The Chicago Black Hawks weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in 1938, and when they did, no-one really expected them to go far, let alone win the Stanley Cup, as they did later on that April.
Before they got around to upsetting the favoured Toronto Maple Leafs in the finals, Chicago first had to get by the New York Americans in a contentious semi-final. The teams had each won a game by the time they met to decide the series on April 3, 1938. Under the watch of some 16,000 spectators at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the underdog Hawks prevailed, 3-2.
The night didn’t pass without drama, of course. The Hawks’ Johnny Gottselig, for instance, felt that the bloody nose that New York’s Johnny Gallagher inflicted on him should have been punished with a penalty. When referee Ag Smith didn’t call one, Gottselig remonstrated so violently that (The Chicago Tribune reported) the dispute “threatened to produce open warfare.”
In the second period, Chicago centre Jack Shill skated in for a shot on New York goaltender Earl Robertson. He saved but the rebound fell to Chicago defenceman Alex Levinsky. Lots of contemporary accounts allude to his lack of scoring prowess: The Globe and Mail called him “one of the least potent marksmen in the league.” Nevertheless, he was quick to shoot. “The puck hit inside the top crossbar,” Joseph Nichols wrote in next morning’s The New York Times, “and bounced right out, causing Robertson to declare emphatically that it did not go in at all, but his argument went unheeded by the referee.”
Clearly, the argument wasn’t Robertson’s alone. That’s what we’re looking at here, above: the quarrelsome aftermath of Levinsky’s goal, which gave Chicago a 2-1 lead. If the principals aren’t front and centre in this photograph — you can just see referee Smith’s back, in behind the net; Robertson, all but hidden behind a teammate at left, obscures the poor beleaguered goal judge behind the screen — it’s as fine a visual exemplar of mid-century hockey brouhaha as you’re going to going to see today.
Harold Parrot penned a slightly less clinical account for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “If the Amergs’ [sic] swan song turned out to be a dirge,” he wrote, “their last gasp was a stream of invective aimed at the referees. It was the usual sort of squabble, involving astigmatic referees and a Black Hawk goal that never did hit the twine, according to the Amerks and the goal judge.”
Parrott named him as Dr. Albert Surpre, from Montreal. That’s not right, I think, or at least it’s only partly right: Montreal’s Gazette and others identified him as Dr. Albert Surprenant.
In any case, his part would seem to be a little nuanced than the local correspondent made it out. Parrott was, remember, on the Americans’ beat, and I don’t think I’m besmirching his name when I say that he may have tended to take their part over a rival’s. That’s not to say he wasn’t telling it like it was, just that other accounts varied significantly regarding the goal judge’s conduct. The one favoured by the Gazette was in line with this one, from the Associated Press, that The Chicago Tribune ran:
Levinsky picked up Shill’s rebound in a scramble around the Americans’ cage and lifted the puck home. The Americans protested, pointing out the goal judge’s light had not gone on, but it was discovered that two spectators had been holding the gentleman’s arm. The goal was approved and Chicago was in front to stay.
Harold Parrot’s telling is, once again, the more picturesque. When Dr. Surpre refused to light his lamp, “referee Ag Smith skated over angrily, and ordered him to.
He refused, later turned on the bulb.
“Then you’re overruling the goal judge?” asked Capt. Art Chapman of the A’s.
“I am,” said Smith.
The Globe went with the fan-interference version, quoting the goal judge himself. With sympathy, too. These officials were sorely tested at Madison Square, The Globe’s man noted, recalling an incident from the Americans’ first-round series with the Rangers:
A girl back of the Amerks’ net twice flashed the light when she thought the Rangers deserved a goal, and the fans and officials alike were bewildered. The ambitious young lady, you’ll recall, was escorted some five rows back.
Ace Bailey’s career as a fleet Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger came to a stop on the night of December 13, 1933, when Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice, which his head hit with a sickening sound. Bailey, 30, wasn’t expected to live that night. He did recover, but never played hockey again.
