reg noble: fastest on the ice, and a very hard man to relieve of the puck

Noble Oblige: Reg Noble strikes a pose in the late 1920s, when he turned out, and captained, the Detroit Cougars.

Here’s a story, for Reg Noble’s birthday — well about Reg Noble, the day after his birthday, which was yesterday. June 23 was a Tuesday in 1896, in Collingwood, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay, which is where was Noble was born 124 years ago. If you’re vague on Reg Noble details, here are a few of his hockey specs: he was very good, possessed of a wicked shot, a forward at first, then later a defenceman, played for the old Toronto Blueshirts and the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, the final year of the old National Hockey Association.

The following year, 1918, when the NHA was supplanted by the brand new National Hockey League, Noble signed with Toronto, whom he duly helped to win the Stanley Cup. He stayed with Toronto on into the 1920s, playing and captaining and even coaching the team as they turned into the St. Patricks, and winning still another Stanley Cup in 1922. The St. Pats eventually sold him to the Montreal Maroons, and he won yet another Cup with them, in 1926, before joining Detroit’s original NHL team, the Cougars, in 1927. That’s their livery he’s wearing in the photograph here, posing on a wintry tennis court colonized by the Cougars for a team practice and photo session.

Noble captained the team in Detroit for three seasons, and played on when they shifted identifies, from Cougars to Falcons. He was still there in 1932 when the team re-launched as Red Wings, though not for long: Detroit released him early in the season. He had one final whirl later that year when he returned to the Maroons, by which time his was the distinction, at age 36, of being the very last player from the league’s inaugural season to still be skating on NHL ice.

Noble was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 — a few months after his death, as it happens, at the age of 65.

And the story? It’s a wartime tale, going back before the NHL, in 1916, when Noble did what many young men were doing in the torrid time: he went to war.

He tried to, at least. Unlike Red Dutton and Joe Simpson and several other of his fellow Hall-of-Famers, Noble never made it overseas much less into the frightful fight of the Western Front.

As much as he might have wished to serve, he was ruled out and discharged before he got the chance. Hockey had rendered him unsuitable.

Noble was 19 in the winter in which 1915 turned to 1916. He was playing with Toronto Riversides that winter, as rover on the seven-aside team that won the OHA Senior championship that wartime winter. When the team’s regular season came to a close at the end of January, Noble was featuring prominently in a 4-0 victory over a military team, the 40th Battery. “Noble, as usual, was the fastest man on the ice,” the Globe reported, “and some of his rushes bordered on the sensational. He is a very hard man to relieve of the puck and is learning every game how to go in on a defence.”

Six days later, Noble joined up, presenting himself at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on the Exhibition grounds. His attestation papers from that day tell the tale, and show his orderly signature as he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, promising to fight all HM’s enemies and obey all of his orders, as well as those of all his Generals and Officers, so help him God.

Noble was measured for height (he was 5’8”) and girth of chest (40”), and the locales of his five scars noted down: three on a shin, one each on a foot and a knee. His complexion was deemed fair, his eyes blue. A Captain Barton was in charge of this medical examination, declaring Noble fitfor duty with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

That was just the beginning of Noble’s busy Saturday. That same evening, he lined up with his fellow Riversides to see to beating Toronto R and AA by a score of 7-2 in a playoff game at the Arena on Mutual Street. By midnight, Noble was home and suffering, not so fit as he’d been earlier: “he was in bed,” according to a subsequent report, “with a raging fever and a beautiful attack of la grippe.”

The battalion that Noble joined was a newborn unit, the 180th, formed in Toronto in January of ’16 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Greer, a prominent Crown Attorney who’d been a distinguished athlete in his own right in his University of Toronto days. “Pals” battalions had been common in the British Army since the start of the war, whereby men with common backgrounds — friends or neighbours or co-workers — enlisted to serve together. Conceived as a Sportsmen’s battalion, the 180th was one of the first units in Canada to follow that lead.

