Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.
In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.
He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.
After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.
A writer for Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:
I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.
(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
Red Dutton did it all in the NHL. A star defenceman in the old WHL, Dutton, who died on a Sunday of this date in 1987 at the age of 89, joined the Montreal Maroons in 1926, anchoring the defence and ending up captain of the team before moving on to the New York Americans after four seasons. He played six further seasons with the Amerks and ended up as coach of the team — and caretaker owner, too, after the NHL separated Bill Dwyer from the franchise in the 1930s. The Americans, of course, didn’t survive the tumultuous years of the Second World War; Dutton, meanwhile, took over as interim president of the league after Frank Calder’s death in 1943. A Hall-of-Famer and Stanley Cup trustee, Dutton ran a highly successful construction based in Calgary, where also, through the years, he was owner and president of the CFL Stampeders and headed the city’s famous Stampede.
Ken Randall was born in Kingston, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1887. He captained Toronto’s very first NHL team, leading his mates to a Stanley Cup championship in 1918. He won another Cup in 1922, by which time the Toronto team had transformed into the St. Patricks. Randall’s next stop was Hamilton: in 1923, he joined the NHL Tigers. He played two seasons in Steeltown, including with the 1924-25 squad pictured here. Randall was 36 that year, and the team was good, finishing first overall at the end of the regular season. While the Tigers were touted as a Stanley Cup contender, it was not to be: after the players went on strike, demanding to be properly paid for the longer season they’d just come through, the team was suspended, the players sold — and that was the end of Hamilton’s big-league team. Along with those of most of the players seen here, Randall’s contract was sold to New York, where he made his next and final stop in the NHL with the fledgling Americans.
Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.
Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.
Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.
I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:
For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.
When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.
He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.
In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.
They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.
So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.
Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.
Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.
It’s all over but the shouting here: the puck, you can see, is already in the back of the net, despite Roy Worters’ best effort to flop into its path. It was 85 years today, on a Thursday of this, that this photograph was taken, and that Worters, goaltender for the long-gone New York Americans, failed to thwart Paul Thompson’s second-period game-winning goal for the Chicago Black Hawks.
This was opening night for the NHL in 1935, with the league heading into its 17th season. It was an eight-team loop in those years; another now-extinct team, Montreal’s Maroons, were the defending Stanley Cup champions. On this night, with Worters’ Americans in at the Chicago Stadium to start the proceedings, the home team won by a score of 3-1. Paul Thompson is the Hawk on the ice at right; aiding his effort are (numbered 12) Chicago centre Doc Romnes and an identified teammate — maybe Don McFadyen, who assisted on the goal? Vainly defending Worters’ net: I don’t know who it is in the background, but it might be defenceman Bill Brydge nearest the net. And down on the ice with Thompson? Looks to me like Red Dutton.
Other notes from the night:
Howie Morenz was starting his second season with Chicago, though he wouldn’t last the year. In January of ’36, his slow journey back to the Montreal Canadiens continued as he was traded to the New York Rangers. Morenz was slowed that opening week by a strained back muscle, and was doubtful for the New York game until he wasn’t: he played.
Chicago goaltender Lorne Chabot didn’t: he’d injured a knee in practice was only seen on crutches before the game, making his way to centre-ice to receive the Vézina Trophy from NHL president Frank Calder. Mike Karakas started in his place in the Black Hawks’ goal.
Chicago mayor Edward Kelly dropped a ceremonial puck; it was for the best, the Tribune said, that he’d decided not to do it on skates. Attendance was given as 13,500.
Along with his game-winning goal, Chicago winger Paul Thompson added an assist: he aided in Lou Trudel’s opening goal for the Hawks. Romnes added an insurance goal in the third. New York’s only goal came from Harry Oliver, shorthanded, in the first. Thompson also found the time and the choler for a fight, engaging with New York winger Baldy Cotton in the second period.
The Black Hawks, it’s worth mentioning, were wearing brand-new uniforms this night, debuting a new livery that abandoned the black-and-white colouring scheme the team had affected since their arrival in the league in 1926. That original design was said to have been overseen by Irene Castle McLaughlin, wife of Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin, and that may well be the case. Without a doubt she had a hand in the new design, displayed here.
“Ever since they were organized the Hawks have clung to black and white unies,” the Tribune’s Edward Burns had written earlier that fall. “The stripes from time to time would be varied, but always they gave a chance for scoffers to make cracks about convicts and chain gangs. But ah, how different it will be this year!”
