hubbub night in canada

Must Be Some Misunderstanding: The modern-day Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Detroit Red Wings tonight, which is as good an excuse as any to recall that in April of 1949, another iteration of the Leafs beat the Red Wings 3-1 to claim their third consecutive Stanley Cup championship in a four-game finals sweep. The deciding match-up was not without melee: here Toronto captain Ted Kennedy and Fleming Mackell row with a deputation of Wings near the Detroit bench. That’s Black Jack Stewart with glove raised along with, nearer the camera, Ted Lindsay, whose stick is helpfully annotated with his number, 7.  Making his entrance at right is referee Bill Chadwick. The colour is courtesy of Mark Truelove at Canadian Colour. You can find more of his outstanding work at http://www.canadiancolour.ca. Follow him on Twitter @CanadianColour. (Original image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132811)

every streak comes to an end

The current-day Maple Leafs saw several team and individual streaks stopped last night when they lost 3-1 in New York to the Rangers, and you can find out about those elsewhere. In March of 1980, the Leafs were in the middle of a four-game losing slide when a fan shed his clothes, jumped the glass, and vaulted onto the ice near the end of a game against the St. Louis Blues. He kept his socks on, red ones, and brandished a sign: “Leafs are # 1.”

Maybe you recall the reality of the Leafs in the early ’80s: they weren’t. Sitting fourth out of five teams in the old Adams Division, the Leafs fell in the first round of the playoffs that year to the Minnesota North Stars.

A couple of Toronto policemen, Rene Lessard and John Pepper, chased the streaker down. According to one local account, Thomas Enright, 25, got a “semi-standing ovation” as he was taken away to be charged with indecent exposure. Down 3-1, the Leafs took heart and got a late goal from Darryl Sittler, thought that was as close as they came.

“I have never seen something like that before,” said the Blues’ Wayne Babych, who scored a pair of his team’s goals. “”You had to chuckle about it for a while after that and it was a bit distracting.”

“It was a great performance by that guy,” Maple Leaf Gardens president Harold Ballard said, adding that he was pleased to have an attraction in the building that he didn’t have to pay for. Enright’s naked ambition was front-page news in the Toronto Star next day.

A week later in Provincial Court, a fully dressed Enright pleaded his guilt. Judge Sydney Harris wasn’t having it, and dismissed the charge. “Naked in a public place, maybe, but not indecent exposure.”

“I just wanted to liven things up,” Enright told reporters afterwards. “It was just in fun. I’ll never do it again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

just breathe

To Air Is Human: An illustrator for the Montreal Daily Star imagines the Canadiens’ new pick-me-up machine in February of 1912.

A felicitous find by Mikaël Lalancette, writer at Quebec City’s Le Soleil and author, last year, of an insightful biography, Georges Vézina: L’Habitant Silencieux. As detailed in a column published in Le Soleil this past Thursday, Lalancette’s Vézina research took him deep into the century-old annals of Montreal Canadiens history, which is where he came across an early effort by management to breathe energy, endurance, and victory into a flailing team.

“In 113 years of history, the Montreal Canadiens have tried everything,” he writes, with a nod to the recent struggles of the current edition of the team. “Every means, good or not, to get the club out of its torpor has been tested by its leaders over time. As we know, reviving a losing team is not easy in professional sports and the most recent slide of Quebecers’ favourite club is a good example.”

The column is here (it’s in French, and paywalled). The upshot is this: early in the winter of 1912, with his team mired in a four-game losing streak, Canadiens manager George Kennedy had doctors dose his players with oxygen during a game at the Jubilee Arena.

According to Lalancette’s source material, an item in the Montreal Daily Star, the effect was negligible. According to history, too: Canadiens lost that game by a score of 9-1 to their local rivals, the Montreal Wanderers. The season, too, was a bust, with the not-yet-Glorieux finishing dead last in the four-team NHA standings.

Into just the third season of their existence, Canadiens had yet to flourish in the old National Hockey Association. Going into the 1911-12 season, they’d lost their leading goal-getter: Newsy Lalonde had departed for more lucrative horizons in the west, joining the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires. Still, Montreal featured Vézina in goal, along with a couple of other future Hall-of-Famers on the ice in front of him in Jack Laviolette and Didier Pitre.

