a fighting, snarling star (a good-natured, likable cuss)

babe s

End of the summer, 1939, and as the world headed for war, Babe Siebert was back home in western Ontario in the little crossroads village of Zurich, where he’d grown up. At 35, Siebert the younger had played the last game of his monumental NHL career in the spring of the year, March, going out as captain of the Montreal Canadiens as they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Detroit’s Red Wings. Slowed, in his final season, by a wrenched back, he’d scored the last of his NHL goals in February against Toronto. Once, as a Maroon in Montreal early in his career, he’d plied the wing, joining Nels Stewart and Hooley Smith on one of the league’s most feared lines, but he’d finished up on defence. Lending his experience to guide the Canadiens, too: when, midway through the season, the Canadiens fired coach Cecil Hart, after Frank Boucher and Herb Gardiner were said to have turned down the job, club secretary Jules Dugal took up the team’s reins with Siebert as a playing assistant.

There was talk again, after the season, of Frank Boucher taking over the team, or maybe Bun Cook? But most of the betting was on Siebert, who was indeed named to the post in early June.

In August, on the occasion of his father’s 80th birthday, Siebert travelled west to Zurich from Montreal with his family. A month still remained before the Canadiens would gather to train for the season’s start in early November. On this day, August 25, 1939, newspapers bore dispatches of imminent war in Europe. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was appealing to Adolf Hitler to back off his threats to Poland; Pope Pius XII asked the world to pray for peace.

Babe Siebert took his daughters for a swim, Judy, 11, and 10-year-old Joan. Lake Huron wasn’t far, a few miles to the west. Siebert was there with his girls and two of his nieces, and his friend from Zurich was with them, Clayton Hoffman. One of the children let go of an inner-tube and when it began to float off, Siebert called the children in and went after it himself. He was 150 feet out when he got into trouble.

“The wind was carrying it parallel to the shoreline,” Hoffman later said, “and it was soon apparent that he was in difficulty. I was standing on the shore fully dressed when I heard his cries.”

Hoffman reported going into the water but getting tangled in his clothes. Siebert was 35 feet away. “Before I could reach him, Babe had gone down for the last time.”

Miss Burnette Mouseau of Zurich was sitting in a car on the beach and she raised the first alarm. Hoffman ran to a nearby house to seek aid. Would-be rescuers dove down to search at the spot where Siebert was last seen, but he was gone. Eventually, a fishing boat was summoned from Grand Bend to help in the search. was It was three days before his body was found by his brother, Frank, on the lake’s bottom, about 40 feet from where he’d vanished. Continue reading

the nosebleeds

Overview: From up in the gallery, the gods, the nosebleeds in New York’s third Madison Square Garden, the one Tex Rickard built, here’s the view you’d have looking down nearly 80 years ago on the Rangers doing battle with the Chicago Black Hawks. Madison Square is a guess — the loudspeaker over centre ice looks like the one they had there in 1937. That’s the date on the photograph, November 13, 1937. Of course, Chicago was in Toronto that night, and this isn’t Maple Leaf Gardens, so I’m taking the date as being that of publication rather than a proof of when the photograph was taken. November 11, 1937, Chicago was in New York, and they won, 3-1, in front of a crowd of 16,000: I think that’s the one we’re seeing. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stuck all round it. The Hawks got a goal from Mush March that night, another two from Doc Romnes; Cecil Dillon scored for the Rangers. Mike Karakas was outstanding, I know from reading, in the Chicago goal; Dave Kerr, in the Ranger net, didn’t rate a mention. Ott Heller took a misconduct: he tapped referee Mickey Ion (said a hometown reporter) but Ion took it as a malign push.

Overview: From up in the gallery, the gods, the nosebleeds in New York’s third Madison Square Garden, the one Tex Rickard built, here’s the view you’d have looking down nearly 80 years ago on the Rangers doing battle with the Chicago Black Hawks. Madison Square is a guess — the loudspeaker over centre ice looks like the one they had there in 1937. That’s the date on the photograph, November 13, 1937. Of course, Chicago was in Toronto that night, and this isn’t Maple Leaf Gardens, so I’m taking the date as being that of publication rather than a proof of when the photograph was taken. November 11, 1937, Chicago was in New York, and they won, 3-1, in front of a crowd of 16,000: I think that’s the one we’re seeing. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stuck all round it. The Hawks got a goal from Mush March that night, another two from Doc Romnes; Cecil Dillon scored for the Rangers. Mike Karakas was outstanding, I know from reading, in the Chicago goal; Dave Kerr, in the Ranger net, didn’t rate a mention. Ott Heller took a misconduct: he tapped referee Mickey Ion (said a hometown reporter) but Ion took it as a malign push.