“The shoulders are black,” he continued, “but with no white stripes. The torso and arms are circled with three wide stripes, the outside ones red and the middle one buckskin. The color scheme, with Indian embellishments, has been used in the design of the panties [sic] and the socks. The socks have diagonal stripes rather than the Joliet solitary confinement motif.”
“The gloves are uniform for the first time. The three-color idea is carried out on these flashing gloves and fringe on the gauntlets give that Indian touch.”
Back, finally, to Roy Worters. It was 22 years to the day after this game, and this photograph, that he died, on a Thursday of this date in 1957, of throat cancer. He was 57.
A glorious episode for the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night — unless, possibly, was it was the most embarrassing loss in the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Either way, Carolina’s 6-3 win over the faltering Leafs at Scotiabank Arena was a memorable night for 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver) David Ayres, who stepped in to make eight saves and earn the win after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.
Ayres’ achievement was roundly celebrated, and rightly so. In the giddy aftermath, some of the history surrounding emergency goaltenders in the NHL was trundled out, in TV studios and on social media. The league’s PR account was quick to proclaim Ayres’ debut as the most elderly in all the (regular-season) annals … before posting an update a few minutes later, recognizing Lester Patrick aged playoff appearance … before deleting the Patrick amendment.
On the embarrassment side of the ledger, there was mention, too, that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to lose to an EBUG — an emergency back-up goaltender.
Not so. Neither is Ayres the first emergency goaltender to win an NHL game, as has been reported.
While the acronym didn’t exist nine decades ago, the tendency for goaltenders to fall to injury goes back (of course) to the earliest days of the NHL. In those early years, of course, teams carried but a single goaltender. So when your mainstay took a puck to the face, say, as Lorne Chabot did in the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, while facing the Montreal Maroons the Stanley Cup Finals, quick decisions were called for.
In that case, when Chabot couldn’t continue, it was the aforementioned Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach and GM, who stepped into the breach. He’d previously subbed in on the Rangers’ defence, but this was his goaling debut in the NHL. He won it, 2-1, which meant that the Maroons lost.
But before that, Montreal lamented Maroons had already lost, previously, in the regular season, to an emergency goaltender.
And as compelling as David Ayres’ story may be, Moe Roberts’ may be more remarkable still.
Actually, I don’t know about that — just seeing now that in addition to being a Zamboni driver whose last competitive service was (per The Hockey News) “an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record.” And, also, he’s a kidney transplant survivor.
Roberts’ is a pretty good chronicle all the same, starting with his 1925 journey (as rendered in the Boston Post) “from obscurity to the glare of the calcium in the short space of 28 minutes.”
Identified, generally, at the time we’re talking here as Maurice, he seems actually to have been born Morris— so maybe we’ll just go with Moe, the diminutive he’d go by later in life. One of the first Jewish players to skate in the NHL, he was about to turn 20 in December of 1925, a son of Waterbury, Connecticut, who’d attended high school in the Boston suburb of Somerville, played goal for the hockey team, the Highlanders. He’d worn the pads, too, during the 1924-25 season for the Boston Athletic Association, backing up Frenchy Lacroix, who’d later find himself stepping into the Montreal Canadiens net vacated by Georges Vézina.
NHL teams mostly carried just a single goaltender in those years, of course, though spares and back-ups did start to become more common toward the end of the decade. Wilf Cude would eventually be designated league back-up, available to any team that needed an emergency replacement, but that was still several years in the future, and wouldn’t really have helped in the Boston Arena this night in any case. Whether Roberts was on hand at the rink on Tuesday, December 8, or had to be summoned in a hurry — I don’t know. He seems to have been unaffiliated at this point — one contemporary account styles him as the Boston A.A.’s former “substitute and inactive goalie.”
Either way, the NHL’s two newest teams were playing that night, early on in their second campaign. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Maroons’ winger Babe Siebert collided with the Bruins’ goaltender, Charlie Stewart, who was also a dentist and so, inevitably, nicknamed Doc. Here’s the Boston Globe’s view of the matter:
Dr. Stewart in stopping a shot by Seibert [sic], was bumped by the latter as he raced in for the rebound. The two players went down in a pile. Dr. Stewart was unable to get up. After a long delay it was discovered that he had been so badly injured he would be out for the rest of the game and possibly for some time. Young Roberts was found and did yeoman work.
Montreal’s Gazette diagnosed Stewart’s trouble: “Doc Stewart was led off the ice with his left leg hanging limp. Later it became known that he had a bad cut, requiring several stitches ….”
