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.

righteous on the rideau: ottawa shocked, lord stanley denounced

Never On A Sunday: In 1890, MP John Charlton joined some of Ottawa’s clergy in condemning Lord Stanley and his vice-regal family and friends for desecrating the Sabbath with their Rideau Hall hockey games. Charlton, seen here in winter warms in 1884, didn’t just rail: he introduced a bill in Parliament to shut down Canadian Sundays entirely. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada)

Nothing against the Vegas Golden Knights or Washington’s own Capitals, who’ll meet tonight to decide who gets to claim the Stanley Cup and brandish it aloft.

If we’re a little quiet up here in Canada when the time of your triumph comes in a week or two, sorry: it’s not you, it’s us. It’s painful, for us, that yet again none of our true-north teams is in the mix. Even after all these years of yielding the former Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup to foreign powers, we’re still not quite used to the idea. Best not to remind us, either, that the trophy we covet so dearly was mostly an offshore affair from the start. It’s not just that the original Stanley Cup was bought and smithed overseas, in London. As much as it has occupied the imaginations of Canadians since then, this sacred cup of ours was first dreamed of by a 51-year-old Englishman who’d come here for work.

We’re still a little raw about that, too.

Not that we don’t revere Baron Stanley of Preston and that foundational gesture of his. If he’s not exactly the reason for the (hockey) season, Lord Stanley is written indelibly into Canada’s hockey story as a founder of the feast. Apart from anything else, he and his family remind us of how alluring our winter game is, and that it’s actually okay for foreigners to learn and love it — good things can happen.

Strange ones, too. With time to spare ahead of tonight’s game, can we dwell on an episode that’s got a little lost in the annals of our sixth governor-general’s association with the game we like to claim as our own? Is it possible that there was a time when Canadians actually rebuked Lord Stanley and his hockey-adoring family for their very enthusiasm?

It is, and we did, some of us, back in 1890, two years before Lord Stanley got around to commissioning his famous trophy. The whole affair roiled Ottawa, briefly, and made international headlines — small ones, it’s true, but pithy enough. With all that’s been written about the Stanleys and the cup that goes by their name, this is a bit of a missing chapter. It’s not a long one, and it vanished from the newspapers as quickly as it had appeared. It could, I suppose, have soured Lord Stanley on hockey for good, thereby endangering the entire future of hockey history — except, of course, that it didn’t.

First, some background. Baron Stanley of Preston arrived at Rideau Hall in June of 1888, he and his wife, Constance, were accompanied by four of their ten children. Much of the family embraced hockey enthusiastically during their first Canadian winter, including 13-year-old Isobel, a great hockey-playing story in her own right.

Vice-Regal Roster: The Rebels of Rideau Hall, circa 1889. From left, they are Captain Wingfield, one of Lord Stanley’s ADCs; Arthur Stanley; James Creighton, hockey pioneer and Senate law clerk; (standing behind) Nova Scotia Senator Lawrence Power; (sitting in front) Lieutenant Aubrey McMahon, ADC; Ontario Liberal MP John Barron; Ontario Liberal MP Henry Ward; J. de St. Lemoine; Edward Stanley; (seated, far right) H.B. Hawkes. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-204250)

She was skating, stick in hands, in February of 1889. That same month, her brother Arthur (19) organized the Government-House team that would become known as the Rideau Rebels. At least two other Stanley brothers were in on this: Edward (24) and Victor (22). In their original alignment, the Rebels also featured a pair of vice-regal military aides, including Lieutenant Aubrey McMahon, who’s in the photograph here. The team’s earliest opposition was a five-man team made up of (mostly opposition Liberal) members of Parliament.

Much of this has been carefully documented, notably by Kevin Shea and John Jason Wilson in their 2006 biography, Lord Stanley: The Man Behind The Cup, where you’ll find a detailed account of what happened when the Stanley boys got serious about the Rebels during their second Ottawa winter, organizing a busy exhibition schedule for the team both on home ice, at Rideau Hall, and out and about across Ontario.

