zamboniversary: on this night in 1955, a new era in ice-cleaning began at montreal’s forum

The hockey highlights were, if you’re wondering, few and far between: when the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Thursday of this very date in 1955, the two old rivals ended up in what the Gazette’s Dink Carroll was only too irked to declare “that bane of hockey, the scoreless tie.”

The Leafs, to their credit, laid down a stifling defensive blanket over the powerful first-place Canadiens, gaining a point in the process and helping their own third-place cause. Toronto also, incidentally, set a new league record: their 22 ties were the most any team had accumulated in an NHL season. Not that any of this impressed the 14,332 fans on hand in Montreal on the night: their verdict was recorded in the volume of peanuts, programs, and newspapers flung on the ice at the end of the game. “One disgusted spectator tossed in a couple of pig’s feet,” Carroll noted.

Which brings us, however loopingly, to the point: no, not the fact that in another week’s time, the Forum would be filled with the ire, tear gas, and Clarence Campbell-antipathy that fed and fired up March 17’s Richard Riot.

That was a whole other Thursday. This one, March 10, we mark for the altogether less-ruinous reason that it saw the Canadian NHL debut of everybody’s favourite ice-resurfacer, the Zamboni.

It was in California that rink-owner Frank Zamboni spent most of the 1940s getting a prototype invented and built on the chassis of a U.S. Army jeep before he was ready to launch in 1949. The first one to arrive in Canada went to Quebec’s Laval College in 1954, and that same fall Boston Garden became the first NHL rink to put one into service. The Monster, the staff called that one. The Boston Globe reported that “Helo Grasso, the pilot, is being urged to wear a crash helmet.”

A little ice-upkeep history seems in order here, duly dedicated (why not) to David Ayres. In the first few decades of the NHL, the ice was most often scraped and swept rather flooded during games. From the time the Forum opened in 1924, maintenance staff deployed their own distinctive 15-foot birch brooms, as highlighted here by NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs:

These were still in use, apparently, in the late 1930s, bemusing visiting reporters like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s George Currie:

Even the ice-scrapers are different up here. They sweep the snow off the ice with long, broomlike bunches of tree branches. Between the periods, the ice has more snow sweepers on it than hockey players during the actual play.

An important if undercelebrated moment in ice-cleaning history came in 1940, in September, when the NHL’s Board of Governors gathered in New York ahead of the new season. Among other new rules and procedures decreed there was one that insisted (as CP reported) “that the ice surface be sprayed between periods, instead of scraped or brushed, except when two teams have a mutual understanding that spraying is not necessary.”

Tommy Gorman was running the Canadiens that year, and when the games got going in November, the Gazette took note of the “new ice-making machines” he’d enlisted for duty between periods: “They’re sort of hot-water wagons dragging sacks behind, and they do a great job on the ice.”

More or less the same apparatus, that is, that was in operation at Toronto Maple Leafs Gardens well into the ’60s:

The Zamboni that made its debut 65 years ago tonight was a Model E, the 29th to roll off the company’s production line following the introduction of the one-and-only Model A in ’49.

“This gadget does everything but talk on an ice surface,” the inventor himself was saying a few days before that Montreal launch.

The man at the wheel of the $10,000-machine — about $97,000 in today’s money — was Forum superintendent Jim Hunter. In the days of the old brooms, he said, cleaning the ice was a job for eight to ten men. Now, he could do the work in six or seven minutes, he said. “The real beauty of the machine is that it takes only one man to operate. It also gives the ice a much smoother finish than a crew of men working with the present hot-water barrels.”

Wheelman: Jim Hunter at the wheel of the original Forum Zamboni in 1961.

turning the corner

It was 86 years ago last night that a combination of NHL all-stars met the Toronto Maple Leafs in a benefit game in aid of Leafs’ right winger Ace Bailey, who’d nearly lost his life the previous December. Often identified the NHL’s very first All-Star game, it wasn’t. Pictured here, three of the NHLers: that’s Larry Aurie of the Detroit Red Wings with the puck, looking up ice while Chicago Black Hawks’ goaltender Charlie Gardiner observes. Behind the net? Looks like Red Dutton of the New York Americans to me.

