winterspiele 1936: the revenge of jimmy foster

True Brits: Back row, from left: Coach Percy Nicklin, Bob Wyman, Archie Stinchcombe, Carl Erhardt (captain), Jack Kilpatrick, Gordon Dailley, Gerry Davey, Chirp Brenchley, Johnny Coward. Front, from left: Jimmy Borland, Art Child, Jimmy Foster, Alex Archer.

So instead of referring to this game as the triumph of England it could be labelled “The Revenge of Jimmy Foster.” The stirring episodes at Garmisch yesterday could be woven into a movie scenario which would be sure of four-star rating in at least one section of the country.

If he never stops another puck in the Olympics, he has ensured his place in the hockey hall of fame so far as international honours are concerned — while he has probably ensured it forever in the Maritimes.

• Baz O’Meara, writing in the Montreal Daily Star on Wednesday, February 12, 1936, after goaltender Jimmy Foster and his teammates on Great Britain’s team handed Canada its first-ever loss at the Olympic Games, going to claim Britain’s first (and only) gold medal.

Columnist Baz O’Meara was mostly on the money. If Jimmy Foster’s stardom didn’t quite end up soaring into eternity, not even in Eastern Canada, he did find his way into a hall of hockey fame: the British one, into which Foster was inducted in 1950. This much, too, may be safe to say: Foster, who died at the age of 63 on a Saturday of this date in 1969, never had a better night in his long and distinguished puckstopping career than he did disappointing Canada in the winter of ’36.

That was indeed the year that Canada’s four-tournament, 16-year reign as Olympic champions came to a shocking (and, for Canadians, controversial) end. Foster was a leading character in that — even before Britain took on its hockey-mad colony at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen games.

Born in Glasgow, in Scotland, in 1905, Foster emigrated to Canada when he was six and his family relocated to Winnipeg. That’s where he took up hockey goaltending, and refined his craft. He resume from those early years includes stints with the Winnipeg Argonauts, the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Winnipegs, and the Elmwood Millionaires. When he wasn’t on the ice, he was raising a family of three with his wife while working in PR for a distributor of Orange Crush. That’s according to Rob Jovanovic, author of an exhaustive history of Britain’s 1936 hockey gold, Pride & Glory: The Forgotten Story of Great Britain’s Greatest Olympic Team (2011).

Foster broke a leg at some point and was told he’d never play hockey again. Wrong: in the early 1930s, the work he put in playing with the senior Moncton Hawks earned him a reputation as one of the best goaltenders not in the NHL. Jovanovic:

In four years with the Hawks, he was reckoned to have saved over 6,000 shots, missed only one of 220 games, and won two Allan Cups. During one spell he went 417 minutes without conceding a goal, almost seven full games.

There was a brief buzz to the effect that Foster might find his way to the Chicago Black Hawks, where the death of another Scottish-born, Winnipeg-raised goaltender, Charlie Gardiner, had left an absence that needed filling. But nothing came of that.

In 1935, at the advanced (hockey) age of 29, it looked like Foster would finally get his chance in the NHL: that February, the two amateur prospects Tommy Gorman was most interested in signing for his Montreal Maroons were reported to be Foster and a promising winger by the name of Toe Blake. Blake signed and Foster agreed to terms, according to Montreal’s Gazette. For the latter, it wasn’t to be: Foster denied that he’d committed to anything. By fall, word was that he’d signed to play for the Richmond Hawks of the newly formed English National League, where his old Moncton coach, Percy Nicklin, was in charge.

Born in Midland, Ontario, Nicklin had learned his hockey in Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay. Named to coach Britain’s entry into the Winter Olympics that would hit the ice in February of 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Bavaria, Nicklin picked Foster as his starting goaltender.

For all the confidence the coach had in Foster, he was worried about the defence in front of him. “Nicklin fears that his team will be comparatively easy to score against,” a Canadian Press dispatch from England confided that January.

