alcoholic drinks? the best they can do is ruin your health

Tabletop: Red Wings defenceman Black Jack Stewart catches up on the day’s news in the Detroit dressing room during a rubdown from team trainer Honey Walker, circa 1946.

When Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. I’ll let Stewart tell you where he got his nickname:

I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.

He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings of the tale, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the Hall of hockey’s fame, to which he was inducted in 1964. His online bio there also includes the words: complete packagerock-solid, poise, work ethicexcellent staminabrute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He played a dozen NHL seasons in all, the first ten for Detroit, then the final two for the Chicago Black Hawks, where he was the captain. He won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings; three times he was a First Team All-Star.

Best-Dressed: Stewart featured in a three-page fashion spread in the February, 1948 edition of Sport magazine. “In picking out the leisure wardrobe he is wearing on these pages,” readers were advised, “Jack looked for about the same things most men want in their Winter garments. He kept his eyes open warmth, comfort, and up-to-date styling.”

He never argued with referees. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s. People remembered his bodychecks in Detroit for years after he was gone: when Howie Young played there a decade later, they said he hits almost as hard as Black Jack Stewart. Stewart’s philosophy? He said this:

A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.

Some dates: born in 1917, died 1983, on a Wednesday of this date, when he was 66. The love he had of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. He went back home to work on the farm in the off-season when he was in the NHL. Later, after he’d hung up his skates, when he was making a living as a salesman for a Detroit lithograph firm, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association.

He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up in Detroit in the later ’40s, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said, looking back:

He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.

There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone who knew from trying said. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins: so he said himself. Something else Stewart said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.

Here’s a story, from ’48, about another Red Wing rookie, the great Red Kelly, who was in his first year in the NHL, a 20-year-old fledgling. That January, driving in downtown Detroit, Kelly made an illegal left turn and hit a car belonging to one John A. Watson. Summoned to traffic court, Kelly appeared before Judge John D. Watts with his teammate Stewart standing by him to argue his defence.

Kelly’s license, it turned out, was Canadian, as was his insurance. Convicted for the improper turn, Judge Watts gave him a suspended sentence and told him to pay $52 in damages to Watson.

“You had better get another attorney before you go to jail,” the magistrate was reported to have told Kelly regarding Stewart’s courtroom efforts. “This man sounds more like a prosecutor.”

Watts did ask Stewart to make sure that his teammate paid the damages and secured a Michigan license. “I’ll see that he does both,” Stewart is said to have promised, “if I have to break his neck.”

The proceedings came to jocular end. “I fine you two goals,” Judge Watts told Kelly, (laughingly, according the Detroit Free Press), “and you’d better deliver them tonight or I’ll have you back in court tomorrow.”

Stepping Out: Stewart’s wool overcoat (with zip-out lining) would have set you back $55 in 1948. His imported capeskin gloves? A mere $7.

Detroit did dispense with the New York Rangers at the Olympia that night, by a score of 6-0, but Kelly wasn’t on the scoresheet. The team, the Free Press noted, “left for Canada shortly after the game.”

Alertness on face-offs was, to Stewart, a cardinal rule. That’s what he said in 1949, when he and his fellow All-Stars were asked to share their hockey insights.

When it came to off-ice conditioning, Stewart said he tried to go walking as much as he could. “I eat foods,” he added, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.”

Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday,” Black Jack Stewart said.

and the band played paree

It was on a Sunday of this date in 1939 that the Boston Bruins upended the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 3-1 at Boston Garden to win their second Stanley Cup, with Roy Conacher scored the winning goal to wrap up the best-of-seven series 4 to 1. “The scenes following the sounding of the final bell almost beggar description,” Victor Jones wrote in his dispatch for the Boston Globe. “Conny Smythe hopped the dasher and ran over to congratulate Arthur H. Ross, while the players shook hands all around, firecrackers rent the air, fans screamed and shouted, while the band broke in to ‘Paree.’” NHL president Frank Calder presented the Cup to Ross, who handed it to captain Cooney Weiland. “The trophy was lugged off to the Bruins’ dressing room,” Jones went on, “where Sam Simon, the Garden concessionaire, lost no time in filling it and refilling it and refilling it with the finest vintage champagne.” This image of that night doesn’t catch any of that, unfortunately. Standing from left to right are goaltender Frank Brimsek, Jack Crawford, Eddie Shore, and (on the other side) Jack Portland, and Ray Getliffe. Arrayed in front, from the right, are Conacher, Mel Hill, Charlie Sands, Cooney Weiland, Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, and Bill Cowley. Down in front that’s a single-skated Milt Schmidt alongside Gord Pettinger and Flash Hollett.