Arthur Stanley seems to have been the driving force in this, abetted by Ontario Liberal M.P. and keen hockeyist John Barron. The team sported crimson sweaters and white trousers and caps, and seems to have travelled in style, possibly by way of the Governor-General’s vice-regal railway car.

In the first week of February of 1890, the team travelled west from Ottawa to play in Lindsay, Ontario, where Barron had his legal practice. From there, they carried on to Toronto, playing a pair of games on Saturday, February 8. In the afternoon, the Rebels beat the team from the Granite Club, 5-4, before falling 1-4 to St. Georges in the evening. High sticks and fights featured in both games, “to the point,” as Shea and Wilson note, “that hockey received its first appreciable coverage in Toronto, albeit through editorials denouncing the violence of the game.”

Back in Ottawa, meanwhile, a different and mostly, now, forgotten scandal was brewing.

The first of the fuss appeared in the press just as the Rebels were embarking on their road trip. Before their departure, the team would seem to have been preparing, as teams do, with practices. Were they out scrimmaging on the Rideau Hall rink on Sunday, February 2? Seems so. There’s no indication that Lord Stanley himself was skating — indeed, I don’t know that we know if he ever got up on blades, or tried a vice-regal wrist-shot. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t about to be excoriated for desecrating the Sabbath.

It wasn’t only local Ottawa papers that took up the cry: The New York World was on it quickly, too, and within days, the news had carried to the pages of papers in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Lawrence, Kansas. Before long, the English press was taking note as well.

The scandalous word was out: the fact that Lord Stanley and members of his household and “some leaders of Ottawa’s upper society circle” were said to have been playing hockey on Sundays was said to roiling the city’s “religious circles.”

Naming Names: News of Lord Stanley’s turpitude reaches a Sheffield paper in England in February of 1890.

The World’s report was the one that spread widest, and it promised further fall-out: “His Excellency will probably be rebuked from one or more of the city church pulpits next Sunday.”

And so it was. I don’t know about the more, but here’sone:at the Congregationalist Church that in those years occupied the corner of Elgin and Albert streets, Reverend John Wood set aside his usual lesson from the Old Testament to orate on the law of God in regard to the Sabbath and (as was reported next day) “the example of the Saviour of His apostles in respect to its observance.”

Shame: Word reaches Philadelphia.

Reverend Wood said the hockey was only hearsay, but even that was bad enough: he “exceedingly regretted” having heard it. He wasn’t inclined to believe the rumour, he went on, except that one of the players involved had been so bold as to write a letter that Reverend Wood had seen. It didn’t just confirm that there washockey being played at Rideau Hall on Sundays, this letter — the writer was positively glorying in the shame of it.

Would Her Majesty Queen Victoria allow such a thing on the grounds of Windsor Castle? No. Why, then, should it permitted on the grounds of the vice-regal residence in Canada? It was bad enough when the poor violated the Sabbath, Reverend Wood continued; it was, if possible, even lesspardonable for the rich.

“Mr. Wood’s remarks met with the decided approval of the congregation,” The St. Louis Dispatchreported.

We don’t know what Queen Victoria was thinking about all this — chances are that she wasn’t. Lord Stanley? He must have been — we just don’t have any record of the shape or temperature of whatever was on his mind that week. The Advertiserin Montgomery, Alabama, did inform its readers that an unnamed member of the Rideau Hall staff was wondering why the people of Canada should be interfering at all in what was so clearly a private matter. According to anonymous him, regular people back home in England “did not regard a game of hockey on Sunday as so very criminal.”

Beloved as his name may be to generations of hockey fans over whom he never reigned, Lord Stanley was not, in February of 1890, having a banner month in the press. That much we do know. In fact, the very same day that readers in Missouri were learning what Reverend Wood thought in Ottawa, the headline front-and-centre on page one of The New York Times read “Lord Stanley Denounced.”

