old; goaled

For The Defence: A year before Rangers’ coach and GM Lester Patrick famously took to the nets in the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals, he took a 43-year-old turn on the team’s blue line.

Lester Patrick’s career as a goaltender in the NHL is as famous a half-hour as you’ll find in the annals of NHL playoff history. Maybe you recall the story: in April of 1928, when the New York Rangers were battling the Maroons in Montreal in the Finals, Nels Stewart from the home team hoisted a backhand at the New York net. Rangers’ goaltender Lorne Chabot stopped it, but at a painful cost: the puck caught him (and I quote, from the next day’s Toronto Globe) full in the left eye. Chabot went to hospital, where doctors diagnosed hemorrhages of the anterior and posterior chambers of said eye. His replacement, back at the Forum? A couple of able-bodied goaltenders happened to be in the building, including the Ottawa Senators’ Alec Connell, but Maroons refused to agree that either of them should be allowed to step into the breach — it just wasn’t fair, they felt.

So Patrick suited up. Born on this date in 1883 (it was a Monday then, too), Patrick was a hockey colossus, one of the game’s most influential figures, a builder of leagues and rinks, inventor (along with his brother Frank) of the blueline and forward pass and the penalty shot, booster of women’s hockey. Now coach and GM of the second-year Rangers, Patrick had been a truly outstanding player in his day, one of the greats of hockey’s early era — which is to say, a while back. In 1906 and again in ’07, playing both on defence and at rover, he led the Montreal Wanderers to successive Stanley Cup championships. In subsequent years he’d starred for Renfrew’s Creamery Kings and the Seattle Metropolitans, the Spokane Canaries, and Victoria’s Aristocrats. He’d played regularly for another Victoria team, the Cougars, as recently as 1926. At the end of the 1926-27, with the Ranger roster thinned by injuries, he’d suited himself up for a single game on defence, making his NHL debut at the age of 43. The only statistic he registered was a minor penalty: two minutes for tripping.

A year later, another year older, Patrick returned to the ice for his NHL swan song. It’s worth noting (if not entirely a surprise) that this wasn’t his first attempt at preventing pucks from passing him by: Patrick had played some emergency goal for both the Wanderers and the Aristocrats, when the moment called, though he’d never yet been credited with a win of his own.

Standing in Chabot’s stead in 1928, making do with his equipment, Patrick deterred all but one of the 18 shots he faced — Nels Stewart was the lone Maroon to solve him, snapping in a rebound to tie the game after New York’s Bill Cook put the Rangers ahead. Frank Boucher’s overtime goal eventually gave New York — and Patrick — the win, paving the way for Rangers’ eventual triumph: they claimed their first Stanley Cup in five games.

Patrick went back to coaching after his game-two debut, with the Rangers calling on the league back-up, Joe Miller, to finish the job in the nets. He did so despite suffering a serious cut on the head in the final game, courtesy of Hooley Smith’s skate. As for Lester Patrick, he remains to this day the oldest player to have skated in the Stanley Cup finals. He died in 1960, aged 76.

odie cleghorn had a shift that was deception itself

Descriptions of Odie Cleghorn from back when he was playing high-level hockey include relatively slow afoot, pudgy, and master showman. Phrases associated with his career, which saw him play ten NHL campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh’s long-gone Pirates, sometimes mention that no more gifted stickhandler ever graced the ice. He liked a short stick, and would nurse the puck close to his skates, I’ve learned. Also: he had a shift that was deception itself, as in a swerve.

Born on September 19 in 1891, James Albert Ogilvie Cleghorn debuted in Montreal to find an older brother  already in the house. That was Sprague, of course, who’d become the better-known hockey player, as much for his skill and leadership (momentous) as for his brutality and propensity for injuring opponents (legendary). Sprague, who played defence, is in the Hall of Fame, and Odie, almost always a forward, probably should be.

The brothers broke into professional hockey together, signing with the Renfrew Creamery Kings of the old NHA in 1910, where they played with Steve Vair and Skene Ronan and — imagine it! — Cyclone Taylor.

The brothers were with Sammy Lichtenheim’s Montreal Wanderers in 1912 when the team met Canadiens in an exhibition game in Toronto, the very first professional game in that fair city, at the Arena on Mutual Street, just before Christmas. Wanderers won, 4-3, but that was the least of the news. Canadiens’ Newsy Lalonde seems to have been in a bad mood on the night. He was warned by the referee for charging Wanderers’ goaltender Bert Cadotte, and fined, too, for cross-checking. This before he collided with Odie Cleghorn and cut his mouth badly while also going down to the ice himself. He was lying there, Lalonde, “prostrate on the ice,” in The Globe’s account, when Sprague skated up and with “utmost deliberation, dealt Newsy a terrible blow on the head with his stick” causing a wound (“gaping”) that bled (“freely”).

