Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.
In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.
He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.
After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.
A writer for Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:
I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.
(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
Mainstay of the Maroons, they called him, Horatius at the Bridge, the Sphinx of the Nets. Also? The Ottawa Fireman. That was a nickname, the last one, but it was also a straightforward description, because throughout Alec Connell’s 12-year Hall-of-Fame career as an NHL goaltender, he remained a dutiful employee of the fire department in the nation’s capital.
His renown was such that when, on a Saturday of this date in 1958, Connell died, the news was front-page-centre in the Ottawa Citizen, his hometown paper. He was 58.
Twenty-nine he served with the Ottawa Fire Department, starting in 1921. He was working as secretary to Chief Robert Burnett in the fall of 1924 when he was signed by the mighty Senators, Stanley Cup champions in three of the previous five seasons, to replace Clint Benedict. Connell’s sporting exploits were well-known in the city: “one of Ottawa’s best all-round athletes,” the Montreal Gazette advised.
“He is a little man as fast as a flash and as cool-headed almost as the great Georges Vézina of the Canadiens.” He was, moreover, “a fine, clean-cut youth.”
“Connell neither smokes nor drinks, and is in every way a credit to sport.”
He would play eight seasons, all told, with the Senators, often wearing what was described as a floppy hat, his face set with a serious expression that contemporary reports tended to classify as deadpan. He backstopped Ottawa to the 1927 Stanley Cup, and he was the Montreal Maroons’ goaltender in 1935 when they won the Cup. He had turns, too, with the Detroit Falcons and New York Americans before he gave up his pads for good in 1937.
On that subject, the pads, while Jake Forbes of the old Hamilton Tigers was the first NHL goaltender to transition from the old, narrow cricket-style pads to the new-fangled wider horsehide-and-kapok versions pioneered by Hamilton harnessmaker Pop Kenesky in the 1920s, Alec Connell was the second. These are Keneskys pictured in the image above, showing Connell in all his felted glory in 1931, when he was with Detroit; the pads are, in all probability, the originals that Connell commissioned from the legendary Pop Kenesky in 1927.
Some other Connell claims to hockey fame:
• He’s one of six goaltenders in NHL history to have captained his team, which in his case was Ottawa for the 1932-33 season. (Not counting Roberto Luongo here, whom the Vancouver Canucks recognized as their leader from 2008-10, despite the league’s latter-day rules that don’t allow captains in the crease.)
• Playing for the Maroons in 1934, Connell was the goaltender of record when Ralph Bowman scored the NHL’s very first penalty shot.
• Alec Connell still holds the record for the longest shutout streak in NHL history, 460 minutes and 49 seconds. That dates back to the 1927-28 season, when he strung together six consecutive clean sheets before Duke Keats of the Black Hawks solved him in a game in Chicago. Connell racked up 15 shutouts in 44 regular-season games that season — impressive, though not enough to win him the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, which went to George Hainsworth of the Canadiens that year.
Red Dutton did it all in the NHL. A star defenceman in the old WHL, Dutton, who died on a Sunday of this date in 1987 at the age of 89, joined the Montreal Maroons in 1926, anchoring the defence and ending up captain of the team before moving on to the New York Americans after four seasons. He played six further seasons with the Amerks and ended up as coach of the team — and caretaker owner, too, after the NHL separated Bill Dwyer from the franchise in the 1930s. The Americans, of course, didn’t survive the tumultuous years of the Second World War; Dutton, meanwhile, took over as interim president of the league after Frank Calder’s death in 1943. A Hall-of-Famer and Stanley Cup trustee, Dutton ran a highly successful construction based in Calgary, where also, through the years, he was owner and president of the CFL Stampeders and headed the city’s famous Stampede.
Born in Toronto on a Wednesday of this date in 1903, Hooley Smith grew up the city’s east-end Beaches. He won Olympic gold playing for Canada in 1924, then joined the Ottawa Senators, where he learned to hook check at Frank Nighbor’s knee. (The hook, of course, is not to be confused or conflated with the poke, though it often is, here included, I think — though Smith was, no doubt, a formidable poker, too.) His time in Ottawa ended in suspension: he was suspended for a full month in 1927 after swinging his stick at the head of Harry Oliver of the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals that year. He played nine seasons for the Montreal Maroons after that, captaining the team to a Cup in 1935, whereupon, for efforts, he was also rewarded with a horse. The depiction here dates to 1930; Tim Slattery is the cartoonist. Smith also skated for Boston and the New York Americans before calling it quits in 1941. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
Eventually there would be a trophy they’d battle for, the Kennedy Cup, for the winner to brandish and brag of supremacy over the city, but that wasn’t yet in place on this date in 1924, a Wednesday in Montreal as elsewhere, when the city’s two NHL teams met on the ice for the very first time.