pulling the proverbial goalie, with apologies to clint and hooley smith

Pullman: Boston's oft-yanked goaltender Tiny Thompson takes stick stock, circa 1930. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Pullman: Boston’s oft-yanked goaltender Tiny Thompson takes stick stock, circa 1930. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Never mind the NHL’s ongoing historical confusion: the consensus remains that it was Boston coach Art Ross who was first to pull the proverbial goalie in an NHL game. Ever the innovator, Ross was, of course, trying to outman the opposition and tie up a game his team was losing. Tiny Thompson was the ’tender in question on that inaugural essay; leaping to the ice in his stead was Red Beattie. This was in 1931, in a Stanley Cup semi-final, and for the Bruins, a vain effort: Montreal held their lead and won the game, 1-0.

Now that we’ve got that all cleared up (again), a few further findings from the last several weeks to expand the pulled-goalies file.

• Windsor Star columnist and hockey biographer and historian Bob Duff has reset the chronology on the first empty-net goal to have been scored on a team with its goalie gone. Previously, Clint Smith of the Chicago Black Hawks was the man widely acknowledged first to have hit a vacant net, on November 11, 1943, in a 6-4 victory over Ross’ Bruins. That’s what the Fame-Hall of Hockey reports in their Smith biography, and it’s in several authoritative books, too, like ‪Kings of the Ice: A History of World Hockey (2002) by Andrew Podnieks, Dmitri Ryzkov, et al. The Hall alludes to a change in league rules at that time, allowing goalie-yanking, but that’s not right: there was never any legislation like that before or after Tiny Thompson’s 1931 departure. Kings of the Ice is mistaken, too, when it says that the practice was seldom used until the 1950s.

In fact, coaches whose teams were in need of a late goal didn’t seem to hesitate to try it all through the 1930s, especially if their names were Ross and/or Lester Patrick. Which, when you think about it, makes 12 years look like a long, long time for all those professional hockey players to be not scoring when they had all those unguarded net to shoot at.

That’s why Bob Duff’s finding makes much better sense. As he pointed out to members of the Society for International Hockey Research this past week, it’s time we adjusted the date of the NHL’s first empty-net goal to January 12, 1932. New York Rangers were in Boston that night, so some of the protagonists remained from the Montreal game nine months earlier. It’s worth noting that after three periods, tied 3-3, the teams played on into unsudden, non-lethal overtime — i.e. the teams played a full ten-minute period with all the goals counted. It wasn’t long before Ranger right winger Cecil Dillon took a pass from Murray Murdoch and beat the Bruins’ Tiny Thompson. A little later, when Ross called him, Thompson, to the bench, Dillon — but let the AP reporter tell it was, as he did, in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Cecil pulled the rubber out of a pack near his goal, and after beating every Bruin, belted home the final score with no opposition.

Sorry, Clint Smith.

• As it turns out, Cecil Dillon found a way to emphasize his 1932 empty-net achievement. By coincidence — I guess it could also have been fated — either way, exactly a year later, he did it again. This time around, January 12, 1933, the Rangers hosted the Bruins at Madison Square Garden. With the Bruins down by a goal with two minutes left in the third period, Art Ross once again summoned Tiny Thompson to the bench. A Ranger shot hit the Boston post, followed closely by a Ranger defenceman, Ott Heller, who then had to be carried off with a suspected leg injury. The Daily Boston Globe:

From the next face-off Dillon let fly from the middle of the center zone and scored a bull’s-eye on the vacant net. It came with 26 seconds to go.

The 1930-31 Boston Bruins. A study of the roster that year would suggest that that's, back Row, left to right: Marty Barry, Art Chapman, Harry Oliver, Harold Darragh, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, Henry Harris, Percy Galbraith. Front: Dit Clapper, Jack Pratt, Eddie Shore, Tiny Thompson, Lionel Hitchman, George Owen, Dutch Gainor. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

The 1930-31 Boston Bruins. A study of the roster that year would suggest that that’s, back Row, left to right: Marty Barry, Art Chapman, Harry Oliver, Harold Darragh, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, Henry Harris, Percy Galbraith. Front: Dit Clapper, Jack Pratt, Eddie Shore, Tiny (blurry) Thompson, Lionel Hitchman, George Owen, Dutch Gainor. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

• The first empty-net goal scored in a rink where Ross, Thompson and the rest of the Bruins were not present seems to have been one that Aurele Joliat put away nine days after that inaugural Dillon effort in 1931. Toronto’s Leafs were in Montreal for this one, trailing the Canadiens 1-2 when Lorne Chabot departed the crease. The AP report in Boston’s Globe:

Toronto, always dangerous, was confident that it could score with six forwards, but Joliat hook-checked the puck away from Red Horner and scored the last goal and Howie Morenz almost repeated before the bell.