Sprague was fined $25 and suspended and called to court in Toronto; Lalonde took on ten stitches, Odie three. In court, Sprague’s defence lawyer read a letter from Lalonde in which he said, “Sprague saw his brother fall and saw that he was bleeding and apparently lost control of himself when he saw his brother was injured. As far as I am concerned, I do not hold any hard feelings against Sprague for having struck me, and I do not desire him to be punished further.”

The judge in the case liked this. “I am glad to see that amity has been restored between you and Lalonde,” he told Sprague, who pleaded guilty to assault and paid a further $50 fine. His hockey suspension was lifted within days.

When Odie joined Canadiens, now in the NHL, in 1918, Lalonde was the coach; Sprague signed on a few years later. The brothers Cleghorn won a Stanley Cup with Canadiens in 1924, though Lalonde was gone by then. That was Odie’s only Cup; Sprague was in on three. In 1925, Odie, then 34, went to Pittsburgh to become the playing coach of the expansion Pirates, and he got them to the playoffs in his second season, though they didn’t really prosper there — anyway, he stayed on in Pittsburgh until 1929. It’s worth noting that in Pittsburgh in 1926 he actually started a game in goal when Roy Worters, sidelined with grippe, couldn’t manage it. Started and finished and won, beating his old team, Canadiens, with a line-up that featured Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat, by a score of 3-2.

Later, he signed himself up as an NHL referee. He seems to have been a good one, though that doesn’t mean that Eddie Shore didn’t shoot a puck at his back in utter disgust in 1936 over a goal Shore believed the Leafs hadn’t scored, and it didn’t keep a gaggle of Canadiens chasing him off the ice at the Forum to protest a penalty he’d called against them and then having to be rescued by another referee, Billy Bell, when the Canadiens started to shove. That was in 1935. After Odie put away his whistle, in the late 1930s, he was appointed manager of Montreal’s Mount Royal Golf Club.

In 1915, still playing for the Wanderers in the NHA, Odie was out on Montreal’s mountain one December afternoon just before the season opened, taking a long walk by way of getting himself into shape for the campaign ahead. There was a military band and a boy on a horse, the story goes, and when the band struck up, the horse bolted. The boy dropped the reins to cling to the saddle while the horse fled. Cleghorn was able to seize the bridle and drag the horse to a halt not far from a row of carriages. “Odie Cleghorn in Hero Role” was the headline in the papers a couple of days later. The boy, described as “small,” name not known, was reported to have fainted promptly upon rescue.

toronto’s 1918 stanley cup champions: good when they were good, but when they were bad, they were rotten

Mutual Street Champs: Dated for the year after their inaugural Stanley Cup championship, this composite portrait of the 1917-18 winners includes Rusty Crawford and Jack Adams, though they were ruled ineligible to play in the final against Vancouver. Note the commemorative sweaters the players sport. By the time this photograph was published, the Torontos had undergone a name change, gaining a nickname, the Arenas, they hadn’t had during that original season.

The NHL’s first season was all over by the middle of March in 1918, when the team from Toronto edged the Montreal Canadiens in a famously brutal two-game final. A hundred years ago, the hockey season didn’t end there: next up, the team known as the Blueshirts or plain old Torontos took on the Vancouver Millionaires, champions of the Pacific coast, in a five-game Stanley Cup final. That rates a review like the one we’ll get into here below. Also worth recalling, as we’ll do later on today in a follow-up, is the fact that in the days that followed Toronto’s Stanley Cup victory — possibly even before the winning team saw the trophy they’d just won — the NHL played its first all-star game, followed by its second and its third. Not that those games seemed to have commanded much attention at the time. And in the years since, they’ve faded away to the point of having been almost entirely forgotten.

A Stanley Cup is a Stanley Cup, and a hundred years ago the team from Toronto won the very first one of the NHL era. The victory was an unlikely one, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t earned. The result wasn’t controversial, exactly, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t contentious. Played at the end of March in 1918, under two significantly different sets of rules, the inaugural Stanley Cup series involving NHL teams saw Toronto enjoy the advantage of playing all five championship games in their home rink. The ice was soft, and the hockey often brutal. If you were going to affix an asterisk to the result, you’d want to put all that in the accompanying footnote, along with something about the relative lack of excitement that attended Toronto’s triumph.

