surrendered to the storm king: snowbound with the 1924 ottawa senators

Polar Express: Not, in fact, the CN train that the Ottawa Senators got stuck on in February of 1924. Not even a 1924 train, in fact: this reasonable facsimile of the Ottawa train is a 1927 CN locomotive from Saskatchewan. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

The people came early and they came eager, six thousand of them, maybe more, packing the Mount Royal Arena to its frigid rafters. Mostly they were men, as I suppose, men in neckties and overcoats — and hats. In 1924, that’s who mostly went to midweek hockey games in Montreal — men, wearing their hats and their 1924 moustaches. It’s hard not to dream this whole scene in black-and-white, as shadowy-plain and slightly sped-up as stuttery 1924 newsreel, but of course it was all in colour. I’m not actually all that certain just how universal the moustaches were — the moustaches, I confess, are largely speculative, no matter how clearly they’re formed up in my imagination.

The band played. The people waited. The ice — it must have been hard to see the ice so blank and empty for solong without leaping the boards for a dash across. Eight o’clock came and went, and half-past. The music was brassy and jolly and wafted in the hazy evening air of the rink, coalesced, coiled, rose to the rafters and condensed with the smoke and the smells and the chatter of men, all the nattering men, up there in the rafters, which it warmed, along with the adventurous boys who had climbed into these same rafters. That’s largely guesswork, too, much of that last part, in particular regarding the rising and warming properties of the music, if not the boys in the rafters — contemporary newspaper accounts domention the boys and their audacious climbing.

It was a Wednesday in February in Montreal: that we know. February 20, 1924 was the factual date of this waiting and alleged wafting. Some of the names of some of the waiters from that night we know. There was a Joliat, a Vézina, a pair of Cleghorns, a Morenz. None of them was in the rafters, of course. They were all in the home team’s dressing room, wearing skates, red sweaters, no moustaches. I’ve just checked again, and it’s confirmed: the 1923-24 Montreal Canadiens iced an entirely unmoustached line-up.

Aurèle Joliat was possibly hatted, which is to say capped: he often was, in those years, when he worked the wing for Montreal. Sprague was one of the most dangerously violent hockey players in history, as you probably know; his brother Odie, was a singular stickhandler. In 1924, Howie Morenz was a 21-year-old rookie, while Georges Vézinawas 37, with just two more years to live before his death in 1926 from tuberculosis. I’m sorry to cite that, even all these years later. Leo Dandurand was the coach of the Canadiens that year. I’m thinking of him propping the dressing-room door open so that the team could better hear the band and whatever 1924 songs they were playing — “Rose Marie,” maybe, or the “Pizzicato Polka,” maybe “Rhapsody in Blue?”

That February night in Montreal, the hockey players and their coach, all the people from the rafters on down, the brave band — they all waited together to see whether the reigning Stanley Cup champions would be showing up, or not, to play some hockey.

Spoiler alert: not.

In a time of nationwide rail disruptions, as snow falls and winds swirl across 2020 central Canada, let’s mark what followed and what did betide back in the NHL’s 1923-24 season, the league’s sixth, when winter played its part in shaping the schedule.

Ninety-six years ago, there were only four teams in the NHL mix, as opposed to today’s 31, three of them — Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton — rooted in Ontario, while the other, Montreal, was at home in Quebec. The regular season, then, saw teams play 24 games apiece, starting in mid-December, wrapping up in early March.

The weather took its toll early on. With Ottawa opening its new Auditorium that year, at the corner of Argyle Avenue at O’Connor Street, Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena was the only NHL rink still to be relying on natural ice. Having held their training camp in Grimsby, Ontario, the Canadiens returned home to an unseasonably warm December. With no ice to play on, they scrambled to take their early-season home games on the road. That worked in some cases, but not all, and just before Christmas, the scarcity of ice saw them postpone their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. Team officials calculated the loss of revenue for that game at $5,000 — about $74,000 in nowadays money.

