a hockey babe ruth, they called him

There’s none of us now who was around to see Joe Simpson skate, so let’s listen to what his contemporaries had to say. Newsy Lalonde, circa 1923, called him the greatest hockey player alive. The great Duke Keats rated Simpson one of the best defencemen he ever saw, on a par with Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn. “He made dazzling, dodging rushes,” Jim Coleman hymned in 1973, “a technique of puck-carrying that earned him [the] nickname ‘Corkscrew Joe.’”

There’s more on Simpson — including discussions of his many nicknames; just what the corkscrew might have looked like; reference to my grandfather; and Wally Stanowski turning pirouettes at Maple Leaf Gardens — over here. Here, for now, we’ll go on to recall that Harold Edward Simpson happens to have been born on an 1893 Sunday of this date in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he ended up skating with his hometown Fisherman before war broke in 1914.

There’s more to know about his military service — that’s still to come — but the short version with hockey at the forefront goes like this: having enlisted with Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion in the summer of 1915, Simpson led the battalion’s hockey team to an Allan Cup championship in 1916 before the soldiers stowed their hockey sticks and shipped out for France. Simpson was wounded on the Somme in ’16 and then again later in the war — but, again, we’ll come back to that another time. Returning from France in 1919, he rejoined the Selkirk Fishermen. The five subsequent seasons he played with the Edmonton Eskimos of the WCHL included a trip, in 1923, to the Stanley Cup finals (Edmonton lost to the Ottawa Senators). They called him Bullet Joe and the Babe Ruth of hockey when he arrived in the NHL in 1926, joining the newfound New York Americans at the age of 33. He played five seasons in New York and, later, served as coach for another three. Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963, Joe Simpson died in 1973, at the age of 80.

abandon cup: bad joe hall and the fatal stanley cup final of 1919

Seattle Strong: The Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens line up in April of 1917 for a post-Stanley Cup exhibition at San Francisco’s Winter Garden rink. Seattle prevailed that year to become the first U.S. team to win the coveted trophy. In 1919, when the rivals met again, Seattle came close to winning a second championship before the series was abandoned.

The last hockey game Joe Hall ever played, he bloodied no-one with his stick, which he also failed to smash across anyone’s passing head. He kicked no referees; no fines or suspensions did he incur. The police, too, saw no reason to arrest him in the dressing room.

Instead, with the Stanley Cup on the line on that late-March night in 1919, the 37-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman made what was, for him, a meek showing. Bad Joe Hall’s reputation had added an outlaw’s epithet to his name, but on this night he was ailing, unable to play beyond the first period of Montreal’s thrilling come-from-behind overtime win over the hometown Seattle Metropolitans.

The victory was in vain. Within days, the championship series was abandoned, marking the first time since the Stanley Cup was inaugurated in 1893 that it had gone unwon. (The only other Cupless year was 2005, when a labor dispute wiped out the NHL season.)

A hundred years ago, an outbreak of the virulent Spanish flu sickened players from both teams. For Joe Hall, the outcome was as dire as it could have been — on April 5, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he died in his bed at Seattle’s Columbus Sanitarium.

English-born, in Milwich, Staffordshire, Hall was the oldest player in professional hockey in 1919, and still one of the game’s most effective — and feared — figures.

His family had emigrated to Canada when he was a boy, and in the early years of the 20th century he started making a hockey-playing name for himself in the prairie city of Brandon, Manitoba. His skills soon took him farther afield: to Winnipeg first, then south and across the border to Houghton, Michigan, where he joined the world’s first professional hockey league.

He was a fleet forward, then, touted as the fastest in the dominion. He remained a regular goal-scorer even after he shifted back to defence, moving to eastern Canada to star in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association. When the Quebec Bulldogs won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1912 and ’13, Hall was a dominant force.

Dangerous, too.