There was no parade in Toronto in 1918. It’s not even clear that the victorious team even had the satisfaction of gazing on the Stanley Cup let alone raising it aloft when they won — the trophy may well have back in Vancouver through the end of the final, safe in the keeping of the jewelers at Henry Birks and Sons, waiting to be shipped to the winners … eventually. Toronto’s players did share in some of the profits from the first three games of the final, with each man taking home a tidy $289.12 for their Cup-winning efforts — about $4,500 in modern-day money.

The deciding game was played on the second-to-last day of March, a Saturday. The champions must have enjoyed their Sunday, which led, inevitably, to the first day of April on the Monday.

The local papers announced the victory, but didn’t exactly blare the news. The sports pages of several prominent papers paid as much attention to dog-show results as they did to hockey glory. It would have been funny as April fooling, except that it was in earnest. Some 300 dogs had taken part in the Toronto Kennel Club’s 15th annual show, and the prize-winners included cocker spaniels named Perfecto and Sir Douglas Haig, a beagle called Smithfield Patience, and the whippet Granite Beauty. According to the Dog Fanciers’ Column in The Telegram, it was the mastiff named Boadicea who took top honours in the Open Bitches division.

•••

The NHL wasn’t exactly created in a flash of light and immaculate goodwill. It was conceived, instead, as part of a sly business maneuver, in the privacy of a Montreal hotel room, by a coven of businessman intent on squeezing out a colleague who annoyed them. Toronto almost missed out on a franchise — Quebec very nearly supplanted them in what was, to start off with in November of 1917, a four-team league.

This was wartime, of course, and so the ice under professional hockey was precariously thin. As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole question of just how sports should be conducted during the upheaval was very much in play. Did a hockey league like the NHL divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or was it vital to morale? While the NHL survived its inaugural season, the league’s president, Frank Calder wasn’t confident by the time it was over that the following winter would see it continue into a follow-up: he was convinced in the early months of 1918 that the government planned to order professional hockey curtailed until hostilities ceased.

It was a rough year, that first one. A rink burned down in Montreal, incinerating the future of one team, the Wanderers, along with its equipment. The gear belonging to their fellow tenants, the Canadiens, was spared: they happened to be on the road when the fire struck. Canadiens moved to a new rink, but the Wanderers expired within days, midway through the schedule, leaving three teams to finish out the year.

From the start, the league was missing some of hockey’s best talents. In 1917-18, the NHL lacked many of the game’s greats, some of whom were in uniform, while others missed that first season through injury. Still others were happily ensconced out on the Pacific coast, preferring to ply their sticks in the very good rival league, the PCHA, that Frank and Lester Patrick were running out there, to the continuing irritation of the eastern owners.

A lot of that first NHL season was played on iffy ice in arenas that were poorly lit and shrouded in cigarette smoke. Attendance was up and down.

And the hockey? A lot of it was brutally violent. At its worst, it prompted Toronto police to arrest Montreal’s Joe Hall and his hometown antagonist, Alf Skinner, after they used their sticks to batter one another about their respective heads when Canadiens visited Toronto’s Arena Gardens at the end of January.

And yet for all that, the NHL’s first fans did some legendary talents perform. Almost half of the 44 players who suited up that year would eventually find their way into hockey’s Hall of Fame, including Joe Malone and the sublime Frank Nighbor, Art Ross and Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, Newsy Lalonde, and goaltenders Clint Benedict and Georges Vézina.

Coached by Dick Carroll, Toronto’s roster counted on the superior skills of future Hall-of-Famers Harry Cameron and Reg Noble. In support they had Harry Mummery and the merciless Ken Randall, Corb Denneny (who could fly), and Skinner (a deft stickhandler when he wasn’t under arrest). Later in the season, manager Charlie Querrie bolstered the line-up with the addition of three more Hall-worthy talents in Jack Adams, Rusty Crawford, and goaltender Hap Holmes.

With other goaltenders, a pair of them who failed to distinguish themselves, Toronto started the season with a 10-9 loss to the Wanderers in Montreal. Even before the Wanderers dropped out and saw many of their players dispersed, Canadiens dominated the first half of the season. The three teams that survived it played 14 games, which took them to early February.