The man overseeing them, George Kennedy, was a former wrestling champion who was well-known, too, as a manager of wrestlers and lacrosse teams. He also happened to own the Canadiens.

On a trip that winter of 1912 to the United States, he’d heard tell of “the wonderful effects of the oxygen treatment.” After consulting with medically minded friends in Montreal, he decided to give it a go. “In his desire not to let anything prevent his team from,” the Star reported 110 years ago, he soon acquired “a hundred gallons of the purified air,” along with a pair of doctors to administer it in the Canadiens’ dressing room.

Jaded Canadiens: A Vancouver newspaper picked up the news from Montreal in March of 1912.

The players were … wary. Another report from the rink noted that “the majority of the team did not seem to take kindly to it, in fact, some of them seemed to be afraid of it,” even with the doctors taking charge. The only player “who really tried it thoroughly,” the Star said, was forward Eugène Payan, “and though there was some improvement in his gait, it did not amount to much.”

As Lalancette notes in Le Soleil, while inhaling pure oxygen on an ad hoc basis might refresh a gasping hockey players, there’s no particular magic in it, particularly not for athletes in whose blood oxygen saturation is already maximized.

In 1912, the Star listed champagne as the between-periods tonic of choice for hockey players, while hinting vaguely “of even more dangerous stimulants … used occasionally.” One columnist from Ottawa’s Journal suggested that Canadiens would soon be back on the bottle, while another framed it as a question of sporting morality.

Any such artificial devices to excite temporary energy has its reaction, and must, in the long run prove injurious. When athletes reach a state of fatigue where the administration of oxygen is necessary, then it is neither to their advantage nor to that of the sport in which they participate to continue. Sportsmanship and the oxygen treatment are miles apart.

A coda (or three) to Lalancette’s report, offered in passing.

First, just a month after Montreal aerated its players, the Montreal Daily Star carried news of a letter that had appeared in a European newspaper concerning track events at the forthcoming 1912 Olympic Summer Games slated for Stockholm. Would a runner competing there, the writer wondered, be permitted to partake of “oxygen gas from a bag carried by him?”

It would be extremely interesting to see whether such breathing is of material assistance to the runner, and as oxygen gas is not a drug, but as natural an article of consumption as water, there seems to be no reason why the runner should be disqualified for refreshing himself with it as he may with water or soup.

I can’t say whether anything came of this: I have no further information, I’m afraid, on whether any of the results in Stockholm were oxygen- or soup-assisted.

Made Good: The Daily Star profiles Canadiens winger Eugène Payan in 1911.

I can recount (second) that back in Montreal, at the rink, Canadiens played their penultimate game of the 1911-12 season as March began, taking on the Wanderers again. This time they eked out a 2-1 win, thanks to a pair of goals by Jack Laviolette.

Further unhappy news headlined a column —

Payan Is Injured
Left Wing of Canadien Team
Taken to Hospital as Result
of a Collision

— in next morning’s Montreal Gazette.

Skating at high speed in the first period, Eugène Payan had collided, head-to-head, with the Wanderers’ Odie Cleghorn. Payan went down, but got up, and went on playing.

It was between periods in the Canadiens’ dressing room that he collapsed. From there, he was taken to Montreal’s Western Hospital, where he was deemed to have suffered a serious concussion, though no fracture of the skull.

As the Star told it, there was for a while some doubt  in the immediate aftermath about whether he would survive, which made the scene as he departed the Arena all the more piteous: as the game carried on “amongst thundering applause, poor Payan still persisting in a half unconscious way: ‘I want to finish my game! I want to finish my game!’ was carried to the waiting ambulance.”

By the time the game was over, Payan was reported to be out of danger. The following day, the Daily Star carried tidings that he was “a good deal better.”

Through this ordeal, in the dressing room at the Jubilee Arena, it would seem, the Canadiens still had their oxygen apparatus at the ready. It featured notably in the Star’s dramatic description of intermission scene when Payan first collapsed:

He had gone in when suddenly he exclaimed in an awestruck voice, “I am paralyzed,” and began to sway. They grabbed him before he could fall and laid him on the table where they administered as much oxygen as they dared to revive him, not knowing exactly what had happened.

