the nhl’s first noël: christmas day, 1920

Scored, Sat Upon: Toronto’s Babe Dye, c. 1920.

“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”

NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very firsttime was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.

A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.

Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.

Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”

Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.

Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.

In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”

Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he alsoplayed “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”

For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”

Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”

The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”

While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”

This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”

“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”

jack walker, hook-check artist (can get a little tiresome)

Sultan of Swish: Jack Walker, at the ready, in Seattle Metropolitans’ stripes, circa 1917.

If you want to talk hook-checks, as you well might, the man you need to know about is Jack Walker, born on this date in 1888, when it was a Tuesday, in Silver Mountain, Ontario, up on the Lakehead, not far from what was then Port Arthur — modern-day Thunder Bay. He died in 1950, aged 61.

If he’s not now a household name, he was in his day, a century or so ago. Three times teams he skated for won the Stanley Cup: the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914, the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917, and the Victoria Cougars in 1925. Mostly Walker played on the west coast, in the PCHA; his NHL career was a slender one, lasting 80 regular-season games over two seasons in the mid-1920s when he joined the Detroit Cougars.

Walker did ascend to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1960, which is to say he was voted in. Hard to know from here how much of the case for his place in the pantheon has to do with the hook-check, but as a hook-check enthusiast I’m going to err on the side of a lot.

I wrote about the hook-check in my 2014 book Puckstruck— also over here, where I did some explaining about definitions and techniques. While Frank Nighbor is sometimes credited with having been the first to ply it on a regular and efficient basis, it seems clear that Walker was in fact the progenitor, and that when Nighbor joined Port Arthur in 1911, the Pembroke Peach learned if from him. Nighbor said as much himself, later on, sort of, talking about Walker’s poke-check, which is related but different, though they’re often conflated, even by the Hall-of-Famers who used them to best effect.

You don’t see much mention of hook-checking in accounts of that earliest Cup, but by 1917, Walker’s name was synonymous with it. Hook check star is an epithet you’ll see in the weeks leading up to the championship series. That came in March, when the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens travelled west to play for all the hockey marbles with a roster that featured Georges Vézina, Harry Mummery, Newsy Lalonde, and Didier Pitre.

Lining up Hap Holmes, Cully Wilson, and Frank Foyston, Seattle prevailed in four games, with Montreal’s only victory coming in the opening game. The score therein, 8-4, doesn’t exactly have the ring of a defensive struggle, but Walker was said to have stood out. This from the wire report in The Ottawa Citizen:

In purely defensive play, Jack Walker, with his clever hook-check, was [sic] the Seattle’s star. Walker took the puck away from the best stick handlers the Flying Frenchmen could produce as easily [as] taking off his hat and it was his work that spilled most of the offensive hopes of the Canadiens.

It was apparently contagious: all the Mets were hooking the second game. After Seattle won that one 6-1, The Vancouver Sun’s Royal Brougham opened his dispatch this way:

“Beaten by the Hookcheck,” might be an appropriate title of tonight’s struggle because it was the clever of this bit of hockey strategy combined with sheer speed and aggressiveness that put the Mets on an even basis with the invaders for the Stanley Cup.

“Every time,” he continued, “a visiting forward got the puck and ankled up the ice, swish, some local skater would slide along and hook the elusive pill from the Canadiens stick leaving the duped player bewildered.”

Seattle won the third game by a score of 4-1. It was the same story. “Jack worked his old hook-check so well and so frequently,” was the word in Vancouver’s Daily World, “that he checked the very life out of the Frenchmen’s offence.”

Going into what was the final game, Royal Brougham was already handing out laurels. “If Seattle wins the Stanley Cup, the glory should go to Jack Walker, the hook-check artist of the Metropolitans who, during the last two games has practically stopped every Frenchmen’s rush.”

Seattle went out in style, taking the decisive game and the Cup with a 9-1 win. Let’s leave the Daily World to give the man his due, if that’s what this does:

Jack Walker’s work has been an outstanding feature of the entire series, and Jack was up to all his tricks last night. He kept the hook-checking working with such monotonous regularity that it almost got tiresome, and he finally succeeded in making one of his shots good and broke through for a goal.

billy (of the bouchers) at the montreal forum

Among NHL Bouchers, Billy wasn’t as celebrated as his younger brother Frank, who won all those Lady Byng trophies. And unlike his elder brother, Buck, he never captained the mighty mark-one Ottawa Senators when they were glorious in the 1920s. Billy Boucher didn’t make it to hockey’s Hall of Fame, either, as both Frank and Buck did. Make no mistake, though, Billy was a player, as those Bouchers tended to be (a fourth brother, Bobby, played in the league, too). Billy, who died on this date in 1958, played eight seasons at speedy right wing, most of them for the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he twice won the Stanley Cup, though he was also a Boston Bruin and a New York American.