In the event, off-ice politics threatened to spoil the British effort in Germany as much as any hockey opposition. Most of the players on the British team had honed their hockey on Canadian ice; winger Gerry Davey was born in Port Arthur. Before the Games opened on February 6, Canada’s hockey delegation complained that two players, Foster and winger Alex Archer, had failed to seek releases from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association before migrating from Canadian club teams to British.

Hockey’s governing body sided with Canada, and the night before pucks were set to drop, the Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace (as the IIHF was then known) ruled that Foster and Archer were ineligible to play for Britain. Irked, the British talked about withdrawing from the tournament. In the end, Canada withdrew its protest (if only for the duration of the Olympics), and the British played on with Foster and Archer in the line-up.

I’ve written elsewhere about the team representing Canada in ’36 (they were from Port Arthur, too). As Canadians, they were the clear favourites going into the Games, with the United States and hosts Germany seen as their strongest challengers.

Nicklin didn’t mind being counted out. Rob Jovanovic writes that he was focussed on preparing his team for the job ahead, insisting that his charges “were all in bed by 10 p.m., made no night-time telephone calls, smoked no more than two cigarettes a day, and didn’t drink any alcohol at all.”

The British campaign started with a pair of victories — and Jimmy Foster shutouts —over Sweden (1-0) and Japan (3-0). It was in the second round that the upset of the tournament — and Olympic hockey history — occurred, with Britain’s modest-smoking teetotalling squad pulling out a 2-1 victory over the favoured Canadians at the Garmisch Eis-Stadion. Gerry Davey was one of the British heroes that day, scoring Britain’s opening goal, and so too was Foster.

“His goaltending was superb, “Phil Drackett writes in account of British Olympic brio, Vendetta On Ice (1992), “as he outguessed the Canadian sharpshooters and coolly turned away bullet-like drives, the rhythmic motion of his jaws as he chewed gum being the only sign of emotion.”

A bad outcome for Canada only got worse: the way the tournament schedule was organized, the defending champions found that though both they and the British advanced to the final stage, the results of the earlier round carried over, and the two would not meet again.

That meant that while the Canadians went 4-0 after their historic loss — running up routs of Czechoslovakia (7-0) Hungary (15-0) along the way — the British were able to claim gold with the 2-0-2 record that they put together after beating Canada.

The winners’ glee was great. Britain’s “Ice Hockey Miracle,” London’s Daily Express called the team’s gold-medal performance. Canadians, meanwhile, groused and entertained excuses: nobody explained the tournament format beforehand, and anyway, it was ridiculous, and anyway, since all the Brits were more or less Canadians anyway, wasn’t this actually a triumph for Canadian hockey after all?

“England won because she was better coached,” the controversial Alex Archer told a reporter in Winnipeg that May, “and you can give all the credit in the world to our coach, Percy Nicklin. England played typical Nicklin hockey, the sort of hockey which he taught the double Allan Cup winners, Moncton Hawks. We went out to get a goal and when we got it we played a tight defensive game.”

Jimmy Foster stayed on in England, making a move (with Nicklin) to the Harringay Greyhounds, and helping Great Britain win back-to-back European championships in 1937 and ’38.

Home Cooking: A Canadian Press report from September of 1936, seven months after Jimmy Foster and his teammates upset Canada’s Olympic hopes in Germany.

Set to sign with the Brighton Tigers in 1939, Foster sized up the European forecast of war and opted for a return to Canada. He played three years of senior hockey, turning out for the Quebec Aces and, in Nova Scotia, the Glace Bay Miners and North Sydney Victorias before he retired in 1942.

A couple of last notes, to take us back to where this began: in all my reading about Jimmy Foster, I’ve never seen evidence that vengeance played a part in his perfromance in 1936.  As per Baz O’Meara’s reverie, I can report that the stirring episodes at Garmisch were indeed woven into a movie scenario in England in the wake of Britain’s glorious Winter Olympics.

Producer and director Monty Banks was the force behind Olympic Honeymoon, which was shot in the months following the tournament though never, as far as I know, released. Jimmy Foster didn’t participate, but three of his Olympic teammates featured, including Gerry Davey and back-up goaltender Art Child.