It did a roaring business filling its ranks that winter. Football players, scullers, boxers, and runners flocked to attest their willingness to serve in the early days of February. The famous Mohawk marathoner Tom Longboat, made on his way on foot from Brantford to Toronto to join up. Tommy Daly volunteered for the 180th, too, the well-known Toronto boxer who was also making a reputation as a baseball and hockey trainer — and who, post-war, having shifted his name to Tim, served for decades in that role for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lou Marsh, who’d played football for the Argonauts and wrote sports for the Toronto Daily Star was a lieutenant in the 180th as well as keeping up a busy schedule as a boxing and hockey referee. He was on the ice the night Reg Noble enlisted, in fact, whistling the game between Riversides and Toronto R and AA. Noble, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only hockey player bound for the ranks of the 180th: a report from a few days later made clear that the team’s entire line-up was joining up, the coach, too, Bonny Gard, who said “he might as well go along with them in France as stay at home here and be lonesome.” (With another month of the season still to play, possibly, Colonel Greer graciously agreed to make sure that the Riverside recruits would be granted leave for all and any games.)

Later that same week, on February 14, a recruiting jamboree for the 180th filled Massey Hall. “Half a dozen boxers, recently enlisted, gave sparring exhibitions, enlisted bike riders raced on rollers, and there was a long program free to members of athletic clubs,” a dispatch in the Montreal Gazette affirmed. “Massey Hall was packed to the roof with the flower of the Queen City’s athletes.”

In two hours, the 180th had signed up 325 new recruits, breaking, it was reported, “all Canadian recruiting records.”

At strength, the battalion eventually counted 31 officers and 833 other ranks. They spent the spring and summer training as infantry at Toronto’s Exhibition Camp. There was time for some hockey, too, before the ice thawed out for the season. In March, a few days after Noble and the Riversides wrapped up the OHA Senior championship over a Berlin, Ontario, team anchored in goal George Hainsworth, the 180th’s hockey team took on the 93rd Battalion from Peterborough in a St. Patrick’s Game at the Mutual Street Arena.

Reg Noble skated in that game, at rover, and he was judged to be the best player on the ice. He had a couple of teammates with OHA Senior experience skating with him, but they couldn’t overcome the 93rd squad, who’d played the season on the OHA’s Intermediate loop. The visitors ended up winning by a score of 2-1. Between the first and second periods, a speedy local skater named Fred Robson scampered (unofficially) 50 yards in just under the world’s record time of five seconds. In the second intermission, he returned to entertain the crowd with a barrel-jumping show.

Noble still had more hockey to play before he fully devoted himself to soldiering. Though Riversides opted out of heading west to Winnipeg to play for the Allan Cup, the national Senior championship, they did play several exhibitions late in March. Facing Dick Irvin’s visiting Winnipeg Monarchs at the Arena, the Riversides prevailed 8-7, with Noble playing a starring role that included scoring a goal while (the Daily Star related) “practically standing on his ear and with four Monarchs glued to him.” (The team that did win the Allan Cup, by the by, was Joe Simpson’s 61st Battalion from Winnipeg.)

At some point, with hockey having reached its seasonal end, the sporting soldiers of the 180th moved north out of Toronto to continue their training at Camp Borden, southwest of Barrie, where as many as 25,000 soldiers were under canvas that summer. When they weren’t learning infantry tactics and how to use their weapons, the men of the 180th boxed and raced and hit baseballs whenever the opportunity arose. In July, they helped build an in-camp stadium with seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

“Good athletes do not always make good soldiers,” a column in The Windsor Star warned around this time, noting that Lieut.-Colonel Greer had been forced to make some hard choices as the summer went on. “Much to the colonel’s surprise, he has been compelled to drop several champions from the ranks because they could not stand the wear and tear of a hard route march.” Names were named: Erme Woods, “the well-known distance runner” was ousted along with a couple of accomplished boxers who couldn’t keep up.

