the steaks of ’72: everybody suspected sabotage

 If a Canadian hockey player could be said to have a security blanket, that’s what it would look like: his wife, a thick steak, and a cold Canadian beer.

• John U. Bacon, The Greatest Comeback: How Team Canada Fought Back, Took the Summit Series, and Reinvented Hockey (2022)

In Canada, all that matters is this: we won.

It was 50 years ago this September gone by that the best of our hockey best beat the Soviets in Moscow in the final and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series. It could have gone either way, as the sportscasters say: a last-minute goal by Paul Henderson was the difference. No-one could call it a glorious goal. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a snow-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than the stick that Henderson actually brandished.

Doesn’t matter. Canadians know now, as they always have, why their team won: hockey is ours + Canadian heart (almost) always trumps foreign guile and/or finesse + in the battle between our way of life versus theirs, no contest + Henderson, in Moscow that week, nobody was going to stop that guy.

And yet. In the flurry of last month’s 50th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting a fundamental fuel of Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: the Soviets never should have messed with our chow.

The facts are … well, as we’ll discuss, they’re not easy to piece together. The gist: travelling to Moscow for the latter half of the Summit Series, along with sticks and skates, Team Canada shipped in a supply of steaks and beers to sustain its effort. The Soviets, cruelly, looted the lot — or a lot of the lot. The whole caper was quickly filed into the annals of Cold War history, to the extent that in a 1974 history, KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents, it huddles under the umbrella of intelligence operations that are “so petty and crude that they require no elaborate preparation.”

“The KGB harassed Canadian team members,” John Barron writes there, “by disrupting their pregame naps with anonymous phone calls and  absconding with most of the 300 pounds of steaks they brought along.”

In Canada over the years — this year, too — the story the steaks (and beers) of ’72 has mostly faded into the fabric. It hasn’t been forgotten, exactly: it remains well woven into the legend of that momentous September, a prandial whodunit that’s been standard fare in the many histories and memoirs that have been published over the years, including the several new books out this fall. Mostly now, though, it’s referenced in passing, as shorthand for the odds that were stacked against Team Canada and all the adversity that they heroically overcame.

It’s been a decade since I first wrote about the alimentary aspects of the ’72 Summit Series, with a special focus on the beef and the beer that Team Canada shipped over to the Soviet Union that long-ago September, along with the mystery surrounding the supposed theft/illicit butchery/black marketeering of said provisions. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed investigating the alleged scandal by way of newspaper archives and player memoirs. Taking the temperature therein, it wasn’t hard to piece together something like a hypothesis proposing that Canada’s heroic on-ice triumph in Moscow was as much a product of hungry outrage as it was hockey prowess.

I was, in this, mostly poking fun. Ten years on, I still am, and it’s in that spirit that I’m here to report further findings on the steaks of ’72. I will just add, as a not entirely fun aside, that in all this it’s also possible to perceive a pattern writ in Canadian paranoia and xenophobia. There was no shortage of that on offer all those years ago, whether or not we in Canada choose to recall it now.

We don’t, mostly. With an exception or two, the sour sides of the Summit haven’t really featured in the month-long anniversary retrospective we’re just coming out of in Canada. That’s not surprising. Who wants to talk about those bad-tempered in-between exhibition games in Sweden or the slash that Bobby Clarke laid on Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle when you can celebrate the way that Vancouver’s derision cemented Team Canada’s resolve or the Moscow concussion that Paul Henderson played through on his way to scoring all those decisive goals? What counts, in Canada, still: we won.

•••

For as long as Canadian hockey teams have been going overseas, they’ve lugged along their own personal meat supply. I don’t actually know whether that’s true; it sounds like it should be. I can say that when the East York Lyndhursts went to Sweden to contest the 1954 world championships, they were (per The Ottawa Citizen) “armed with a fighting spirit and a supply of vitamin pills.” That was the year that the USSR announced itself on hockey’s international stage, grabbing gold from Canada’s clutches. The captain of that team, of course, was Vsevolod Bobrov, coach of the ’72 Summit Soviets.

When, the following year in West Germany, the Penticton Vs reclaimed the world title on Canada’s behalf, they did so with an infusion of B.C. milk: when the Okanagan dairy cooperative learned that the Vs were losing weight abroad because they wouldn’t drink unpasteurized German milk, they arranged to fly in a daily supply to nurture the players.

Canadian teams would continue to brave their way into Europe, despite the hazards of foreign supper tables. The Trail Smoke Eaters may have navigated to gold in 1961 in Switzerland, but on the way there they were also severely flustered in Czechoslovakia to find eggs floating in their otherwise delicious asparagus soup.

Steaks of ’58: The Whitby Dunlops powered to gold in Oslo with the help of homegrown steaks.

