Conacher’d: In December of 1934, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers was the goaltender trying to stop Charlie Conacher from scoring the first penalty shot in Leafs’ history. He didn’t.
A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.
A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.
The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.
“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.
Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.
“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”
The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.
Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”
In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.
Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.
Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:
Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.
Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.
Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.
December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.
Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.
Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:
Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.
Toronto’s 1933-34 Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: Benny Grant, Buzz Boll, Bill Thomas, Alex Levinsky, Red Horner, Andy Blair, Busher Jackson, Joe Prime, Charlie Sands, Baldy Cotton, trainer Tim Daly, George Hainsworth. Front: Hec Kilrea, King Clancy, Hap Day, coach Dick Irvin, managing director Conn Smythe, assistant director Frank Selke, Ace Bailey, Ken Doraty, Charlie Conacher.