Throughout his career there would be those who vowed that Hall was never so dastardly as all that, only ever retaliated when wronged; referees persecuted him. Some argued that his skullduggery was at least honest: he never tried to hide his merciless swiping, spearing, and slashing.

But even by the unruly standards of early hockey, Hall does seem to have played the game with a singular ferocity. His name was often at the centre of discussions on how to rid hockey of what was called, in the parlance of the times, rowdyism.

A columnist aiming to classify his unsubtle style wrote that “he was a wielder of the broad-axe, not the rapier.” He battled all comers, often with his trusty rock-elm stick. Another witness to Hall’s early career predicted he’d keep going until he killed someone.

His non-lethal charge-sheet included a 1910 fracas during which he kicked a referee named Rod Kennedy. There was talk then that Hall would be banned from hockey for life, but in the end he was fined $100 and suspended for a pair of games. Learning that Kennedy’s trousers had been torn in the fracas, Hall offered to pay a further $27.50 to buy Kennedy a new suit, but the referee told him not to worry about it.

Bad Rap: Joe Hall poses outside Montreal’s Forum circa 1917.

In 1913, Hall kicked another referee, Tom Melville, and swung his stick at his head. (Melville ducked.) Sentenced to another two-game suspension, Hall paid a fine of $150 this time — two thirds of which was imposed by his own team. A Montreal newspaper approved: “This will be a lesson to other players in future that rowdyism will not be tolerated.”

Hall’s most famous feud was with a fellow future Hall-of-Famer, Newsy Lalonde. In 1914, when he hit the captain of the Montreal Canadiens in the mouth with his stick, Lalonde lodged his protest by walloping Hall over the head. Eight stitches closed the cut.

There was more talk of expelling Hall for good, but nothing came of it. When the NHL debuted in 1917, he signed with Lalonde’s Canadiens. The two old adversaries became roommates, and good friends.

Not that Hall had trouble finding new antagonists. In a game in Toronto the following March, a local reporter noted that every opposing player who approached Montreal’s net “received a jab in the face or head from Hall.”

“It was a disgraceful exhibition and a discredit to any league or city,” a local critic complained. If the NHL continued to tolerate “players of the Hall type,” he foresaw, “the league is certain to die a natural death.”

The league was a lean and somewhat shaky operation as it launched into its second season in the fall of 1918. For Hall, it was business as usual on the ice: he would end up leading the league in penalty minutes, accumulating more than twice as many by the end of the season as anyone else in the league.

Not figured into that ledger was the time that Hall spent in police court in January of 1919. Toronto’s Alf Skinner seems to have started it, driving his stick into Hall’s mouth, whereupon Hall clubbed Skinner to the ice, continuing to chop at him while he lay unconscious.

Toronto police arrested both players, on charges of disorderly conduct. Both would plead guilty in court, though the magistrate presiding decided that the $15 fines already imposed on them by the referee was punishment enough for their crimes.

In those early NHL years, the Stanley Cup final brought together the best professional teams from east and west. As eastern champions, the Canadiens boarded the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Imperial Limited in mid-March for the journey to the Pacific coast.

There was discussion, briefly, of convening a four-team tournament, with Ottawa and Vancouver Millionaires joining in to vie for the Cup, but by the time Montreal reached Vancouver, it was confirmed that they would meet the Pacific Coast Hockey League-champion Seattle Metropolitans in a best-of-five series for the title.

Montreal’s line-up was a seasoned one, anchored in goal by Georges Vézina. Joining Hall on defence were Bert Corbeau and Billy Coutu. Up front Montreal counted on Lalonde and Didier Pitre, Odie Cleghorn, Jack McDonald, and (playing in his fifth final) Louis Berlinguette. Seattle counted on veteran goaltender Hap Holmes and forwards Jack Walker, Cully Wilson, Bernie Morris, and Frank Foyston.