Like Penticton before them, the 1958 Whitby Dunlops had a plan to avoid the uncertainties of unfamiliar menus, one that formed the foundation of what Team Canada did when it went to Moscow 14 years later. Frank Bonello was the key figure in both cases.

In ’58, he was a centreman for the Dunlops. His day-job, outside of hockey, was as a salesman for Canada Packers, the Toronto-based meat-packing and processing company. The Dunlops spent nine weeks touring Europe that year before they got to Oslo for the world tournament, and by the time they did, Bonello had arranged to augment the Norwegian menu available to the players — lots of “fish and meatballs with rich sauces,” as he later recalled it. “Nice food, you know, except it wasn’t the type of thing which an athlete wants the day of a game.”

He made some calls and Canada Packers answered them, flying in 150 steaks to aid in the team’s effort, enough to feed the players before each game, including the gold-medal final in which they beat the Soviets 4-2. “Everybody,” Bonello said, “felt more at home.”

In 1972, Bonello was still in hockey, as GM of the OHA’s Toronto Marlboros (he went on to become the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting). He was still in, well, meat, too, at Canada Packers. That August, as Team Canada prepared to launch into the Summit Series, he read that organizer Alan Eagleson had concerns about the food that the players would be getting in Moscow. Bonello had a connection, and didn’t hesitate to call in: Canadian coach Harry Sinden had been a Whitby teammate — captain of the team, in fact — back when Canadian protein had yielded gold in Oslo.

So it was that Team Canada ordered up 300 New York-cut steaks for delivery to Moscow. In Toronto that August, Sinden and assistant coach John Ferguson stopped in to Canada Packers for a visit. “I was going to call Frank anyway,” Sinden said, “but he called me first. I remembered those great steaks we had in Oslo. They were beautiful.”

Meat ‘N’ Greet: In August of 1972, Team Canada coaches Harry Sinden (right) and John Ferguson stopped by Canada Packers in Toronto to visit with Sinden’s old Whitby Dunlop teammate, Frank Bonello (left).

And so a small corner of a foreign kitchen would feature, temporarily at least, familiar fare, grain-fed-in-Canada. But it wasn’t only steaks heading for Moscow. To wash them down, Hockey Canada secured a consignment of Labatt’s beer as well as, from Finland, a supply of milk.

Team Canada even lugged its own drinking water to Moscow, for use “in both hotel rooms and on the bench,” Montreal’s Gazette reported. “It’s natural spring water supplied by Canada Dry, and it comes from Caledon Hills, north of Toronto.”

Faithful Frank Bonello also chipped in three cases of Dial soap. “I understand their soap isn’t so good,” he said that August. “They use rough-type fats in making it, and it hasn’t a pleasant odor.”

The steaks were, we know, to be packed in dry ice and flown in for a September 20 Moscow arrival. That was a Wednesday, the same day Team Canada would be getting in from Sweden and checking into the Intourist Hotel; the Summit would resume Friday with Game 5. This timing is laid out in an External Affairs cable from Ottawa sent by Patrick Reid, the External Affairs official drafted in to oversee many of the diplomatic, political, logistical, and PR aspects of the series. It’s from this document (reproduced below) that we have a measure of the meat in question.

When it comes to trying to audit the foodstuffs of ’72, this is the only official documentation that I’ve come across. Everything else — and there’s almost as much on the steaks of ‘’72 as on the stakes — is anecdotal. Memories have faded, over the years, hearsay and impression have congealed into accepted truth. That means it’s impossible to determine, at this distance, just how much pilfering of Canadian supplies took place in Moscow, if any.

Even while we know that Team Canada was brimming with groceries when it arrived in Moscow, we don’t really have a good grip on specific quantities — beyond “total meat weight of 270 lbs,” I mean. That’s fairly straightforward.

In 2012, talking to Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, Alan Eagleson inflates the count to “800 to 900 steaks.” Usually, though, going back to Frank Bonello and the original press reports of August, ’72, the number cited is 300. If that was the guess, that would mean … a whole mess of hefty 14-ounce steaks.

Possible, I guess. Liquidly, lacking anything like an official bill of lading, we can look to a dispatch from Colin McCullough, the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in the Soviet capital, who on September 20 wrote about the Intourist’s manager (“a short dark man with a gold tooth”), learning that the hotel’s refrigerators had plenty of room “for the steaks and 200 litres of Finnish milk” that would be arriving with Team Canada.

Also in 2012, Eagleson offered up a bar tab: “We brought over our own beer — 500 cases.”  Phil Esposito’s 2003 autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, has Team Canada arriving in Moscow with “350 cases of beer, 350 cases of milk, and 350 cases of soda.”

The beer was Labatt’s, who happened to be a big-time sponsor of the tournament. Company president W.F. Read said he was only too happy to support the team “by making Canadian beer available in Russia for use on the dining table.”