Suddenly his arms and legs began to twitch as if he had taken a violent dose of strychnine and a hurried examination showed that he had been hurt on the side of the head where the bone is as thin as letter paper.

Last (third), a flash forward to April of 1949, and what would seem to be the NHL debut of oxygen.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were hosting the Detroit Red Wings that year, and with the Leafs leading the series three games to none, Jack Adams’ Wings were open to anything that might lend them a lifeline.

With George Kennedy’s 1912 experiment long forgotten, the Canadian Press was claiming that the very first use of oxygen in a hockey game in Canada had come a month earlier, in March of 1949, when players with the Dartmouth College Indians had partaken as they surrendered the International Intercollegiate title in Montreal to the University of Montreal Carabins.

Then in April, Montreal’s junior Royals used oxygen at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto as they defeated the Barrie Flyers to win the Eastern Canada Junior championship. It was the Royals’ tanks, tubes, and masks that the Red Wings borrowed to try to oxygenate their hopes for a Stanley Cup comeback.

In vain. “Even mechanical strength-reviving gadgets have their limitations when the cause is hopeless,” Jim Vipond wrote in his dispatch for the Globe and Mail after Toronto duly wrapped up a 3-1 win to take the Cup. “The Leafs looked more impressive than ever, playing at the finish as if they, and not the weary Detroiters, had been inhaling at an oxygen tank at their bench.”

Breathless: The Detroit Red Wing tried the oxygen treatment in the last game of the 1949 Stanley Cup finals.

april 16, 1949: last call

Salut: Filling the Stanley Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens in April of 1949, that’s Toronto Maple Leafs PR manager Spiff Evans. Steered by coach Hap Day (right), the Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in four games that spring to earn their champagne. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1266, item 132800)

tangled up in blue (and white) (and red)

High-Slot Hubbub: It wasn’t to be for the Toronto Maple Leafs on the night of Saturday, April 11, 1936: powered by Pete Kelly’s third-period goal, the visiting Detroit Red Wings beat the home team 3-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens to thereby corral the team’s very first Stanley Cup with a 3-1 series win. “The only ruckus occurred when [Detroit’s] Ebbie Goodfellow and [Leafs’ Charlie] Conacher swung their fists and went down in a heap on the ice,” an account of the game advised the next morning. That was in the second period, and it’s what we’re seeing here, with the Wings’ Herbie Lewis (#4) piled on top of Conacher and Goodfellow, in that order. Detroit goaltender Normie Smith is back in the beyond. “An imitation of wrestling” is how the Toronto Daily Star’s Andy Lytle described this encounter. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 39753)

smokey smith at centre ice

War over, time for some hockey.

Not that the NHL had paused any of its winter maneuvers during the early 1940s as the Second World War roiled, though there were annual discussions, early on, about whether it might be right for the league to suspend operations for the duration.

Now, hostilities among nations having ceased, there was, in 1945, a sense that real hockey was back for the first time in years.

“We’re in for our greatest season,” NHL president Red Dutton was enthusing 76 years ago this very week.” The boys are playing for keeps this season. It’s something we’ve never experienced before. You have a rugged bunch of boys back from the services, bent on proving they’re still the best hockey players in the world. You have another bunch of wartime-developed boys battling to prove they’re as good as the veterans. And you have some ambitious youngsters that don’t see any reason why they can’t keep pace with the older ones.”

On a Saturday of this date that October, Boston’s Bruins were in Toronto to open the first season of the new peace at Maple Leaf Gardens. It ended up a good one, for the Leafs, the season: the following April, they were Stanley Cup champions again, claiming their first title since 1942.

 For opening night, along with the traditional appearance by the massed brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs had arranged to host six of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have been recognized during the war with the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, conferred for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

That’s one of the distinguished guests here, the man who dropped a ceremonial to kick off the new season: 30-year-old Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith, a son of New Westminster, B.C., the only Canadian enlisted soldier to have won a V.C. during the Second World War. (More on Smith and his colleagues at MLG here.)