Winter eventually took hold, and the Arena got its ice. In February, with the hockey season in full fling, the weather intervened again.

In back-to-back games to begin the month, Ottawa had lost to Montreal 1-0 on the road and overturned them 4-0 at home. As they prepared to face them again towards the end of the month, Ottawa (as happens in hockey) was missing key players in defenceman Georges Boucher, recovering from a knee injury, and star centreman and captain Frank Nighbor, who was out with a bad wrist.

Still, they were in fairly good shape as the season wound down. Only the top two teams would play for the NHL championship come March, with the winner carrying on to vie against the best team from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

With a fortnight left in the regular-season, with five games to play for each team, the defending Stanley Cup champions from the nation’s capital were riding atop the standings, with Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks eight points adrift, four points up on the lagging Hamilton Tigers.

Wednesday they were due to meet the Canadiens in Montreal. As happens in Canadian Februarys, a blizzard that had concealed western Ontario on the Tuesday was on the move east. Newspapers would tell the tale over the course of the next few days. Snow that fell across the province to a depth of 30 centimetres was whipped by 80-kilometre-an-hour winds that didn’t relent for 24 hours, making for the worst blizzard to hit Ontario since 1905. Six trains were stuck on the tracks between Toronto and Hamilton; Owen Sound was cut off. Toronto’s streetcars were stopped in their tracks, and most of its taxis. Two thousand telephones were knocked out of commission.

“The large army of the city’s unemployed saved the city’s bacon,” the Montreal Gazette contended, “and 6,000 of them — all that could be rounded up were turned loose with shovels to open the streets. It is estimated that the storm will cost the city $100,000 merely on [the] snow shovelling account.” (That’s close to $1.4-million in 2020 dollars.)

Capital-City Champs: The 1923 Stanley Cup winners, a year before they ended up stuck in the snow. Posed in the back row, left to right, are team president Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Petie Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, Harry Helman.

Ottawa’s hockey team had, originally, been scheduled to depart for Montreal on Wednesday’s 3.30 p.m. Canadian National express. Normally, that would have seen them into Montreal’s Windsor Station by 6.30, with plenty of time to spare before any puck dropped at the rink up at the corner of St. Urbain and Mount Royal. With the weather worsening, Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman rounded up his players to get out early, catching the noon train from Ottawa’s Union Station, across from the Chateau Laurier, where the Senate of Canada is now temporarily housed.

That earlier train should have delivered the hockey players to Montreal by 3.30 p.m. As it was, the CN express was late arriving from Pembroke, so didn’t depart Ottawa until 1.30. It didn’t get far — at Hurdman, just across the Ottawa River, the train and its cargo of hockey players were delayed waiting for a railway snowplow to lead the way east down the track.

Farther along the river, at Rockland, a frozen water-tank precipitated another stop. The journey continued, but not for long: just past Hawkesbury, with nearly 100 kilometres or so still to go, a plow from Montreal stalled on the westbound tracks, blocking both the Ottawa express it was leading and the progress of the eastbound trains.

Passengers from both trains joined railway crewmen to clear the way, but it was no use, the snow and the wind behind it were too much. “The snowdrifts blew back on the tracks as fast as they could be removed,” Ottawa papers recounted the next day. Conveniently for them, they had a man on the scene, a former Citizen sports editor, no less: Ottawa GM Tommy Gorman himself, who would somehow manage to file his crisis copy in time to make the Citizen’s Thursday front page.

It was 5 p.m. when the train was stopped. Senators who took up shovels were Cy Denneny, who’d end up leading the league in scoring that year, and his fellow forward Jack Darragh, along with defenceman Frank (a.k.a. King) Clancy — future Hall of Famers, all three — and Ottawa’s trainer, Cosey Dolan.

In vain. “The battle against the elements was hopeless from the start and after two hours work,” continued Gorman’s lusty telling, “a complete surrender to the storm king had to be admitted.”