“It will also come in handy,” he added, “for the toasts at the conclusion of what has been one of the most exciting series ever played.”

If we err on the side of Esposito’s 350 cases, that’s — hold on: Team Canada had 8,400 beers for nine days in Moscow?

We’re talking here about a contingent of, say, 50 guys, players, staff, officials. That’s an allowance of 168 bottles for every man, or about 18.6 for each of the nine days they were in Moscow.

A few extenuating circumstances to consider: on September 20th, for instance, we know that the team didn’t land until 8 p.m., which doesn’t leave a lot of time to down 18.6 beers. And what about the four disgruntled players who decided in the first few days that they were heading back home? I’m going to assume that Vic Hadfield, Gilbert Perreault, and the others who quit the team in Moscow didn’t take their fair share of beers or steaks back home with them — as much fun as it is to imagine that they might have.

In 1973, Paul Henderson told a magazine interviewer that the beer “disappeared.” After the fifth game, testified Rod Gilbert. About 100 cases, Brad Park swore. Assuming that the players downed half their daily ration before this heist, the quick math —

8,400 total bottles of beer to begin
minus 930 (consumed September 20)
minus 930 (consumed September 21)
minus 465 (consumed pre-game September 22)
minus 2,400 (stolen by Soviets September 22)
= 3,675 surviving beers

— means that with 6 days left to go in Moscow, the team was down to 73.5 beers per man, which translates to an austerity ration of no more than 12.25 bottles each per day.

You can see how that would upset a man.

As for the investigation, I don’t know that it was all that thorough.

Patrick Reid looked back on his long diplomatic career in a 1995 memoir, Wild Colonial Boy, but his Summit memories include no Moscow heists.

Gary Smith was second secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in 1972 and as such, a key cog in the organization of the Summit. He has a memoir of all that out this fall, Ice War Diplomat, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of insight into the fate of Canada’s beer. “No one knows for sure what happened to it,” he writes. “The embassy had lots of backups, though — just not Labatt’s.”

The players, certainly, were in no doubt that they’d been robbed. Year after year, in interviews and autobiographies, they’ve pointed the finger again and again.

Vic Hadfield, diarizing in 1974: “There must be a lot of thieves in Moscow. We brought our own beef with us — a lot of steaks — and they’ve been stolen. So has the Canadian beer, which we had shipped here. Everybody suspects sabotage.”

“They can have our steaks,” Peter Mahovlich said, slipping into the historical present in in 1992, “but they can’t take away our beer.”

Don Awrey, in 2000: “They stole our steaks and our beer.”

Rod Gilbert, in 2002: “They stole our food and our beer. Can you beat that? Stealing our beer!”

Wayne Cashman, also in 2002: “When someone stole our beer, that really pissed us off.”

To read the 1972 memoirs is to feel a remarkable heat of angry disgust, not just at the harassment to which the players felt they were subjected, but to the general Moscowness of the place.

The buses were late, is what Ron Ellis remembers in Over The Boards (2002). Vic Hadfield formed his impression before he bailed out (and I quote, from Vic Hadfield’s Diary From Moscow To The Play-offs, published in 1974): “Uuggh.”

A gray place, said Frank Mahovlich. The only good thing about the whole entire country, according to Paul Henderson, was the circus. Otherwise? “Just terrible,” he thought. “Everything’s so dull — even the people. There’s no life to it.”

Fiery Phil Esposito felt that, given a gun, he would have had no problem shooting the KGB minders who kept watch on the Canadians as they commuted between hotel and the rink. “I hated Russian society … so much,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I would have killed those sons of bitches on the bus.”

All this from the victors. Can you imagine how dark things might have gotten if these guys had lost?

A month after Team Canada returned from Moscow, Henderson was still hot about — well, several things, including Soviet vanity and the heist of Canada’s victuals. “If you listen to them, they invented wine, rum, and vodka,” he told a reporter in October. “They have the world’s best beef, the tallest buildings, and the freshest vegetables. If they have the best beef, how come they stole the 300 steaks we brought with us? We brought over our own beer and that disappeared, too. And we took for granted our rooms were bugged.”

Goaltender Ed Johnston later revealed that “a lot” of the steaks “never made it through customs.”

Esposito also seemed to think that the thieving happened either at the airport or on the way to the hotel: according to him, only “half” of the beer + milk + soda + “steaks and other food” made it to the Intourist. He was also hearing rumours that the Canadian embassy might have been in on the filching. “But I can’t believe that. I believe the Russians stole it. They had nothing over there. And besides, what could we do about it? Nothing.”

Esposito remembered well the regular Intourist menu. “One time,” he wrote, “they served us crow. Blackbird, they called it.” Also: bear steaks. “They were tough but they weren’t bad. We ate horse steaks. Wasn’t bad. It was lean. We didn’t tell the girls [i.e. their wives] what we were eating.”