“Colonel Greer is handling his battalion just as he would [a] baseball team,” the Star said, “and is rapidly getting rid of the ‘dead-wood.’ He wants only the best, and it is his determination to make the 180th battalion second to none.”

He must have pleased when, in August, the Sportsmen dominated the 4th Brigade athletic meet, showing particularly well in the mile-run, the 16-pound shot put, and the tug of war. The Sportsmen didn’t fare so well in the bayonet-fighting contest, which they lost by a score of 5-3 to the 147th (Grey) Battalion from Owen Sound.

No Noble: Bidding farewell to Toronto in November of 1916, the men of the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion prepare to leave Union Station on their way to Halifax and, from there, the war in France. Reg Noble had already been discharged by this point. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 821)

In September the battalion got its notice from Ottawa to be ready to ship out — the 180th was  “warned for overseas,” in the parlance. In fact, it would be November before they made their move by train to Halifax. From there, they crossed the Atlantic to England in four days aboard the Olympic.

Many of the men would see action — some would die — the following year in the harrowing battles around Vimy Ridge in northern France. But the 180th was no longer, by then, a unit. In January of 1917, the battalion was absorbed into the 3rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, from which the men were assigned to other battalions in need of reinforcement.

The Leafs’ trainer-to-be got to England, where Private Tommy Daly served as Colonel Greer’s orderly — his servant, basically — before being invalided home and discharged from the CEF because of a wonky right shoulder. Daly had hurt it in February of 1916, not a month after enlisting. “Injured slightly while boxing,” his medical records testify, “Feb. 21/16, and has had pain since then.”

Private Reg Noble’s story was a little different: he never even made it to the wharf in Halifax. Declared “Medically Unfit,” Noble departed Camp Borden, the battalion, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force in one fell swoop at the end of September of 1916, a victim of — well, I guess in Colonel Greer’s way of seeing things, he was surplus to the battalion’s second-to-none purposes.

Noble may have had an 18-year NHL career ahead of him but that fall, as it turns out, he just couldn’t march the way soldiers of the infantry are meant to march.

An old hockey injury was to blame. Or maybe newer baseball damage? Contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that he hurt an ankle playing ball at Borden in the summer of 1916 and that the injury was not only serious enough to see him mustered out of uniform, it looked like it might keep him off skates, too.

That could well have been the case but if so, it doesn’t happen to have been entered as the official reason for Noble’s military career coming to its end.

As detailed in Noble’s CEF discharge papers, one of the scars that Captain Barton had marked down when Noble attested in February, the one on the instep of his right foot, commemorated a cut from a skate he’d suffered in 1914 playing hockey back home in Collingwood. The blade had gone deep, enough to cut the tendon and immobilize his big toe.

The 180th’s Medical Officer, Captain Brown, wrote it up. “Can follow the marching under difficulty but has to have frequent periods of light duty,” he noted. “Sent him to hospital where they could do nothing for the condition.”

On a second page, Captain Brown gave his own interpretation of Noble’s scar status — unless Noble had acquired a new configuration in a summer of mishaps? Now, instead of 3 shin scars and one apiece on a foot and a knee, he was credited with

Scar on palm of left hand. Scar on right foot. Bullet scar on right leg.

Farther down the page, in answer to the military form question What is the probable duration of the disability?Captain Brown wrote “Permanent.”

Next question: To what extent will it prevent a full livelihood in the general labour market? Please state in fractions. Captain Brown’s answer: “Will not prevent his earning full livelihood more than before enlisting.”

True enough. By mid-November, as Noble’s former brothers in arms set sail, the word from Toronto was that Eddie Livingstone, wildcard owner of the local NHA Blueshirts, had signed Noble to his first pro contract.

And so, in the winter he didn’t go to war, Noble lined up for a team that included Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Duke Keats. He made a quick impression, and a good one. The Blueshirts started the season in Montreal by beating Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions, by a score of 7-1. Noble didn’t score, but neither did he seem to show any signs of a tender ankle or instep. “He checked [Didier] Pitre, the Canadien star forward,” Toronto’s Daily Star noted, “and smothered him throughout the game. … His rushes were effective, too, and he had speed to burn.”