• In case anyone’s asking: the first goalie to be pulled at Maple Leaf Gardens was Montreal’s Wilf Cude by coach Sylvio Mantha on February 20, 1936. No goal ensued: Toronto won the game 2-1. Andy Lytle from the hometown Daily Star termed it a “showmanship stunt.”

• Six forwards: that does seem to have been the norm in those days. Today a coach might be content to leave his defenceman in place while adding a further forward but in the 1930s, more often than not, teams appear to have been going for offensive broke.

Which was why Bullet Joe Simpson, for one, didn’t like it. Famous in his own playing days, he was the coach of the New York Americans by the time Cecil Dillon scored his anniversary empty-netter in early 1933. “I don’t believe taking your goalie off is a good thing,” he confided. It was “freak hockey and unsound;” Boston, he felt, deserved what it got. He wasn’t done, either:

Six men are too many to have around the enemy nets. They are sure to get in one another’s way, because there isn’t room enough for them to deploy. And if they should shoot a goal, it’s apt to be called back for interference — somebody between the man with the puck and the goalie.

• What about the other end of the ice? Surprising how little has been written about the success stories. The reason you pull your goalie, if you’re Art Ross or anyone else, is to use that extra manpower to score that all-important tying goal. So who was the first to do that? The NHL.com’s paltry historical miscellany has nothing on that, and nor does the Hockey Hall of Fame, or any of the stand-by reference books. At least, if they do, not anywhere that I’ve been able to fathom.

It did take a long time for that first goal to go in, as it turns out. Years and years. In today’s NHL, pulling the goalie has developed into a strategy that yields a good return. It’s worth doing; it often works. That’s what the modern numbers tell us, along with the charts on the websites where they’re crunched and glossed, and the studies who’ve made it their business to study the stats.

I don’t know how often, exactly, goalies were leaving their nets in hope and desperation in the 1930s because I haven’t done the sifting you’d have to do to figure that all the way out. I can say, anecdotally, that Tiny Thompson was a fairly frequent fleer, in Boston and then later when Jack Adams was calling him to the bench in Detroit. Dave Kerr of the Rangers was another regular, as Lester Patrick’s goaltender with the Rangers. Alec Connell was yanked, in Ottawa. In Montreal, I haven’t myself seen an instance of Flat Walsh leaving the Maroon net, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. George Hainsworth, of the Canadiens, definitely did. Given Bullet Joe Simpson’s feelings, it’s possible that he left Shrimp Worters where he was throughout the Shrimp’s Americans career.

So: lots of goalies leaving many nets. And yet the first time the tactic paid off seems to have been in … 1937, five-and-a-half seasons after Art Ross first gave it a go. The newspapers noted the achievement, if only in passing: there was no great huzzah.

It seems only fitting that Ross was the one who finally got it right. Tiny Thompson was still in (and out of) the Bruins’ net. Also of note: five players who were on the ice that first time in 1931 (Boston was shorthanded at the time), four were in the 1937 game wearing Boston colours — Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, and Dit Clapper — while the fifth, Art Chapman, was playing for the visiting New York Americans.

He scored the game’s opening goal in the second period. By the time that was over, the Americans had built up a 4-0 advantage. Boston didn’t look good, as even the hometown Daily Boston Globe was forced to concede:

Lorne Chabot could have held the New York citadel inviolate with an eclair in either hand.

The Amerks were leading 5-1 and 6-4 in the third before Clapper made it 6-5 on a pass from Weiland.

Twenty-five seconds remained when Ross called in Thompson. (The Associated Press says 30. Not sure how much I trust the AP account, though, given that it also contains this sentence: “It was probably one of the most weird games in the Boston’s hockey history.”) Boston defenceman Flash Hollett followed his goaltender to the bench to let a forward go on and so (just like in 1931) the Bruins only had five players on the ice and no numerical advantage when Hooley Smith scored the goal that tied the game and made the history that eventually got mislaid.