Paul Henderson believed that the hotel kitchen was the scene of the crime. “The Russian chefs soon ended up selling them,” he wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012).

In an earlier memoir, Shooting For Glory (1997), he was more specific: “The Russian cooks sold the steaks to others in search of a decent meal, many of whom turned out to be our zany Canadian fans. For about ten dollars U.S. you could get just about anything you wanted, including those precious steaks! The only two Russian dishes that were acceptable to me were borscht and chicken Kiev. The rest was just terrible.”

Scott Morrison has a new history, 1972: The Series That Changed Hockey Forever, and in it he quotes Rod Seiling.

“I was back to Moscow a number of years ago,” said Seiling. “I was sitting at table and we got talking about 1972 and our beer disappearing, our steaks being cut in half, and I’m sitting at a table with this gentleman and he says, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s all true — I was selling it on the black market.’”

Morrison talked to some of the former Soviet players, too, including Alexander Yakushev and Vladislav Tretiak, and got their take on the alleged “provocations,” which included theories that someone Soviet was bugging Canadian rooms at the Intourist and (as Yakushev puts it) that “someone ate their meat and drank their beer.”

“Well,” Tretiak offered, “the meat part might be true, but not bugging through chandeliers. Who would listen? And for what purpose?”

I should say that we do have sightings in the wild (as it were) of Canada’s (allegedly) purloined steaks.

The Toronto Star’s Trent Frayne traveled with the team from Stockholm on Wednesday the 20th, and he was in on the “surprise” awaiting players, team officials, and newspapermen when they got to the Intourist:

An area of the main dining room had been set aside where dinner consisted of steak, French-fried potatoes, canned peas and a lettuce-and-tomato salad.

And a Russian combo, including two trombones, a trumpet and an electric guitar, played such haunting old favourites as the theme from Love Story and Moon River.

Those could have been local equine or ursine cuts, I suppose. If so, Ken Dryden had no qualms about them, writing inFace-Off At The Summit (1973) that the steaks the team enjoyed that first night were excellent. Coach Sinden: “They were prepared well.”

Thursday night Dryden was back to tell his diary: “After dinner — another steak — we went to see the Moscow Circus.”

Friday, Ted Blackman of the Gazette caught Canada’s players at unhappy post-game repose after their 5-4 Game 5 loss.

“Those bastards should have been in Siberia at the end of the second period,” [Paul] Henderson was saying back at the Intourist Hotel where Team Canada’s puzzled personnel sat sullenly over post-game steaks with wives who dared not speak. “We had them beaten, had them off stride, and we were pulling away. Siberia, that’s where they were headed. Then we let ’em off the hook.”

According to Dryden, the real problem was that after a few days — “the great initial burst of big steaks” — the cuts began to shrink. Also, incidentally, Team Canada’s cola was missing, causing the goalie to suffer a “Coke fit” one day after practice.

“If I had been smart,” Dryden wrote in that Moscow diary of his, on which Mark Mulvoy from Sports Illustrated earned a primary assist, “I would have done what all the other guys did: they bought extra luggage packs at the Stockholm airport and filled them with six-packs of Coke and something called Joly Cola from Denmark.”

There was supposed be an entire suite at the hotel filled with Cokes — room 1774 — but as Dryden learned, that was just a rumour. “There will be Cokes for the players after the game tonight, though,” he noted on September 22. “Come to think of it, that’s a heck of an incentive to get into the starting line-up.”

For all their suffering, the players’ lot was better than what their wives had to endure. Eggs that were black and green! Fish-eyes soup! “I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served,” Dryden wrote in his original Moscow memoir. “In fact, Lynda and some other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.”

According to Brad Park, this was where the Soviets really screwed up: “they pissed off our wives” with disrespect and “disgusting food.”

“The last thing you ever want to do is shit on the wife of a Canadian hockey player,” Park disclosed in his 2012 memoir, Straight Shooter, “because she is going to make sure that her man is pissed off when he plays.”

Alan Eagleson had yet another version, one that he laid out for Jim Prime in his 2012 book How Hockey Explains Canada.

“We brought steaks over from Canada and they were confiscated,” Eagleson charged, “but not until we won a game, which goes to show how the heat was turned up as the series went on.”

Games 6 was Sunday, September 24. “Ken Dryden had a great game,” Eagleson recalled. “We won 3-2 after having lost the first 5-4 in Moscow. We got there in a roundabout way, but they confiscated our steaks. At that point the Russians thought, Geez, maybe this is not a shoe-in They still thought they’d win, but they made life miserable, starting right then.”

The veins of confusion about the fate of the Canadian meat continue to marble the Summit narratives: they’d do a choice cut of Wagyu proud.