Reg Noble scored his first pro goal, and his second, in Toronto’s next game, back at the Mutual Street Arena, when the Blueshirts did away with the Quebec Bulldogs by a score of 8-5.

The Blueshirts didn’t last out the season: early in 1917, when the team from the 228th Battalion famously left the NHA in a whole lot of hurry, the league decided to eject Toronto, too, mostly because they didn’t want to deal with owner Eddie Livingstone any longer. That’s when Noble made the switch to Montreal, seeing out the ’16-17 season with Canadiens.

That fall, of course, the NHA collapsed and the NHL arose all on the same day, in Montreal, mostly, again, to stymie Livingstone. Toronto launched a whole new team that year, and Reg Noble was one of the players they signed up. That’s how, in December of 1917, he was on the ice to score an Auston Matthewsesque four goals in his and his team’s National Hockey League debut, as they started out on their way to winning the franchise’s very first Stanley Cup.

For a panoramic view of the many men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, proudly paraded in April of 1916 at Toronto’s east-end Riverdale Park, click over this way, then click again to zoom in. Reg Noble is in there somewhere, along with the man-who-would-be-Tim-Daly, long-serving Maple Leafs trainer. Let me know if you find them. Look beyond the soldiers, too, over to the right: those are hockey rinks coming down for the season, aren’t they?

a man for all seasons

Big Train: Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Lionel Conacher was … well, incredible doesn’t quite do it justice. “As an outstanding all-round athlete, Conacher starred in wrestling, boxing, lacrosse, baseball, and football,” an admirer noted in 1954, “and became one of the greatest defencemen of his day in professional hockey. He was better than average as a sculler and swam well. He once galloped 100 yards in 10.4 seconds in full baseball togs. He won praise from Jack Dempsey after boxing four rounds with the heavyweight champion.” Hockeywise, he won two Stanley Cups, with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and again the following year when (above) he suited up for Montreal’s Maroons. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994, he and Carl Voss share the distinction of being the only two athletes to have had their names engraved on both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

net worth

Nels Stewart shoots, Normie Smith stymies; that’s Wings’ centreman Gord Pettinger arriving late to the action. Stewart’s New York Americans did end up prevailing on this night at Madison Square Garden in early February of 1937, with the lowly Amerks  outlasting the defending Stanley Cup champions from Detroit by a score of 3-2.

Smith, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1988, got his NHL start with Montreal’s Maroons before going on to play seven further seasons — winning two Cups — with Detroit. Though the NHL’s official recordkeeping doesn’t extend back far enough to recognize it, Smith holds the record for most saves in a game. On March 24, 1936, in the NHL’s longest-ever game, the Wings beat the Maroons 3-2 in the sixth overtime when Mud Bruneteau beat Montreal’s Lorne Chabot. Chabot had rerouted 67 shots before that, while Smith barred 90.

a horse for hooley

S & S: Hooley Smith (right) spent a single season with the Boston Bruins, in 1936-37, after starring for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. Here he poses with his old Maroon linemate, Nels Stewart. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Before he got going on a 17-year NHL career that would see him elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Smith was the youngest member of the Canadian team that brought back hockey gold from the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France, and one of its leading scorers. Aged 21, he netted an impressive 18 goals in five games. Of course, Canada’s schedule did include a 33-0 drubbing of Switzerland and a 30-0 squeaker over Czechoslovakia, and Smith’s bounty of goals was only half as many as that of his teammate Harry Watson — but still, gold is golden, and when Smith got home to Toronto that March, the neighbourhood where he’d grown up fêted him on a scale — well, I’m not sure that any local hockey player has seen the likes of the welcome that the Beach organized for Smith.

Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1903, Smith started out under the name Reginald. As a toddler, the story goes, he had a thing where he navigated the family backyard with a tin can balanced on his head, just like the namesake of the popular American cartoon The Happy Hooligan, which is how his father started calling him Hooligan which, soon enough, diminished to Hooley.

Out on the ice, it was as a centreman that Smith helped the Toronto Granites win the 1923 Allan Cup, which is how they ended up representing Canada at the Olympics in ’24. Arriving home triumphant in Toronto a month after vanquishing the United States for gold, the team climbed aboard a bus that paraded them from Union Station up Yonge Street to City Hall. Mayor W.W. Hiltz was one of the speechifyers there: paying his tribute, the Star reported, he mentioned “fine calibre of young manhood which composed the team” and “the manly attributes of the Canadian athlete” before expressing “hopes of continued success.” Engraved gold cufflinks were the gift the city gave the players. Before they were released, they also received three cheers and a couple of anthems, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save The King,” for their troubles.

Later, at a winter carnival in the city’s east-end Kew Gardens, Smith was honoured with displays of fancy skating and fireworks. His appreciative neighbours also unveiled a 400-ton likeness of their hockey hero that they’d sculpted out of ice and illuminated with coloured lights. One of my dearest new year’s wishes is to find a photograph of that — I’m still looking.

NHL clubs were eager, post-Olympics and ice-statue, to sign Smith to a pro contract. The Montreal Canadiens maintained that he’d agreed to join them, and the Toronto St. Patricks were eager to lure him, too, but in the end he chose Ottawa’s Senators. He played three seasons in Canada’s capital, where he learned how to hook-check from the maestro himself, Frank Nighbor, while helping the team win a Stanley Cup in 1927. He subsequently joined the Montreal Maroons, for whom he played nine seasons, captaining the team to a Cup in 1935. It was as a Maroon that Smith played on the famous S line alongside Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert. After a single season with the Boston Bruins, Smith played his final four seasons in the NHL as a New York American. Hooley Smith died in 1963 at the age of 60.

I think that just about covers it, though maybe is it worth mentioning also his gift for, well, getting gifts? When he played for the Senators, Ottawa owner Frank Ahearn gave him a fur coat. I’ve seen it reported that as a Maroon he was given a Rolls Royce and a yacht. Because he wasn’t a sailor, he’s supposed to have returned the yacht in exchange for a farm. Kenneth Dawes might have been the generous donor in question in both these cases, though I can’t confirm that. What I do know is that Dawes, a brewing magnate who served on the Maroons’ executive committee, did promise Smith a horse if the team won the Stanley Cup, which it duly did. The presentation of the black Percheron went ahead in Montreal in April of 1935 in front of a crowd of some 3,000. Smith got the horse, but it was Maroons’ coach Tommy Gorman who climbed aboard to take the first ride.

marooned

If you’ve wandered the streets of downtown Montreal, a little to the east of the Forum, you’ve happened, maybe, across the mural on the brick of a building on Rue Saint-Marc, just north of Saint-Catherine, and the Maroon who features therein. It may not so viewable for long: the neighbouring parking lot that was is no more: a new building is going up. If you’ve wondered where the original hockey image originated, the answer is that it’s drawn from a Frank Holland illustration that adorned a Forum program from the 1934-35 NHL season:

 

way to go, cole bardreau — scotty bowman did it first

Ms, See: A couple of Maroons who figured in the NHL’s first successful penalty shot were, left, defenceman Stew Evans and goaltender Alec Connell. Also shown are GM and coach Tommy Gorman and d-man Allan Shields.

The game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was tied 1-1 in the second period last night when New York Islanders’ forward Cole Bardreau stepped up to take a penalty shot. He’d been heading in on Ottawa’s net on a breakaway when defenceman Mark Borowiecki brought him down and so there he was, a 26-year-old in just his seventh NHL game about to skate in on Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson and score his first big-league goal. “He’s a hard player to not root for,” Cory Wright advised later in his report for the Islanders’ website, “after nearly breaking his neck in college and nearly losing his hand to infection after an AHL fight.”