The teams were familiar rivals. Two years earlier, Seattle had beaten Montreal to become the first American team to claim hockey’s premier prize. Most of the players involved in the 1919 series were the same. Personal connections interwove the rosters, too: Seattle’s leading scorer, for instance, was Morris — like Hall, a Brandon man.

For all the bonds between players, the two teams played very different brands of hockey. The western game had been shaped and streamlined by the Patrick brothers, Lester and Frank, sons of a British Columbia lumber baron. Retired now from distinguished playing careers, they ran the PCHL.

As hockey innovators, the Patricks introduced many of the rules and procedures hockey fans take for granted today, from blue-lines and penalty-shots to forward-passing and the awarding of assists. East and west were working towards harmonizing their rules — in 1918-19, the NHL had gone so far as to adopt the west’s forward-passing rule — but because they still hadn’t fully agreed on how best the game should be played, the Stanley Cup final saw the teams alternate rulebooks.

One night, the teams would ice seven men aside, as per PCHL practice. Next game: fans would see six-man NHL hockey, which also allowed teams to substitute a player who’d been penalized without worrying about going shorthanded.

Opening the championship series under western rules, Seattle duly won in a 7-0 romp. They managed this despite the unexpected absence of Bernie Morris, accused on the very eve of the final of deserting the U.S. Army, and confined to Seattle’s Camp Lewis to await a court martial that would eventually imprison him on Alcatraz for a year.

Playing to the eastern code, Montreal won the second game 4-2. Seattle took the third, 7-2, which meant that they had a chance to wrap up the championship on March 26.

Hints of what was ahead crept into the reports of that fourth game, played March 26. Scoreless through 60 minutes, the teams battled for a further 20 minutes of overtime without a goal to decide the outcome. Players from both teams collapsed as the game ended unresolved; some had to be carried off the ice.

“The hardest-played game in hockey history,” Frank Patrick called it. NHL President Frank Calder said that there was none more remarkable in all the hockey annals, even though it never should have been halted — in his book, the teams ought have continued until somebody scored a goal. Seattle coach and manager Pete Muldoon didn’t see why the game shouldn’t count as a tie, which would mean that the next game would be played under western rules. A brief stand-off ensued before Muldoon allowed that the fourth game would, in effect, be replayed under eastern rules. Epic as it was, the contest would be ignored, with the series continuing as though it had never been played at all.

It seems clear now that many of the players were already, by this point, fevering under the effects of the H1N1 virus. The Spanish flu pandemic that had swept the globe in the wake of the First World War would kill between 20 and 100 million people worldwide. Preying largely on young, vigorous adults, the highly infectious respiratory virus had reached its deadly peak in October of 1918. Both Stanley Cup cities had been hit hard then: by the end of the year some 1,400 had succumbed in Seattle, while the toll in Montreal was close to 3,000.

In nearby Ottawa that fall, the hockey fraternity had mourned the death of Hamby Shore, 32, a three-time Stanley-Cup champion who’d just retired as an NHLer. And two weeks before the games in Seattle, Montreal centre Jack McDonald learned that flu had killed a brother of his who was serving with the Canadian Army in Siberia.

McDonald, as it happened, scored the decisive goal when the two teams met for the last time that week when the final resumed. Poised once again to clinch the Cup, Seattle got goals from  Foyston and Walker, who notched a pair, to surge to a 3-0 lead after two periods. It didn’t hold.

Joe Hall wasn’t a factor — after having played only sparingly, he seems to have left the game at the end of the first period, retiring (as the Vancouver Daily World described it) “owing to sickness.” An early shoulder injury knocked Hall’s partner Bert Corbeau out the game, which meant that Lalonde and Pitre had to drop back to play defence for the balance of the game. Still, Montreal got a goal to start the third period from Odie Cleghorn before Lalonde tied it up with a pair of his own.

In overtime, McDonald skated half the rink to score on Mets’ goaltender Hap Holmes.

