What to make of the events of the last week? I can’t tell you that; I don’t know. We’re in trying times, and they’re frightening. Hold fast to the ones you love. That I can recommend. And: wash your hands. As for hockey, I’ll carry on telling its stories. Today’s recalls the week 24 years ago that the Montreal Canadiens took leave of the rink on Cabot Square that they’d called home for 72 years. It was on Monday dated March 11 that the Canadiens played their final game at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1. The late great Roger Doucet returned (via tape) to sing O Canada that night. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand, including 20 Hall-of-Famers, and the stirring pre-game ceremonies included a ten-minute ovation for Rocket Richard. I watched all this from high up in the rafters, where I was seated in the overflow press section, next to the man from The Jerusalem Post. He was working the game whereas I was just watching, and marvelling: the assignment for which I’d journeyed from Toronto was the next night, Tuesday. I’d convinced the features editor I worked with at The Financial Post that what he really needed, whether he knew it or not, were 1,800 words reporting on the public auction whereby the Canadiens sold off 145 Forum artifacts, some more historic than others. And so, having witnessed Monday’s game, I was back at the rink the following night to get my story. Four days later, as the Canadiens prepared to host the New York Rangers for the first game in their brand-new rink (then named for Molson’s, now known as the Bell Centre), my feature ran on page 22 of the weekend Post, up at the front of the FP Review section, under the headline “Bidding Farewell To The Forum.” It went like this:
MONTREAL — Bidder No. 99 was a man, fortyish, with a widened middle, glasses, and a diminished preserve of dark hair, strategically combed. For four hours on Tuesday night, while the Montreal Canadiens said so long to their beloved Forum by selling it off piece by selected piece at public auction, No. 99 sat in the front row, spending his money in amounts divisible by a thousand.
No. 99 turned out to be a computer consultant by the name of Marc Cooper, who’d come for his piece of the Forum from Manalapan, New Jersey. “I’m proud to be a Canadiens fan,” he said, like a politician speaking to voters whose backing he already had. “There’s only one team in sports like this.”
On the auction floor, Cooper sat within subtle-nodding distance of the auctioneer, Serge Belec, who ran the show at a frantic pace in two languages. Cooper didn’t look like a particularly happy man, but he seemed determined, and not uneasy with expenditure. A little later, it became clear just much how in earnest he was. If Guy Lafleur had wandered into, it’s entirely possible that Cooper would have stepped up with an offer to buy the legendary right winger to ornament his rec room. As it was, absent Lafleur, Tuesday’s was a C$75,000 night for Cooper. His wife, he said, was behind him all the way on this.
In all, about 1,000 people paid $35 to secure their bidding number and with it the chance to shell out for a souvenir of the most famous hockey there is. (Another 1,500 or so paid $5 each to watch these proceedings.) Mostly they were men; mostly they stayed out of the bidding once they learned what kind of money it was going to take to wrest a piece of history from the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine West.
The night before, a crowd of 17,959 had watched the Canadiens play the final game of their 72-year tenancy at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1 in the company of some of the greatest Canadiens ever to have worn the bleu, the blanc, the rouge. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand on Monday night, 20 Hall-of-Famers among them, including Maurice and Henri Richard, Butch Bouchard, Jean Béliveau, Elmer Lach, Frank Mahovlich, Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden.
Tuesday night, No. 99 moved his buying power to the forefront early and kept on reiterating it. For $31,000 he bought Lot 22, the banner that had previously hung high in the Forum rafters to commemorate the first Stanley Cup the team won in the NHL era in 1923-24. Another $20,000 got him the net the Canadiens had defended during the first period the night before. For a further $5,000, Cooper scored a sturdy post festooned with four goal-lights that had reached the end of their Forum career. He spent $3,400 on a pair of tall grey metal dressing-room lockers wherein Canadiens Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse had until very recently parked their shoes and hang their trousers while they were out pursuing pucks.
Alongside Cooper, there were a couple of other big spenders. A bar owner from Laval, Quebec, snapped up the most recent Stanley Cup banner, from 1992-93, for $32,000. Somebody else spent $900 on one of the Forum’s newly decommissioned hotdog grills. For $4.70 a go, most everybody else bought a Molson Export and drank it slowly.
What was wrong with the venerable old Forum, which hosted 29 Stanley Cup finals over the years, 12 of which saw the Canadiens triumph, along with countless lesser glories, that the its end came nigh? After seven decades, it was still in good working order. Fatally, the Forum is an old rink in a new age that’s shaped largely along hard, profit-minded bottom lines. That’s why the Canadiens are moving not quite two kilometres to the east where a glimmering new rink, named Centre Molson for the owners of the team, awaits. Roomier than the Forum by 5,000 seats, it’s also more lucrative by a factor of several dozen additional corporate suites.
