when boston and toronto first met, 1933: leafs determined to win, despite severe handicaps

Ol’ Poisoned: The first time Maple Leafs and Bruins met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Toronto centreman Joe Primeau soldiered through (mostly) on a bad leg.

Fifteen times Toronto and Boston have met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and if you’re a Leafs’ enthusiast in need of historical solace while your team’s down two games to one this time out, take heart: your team has won eight of the first 14 series. (Psst, Bruins’ fans: Toronto’s last success was in 1959, with Boston winning all four match-ups since then.)

The first time Boston and Toronto clashed in the playoffs was in the spring of 1933, in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Dick Irvin’s Leafs were the defending champions that year, with a line-up that included Lorne Chabot in goal and King Clancy on defence, spearheaded by the powerful Kid Line upfront, with Joe Primeau centering Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson. Bruins’ coach Art Ross’s formidable team featured goaltender Tiny Thompson, defenceman Eddie Shore, and Nels Stewart and Dit Clapper up front.

The two teams had similar regular-seasons records that year, with the Bruins (25-15-8) having finished slightly better than the Leafs (24-18-6). The first two games at Boston’s Garden went to overtime, with the home team claiming the first of those 2-1 when Marty Barry broke the deadlock.

The story for Toronto — in the Toronto papers, at least — was just how beaten-up the Leafs were. Ace Bailey (dislocated shoulder) and Red Horner (broken hand) missed the opening game. And the team suffered more damage on the ice the night of Saturday, March 25. In the days before hockey injuries went shrouded in euphemism, the local broadsheets were only too pleased to itemize them. The Daily Star described Bill Thoms’ sprained thumb and Hal Cotton’s hurting hand, Charlie Sands’ sore hip, Ken Doraty’s aching back, and, for Primeau and Jackson, a matching set of “swollen and bruised ankles.” The Globe submitted its own infirmary report:

Conacher was cut in the lip. [Hap] Day had a large lump on his cheek from Barry’s stick and a cut on his nose. [Alex] Levinsky was cut across the nose. Jackson is limping today with a bruised hip and slightly wrenched knee, sustained in a collision with Shore. Clancy has a badly swollen thumb and a sore chest where a crosscheck left its mark. The others have minor scratches.

Not that the Leafs were looking for excuses; Globe sports editor Mike Rodden wanted to be sure that everyone was clear on that count. “Listing of the Toronto injuries is not an attempt to provide an alibi,” he wrote, “in the event of the team’s defeat. Accidents are part of the game, and the Leafs have more than their share of them, but they are not complaining.”

Ace Bailey and Red Horner both returned to the Leafly line-up for the second game, Tuesday night, March 28, the latter with a brace fitted to protect his tender hand. The Globe’s Bert Perry called this encounter “the hottest, heaviest, hardest hockey struggle ever played on Boston ice.” More important for the Leafs was the fact that they were able to beat the Bruins on Garden ice for the first time in four years. The tension was as thick as the pall — “for smoking,” as Perry wrote, “is allowed here.” After three goalless periods, Busher Jackson scored in overtime to send the teams north knotted at a game apiece. The series was best-of-five, it’s worth noting, and the remainder of the games would be played in Toronto.

Thursday night, March 30, when the teams met again, Maple Leaf Gardens had its largest crowd of the season, 13,128, on hand. Joe Primeau’s health hadn’t improved over the course of the week, with Mike Rodden reporting that while his “blood poisoning of the leg” probably should have kept him out of the line-up, it didn’t. His gallantry was cited as an inspiration to his teammates, though not decisively so: fans who stayed for overtime saw the Bruins’ best player, defenceman Eddie Shore, end it to give Boston the 2-1 win. Only then, afterwards, did Primeau head for Wellesley Hospital. “The best team on the night’s play skated off with the verdict,” The Daily Star confessed.

“Leafs Determined To Win Despite Severe Handicaps” was a subhead topping Bert Perry’s report ahead of the fourth game. Primeau was anxious, of course, to play, but the Leafs weren’t banking on getting him back. “The blood-poisoning has been checked to some extent,” Perry divulged, “but he is still in pain, and the swelling in his leg has not been entirely reduced.” Rookie Bill Thoms was slated to replace Primeau on the Leafs’ top line, though he was poorly, too, “with a large lump on his head where he had been struck with a stick,” along with an acute charley-horse that trainer Rube Bannister was tending.