It’s not as though the passage of years has clarified things, either.

Despite what Harry Sinden jotted down in the moment for Hockey Showdown, by 2016 he had a new version of events. The coach was on a nostalgia tour that year with a handful of his players, talking ’72 again to audiences across Canada. I caught the show in Toronto and in the Q&A session stood up to ask the question that was on everybody’s mind: what happened to the meat?

“Well,” the coach was quick to explain, 44 years later, “I don’t think you can outright say it was stolen, it just never showed up. We had it shipped from Canada to Finland, then from there, over to Moscow. That’s how we did it. And the shipments — especially the steak, because in those days, players were eating steak, prior to a game — the steaks never made it. They — for some reason, they were shipped, supposed to be delivered to our hotel. When the time came, they didn’t have them. So, obviously that story grows and grows and grows. That, you know, the kitchen staff stole them, and they made hamburger out of them. It didn’t happen. We were fine. We survived.”

Six years later, Sinden had come up with a new new angle.

Writing The Greatest Comeback, a thorough accounting of the Summit out this month, John U. Bacon had the support and cooperation of many of the veterans of Team Canada, though he goes out of his way to make clear that it’s not an “official” history: he maintained his independence. His foodie findings are presented with authority, if not detailed sources. “At least 100 of their 300 steaks, and the entire supply of Labatt’s were gone,” he writes, “probably sold on the black market, where it would fetch good money.”

“Somehow half our steaks disappeared,” was Sinden’s revised take, according to Bacon. “The hotel staff probably had a feast and made a fortune. The food we ate was horrible. They gave us peaches that were about as big as a marble. It was no way to get ready for some of the biggest games ever played.”

In Ken Dryden’s new book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now, he basically repudiates what he and Mark Mulvoy committed to the page, steakwise, 49 years ago.

Now, as part of a cataloguing of the many distractions and discombobulating strangenesses Team Canada encountered in Moscow, there’s this:

Our breakfasts were buffets of cold cuts, smoked fish, white cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and chocolate-coloured bread that was hard and not chocolate. Our pre-game meals, our steaks that had been brought from home and had somehow “disappeared” into Moscow air, steaks that had always made us feel strong and ready, instead were tough, random-sized, random-shaped hunks of meat.

1973-Ken Dryden, let’s recall, is on the record as having quite enjoyed the steaks Team Canada were served early on. The problem, as detailed in an entry from the diary he (and/or Mulvoy) jotted down for September 24, was one of diminishment rather than disappearance:

The quality of our meals has gone down. The great initial burst of big steaks has become a retreat to mini-steaks. We never get Cokes, though they are talked about all the time. But I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served. In fact, Lynda and some of the other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.

That jibes with what Frank Mahovlich has recalled, pretty well annually, including in Andrew Podnieks’ Team Canada 1972: The Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summit Series (2012), in which he rounded on the chefs working the Intourist kitchen. “They cut them in half, so we only had half a steak. So we complained. Before the third game, they cut the thickness in half. We complained again. It wasn’t until the last game that we finally got a whole steak.”

Now we may be getting somewhere —  which is to say, as close to the truth of the matter as we may ever get. Could it be that the steaks were bureaucratically butchered rather than actually stolen?

Back to Gary Smith from the embassy. In 2012, he said that he was on the case in ’72. I had to look into the case of the stolen steaks,” he told Patrick White. “I think it was likely some guy involved with the hotel, rather than someone thinking the Canadians wouldn’t be able to play without their steaks.”

In Ice War Diplomat, his updated view combines a reasonable explanation with an unexpectedly specific indictment of the hospitality industry worldwide:

After the first night’s steak dinner for the Canadian players in their hotel, some extremely large steaks disappeared from the refrigerators and were replaced by cuts half their size. Apparently, this wasn’t part of a nefarious Soviet plot but the result of a Canadian staffer telling the hotel chefs that portions had to be reduced to ensure the supply lasted until the end of the series. After some hungry players complained, the full-size steaks returned. No doubt there may also have been some pilfering of quality meat, as often happens in hotels around the world.

Whatever actually happened, I guess maybe the bottom line — and the final word? — is that Team Canada believed that they and their appetites were wronged. Did that motivate them more than they would have been otherwise motivated? Impossible to say.

I’ll leave the last word to Harry Sinden, in Hockey Showdown. He knew what it was to win a well-fed world championship with Whitby in Oslo, after all, and he was convinced he and his team went without in ’72.

On September 28, ahead of the Summit’s last and decisive game, he convened a team meeting to talk about the power play. Or — no: he and his assistant John Ferguson just wanted to make sure that everybody understood just how quickly the team planned to get the hell out of town after the game. Then the players went for their naps. Then, with victory waiting just a few hours in the future, suppertime.