There’s no word yet on what’s become of the Forum now that the Canadiens are moving on. Optimists favour talk of a park that would preserve the ice-surface out-of-doors. Whatever happens, the building isn’t likely to survive. In recent weeks, some fans have made clear their willingness to help with the demolition: one handy devotee wrestled one of the Forum’s back-stiffening seats from its Section 111 moorings and carried it off — i.e. stole it — during a February 12 game.
The legal way to secure of the Forum’s 16,000-odd seats was to order one: starting in January, for prices ranging from $125 to $290 per seat (plus shipping), most of them went on sale, with delivery to follow in May. The rest of the Forum’s furniture — including oddments like the hot-dog grill and premium items like the seat from which then-NHL president Clarence Campbell watched the Richard Riot start to stir and explode in March of 1955 — was reserved for this week’s event.
Meanwhile, the official unmaking of the Forum by auction was sanctioned by Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey, with all proceeds to be divided between the United Way in Montreal and the association representing former Canadiens players.
In Montreal, some of the faithful bewailed the auction as soon as it was announced: wasn’t it bad enough crass commercialization had doomed the building itself without the sale of sacramental artifacts as the Stanley Cup banners that announced from the Forum’s rafters 24 Canadiens’ triumphs? Didn’t the tangibles of tradition mean anything? “We’d like to think those banners are more or less public property,” grumbled Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd, “given the amount of money and emotion Montrealers have invested in every one.”
“Now, thanks to Molson, any Westmount Trust Fund Baby can bid on the original 1944 Stanley Cup pennant.”
Sacred the banners may be, but Todd didn’t quite have it right: the ones lowered from on high to be auctioned date only to 1992, so whatever their sentimental value, there was nothing antique to them. In fact, the two-metre long pennants, none of which would sell fore less than $8,000 (the one from ’44 went for $10K), were the stuff of shower curtains: they were made, every one, from serviceable, ordinary plastic.
It’s customary before auctions for the public to be offered estimates on what an object will sell for. In anticipation of the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in April in New York, for instance, Sotheby’s has issued a helpful shopping list advising prospective shoppers of the least they can expect to pay on a particular item: US$800 for a quiver of JFK’s golf clubs, a watercolour by John Singer Sargent for somewhere within shouting distance of $US125,000.
The catalogue for what the Canadiens called “The Forum’s Super Auction” offered no such guidelines, either because organizers wanted the market to establish its own boundaries on the night or because they had no standards against which to value most of what was on offer. There are experts to gauge the relative worth of a painting; there are even, apparently, some who can fix a price tag on a presidential putter. But how do you account for the value that true-heart fans will attach to otherwise everyday objects from a holy temple? What isa door to a players’ bench actually worth to the faithful? What price the puck that last Monday Canadiens’ winger Andrei Kovalenko scored the last-ever goal at the Forum?
Pre-auction intelligence had it that prices were going to run high. That’s what Marc Cooper was hearing, anyway. He came prepared to spend $100,000, most of which, he suspected, would go towards a single plastic Stanley-Cup banner. Word had it, too, that he’d be in competition with several prominent former Canadiens. Ex-coach Pat Burns was said to be interested in the players’ bench behind which he used to patrol. Meanwhile, the bench from and door to a penalty box were reported to be coveted by former Habs’ hard-heads Chris Nilan and John Ferguson. Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy left Montreal left Montreal in a hurry and a snit this past December, but he was said to be in the market for a piece of his Montreal past: the banner from the Canadiens’ — and his own — last Stanley Cup championship in 1992-93. He was said to be dispatching a representative to the auction to do his bidding.
As it turned out, the only former Hab to successfully pay it backwards was Hall-of-Fame winger Dickie Moore, who spent $650 on a small rink clock. On each of the 144 lots available on the night, auctioneer Serge Belec kept the pace of Doug Harvey on a powerplay rush, leaving no room for the hesitant of heart or wallet. “Give me four thousand,” he proclaimed at one point via his headset microphone, “or get outta town.”
In quick succession as the selling got going as the hour struck seven, Belec peddled a vintage ice with a wide red blade ($800), a turnstile ($1,800), a stick and a sweater, both autographed by Canadiens’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault ($5,100), a Hab-branded lectern from the Forum press room ($8,000).
Pat Burns didn’t get his bench: after a short back-and-forth among dogged bidders, Montreal lawyer Louise Houle’s $6,000 won out. “I’ve got a little sports room in my basement,” she said afterwards. “It’s going straight in there. So far I’ve got Expos stuff. If I’m going to start in with hockey, I might as well start right.” She would be sitting on it, she said, along with “anyone who asks very politely.”