Never fear, Perry wrote: “The Leafs, crippled badly, are far from downhearted.” A win would be fuelled mostly by nerve, he felt, “for no team has ever been so badly handicapped in a championship series as they are.”

Coach Irvin wasn’t a bit rattled. “Why worry about Saturday’s game,” he breezed. “Even had we won on Thursday night, we would have had to play it anyway, and win it, too, and I am convinced the Leafs are far from out of the running yet.”

In the end, Primeau remained in hospital, listening in with the rest of Canada to Foster Hewitt’s radio broadcast. What he heard was a crowd of 14,511 delighting in a 5-3 Leafs’ win powered by a pair of Charlie Sands’ goals. The Globedetailed new Leaf injuries, notably to Bob Gracie’s knee and King Clancy’s scalp — “minor incidents in the lives of this stout-hearted band of Maple Leafs.” Collectors of unreported concussions from the 1930s might want to note down that Clancy surely suffered one, hitting the ice with what the Starcalled “a resounding smack” before staggering off with a bleeding head. And (of course) he was “back again minutes later, full of fight but with his condition wobbly.”

Primeau was back in for the final game of the series on Monday night, April 3. (Clancy was, too.) The crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens this time was 14,539, a new record for the rink, though I can’t say how many of those fans stayed until the end. With neither team able to score in three periods of play, they again went to overtime, extending it famously this time, into a ninth period. The Leafs outshot Boston, with Tiny Thompson stopping 113 Leafs’ shots while Lorne Chabot turned away 93 of Boston’s.

The one that got away from Thompson came at twelve minutes to two on Tuesday morning, when Boston’s Eddie Shore made a mistake and the Leafs’ Ken Doraty scored. At 164 minutes and 46 second, the game was the longest in NHL history at the time, and kept that distinction for a whole three years, until the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons went longer in March of 1936.

The Leafs caught a special train out Tuesday morning an hour after they’d won, and they played the first game of the Stanley Cup finals that same evening in New York. The Rangers beat them 5-1 and carried on to win the Cup in four games.

Like Mike Rodden, I don’t mean to be offering alibis when I tally Toronto’s injuries. But I will pass on what the Star reported after that last elongated Boston game. Red Horner had so much bandaging on his bad hand that he couldn’t hold his stick properly, it was noted, while Baldy Cotton played with one of hishands rendered “almost useless.” Ace Bailey was wearing so much extra padding, meanwhile, on his wounded shoulder that he looked like “an overstuffed chesterfield.” Joe Primeau, everybody in Toronto agreed, should have been back in hospital, even though (of course) he wasn’t. He stayed on the bench for most of the night, finally making his first appearance on the ice well into overtime, as the clock ticked up towards midnight.

 

aurèle joliat: tiny, but hockey star

The anniversary last week of the death of Aurèle Joliat might elsewhere have triggered an impassioned rant highlighting the outrage and injustice associated with the little left winger’s absence from the list the NHL published earlier this year of its 100 best all-time players. Not here. That’s not to dispute that when Joliat died at 84 on June 2, 1986, hockey lost the greatest of its left wingers — official puckstruck.com policy, in fact, agrees that it did. The case for Joliat’s greatness, a solid one, is buttressed by the resumé the man whose name was often anglicized to Aurel built skating (mostly) alongside Howie Morenz: it includes the three Stanley Cups he helped Canadiens win, his Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1934, all those goals, his elevation to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, & etcetera.

But we’re not going to get into that here. Today, we’ll focus instead on two other important matters relating to Joliat’s 16-year NHL career: his weight and his hat.

If once the Ottawa-born winger towered over Montreal Canadiens’ history, he was never what you’d call an imposing physical specimen. Check in with today’s standard reference sites — hockeyreference.com or nhl.com — and you’ll find Joliat listed as standing 5’7” and displacing 136 pounds. That’s small — slight, even. During his playing days, The Mighty Atom was a nickname he bore, and you’ll find many contemporary newspaper accounts in which he appears as Montreal’s “mite wingman.”