Pre-Bailey, NHL players seldom wore helmets. They started to think differently, some of them, in the aftermath. A week after the accident, Harold C. Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle polled members of the New York Americans and Detroit Red Wings to get their thoughts on covering their heads. Their answers:
Red Dutton (New York Americans, defence)
I wouldn’t wear one of the things for anybody. If I had one of those contraptions on my head I couldn’t see a forward heaving at me. There has only been one previous accident like Bailey’s. The modern hockey player won’t be able to move if you load him down with any more dead weight.
Cooney Weiland (Detroit Red Wings, centre)
All depends on the individual player. It’s a new suggestion and might work out fine.
Rabbit McVeigh (New York Americans, right wing)
I’d be all for a jockey cap lined with rubber.
Johnny Sorrell (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)
I imagine nothing could be done to prevent the sweat running down in to the eyes. And that would make you tire more quickly.
Normie Himes (New York Americans, centre)
Helmets wouldn’t be popular with the players. The agitation was started once before in Canada.
Roy Worters (New York Americans, goal)
It’s a good idea — if you could design some kind of light fibre cap. I wouldn’t want to be seen dead in front of my nets in one myself. But then goalies would have more need of a baseball mask.
Joe Simpson (New York Americans, coach)
What happened to poor Ace wouldn’t happen again in ten years. I don’t believe that you could get any of the fellows to wear ’em.
John Ross Roach (Detroit Red Wings, goal)
It would be a protector against any repetition of the Boston tragedy. The goalie could wear it easier than anybody else on the ice. It wouldn’t feel so hot on his head.
Bill Brydge (New York Americans, defence)
It’s a good idea, if the helmet wasn’t too heavy. Of course, a football headgear would be out. I wear a cap now to lessen the shock of the blows. I was hit in the eye in practice this fall, and that’s why I’m sporting a longer peak to my cap, if you’re noticed.
Hap Emms (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)
No good. Hockey players lose nearly all their teeth as it is. This way, it wouldn’t be a month before all their hair started falling out, too.
Seven goaltenders have won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player: first (and tiniest) among them was Roy Worters, in 1929, when his puck preclusion took the New York Americans to the Stanley Cup quarter-finals.
Mostly, though, the Americans missed the playoffs in the years that Worters, a.k.a. Shrimp, maintained their nets. In 1933, despite a strong finish, the Montreal Canadiens slipped by the Amerks into the post-season thanks to a better scoring average.
So the American were left to wonder what might have been. “We should be right up there at the playoffs,” a cigarette-smoking New York coach Bullet Joe Simpson told George Currie of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as the season came to a halt at the end of March. “We dropped a couple of bad ones, one to Chicago and one to Ottawa, games we had sewed up.”
Currie wondered: how about next year?
“Ah,” said Simpson, “1933-1934 will be another season, won’t it? There’ll be lots of trades before then. And there’ll be lots of sales.”
Roy Worters didn’t have to worry about that — he’d finished his career as an American, in 1937. With no more hockey to play in the spring of ’33, he sailed away south on vacation.
With his wife Alice and their daughter, Joyce, Worters boarded the Santa Elena, the brand-new $5-million, 17,000-ton luxury steamship of the Grace Line fleet. Pictured above in their cabin, the Worters partook of her maiden voyage, which took them to Cuba and Colombia, through the Panama Canal, and on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, ahead of stops in Seattle and Victoria, B.C.
When they got back to New York in the middle of May, Worters was one of the celebrities cited in the Daily Eagle’s review of the passenger list — along with the newspaper publisher Colonel Ira Copley and the moving picture actress Miss Verree Teasdale.
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 ask that you look back to the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train.
In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Lionel 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.
As an NHLer, he was a dominant defensive force, 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, Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, two Stanley Cups, and a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa. He 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 The Ottawa 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.
((Photos of Lionel Conacher, in and out of Maroon garb, circa 1937: courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)