The goal turned out to be a decisive one in New York’s 4-1 victory. Also of note: Bardreau, who hails from Fairport, New York, goes into the books as just the seventh player in NHL history to score his debut goal on a penalty shot.

“I’m not going to lie,” Bardreau said after the game, “I was pretty nervous there looking up. But I just gripped and ripped it, and luckily it went in. It was just nice to get the monkey off the back. I’ll remember that one forever.”

The first man to score his first goal on a penalty shot in the NHL? Scotty Bowman, who did the deed 85 years ago this month in a game between a pair of teams that no longer exist. His goal, as it happens, was also the first penalty shot to be scored in the league.

Not that Scotty Bowman; this one, born in 1911 in Winnipeg, where he christened Ralph before going on to be nicknamed Scotty well before the legendary coach was out of diapers. The original Scotty B started his NHL career as a defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators at the start of the 1933-34 season. In the fall of 1934, when the Sens relocated and turned into the short-lived St. Louis Eagles, Bowman went with them. So it was that he was working the blueline on November 13, another Tuesday night, when the Montreal Maroons paid an early-season visit to the Arena.

The penalty shot was new that year to the NHL, adopted by the Board of Governors in September years after it had been standard practice in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association where it was (to quote a contemporary report from the Montreal Gazette) “born in the fertile brains of Lester and Frank Patrick.”

It wasn’t quite the same penalty shot that Cole Bardreau took last night. In 1934, once the referee determined that an attacking player had been fouled and prevented from taking a clear shot on goal, the wronged team could pick any player who wasn’t then in the penalty box to take the shot.

To do so, he stepped up to a ten-foot circle marked on the ice (just inside the blueline) 38 feet from the goal-line. The goaltender was allowed a certain mobility but not much: he couldn’t come out more than a foot from his line. The Gazette: “The sharpshooter can deliver the shot from the standing position or while skating full speed” — so long as he didn’t carry it beyond the confines of the circle.

In Frank Patrick’s pre-season opinion, the goaltender held a 60-40 advantage. One shot in three would go in, he thought.

He was almost right. The first penalty shot that season was a failed one: at Maple Leaf Gardens on November 10, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth foiled Armand Mondou of the Montreal Canadiens.

Three days later in St. Louis, the Maroons were up 1-0 in the second period when referee Bill Stewart called Montreal defenceman Stew Evans for tripping Eagle forward Syd Howe.

Hard to imagine why St. Louis coach Eddie Gerard would have decided that a defenceman who’d never scored in the league was the man to get the job done. Variously described at the time as just a youngster and both a chunky and a dynamic defenceman, Bowman, 23, was usually partnered on the blueline with Burr Williams. He must have had a shot, I guess, such that Gerard would have elected him over more seasoned goalscorers like Howe, Glenn Brydson, and Carl Voss.

Anyway, Bowman elected to take a run at the puck. Though St. Louis ended up losing the game 2-1 in overtime to a goal by Montreal’s Dave Trottier, Bowman did what he was supposed to do in the second period and tied the score, whipping the puck to goaltender Alec Connell’s glove-side. As The St. Louis Dispatch saw it, the puck sped“ankle high, like a bullet,” though the Star and Times placed the shot a little higher, near Connell’s “right shin.”

Either way, the people of St. Louis were pleased. “The fans stood on their chairs,” the Star and Times noted, “and yelled with glee.”

The Liveliest of Table Waters: The line-ups from November 13, 1934, as displayed in the St. Louis Eagles’ program for the night.

toe pick

Stop Action: Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1912 in the now ghostly hamlet of Victoria Mines, Ontario, near Sudbury, Toe Blake was a famous left winger for the Montreal Canadiens before he got around to coaching them. For all that, he won his first Stanley Cup playing for Montreal’s other team, the lost, lamented Maroons, in 1935. With the Habs, of course, he lined up with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the Punch Line. He won a Hart Trophy in 1939, the year he also led the NHL in scoring. He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1946. Blake captained the Canadiens from 1940 until an ankle injury forced his retirement in 1948. That stretch saw Montreal win two further Cups, in ’44 and ’46. For all this, he was elevated, in 1966, to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a player. His coaching wasn’t so shabby, either: between 1956 and 1968, he steered the Canadiens to eight more Cups.

