The early months of 1955 were tumultuous ones for the Montreal Canadiens. In March, as the regular season was winding to an end, Maurice Richard’s suspension roiled the team and, soon enough, the city of Montreal. The Canadiens did get to the finals that spring, but without the Rocket they fell to the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. That was in April. To start May, the news from Montreal was that after 15 seasons and three Cup championships, coach Dick Irvin was moving out and on, to Chicago, where he hoped to resurrect the Black Hawks.
There was plenty of speculation in Montreal, of course, on the matter of who might take Irvin’s place. Canadiens Managing Director Frank Selke was quick to rule out a couple of candidates with experience on the Montreal blueline: Ken Reardon, who was already ensconced in the organization’s front office, was thought to be a GM-in-waiting, while Butch Bouchard still hoped to play another season or two. Former Leaf great Charlie Conacher had experience coaching in Chicago, and when he was seen chatting with Selke, the rumour was quick to spread that he was the man. Another defenceman on the Canadiens roster, Tom Johnson, told a reporter that while he’d heard the names of former Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy and Toe Blake bandied about, he didn’t think either man would end up in the job: he suspected the new man would be a Quebecer. So maybe Roger Léger, yet another former Canadien (and one more defender), who was coach of Shawinigan in the Quebec league? Billy Reay was mentioned, too, though he was from Winnipeg, an erstwhile Canadien now coaching the Victoria Cougars in the WHL.
By the end May, Maurice Richard was weighing in. No disrespect to his old teammates Léger and Reay, but the Rocket felt — or knew — that it would be his former linemate, Blake, who should be taking charge. “I think Blake is the best of the three men, as he can handle men both on and off the ice,” Richard told reporters on a visit to Timmins, Ontario, to receive an award. “He should get the job over Reay or Léger, although they both have done good jobs.”
Blake, who was 42 that spring, and a son of Coniston, Ontario, which is now p[art of Sudbury, had been coaching previously in Montreal’s farm system, notably with the Valleyfield Braves of Quebec’s Senior League. As predicted by the Rocket, he was appointed to the job of Canadiens coach 11 days later, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955.
“I am stepping into a big pair of shoes in taking over from Dick Irvin,” Blake said told the press that day. “I have always considered him the best in the league, and with the help of Mr. Selke and Mr. Reardon and the players, we will continue to keep Canadiens hockey name on top. The team won’t let the fans down. I am not going to promise the Stanley Cup, but we will continue as a great fighting club.”
Blake’s first game in charge came that October, when Montreal beat Toronto 2-0 in the opening game of the 1955-56 season. The Stanley Cup that Blake’s Canadiens won the following spring was the first of five in a row, of course, as Blake steered Montreal to eight championships in the 13 years he remained at the helm before retiring in 1968 and handing over to Claude Ruel.
(Image, from the late 1960s: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
It was on a Saturday, 21 years ago today, that Maurice Richard died at Montreal’s Hôtel Dieu Hospital at the age of 78. “When he’s worked up,” long-time Canadiens GM Frank Selke once said, “his eyes gleam like headlights. Not a glow, but a piercing intensity. Goalies have said he’s like a motorcar coming on you at night. He is terrifying. He is the greatest hockey player that ever lived. I can contradict myself by saying that 10 or 15 do the mechanics of play better. But it’s results that count. Others play well, build up, eventually get a goal. He is like a flash of lightning. It’s a fine summer day, suddenly.”
(Image: “Maurice Richard et deux jeunes enfants, vers 1957,” Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94, Ed-33A)
The redoubtable Gump Worsley was part of four Stanley Cup-winning teams with Montreal in the 1960s. The first championship he was in on came at the start of May in 1965, when he shared the net with Charlie Hodge through a seven-game series against the Chicago Black Hawks. Worsley got the call for the game that decided it at the Forum on May 1 of ’65, and he didn’t disappoint — unless you’re thinking of Chicago fans and their beloved Black Hawks themselves, who were thwarted to the tune of 4-0.
Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1929, Worsley would commemorate his career in They Call Me Gump, the entertaining 1975 memoir he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid. “Nothing has ever matched the thrill,” they wrote therein of climbing the championship heights in ’65. “The first Cup victory is always the biggest moment in a hockey player’s life.”
Worsley recalled shaking hands with the Black Hawks after that final game at the Forum, and thinking how grateful he was that he’d persevered through tough times in the early days of his career to make it to this point.