It was bad news for all the crew and passengers. For the hockey players trying to get to the rink on time, there was the additional concern of not being able to get word to Montreal. It was impossible: the nearest telephone was 10 or 11 kilometres away, and many of the lines were down anyway.

Snowbound, the passengers and crew, hockey-playing and non, waited, and waited some more.

Along with the weather, the hockey players were enveloped by both humour and pathos. That’s from Gorman’s Citizen dispatch, too, though I kind of wish I’d thought of it.

The Senators shared their carriage with a bridal party from Ottawa. “The little bride stood the first part of the journey with smiles, but finally curled up and passed the night in one corner of the coach, with confetti and paper streamers scattered around the car.”

They also had the Honourable Arthur Cardin with them, the Liberal MP for Richelieu who was serving in Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. He was reported to be in a good mood throughout the evening’s ordeal.

Also aboard was a new mother travelling from Pembroke on the way to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital with her baby. This is pathos portion of the program, now — and the pay-off coming up right behind it, too. We don’t know the name of the mother, or of her child, just that the latter was on the bottle and, at a certain point, the former ran out of milk for her. Or him. The dining car couldn’t help — their dairy situation was no better.

Never fear: Conductor Dion of the CNR faithfully volunteered to venture out into the blizzard to see what he could find. The train crew, Gorman attests, were great (Roadmaster Munroe gets a shout-out, too, though no first name). Once more, Clancy and Denneny stepped up, insisting on joining the mission. Gorman’s account tells that remarkable tale while also leaving us wanting so much more:

… they tramped nearly a mile in snow up to their waists before they reached a farm house and got the resident out of his slumbers. He readily turned over his available supply, and in less than an hour the party were back at the train with a supply of milk that brought gladness to the heart of the distracted mother. Denneny fell down a well during his travels and had to be hauled out, and both he and Clancy were all in when they returned.

It was two-thirty in the morning by the time the track was cleared sufficiently for the Ottawa express to start out … back west, towards Ottawa. Three o’clock had struck by the time the rescued train made Hawkesbury, where it paused again.

Well Met: Cy Denneny, who led the NHL in scoring in 1923-24, despite having fallen down a well on a mercy mission to fetch milk for a baby in need.

As might be expected for the middle of a wintry night, the local restaurants were all closed. That didn’t keep foraging parties from setting out. “Canadian National Railway officials confiscated a big box of bread, intended for a local firm, and turned it over to the dining car staff,” Gorman wrote. The hockey players had successes of their own: “Frank Clancy landed back after their raid on the town with a can of soda crackers under his arm and [defenceman] Spiff Campbell succeeded in rounding up butter and eggs.”

By four a.m. the travellers were once again on their way east. They arrived in Montreal at 8.30. Fourteen hours after departing home, the Senators, Gorman tells us, “were hustled over to the Windsor Hotel and the players tumbled into their beds with instructions that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

Wednesday night’s crowd at Mount Royal Arena had been patient. When word began to pass that the Senators hadn’t reached the rink, the fans settled in for the wait. “It was a good humoured gathering,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the rooters in the east and west end sections making full use of every possible incident to create entertainment to pass away the time, while the band performed valiantly, one selection following one another [sic] in quick succession as the musicians did their bit to fill the gap.”

After an hour, some of the fans, a restless few, left the rink, though most stayed on. A line-up grew outside the box office as fans went looking for refunds.

At 10 o’clock, with no further word of where the Senators might be, Montreal coach Leo Dandurand stood up alongside presiding referee, Art Ross, to declare that the game would be postponed until Thursday night. Hold on to your ticket stubs, Dandurand mentioned in passing, they’ll be honoured then. The Gazette:

Spectators who did find themselves in a dilemma were those who threw away their stubs, and not a few were seen late in the evening frantically searching around the chairs for the lost coupons.