Here, above, stymied, Blake is in white, wearing a 6. Making contact is Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert; up front, that’s winger Mush March fleeing the scene. Montreal was at Chicago Stadium on this night in January of 1944, and they’d battle the Black Hawks to a 1-1 draw. Fido Purpur opened the scoring for the home team before Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard tied it up. Three months later, when the teams met in the Cup finals, Canadiens prevailed with emphasis, sweeping the Black Hawks four games to none.

tip to toe

Drillmaster: Toe Blake died on a Wednesday of this date in 1995 at the age of 82. Though he started his career as an NHL left winger as a Maroon in Montreal, it was, of course, as a Canadien that he made his mark. He played parts of 13 seasons with that Montreal, seven of those as captain, while (mostly) skating alongside Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the famous Punch Line. After helping Maroons raise a Stanley Cup in 1935, he won two more playing with Canadiens. In the 13 seasons he subsequently spent coaching the latter, he steered the team to another eight Cups. To this day, no Montreal coach has coached or won more games than Blake, seen here in 1961 with three of his bleu-blanc-et-rouge stalwarts: from left, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Béliveau, and Jacques Plante. (Image: Louis Jaques, Weekend Magazine / Library and Archives Canada / e002505697)

 

 

à la douce mémoire

This 1926 Georges Vézina memorial postcard was sold at auction last month in Montreal for close to C$1,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Georges Vézina died 93 years ago, early in the morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926, at the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi. It was just four months since Vézina, who was 39, had tended goal for the last time for the Montreal Canadiens, departing the ice after a period in Montreal’s season-opening game in November of 1925 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, never to return.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Montreal in early December for Chicoutimi, where he spent his last days in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. His Canadiens teammates planned to visit, but it’s not clear that they made it before he died; Montreal manager and coach Leo Dandurand — a close friend of the goaltender’s — does seem to have made the journey.

A Montreal reporter who visited Vézina in early March found him in a bad way, pale and weak, though peaceful enough under the watch of his wife of 20 years, Marie, and in the care of Drs. Riverin and Tremblay. The paper held off running of a photograph of the stricken goaltender until after this death — more on that here — but did publish a long, heartbreaking, and quite remarkable dispatch from Chicoutimi a week before the end.

“His case is desperate,” one of the doctors confided; it didn’t seem likely that he would survive the month.

“Formerly, he was always calm in his goal,” the reporter reported. “Neither the most exciting phases of a game nor the most distressing moments could deprive him of this firm, concentrated attitude. It’s still the same.”

“Georges knows he is going to die and he is resigned.”

The piece continues at some length, not only including (as you might expect) a detailed biographical sketch of the legendary goaltender, but also (as you might not) an itemized accounting of the family’s finances. There’s this exchange, too, from the hospital:

Georges has his full knowledge and a perfect clarity of spirit. At times, his face writhes horribly. As we approached his bed, he looked up. We looked at him and he asked:

“How’s Leo?”

“He’s fine.”

Georges gathered his strength and asked us clearly:

“Tell Leo,” he said in a low voice, “that I want to see him, absolutely. That he should come with all the players, all my comrades. I want to speak to them.”

As these few words exhausted him, we were about to retire when he signaled us to stay. His eyes lit up a little. Gathering all his strength, he asked us in a very low voice:

“Did the Canadiens win last night?”

The Canadiens had lost. But how to say this to Georges when he was there, on his bed of suffering, waiting with a tragic anxiety, and almost begging an answer in the affirmative answer?

We told a virtuous lie: “Yes, the Canadiens won!”

Georges smiled and gave a sigh of relief. His face flushed. But the gaiety soon disappeared, driven away by a fit of grief.