Jake Milford was in it, too: a winger for the Wembley Canadians at the time, he went on to serve as GM of both the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984.

Milford’s Wembley coach wangled a part, too: fellow Hall-of-Famer Clint Benedict played a stylish referee in the movie, sporting plus fours and a silk scarf.

Golden Glaswegian: Jimmy Foster in 1936-37, when he tended the nets for the Harringay Greyhounds of the English National League.

spit take: nels stewart, newsy lalonde, and a jolt of tobacco juice in jakie forbes’ eye

Poison Control: A 1952 magazine ad for Pleasant Moments whisky celebrated Nels Stewart’s 1931 record-setting outburst with this imaginative view of one of the two goals he scored within four seconds to lead his Montreal Maroons to a win over the Boston Bruins. (Artist: John Floherty Jr.)

By early afternoon, the signs at Montreal’s Forum were already up: Standing Room Only. “And long before the referees called the teams together at centre ice to start the game, all this space had been grabbed up,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil would recount. “It was a complete sell-out Saturday night. And those 13,000 fortunates witnessed a mighty spectacle that crammed action and thrills into every minute of play.”

Playing a leading role that night in January of 1931: Nels Stewart, star centreman for Montreal Maroons and the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP. In a battle between two of the NHL’s best teams, Stewart, who was born in Montreal on a Monday of yesterday’s date in 1902, powered his team to a win over the visiting Boston Bruins with a third-period outburst, setting a record for speedy scoring that stands to this day.

That being the case, today’s another day that I’ll be pleased to gripe that Stewart doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His absence from the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Players in league history tells you everything you need to know about that marred memorial. Stewart won a Stanley Cup with the Maroons in 1926 and was the first man to win the Hart Trophy twice. Along with his seven seasons in Montreal, Stewart played another five for the New York Americans along with four for Boston where, though the Bruins themselves have forgotten it, he captained the team. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison overtook Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Toronto Telegram columnist Ted Reeve grew up with Stewart in the Beaches, in Toronto’s eastern end. “The best natural all-round athlete I have ever seen in Canada,” Reeve called him.

“Extremely deceptive,” was Frank J. Selke’s verdict, “the brainiest player I have ever known.”

Selke also testified that Stewart “couldn’t backcheck a lick.”

“He is worthless as a defensive player, always has been,” Herb Manning wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939. “There is nothing streamlined about him. He lumbers along like a truck on a steep grade. He always seems to be ten feet behind the play, whether they are going backward or forward.”

But?

“But a split second is all the time he requires to complete a chore in the enemy zone.”

He got his chores done, scoring 324 goals in 650 regular-season NHL games, nine more in 50 playoff games.

In Montreal, he centred the famous S line, flanked by Hooley Smith and Babe Siebert. “Babe and Hooley did most of the work,” Stewart later said, “because I was a shambling six-footer who took relays from the corners.”

In 1938, the Ottawa Journal wrote about his “careless, almost lazy style,” noting also that “no goalie ever feels at ease while he is lurching and wandering around the vicinity of the net.”

Ottawa Senators goaltender Clint Benedict: “Nels liked to park and take a puck and fire it quick.”

“Nels was one helluva hockey player,” New York Rangers centreman Frank Boucher said. “He was almost impossible to move once he got in front of the net.”

Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle consulted former Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard on Stewart’s virtues in 1932, when Gerard was coaching the New York Americans.

“Big and wide of beam,” was Burr’s description of Stewart, whose playing-days metrics came in at 6’1’’, 200 pounds.

No other player in the National Hockey League practices his loafing around the nets of the enemy. He doesn’t look dangerous. He isn’t a fast skater or a hard shot. But he does all his playing from the other fellow’s blue line.

“Watch him lift his shoulder to draw the goalie out,” warns Gerard, his old Montreal boss. “That’s why he scores so frequently — he makes the goalminder make the first move. But watch further. Nels never shoots from the shoulder. He just flips his wrist.”

Boston bought him in 1932. “He is a two-fisted fighting player,” coach Art Ross said at the time, “and the greatest inside player in the game.”