For the second half, Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa embarked on an eight-game schedule. When that wound up in March, Toronto was atop the table. That set up a NHL final, Montreal versus Toronto in a home-and-home match-up, which would produce a champion to take on its counterpart from the PCHA for the Stanley Cup.

Assuming, of course, that Toronto could be bothered to participate. Charlie Querrie wanted to play the final game in Toronto, and part of his posturing involved a languid assertion that he didn’t mind forgoing the championship and settling for an exhibition series against Ottawa. He didn’t really put much stock in the Stanley Cup anyway — it didn’t matter to himif the NHL skipped the whole thing entirely.

Querrie got his way, in the end, along with a success that few had foreseen. After upsetting Canadiens in Montreal by a count of 7-4, the Torontos lost the return game at home, 4-3. It was enough to command the NHL championship on total goals. They would meet the PCHA Vancouver Millionaires for the Lord Stanley’s famous cup.

Getting ahead of themselves and events, perhaps, Montreal had already negotiated to play the Stanley Cup games in Vancouver, but Toronto had no interest in going west. So the Millionaires came to them.

The line-up they brought with them was an impressive one, headlined by Cyclone Taylor, who’d led the PCHA in scoring. Vancouver’s other future Hall-of-Famers were Mickey MacKay, Barney Stanley, and goaltender Hughie Lehman.

Long before the advent of the NHL, eastern and western clubs had fought over players. They also played under fundamentally different sets of rules, including those governing offside rules and how penalties should properly be served. Out west, teams iced seven players aside, whereas the NHL went with six.

The 1918 final would see both sets of rules on display. As had been the case in 1917, when the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans hosted and beat the NHA Montreal Canadiens, the teams would start by playing six-man hockey and then alternate through the rest of the best-three-out-of-five series.

Eagle-Eye: Hughie Lehman later kept goal and even coached the Chicago Black Hawks, but in 1918, the puckstopping he did was all for Vancouver’s PCHA Millionaires. (Image: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-777)

And so it was under NHL code that Toronto beat Vancouver 5-3 on the night of Wednesday, March 20. They did so without Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford, signed after February 1 and thereby ruled out of playing in the entire final. The fans at Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street were disappointed, reportedly, by Cyclone Taylor’s lacklustre performance. Though he scored a pair of goals, he didn’t show his speed, and had trouble remembering that, under NHL rules, he couldn’t skate ahead of the puck.

Other highlights: Toronto’s Harry Meeking tripped Taylor and then (by a Toronto account), falling as well, accidentally brought his stick down on Taylor’s back. Taylor retaliated by slashing his assailant, two, three times, before Ken Randall intervened to punch Taylor. Hughie Lehman played well in the Vancouver net, and also attacked Noble, who still managed to score a couple of goals on the night, and fell and hurt his shoulder.

Toronto fans were impressed by Mickey MacKay. “He was easily the fastest thing on the ice,” noted The Toronto World. But: “the game was not as interesting as most fans would like.” There was sympathy for Vancouver’s situation. “Train-weariness and the strange eastern rules had a lot to do with the Pacific coast players’ showing.”

Playing by their rules, the Millionaires got their revenge three nights later, posting a 6-4 win. “The weather in Toronto has been very mild,” Vancouver’s Daily World reported, “and the ice is heavy, a marked difference from the ice on which Vancouver has been playing on the coast.” The coastal view had the visitors looking 50 per cent better than they had in the first game.

The wounded included the judge of play — an extra referee — Tom Melville, whose face Harry Mummery accidentally cut with his skate, and a rinkside Toronto spectator, whose ear Alf Skinner shot a puck into (“no damage resulted,” said the World).

Mickey MacKay had another banner night, scoring three goals for Vancouver while showing (said a Vancouver correspondent) “dazzling speed, wonderful stickhandling, good judgment.” Alf Skinner scored three for Toronto.

Vancouver’s Daily World described this game as “one of the roughest games of the season.” There was “a fray that developed into a regular Donnybrook,” though I don’t know who was involved. In the third period, Ken Randall smashed Taylor across the arm, dropping him to the ice and, soon after that, forcing him out of the game. Vancouver’s Si Griffis shot a puck at Corb Denneny “for no reason whatever.” Hughie Lehman was observed attempting “to cut down nearly every player that bored in on net.”

Without expressing too much shock, The Globereported that the game had “bristled with rough, brutal, illegal tactics in which good hockey apparently was the last feature considered by the players of either team”

Neither team approved of the work that referee George Irvine put in that night; both said they wouldn’t have him back for another. The other official on the ice, Art Ross, was frank about what he’d seen. “The Blues gave a most brutal exhibition,” he said, “and unless the western club gets absolute protection from the referee, they will all be killed.”