“What score?” he asked.

“Four to two.”

“If you knew how tired I am,” he said in a whisper.

Georges no doubt meant that the many defeats of the Canadiens weighed heavily on him.

As he was exhausted, we left him.

The game in question here did end 4-2 for Montreal — but it was the Maroons who prevailed at the Forum on the night of March 13, 1926, handing Canadiens their 12th loss in a row. Back in November, Frenchy Lacroix had replaced the irreplaceable Vézina, but he had subsequently given way in Montreal’s net to Herb Rheaume.

the neverending story (right to the end)

On And On: Meg Braithwaite told the story of NHL’s elongatedest game in hr 2017 book 5-Minute Hockey Stores, with help from illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The puck dropped at the regular time, 8.30 p.m., at the Montreal Forum on the Tuesday night of March 24, 1936, when Marty Barry of the visiting Detroit Red Wings faced up to Hooley Smith of the Montreal Maroons at centre ice. But it was Wednesday morning, almost seven hours later, before the two teams decided things in that Stanley Cup semi-final, which remains the longest game in NHL history. It took six overtimes — 116 minutes and 30 seconds of extra time — before 21-year-old Detroit rookie Mud Bruneteau scored the game’s only goal. The Maroons were the defending champions that year, and favoured to repeat, but they never recovered from that long first-game defeat. Detroit swept past them in three games and went on to the finals, where they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Cup.

“Both teams started the sixth period just pretending they had energy,” Doc Holst of the Detroit Free Press documented on this day 83 years ago. Joe Lamb of the Maroons and the Red Wings’ Johnny Sorrell got into a tangle that might have escalated, if the hour had been younger: instead, “Lamb yawned and Sorrell stretched.” The NHL doesn’t have official shot-totals from the night, but contemporary newspaper accounts advise that Lorne Chabot faced 68 shots in the Maroons goal while, at the other end, Detroit’s Normie Smith stopped 90.

Muddy Moment: Bob Davis’ 1955 calendar illustration re-imagines Mud Bruneteau’s decisive goal, complete with fanciful uniforms and a fearful Lorne Chabot.

best in show

The promise the cover seems to make doesn’t quite pan out — Liberty’s slate of picks of the best of the NHL’s best doesn’t, in fact, include a single Montreal Maroon. One does feature in the jury the magazine convened in 1936 to do the selecting, so maybe that counts for something — Maroons’ captain Cy Wentworth joined a distinguished panel that also included coaches Clem Loughlin (Chicago Black Hawks); Red Dutton (New York Americans); Sylvio Mantha (Montreal Canadiens); and Frank Patrick (Boston Bruins); along with fellow captains Hap Day (Toronto Maple Leafs); Doug Young (Detroit Red Wings); and Bill Cook (New York Rangers). In a feature article that advises under the headline that it’s going to cost you 12 minutes and 35 seconds to read, their picks are revealed. Allowing itself a little latitude on left wing, the jury decided this way:

Goal
Tiny Thompson (Boston)

Defence
Eddie Shore (Boston)
Ching Johnson (Rangers)

Centre
Frank Boucher (Rangers)

Left Wing
Paul Thompson (Chicago) or Busher Jackson (Toronto)

Right Wing
Charlie Conacher (Toronto)

About the Charlie Chaplin Jinx, fyi: in a mere seven-and-a-half minutes I learned that a couple of Liberty’s writers had a theory on why several actresses who’d starred in movies with and/or got married to Chaplin didn’t end up succeeding in Hollywood. It wasn’ta jinx at all, they felt: “a much more likely explanation of why Chaplin’s leading ladies have not gone farther is that he doesn’t pick them for their acting ability.”

severely jarred, badly wrenched: the life and sore times of howie morenz

An unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck, I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:

I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?

Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.

In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.

That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?

Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:

His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.

(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)

Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.

In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.

The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”

Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,

Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.

In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.

Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.

In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,

Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.

The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.

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