hockey players in hospital beds: ching johnson on the fire-escape

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

“Ching Johnson, heaviest and oldest player in major league hockey, has spent 29 weeks of his career in hospitals.”
• Norman Thomas, “Ye Sport Sandwich,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 16, 1937

I’m not going to catalogue all of Ivan Johnson’s hockey ailments here — this isn’t the time for that, and it isn’t the place. Regarding that introductory tally of Norman Thomas’, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny his calendar calculation for the Hall-of-Fame defenceman better known as Ching. What I can confide is what a newspaper aside dating to 1926 alleged, just as Johnson was just starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers: that the hockey he’d played to that point had conferred “27 scars.” That’s a number that — maybe it’s just coincidence — recurs in a 1938 edition of Time: “in twelve seasons of big-league of big-league hockey he has had bones broken in 27 different parts of his body.”

Hockey hurt more in the early years of the NHL: the game was sharper, blunter, more broadly brutal in the damage it inflicted on the professionals who played it. That’s part of the Ching Johnson story. The abandon he played with had something to do with his hospital tenancy, too. He enjoyed throwing his body at oncoming forwards. Frisky was one of his adjectives, and bumptious was another. He was tall, 5’11”, and what contemporary newspapers liked to call husky and/or burly — paired as he often was in his first years as a Ranger with Taffy Abel, he was half of what The New York Times called “the beefiest combination defense in the game,” a blueline bulwark that brought some 461 pounds to bear (at least 210 of them were Johnson’s).

Sounds like a brute, I know. But Johnson was fast, too, and if we loiter, for a moment, on the skill that went with his physical dynamism, we can find his boss in New York, Lester Patrick, likening him to Babe Ruth. “Great boy, Ching!” he gushed to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1928. “He has only one superior as a stick-handling defenceman and that is Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins.” Ten years later, a Ranger teammate, Bill Cook, classed Johnson as the greatest hockey player he’d ever seen.

But. Hospitals. There is one in particular I’m heading for, though not before a few more paragraphs to gather momentum. Maybe, to start, a sampling of vintage newspaper headlines from the Ching Johnson Injury Archive:

Injured

Johnson Injured In Hockey Clash

Blesse Dangereusement Samedi Soir

Johnson Unable To Rejoin Ranger Sextet This Season

Injured, He Stars

If he was a hockey Babe Ruth, it’s also the fact that there were oft-hurt ballplayers — Del Bissonette was one — who were referred to as the Ching Johnson of baseball, as in much-mended.

Ching Johnson injuries we’re not going to discuss, too much:

• the collarbone he broke in a collision with Charlie Langlois of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke in 1926;

• three of his ribs, damaged when he tripped Herb Drury of the Pirates in 1928 and (as The Pittsburgh Press had it) Drury’s “feet flew up and crashed into Johnson’s side;”

• the jaw Dit Clapper’s shoulder smashed in 1930, causing a dislocation and compound fracture that attending doctors (according to Ranger publicist Jersey Jones) used 80 inches of copper wire to repair;

• the forehead that Detroit’s Ebbie Goodfellow clipped with his stick in the playoffs in 1933 which left him, Johnson, “looking as though a horse had kicked him in the forehead” (said The Associated Press), leaving a scar that carved “in a livid crescent from the top of his nose to near his left eyebrow” in which five stitches could be counted.

Something else we’re not really going to get into: Johnson’s many stitchings, other than to say he himself denied having taken on 1,000 in his career, as was sometimes claimed by others on his behalf. “Where could they put them?” he said in 1937. “I’ve had only 374.”

His lack of meanness is important to emphasize, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been any spite in him. “Johnson,” wrote Horace Lavigne in La Patrie, “is a gentleman on the ice and he never abuses his strength or his bulk.” He bodychecked with bonhomie, sometimes helping those he’d knocked down back to their feet. When he rushed the puck, Lavigne went on, it was “with the impetuosity of an overflowing torrent.”

If you study the Ching Johnson literature you come across many sentences regarding his good nature and perpetual smile, which was said to grow as the going got rougher. “Often,” said his 1979 obituary in The New York Times, “when Mr. Johnson was knocked down, he would flash a grin that bespoke his delight at the contact.” A 1932 Le Canada dispatch almost scans as poetry:

Haynes et Johnson en collision;
Ching n’en perd pas son sourire,
Haynes non plus. Mais,
de l’équilibre, c’est autre affaire.

•••

Johnson was about to turn 30 in early December of 1928, when he took to the ice at the Montreal Forum. The new NHL season was just six games old and the Rangers were in town to take on the local Maroons. When the two teams had faced each in the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring, it was the Rangers who’d prevailed. At 4-1-1, they were off to strong start in the new season, though it was the Maroons who’d handed them their lone loss so far.

Other game notes? Dave Trottier, star winger of Canada’s 1928 Olympic team, was making his home debut on the Maroons’ left wing.

Also in the house, front and centre in Forum crowd that numbered about 12,000: Su Alteza Real Don Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, cousin to King Alfonso XIII. With his wife, Infanta Doña Beatrice, and their son, Prince Alvaro, and a small retinue of retainers, Don Alfonso was on a North American tour when he stopped in Montreal. Mayor Camillien Houde met him at the train station, along with his host, Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, general manager of the Bank of Montreal.