Greatest Inside Player in the Game: Montreal Maroons’ star Nels Stewart as he actually looked in the early 1930s.

Which brings us back to that night at the Montreal Forum in 1931, Saturday, January 3. Nearly halfway through the season’s schedule, the visiting Bruins were heading up the league’s American section, while the Maroons were atop on the Canadian side, neck-and-neck with the Canadiens, defending Cup champions.

Maroons prevailed, 5-3, despite going into the third period trailing 3-1. D.A.L. MacDonald wrote up the game for the Montreal Gazette, and he speculated that if the frenzied Montreal fans had any regrets, they might have centred on the hurry with which the home team turned the game around.

First winger Jimmy Ward scored. Six minutes later, Stewart stepped up after Hooley Smith slammed a shot into Tiny Thompson’s pads. “The rebound dropped barely a foot in front of the Boston goalie and big Nelson Stewart was in like a flash to flip the puck over his prostrate form,” was how MacDonald saw it. “If Nels had scooped it up with a dessert spoon he couldn’t have done it more neatly.”

That tied the game. Four seconds later, Stewart scored the winner. It went like this:

From the face-off once again, Stewart slipped a pass over to Smith that left the Boston front rank behind and at the defence back came the disc to Nelson. The big fellow rode right in on Thompson and the goalie never had a chance. Another flip of those steel wrists and Maroons were in front to stay.

Two goals in four seconds. “Shades of Frank McGee!” MacDonald enthused. “For quick scoring feats and high-powered excitement, Nelson the Great has few equals.” It would, indeed, take 64 years for another NHLer to match Stewart’s record. No, not Gretzky or Lemieux: in1995, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Deron Quint scored a pair of goals in four seconds versus the Edmonton Oilers to slip into the record book alongside Stewart.

Is there any indication that in scoring his brisk brace, Stewart might have distracted or disabled Tiny Thompson by spitting tobacco juice into his unsuspecting eye?

No, none. Though that is a stratagem that is persistently attributed to Stewart in latter-day accounts of his career. Mostly it’s offered up as passing proof of his cunning and/or outright nastiness, often with a hint of admiration — if not any specificity.

The general tobacco-spitting charge shows up in Stewart’s Wikipedia profile, for instance. Floyd Conner slots it into Hockey’s Most Wanted (2002), with his own twist: the eye-spitting was motivated by Stewart’s “contempt” for goaltenders. In his 2012 book, Next Goal Wins, Liam Maguire goes out on a limb of his own to venture that the nickname Old Poison derived directly from “his habit of spitting chewing tobacco into the eyes of opposing goaltenders.”

Stan Fischler has been one of the more enthusiastic purveyors of the expectorating story over the years; it repeats throughout his broad oeuvre. Here it is in his The All-New Hockey’s 100 (1998):

It was not uncommon for Stewart to chew a wad of tobacco, produce juice, and then spit it unerringly in the eyes of a goalie as he shot the puck.

None of the above mentions is sourced; not one identifies a particular instance which any first-hand accounting to back up the chewing/juicing/spitting combo that Stewart is reputed to have employed to such (purported) devilish effect. None of the authors cited above seems to have done any digging of their own. If they had, they’d have found that no-one seems to have been taking note of Stewart’s spitful habit when he was actually playing: my scourings of contemporary newspaper accounts from Stewart’s active years in the 1920s and ’30s haven’t turned up even a fleeting mention of any tobacco-chewing let alone spitting.

The legend does (fittingly?) crop up in the five-part hockey-history TV series that Vancouver’s Opus Pictures produced in 1996, Legends of Hockey, and my guess (it’s mostly a guess) is that it’s from this (also unsourced) documentary that the subsequent literary mentions originated and proliferated. (Wikipedia’s mention of Stewart’s adventures in chaw footnotes it.) The second episode includes short biographies of several colourful hockeyists, including Eddie Shore, Red Horner, and Ol’ Poison himself. You can click in to review it here, starting at the 27:26-minute mark, where you’ll soon hear narrator Alan Maitland intone:

As well as being poison around the net, the Montreal Maroons’ Nels Stewart had the nasty habit of spitting his chewing tobacco in the goalie’s eyes. Never a great skater, never a great checker, he was still a lethal goalscorer.

As Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star wrote back in 1996, Legends of Hockey is, as a whole, a delightful confection. Specifically citing Stewart and his alleged spitting, Woolsey also notes that “in the off-hand fashion of such productions, this pungent detail is presented without elaboration. Legends delivers with more similar tidbits of history, whetting the appetite. What it might not explain meatily, the series suggests delectably.”

Is it possible that there’s truth at the root of the legend, wherever that might lie? Of course. But without any first-hand account of where Stewart might have been chewing his tobacco and loosing it on contemptible goaltenders, or when, or who the goaltenders might have been, I’ll be wary of treating the tale as fact. I don’t mind James Marsh’s formulation in his biography of Stewart in The Canadian Encyclopedia:

The story that he spat tobacco juice in the eyes of opposing goalies may be apocryphal but apparently is in keeping with his temperament on the ice.

If Newsy Lalonde merits a mention here (and he does), it’s because he’s a, well, key witness in the larger case — as well as a prime suspect.

Lalonde, of course, was one of hockey’s greatest talents, as well as another fairly glaring absentee from that centenary list from 2017. His pro career on ice started as early as 1906, and he went on to play seven NHL seasons, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens, before it was over in the late 1920s. He was famously uncompromising — which is one generous way of saying that he played the game violently and often with what still looks like, over the distance of years, breathtaking spite.

Not that he was (apparently) alone in his willingness to twist rules or (as the case may be) soak them in tobacco juice in those early decades. Long after he’d hung up his skates he was still recalling the transgressions of opponents like Paddy Moran, Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender for the Quebec Bulldogs and a fellow Hall-of-Famer. Here’s Lalonde reminiscing in 1951, as reported in the Montreal Gazette:

“Paddy chewed tobacco,” Newsy said, “and he could hit a keyhole at 40 paces. You had to duck when you skated behind his cage or he’d get you right between the eyes.”

Lalonde elaborated on this theme a decade later. This time he was talking to Andy O’Brien for a feature on hockey malice for Weekend Magazine.

“Paddy [Lalonde said] was in a class by himself by himself when it came to chopping toes of opposing forwards who came within range, and in those days the skate toes weren’t  so well padded. But his pet skill was squirting tobacco in your eye.”

In 1961, Newsy Lalonde implicated Paddy Moran for his chaw crimes.

What would it have cost Any O’Brien to press for just a few more details? As it is, I guess Lalonde’s long-range memories do get us closer to a confirmed case of tobacco-juice-in-the-eye without pinpointing anything precisely. The best we might be able to hope for on that count focusses again on Newsy Lalonde, though he’s not (and probably shouldn’t be expected to be) implicating himself this time. It’s another goaltender of old giving evidence here, Jakie Forbes, who was playing for the Toronto St. Patricks in the early 1920s when Lalonde was skating for — and captaining and coaching — the Canadiens.

Forbes’ news wasn’t exactly fresh when he got around to reporting it: one version I’m looking at dates to 1969, 50 years after the fact, when Forbes was 72, and the other is from Trent Frayne’s 1974 book The Mad Men of Hockey.

Both accounts are, it has to be said, fairly vivid, even if they don’t perfectly match up.

The first, from a genial Globe and Mail retrospective, has Forbes telling his tale this way to writer James Young:

The game is much faster now, but not nearly as rough as it was. In one game at the old Mount Royal rink in Montreal, Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went skating out to protest to the referee and skated right into him, knocking both of us down. He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net.

The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side of me, spit his tobacco juice in my face and when I fell skated around me to score in the open net.

Trent Frayne’s framing of this same tale five years later isn’t quite the same; it does up the colour balance.

“He was,” Forbes says this time, by way of introducing Lalonde, “the dirtiest son of a bitch I ever played against.”