But there would be no more hockey. In the days leading up to what would have been the decisive game, the focus moved east from Seattle’s Ice Arena to the city’s Providence Hospital, to which several suffering Mets were transferred, and the Columbus Sanitarium, where five Canadiens, including Hall and McDonald, along with Canadiens manager George Kennedy were soon under care.

It was pneumonia that killed Joe Hall at the age of 37 on April 5, a week after he’d played in his final hockey game. His mother and his brother were with him at the end; his wife learned of his death as she hurried west on the train from Brandon. Joe Hall was buried April 8 in Vancouver.

Vancouver historian Craig Bowlsby has argued persuasively that if the rules revolution underway in hockey a century ago didn’t kill actually Joe Hall, it did set the stage for his demise.

The advent of forward-passing had made the game faster than ever before. As exciting as this new and still-evolving brand of hockey was for fans, it was taxing the players to their physical limits — and in Joe Hall’s case, beyond.

Under the old ice order, players often played an entire game, 60 minutes, without leaving the ice. But while hockey in its new, speedy, evolved form made that physically difficult even for players who weren’t battling a deadly virus, hockey had failed to adapt to allow for regular substitutions. Montreal iced nine players for the 1919 series, Seattle just eight. In any other year, the game that had failed to adapt quickly enough might just have left them exhausted. With H1N1 still in the air in Seattle, they faced a much more dangerous prospect. Even after Hall’s death, it would be years, Bowlsby points out, before teams adjusted their rosters.

“The games were the most strenuous I have ever been in,” Newsy Lalonde said when he and his teammates got back to Montreal after burying Joe Hall. “I would not like to go through another such experience for any amount of money.”

happy easter, to all, from renfrew’s creamery kings

Renfrew’s Millionaires: Topping the pyramid is goaltender Bert Lindsay, just above (left) Fred “Cyclone” Taylor (cover-point) and Frank Patrick (point). Next row, from left, is Hay Miller (right wing), Lester Patrick (rover), and Bobby Rowe (left wing). Front (and centre) is Newsy Lalonde.

The best hockey team that money could buy in 1910 played their home games in the little Ottawa Valley town of Renfrew, Ontario. The lumber baron and railway magnate M. J. O’Brien was the man with the cash, and it was his son Ambrose who launched the National Hockey Association in the winter of 1909. The league that would lay the groundwork for the NHL started with four teams, but quickly grew to seven, including Les Canadiens from Montreal. By the time the NHA schedule got going in early January of 1910, the roster of the Renfrew Creamery Kings was studded with stars, including the inimitable Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, and the brothers Patrick, Frank and Lester, from the west coast. In goal, they counted on Bert Lindsay, a Hall-of-Famer in his own right whose son, Red Wings’ legend Ted, would also make a name for himself. Dubbed the Millionaires, Renfrew added Newsy Lalonde to their line-up before the season was out. He led the league in goals, but prowess around the net couldn’t, in the end, propel Renfrew to the top of the NHA standings. Montreal’s Wanderers ended up there, thereby inheriting the Stanley Cup from the Ottawa Hockey Club. In March, Wanderers accepted a challenge from Berlin, champions  of the Ontario Professional Hockey League, which Montreal won by a score of 7-3. Small solace though it might have been, Renfrew did prevail, later in March, in an exhibition game played at New York’s St. Nicholas Rink. Icing the line-up seen in the illustration above, the Creamery Kings defeated a combined Wanderers/Ottawa team 9-4.

(Image: Classic Auctions)

leafs + canadiens meet in montreal: a february 9 primer

Chance of Flurries: Montreal and Toronto meets, circa the end of the 1950s (not on a February 9), and the action in front of Leafs’ goaltender Johnny Bower is torrid. The Richard brothers, Maurice and Henri attack, while Toronto’s Bob Baun and Carl Brewer defend. The referee is Frank Udvari.