Thursday night, Ottawa was still shorthanded, dressing just nine players for the rescheduled game. George Boucher was back, but not Frank Nighbor. With Boucher and Lionel Hitchman taking care of defending goaltender Clint Benedict, Clancy shifted to centre.

The rink was, again, jammed to its 1924 rafters. “Little sympathy was shown the Senators by the crowd for the hardships they experience Wednesday,” the Gazette noted, “and when they took the ice last night they were greeted with good-natured boos.” All in all, the waylaid visitors performed as if they’d spent a night in a snowdrift after having fallen down a well: “Ottawa was never in the picture.”

Maybe, too, were they confident enough in their lead in the standings to allow themselves a night of letting up and coasting? The Gazette considered the possibility. “At any rate the Ottawas gave the impression of not being interested in the tussle. The forwards, barring King Clancy, lacked their customary aggressiveness; Hitchman played carelessly and even Benedict was off colour. Canadiens’ third goal was practically a gift from the Ottawa goalkeeper.”

Montreal captain Sprague Cleghorn scored that one, his second of the game, to increase a lead that Aurèle Joliat had given Canadiens. There were no more goals after the first period, and 3-0 for Montreal was how the game ended. The natural ice got stickier as time went on: “players from both teams found difficulty in keeping their feet and frequently overskated the puck.”

Two nights later, back home again, Ottawa beat the Canadiens 1-0 on a goal by Punch Broadbent. But while the Senators held on to their lead in the standings, they couldn’t turn their seasonal dominance into playoff success. In March, when the two teams ended up facing off for the NHL title in a home-and-home series, it was Montreal who came out on top, winning both games.

The Canadiens went on to meet the Calgary Tigers in the Stanley Cup Finals later on that month, sweeping both of the games they played towards the end of March. Winter wasn’t quite finished having its say that year: due to poor ice at the Mount Royal Arena, the Tigers and Canadiens caught the train to Ottawa, where they played the conclusive game of the 1924 season at the Auditorium.

Plow Now: A railway snowplow also not exactly related to the ordeal of the Ottawa Senators, but even unplaced, undated, illustrative all the same, no? (Image: Alexander Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-138699)

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

Seattle Strong: The Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens line up for their first Stanley Cup meeting in 1917. Seattle prevailed to become the first U.S. team to win the coveted trophy. In 1919, when they 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 finals 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 finals) 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 finals 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 finals 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 finals 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 foe 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 six Canadiens, including Lalonde 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.”

lions in winter

The Montreal Canadiens took to the ice at Verdun in January of 1924 for practice: here they are There’s not a whole lot more I can tell you about this photograph with any certainty. That’s Georges Vézina away down in the far net. And the near? Hard to say. Canadiens’ manager Leo Dandurand did sign a new goaltender that year, but not until October: Eugene Decosse, 25, was seen as an understudy and heir to Vézina, who was 37. (As it turned out, Decosse never played an NHL game.) So maybe is it right winger Billy Cameron? He wore number 11 that year, and it’s possible that he donned the pads in Verdun. I’m betting that the tall figure in front of him is captain Sprague Cleghorn. Based on the distinctive hairline, I’d guess that Billy Coutu is the man to his left. Otherwise — I don’t know. Sylvio Mantha is out there, and probably Sprague’s brother Odie, which is a pleasing phrase to say aloud, so here it is again: Sprague’s brother Odie. Could be a coated Dandurand, who also coached the team, off in the far corner, maybe? Is that a capped Aurèle Joliat skating up from the back — or is he bareheaded out on the extreme left? And next to that guy — possibly Howie Morenz, in his first season with Montreal, carrying the puck? The great Joe Malone played his last NHL hockey that year with Montreal, so he could be out there, too.

The record does show that Canadiens had a tough go of it in January of ’24. They would, just a few months later, win the NHL title, which they followed up by beating the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers to take the Stanley Cup.