(Top image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

happy birthday, milt schmidt

Doc Zone: Born in Kitchener, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1918, Milt Schmidt centred the Boston Bruins’ famous Kraut Line — captained the team, of course, too, and ended up as the coach, eventually. He was 98 when he died in January of 2017. Here, numbered 15, circa 1940 in the Boston Garden dressing room, he’s alongside a one-skated Eddie Shore and the Bruins’ long-time physician, a bespatted Dr. Martin Crotty. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

come on, teeder

Born in Port Colborne, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1925, Ted Kennedy (you can call him Teeder) was never not a Toronto Maple Leaf — that is, he played all 14 of his NHL seasons in Toronto, eight of which he served as Leaf captain. He died in 2009 at the age of 83. He and Leaf goaltender Turk Broda were the first NHLers to win five Stanley Cups, which gets us to the photograph on display here. It dates to 1951, the year of Kennedy’s last Cup, the one that Toronto’s Bill Barilko decided when he scored in overtime to vanquish Montreal in the fifth game of the finals. Kennedy’s face was battered before that, in the first round of the playoffs, wherein Toronto dismissed Boston’s surly Bruins in a series that lasted six games — though only five of them counted.

Boston had opened the series with a Wednesday-night 2-0 win at Maple Leaf Gardens. The teams skated out again in Toronto on the Saturday, March 31. Tied 1-1 at the end of regulation time, the teams played a scoreless period of overtime before witching hour struck at 11.45 p.m. Just before midnight, with the teams still deadlocked at ones, they ran smack into prim Toronto’s Sunday curfew, meaning no more hockey — game over.

The plan at that early point in the series was to play an eighth game, if needed. It wasn’t: Toronto would win four straight after that to advance.

Interestingly, while the game was wiped from the record books, its statistics weren’t. Among other things, that means that the third-last goal that Barilko scored before his death later in the year was duly counted, along with the 21 minutes in penalties he accrued on the night.

Overall, it was, as the Globe and Mail reported, “a bruising night in big-time hockey.” Boston winger Johnny Peirson suffered a fractured cheekbone before it was through, with five other players taking on a total of 34 stitches to close their respective cuts. Not that anyone was counting, but Barilko did inflict the majority of the damage, wounding a couple of Bruins’ wingers, Dunc Fisher (12 stitches) and Pete Horeck (ten). It was Boston captain Milt Schmidt who sliced Kennedy for a further seven stitches, under the eye.

“I lost my head,” Schmidt owned afterwards, admitting that he deserved the major that he was assessed. “It was my stick that cut him. But we were both high-sticking, and it might have been I who was cut.”

Canada’s Governor-General watched it all from a flag-draped seat in back of the penalty benches, Viscount Alexander of Tunis.

And Kennedy’s chin? That was a souvenir of the next game, the following night, April 1, at Boston Garden. The Leafs won that one 3-0 on the strength of Turk Broda’s shutout. “Ted Kennedy added five stitches to his facial collection,” the Globe’s Jim Vipond noted. “He was cut under the chin but couldn’t recall how it happened.”