As Toronto’s Maple Leafs skate out to face the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, would we note that this is the sixth time in the NHL’s 101-year history that a Toronto team has gone to Montreal on a February 9 to do battle with Canadiens? We would. And here’s some encouraging news for the visitors: only once has a Toronto team lost on this date in that city.

About those previous February 9 games, let’s note that they were played at four different rinks in Montreal, starting with the Jubilee Rink in 1918. The Mount Royal Arena saw two different games (in 1921 and ’24); the Forum (1985) and Bell Centre (2013) hosted the old rivals on one occasion each before tonight. Toronto’s team was the Maple Leafs for the previous two meetings, of course, but before that, in the ’20s, they were the St. Patricks. On that first February 9 game, during the NHL’s first season, they were the plain old Torontos, informally a.k.a. the Blueshirts. Four of the five games up have been played on Saturdays; in 1921, February 9 was a Wednesday.

Georges Vézina was Montreal’s goaltender the first three times Torontos and Montreals met, with (respectively) Hap Holmes, Jakie Forbes, and John Ross Roach guarding the far net. In 1918 (according to The Ottawa Journal), Montreal’s legendary backstop was “the saddest man in the rink.” His brother Pierre was in town, it seems, to watch the game, along with his Chicoutimi team, and Georges’ wife had made the trip, too, to watch her husband. But: “George [sic] fell down,” the Journal reported, “and played only a fair game.”

In 1921, when the St. Patricks skated to a 5-3 win, Babe Dye led the way with a hattrick that Reg Noble and Sprague Cleghorn padded with goals of their own. Newsy Lalonde scored a pair of goals for Canadiens.

Vézina finally got a February 9 win against Toronto in 1924; 5-3 was the score. Sprague Cleghorn got a goal in that one, but he’d switched teams since the last time, so it counted for Montreal, for whom Aurèle Joliat and Howie Morenz also counted. Babe Dye was still a St. Patrick, and he scored a goal in his team’s losing effort. Art Ross would soon have another job, managing, coaching, and generally inventing the Boston Bruins, but that was still in the future: on this night, he was the referee.

After 1924, it was 61 years passed before another Toronto team arrived in Montreal on February 9 to take on Canadiens, which gets us to 1985. Tim Bernhardt was in the Toronto goal that night, facing Montreal’s Doug Soetaert, as the Leafs won 6-2. Leaf winger John Anderson scored the decisive goal.

Leafs win in Montreal, 1918. Just a week earlier, they’d been schooled by Canadiens by a score of 11-2.

The last time the two teams met in Montreal on this date was in the lock-out marred 2012-13 season. The Leafs’ victory on that occasion was a lopsided one, 6-0. Three players who’ll feature tonight were on the ice back then, Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher for Montreal, along with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri. If you have a memory of that game, it may not be of James Reimer’s 37-save shutout; the big news, unfortunately, had to do with the allegation that Toronto winger Mikhail Grabovski bit his Canadiens counterpart Max Pacioretty.

Bruce Arthur wrote about the incident in The National Post, describing the “vigorous scrum midway through the third period, Max Pacioretty wrapped his ungloved forearm around the face of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and for a second, it was just one of the writhing arms in the mess, which happens in pretty much every game. Grabovski allegedly opened his mouth and clamped down, which does not. The Canadiens have reportedly sent the NHL a picture of Grabovski’s dental work imprinted on Pacioretty’s arm.”

In the thick of it, Grabovski got a roughing penalty and a 10-minute misconduct for his troubles. The NHL looked into it, later, but nothing came of that: whatever it was that Grabovski was doing with his mouth, the league decided there was no conclusive evidence of a bite.

old guard: a brief history of aged nhlers

Don’t Let Go The Coat: The year before he became Montreal’s original Canadien (and nine years before he made his NHL debut at age 38), here’s Jack Laviolette, left, and a pal … possibly Didier Pitre, which is what the original caption says.  