With Smith here, from the right, that’s Boston Bruins’ captain Jack Crawford (last seen in yesterday’s post) and Leafs’ chairman J.P. Bickell. Bob Davidson is the Leaf at left. In 1943, when Toronto captain Syl Apps went to war, Davidson assumed command of the hockey team. After two years, Apps was back with the Leafs, and early that October week, the Globe reported Davidson’s greeting to the team’s star centreman: “Welcome back, Syl, and I’m officially turning the team captaincy back to you.”

Apps was excused, however, from this Leafs’ opener. During one of the final preparatory scrimmages that week, he’d suffered a broken nose and a bad cut. The Toronto Daily Star’s Joe Perlove filed a report from the Gardens:

He was the same cyclonic Apps of pre-war days, if slightly breathless. He was still hammering away three minutes before game’s end when hit on the nose by Gaye Stewart’s stick which flew out of the latter’s hand as he was heavily bodied by Elwyn Morris.

X-rays disclose Apps suffered a broken nose. He needed a stitch to close a slash under his right eye. The classic Appsian schnozzle was not badly dented and he will still take fine pictures from either side.

Without him, the Leafs skated to a 1-1 tie. A crowd of 14,608 saw Bill Shill score for Boston; Davidson countered for the Leafs.

 

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7084)

 

armand mondou, 1934: a trip and a penalty-shot miss

Armand Mondou played on the left wing for the Montreal Canadiens for a dozen NHL seasons from 1928 through to 1940, winning a pair of Stanley Cups along the way, in 1930 and ’31. 

Born in 1905 on a Tuesday of this date in Saint-David-d’Yamaska, Quebec, he was the first NHLer to take a penalty shot after the league added a new rule in 1934, 18 seasons into its early history. It happened on opening night that year, when the Canadiens were playing at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night of Saturday, November 10. In the third period Toronto’s Bill Thoms tripped Georges Mantha of Montreal as he broke in on Leaf goaltender George Hainsworth.

The rules for penalty-shooting were different in those years: ’34 through ’37, the puck was placed in a 10-foot circle located 38 feet from goal, just inside the blueline. As I’ve described before, in this post delineating the history of the penalty shot, the shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, either standing still in the circle and letting loose, or skating at the puck full tilt from farther back. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

That night in 1934, 29-year-old Armand Mondou was standing in on Montreal’s top line for Wildor Larochelle. Mondou had scored just five goals the year before, so it’s a little surprising that Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde picked him to revenge Mantha’s fall, especially since he had a formidable scorer (and future Hall-of-Famer) in Aurèle Joliat on the bench that night. Mondou decided on a speedy approach for the league’s inaugural penalty shot. That’s according to Montreal’s Gazette: “Mondou, with a running start, and his bullet-like slap shot, made the play against Hainsworth.”

Toronto’s hometown Globe had its own view of the same scene: “The fans were quite interested, but Mondou’s shot was a dud. It never left the ice and Hainsworth stopped it with his usual nonchalance.” 

According to the Gazette (interestingly), Hainsworth switched out his regular goaling stick for the penalty shot with “a lighter stick.” I’d like to know more about that, but I’ve yet to see another reference to this specialty tool. 

The Leafs won the game, 2-1. The NHL’s first successful penalty shot came a week later, when Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles put a puck past Alec Connell of the Montreal Maroons. 

philip enjoys heavy hockey bumping

A Royal Guest: The cover of the 1953-54 British Ice Hockey World Annual featured Prince Philip (with Sir Arthur Elvin by his side) and his patronage of hockey at Wembley.

Philip Enjoys Heavy Hockey Bumping

was the headline when the Duke of Edinburgh got his first taste of the NHL’s game, and the Globe and Mail had it from an eyewitness, his Royal Highness’ host, Conn Smythe who, as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had arranged for his team to skate in a command performance for Canada’s own Princess Elizabeth and her husband during the Royal couple’s five-week tour of the Dominion in the fall of 1951.

Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip died in London on Friday morning at the age of 99.