Particularly offensive? Toronto captain Ken Randall, whom Ross fined $15 for “using foul and abusive language.” Mummery wasn’t much better: Ross noted that his efforts were “so crude and brutal” that he’d been booed by his team’s own faithful.

There was some question whether Cyclone Taylor would be healthy enough to play in the third game after all the punishment he’d taken. He was able, in the end, and did play, scoring another pair of goals in Vancouver’s losing effort on a Tuesday, March 26. The final score (under eastern rules) was 6-3.

According to The Globe, despite “occasional outbursts of ill-feeling,” the temper of the game was “mild as milk” compared to what had transpired previously. Harry Cameron was a stand-out for Toronto, scoring their first goal on a “sensational rush,” while Ran McDonald was Vancouver’s best player.

Final verdict: “It was a clean, fast fixture, with the Toronto forwards outfooting the Vancouver lot.”

Western rules were back in effect for the fourth game on March 28, a Thursday, when Vancouver overran the home team by a score of 8-1. The Globe rated it a poor display, if fairly placid.

The home team just couldn’t keep up: “Vancouver ran all over them with speed and had a bag of tricks that left the Blue Shirts gasping.” The Millionaires, said Toronto’s World, “made the Torontos look like a juvenile team.” They tried a three-man defence at one point, with Ken Randall playing out in front of Harrys Mummery and Cameron, but that didn’t seem to help.

Mickey MacKay once again impressed for Vancouver: “He tore up and down the ice like a crazy man.” Barney Stanley and Lloyd Cook each scored a pair of goals for the Millionaires, as did Taylor.

It was Vancouver’s Daily World that was reporting that the host city may have been wearying of the championship. “Interest in the series is waning locally,” was their report, “as the demand for seats is not large.” Toronto also followed up the loss by lodging a “formal objection” against referees Art Ross and George Irvine. Another western dispatch had it that Toronto manager Charlie Querrie was threatening that his players would use the final game to “get” unspecified Millionaires.

Going into the game that would decide the 1918 Stanley Cup champion, on Saturday, March 30, PCHA President Frank Patrick went on the record to state categorically that Vancouver would accept nothing but a victory. Querrie, for his part, declared himself that his team would “win or bust.”

With all that had gone on before, the two teams had failed to agree on who should referee the final game, so it was left for Stanley Cup trustee William Foran to appoint the officials. He settled at first on Tom Melville and Harvey Pulford, but then couldn’t get in touch with Melville, so drafted in Russell Bowie instead.

Neither man was keen to take part. “I had trouble inducing them to do so,” Foran confessed.

Their instructions were to keep the game clean at any cost. For all their reluctance, the two former greats of the game — both would be inducted in the Hall of Fame for their exploits as players — delivered on the job they didn’t want to do. They performed “without fear or favour,” said The Telegram, where their work was praised as the best the city had seen all season.

The first period, scoreless, did feature a display of skating by Cyclone Taylor that the Globe said delighted the crowd with “stops, starts, and turns that seemed only possible for a contortionist.”

After Toronto’s Alf Skinner scored in the second, his team did its best to rag the puck, play out the clock, but Cyclone Taylor scored to tie the game. When Corb Denneny scored in the third to restore Toronto’s lead, the skill he used to outwit Hugh Lehman was said to constitute one the greatest pieces of individual play ever seen at the Arena.

Vancouver pressed after that, with Taylor and MacKay coming close, but Toronto held their fort. Harry Mummery’s shot-blocking came in for special mention: he was operating as “a sort of advance goal-tender, throwing himself in front of shots.”

Reports of that final game in 1918 fail to report the kind of frenzying we’d expect to see today if a Toronto team were to win a Stanley Cup. No doubt players and managers were pleased to beat Vancouver, and that fans allowed themselves a certain amount of hooting along with a measure of hollering in the aftermath.

There was, again, a war on, and that has to have sobered the celebration. As of Monday, April 1, 1918, it had been underway for 1,340 days. The fighting may have been far away in France, but Toronto was filled with soldiers, the unblooded (recruits perfecting their marching and trench-fighting before they shipped out) as well as the wounded (recovering in local hospitals) and the dead (returned, some of them, from France for local burial).

Ahead of the hockey and the award-winning dogs, the pages of Toronto’s first April papers were filled with news of French battlefields and others closer to home.