The teams played a ten-minute overtime without any more goals. Neither goaltender, said the Globe, had to make a difficult save. Right until the end, both of them stayed in their nets.

• So that’s that. Except for — well, no, not quite.

About an hour after I’d tracked down the 1937 Hooley Smith goal, complete with contemporary confirmation that it was unprecedented, I came across a 1933 game in which Eddie Shore scored a goal to tie up the Chicago Black Hawks while (do you even have to ask?) Tiny Thompson was on the bench. So that would be the first time a goalie pulled resulted in a goal scored, no?

Yes. I think so. It’s not an entirely straightforward case, though. Continue reading

ott heller night

Ott Heller returned, as promised. The Rangers were playing in Montreal that Saturday night, February 14, 1942, against the last-place Canadiens, so it qualified as an upset when Montreal came out on top by a score of 5-3. Eyeing the line-up, you don’t see a Hab team for the ages: the top line had Terry Reardon between Toe Blake and Joe Benoit. Buddy O’Connor scored a couple of Hab goals, and there were fights. Listed in the line-up among the spares, Heller didn’t figure in the newspaper accounts: he made no news. Some of them make it sound like he kept to the bench the whole game, which I guess is possible. Or maybe he was pencilled in to play and didn’t, at the last minute, feel right.

o hThe Rangers caught the train home and the following night, Sunday, they met the Brooklyn Americans at Madison Square Garden. There was a trophy they played for in those years, New York teams, the winner of the season’s series got the William J. MacBeth Memorial Cup, and this would be the night they handed it over. It already belonged to the Rangers — they’d won five out of six games already that year — but the Americans measured out some revenge on the night by winning this one by a score of 5-1. Heller did play on this night, partnered with Neil Colville; Bill Juzda sat as the Rangers’ fifth defenceman. Heller played about 12 minutes and was, again, unnewsworthy.

“We’re in a slump,” said coach Frank Boucher, “no doubt of that. I only trust we shake it off before somebody catches us.”

Tuesday they had the Canadiens coming in. “The boys in the gallery,” advised Kerr N. Petrie of The New York Herald Tribune, “are busy getting their banners ready for ‘Ott Heller Night.’” The night of Heller’s injury in January, of course, they’d called off a tribute in fear of jinxing “the hard-working defense horse of the Manhattan Blues” (The New York Daily Mirror), so I suppose the feeling was that now they were clear to proceed hexfree.

Before he hurt his shoulder, Ranger management had been talking him up as a candidate for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Jim Hurley at The Daily Mirror thought maybe he’d had better years behind him. Still:

Heller is a workman who certainly rates the highest praise for his consistently good performance over a 12-season period and the festivities tonight are quite in order.

His problem, maybe, was that fans with unschooled eyes couldn’t discern his contributions. He was hiding in plain sight. Hurley again:

Since he lacks the splash and color of some rearguard workers, and the murderous mien of others, the fans have no conception of Heller as a glamor player. His best endorsement comes from rival players and coaches, who are cognizant of the consistently steady game he turns in.

The Rangers, at least, were going to give him a trophy, inscribed “To Ehrhardt (Ott) Heller in appreciation — N.Y. Rangers,” and also (Hurley reported) “a nice boodle of defense bonds.” His teammates had presents for him, too, and the fans were planning “demonstrations.” The Brooklyn Americans (interestingly) were all planning to attend, along with 1,000 members of the Rovers Rooter Club — fans of the Rangers’ New York farm club. Continue reading

old reliable himself

By February 12, Ott Heller was ready to rejoin the Rangers. Twelve games and a little over a month after he’d broken his shoulder, he was mended, eager to play in one of the weekend games, Saturday in Montreal or maybe back home at the Garden Sunday against Brooklyn. Well, mostly mended: as Lester Rice wrote in New York’s Journal-American, “old reliable himself” was still a little weak in the left hand.

ott hellerIn his absence, the Rangers had gone 9-3, and that had them in first in the standings, two points up on Boston. The Bruins, of course, had just lost their top line to the war: Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer, and Porky Dumart had left the team at the end of January to report for duty with the RCAF. New York, meanwhile, couldn’t stop scoring: “Frankie Boucher’s Rangers,” wrote Jim Hurley from The New York Daily Mirror, were “shaping up with each passing game as perhaps the greatest scoring machine that hockey has ever known.” They had 12 games left to play in the regular season: if they could average three goals a game, they’d tie the Bruins’ 1929-30 record for team goals, 179. Manager Lester Patrick wasn’t worried about records, he said, and he didn’t want his players thinking about them, either — they just had to win.