The Times hadn’t registered (or didn’t care about) the outrage of Sabbath hockey. Instead, their correspondent had his eye on the indignation fermenting among members of the Canadian Parliament that was threatening to make Lord Stanley “one of the most unpopular Governor Generals Canada has ever had.”

The cause? Lord Stanley, it seems, had cancelled the annual Rideau Hall state ball. The reason given was that Lady Stanley was “indisposed,” but everybody knew better, according to the Times: “in reality his Excellency and the vice-regal household are averse to having the vulgar crowd of common people invade the privileged precincts of the vice-regal residence.”

Lord Stanley had, subsequently, relented. Somewhat, anyway: invitations had gone out for a pair of dances to be celebrated at Rideau Hall that very February week.

The storm abated, if only until Ottawa discovered who hadn’tbeen invited to twirl: many members of Parliament and the Senate, along with most of the city’s business and merchant elites. The word was that much of the guest list was taken up by civil servants who happened to have English blood and a good family name in their favour. “It is enough,” an editorial in Toronto’s Globe raged, “that Rideau Hall is a rat hole for many thousands of public money without becoming a nursery for snobbishness.”

Other papers were reporting that Lord Stanley was to be recalled to England imminently. His successor? The Vancouver Daily World said that the Duke of Fife had already been appointed — “a very popular and sensible nobleman.” The Winnipeg Tribune was hearing that the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, would take the job himself.

Not everybody was willing to drop the matter of the Sabbath having been defiled. In light of what was happening at Rideau Hall, MP John Charlton announced that he would be introducing a bill in Parliament to outlaw Sunday hockey.

Charlton was not, so far as I can determine, a hockey player. Even if he had been, I’m not sure that he would have ever allowed himself to chase a puck past midnight on a Saturday. The fact that he was a colleague of the Rebels’ John Barron in the Liberal caucus doesn’t seem to have moderated his view, either.

American-born, Charlton had migrated to Canada as a young man. Now 61, he had a pre-politics background in farming and the lumber business. He’d been a town councillor in southwestern Ontario before seeking and winning election to Parliament as the member for Norfolk North in 1872.

Forestry and the lumber trade with the United States took up most of his attention as a politician, but as Thomas Ferns and Robert Craig Brown make clear in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography,

his religious beliefs and strong convictions about moral reform also found frequent expression, both commercially and politically. A member of the Presbyterian Church from the 1850s and a confirmed Sabbatarian, he did not permit labour in his lumber camps on the Sabbath and he managed to confine his business travels to the other six days of the week, returning home … by Sunday. For Charlton public morality and national strength were most definitely connected.

By 1890, Charlton had been lobbying for a stricter national policy on slowing down the nation’s Sundays for more than a decade. When the Lord’s Day Alliance of the Dominion of Canada was established in 1888, Charlton was elected vice-president.

Now, he clearly saw that an opportunity was at hand: with Sunday hockey at Rideau Hall as his wedge, Charlton had his bill ready to introduce to Parliament by early March. “It is a physical necessity that man should have a day of rest at regular intervals,” he told the House of Commons ahead of the bill’s first reading, “and experience teaches that one day in seven is the natural period, the observance of which is for both his physical and moral well-being.”

This 1890 bill of Charlton’s packed its no-fun agenda into 11 sections stipulating all that Canadians wouldn’t be able to do when they woke up of a Sunday morning. Forbidden under Charlton’s law would working at any job, or compelling anyone else to work; selling and buying anything; tippling in any inn, anywhere; promoting or causing any horse or foot race, or cock-fight; revelling; swearing; hunting, shooting, or pursuing any game; going out fishing, or catching or killing even the tiniest fish; printing or delivering any newspaper; opening any canal in Canada, or post office, or railway station; running any train, freight or passenger (with a few exceptions); allowing any steamboat to embark on — that’s right — any excursion.

