Newton played 16 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1970s, winning a quarter of those. The Hall calls his goalkeeping hot and recalls his bright blue mask.

Then there was Mickey Murray. He had a long career fending off pucks, starting in his hometown in 1915 and not giving it up for another 24 years, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Along the way he got into precisely one NHL game, with the Montreal Canadiens, in 1930. Continue reading