The visitors spent a busy two-and-a-half days, touring the Royal Victoria Hospital and their host’s bank, attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica — and taking a pew at Saturday night’s hockey game, where the band opened the proceedings by playing of the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem.

On the ice, Maroons’ goaltender Clint Benedict was the star of the game, per The Gazette, “turning aside one drive after another with a brilliance that was uncanny.”

The game was fast. Also: rugged and robust and even peppery, but: not rough. Ching Johnson was a big part of this, and of the spectacle. “He is booed lustily by the fans,” The Gazette noted, “but they all admire him for a clean, hard playing, good natured defenceman, who smiles through fortune and adversity in hockey.”

The latter struck in the second period. With the game still goalless, Johnson took the puck and skated for the Montreal net, where a defenceman named Henry Hicks poke-checked him. The Gazette:

The Maroon defenceman started for the Ranger goal, and Johnson, somewhat off balance, kept on towards the corner behind the Maroon net. He could not get himself straightened out and crashed into the boards.

A later account described how the “pachydermic and bald defense ace” fell and slid feet first into the boards: “The weight of Johnson’s huge body carried such impetus that the ankle shattered under the strain.”

There were other Ranger casualties on the night: Taffy Abel didn’t return for the third period, and was reported to have suffered a gash from a skate to his left ankle, while left winger Butch Keeling went down with a (Montreal Gazette) “severely wrenched shoulder,” the right one. Torn ligaments, said the doctors later, when they looked.

Nels Stewart scored a goal for the Maroons before the second period ended, and he put another past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach early in the final period before Red Dutton made it 3-0.

That’s how it ended. The champions were beaten again. The Ottawa Journal rated Dave Trottier “fairly impressive,” particularly in the third; he also took two penalties. For Don Alfonso, well, he’d seen hockey before, in St. Moritz and Chamonix, but that was nothing like this.

“It is wonderful,” he said, “and we have all enjoyed every minute of the game.” He and his wife had both been touched to hear their anthem played. “We appreciated immensely the kindly touch and all that it meant.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was in a hospital that the Spaniards hadn’t seen, the western unit of Montreal General on what was then Dorchester Street. X-rays confirmed that his ankle, the left one, was indeed broken.

He wouldn’t be back playing for most of the rest of the season, The New York Times reported subsequently, and with Taffy Abel said to be gone for ten days, Rangers coach and GM Lester Patrick’s line-up was down to two defensemen, Leo Bourgeault and Myles Lane. For their next game, in Boston, the Rangers played with a reduced roster, 11 men. Abel’s and Keeling’s names were noted in the boxscores, though I don’t think either one of them got on the ice. The Bruins won that one, 2-0.

Johnson stayed in Montreal, resting his enplastered leg. The day after his teammates took on Boston, a photographer from La Patrie found the patient in his bed and pointed his camera. That’s it, above: Johnson looks comfortable, if a little unfocussed.

Later the same day, when the hospital caught fire, he’d be on the run. Continue reading

hitch hype

nels & hitch

Headcase: In the aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending head injury in December of 1933, NHL players tried on, tested, and (some of them) took up protective headgear. The man who took Bailey down, Eddie Shore, famously donned a fibre helmet when he returned to the ice following a suspension. Here, in January of 1934, a couple of his Bruin teammates show off the same model that Shore would make famous. Left, prone, is Lionel Hitchman, with Nels Stewart on the right. (AP)

Joe Primeau said he was the toughest player he ever faced. The big fellow, you sometimes see him called in contemporary dispatches (he was 6’1,” if only 170 pounds), as well as a fearless blocker; this lone hockey wolf; and the stone wall on which Montreal’s hopes were dashed.

Toronto-born, defenceman Lionel Hitchman got his NHL start with the old Ottawa Senators, but it was with Boston starting in in 1925 that he made his name, pairing with Eddie Shore on the fearsome Bruins’ defence for years not to mention captaining the team to its first Stanley Cup in 1929. “There is no smarter hockey brain than Hitchman’s,” an admirer in the press wrote in 1931, “and there isn’t a man playing with a bigger heart in the sport.”

Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? That’s been a pertinent question without a good answer for some years, and it’s one that the estimable Dave Stubbs has taken up this week. Stubbs, late of Montreal’s Gazette, now resident columnist and historian at NHL.com, makes the case in a column, here, calling for the wrong to be righted. Which calls for more, differently spelled hears: hear, hear.

The list of those overlooked by the Hall is a long one, of course, in which Hitchman’s name lines up with … Well, in the matter of Hall absentees, the question isn’t one of where to start, it’s where you stop. Lorne Chabot, Paul Henderson? Claude Provost, Reggie Leach? What about Rogie Vachon, and Herb Cain? Why aren’t they in?

Is the Hall listening? Inscrutable at the best of times, the selection process doesn’t seem to favour candidates from the distant past. So maybe Leach and Henderson ascend before Chabot (who retired after the 1936-37 season and died in 1946) or Hitchman (retired 1934; died 1969)? Maybe.