Roberts got “a big hand” as he warmed up, the Gazette reported, “with all the Bruins firing testing shots at him.” The first hostile shot he faced was a long one from the stick of Maroons’ centre Reg Noble, and the stop “met with loud acclaim.”
There’s no record of how many shots Roberts faced in his period-and-a-bit of relief work — the Gazette has him “under bombardment” in the third — just that he deterred them all. Winger Jimmy Herberts scored for the Bruins, making Roberts a winner in his emergency debut.
His luck didn’t last. With Stewart unable to play, Roberts started Boston’s next game, three days later, in Pittsburgh, when the local Pirates overwhelmed him by a score of 5-3.
With Doc Stewart declaring himself ready to go for Boston’s next game, Roberts’ NHL career might have ended there and then. On the contrary, it still had a distance to go — across three more decades.
Moe Roberts eventually caught on with teams in the minor Can-Am Hockey League, guarding goals for Eagles in New Haven and Arrows in Philadelphia through the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s. Towards the end of the 1931-32 NHL season, when the New York Americans were visiting Montreal, when regular goaltender Roy Worters fell ill, the Amerks borrowed the Maroons’ spare netminder, Dave Kerr, for their meeting with (and 6-1 loss to) the Canadiens.
Worters still wasn’t available two days later when the Amerks met their New York rivals, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden, so they called up 26-year-old Roberts from New Haven. Maury and also Morrie the papers were calling him by now, and he was brilliant, stepping into Worters’ skates. From the Brooklyn Times Union:
He filled them capably at all times, sensationally at some, bringing down volleys of applause from the assemblage during the play and receiving ovations when he came on the ice for the second and third periods.
The Americans won the game 5-1.
While Roberts didn’t see any more NHL action that season, he did return to the Americans’ net the following year, starting five games in relief after Roy Worters broke his hand, and recording his third career win.
That still wasn’t quite the end of Roberts’ NHL story. Flip forward to 1951. Five years had passed since Roberts had played in a competitive game, in the EAHL, and he was working, now, as an assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks.
When the Detroit Red Wings came to town that November, Harry Lumley took the Chicago net to face Terry Sawchuk down at the far end. Neither man had been born when Roberts played in that first NHL game of his in 1925. Now, 26 years later, he was about to take shots in his ninth (and finally final) big-league game.
Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had put pucks past Lumley by the end of the second period; the score was 5-2 for the Red Wings. Suffering from a bruised left knee, the Black Hawks’ goaltender stayed put in the third, ceding his net to Moe Roberts. Chicago continued to lose right up until the end — but Roberts stopped every shot he faced.
At 45, Roberts was making history, then and there, as the oldest player ever to have suited up for an NHL game, exceeding Lester Patrick’s record of having played for the New York Rangers in a famous 1928 playoff game in 1928. Roberts, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, remains the oldest man to have played goal in NHL history, ahead of Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley, though a couple of skaters have surpassed him since 1951: Chris Chelios played at 48 and Gordie Howe at 52.
Another month, another loss.
That was the story in the winter of 1938 for the New York Americans, who ended January with a 4-2 home defeat at the sticks of the Montreal Canadiens. Four days later, the Amerks started their February schedule with a 6-1 drubbing at Madison Square Garden by the Detroit Red Wings. That was their fourth loss in a row, and extended their winless streak to nine games. With a little over a month to go in the regular season, the Americans were in a fight for their playoff lives, just two points ahead of the Montreal Maroons and the basement of the NHL’s International Division.
Forty-year-old Red Dutton was in his third season as the New York coach and manager. His interest in the team, shall we say, ran deeper still: having captained the Americans as one of the NHL’s most effective and bruising defencemen until his retirement as a player in 1936, he was also a co-owner of the team.
The Americans’ slump had Dutton in a rage. He bent Harold Parrott’s ear after the Red Wings’ shellacking and Parrot, the hockey writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was only too happy to share the coach’s none-too-complimentary musings with his readership.
Were the Americans altogether too clean-living to prosper in the rough and the tumble of NHL hockey? Dutton wondered, citing the example of his goaltender, Earl Robertson. “He never looks at a drink or a girl,” Dutton was quoted as saying, “goes to bed early and trains on a running track just to be in shape for hockey — and yet there must be spots in front of his eyes.”
Turning to defenceman Joe Jerwa, Dutton speculated that maybe he had too much money in the bank to care about buckling down and playing effective hockey. “But that can’t be the trouble,” Dutton went on, “because most of the other men haven’t the price of a ham sandwich and they still seem to play as if they didn’t care.”