“We’ll use Ott sparingly at the start,” Boucher was saying. “He’s kept himself in splendid condition by skating and practicing at every opportunity, but after all he’s been out of action for five weeks, and will have to take things easy for a game or two, until he feels he is ready to take his regular turn.”

They’d carry five defencemen, Boucher said: Neil Colville wasn’t going to return to his place on the forward line. “The truth of the matter,” said Boucher, “is Neil doesn’t want to wear wings any loner. He like the job back of the blue line so much he wants to live out the remainder of his career there. It will seem strange to some folks perhaps to have the Rangers carrying five defenders when we are building a reputation on attack, but I think it’s a good idea.”

According to the Daily Mirror, Heller’s injury hadn’t affected his standing as a contender for the Hart Trophy: he still had “a good chance” of being voted the league’s MVP. Oh, he was set to be fêted too:

Plans are now under way to stage the postponed “Ott Heller Night” during the Rangers-Canadiens game at the Garden next Tuesday.

Hexes, I guess, be damned.

mad-pace rangers (and one-armed ott heller)

NYR 2/1/42

This record-breaking streak of the Rangers’, in 1942, the one where they’d failed to be shut out for 78 consecutive games, it was a big deal, in 1942. In New York it was, anyway. It didn’t hurt that they were the hottest team in the NHL that February, leading the league, looking like (according to the papers) they’d regained the form that won them the Stanley Cup in 1942. They had a sharp rookie goaltender in Sugar Jim Henry (above), not to mention the league’s top three scorers all playing all together on a line, Bryan Hextall, Lynn Patrick, and Phil Watson. The loss of defenceman Ott Heller hadn’t fazed them, apparently, and nor did the prospect of facing Toronto’s Turk Broda, deemed by several New York sportswriters the goaltender mostly likely to blank them and break the streak. Didn’t happen. On February 1 they beat the Leafs 7-2 at Madison Square Garden, their 11th win in the 13 games they’d played since Christmas, and their 84th non-shutout in a row. In 31 games, they’d tallied 125 goals. “If they maintain this mad pace through the remaining 17 games,” Lester Rice wrote in the Journal-American, “they will have put all previous scoring records to shame with 193 goals.”

blankless 3

There was good news on the Heller front, too: he was back on the ice, skating, taking shots — well, one-armed swings, at least:

ott one armed

I have no squawk

I may have downplayed the severity of the injury to Ott Heller’s left shoulder and if I did, I’m sorry. First of all, I failed to provide a detailed account of how he hurt himself in New York’s game against Detroit on January 6, 1942, which is to say Heller’s own, which he gave to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Other papers of the day have him falling or falling heavily, both of which sound unaided if not outright clumsy. “Jack Stewart was giving me a going over,” is what Heller told Harold Parrott from the Eagle. “I tried to come up under him to give him the worst of it when — bang! — my shoulder went. I have no squawk. I just got the worst of it, that’s all.”

Ranger manager Lester Patrick with Heller ahead of his shoulder surgery.

Ranger manager Lester Patrick with Heller ahead of his shoulder surgery.

With Heller out, the Rangers were left with three defencemen: Babe Pratt, Art Coulter, and rookie Bill Juzda. That’s worth noting, and maybe this, too: Coulter, who took over Heller’s shift as well as skating his own, ended up playing more than 40 minutes on the night.

A couple of days late he went in for surgery at New York’s Polyclinic Hospital. He was still there recovering on the night of January 13th when the Rangers’ played their next game against the Brooklyn Americans, a 9-2 that Heller listened to on the wireless.

Centre Neil Colville dropped back to the blueline to help out in Heller’s absence. Something else I didn’t really go into is Rangers’ streak of goal-scoring games. The Detroit was the 77th in a row during which they’d failed to be shutout: not since a 3-0 to Boston in April of 1940 had they failed to score a goal in an NHL game. That equalled a mark that they’d previously attained in 1933. Another Detroit team, backstopped by John Ross Roach, had put a stop to that one. Heller was the only Ranger who’d played for the team during both those streaks, though 1942 coach Frank Boucher had been on the ice, too, for that earlier team.

Against Brooklyn in 1942, the New York Times thought the Rangers were worried about not extending the “blankless” record, and attacked without relent from the opening face-off. Lynn Patrick was the NHL’s leading goalscorer at the time, and he was the one to score first, at 1:36, when he beat the Americans’ Charlie Rayner.