But to start the year they went 3-7. Billy Coutu broke his wrist that month, and in a game against the Ottawa Senators at the Forum, Montreal’s Gazette noted that Vézina “looked a little off-colour, and caused a little apprehension among Canadiens supporters.” In Hamilton, during a 4-0 loss to the local Tigers, Canadiens’ winger Billy Boucher struck a spectator with his stick. “It might have been an accident,” the Gazettegenerously offers; “fans ran at him from all corners of the rink, but Cleghorn and a few more Montreal players barred the way to the dressing room until Boucher was safe behind locked doors.” They lost a subsequent game in Ottawa by a score of 2-1, despite a valiant showing by Morenz. This I’ve learned, too: “The Habitants plays seemed to made with deliberation and method and they wasted no valuable stamina in headlong rushes.”

Montreal was getting in gear by January 30, also a Wednesday in 1924, when they beat Hamilton 5-2 at the Forum on soft ice. Boucher and Morenz each scored a pair of goals, Joliat one of his own. The crowd was small, about 4,000, and the referee was Mike Rodden. The jeers he got towards the end of the game were “good-natured,” the Gazettesays: “he called back the play three times for offsides and on each occasion the puck had been sent past [Hamilton goaltender Jakie] Forbes.”

(Image: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-049739)

 

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.

 

a more up-to-date building could hardly be imagined: on this day in 1924, the montreal forum made its debut

Works In Progress: Construction continues on Montreal’s Forum in September of 1924. Ground was broken on the new rink on Cabot Square in June of the year; Canadiens and St. Patricks first skated on regular-season ice there on the night of November 29. (Image: © McCord Museum)

It was 94 years ago tonight that Billy Boucher scored the first NHL goal in the history of Montreal’s formerly august Forum: it took the Canadiens’ winger just 55 seconds on the night of Saturday, November 29, 1924, to beat Toronto St. Patrick’s goaltender John Ross Roach. Boucher came back for more, too, completing a natural hattrick early in the second period as Canadiens went on to win the night 7-1.

Built in five months at a reported cost of a $1,000,000 — some $14.7-million in modern-day dollars — the Forum wasn’t, in fact, Canadiens’ primary rink in 1924 — they made their main home at the Mount Royal Arena until 1926. It was Montreal’s expansion team, eventually known as the Maroons, who were the key tenants that first year.

Still, Canadiens got first crack at the Forum’s new artificial ice, and in getting that —  well, as the Gazette reported, “two records tumbled.” The crowd of 9,000 was the largest ever to witnessed a game in the city which had, additionally, never seen a professional game played so early as November. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, in the newspaper’s view: “As might be expected of hockey in November, the game was not a good exhibition,” their correspondent was sorry to say.

The building, on the other hand … “A more up-to-date building for sporting events could hardly be imagined.” An important innovation, for hockey: the new rink did away with “promenade” seats, right up along the boards. This, the Gazette felt, meant not only that spectators farther back would no longer find their views obstructed by promenade-folk standing up when a rush went down the ice; the new “arrangement also eliminates discomfort to the players, who have been frequently ragged and aggravated until they would lose their tempers, which results in arguments between spectators and players.”

On the subject of discomfort to players, an injury to Canadiens’ winger Odie Cleghorn did cloud the occasion. He stopped a foray by his Toronto counterpart Bert McCaffrey, who lost his balance. The Gazette:

In the words of Cleghorn, “quite by accident,” the tip of the stick of the falling player caught Odie in the eye and he had to be assisted from the ice. Medical examination showed that the under part of the eye lid had been cut, but that the eyeball had only been bruised.

The doctors wanted to wait for the swelling to recede before they decided a course of care. In the meantime, Cleghorn was “ordered to remain out of hockey for a few days.”

Sale Away: Canadiens played their last game at the Forum on March 11, 1996. Next day, the building hosted a public auction of famous bits and pieces, fittings and fixtures — possibly, also, an authentic splinter or two.

sammy rothschild: very speedy, with a whistling shot — lacks poundage

Any chance of a professional sporting career was supposed to have vanished for Sammy Rothschild on a baseball diamond in 1923. Sliding into second, he broke a leg, and that was supposed to be it for young Rothschild, who was already making a name for himself on ice as well as grass and basepaths.