Ottawa-born, as those Bouchers also tended to be, Billy was the man who scored the first goal at the Montreal Forum the night it opened in November of 1924. He was 25, in his fourth season with Canadiens, skating on a line with Howie Morenz at centre and his old Ottawa teammate Aurèle Joliat over on left. Actually, Boucher scored the first three goals in the Forum’s NHL history, collecting a natural hat trick in Canadiens’ 7-1 opening-night win over the Toronto St. Patricks. Defenceman Sprague Cleghorn passed him the puck for the first goal, which came in the first minute of the game; the second and third both came when Boucher picked up and netted rebounds of shots of Howie Morenz’s.

Boucher had played centre until he arrived in Montreal and in the pre-season of 1921 he battled Canadiens’ veteran Newsy Lalonde to stay in the middle. It was only after the two of them ended up in a fistfight at practice that coach Leo Dandurand sent the rookie to the wing.

On another night, not so proud, perhaps, as that Forum debut, Boucher featured in a contentious game when his Canadiens met the Maroons in December of 1925.

In the first period, Joliat thought he’d scored a goal on Clint Benedict, though the goal judge didn’t see it that way; play went on. The arbiter in question was Ernie Russell, a former centreman himself, a one-time star of the Montreal Wanderers who would later be elevated to the Hall of Fame. When play stopped, Joliat skated at Russell with his stick held high, as if to chop a reversal out of him. “Then,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the action started.”

Policemen were standing nearby, apparently, but they just watched as an incensed spectator opened the door of Russell’s cage and pinned his arms. The Gazette:

Billy Boucher swept in from a distance of forty feet and while Russell was unable to defend himself, cracked the official across the face with his stick. Players intervened and tore Joliat and Boucher and Russell was free to defend himself against the rabid spectator. This he did to his own satisfaction, the fan beating a hasty retreat under the barrage of fists that were coming his way. He ran into the arms of policemen and was escorted to the Forum office where his name and address were taken and verified and he was let go with the understanding that a warrant would be sworn out against him …, the Forum management stating that they are determined to put a stop to this sort of thing from the first and as an example to others who may be tempted to act in this way.

Referee Jerry Laflamme missed the melee, reportedly; no penalties were imposed. As far as I can tell, Ernie Russell went back to work, as did Canadiens, racking up a 7-4 win.

NHL President Frank Calder did intervene, eventually. As Canadiens prepared to play their next game in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, Joliat learned that he’d been fined $50. Billy Boucher, Calder announced, was suspended indefinitely. Actually, that wasn’t quite the wording — Boucher would be out “until sufficiently punished,” Calder said.

Boucher was suitably remorseful, wiring Ernie Russell from Pittsburgh to express his regrets. They were “sincere,” it was reported, though the note was of a private nature, and not “an official apology.”

There was a rumour that Leo Dandurand hoped to fill the Billy-Boucher-shaped gap in his line-up by buying Babe Dye, Toronto’s leading scorer. He offered $20,000, but Toronto wasn’t interested. Instead, Dandurand shifted rookie Pit Lepine onto the wing with Morenz and Joliat, and that seemed to work: he scored the winning goal against Pittsburgh. Montreal also won the second game that Billy Boucher missed without learning how long he’d be in limbo. Frank Calder relented a couple of days later, and Boucher was back in the line-up for Montreal’s next game, a loss to the New York Americans.

sont où? in 1934, montreal definitely had no interest in trading howie morenz

Hawkish: Montreal said they’d never trade star Howie Morenz, but in 1934, when Morenz decided the fans didn’t want him any longer, Canadiens traded him to the Chicago Black Hawks.

Trade Howie Morenz? Are you crazy? The very idea is — I mean, that would be like shipping, I don’t know, Wayne Gretzky out of Edmonton in, say, 1988. Ludicrous.