Dutton advised Parrott that the team’s biggest lack was a defenceman who could rush the puck. He was apparently willing to name those he thought weren’t getting the job done, deeming fifth-year defender Al Murray “the worst of the lot,” according to Parrott.
I’m not the one who’s going to draw the line between that very public scorn and what happened next. It’s not for me to say that Dutton ending up in hospital a week later had anything to do with payback. I’m just reading old newspapers here and patching together what I’m seeing there.
The Americans played their next two games against the Montreals, tying the Canadiens 3-3 in Quebec, then coming home to beat the Maroons 3-1.
That was on the Tuesday, February 8. The Americans didn’t play again until the following Sunday, away to the Red Wings. With the annual Westminster Kennel Club moving in to occupy Madison Square Garden for the week, Dutton decided to take his team to Detroit early. Doc Holst of the local Free Press reported the exchange Dutton had with Jack Adams, his Red Wings counterpart, when the Americans showed up Friday at the Olympia to practice.
“Whatsa matter, Mervin [sic], no ice in the Gardens?” Jack Adams asked.
“Nope, no ice,” Red answered. “They drove us out to put on a dog show.” There was a bit of hurt pride in the redhead’s voice.
It was during that February 11 practice that Dutton suffered the injury that put him in the hospital and into the picture above. The coach was out on the ice, skating with his team when — well, here’s how the Associated Press accounted it:
He tried to carry the puck past his best body-checker, 155-pound Al Murray. Murray smacked his boss with a sound body-check, and Red went flat on his back.
He suffered through the weekend, much of which he seems to have spent abed at his hotel convinced that it was just a bad case of lumbago. He still managed to arrange a trade from that prone position, gaining winger Johnny Sorrell from the Red Wings in exchange for Hap Emms. The Sunday game finished as a 2-2 tie, whereupon the Amerks headed for home.
It was more than lumbago.
At some point back in New York, Dutton ended up in Gotham Hospital up on East 76th Street, under the care of Dr. Morton K. Hertz. A Thursday dispatch in The Daily News reported him to be “encased in a 10-pound plaster cast” as a result of his collision with Al Murray. The diagnosis was dire:
Dutton had torn the lower back (latissimus dorsi) muscles loose from the hip. They must heal before he can stand erect. Hemorrhages that produced a kidney stoppage further complicated his condition, causing intense pain.
The AP listed him as resting uncomfortably, if “very much ashamed of himself,” insofar as he’d never been seriously injured during his 15 professional seasons as a player. The last time he’d been in hospital, the Winnipeg Tribune cheerfully noted, was during the First World War, when he suffered “a bad dose of shrapnel.” That was a reference to his service with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, with whom he’d been badly wounded near Vimy in 1917. During his recovery, he’d been in danger of losing a leg to gangrene.
In 1938, with Dutton sidelined, veteran defenceman Ching Johnson stepped out of the Americans’ line-up to take his place on the bench for a Tuesday meeting with the Canadiens. The As won that game, 4-0.
In fact, Johnson continued to steer the team through a further four games.
That in and of itself is worth a notation: nowhere in the annals of NHL coaching records can I find Johnson getting credit for this brief coaching career of his, including in the NHL’s online register, here. Attention, NHL coaching historians and stats-keepers: Johnson’s name should be added (and Dutton’s adjusted) to reflect the respectable 3-1-1 record that then Americans compiled under their emergency-measures boss.
Red Dutton returned to duty for the Americans’ February 27 home game against the Montreal Maroons. Though they lost that night, 4-2, Dutton’s crew did make it into the playoffs later in March, going two rounds before they fell to upstart Chicago Black Hawks in the semi-finals.
Clarence Campbell was the referee for the second game of that series, controversially calling back a goal by the Americans’ Eddie Wiseman that would have won the game for New York and sent them to the Stanley Cup finals. As it was, Chicago prevailed in overtime and in the next game, too, ousting the Americans. Dutton’s protests didn’t help that, of course, but they did include a vow that his team would have no part of any subsequent playoff game officiated by Campbell.
Campbell’s post-reffing career was in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. His return to hockey came in 1946, when he took over as president of the NHL, succeeding the man who’d taken the job after Frank Calder’s death in 1943 — Red Dutton.
The end of the 1938 season saw Ching Johnson call it quits as an NHL player, subsequently taking his talents west to serve as playing coach for the American Hockey Association’s Minneapolis Millers. Before leaving New York, he was rewarded as all the Americans were that season: as reward for their ’37-38 playoff successes coach Dutton handed each man a bonus of $250.