The door from the Canadiens’ dressing room fetched $11,500, Clarence Campbell’s red seat, $12,000.
Robert Vachon, a pharmacist from Valleyfield, Quebec, paid out a total of $25,000 for a clock and a banner he planned to raise in a bowling alley he was opening. Larry Harnish, a fisherman who’d made the journey from Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, came away having shelled out $2,000 for defenceman Lyle Odelein’s stick and sweater. He was going to display them, he said, on his living-room wall.
By night’s end, when Canadiens president Ronald Corey was proudly declaring a total take of $726,500, Marc Cooper figured that about ten percent of that was him. His Stanley Cup banner would be hanging — well, he wasn’t quite yet sure where it was going, he’d have to consult with his wife. The net with the glossy red goalposts? That would probably be headed for the basement back in New Jersey. His two sons, aged four and eight, were getting the lockers: they’d been asking for lockers.
Spending his $75,000 had left Cooper elated. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just dreamed of coming to the Forum. Now to have so much of this history in my house is just great.”
The hockey highlights were, if you’re wondering, few and far between: when the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Thursday of this very date in 1955, the two old rivals ended up in what the Gazette’s Dink Carroll was only too irked to declare “that bane of hockey, the scoreless tie.”
The Leafs, to their credit, laid down a stifling defensive blanket over the powerful first-place Canadiens, gaining a point in the process and helping their own third-place cause. Toronto also, incidentally, set a new league record: their 22 ties were the most any team had accumulated in an NHL season. Not that any of this impressed the 14,332 fans on hand in Montreal on the night: their verdict was recorded in the volume of peanuts, programs, and newspapers flung on the ice at the end of the game. “One disgusted spectator tossed in a couple of pig’s feet,” Carroll noted.
Which brings us, however loopingly, to the point: no, not the fact that in another week’s time, the Forum would be filled with the ire, tear gas, and Clarence Campbell-antipathy that fed and fired up March 17’s Richard Riot.
That was a whole other Thursday. This one, March 10, we mark for the altogether less-ruinous reason that it saw the Canadian NHL debut of everybody’s favourite ice-resurfacer, the Zamboni.
It was in California that rink-owner Frank Zamboni spent most of the 1940s getting a prototype invented and built on the chassis of a U.S. Army jeep before he was ready to launch in 1949. The first one to arrive in Canada went to Quebec’s Laval College in 1954, and that same fall Boston Garden became the first NHL rink to put one into service. The Monster, the staff called that one. The Boston Globe reported that “Helo Grasso, the pilot, is being urged to wear a crash helmet.”
A little ice-upkeep history seems in order here, duly dedicated (why not) to David Ayres. In the first few decades of the NHL, the ice was most often scraped and swept rather flooded during games. From the time the Forum opened in 1924, maintenance staff deployed their own distinctive 15-foot birch brooms, as highlighted here by NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs:
These were still in use, apparently, in the late 1930s, bemusing visiting reporters like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s George Currie:
Even the ice-scrapers are different up here. They sweep the snow off the ice with long, broomlike bunches of tree branches. Between the periods, the ice has more snow sweepers on it than hockey players during the actual play.
An important if undercelebrated moment in ice-cleaning history came in 1940, in September, when the NHL’s Board of Governors gathered in New York ahead of the new season. Among other new rules and procedures decreed there was one that insisted (as CP reported) “that the ice surface be sprayed between periods, instead of scraped or brushed, except when two teams have a mutual understanding that spraying is not necessary.”
Tommy Gorman was running the Canadiens that year, and when the games got going in November, the Gazette took note of the “new ice-making machines” he’d enlisted for duty between periods: “They’re sort of hot-water wagons dragging sacks behind, and they do a great job on the ice.”
More or less the same apparatus, that is, that was in operation at Toronto Maple Leafs Gardens well into the ’60s:
The Zamboni that made its debut 65 years ago tonight was a Model E, the 29th to roll off the company’s production line following the introduction of the one-and-only Model A in ’49.
“This gadget does everything but talk on an ice surface,” the inventor himself was saying a few days before that Montreal launch.
The man at the wheel of the $10,000-machine — about $97,000 in today’s money — was Forum superintendent Jim Hunter. In the days of the old brooms, he said, cleaning the ice was a job for eight to ten men. Now, he could do the work in six or seven minutes, he said. “The real beauty of the machine is that it takes only one man to operate. It also gives the ice a much smoother finish than a crew of men working with the present hot-water barrels.”