“Then I thought about drinking. I’d been good for about eight weeks, laying off the hard stuff while I was on a diet. Now it was time to forget that damn diet.”
Somebody handed him a bottle of champagne as he arrived in the team’s dressing room, and Worsley shared that with Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson.
Then, next, came what we’re seeing pictured here: “I telephoned my kids and parents. They’d always prayed I would be on a Cup winner, and now that I’d made it they were having a party too.”
(Worsley doesn’t, in the book, mention getting Maurice Richard’s congratulations, or kicking back for his regular post-game smoke.)
“Well,” he does write, “the champagne really hit me hard. I must have been out of shape. Because when we got to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel for a victory party, I was sick as hell. So I switched to drinking poor man’s rye.”
“My hangover the next day was worth the price. How many times do you get a chance to celebrate your first Cup victory? Once.”
(Images: Michel Gravel, La Presse, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
Later, Clarence Campbell was asked what he would have done differently if he’d known a riot was in the offing. “I wasn’t frightened, if that’s what you mean,” was his response. “I think, in the interest of everybody, if I had known what was going to happen, the thing then to have done would have been to call the whole thing off.” As it was, let history show that on a Thursday of this date in 1955, Montreal’s game against the Detroit Red Wings went ahead a day after the NHL president suspended Canadiens’ superstar Maurice Richard for the end of the regular season and the playoffs to follow.
During the first period, unhappy Habs fans accosted Campbell in his Forum seat, yelling insults and bombarding him with (as Montreal GM Frank Selke remembered) According to Frank Selke: “bad fruit, eggs, and bags full of water.” Worse followed: Andre Robinson, 21, Rue St. Henri squeezed a tomato over Campbell’s head. (He was charged with assault.) Another young bravo held out his hand for a shake: when Campbell extended his hand, he got a slap in the face. At about that same time, someone tossed what Montreal police later described as “a U.S. Army type tear-gas bomb.” The Toronto Daily Star reported: “Campbell, after being punched in the face, was buried under an avalanche of rubbers, peanuts, programs, eggs, tomatoes, and pennies.” The Forum organist played “My Heart Cries For You.”
The game was called off soon after that, forfeited to Detroit, who’d been leading 4-1.
Recalling his service as a soldier with the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Campbell said, “I’ve seen lots of panics, but never anything like this.” Soon enough, of course, the riot spilled out into the streets of Montreal. Cars burned, looters sacked stores.
“Let us hope the outside world has been sufficiently distracted by the H-bomb and the Yalta papers, during the last couple of weeks,” the Star’s editorial page opined next day from Toronto, “to keep it from taking a close look at Canada. Otherwise the idea might have got abroad that this is a nation of hicks and hooligans.”
It was 25 years ago, on a Monday of this date in 1996, that Montreal’s Canadiens took a final turn on the ice of the famous Forum. They beat the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1, for the record, though the game itself was truly the undercard for the pre- and post-game ceremonies by which Canadiens bade farewell to the arena that was their home for 72 years and some 3,500 games. A crowd of former Canadiens was on hand that night, including 20 Hall-of-Famers. Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau were on hand for the game’s ceremonial opening face-off, and when Maurice Richard joined them at centre ice, the crowd stood and cheered for ten glorious minutes.
I was there that night, high up at the north end, Section 601, with the overflow press, near where they used to keep the ghosts. I won’t say that I was there under false pretenses, though it’s true that I may have stretched those same pretenses to accommodate my powerful need to witness and distill the history unfolding … I mean, Émile Bouchard was out there on the ice, for Gump Worsley’s sake — and of course Gump was there, too. Both Butches Bouchard, in fact, father and son!! Mahovliches, major and minor! Lach and Reardon and Moore, Henri Richard, Savard and Lapointe, Ferguson, Shutt, Dryden, Cournoyer! It was unbelievable.
I was freelancing for The Financial Post in those years, reporting for the paper’s arts section from several non-fiscal sectors — that is, I wrote book and movie reviews, travel features. The Post didn’t need me covering a hockey game, even a historic one, but I was able to convince my editor that the auction on the day after that Forum finale was enough of a business story to demand my presence. The Canadiens didn’t mind accommodating me — or if they did, they didn’t mention it. (The feature I filed is here.)
Ezra Soiferman was at the Forum that night, too, and he was toiling harder than I was. It may be that we passed one another in the halls as the old arena’s time as the home of the Habs expired; it’s possible. A Montreal filmmaker and photographer, he attended the game as a guest of Forum anthem-singer André Ouellet.