Canadian troops were holding the line at Arras and Vimy Ridge in the face of German offensives. Meanwhile, battalions were being rushed from Toronto to Quebec City to help police the anti-conscription riots there. Under the headline “New Toronto Names in Casualty Lists,” The Telegram listed 22 local men, five of them recently killed in action, the others “gassed and wounded.”

Twenty-year-old Harold Meyrick of 334 Wellesley Street East was one of the gassed, a former hardware clerk who’d been serving as a driver with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Lieutenant Jack Newcombe of 79 Brunswick Avenue had been with the British Army’s Royal Engineers when he died in France on March 21, the day after Toronto’s first Stanley Cup win. He was 24, the same age as Corb Denneny.

•••

The reviews of the 1918 Stanley Cup final were mixed, even in the Toronto papers. The champions and their rivals from Vancouver were evenly matched, decided The Telegram, with outstanding goaltending at both ends. There was too much close-checking, in the end, for the hockey to be described as exciting; it was, finally, “nothing to rave over.”

The debrief from Toronto’s Daily Star allowed that Vancouver had adapted to alien rules better than the home team. They’d also outscored Toronto through the five-game series by a count of 21 goals to 18. The praise accorded the victorious Torontos was this: “when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are rotten.”

Toronto’s fans, to their credit, had been fair-minded, giving “wonderful support” to the visitors. “They cheered their good work to the echo and booed and hissed the local players when they roughed it up. They sat hard on the referees whom they did not like and generally had a whale of a time, but at no time did any except a few rowdies roast or verbally abuse the visiting players.”

Was it true that local interest had flagged during the course of the final? The crowd at that last game was a mere 4,500 in a rink with capacity for 7,500. “Perhaps it was because Toronto fans have become fed up on hockey,” ventured The Telegram, “or perhaps it is because they figured the world’s titular series was being drawn out into five games in order to get the gates.”

Dissatisfaction with the NHL’s and PCHA’s duelling sets of rules was widespread. Without a uniform code, The Telegram offered, “the series for the Stanley Cup will never be satisfactory.” The NHL’s Frank Calder agreed: the sooner it was seen to, the better. “Perhaps an arrangement may be reached before President Patrick goes west again,” Calder said.

Patrick seemed willing, travelling to Montreal for further discussions. The two men made headway: by April 10, Frank Patrick was saying that the PCHA was willing to play six-man hockey during future Stanley Cup series. The two sides came to agreements on other key matters, too, from offsides and how penalties should be served to the question of whether players should be allowed to kick the puck so long as they didn’t do it near the goal. In Patrick’s opinion, Stanley Cup finals should in future be kept to three games — but that was still to be determined. Further talks were planned; meanwhile, Patrick said, the western league reserved the right to continue playing by its own rules in its own league.

And so the NHL’s tumultuous first season came to its natural end. April 1 was a Monday in triumphant Toronto. At the rink on Mutual Street, staff was removing the ice: preparations were underway (per The Ottawa Journal) “to turn the big Arena into the dancing garden.”

The hockey players, meanwhile, prepared to disperse. Harry Mummery was headed to Winnipeg to resume his real-life job as a CPR engineer. Jack Adams had managed to play the latter half of the NHL schedule even though he was serving in the Artillery, and he was headed, now, to London, Ontario, to join his battery. Reg Noble was going home to Collingwood, Harry Cameron to Pembroke. Others were home already in Toronto, where Ken Randall worked as a plumber, and Alf Skinner for the City.

The Millionaires, too, were on their way, home to Vancouver and off-season employment — or, in Barney Stanley’s case, to a job at the Edmonton City Dairy.

By the Tuesday, though, many of those best-laid plans had shifted. The off-season would have to wait: there was more hockey to be played. By the end of the week, Toronto’s world champions would suit up against an all-star team for a series of games that would sink into obscurity almost as soon as it was completed. No-one recalls it now, but in 1918, the NHL took its show on the road, venturing for the first time across the southern border to the United States for its first, forgotten all-star weekend.

Next up: on the road with the NHL’s first all-stars.

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.