In 1934, the Montreal Canadiens swore up, down, and sideways that it would never happen. How could it? The team had had an underwhelming season, for them, bowing out to the eventual champions from Chicago in the quarter-finals.

Morenz, who was born on this day in 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, was playing his eleventh year with Montreal, and it had been a rough one for him. At 31, the man whose newspapers epithets had matured into the old thunderbolt and the veteran speedball had scored just nine goals, missing time with a bad ankle, more with a fractured thumb. He and coach Newsy Lalonde were supposedly feuding. Was it possible that some of the boos wafting down from the high gallery were intended for Morenz? In March, he hinted that maybe he’d had enough; could be that the time had come to hang up his skates for good.

Still, Morenz was Morenz, a superstar, beloved in Montreal, just two years removed from having won back-to-back Hart Memorial trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player. Sportswriters across the NHL voted him the league’s speediest player that year (Busher Jackson of Toronto came second).

In April, as his Black Hawks battled with the Detroit Red Wings for the championship, Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin let it be known that he’d like Morenz to play for, and had made Montreal an offer. New York Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick was said to be interested, too.

That’s when Canadiens’ co-owner Joseph Cattarinich did his best to quash the idea that Morenz could ever leave Montreal. The team, he declared, had no desire to sell or trade their iconic centreman.

That’s not how the hockey writers understood it, though. There was a rumour that Montreal was interested in Chicago wingers Mush March and/or Paul Thompson —probably, too, they’d want some cash. At Toronto’s Globe, Mike Rodden was hearing that the Maple Leafs might be in the mix, too. The well-connected sports editor — he also happened to be an active NHL referee — had it on good authority that Cattarinich and his partner, Canadiens’ managing director Leo Dandurand, would be interested in a swap that brought the Leafs’ Joe Primeau to Montreal. But Rodden couldn’t see the Leafs’ Conn Smythe agreeing to that.

A month later, it was all out in the open. “We have received several flattering offers for Morenz,” Dandurand told the Montreal Gazette at the NHL’s annual meeting in Syracuse, New York. “But we want players, not money, and if we do not get adequate playing replacements, we will have Morenz with us next season.”

The Associated Press got quite a different message. “Howie Morenz will not be with us,” Dandurand was quoted as saying in their Syracuse dispatch. “He is still a great hockey player and three clubs are seeking to buy him. We set a price of $50,000 when Chicago Black Hawks made inquiries, but later said we would accept $35,000 and title to Mush March. Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs also are bidding for Morenz.”

So that was that. Not immediately, but eventually.

The bargaining took a few months. Summer passed without any further news. In September, as Morenz turned 32, the hearsay had it that (i) Boston was getting Morenz in exchange for centre Marty Barry, unless (ii) Chicago got the deal done by sending March and winger Lolo Couture Montreal’s way, though possibly (if Dandurand got his way) it might be that (iii) Morenz and defenceman Marty Burke would be going to the Black Hawks for a pair of defencemen, Roger Jenkins and Lionel Conacher.

October had arrived by the time the actual trade was announced. Chicago it was for Morenz, along with Burke and goaltender Lorne Chabot. In return, Canadiens got Conacher, Jenkins, and winger Leroy Goldsworthy. Conacher wasn’t long a Hab; Dandurand flipped him almost immediately to the cross-town Maroons, who also got Herb Cain, in exchange for the rights to McGill University star Nelson Crutchfield. Dandurand wasn’t finished yet, according to the Gazette: he was trying to pry Dit Clapper away from Boston. (Update: he didn’t do it.)

“Morenz has given our club eleven years of faithful and at the same time brilliant service,” was Dandurand’s stilted statement on the man who’d come to define his team, its speed and its élan. Morenz himself was said to be peeved not to have been consulted before the trade, but he did duly report to Chicago, where Major McLaughlin was very pleased. “Morenz will fit into our system perfectly,” he enthused. “He still has plenty of speed, and with our frequent changing of forward lines, will be of huge value.” There was talk, too, that he’s soon be taking over as coach.

The fit was not perfect; we know that now. In January of 1935, Dandurand told James Burchard of New York’s World-Telegramthat it was Morenz who’d asked for the trade.

“They booed Howie last year and the year before,” Dandurand said. “The Montreal spectators didn’t realize he was hurt and couldn’t give his best. A highly sensitive player, Howie came to me and said, ‘Probably a change would do me good.’” Morenz had in fact made no protest when he’d learned that he was going to Chicago, Burchard reported; he said that Dandurand told him that Morenz felt that Montreal didn’t want him any more.