Princess Elizabeth was 25 back during that ’51 visit to Canada, Prince Philip 30. Their cross-country odyssey that fall came just months before the death of George VI, in February of 1952, and Elizabeth’s succession to the throne. Maybe hockey wasn’t the focus of the couple’s busy schedule, but it did feature prominently enough, as it happens, because, well, Canada. Twice that October, the NHL twisted its regularly scheduled programming to accommodate their Royal Highnesses.

First up was an abridged afternoon scrimmage between Toronto’s Leafy defending Stanley Cup champions and the Chicago Black Hawks. That was followed a week later by a game at Montreal’s Forum with Canadiens taking on the New York Rangers.

A fuller account of both those games and the fuss surrounding them can be found, photographs, too, by steering over here. Today we’ll recall that, according to Conn Smythe, both Royal guests enjoyed their experience at Maple Leaf Gardens “tremendously.”

“That was apparent,” Smythe told the Globe, “in the way Prince Philip roared with laughter at the upsetting body-checks and the way the eyes of Princess Elizabeth glowed as the payers shot by her at full speed.”

As Smythe understood it, the Princess had only ever seen hockey once, on television, though the Prince had spent hours attending games in London.

Smythe was charmed by his guests, to say the least. “I’ll tell you that I’m not much for feathered hats,” he enthused, “but I thought the Princess wore a beautiful creation. It was a feathered hat.”

Prince Philip? “He’s a terrific Prince and what a sportsman.”

As a parting gift, Smythe handed over the puck the Leafs and Hawks had chased. “I told the Princess it was for Bonnie Prince Charlie,” he said, “and that the Leafs were putting him on the negotiation list.”

Smythe may have misunderstood, it turns out, about Prince Philip’s hockey-spectating history. What he told the Globe in 1951 is, at least, at odds with Sir Arthur Elvin’s understanding of things from the following year.

Elvin was the founder and owner of London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. Hockey had caught his eye in the early 1930s, when he saw Canadians play at the rink at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and in 1934 he saw to it that Wembley’s new Empire Pool could be converted to a hockey-hosting rink.

By Elvin’s account in 1952, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had only ever seen live hockey on his Canadian tour, never in Britain. That changed on December 4 of that year when Elvin arranged a Wembley game in Prince Philip’s honour, pitting the Wembley Lions against an All-Star team drawing players from their English League rivals.

Reflecting the tenor of the times in British hockey, it was a mostly Canadian affair on the ice. The All-Stars lined up two homegrown players, goaltender Bill Alderson from the Harringay Racers and Streatham Royals forward Pete Ravenscroft. The Lions turned out another pair, in English-born defencemen Art Green and Roy Shepherd. Otherwise, the players involved hailed from Ottawa and Winnipeg, Flin Flon, Montreal, Grand-Mère, Timmins, and Stony Mountain. Wembley’s player-coach was Frank Boucher, son of Buck, nephew of famous Frank, and the man who’d also steered the RCAF Flyers to Olympic gold in 1948.

“Despite a display of nerves by the players in the initial stages,” Sir Arthur noted in his write-up for Ice Hockey World Annual, “the match was packed with thrills and good hockey, as all present will testify and the Duke was as excited and enthusiastic over the play as the most ardent fan present.”

The All-Stars won, 2-1; when it was all over, Elvin narrated, “the Duke descended to the arena from the Restaurant where he had dined and watched the play, to present commemorative medals to all the players participating.”

we didn’t have the heart to tell him

Bench Strength: Abby Hoffman, all-star blueliner, with the OHA St. Catharines juniors in March of 1956. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3184)

Now 74, Abby Hoffman tore through an athletics career that saw her win Pan-American gold running the 800 metres and representing Canada in track and field in four Olympic Games from 1964 through to 1976. In 1956, when she was nine years old, she was making front-page news in her hometown on the hockey rink when officials in the Little Toronto Hockey League determined that she was … a girl.

“She begged us to do something about getting her on a hockey team,” her mother, Dorothy, recounted. “She went down to the THL when the season started and she was taken on a boys team, even though she had to present her birth certificate. Later I got a call from a very nice gentleman who said he would like ‘our boy’ to play on one of the teams. We didn’t have the heart to tell him the boy was a girl and spoil her chances of playing.”