Soiferman took some 250 images as he wandered the arena that night. It wasn’t until 2016 that he collected some of them into a book, which he published privately to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Canadiens’ departure for the Molson (now Bell) Centre. Other than the cover image, below, and a photo of a Guy Lafleur greeting Ouellet, there’s nary a hockey player in it: this particular album is filled with last glimpses of fans and ushers, custodians and purveyors of chiens chauds, security guards, corridors, stairwells, seats, doorways, escalators, grey girders, and — yes — urinals. It’s an odd, honest, altogether charming chronicle of a venerable old arena on one night at the end of an era.
First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.
Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.
This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.
He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.
But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.
This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.
Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.
The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?
There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:
The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.
Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.
Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.
Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.
Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.
His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.
On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.
Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.
You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.
Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)
Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.
Gaye Stewart was a stripling left winger of 18 when the Toronto Maple Leafs called him up to aid in their effort, in the spring of 1942, to supersede the Detroit Red Wings and win the Stanley Cup. Together they duly did that, which is how Stewart became the first NHLer to win a Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, a distinction he would come to share, subsequently, with Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, and Danny Grant.
Stewart, a son of Fort William, Ontario, died at the age of 87 on a Thursday of this date in 2010. In his first full season as a Leaf, 1942-43, the 24 goals and 47 points he scored were enough to secure him the votes to take the Calder. Second on the ballot was Montreal defenceman Glen Harmon, followed by Boston centre Don Gallinger; Detroit blueliner Cully Simon; and another Bruin, 17-year-old left winger Bep Guidolin. (That season was, notably, Maurice Richard’s first in the league, too; he didn’t rate in the top five.)
Following his breakout year, Stewart put a pause on his NHL career to serve two years in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, before returning to the Leafs in 1945. In 1947, he helped the team win another Stanley Cup. What else? He was a First Team All-Star in 1946, the same year he scored 37 goals to lead the league — the last Maple Leaf to do so. In his latter NHL years, Stewart played for Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Montreal.
The building was in a bedlam the moment the red light flashed. The crowd stood up, clapping hands and roaring acclaim. Programs were showered don on the ice. The Rocket’s teammates on the bench dropped sticks and gloves and stood up an applauded. The organ played “Il A Gagne Ses Epaulettes.” The Rocket himself leaped high in the air and landed on Jean Béliveau, who had fed him the pass that set up the goal.
* Dink Carroll, The Gazette, October 21, 1957
It was on a Saturday of this date in 1957 that Maurice Richard became the first player in NHL history to score 500 goals. The Chicago Black Hawks were in at the Montreal Forum that night, and the rink was packed with 14, 405 fans, as the biggest — and most expectant — crowd of the young season awaited the Rocket’s record-breaking goal.
Fifteen minutes and 52 seconds into the first period was when Dickie Moore passed to Béliveau’s at the side of the Chicago net and he found Richard in the slot, about 15 feet out. The Rocket beat Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall with a slapshot; Carroll said it whizzed. Once the bedlam subsided, Montreal went on to beat Chicago 3-1.
“That mark of 500 threatens to stand up as long as the Babe’s record of 60 home runs in a single season,” Carroll would venture in his Gazettedispatch. Ruth’s monument was, by then, 30 years old, and had another four years to run before Roger Maris got around to hitting his 61. Carroll was just a little off: Gordie Howe scored his 500th NHL in March of 1962, just over six months after Maris did his record-breaking deed.
Still, Richard was first, and for that — and because he was the Rocket, and this was Montreal — one of his rewards was to be immortalized in wax. This was later, 1965, when Tussaud’s Ville Marie Wax Museum opened at the downtown corner of Ste. Catherine West and Drummond, 12 blocks or so from the Forum. Glenn Hall was rewarded, too, as a supporting actor, though for him it may have felt more like penance, all the more so if he ever saw the display, above, as it would later appear to paying customers.
Richard himself dropped by the Museum before it opened to check himself out. He’d donated the uniform and skates his doppelganger; I don’t know where Hall’s gear came from. Fashioned in London from photographs by Josephine Tussaud, a descendant of the original Madame, waxy Richard got some final adjustments before meeting the public. Joining him and Hall in the museum were scenes featuring an array of the faux and famous, including Abraham Lincoln (at his assassination), Jesus (partaking of the Last Supper), Joan of Arc (at the stake), and Brigitte Bardot (just out of the shower).