He wasn’t the first Canadien to bear the number 16 on his sweater in the NHL, just the last: a few months after a 39-year-old Henri Richard retired in 1975, the number he’d worn for all 20 of his magnificent seasons in the league was raised to the rafters of the Montreal Forum in his honour. In December of ’75, Richard, who died today at the age of 84, was joined at a pre-game ceremony to mark the occasion by former Hab greats (from the left) Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, and Toe Blake. Lach wore number 16 for 12 seasons before the Pocketful Rocket made the team as a 19-year-old in 1955. Blake was a 16, too, when he played for Canadiens, though only for a single season, whereafter he switched to 6. (Bouchard was briefly numbered 17 before he settled his more familiar 3.) Right winger Gus Rivers is generally named as the man who first wore 16 for Montreal, though maybe it was just for a game or two when he first came to the team in 1930: for most of his short stint with Canadiens he had 15. A total of 26 players wore 16 before Richard’s greatness took it out of circulation, including Jean Pusie, Gizzy Hart, Red Goupille, and goaltender Paul Bibeault. To date, Montreal has honoured 18 numbers (including Lach’s 16, in 2009), but in 1975, Richard’s 16 was just the fourth in team history to be raised aloft, following Howie Morenz’s 7, brother Maurice’s 9, and Jean Béliveau’s 4.
If you’ve wandered the streets of downtown Montreal, a little to the east of the Forum, you’ve happened, maybe, across the mural on the brick of a building on Rue Saint-Marc, just north of Saint-Catherine, and the Maroon who features therein. It may not so viewable for long: the neighbouring parking lot that was is no more: a new building is going up. If you’ve wondered where the original hockey image originated, the answer is that it’s drawn from a Frank Holland illustration that adorned a Forum program from the 1934-35 NHL season:
When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.
Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.
The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.
Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.
It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.
Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.
But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.
Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.
I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.
Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”
The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”
The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”
“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”
Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.
“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”
She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”
The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.
Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”
Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.
Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”
They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.
Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”
“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”
At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.
That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.
Star centre Howie Morenz wasn’t there — he was on his way, from Cleveland — and right winger Art Gagne had yet to depart his off-season home in Prince George, B.C. A couple of highly touted new recruits hadn’t arrived in Montreal, either: defenceman Herb Gardiner (coming from Calgary) and (from Saskatoon) goaltender George Hainsworth. Still, first-year Montreal Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart made a start with what he had that last week in October of 1926, convening his in-town charges for what the local Gazette classed “a limbering-up session on the gymnasium floor” of the National AAA Club House on Rue Cherrier at St. Andre.
With the NHL season set to open in Boston on November 16, Hart was aiming to have his players hit the ice at Mount Royal Arena by the first of the month. They never got there, as it turned out: in the last days of October, Canadiens announced that they were breaking their lease at the Arena to make a move to the bigger and newer west-end Forum, where they’d share the ice with the Maroons. Surveying his roster, Hart felt that he still had one hole to fill, at left wing, where he wanted someone to relieve Aurèle Joliat when he tired. Young Leo Lafrance was the man he had in mind; once he’d negotiated his arrival from Duluth of the Central Hockey League, Hart would (as the Gazette opined) “be able to sit back and survey his 1926-27 edition of the Canadiens with equanimity, as he will have a balanced squad with two players for every position.”
(Image: Classic Auctions)
The puck dropped at the regular time, 8.30 p.m., at the Montreal Forum on the Tuesday night of March 24, 1936, when Marty Barry of the visiting Detroit Red Wings faced up to Hooley Smith of the Montreal Maroons at centre ice. But it was Wednesday morning, almost seven hours later, before the two teams decided things in that Stanley Cup semi-final, which remains the longest game in NHL history. It took six overtimes — 116 minutes and 30 seconds of extra time — before 21-year-old Detroit rookie Mud Bruneteau scored the game’s only goal. The Maroons were the defending champions that year, and favoured to repeat, but they never recovered from that long first-game defeat. Detroit swept past them in three games and went on to the finals, where they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Cup.
“Both teams started the sixth period just pretending they had energy,” Doc Holst of the Detroit Free Press documented on this day 83 years ago. Joe Lamb of the Maroons and the Red Wings’ Johnny Sorrell got into a tangle that might have escalated, if the hour had been younger: instead, “Lamb yawned and Sorrell stretched.” The NHL doesn’t have official shot-totals from the night, but contemporary newspaper accounts advise that Lorne Chabot faced 68 shots in the Maroons goal while, at the other end, Detroit’s Normie Smith stopped 90.
An unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck, I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:
I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?
Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.
In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.
That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?
Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:
His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.
(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)
Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.
In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.
The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”
Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,
Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.
In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.
Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.
In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,
Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.
The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.