“Probably the tiniest player in the National League,” the Detroit Free Press tagged him in 1934, as ridiculous an insult to Roy Worters (5’3”/135 lbs.) as you’re going to see today, but never mind. Eddie Gerard played with Joliat in Ottawa before both men graduated to stardom in the NHL. “If he should walk into this room now,” he testified in 1932, “the last thing you’d take him for would be a hockey player, with his thin, pale face and frail body.”

“I don’t believe even with his hockey togs on he weighs 145 pounds.”

It’s not unusual to see the weights of hockey players bandied at length in newspaper accounts from the early decades of the 20th century. Makes sense — in an age before TV, with radio broadcasting still in its infancy, fans who weren’t seeing games live and in person relied on prose descriptions of play and players far more than we do today.

Still, even in that context, Joliat’s weight seems to have been oddly, ongoingly, in focus. Not only that: the way it fluctuated in the press seems to suggest that at least one prominent newspaper kept bathroom scales at the Montreal Forum in order to monitor his mass.

Watching Joliat play in the spring of 1924, PCHA President Frank Patrick sized him at 155 pounds. That’s as high a number as I’ve ever seen quoted. By 1929, Charles Grafton of Detroit’s Free Press had him down to 135 in a feature that bore this helpful subhead:

Joliat One Of The Light Men Who Overcomes Weight Handicap By Fast Thinking

By 1930, he’d lost a bit more newspaper poundage: “weighs only 130 pounds,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Joliat and his teammate Johnny Gagnon, Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin advised in 1931, “weigh only 136 and 139 pounds respectively.” Another year, another headline, this time from a 1932 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Joliat’s 138 Pounds Are Very Deceptive if You Don’t Know Hockey

Up and down went the newspaper scales as the decade moved on. “Weighs only 135 pounds,” said Dunkirk, New York’s Evening Observer in 1933. “Probably the smallest player in the circuit at 133 pounds” (Detroit Free Press, 1934). “Weighs only 135 pounds” (Chicago Tribune, 1935). “Weighs only 130 pounds” (NEA, 1938).

The Evening News, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, weighs in, 1935.

Joliat was 37 when he retired in the spring of 1938. As the hockey season neared that fall, he professed he didn’t know what was next for him. “My plans are indefinite,” he said as September struck, still holed up at his vacation camp in the Gatineau hills. “I will be in Montreal Monday, when I may decide what to do.”

He ran a grocery store, eventually, in Montreal’s west end, and thought about opening a night club (but didn’t). After a few years, he’d return to NHL ice as a linesman. Later still, he worked as a ticket agent at Ottawa’s train station.

In 1941, when he gave up the store, he announced a new plan: he was thinking of taking up as a ski instructor. He told a reporter that he’d lost eight pounds in just the previous month, and his reasoning was that the outdoor life at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians might help to restore his health. He was down to 129 pounds. “If I kept losing weight like that,” he said, “in another year, there wouldn’t be anything of me left.”

•••

“Colourful Canadien,” Montreal’s Gazette headlined him, the day after his death in 1986. His final numbers? “Five-foot-six and 135 pounds at his heaviest.” His stature, readers learned, had been an on-ice asset. “He used his small size to his advantage, stickhandling around large defencemen and tucking the puck between their legs.”

Also? “Mr. Joliat became famous for wearing a tuque while playing.”

That was wrong, of course, and still is. A tuque. Joliat’s hat was in fact — well, take your pick of comtemporary descriptions, which range from “a black peaked-hat” and “his old baseball cap” to “a polo cap” and “the blue peaked cap that has become a landmark around the circuit” to “that tight-fitting piece of headgear with its sombre visor.”

There’s some suggestion that he wore it to cover up a bald-spot, though nothing conclusive: it may just have been habit. Rivals quickly learned how to knock Joliat off his game.

“The players of other teams made it a point to aim for that cap,” Harold Burr wrote in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1932.

Punch Broadbent, now with the Canadian Flying Corps, reached perfection at the trick. All he had to do was skate close to Joliat, nudge upward with his elbow and the cap would fall to the ice.