“Ab” Hoffman played defence for the St. Catharines Tee Pees; it was when she was selected to play in the league’s all-star game that it the league discovered that she was Abigail. This was page-one copy in The Toronto Daily Star this week in ’56: she had played “more than a dozen games over the past four months with her team without arousing the suspicions of league officials, her coach, her manager, or her 15 teammates.”

“League officials,” the Canadian Press advised, “at first debated her eligibility to play … but decided to let her continue.”

By the following week, newspapers across Canada were reporting on Hoffman’s whirlwind weekend.

She collected an assist in her team’s 5-0 win over St. Michael’s.

Having sold $30 worth of tickets to the LTHL all-star game, she learned she’d earned a brand-new batch of hockey equipment.

On the Saturday night, she attended her very first NHL game, witnessing the local Maple Leafs dispatch the New York Rangers by a score of 5-2.

Sunday, she was out on the Maple Leaf Gardens ice, skating as the mascot for the OHA Junior A St. Catharines Tee Pees and giving a solo skating exhibition between periods, as well as climbing to the arena’s famous gondola for a radio interview.

She also prompted the league to set up a three-day hockey school for girls. Five days after the Hoffman story broke, LTHL chairman Earl Graham reported that “an appeal for would-be girl hockey players produced 40 applicants, ranging in age from six to 15.”

The following Friday was the all-star game. Hoffman’s team prevailed 1-0 over their Hamilton opposition. She didn’t score, but according to a Canadian Press dispatch, “little Abi [sic] outskated and outchecked her nine-year-old opponents with the gusto of a major leaguer.”

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

apple cheeks

Keep Your Eye On The Puck: Harry Lumley guards the Detroit goal at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday, March 20, 1948. The home team beat the Red Wings 5-3 on the night to clinch first place in the NHL. The foreground Leaf is Vic Lynn, with Howie Meeker cruising out near the blueline. Detroit’s skaters are, from the left, Red Kelly and Bill Quackenbush in the distance, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe closer to the camera. Detroit and Toronto would meet again later in April for Stanley Cup, with the Leafs prevailing in four straight games.

Born in 1926 in Owen Sound, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date, Harry Lumley was — and remains — the youngest goaltender ever to have started an NHL game: he was just 17 when he made his debut in net for the Detroit Red Wings in December of 1943. As he got older, the man they called Apple Cheeks won a Stanley Cup with the Wings (in 1950) along with a Vézina Trophy in ’54. He was a Leaf in Toronto by then; Lumley also skated, in the course his 14-year NHL career, for the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks, and Boston Bruins. Inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980, Harry Lumley died in 1998, aged 71.

(Image: Turofsky/Imperial Oil, from A Century of NHL Memories: Rare Photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame, used with permission)

jumping jimmy

Jimmy Orlando played six seasons on defence for the Detroit Red Wings, helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1943. Born in Montreal in 1915, Orlando died on a Saturday of this date in 1992 at the age of 77. His wife noted that week that he’d watched hockey right up the end of his life. “He thought they were all overpaid, I’ll tell you that,” Doris Orlando said. “His favourite was Mario Lemieux.”

Uncompromising might be one word for Orlando’s approach to the game when he played, excessively violent two more. He led the NHL penalty minutes the last three seasons of his career. In Chicago in 1941, after he punched a fan and knocked him unconscious, he went unpunished by league or law. A year later, at Maple Leaf Gardens, he infamously swung his stick at Toronto rookie Gaye Stewart’s head, who swung his back at Orlando’s. Photographer Nat Turofsky was on hand to document the bloody aftermath. Both players were assessed match penalties, and each was summarily fined $50 by referee King Clancy.

Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman called for NHL president Frank Calder to ban Orlando outright. “If the president and directors of the league fail to act swiftly and firmly, they might as well close up shop.” Calder waited almost a week to come to his decision: Orlando and Stewart were each ordered to pay $100 to the Red Cross or any other war charity, and Orlando was barred from playing games in Toronto while Stewart was forbidden to represent the Leafs in Detroit — “until further notice.” Those sentences lasted not quite four months — Red Dutton rescinded them when he stepped in as interim NHL president after Calder’s death in February of ’43.