“We should have had 100 steaks left for our pre-game meal,” Sinden writes, “but the Russians somehow misplaced them. They claim it was poor Canadian arithmetic. In this country four times 50 is 300. We thought it was 200. So the kitchen staff here at the Intourist Hotel will have a few steak dinners on us in the next few weeks. I hope they choke on it like their team did on the ice tonight.”

le voilà, le gros bill

A Boost From Gros Bill: Born in 1931 in Trois-Rivières on the last day of August (it was another Monday), the incomparable Jean Béliveau. He was 38 in 1970, the year before he helped the Montreal Canadiens win another Stanley Cup, his tenth as a player. Like certain milk cartons, he was tough, strong, and durable, but after that ’71 Cup, Béliveau called quits on his 20-year NHL career.

surrendered to the storm king: snowbound with the 1924 ottawa senators

Polar Express: Not, in fact, the CN train that the Ottawa Senators got stuck on in February of 1924. Not even a 1924 train, in fact: this reasonable facsimile of the Ottawa train is a 1927 CN locomotive from Saskatchewan. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

The people came early and they came eager, six thousand of them, maybe more, packing the Mount Royal Arena to its frigid rafters. Mostly they were men, as I suppose, men in neckties and overcoats — and hats. In 1924, that’s who mostly went to midweek hockey games in Montreal — men, wearing their hats and their 1924 moustaches. It’s hard not to dream this whole scene in black-and-white, as shadowy-plain and slightly sped-up as stuttery 1924 newsreel, but of course it was all in colour. I’m not actually all that certain just how universal the moustaches were — the moustaches, I confess, are largely speculative, no matter how clearly they’re formed up in my imagination.

The band played. The people waited. The ice — it must have been hard to see the ice so blank and empty for solong without leaping the boards for a dash across. Eight o’clock came and went, and half-past. The music was brassy and jolly and wafted in the hazy evening air of the rink, coalesced, coiled, rose to the rafters and condensed with the smoke and the smells and the chatter of men, all the nattering men, up there in the rafters, which it warmed, along with the adventurous boys who had climbed into these same rafters. That’s largely guesswork, too, much of that last part, in particular regarding the rising and warming properties of the music, if not the boys in the rafters — contemporary newspaper accounts do mention the boys and their audacious climbing.

It was a Wednesday in February in Montreal: that we know. February 20, 1924 was the factual date of this waiting and alleged wafting. Some of the names of some of the waiters from that night we know. There was a Joliat, a Vézina, a pair of Cleghorns, a Morenz. None of them was in the rafters, of course. They were all in the home team’s dressing room, wearing skates, red sweaters, no moustaches. I’ve just checked again, and it’s confirmed: the 1923-24 Montreal Canadiens iced an entirely unmoustached line-up.

Aurèle Joliat was possibly hatted, which is to say capped: he often was, in those years, when he worked the wing for Montreal. Sprague was one of the most dangerously violent hockey players in history, as you probably know; his brother Odie, was a singular stickhandler. In 1924, Howie Morenz was a 21-year-old rookie, while Georges Vézina was 37, with just two more years to live before his death in 1926 from tuberculosis. I’m sorry to cite that, even all these years later. Leo Dandurand was the coach of the Canadiens that year. I’m thinking of him propping the dressing-room door open so that the team could better hear the band and whatever 1924 songs they were playing — “Rose Marie,” maybe, or the “Pizzicato Polka,” maybe “Rhapsody in Blue?”

That February night in Montreal, the hockey players and their coach, all the people from the rafters on down, the brave band — they all waited together to see whether the reigning Stanley Cup champions would be showing up, or not, to play some hockey.

Spoiler alert: not.

In a time of nationwide rail disruptions, as snow falls and winds swirl across 2020 central Canada, let’s mark what followed and what did betide back in the NHL’s 1923-24 season, the league’s sixth, when winter played its part in shaping the schedule.

Ninety-six years ago, there were only four teams in the NHL mix, as opposed to today’s 31, three of them — Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton — rooted in Ontario, while the other, Montreal, was at home in Quebec. The regular season, then, saw teams play 24 games apiece, starting in mid-December, wrapping up in early March.

The weather took its toll early on. With Ottawa opening its new Auditorium that year, at the corner of Argyle Avenue at O’Connor Street, Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena was the only NHL rink still to be relying on natural ice. Having held their training camp in Grimsby, Ontario, the Canadiens returned home to an unseasonably warm December. With no ice to play on, they scrambled to take their early-season home games on the road. That worked in some cases, but not all, and just before Christmas, the scarcity of ice saw them postpone their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. Team officials calculated the loss of revenue for that game at $5,000 — about $74,000 in nowadays money.

Winter eventually took hold, and the Arena got its ice. In February, with the hockey season in full fling, the weather intervened again.