After all those luminous years as a Canadien with the number 7 on his back, Morenz wore 3 in Chicago for a season-and-a-half in which he failed to thrive. In early 1936, the Black Hawks traded him to the New York Rangers for winger Glen Brydson.

Morenz’s stint in a Ranger sweater, numbered 12, didn’t really work out either. By the fall, he was back in Montreal, suiting up once again, when the season started in November, in his old number seven, with his old wingers by his side, Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat.

He was nervous before the game, he confessed. “I tried to lie down and have a nap Saturday afternoon, like I always do before games, but it was no go,” he said. “I couldn’t stay quiet a minute. It’s sure great to be back.”

Canadiens beat the Bruins 2-0 on the night. They didn’t score, but (as the Gazette’s correspondent noted) “the veteran line of Morenz, Joliat, and Gagnon, reunited after two years, received a thunderous welcome from the gathering and it responded with a sparkling display, Joliat’s all-round game, Gagnon’s neat stickhandling and several bursts of his oldtime speed by Morenz were a feature of their play.”

Montreal, it turned out, did want him. “Once again the old war cry of the north-end section, ‘Les Canadiens sont là,’ echoes through the Forum.”

Stars, Aligned: In November of 1936, after two years apart, the line of Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat reunited.

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.

the nhl’s first (forgotten) all-star game: cleveland’s seen better

So the NHL’s first season came to its natural end as March shifted over to April in 1918. Toronto had won the Stanley Cup, and whatever muted celebrations the team and its city had organized to celebrate the Blueshirts’ five-game victory over Vancouver’s Millionaires, they were over now. Staff at Toronto Arena Gardens on Mutual Street began the new month by breaking up the ice. The hockey players were headed for home for the summer.

Until, that is, word of an arrangement for Toronto to play a team of all stars started to spread. The plan seems to have been a sudden one, and I can’t say to what extent the NHL itself was involved in the enterprise, but it is true that before it got a chance to start, the NHL off-season was delayed in 1918, as the league prepared to play its first (and now almost entirely forgotten) all-star game … in Cleveland, Ohio.

I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the whole venture originated with an invitation from the Lake Erie shore. With a population nearing 800,000, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the United States. (Montreal, in those years, had a population of about 600,000, while Toronto counted 500,000.) A quick glance back into the city’s hockey history suggests that the game was played in various loose forms there before Canadians got around to organizing it in the 1890s. The Elysium Arena (capacity: 2,000) went up in 1907. Amateur hockey thrived in the years that followed. In 1915, efforts to introduce the professional game to the city led to the Ontario Hockey Association instituting a ban on its teams having anything to do with Cleveland rivals.

In 1918, the Elysium hadn’t seen competitive games in two years. I don’t know the whys of that, just that a team was resurrected that wartime winter, I believe under the auspices of the Cleveland Athletic Club. As if to make up for lost time, they embarked on a frantic exhibition schedule, with games against amateur teams from Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Like Frank and Lester Patrick’s PCHA, Cleveland played seven-man hockey. The roster that year was a mostly Ontario-born crew, featuring the unsung talents of Percy Killaly (the playing coach, from Cannington), Elmer Irving (the captain, from Toronto), Mike Trimble (Bracebridge), Joe Debernardi (Port Arthur), Vern Turner (Stayner), and Harry Poland (Stratford). Rover Jimmy Cree was Mohawk, from the Akwesasne on the St. Lawrence. None of them ever played in the NHL.

In March, as the Torontos bypassed the Montreal Canadiens to advance to the Stanley Cup final, Cleveland hosted Canada’s national senior amateur Allan Cup champions, the Kitchener Greenshirts, in a two-game exhibition series at the Elysium.

With future NHL all-star and master-of-the-shutout George Hainsworth in goal, the Greenshirts had reason to be confident coming in. They may have been overly so, The Globe admitted in their report on the opening encounter. “Before the game was five minutes old the Canadians found that they were up against a real seven, and that nothing but real hockey could win out.” Cleveland prevailed 5-3 that night and the next one as well, this time bettering the Greenshirts by a score of 5-2. The Globe’s correspondent was impressed: “Cleveland outplayed the Canadian champions in all departments. They showed more stamina and finished fresh and strong … Cleveland played wonderful hockey.”