No-one told Rothschild, apparently. Born on this date in 1900 in Sudbury, Ontario, his budding hockey career had, by the time of this injury, seen him star with the junior Sudbury Wolves and for McGill University. In the fall of 1924, Rothschild was among the first players signed by manager Cecil Hart when he was building an expansion team in Montreal. It took a while for them to take on the name Maroons; when Rothschild joined the team that October, there was still some thought that they might be a second band of NHL Wanderers. Starting out, they went mostly by Montreals.

The 24-year-old rookie left winger who happened to be the NHL’s first Jewish player skated out for the team’s inaugural game in Boston against the league’s other newcomers on December 1. Clint Benedict was the Montreal goaltender, with Dunc Munro and Dutch Cain on the defence; the forward line also featured veterans Punch Broadbent and Louis Berlinguette, winners of Stanley Cups, respectively, with Ottawa’s original Senators and the senior Montreal team, Canadiens. The Bruins prevailed, on that opening night, edging their visitors by a score of 2-1.

Rothschild scored for the first time in the NHL the next time the teams met, on December 17, when he notched two goals and added three assists in a 6-2 Montreal victory. The team had, by then, recruited another old Stanley-Cup-winning hand, Reg Noble. He and Broadbent were most of Montreal’s offense that year, sharing the team’s scoring lead with 20 points each by the time they’d finished their 30-game regular-season schedule. Rothschild was next in line, accumulating five goals and nine points as the team finished fifth in the six-team league, ahead of Boston if not quite in the playoffs.

The Maroons upped their game for their second season. With Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert added to the roster, they topped Ottawa in the NHL finals before going on to beat the Victoria Cougars of the PCHL to win the Stanley Cup. Rothschild was a modest contributor that year, statistically, scoring two regular-season goals (both of them game-winning) and four points. He played all four Stanley Cup games in 1926 without getting on the scoresheet. With a championship in hand, details like that may not registered so blankly to the Maroons and their fans. It’s also the case that each of the Maroons’ 11 players earned upwards of $3,000 each in bonus money for their Cup win.

Rothschild played another season in Montreal before coming to a crossroads in the fall of 1927. Maroons waived him, making him a free agent, and he thought about quitting the game, then, to go into the insurance business with teammate Nels Stewart. Montreal’s Gazette felt that he had plenty still to offer on the ice:

He is a brainy player with a whistling shot that is always dead to the corner and would be a valuable man to any club, major or minor.

Several teams were said to be pursuing his services before Odie Cleghorn signed him to play for his Pittsburgh Pirates, heading into their third season in the NHL. The local Pittsburgh Press approved:

The acquisition of Sammy Rothschild …, the only Jewish lad playing professional hockey, is expected to solve the center problem, and with a little more strength on the defense the Pirate pilot believes his club will get up in the running.

The Pirates did, it’s true, would make a return to the playoffs that season, though the Rangers stopped them there early on. Rothschild didn’t play much of a Pirate part at all, as it turned out. Just as the season was getting going he went down with what the Press diagnosed as “a slight attack of appendicitis.” Not long after that, the team suspended him for lacking condition and “violating club training rules.” The latter, in the NHL of the 1920s, tended to be a catch-all euphemism for living large and (often) bibulously, but back in Montreal the Gazette took up Rothschild’s defence.

The suspension was a surprise to all who’d encountered him in Montreal,

where Rothschild is popular and regarded as a player with an excellent club spirit. The report left an inference which no-one here who knows Rothschild would accept as the little forward player is noted as a clean-living lad whose habits are above reproach.