Meanwhile, while we wait, a few further Hitchman notes:

• He wasn’t first the first Boston captain, but he was the second. Dave Stubbs suggests that the Bruins played their first three years without a skipper when in fact they were only leaderless on the ice for their inaugural season, 1924-25. In the fall of ’25, manager Art Ross brought in veteran marauding defenceman Sprague Cleghorn, who was the captain for two seasons ahead of Hitchman, who you’ll see sometimes referred to as vice-captain in newspaper accounts from that time.

• Fred, as he was often called — he was born Frederick Lionel in 1901 — Fred was often injured, of course; in other words, he was a hockey player. In 1924, still an Ottawa Senator, he was rushing the puck at the Montreal net when Canadiens’ Billy Coutu hit him and he went down, a stick must have done the slicing, he was prone on the ice and had to be carried off with a big gash on his forehead. He returned to the Ottawa bench, with a big plaster on the wound, but didn’t play again that game. In 1928, he was pretty sure he’d broken a shoulder bashing up against the New York Rangers, though x-rays showed it was only separated, and he was back on the ice after missing just a single game. In 1930, teammate Eddie Shore hoisted a puck to clear it but hit Hitchman in the jaw instead, fractured it. That put him out for a while. When he returned, for the playoffs, he was wearing a helmet — though a different one, I think, than the one pictured above.

He had a poor season the following year. The jaw hadn’t healed as it should have, got infected, and (as Victor Jones explained in The Daily Boston Globe) “this poison running through his system is what has been responsible for his mediocre play.” Another report mentioned the unhappy effects of “the puss [sic] in his teeth roots.”

• Hitchman resigned the captaincy ahead of the 1931-32 season. He’d tried to do it a year earlier, during that off-season of his, but Art Ross wouldn’t let him. Not sure how much he was going to play, or at what level, Hitchman was insisting now. This was the year, too, that NHL president Frank Calder made it clear that no longer would managers (looking at you Messrs. Ross and Smythe) be permitted to talk to referees during games, only captains would be able to remonstrate. Ross had appointed Cleghorn and then Hitchman as his captains; this time, he decided to let the players to elect a successor. Hitchman nominated another defenceman, George Owen, and Eddie Shore seconded that, and so it was. Ross said he was so pleased by this that he vowed that all his future captains would be chosen democratically rather than be handpicked by him.

• A 1929 rumour had him going to the Montreal (along with $50,000) in exchange for Howie Morenz. Canadiens manager Cecil Hart was quick to douse that one. “Put this down,” he said, Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.” That would prove to be true, strictly speaking: after a short odyssey that took him to Chicago and New York, Morenz did of course return to Montreal, where he died a Canadien in March of 1937.

Other rumours circulated the year of his jaw infection. Was he headed to Detroit to succeed Jack Adams as manager of the Falcons? Other whispers had Hitchman going to Montreal in the fall of 1931 in exchange for Tommy Cook, a pair of young brothers called Giroux, and cash. This time it was Bruins’ owner and president Charles Adams who did the kyboshing. “It is not the policy of the Bruins to sell any player who is of value to the club.”

• So he played on. I don’t think he ever returned to his old form, though. In January of 1934, the Montreal Gazette was reporting that “his days of effectiveness as a player were numbered,” the only question was would he hang up his skates to take a job as an assistant coach under Art Ross or head down to steer the minor-league Boston Cubs? The Bruins weren’t going to make the playoffs, but they still had eight games remaining. They were already missing Eddie Shore, still serving his suspension for ending the career of (while nearly killing) Toronto’s Ace Bailey. On the night of February 22, Hitchman played his final game, going out in style — that is, “Lionel Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden saw the Bruins lose 3-1 to the Ottawa Senators after a ceremony in which the man of the moment received plaques and cheques and flowers and a chest filled with silverware. His parents were on hand, too, and they were rewarded with their venerable son’s sweater and stick.

• The Bruins did retire Hitchman’s number 3 that night. Just about a week earlier Conn Smythe had vowed that no other Maple Leaf would ever wear Bailey’s number 6 again, so that would seem to make Hitchman’s the second number to be taken out of circulation in professional sports. In Hitchman’s case, the retirement seems to have taken some time to stick. Myles Lane wore Hitchman’s 3 at some point in 1934, and it was back on the ice a couple of years later, worn (if only briefly) by both Bert McInenly and (below) Flash Hollett.

In the 1940s, Hollett got Eddie Shore’s number 2 when the legendary Bruins’ defenceman moved on, under stormy circumstance, to the New York Americans. Some fans in Boston were outraged, said the Shore’s 2 should be withdrawn post haste with even more (as one Shore loyalist wrote) ceremony than Hitchman’s 3.

The Bruins did eventually get around to it, but not until 1947, the year they also retired Dit Clapper’s number 5.

Boston players lobbied hard, apparently, in 1938 to get Ross to honour Tiny Thompson’s number 1, but Ross refused. Thompson was still playing, for one thing — he’d been traded to the Detroit Red Wings to make room for young Frank Brimsek — and, two, Ross was said to be worried about running out of numbers.

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)