Next up, as the Stanley Cup final was wrapping up in Toronto, Cleveland’s septet took on a collective of all stars representing Ontario senior amateur teams. The Globe supposed that this team represented “the greatest galaxy of individual hockey stars that has ever invaded the United States,” and that may have been true — up until the following week. This galactic group included players drawn from the Greenshirts as well as from Toronto’s Dentals, Crescents, and St. Patricks. It featured several future NHLers in Rod Smylie, Bert McCaffrey, and goaltender Doc Stewart.

Like many of his Dental teammates, Stewart was a dentist; later, he’d turn from teeth to guarding the Boston Bruins’ net. In Cleveland, he was said to be the star of the opening game, even though the Clevelanders kept their winning streak alive with a 2-1 win.

They followed that up with a 4-2 win in a second game, “outplaying the Canadians in every department,” as The Globe’s man saw it. It didn’t matter how many men were on the ice, either: Cleveland dominated early on when each team iced seven players, and they did so later, too, when an injury to one of the all-star Canadians reduced the teams to six aside.

Having staked a claim as being the best amateur team on the U.S. east coast, the Cleveland club was eager to prove its prowess on a national scale. There was talk of a meeting with the a western champion, the Ames Shipyard team from Seattle, but that doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the talking.

It sounds like Cleveland indomitable seven would have been game to take on the NHL Torontos, and maybe there was an attempt to arrange that, I don’t know. The way it worked out, the Stanley Cup champions agreed to travel south to play an assemblage of their professional peers, and that seems to have put an end to Cleveland’s season. At least one of the players had other business to attend to: captain Elmer Irving was headed home to Canada to enlist in the Army.

In Toronto, the first mention of the series appeared on the Tuesday following Toronto’s Saturday-night Stanley Cup win. Three games were planned, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Toronto had some line-up issues, starting with the fact that defenceman Harry Mummery had already upped and left town for Manitoba. Star centre Reg Noble would be ruled out en route: Canadian police turned him back at the border due to his military conscription status.

Hap Holmes, soon after he joined Toronto midway through the 1917-18 NHL season.

I don’t know how the All Stars were selected, but I suspect the process was as much about who was available as anything else. As originally announced, the team collected a pair of Vancouver Millionaires in Hughie Lehman and Ran McDonald along with Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators, and two players who’d played for Toronto late in the season though not in the Stanley Cup final, Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford. More names would be forthcoming, and duly were: by midweek, Newsy Lalonde of the Montreal Canadiens had joined the tour, along with Speed Moynes of the Millionaires; veteran Jack Marks, who’d opened the NHL season with the Montreal Wanderers before taking a turn with Toronto; and Jack McDonald, a Wanderer who’d migrated to Canadiens.

None of the participants was going to get rich on this junket. “The guarantee is just about sufficient to pay the expenses of the players,” The Winnipeg Tribune reported, “and leave a little to buy ice cream cones.”

Thursday’s game at the Elysium saw the NHL All Stars beat the Stanley Cup champions 5-4 over the course of two 20-minute halves. The Globe’s unidentified correspondent on the scene complained about the lack of team play. “It was a case after one long rush after another,” he felt. The teams “utterly failed to display class.”

Cleveland was not impressed: the hockey the pros brought with them “was materially different from the tests that have been played here by the great amateur sevens.” Their display was redeemed somewhat by the goaltenders, Holmes and Lehman, both of whom played brilliantly — “in fact, their work was the outstanding feature.” Frank Nighbor was a treat to witness, too: his stickhandling “was probably the best ever seen here.”

Toronto got its goals from Alf Skinner and Harrys Cameron and Meeking (he notched two). Newsy Lalonde scored a pair for the All Stars, who also got goals from Marks, McDonald and Moynes.

Friday’s game saw Toronto ice Holmes in goal, with Cameron and Ken Randall playing defence, and Adams centering Meeking and Skinner.

The All Stars had Lehman between the posts, with Lalonde and Crawford on the defence. Nighbor was at centre, Marks and McDonald on the wings. Moynes was the lone substitute.

It was Holmes’ “highly sensational goaltending” that turned the tide this time: he was “an unsurpassable obstacle,” making 28 stops in Toronto’s 3-1 win. The All Stars were, all in all, the better team, for what that was worth. Rusty Crawford, “always busy,” was their star, and when the Torontos played rough, he was willing to reply in kind. Randall scored a pair of Toronto goals, and Cameron got the other. Newsy Lalonde scored for the All Stars.