At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

concussion number one

No-one was spotting for concussions when the NHL first skated into being a hundred years ago: that’s not how hockey worked in 1917. But just because nobody was keeping track back then doesn’t mean that hockey-player brains weren’t being jarred with as frightening a regularity then as now. Hockey history doesn’t have much to say about early head injuries, beyond a few, famous, frightening incidents, like the night in 1933 that Toronto’s Ace Bailey nearly lost his life. For all we’ve read about the NHL’s inaugural two games on December 19, 1917, and about the first goal scored in league history (Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers got it), have you ever seen a reference to the league’s maiden concussion? I wondered about that, and about who might have been first. As I wrote for The Toronto Star over the weekend — the article’s online here — the best evidence we have points to Harry Hyland’s head. The Wanderers’ winger scored the NHL’s first hattrick that night, and ended up with a total of five goals in Montreal’s 10-9 win over Toronto. But the puck wasn’t going his way all night, as it happened: late in the game the Montreal-born future-Hall-of-Famer would also feel its bite.

ted talk

Terrible 92: A birthday today for Ted Lindsay, who’s turning 92. Debuting in Renfrew, Ontario, he was his parents’ ninth and last child, born in 1925, six years after his father Bert retired from a distinguished goaltending career that include stops during the NHL’s initial seasons with Montreal’s Wanderers and the Toronto Arenas. Above, that’s Lindsay minor during the 1943-44 season, the year he played junior for Toronto’s St. Michael’s Major before winning a Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals. The great Charlie Conacher was his coach there, and his opinion of Lindsay’s virtues only grew as his career took him to the Detroit Red Wings and, later, Chicago’s Black Hawks. In 1957, Conacher deemed the man they called Terrible Ted and Little Scarface the best left-winger he’d ever seen. “He’s like Ted Williams,” Conacher told Trent Frayne. “He can do everything, does it with a flourish, and has a mind of his own.” (Image: Lyonde, Louis Laurier/Library and Archives Canada/PA-053809)

noble cause

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As the adjectives continue to flock to Auston Matthews in the wake of his four-goal debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, the rookie offered up one of his own. The writers called him elite and incredible, sizzling, his performance was magical, spectacular, unforgettable, and NHL-record and historic. Writing the headlines for this morning’s Toronto newspapers, editors contributed Auston-ishing and Marvellous Matthews and Matt Trick to the conversation. Matthews himself? “It’s pretty surreal,” he told reporters in his becalmed way after the game.

“Auston Matthews Sets Goal Record in NHL Debut” The Globe and Mail’s Thursday front page declared above the fold. The Toronto Star’s had him as becoming the “first player to score four goals in NHL debut.” As mentioned last night here and elsewhere, Matthews’ isn’t quite the all-time goal-scoringest debut in NHL history: Joe Malone and Harry Hyland scored five apiece on the NHL’s very first night back in December of 1917. That made it, eventually, into some of the reporting last night, and figures into the late paragraphs of most of the stories online and in print yesterday.

There were some who saw reason to qualify what Malone and Hyland achieved as Lisa Wallace of La Presse Canadienne did in this morning’s La Presse: “Les deux avaient précédemment évolué dans l’Association nationale de hockey.” Some observers, like Darren Millard from Sportsnet, were amused by the notion that anyone might bother to reach back 100 years to find an historical precedent for something that was happening here and now. An adjectival fix (modern-day) seemed to satisfy others, like The Arizona Republic, which celebrated a native son on the front of the morning edition:

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Historian Eric Zweig is the long-time managing editor of the NHL’s annual Official Guide and Record Book. He has a good explainer on where Matthews’ feat fits (or doesn’t quite) into the directory of deeds.

Also in need of further explication: Reg Noble.

The pride of Collingwood, Ontario, he played on that first NHL night in 1917 as a dynamic member of Toronto’s original NHL team, known as the Arenas and also the Blueshirts or just plain Blues. Looking back at newspaper accounts of Toronto’s opening game versus the Montreal Wanderers, I saw that Noble was down as having scored a Matthewsesque four of his team’s goals in their (Leafslike) 10-9 loss. I was quick to make Noble’s claim, which nobody else seemed to be advancing and wasn’t on the NHL books.

Upon further review, it looks like Noble didn’t score four. Or did, only to have credit for one of them rescinded. Or could have, maybe, but it was hard for witnesses to see. Unless it was the scorer’s fault — did he mess up? Whatever happened, Noble’s fourth goal did not pass into history or the NHL archives.

So let the record show that Noble scored a mere three goals on December 19, 1917. While we’re at it, also maybe can we concede that the record is generally more smudged that we’d like? Easy to fault bygone chroniclers who weren’t as attentive to detail as we might wish them to have been, to bewail the paucity of corroborating tweets and GIFs. That doesn’t change anything, though: the reports from Montreal are as vague as they were before we started carping.

arena-dec-1917The accounts we have can’t agree on how many spectators were on hand at the Westmount Arena on the night. “A very small number” was as much as The Ottawa Journal could bring itself to divulge. “Barely 500,” La Patrie counted, while a wire report that appeared in The Toronto World and elsewhere had the crowd at “about 700.” Le Canada? “Hardly more than 1200 fans.”