The NHL debut that Connie Madigan made on this date in 1973 is notable because, at 38, the St. Louis defenceman was, well, in hockey terms — elderly. For 14 years he’d laboured in the minor leagues before getting his break, mostly with the WHL Portland Buckaroos, with whom he earned (not necessarily in this order) a nickname, Mad Dog, and a reputation for not letting the rules of the game compromise his style of stopping opponents. “All knees, elbows, and snarly looks” is how a Vancouver paper summed it up in 1968. “He hurts,” a rueful and respecting opponent said in 1971. That was the same year Madigan served a lengthy suspension for punching a referee, knocking him out.

Madigan was pleased, in ’73, to have finally made the big time. “Even after waiting all these years,” he said, “it was still quite a thrill playing in my first game. I’m just glad to be here, although I’ve always thought I should have been here sooner.” The Blues were playing Vancouver the night he premiered, and on his first shift Madigan gave the puck away to a Canuck, Barry Wilkins, whose own inadvertent pass eventually went to the Blues’ Pierre Plante, who scored — so no assist for Madigan, but not a terrible start. He took no penalties from referee Dave Newell, who happened to be the very guy he’d punched in ’71. “It didn’t bother me any that it was him,” Madigan said. “He leaves me alone.”

Madigan finished the year with St. Louis, getting into 20 regular-season games in all, then five more in the playoffs. That was all for Connie Madigan in the NHL; he finished his career after another few seasons in the minors.

Madigan was then (and sometimes still is) deemed the NHL’s “oldest rookie.” The definition of what constitutes one of those in the NHL has changed over the years. Since Mad Dog’s stint in the league, it’s been narrowed to exclude the exceedingly mature: “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie,” the league’s policy now stipulates.

That doesn’t change the fact that Madigan remains one of the most aged players ever to have waited for most of his career to skate in the big league. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not the oldest of the old. In fact, I think he’s no better than the third oldest player to make an NHL debut.

First would be Lester Patrick, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He was 43 and coaching the New York Rangers when he inserted himself into his own line-up for a game on defence in 1927. The following spring in the playoffs, he made a more famous appearance, replacing an injured Lorne Chabot in the Ranger goal. (More on that here.)

Then, next: Jack Laviolette, Hall of Fame class of 1963. Born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1879 — he died, at 80, in 1960 — he’s the most original Montreal Canadien you can name, the team’s first hire in 1909 when it came into being as Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien. As manager and coach, he built the team; on the ice, he captained it from the defence that first futile year, when Le Canadien finished at the bottom of the seven-team National Hockey Association standings.

Laviolette would soon cede the managing, coaching, and captaining to others — George Kennedy, Adolphe Lecours, and Newsy Lalonde succeeded him, respectively, in 1910-11. Continuing on the defence, Laviolette did (briefly) get the captaincy back the following year, and played on as an influential member of the NHA Canadiens through the war years. In 1916, he helped the team win the Stanley Cup.

He was still in the picture as the team prepared for a new season in November of 1917, even as the old league was dissolving and a new one materializing.

The latter was, of course, the NHL, and when its four teams got going on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, Laviolette was the eldest of its players at 38 years, 145 days. (On his St. Louis debut, Connie Madigan was 38 years, 125 days.)

Canadiens were in Ottawa that opening night, where the local Citizen lamented the home team’s lacks (Frank Nighbor, Horace Merrill) while singing the virtues of the visitors. Montreal “skated out with one of the finest all around hockey machines they have ever had.” Anchored by Georges Vézina in goal, Canadiens counted on Joe Hall and Bert Corbeau on defence and a forward line led by Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Joe Malone. Jack Laviolette was a substitute by now, along with Billy Coutu and Louis Berlinguette.

In his role as a reliever, the Citizen said, Laviolette showed he had “lost little of his speed and snap.” Montreal prevailed on the night by a score of 7-4 with Laviolette notching an assist for his troubles — the only one he’s credited with in his 20-game NHL career, to go with two goals.