More likely: the problem lay with upper management, who weren’t providing the resources Odie Cleghorn needed to build a strong team, and that was leading to dissension within. Whatever the truth, Rothschild didn’t last: by the end of December, the Pirates released him unconditionally.

Within a week he’d found a new hockey home with the New York Americans. His Sudburiness likely figured in here: the coach in New York was his old Sudbury Wolves teammate Shorty Green, whose brother, Red, another former Wolf, played the left wing. Right winger Alex MacKinnon was said to have grown up next door.

“Very speedy and a clever stickhandler,” the Ottawa Citizen assessed Rothschild as he headed to his new team, standing 5’6” and weighing in at 145 lbs.; “lacks poundage.”

In New York, the newspapers scouting the Amerks’ new acquisition took an interest (in a way that the Canadian press never really seems to have) in Rothschild’s Jewishness. In announcing his home debut in early January of 1928, a column in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Madison Square Garden crowd would be filled with “American rooters and Sammy’s compatriots of the Jewish race.” To aid, perhaps, in drawing just such a crowd, the columnist cited this tantalizing (and almost certainly spurious) family history:

Sammy is a descendant of the Baron de Rothschild, Jewish international banker, perhaps the most famous in the world over. The story of the de Rothschild family is very interesting. The banking family originated centuries ago in Germany, but is now Parisian. The title is Austrian. Branches of the family are scattered all over the world. Sammy represents the British line in Canada.

The Daily News went with a more direct appeal, headlining its game-day coverage this way:

HEY! HEY! JEWISH SKATER JOINS AMERICANS TONIGHT

It was in the fall of 1926, little more than a year earlier, that the Americans’ MSG neighbours and rivals had launched their bizarre campaign to attract Jewish fans to their games. A press agent working for the Rangers, Johnny Bruno, was the brains of that short-lived operation, which involved pretending that goaltender Lorne Chabot (a Catholic) was, in fact, the NHL’s first Jewish player, variously identified in the local papers as Leopold Shabotsky/Shavatsky/Chabotsky. Before newspapermen back in Canada pointed out that no, Chabot wasn’t, Bruno also tried to pass off Rangers’ winger Ollie Reinikka — his actual background in British Columbia was Finnish — as an Italian named Ollie Rocco.

On the ice for the star-spangled Americans, Rothschild seems to have made a good early impression in New York. He does seem to have sickened again that winter, which kept him out of the line-up; there’s also mention of a bad knee, presumably the one he’d injured running the bases back in ’23. Nevertheless, some columnists felt, he was destined to become one of the most popular players in Manhattan, “a Hebrew athlete never fails to draw crowds to the gate.”

It didn’t work out. Rothschild couldn’t score in the 11 games he played for the Americans that winter, or didn’t, and by mid-February he was out of the line-up. I’ve seen it suggested that his aching knee forced him to quit, though nothing conclusive. Rothschild’s professional demise was as thorough as it was quick, to the point that the next NHL reference I can see in the newspaper archives is from 1931 when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenceman Alex Levinsky. He was going to be good, opined The Ottawa Citizen at that time, and if he was, well, one of the New York teams would surely try to lure him to Madison Square Garden. “Gotham has been on the lookout for a Jewish hockey star for years,” the feeling was. “Though he is very popular in Toronto, New York would open him with open arms.”

After the NHL, Sammy Rothschild returned to Sudbury. He was a referee and then a coach, taking to the bench of his old team, the junior Wolves, and steering them to a 1932 Memorial Cup championship. He was a curler, too, and served as president of the Dominion Curling Association. Away from the ice, he prospered as a clothier, a Montreal Gazette obituary relates, “one of the city’s most prominent businessmen.” He served as a city alderman and, in 1963, ran without success for mayor. Sam Rothschild died in 1987 at the age of 87.

Of his NHL days, Stanley-Cup-winning though they might have been, he once said this:“I was only a player, never a star. Some think that anyone who played in the NHL at that time must have been a star. But it just wasn’t so — especially in my case.”

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.