In Frayne’s version, Forbes stopped Lalonde and the puck was headed back the other way. As Lalonde rounded the net to follow it, he paused to punch Forbes squarely — and hard — in the face.

“Blood spurted from the goaler’s nose,” Frayne writes, “and he took off after Lalonde, brandishing his stick like a lariat.”

The referee is named as Cooper Smeaton, and he does get knocked down. Jumping up, he’s quoted threatening Forbes:

“Get back in the goal, you crazy little bugger,” he shouted at the five-foot-five goaltender, “or you’re out of the game.”

Frayne adds some fine points to the final act of the piece, too. Near the end of the game, with Canadiens leading 4-1, Lalonde broke in with the puck. Forbes was ready for him, “readying an axe-swing at Lalonde’s head.”

But at the last instant the flying Lalonde spat a long stream of tobacco juice into Jakie’s face, circled the net laughing, and pushed the puck into the goal past the sputtering Forbes.

Triangulating with a few of the details provided by Frayne, it’s possible to key in a couple of games from the two seasons Forbes spent with Toronto. The first time he played Canadiens in Montreal was on Wednesday, March 10, 1920, a night on which the local Gazette found plenty in his performance to praise: “Forbes the Youngest Goaler in NHL Made Many Brilliant Stops at Mount Royal Arena,” reads a subhead from the next morning’s dispatch.

Too bad for Forbes, Montreal won, 7-2, with Lalonde scoring a hat trick. But contemporary accounts mention no high sticks, punches, or other hijinks. Also, the referee that night was Harry Hyland. So that’s probably not the night in question.

A better bet altogether is a game from almost a year later, a Monday-nighter played on February 28, 1921. It was noteworthy affair on several counts. A former U.S. president was one of the 5,000 spectators on hand, for one thing: what’s more, William Howard Taft was “in position to have a good view” of a first-period fight between Toronto’s Ken Randall and Didier Pitre of Montreal.

It was a thoroughly bad-tempered occasion even before the teams hit the ice. Toronto was lending winger Cully Wilson to Canadiens that season, but just before the game, with centreman Corb Denneny ill and unable to play, the St. Pats tried to claim Wilson back for their own line-up.

NHL President Frank Calder was in the building and presided over a summit in the referee’s room. The Montreal Star mapped the terrain:

If he played with Canadiens, Toronto would protest him. If he played with Torontos, Canadiens would no doubt protest him, and if he refused to play with Torontos, whose property he was, he would be suspended. The president, however, refused to counsel him what to do, and told him to suit himself, bearing in mind that he was Toronto’s property.

Wilson sat out and, indeed, never suited up for either Montreal or Toronto again: the following season he turned out for the Hamilton Tigers.

In Montreal in 1921, the game went sourly on without him. “There were many unparliamentary clashes,” the Star reported. The Mount Royal Arena’s natural ice deteriorated as the game continued, too. In the second interval, the Star’s reporter watched as “the men who were supposed to scoop the snow off the ice only got water for their pains, and when the third period began, the ice was like mud. When a man fell he got up sopping wet.”

It was in the second period that Forbes and Lalonde first sparred, though whether it was a high stick or a punch that the latter perpetrated isn’t clear. Press reports make no mention, either, of a collision between Forbes and Smeaton. “Lalonde was given a minor for charging Forbes,” is as much as we get from the Gazette, though with an interesting coda: “Lalonde was booed for his attack on the net custodian.” (Le Droit: “Lalonde was hissed when he jostled Forbes.”)

In Trent Frayne’s telling, the game ended 5-1 for Montreal, which wasn’t the case on this night. Lalonde did score Canadiens’ final goal, towards the end of the third, to complete a 4-0 Montreal win (and Georges Vézina shutout). As the Star had it, “Lalonde’s brilliant lone-handed shot finished the scoring.”

But if reporters present saw Lalonde score, none of them would seem to have noticed him spit his tobacco or laugh, and nor did they catch Forbes’ sputtering as he failed to foil him. That doesn’t mean that a spit-assisted goal isn’t part of hockey history which remains, after all, mostly a matter of the many moments, savoury or not, that go unrecorded.