I don’t know what Laviolette’s plans were for the following year, but his hockey future was decided in May of 1918. His off-season gig at that point was as manager of the Joffre Café in Montreal; he also had a thing for speed. For as long as he’d starred on the ice, Laviolette had excelled at other sports, as well: he was a superior lacrosse player and excelled at racing both motorcycles and automobiles.

He seems to been driving one of his racing cars in a non-competitive setting one night in the Montreal neighbourhood of Longue-Point, near the river, when the car skidded and hit what’s described in contemporary accounts as an “iron tramway pole.” Two friends who were with him escaped unhurt, but Laviolette’s injuries were such that surgeons ended up amputating his right leg below the right knee. That was the grim news the Gazette reported in the days following the accident — though subsequent reports that summer had him losing his left foot.

That might warrant further investigation. Some more historical housekeeping might be in order here, too, in the matter of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career. Consult the usual trusted sources — Hockey Reference, say, or Canadiens’ own historical reservoir — and you’ll find Newsy Lalonde listed as the team’s coach for 1918-19. Like Laviolette before him, he was multi-tasking in those years, coaching, playing, and captaining the team. But that December, as the new season was getting underway, several newspaper reports had Jack Laviolette coming on as coach — or, in the terminology of the day, trainer. (Just to confuse things, head coaches were in that early era often also referred to as managers.)

The day of the team’s first practice, for instance, Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Gazette notes that at Jubilee Rink, at 7 p.m., Laviolette (“whose hockey career is finished”) “will make his initial appearance as trainer.”

“Laviolette has been given charge of the team, and should make good in the position.”

The Ottawa Citizen mentions him, too, as Canadiens’ trainer in December, with an intriguing coda: “He will give an exhibition of skating between the periods.” Pluck that thread and you might extract an item from Toronto’s Daily Star in which Toronto coach Charlie Querrie mentions this same plan. “Querrie says that Laviolette already handles his artificial foot so well that strangers never notice his disability,” is how that report ends.

Did Jack Laviolette end up coaching the Canadiens for some of their schedule in 1918-19 or did he simply entertain the faithful between periods? I don’t have much more to go on either way, at this point. If you’re reading the old newspapers, you’ll find that he fades from the page — until early February, when his name emerges one more time. “Happy” Jack Laviolette, the Ottawa Citizen tags him, announcing that he may that very day get up on skates and give them a go.

“He threatened to put them on early this winter, but somehow or other refrained,” the report continues. Depending on how things go, and given the scarcity of NHL referees, the Citizen suggests that Laviolette may soon be enlisting as an arbiter. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though. The final line of the Citizen’s update doesn’t really clear up the coaching mystery, either, noting that “Jack has been acting as a sort of a coach and adviser to the Canadien hockey team.”

happy birthday, georges vézina

Toronto had everything, to quote from the local Star: “speed, courage, team play, aggressiveness, and ability.”

No, not the Maple Leafs as they’re currently constituted: they’re clearly snarled in a bit of a mid-season muddle. But a hundred years ago this very night, Toronto was having a very good time of it, quashing the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 11-3, and in so doing (I think it’s fair to assume) souring their goaltender’s birthday. Nowadays, a netminder suffering through such a night would expect, at some point, to be spared further misery, but there was no back-up to relieve the great (and newly 32) Georges Vézina that night, and no mercy from his opponents.

Toronto’s team was the Arenas that season, the NHL’s second, and they were the defending league and Stanley Cup champions. Still, the schedule to date hadn’t been kind so far in 1918-19, and Toronto was stuck in third place, behind Ottawa, who in turn trailed Montreal. That doesn’t sound so bad, I guess, except that the NHL was, that year, a three-team operation. Just ten days earlier, in Montreal, Toronto had been the quashed and Canadiens the quashers. The score that night was 13-4.