The verdict from The Ottawa Journal: if fans in Cleveland were asked to choose between the hockey their own hometown Canadians had been showing them all winter and these barnstorming pros, they’d pick the amateur version “every time.”

Saturday’s final game was deemed by the Globe“by far the best contest of the series.” On the strength of Frank Nighbor’s hattrick, the All Stars roared to a 6-3 win, thereby taking the series on games (two to one) and goals, too (12 to 10).

It’s possible that the whole effort was mounted with an idea to raise funds for the war effort — earlier talk of playing the Seattle shipyard team had included plans to donate all proceeds to the Red Cross. I haven’t found any details of that, though. Nor of any tales of adventure from beyond the rink. Did the NHLers see the sights? Meet up and play any informal games with against Percy Killaly and Jimmy Cree and company? Can’t say. I can report that almost as soon as the Torontos and their All Star rivals departed Cleveland at the end of that weekend, bound for home and the off-season ahead, the series seems to have vanished from all recall.

You won’t find any mention of it in any NHL repository — none that’s accessible to the public, anyway. The Hockey Hall of Fame pays it no heed. Andrew Podnieks published a scrupulous catalogue, The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition in 2000, but it makes no mention of Cleveland in 1918. As detailed therein (and as generally acknowledged across the hockey world), hockey convened four landmark benefit games involving all-star line-ups between 1908 and 1939 (Hod Stuart, Ace Bailey, Howie Morenz, and Babe Siebert). The first proper All-Star Game came in 1947, in Toronto, with proceeds going towards the establishment of a pension fund for the players. The format there was as it was in Cleveland, with the Stanley-Cup champion Maple Leafs taking on a selection of the best of the rest.

So where do the 1918 games fit in? I haven’t asked, but I’m going to guess that the NHL might go with the line that they were unofficial — that this weekend in Cleveland was more of barnstorming situation than anything that might be recognized by the league. The league may already have studied the situation and decided that, though I doubt it: I don’t think these games are anywhere on the NHL radar.

They do deserve to be recognized for what they represent in the way of breaking new ground for the NHL. It would be six years before the league added its first American team, the Boston Bruins. How much did the experience in Cleveland in 1918 influence what happened when the time came for expansion south? In terms of all-star games, it would be another 29 years before the NHL got around to organizing the one that’s known as the first. Is it time to reset the record?

Can I say, pre-emptively, that I don’t accept any notional claim about whether they were league-sanctioned or not. The NHL wasn’t the behemoth brand that it is today, of course — in 1918, it was an entity consisting, more or less, of president and secretary Frank Calder. Whether Toronto manager Charlie Querrie sought his approval for the jaunt to Cleveland, I don’t know. The whole NHL operation had a make-it-up-as-you-along vibe to it that first tumultuous year, from the moment of its creation at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel in November of 1917 through the Stanley-Cup series with Vancouver. For me, the series in Cleveland was no more ad hoc than any of the rest of it.

Hockey continued in Cleveland, of course, after the Stanley Cup champions and their All-Star rivals left town. The city got its first professional team in 1929, and there was talk off and on after that of an NHL franchise — including in 1935, when the Montreal Canadiens used the threat of a move to Cleveland as they negotiated a new rink deal back home. Cleveland got a WHA team, the Crusaders, in the early 1970s, and then an NHL franchise soon after that, though the Barons only stayed for two seasons.

Back to 1929 for a moment. After many years of amateur powerhouses like the one that played so well in the winter of 1918, the Cleveland Indians secured a place in the minor-league Canadian Professional Hockey League. This is noteworthy, I’ll venture: the man who made it happen as owner and manager of the new enterprise, launching Cleveland into its hockey future, was none other than Hap Holmes, Toronto’s Stanley Cup goaltender from back in 1918, star of the NHL’s first, forgotten All-Star games.

Champions-In-The-Making: The Toronto Hockey Club, as it lined up in January of 1918. Back row, left to right: Harry Cameron, Alf Skinner, coach Dick Carroll, Harry Mummery, Reg Noble, captain Ken Randall. Front: Hap Holmes, Harry Meeking, coach Charlie Querrie, Corb Denneny, Sammy Hebert.

 

duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”