When it came to the scoring, the local papers repeated the Toronto Daily Star summary in which Noble’s name was attached to Toronto’s first, sixth, seventh, and ninth goals. In its short game report, La Patrie identified 22-year-old Noble as “l’ex-Canadien” (he’d played the 1916-17 NHA season for the Habs). He was “active” and carried himself “like a veteran” — “he deserved a better fate.”

“By himself, he had four goals for Toronto.”

The Wanderers’ Art Ross was the star of the night, in Le Canada’s books, though he scored just a single goal. Noble got no special mention, but then nor did Montreal’s own five-goal hero Harry Hyland. He was knocked out at one point, according to The Ottawa Journal, when an errant puck “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye.”

Like everybody else writing about the game, Le Canada noted Toronto’s dreadful goaltending. Sammy Hebert started the game, but after what the Journal rated a “mediocre” first period (he allowed five goals), in came Art Brooks. “Sammy Hebert couldn’t stop a flock of balloons,” someone at the game advised the Daily Star, “and Brooks wasn’t any better.”

Ross’ goal was “one of the prettiest of the evening,” testified The Ottawa Journal’s witness, failing to file specifics: “an individual effort in which he outguessed the Blue defence” was as much as he was willing to say.

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The Journal’s summary is the only one I’ve seen that varies from the Noble-scored-four norm. It’s a complete muddle, missing one Toronto goal entirely and attributing another to someone called “Neville” when no-one of that name was lined up for either team — although the referee was Lieutenant Tom Melville. In this version, Reg Noble is down for just two goals.

To further confound its stats-minded readership, same day, same edition, the Journal ran a list of the NHL’s leading scorers that tallies ten for Torontonians.

Back in Toronto, the Daily Star was sowing some confusion of its own. A suggestion that Noble’s famous four goals might not last into posterity appears in a dissenting opinion in the December 20 Star two columns to the left of the game summary in which they’re reported.

“Just how good Cameron and Noble were at Montreal last night is indicated by the fact that they got three goals each,” writes the Star’s anonymous contradictor. “Charlie Queerie [sic] says that Dennenay [sic] got the other three, but the official summary credits Skinner with one.”

Whether or not he scored four that first night, Noble did turn in a stellar season for the eventual NHL and Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Credited with just the three, he ended the regular season with 30 goals in 20 games, finishing third in goals and points in the league, behind Canadiens’ Joe Malone and Cy Denneny of Ottawa.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing: in February of 1918, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie fined Noble and teammate Harry Cameron $100 each for what the papers called “breaking training.” That could include anything, of course, from oversleeping to refusing to do push-ups to smuggling a bottle of gin onto the powerplay in the game against Canadiens. What we do know is that Noble’s fine was doubled when he continued to defy the boss.

There were injuries, too, notably at the end of the season, when Noble was reported lamed in the last game of the regular season when Ottawa’s Rusty Crawford kicked him with his skate — while, puzzlingly, Crawford was trying “to get” teammate Eddie Gerard.

Still, as the season wound down, The Ottawa Journal was picking Noble out of the crowd to praise. Not only was he big and fast and tricky on the stickhandle, he checked back hard, scored goals without being selfish, “and has a lot of hockey knowledge stored in his noodle.”

Noble has played beautiful hockey this winter and though fans hear and think more of Malone, Lalonde, Nighbor, and a couple of others, the blue-clad boy appears to have a little on them all as an around player. Reg Noble for ours, if we have asked [sic] to pick out the most effective player in the NHL today.

The modern-day Maple Leafs get set to announce, today, their list of the best 100 players in their history. Will Auston Matthews’ name be among them? I’m guessing that Reg Noble’s won’t be. Who remembers him? There’s always a chance, of course, that he’ll be back in the news as soon as tomorrow night, when Matthews makes his home debut against the Boston Bruins. Reg Noble’s came on another Saturday, December 22, 1917, when Toronto beat the Ottawa Senators 11-4. Don’t tell Matthews, but in his second game, Reg Noble scored four goals.

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Hospital chaplain Rev. W. Mann visits Reg Noble at Toronto General in April of 1960; nurse Nancy Beatty looks on. (Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)