This time out, Montreal was missing its captain and star forward, Newsy Lalonde, who stayed home to nurse an injured arm. As Toronto trainer and master of the malapropism Tim Daly assessed it, without Lalonde, Montreal was like Hamlet without the eggs.

And yet manager George Kennedy could still count on a formidable array of talent: the Montreal line-up that night included future Hall-of-Famers in Vézina, Joe Hall, and Didier Pitre alongside the veteran abilities of Bert Corbeau and Odie Cleghorn.

“They might just as well have left their skates home,” said The Toronto Daily Star’s correspondent of those Canadiens who did suit up at the Arena on Mutual Street. Though it’s unbylined, the dispatch that appeared in the next day’s Star has a wry ring to it that could be Lou Marsh’s. He was a sportswriter on the paper at the time, though I suppose it’s unlikely that he would have been writing up the same game that he was working — his other job, of course, was an NHL referee, and he was manning the rulebook that night. Whoever it was who contributed the copy, he kept it light and laughable — just like the hockey itself. Canadiens, the Star’s man wrote, appeared to have no more use for hockey “than a goldfish has for a tenderloin steak.” Throughout, the speedy Arenas made the “weary Frenchmen look like tanks floundering around in the Somme mud.”

Harry Meeking led the way for Toronto with three goals, while Alf Skinner and Jack Adams each added a pair. On the question of whether or not it was right to be running up the score, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie apparently told his players to help themselves. “Go on in and get all you can,” he’s quoted as recommending. “They’d beat you 16-1 in Montreal if they could, so pile it up.”

Canadiens Suffer A Complete Failure was the headline with which La Presse cheered its readers the following day. The Gazette’s was a drowsier Toronto Team Beat Canadiens, with a subhead that seemed almost self-diagnosing: Flying Frenchmen Played Far Below Their Form and in a Listless Manner.

Back in Toronto, if the Star was mostly merry,the rival World was all in a temper. “The Montrealers played as if they didn’t care how soon it was over,” ran the peeved narrative there. Canadiens “lost a lot of local admirers,” who were decidedly “not taken with what was offered by the Frenchies.”

“The game left a bad taste in the mouths of the fans.”

An outraged column that ran alongside the World’s aggrieved game report went further, suggesting that the game had been fixed by gamblers. “Fake hockey,” the World charged, without offering no specifics or indeed anything in the way of positive proof. Nothing came of this charge, so far as I can determine — it seems simply to have drifted away. It doesn’t sound like the newspaper expected anything different. “The World mentions these things because it is the function of a newspaper to do its best to protect the public. Even on a race track a horse showing a performance like the Canadiens last night at the Arena would be ruled off the track. But not so in the National Hockey League.”

“Eleven goals against Vézina is something to talk about,” the World’s hockey reporter wrote. The again: “The Canadiens’ defence opened like a picture album, and everybody who asked had a peek at Vézina unmolested.”

“Vézina did not appear to advantage,” decided The Globe. “The Chicoutimi wizard, however, was given little or no opportunity to save the majority of the goals tallied against him and towards the close of the game grew rather careless.”

This 1919 debacle, I have to report, was only one of Vézina’s worst NHL showings. In 1920, he would twice allow 11 goals in a game. On two further occasions, in 1921 and ’22, he would see ten pucks pass him by.

Vézina’s NHL career spanned nine seasons, from 1917 through to 1925, and during those years he played six times on his birthday. Including the 1919 trouncing, his record in those games was a discouraging 2-4.

 

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 first time 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 also played “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 territory, near Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. 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 an actual dentist; later, he’d turn from attending to the health of 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 western champions, 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 Cleveland 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 for Cleveland, 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 can’t say 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 finals), 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 unnamed correspondent on the scene seems to have been a local writer, and he 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 both by games (two to one) and goals (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 wholly unofficial — that this weekend in Cleveland was more of barnstorming situation than anything that might be recognized as a true All-Star series. 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.