It didn’t matter if Joliat had possession of the puck. He would always let it go, stoop down and replace his cap. But he has discovered a way this Winter to circumvent his tormenters. He doesn’t wear the cap any more.

This was big news across the NHL. “The enemy players stared when Aurel was seen without his black cap,” John Kieran wrote in The New York Times.

Jack Carveth of Detroit’s Free Press had a different explanation for Joliat’s stowing of the cap: it was all about curing a scoring slump.

I’m not so sure about that, though: Joliat scored Montreal’s only goal in the first game of the season that 1931 November with his hat in place. Canadiens then went to Toronto, where Joliat, now bareheaded, again scored the team’s lone goal. He counted three hatless assists in a 5-2 win over the Montreal Maroons, and scored against Boston in his team’s next game, too. I can’t say whether he’d put the cap back on by then or not, just that he did go back to it at some point. He replaced it with a helmet for a few games in 1937 after hurting his head in a fall, but otherwise the remaining years of his NHL career were hatted.

In February of 1934, he played his 500th game, and before the puck dropped to set Canadiens and Maroons going, there was a ceremony at centre Forum ice. NHL President Frank Calder was there, along with other dignitaries. Canadian Press:

Referee Mike Rodden of Toronto summoned Joliat with a wave of his hand, and the mighty atom, who is playing his 12th season with Canadiens, pulled his black cap over his eyes and skated over to receive a beautiful loving cup presented by his teammates, and a handsome chest of silver and a golf bag, tributes of his many friends and admirers among the fans.

 

the almost leafs

The Toronto St. Patricks team up in 1926-27, the season they turned into the Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: coach (short-lived) Mike Rodden, unknown. Middle: Bert McCaffrey, Ace Bailey, Bill Brydge, Danny Cox, coach and manager Charlie Querrie, John Ross Roach, Butch Keeling, trainer Tim Daly, unknown. Front: Bill Carson, Carl Voss, Hap Day, Bert Corbeau, Corb Denneny, Leo Bourgeault.

you naturally hope it can turn things around: a field guide to hiring and firing boston coaches

Rodden + Patrick 1935 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boards Meeting: Boston coach Frank Patrick, at his command post on the Bruin bench, confers with referee Mike Rodden at the Garden, c. 1935. This was still a time before coaches patrolled behind the bench and their players; mostly, they sat alongside them. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.

Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.

“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”

Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).

Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.

While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).

That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”

After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.

“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”

The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.

Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”

Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.

“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”

So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.

“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”

ross-cooney-version-2

He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.

Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.

Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.

Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.

Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”

Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet,  owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”

Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.

Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.

“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”

I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.

“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”

Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”

When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”

Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.

“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.

Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”

Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”

“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”

Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”

“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”

Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”

Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.

That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Continue reading

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

naming rights, naming wrongs: brownies, montreals, defenders of the realm

mtl-24

Maroons-To-Be: The Montreals, 1924-25

Vegas Golden Knights is the name of the NHL’s newest franchise, as you know if you watched the big unveiling live this week from Toshiba Plaza, out in front of T-Mobile Arena, in hockey’s new Nevada home. Rumours of what the team might be called had been tumbleweeding around the internet for months. Nighthawks maybe? Desert or perhaps Silver Knights? Sand Knights, possibly? The announcement came with accents of fire and ice and, in keeping with hockey tradition, a crowd that booed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who smiled his tight smile.

So. Las Golden Knights of Vegas. No — sorry: lose the Las. Vegas Golden Knights™ is what it is, as per official NHL pronouncements the following day. Team colours? Black, gold, steel gray, white, and red. Seems like a lot, but fine. “Our base colour, in my mind, really exudes strength,” the GK GM George McPhee is seen to say in a promotional video, referring (I think) to the gold. Team owner Bill Foley was the one to explain the thinking behind the name: “We selected ‘Knights’ because knights are the defenders of the realm and protect those who cannot defend themselves. They are the elite warrior class.”

How did these medievals make it from the realm over to the Sagebrush State? I’d hoped Foley would go on to that. That’s the story I’m waiting to hear. I’m sure it’s coming. Maybe in time for next June’s expansion draft?

In the meantime, let’s look back to an earlier NHL expansion. It was, after all, at this time of year in 1924 that another new NHL team announced its name, even as another did not.