In back-to-back games to begin the month, Ottawa had lost to Montreal 1-0 on the road and overturned them 4-0 at home. As they prepared to face them again towards the end of the month, Ottawa (as happens in hockey) was missing key players in defenceman Georges Boucher, recovering from a knee injury, and star centreman and captain Frank Nighbor, who was out with a bad wrist.

Still, they were in fairly good shape as the season wound down. Only the top two teams would play for the NHL championship come March, with the winner carrying on to vie against the best team from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

With a fortnight left in the regular-season, with five games to play for each team, the defending Stanley Cup champions from the nation’s capital were riding atop the standings, with Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks eight points adrift, four points up on the lagging Hamilton Tigers.

Wednesday they were due to meet the Canadiens in Montreal. As happens in Canadian Februarys, a blizzard that had concealed western Ontario on the Tuesday was on the move east. Newspapers would tell the tale over the course of the next few days. Snow that fell across the province to a depth of 30 centimetres was whipped by 80-kilometre-an-hour winds that didn’t relent for 24 hours, making for the worst blizzard to hit Ontario since 1905. Six trains were stuck on the tracks between Toronto and Hamilton; Owen Sound was cut off. Toronto’s streetcars were stopped in their tracks, and most of its taxis. Two thousand telephones were knocked out of commission.

“The large army of the city’s unemployed saved the city’s bacon,” the Montreal Gazette contended, “and 6,000 of them — all that could be rounded up were turned loose with shovels to open the streets. It is estimated that the storm will cost the city $100,000 merely on [the] snow shovelling account.” (That’s close to $1.4-million in 2020 dollars.)

Capital-City Champs: The 1923 Stanley Cup winners, a year before they ended up stuck in the snow. Posed in the back row, left to right, are team president Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Petie Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, Harry Helman.

Ottawa’s hockey team had, originally, been scheduled to depart for Montreal on Wednesday’s 3.30 p.m. Canadian National express. Normally, that would have seen them into Montreal’s Windsor Station by 6.30, with plenty of time to spare before any puck dropped at the rink up at the corner of St. Urbain and Mount Royal. With the weather worsening, Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman rounded up his players to get out early, catching the noon train from Ottawa’s Union Station, across from the Chateau Laurier, where the Senate of Canada is now temporarily housed.

That earlier train should have delivered the hockey players to Montreal by 3.30 p.m. As it was, the CN express was late arriving from Pembroke, so didn’t depart Ottawa until 1.30. It didn’t get far — at Hurdman, just across the Ottawa River, the train and its cargo of hockey players were delayed waiting for a railway snowplow to lead the way east down the track.

Farther along the river, at Rockland, a frozen water-tank precipitated another stop. The journey continued, but not for long: just past Hawkesbury, with nearly 100 kilometres or so still to go, a plow from Montreal stalled on the westbound tracks, blocking both the Ottawa express it was leading and the progress of the eastbound trains.

Passengers from both trains joined railway crewmen to clear the way, but it was no use, the snow and the wind behind it were too much. “The snowdrifts blew back on the tracks as fast as they could be removed,” Ottawa papers recounted the next day. Conveniently for them, they had a man on the scene, a former Citizen sports editor, no less: Ottawa GM Tommy Gorman himself, who would somehow manage to file his crisis copy in time to make the Citizen’s Thursday front page.

It was 5 p.m. when the train was stopped. Senators who took up shovels were Cy Denneny, who’d end up leading the league in scoring that year, and his fellow forward Jack Darragh, along with defenceman Frank (a.k.a. King) Clancy — future Hall of Famers, all three — and Ottawa’s trainer, Cosey Dolan.

In vain. “The battle against the elements was hopeless from the start and after two hours work,” continued Gorman’s lusty telling, “a complete surrender to the storm king had to be admitted.”

It was bad news for all the crew and passengers. For the hockey players trying to get to the rink on time, there was the additional concern of not being able to get word to Montreal. It was impossible: the nearest telephone was 10 or 11 kilometres away, and many of the lines were down anyway.

Snowbound, the passengers and crew, hockey-playing and non, waited, and waited some more.

Along with the weather, the hockey players were enveloped by both humour and pathos. That’s from Gorman’s Citizen dispatch, too, though I kind of wish I’d thought of it.

The Senators shared their carriage with a bridal party from Ottawa. “The little bride stood the first part of the journey with smiles, but finally curled up and passed the night in one corner of the coach, with confetti and paper streamers scattered around the car.”

They also had the Honourable Arthur Cardin with them, the Liberal MP for Richelieu who was serving in Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. He was reported to be in a good mood throughout the evening’s ordeal.

Also aboard was a new mother travelling from Pembroke on the way to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital with her baby. This is pathos portion of the program, now — and the pay-off coming up right behind it, too. We don’t know the name of the mother, or of her child, just that the latter was on the bottle and, at a certain point, the former ran out of milk for her. Or him. The dining car couldn’t help — their dairy situation was no better.