commando call-up

The RCAF Flyers proved themselves to be Canada’s best senior hockey team in 1942 when they won the Allan Cup. The Flyers benefitted from what might be classed a wartime windfall: among the Ottawa-based airmen at their disposal that season were all three members of one of the NHL’s most effective forward lines, the erstwhile Krauts (and Boston Bruins) Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer. When another stacked military team succeeded the Flyers as Allan Cup champions the following year, it was thanks, in large, part to goaltender Sugar Jim Henry. After winning the 1941 Allan Cup with the Regina Rangers, Henry had played his rookie year in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Inducted into the Canadian Army in the summer of ’42 (above, to the right), he was posted to Canada’s capital where he suited up (above, left) for the Ottawa Commandos. Replacing the Ottawa Senators in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, the Commandos had their wings clipped a little when, to begin the season, the league decreed that teams could only ice four players with NHL experience in any given game. (That limit was later raised to six.) The Commandos had plenty of options: along with Henry, the former NHLers they iced that season included Montreal Canadiens’ veteran Ken Reardon, brothers Mac and Neil Colville (New York Rangers), Jack McGill (Bruins), Alex Shibicky (Rangers), Gordie Bruce (Bruins), Joe Cooper (Rangers and Black Hawks), Bingo Kampman (Maple Leafs), Polly Drouin (Canadiens), Gordie Poirier (Canadiens), and Ken Kilrea (Red Wings). The team the Commandos beat in the Allan Cup finals was a military one, too, Victoria Army, and they boasted a bevy of erstwhile NHLers, too  including Nick Metz (Maple Leafs), Joffre Desilets (Canadiens), and Bill Carse (Rangers and Black Hawks)  but not quite enough.

of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

leafs in boston, 1959: we’re just too good a hockey team for them

It’s been 60 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs overthrew the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs — in April of 1959, the teams took their semi-final to a seventh game, which the Leafs won at Boston Garden by a score of 3-2.

Going into the series that year the Bruins were favourites. They had finished the regular season that year eight points ahead of the Leafs (this year’s gap, you’ll remember, was seven). Familiar ice proved advantageous: starting at the home, the Bruins won the first two games before the Leafs tied the series once it switched over to Maple Leaf Gardens. Back home, the Bruins took the lead once again before the Leafs prevailed in the sixth game.

Going into game seven, the Bruins were hurting. With three key defencemen on the limp, they seemed to be (as Rex MacLeod put it in the pages of The Globe and Mail) “in a grim state of decrepitude.”

Boston coach Milt Schmidt wasn’t arguing. “If this was February 7 instead of April 7,” he said, ahead of the decisive game, “three of our players wouldn’t even be dressing for tonight’s game — [Bob] Armstrong, [Fern] Flaman, and [Doug] Mohns.”

The keys to victory for his battered team? “We’re going to have to forecheck the Leafs like fury,” Schmidt said, “and stay on top of them every minute. Keep the puck out of our end as much as possible.”

“I said it would be a long series. Leafs hit their stride late in the season and I figured it would be difficult for any team to contain that momentum. I’m not going to predict how the seventh game will go, but I think home ice is in our favour, and a team with the spirit my gang showed in Toronto is going to be hard to stop.”

Toronto coach Punch Imlach didn’t buy it. He was willing to foresee an outcome, happy to, telling reporters that the Leafs would not only be beating the Bruins, they would go on to dispense with the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup.

“We’re just too good a hockey team for them,” Imlach announced as his team headed into enemy territory. “Forget your injuries and we can match Boston any way they want to play it. If they want it rough, we can take them man for man and earn a decision. I have proved that fact to my men on the blackboard. If they want to throw it wide open, we have the legs to leave them in that type of game.”

“All things being equal, we should win,” Imlach said. “We could lose on a fluke goal or a bad call, but I’m convinced it won’t happen.”

Bold talk. As it turned out, the game was “boisterous” and “rabble-rousing,” the “best of the series,” according to MacLeod of the Globe. The score was tied 2-2 in the third period when, with fewer than three minutes remaining, Leafs winger Gerry Ehman beat Boston goaltender Harry Lumley to win the game. With Johnny Bower standing tall in Toronto’s goal, the Leafs (MacLeod wrote) put in some dedicated checking and “somehow held off a raging, infuriated Boston team for the final two minutes.”

Punch Imlach wasn’t entirely a man of his word. In the Finals, the Leafs fell in five games to the mighty Canadiens, who won their fourth consecutive championship.