The league grew by 50 per cent that fall, with Boston and a second Montreal team joining a loop that already included Canadiens, Ottawa’s Senators, the Toronto St. Patricks, and Hamilton’s Tigers.

Expansion had, it’s true, been brewing for a while — for the full story, I recommend Andrew Ross’ Joining The Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945 (2015). Still, compared to today’s process, the whole thing looks hasty if not altogether last-minute: with the new season slated to start at the end of November, news of the new franchises didn’t appear in the press until mid-October. In 1924, Boston and Montreal each paid $15,000 to join in the fun, which amounts to something like $200,000 in modern dollars; Foley’s franchise fee sends the NHL $500-million.

In Boston, owner Charles F. Adams, the grocery-store tycoon, had hired wily old Art Ross to manage his hockey operation ahead of the team’s debut, December 1, at home to Montreal’s not-Canadiens. If the names of the initial Bruins players Ross gathered didn’t exactly soak into hockey history, men like Bobby Rowe and Alf Skinner and goaltender Hec Fowler were doughty veterans, and there was some young talented blood, too, in Carson Cooper and Werner Schnarr. Most of the players met up with Ross in Montreal. Together they took the train south to their new hockey home.

Friday, November 14, they arrived. They checked in at the Putnam Hotel on Huntington Avenue, walking distance to the Boston Arena, where manager George Brown had starting making new ice a day earlier: hockey was coming, yes, but public skating was opening for the season, too, Saturday morning at nine o’clock. He’d had to reduce the size of the ice surface to bring it into line with NHL norms, but in doing so, the Arena also gained 1,000 new seats for paying customers.

The hockey players had a hotel and a rink, and they got a name and colours in time for the weekend.

The Boston Daily Globe laid it all out for prospective fans. Uniforms would be brown with gold stripes around the chest, sleeves, the stockings. “The figure of a bear will be worn below the name Boston on the chest.” Yes, brown. That was, after all, the Adams hue in all things:

The pro magnate’s four thoroughbreds are brown; his 50 stores are brown; his Guernsey cows are of the same color; brown is the predominating color among his Durco pigs on his Framingham estate, and the Rhode Island hens are brown, although Pres Adams wouldn’t say whether or not the eggs they lay are of a brown color.

Bruins was the name Adams and Ross had agreed on, having considered and discarded Browns. The worry there: “… the manager feared that the Brownie construction that might be applied to the team would savor too much of kid stuff.”

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Was it Art Ross’ secretary who came up with the name? That’s what Brian Macfarlane says in The Bruins (1999), drawing on (I’m guessing) a few terse newspaper accounts from the late 1960s — I can’t find any earlier source. So Bessie Moss from Montreal, the story goes, was Ross’ assistant, handling the mail before he headed south, and once she heard that the team would be clad in brown suggested Bruins. Could be. Why not? The name wasn’t unknown at the time in U.S. sports, it’s worth noting: in college sports, it’s the Brown’s Bears were widely known as the Bruins, as were baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

Saturday the hockey team practiced for the first time. “I appreciate the fact,” said Ross, “that we don’t have too much time to get ready, and I’ll have to work fast with the amateurs.” The word from the rink over the course of the next ten days was that Ross was driving his men at a terrific pace and that no team that has made Boston its headquarters has ever been sent through such vigorous workouts. Ross had two players for every position other than goal, a correspondent for The Boston Daily Globe advised. “This double shift of men in good condition means hockey of the thrilling type.”

Thanksgiving night the new team lined up for its first and only pre-season game against the Saskatoon Sheiks of the Western Canadian Hockey League. A formidable professional crew, they’d just beaten the world-champion Canadiens twice in three exhibition games in southern Ontario. Manager Newsy Lalonde also played on the defence, and he had former NHLers Harry Cameron, Corb Denneny, as well as future stars Bill and Bun Cook skating for him, along with George Hainsworth in goal.

There were lots of possible reasons why only 5,000 spectators showed up. It was a holiday, and football season hadn’t quite wrapped up, and nobody knew the hockey players who’d just arrived. “Thrills were almost lacking,” was The Boston Daily Globe’s verdict on what an unfull house witnessed on Arena ice, “the crowd becoming enthusiastic only over an occasional clever stop by a goaltend.”