Famous Five: Lined up from left, Newsy Lalonde, Lester Patrick, Odie Cleghorn, Frank Calder, and Cooper Smeaton, circa the … early 1930s? (Image: La Presse)

 

 

 

chairman of the boards

New York State of Play: A birthday today for Red Dutton, born on another Friday of this date, the one in 1897, in Russell, Manitoba. Dutton did it all in the NHL, captaining the Montreal Maroons as a stout defenceman before shifting to the New York Americans, for whom he was playing coach in 1930s and then caretaker owner as the team lurched towards its demise in the early ’40s. When NHL founding president Frank Calder died in 1943, Dutton stood in as interim boss, before Clarence Campbell took over the job. In 1950, he was appointed a Stanley Cup trustee. Pictured here on the Americans bench in 1940, Dutton was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. He turned his back, alter in life, on the hockey establishment, refusing for some 35 years to darken the door of an NHL arena. He died in 1987 at the age of 89.

locomotive at large

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.

Theme Park: Conacher and his legacy are commemorated in a midtown Toronto park.

(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

shut the front door: ottawa’s fireman was as fast as a flash

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. 

Flashman: An artist’s impression of Connell’s antics in a 1924 pre-season game against the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers. Note the pre-Kenesky pads, narrow, like cricket pads.

americans dream

Red Handed: New York Americans coach Red Dutton congratulates right winger Lorne Carr on the night of Tuesday, March 29, 1938, after their team beat the Chicago Black Hawks 3-1 at Madison Square Garden to take the opening game of their playoff semi-final. The Americans had sailed past the Rangers in the first round, but couldn’t keep up the momentum against the Black Hawks, losing the next two games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

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.

hooley hoorah

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.

old poisoneer

Goalgetter: I don’t know that Nels Stewart gets the credit he deserves as a goalscorer. He scored 34 in 36 games in his first year in the NHL, 1925-26, and a couple of years after that he put away 39 in 44 games. If there had been a trophy recognizing the NHL’s best rookie that first year, 23-year-old Stewart would have won it, but since there wasn’t, he made do with leading the league in scoring, collecting the Hart Trophy as MVP, and helping his Montreal Maroons win a Stanley Cup championship. Born in Montreal on a Monday of this same date in 1902, Stewart centred Babe Siebert and Hooley Smith on Montreal’s famous S Line through the ’20s. He won a second Hart in 1930. Later he skated for the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison bypassed Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart died in 1957 at the age of 54, so his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1962 came posthumously.

all the montreals

3Ms: Lining up, probably at the Forum, from the left, these are Maroons Reg Noble, Clint Benedict, and Dunc Munro, the Canadian Olympic star who was named the team’s first captain in November of 1924. This photograph probably does to the Maroons’ second season, given the sweaters that Noble and Munro are sporting: during their inaugural campaign, the sweater that Benedict has on is the one they wore, with “Montreal” across the chest.

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.

hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

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.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

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.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.

 

 

golden grad: in 1928, dave trottier was the most sought-after hockey player in the world

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.

A Trottier tale from the St. Moritz Olympics in February of 1928.

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.

Atop The Hockey World: A cartoon from October of 1928, a month before Trottier ended up signing for the Montreal Maroons.

 

smoke gets in your ice

Flash Frozen: Details are few on this magnificent archival image, but my guess is that’s Montreal Maroons forward Paul Runge we’re seeing posing here on picture day. His seven NHL seasons included campaigns with Boston and Canadiens along with two stints with Montreal’s long-lost other team. I’d venture that we’re looking at Runge’s second go-round with the team, when he was in his later 20s, 1936 to 1938, a period that includes the final Maroons’ season in the NHL before they suspended play for good. And the photographer at his camera, under his cloud of flash powder? He’s unidentified, too, as is  the photographer of the photographer and his subject. Update: @hockeytician suggests that the man in the hat is probably Montreal photographer James Rice. I think that’s probably right. (Image: Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)