Canadiens were the defending Stanley Cup champions that year. The expansion team they faced on the night would come to be known as the Maroons, reflecting the colour of their sweaters, but that name was still in the future: this first season, they were still known as the Montreals. The setting was the Mount Royal Arena, which was still then home to Canadiens.
A crowd of 6,000 was on hand to see the senior Montreals beat the newcomers 5-0. Canadiens’ 23-year-old winger Aurèle Joliat was the star of the show. “He scored four of the five goals,” the Gazettenoted next day, “largely on his own individual prowess, and generally scintillated on the ice in a manner that drew round after round of applause and cheers from a highly-entertained gathering of hockey fans.” To round out the night, he also got up close and personal with an opposing centreman, Chuck Dinsmore: “the pair became embroiled in a minor affair of fisticuffs,” for which referee Cooper Smeaton accordingly assessed them minor penalties.
Billy Boucher also scored for Canadiens. It’s worth noting that the champions had just nine players in their line-up that night, so just three on the bench to relieve the starters. Their opponents had a fuller complement, with a roster of 12. Among those was the team’s newest acquisition, the veteran 27-year-old centre Reg Noble, whom manager Cecil Hart had bought that very week from the Toronto St. Patricks for $8,000 cash.
The Maroons would play 14 NHL seasons (winning two Stanley Cups) before their demise in 1938. In that time, they would play Canadiens in 92 regular-season games, compiling a record of 35-40-17. The teams met four more times in the playoffs, wherein the Maroons record stands at 0-1-3.
They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.
He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.
Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.
Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.
It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.
Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.
Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.
Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.
Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.
Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.
Everybody wanted Dave Trottier in the winter of 1927-28, and why not, he was, at 21, the hottest hockey talent outside the NHL. He would have been an asset to any of the league’s ten team that season, and several of the league leaders did their best to sign him.
But Trottier, a left winger, had a European trip he wanted to take before he decided on his hockey future, and so the Leafs and Senators and the Rangers and the Bruins all had to wait.
Trottier died at the age of 50 on a Wednesday of this date in 1956.
Back in 1927, he was the Pembroke-born star of the University of Toronto Varsity Grads who were, under coach Conn Smythe, the presiding Allan Cup champions. As amateur champions of Canada, the Grads won the right to represent their country at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and so they did that, in February, with Trottier leading the way, but without Smythe — he stayed home in Canada over a roster dispute.
On their way to winning gold, the Canadian Grads dispatched Swedes (11-0) and Brits (14-0) and Swiss (13-0). Trottier scored five goals in each of the first and the final of those games, managing a meagre pair against the British, and with those 12 goals he shared the tournament’s scoring lead with teammate Hugh Plaxton.
Post-Olympics, Toronto thought they had the inside track on getting Trottier’s signature on a contract: Conn Smythe was the man in charge of the Maple Leafs, and Trottier was said to have vouched himself to the club.
But a Montreal paper was also hearing that he’d sign for the Maroons in Montreal. In Chicago, the news was that Ottawa had a chance.
Or maybe would he stay an amateur? There was word that he had a job lined up in pulp and paper in Northern Ontario, where he could also play hockey for Iroquois Falls.
In the fall, the Trottier speculation began to warm up again. The Leafs were reported to have offered him $5,000 annually for three years, plus a $5,000 signing bonus. Canadiens were said to be in the hunt, and the New York Rangers, too.
In October, with the opening of the new NHL season weeks away, the Boston Bruins were reported to have paid Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs $10,000 for the option on Trottier’s rights.
According to another report, the former Olympic star was asking the Bruins for a three-year deal that would pay him $35,000. That would have put him among the highest-paid players in the NHL, if not above them: in 1927-28, Maroons defenceman Dunc Munro was the top earner, with a contract that paid him $9,000 a season.
“All the things that have been published have been very distasteful to me,” the man himself said at the end of October. He was in Montreal, working for a pulp-and-paper company there, and planning to play senior hockey for the Victorias. “I have not definitely decided to turn professional. I like hockey, but I have a business career ahead of me that for the future is more important than the game.”
Trottier finally agreed to terms with the Montreal Maroons at the end of November. The Boston deal was, I guess, annulled — or was it just a rumour in the first place? Either way, Montreal paid Toronto $15,000 and promised to send them a player at the end of the season. (I can’t tell who that ended up being.) The value of Trottier’s contract wasn’t reported.
Trottier didn’t have a stellar rookie season, contributing just a couple of goals. But he did turn into a reliable scorer over the course of a decade with the Maroons. In his best season, 1931-32, only three other players in the NHL scored more than his 26 goals, while his 44 points put him sixth in league scoring.
In 1935, he helped in the effort that secured the Maroons a Stanley Cup. Dave Trottier spent his last year in the NHL, 1938-39, with the Detroit Red Wings, before persistent knee and shoulder injuries put an end to his career.
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.
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?