Sheiks won, 2-1, on a Bill Cook winner set up by Lalonde. The home team might have had a second goal, but referee Lou March rescinded it:

Late in the first period a mix-up in front of the Sheiks’ goal heaped half-a-dozen players on the ice, and when the tangle was straightened out by referee Marsh, the puck was in the net. Saskatoon, with two men serving out penalties on the side-lines, had five men on the ice.

Furthermore, there was an extra puck on the playing surface.

Marsh could not find the explanation, so he reduced the Sheiks by one and disallowed the goal.

On to the regular season. For their first NHL game, the Bruins faced Montreal’s newest team, known mostly in those infant months as “the new Montreal team.” Under the managerial eye of Cecil Hart, they’d been getting themselves up to seasonal speed in Montreal and Ottawa. Clint Benedict was the goaltender; notable skaters included Punch Broadbent and Canadian Olympic star Dunc Munro. Continue reading

twas a close squeeze

1932

Hard to say what’s going on with the puck in this imaginatively enhanced German photo-illustration of Canada’s first meeting with the United States at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. If the teams did indeed play the game batting about the lid of a teapot, it’s not something the newspapers noticed. What we do know is that this was the opening outing of Canada’s least-dominant Olympics up to that point, even if they did — spoiler alert — end up grabbing gold.

It was the Winnipeg Hockey Club representing Canada that year, the Allan Cup champions, and despite what you see above, they (a) wore regular shinpads and socks and (b) affected plain old red maple leaves on their sweaters, no  exoskeleton needed. Going into these III Winter Olympics, Canadians back home wondered whether the Winnipegs were worthy representatives. Could they get the job done? The team was considered weak, writes Andrew Podnieks in Canada’s Olympic Hockey Teams (1997), not to mention lacking in lustre. I don’t know that it’s fair to say that the country suffered a national sinking feeling as the team rode east out of Manitoba on Canadian National’s Continental Limited flyer, but neither am I ruling it out.

Against the U.S., the Winnipegs may have been thrown off by the fact that the game was played outdoors. Goalie Bill Cockburn had sun glaring in his eyes, and the team in general was (said The Globe) “as nervous as an amateur theatrical troupe on ‘the big night.’” Also, did I mention that the rink was disconcertingly small?

Canada was not only “sluggish” for the first two periods, but “wobbly.” In the second, the Americans scooped up a wild Canadian pass in front of Cockburn and … scored.

That woke up the Winnipeggers. Time to step it up. In the third, as The Globe told the tale,

Franklin Farrell, the United States goaler, was on his knees most of the time batting away shots with his elbows and his hands.

Hack Simpson finally beat him. In overtime, despite taking two penalties, the Canadians prevailed when Vic Lindquist drove at the net, fell, collided with Farrell and, somehow, shoved the the lid of the teapot into the net. “Twas a close squeeze,” Globe sports editor Mike Rodden exhaled next morning.

Now’s not the time, probably, to get down on the Winnipegs for what happened next. With an eye to selling tickets, the Americans had organized a series of exhibition games throughout the Olympics, which is how Canada played and lost to the team from McGill University next day. Canadian management attached no importance to the game but still, a loss is a loss.

Next, back to the fight for gold, came Germany. They insisted on succumbing by a mere 4-1. This was just getting silly. Four years earlier, Canadians had been winning games by scores of 33-0 and 19-2. The Winnipegs did record a restorative 9-0 drubbing of the Poles next, and that must have calmed some nerves. The Germans got the message, sort of, losing 5-0 when the teams met for a second time. Next day, when it was Poland’s turn again, the Winnipegs patiently re-drubbed them 10-0.

Which was better. More Canadian, certainly. In the final, the Winnipegs faced the United States again. Twice the Americans had the audacity to take the lead and twice — “a little shaken by the unexpected turn of events,” as The Globe reported — Canada was forced to tie it up. That’s how the game ended, 2-2, which was just enough to give Canada the gold, on points, even as the country considered the disturbing shift in Olympic hockey that we’ve been struggling with ever since: other teams, from other countries, seemed like they wanted to win gold just as much as we did.