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 32489)

playing for ace

On a Wednesday of this very date in 1934, an aggregation of NHL all-stars took on Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens in a benefit for and tribute to Leaf right winger Ace Bailey. Bailey, of course, was grievously injured, and his career ended, the previous December when Boston defenceman Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice in a fit of pique. Before the Leafs got around to beating the All-Stars by a score of 7-3, Bailey dropped a ceremonial puck, above, with the Leafs’ Joe Primeau (left) and Montreal’s Howie Morenz standing in. The referee is Mike Rodden. Shore played on the All-Star defence. Before the game he and Bailey met at centre ice as the crowd of 14, 074 cheered. “Shore leaned over and whispered to Bailey as the two clasped hands,” a witness noted. “Bailey was smiling.” Then he presented his attacker with a commemorative windbreaker from Eaton’s and a gold medal. The gate for the game, and for Bailey: $20,909.40, about $396,000 in today’s dollars.

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 32487)

this hippodrome of hockey

Leaf Spot: It was on a Thursday of this date in 1931 that Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens saw its first NHL hockey. Before a crowd of 13,542, the home team fell by a score of 2-1 to the visiting Chicago Black Hawks. Two days later, the Leafs tied the Montreal Canadiens in the brand-new building that the Globe’s ebullient Bert Perry called “this hippodrome of hockey.” It wasn’t until the Leafs’ fourth game under their new roof that the team finally forged a victory at home, beating the Boston Bruins on November 28 by a score of 6-5 in overtime on a goal by Andy Blair. This is an altogether later photograph from on high in the Gardens, dating to 1946. Squint and you can make out the languid form of goaltender Turk Broda in the net to the left. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7524)

just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

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leafs’ training camp, 1935: have skates, will travel

The Toronto Maple Leafs took their training camp on the road this morning, flying a squad of 75 players, none of whom was Mitch Marner, for four days of pre-season prepping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Leafs, of course, have been getting out of town ahead of an upcoming NHL campaign for a long, long time, going back to 1928, when they fled north to Port Elgin, Ontario, on the Lake Huron shore.  By 1935, the Leafs were convening just down the King’s Highway in Kitchener. Thirty-three players gathered there that October (the season started November 9) under coach Dick Irvin’s supervision. That’s him, of course, here on the right, posed at Maple Leaf Gardens in packing mode the week before camp commenced with the team’s tan managing director, Conn Smythe.

 

(Image: Archives of Ontario)

ode to roy

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A tribute, on a summer’s Friday, where tribute’s due: today is Roy MacGregor’s last day at The Globe and Mail, where he’s been a columnist for the past 17 years. That trim word, columnist, doesn’t quite contain his talents, of course, or do them proper justice: again and again across the almost 50 years during which he’s worked his words in Canadian newspapers, magazines, and books, MacGregor (seen here, above, in a 1983 incarnation) has reminded readers just how thoughtful and sharply incisive a chronicler of our hockey obsession he is. Beyond the Globe, the papers he’s improved have included The Ottawa Citizen and The National Post, and the magazines, Maclean’s and The Canadian. His work therein was duly recognized in 2012 when he won the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for distinguished reportage. The marvelous books that confirm his standing as our finest hockey storyteller include The Home Team and the novel The Last Season. (Parents and younger readers might not forgive the lack of a mention of the Screech Owl mysteries, so here it is.) For all his icy writings, he is (again: of course) not only a hockey writer: do we have, on the page, any more reliable canoe and river guide, a better companion to Tom Thomson studies or Ottawa or Algonquin wildernesses? MacGregor is a true Canadian explorer; we’ll see where he leads us next.

The occasion seems to call for a look back at where he’s taken us before. Here then, from Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, the 1989 book on which he collaborated with Ken Dryden, a brief excerpt in which he carries us back to his Muskoka childhood in Huntsville, Ontario:

It is difficult now to convey how deeply hockey could penetrate a life back then. We had no television. My brother had a table-top hockey game, the kind where the metal players fit on and are controlled by steel rods running beneath. There were no slots, however, so the players could no go up and down the ice. All you could do was turn the rod between the thumb and finger so they could pass and shoot. All four defence rods eventually broke and we realized a shot was faster if we flicked the players from above rather than turned from below. And marbles were better than pucks. My brother found he could raise the marbles if he slightly bent his man, I suffered my first serious hockey injury wearing my pajamas in his bedroom.

Our father took us to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the Leafs play Detroit. Neither of us had ever seen lights so bright or felt air so alive. In an instant we more than doubled the number of other humans we had seen in our lives. The urinals spooked me. Our father pointed to Gordie Howe and said he was the greatest hockey player of all time. At least once a year in the thirty-odd years since he asks if we remember. We will always remember, even when he can no longer remind.