Never fear: Conductor Dion of the CNR faithfully volunteered to venture out into the blizzard to see what he could find. The train crew, Gorman attests, were great (Roadmaster Munroe gets a shout-out, too, though no first name). Once more, Clancy and Denneny stepped up, insisting on joining the mission. Gorman’s account tells that remarkable tale while also leaving us wanting so much more:

… they tramped nearly a mile in snow up to their waists before they reached a farm house and got the resident out of his slumbers. He readily turned over his available supply, and in less than an hour the party were back at the train with a supply of milk that brought gladness to the heart of the distracted mother. Denneny fell down a well during his travels and had to be hauled out, and both he and Clancy were all in when they returned.

It was two-thirty in the morning by the time the track was cleared sufficiently for the Ottawa express to start out … back west, towards Ottawa. Three o’clock had struck by the time the rescued train made Hawkesbury, where it paused again.

As might be expected for the middle of a wintry night, the local restaurants were all closed. That didn’t keep foraging parties from setting out. “Canadian National Railway officials confiscated a big box of bread, intended for a local firm, and turned it over to the dining car staff,” Gorman wrote. The hockey players had successes of their own: “Frank Clancy landed back after their raid on the town with a can of soda crackers under his arm and [defenceman] Spiff Campbell succeeded in rounding up butter and eggs.”

By four a.m. the travellers were once again on their way east. They arrived in Montreal at 8.30. Fourteen hours after departing home, the Senators, Gorman tells us, “were hustled over to the Windsor Hotel and the players tumbled into their beds with instructions that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

Wednesday night’s crowd at Mount Royal Arena had been patient. When word began to pass that the Senators hadn’t reached the rink, the fans settled in for the wait. “It was a good humoured gathering,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the rooters in the east and west end sections making full use of every possible incident to create entertainment to pass away the time, while the band performed valiantly, one selection following one another [sic] in quick succession as the musicians did their bit to fill the gap.”

After an hour, some of the fans, a restless few, left the rink, though most stayed on. A line-up grew outside the box office as fans went looking for refunds.

At 10 o’clock, with no further word of where the Senators might be, Montreal coach Leo Dandurand stood up alongside the presiding referee, Art Ross, to declare that the game would be postponed until Thursday night. Hold on to your ticket stubs, Dandurand mentioned in passing, they’ll be honoured then. The Gazette:

Spectators who did find themselves in a dilemma were those who threw away their stubs, and not a few were seen late in the evening frantically searching around the chairs for the lost coupons.

Thursday night, Ottawa was still shorthanded, dressing just nine players for the rescheduled game. George Boucher was back, but not Frank Nighbor. With Boucher and Lionel Hitchman taking care of defending goaltender Clint Benedict, Clancy shifted to centre.

The rink was, again, jammed to its 1924 rafters. “Little sympathy was shown the Senators by the crowd for the hardships they experience Wednesday,” the Gazette noted, “and when they took the ice last night they were greeted with good-natured boos.” All in all, the waylaid visitors performed as if they’d spent a night in a snowdrift after having fallen down a well: “Ottawa was never in the picture.”

Maybe, too, were they confident enough in their lead in the standings to allow themselves a night of letting up and coasting? The Gazette considered the possibility. “At any rate the Ottawas gave the impression of not being interested in the tussle. The forwards, barring King Clancy, lacked their customary aggressiveness; Hitchman played carelessly and even Benedict was off colour. Canadiens’ third goal was practically a gift from the Ottawa goalkeeper.”

Montreal captain Sprague Cleghorn scored that one, his second of the game, to increase a lead that Aurèle Joliat had given Canadiens. There were no more goals after the first period, and 3-0 for Montreal was how the game ended. The natural ice got stickier as time went on: “players from both teams found difficulty in keeping their feet and frequently overskated the puck.”

Two nights later, back home again, Ottawa beat the Canadiens 1-0 on a goal by Punch Broadbent. But while the Senators held on to their lead in the standings, they couldn’t turn their seasonal dominance into playoff success. In March, when the two teams ended up facing off for the NHL title in a home-and-home series, it was Montreal who came out on top, winning both games.

The Canadiens went on to meet the Calgary Tigers in the Stanley Cup Finals later on that month, sweeping both of the games they played towards the end of March. Winter wasn’t quite finished having its say that year: due to poor ice at the Mount Royal Arena, the Tigers and Canadiens caught the train to Ottawa, where they played the conclusive game of the 1924 season at the Auditorium.

Plow Now: A railway snowplow also not exactly related to the ordeal of the Ottawa Senators, but even unplaced, undated, illustrative all the same, no? (Image: Alexander Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-138699)