Nowhere in the bill did the word hockey appear. I guess Charlton must have felt that the ban in Section 3 was strong enough without it, specifically the part that prohibited “any noisy public game whereby the peace and quiet of the Lord’s Day is disturbed.”

For Sunday outlaws, the bill proposed fines ranging from $50 to $400. The New York Times took note of this in reporting the news of Charlton’s proposals in another page-one column. The fact that the new law would not apply to Canada’s Indigenous peoples caught the Times’ interest, as did the opposition of Quebec MPs, which was said to be near universal — the bill, to them, smacked of Puritanism.

This newTimes dispatch duly mentioned how Lord Stanley and his family and their Sunday hockey had “shocked the strict Christians of the Dominion” before reaching their own New York conclusion: “If the bill passes, which is unlikely, Canada will be indeed a dead country on Sunday.”

The bill didn’t go anywhere — not in 1890, anyway. By the time Parliament did enact its Lord’s Day Act in 1906, John Charlton was out of politics and Lord Stanley and his hockey-mad family had long since decamped for England. The new law, which took effect in March of 1907, still didn’t mention hockey specifically, though the old injunction against noisy games still stood. Most commerce was prohibited, along with sports and amusements, though there were nuances now, and exemptions than in Charlton’s day — you were free to fight a fire or flood, for instance, and also to make maple syrup, so long as you did so in the woods.

Back in 1890, the crisis as it affected the vice-regal hockey rink seems to have passed promptly enough. Towards the end of February — on a Saturday — the Rebels hosted the Lindsay team they’d visited earlier in the month. Arthur Stanley refereed the first game and played in the second; the Rebels won both. In between, Lord Stanley gave the hockey players lunch at Government House.

If there was more outrage in Ottawa that winter for any other hockey turpitude, it doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the world’s press — like the hockey season and the natural ice it relied on, the commotion melted away with the coming of spring. I don’t know whether the Stanleys learned their lesson and ended up curtailing Sunday shinny on the rink at Rideau Hall to placate Ottawa’s disapproving pulpits. I kind of hope not — I’m hoping that they just got stealthier, and that somehow all their secret skating and furtive shooting made those Rebels better, craftier hockey players.

What I can say is that Lord Stanley wasn’t recalled in 1890, and didn’t turn his back on hockey, such that in March of 1892 a letter he wrote ended up at a banquet celebrating the successful season the Ottawa Hockey Club had just finished.

The venue that night was Ottawa’s Russell House Hotel, at the corner of Sparks and Elgin — just two blocks north, as it happened, of Reverend Woods’ Congregational Church.

Supper was over by ten o’clock; there were toasts, then, to Queen Victoria and her Governor-General, who wasn’t in attendance. The Earl of Cavan, Lord Kilcoursie, was, and he rose to make a reply. A 52-year-old Irishman, Kilcoursie served Lord Stanley as an aide-de-camp. Before coming to Canada, he’d distinguished himself as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy during the Crimean and Second Opium wars. Later, he’d been elected as an MP to the English Parliament.

In Ottawa, he was known to skate with the Rebels, which made him the right man to be reading out the letter with which Lord Stanley had entrusted him.

“I have for some time past been thinking,” it began, “that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion.”

Say It Ain’t So: The news lands in Lawrence, Kansas.

hard luck, ottawa! ne’ertheless, many a devlin hat is doffed to you in defeat

Brimful: Ottawa’s powerful 1925-26 Senators cruised to a first-place finish in the NHL’s final standings. Come the playoffs, though, they couldn’t get past the team that finished second, and so it was that the Montreal Maroons who went on to play for — and win — the Stanley Cup that spring, beating the WHL Victoria Cougars in four games to claim the championship on April 6, 1926. The Senators, at least, had some fancy headgear with which to launch into the off-season, as seen in this Ottawa advertisement. Because, of course, as the good people at 1920s-Devlin’s would have us all remember, “there is no playoff in the hat world.”

my first hockey game: admiral of the fleet the earl jellicoe

The homage to the Navy will be on display throughout the historic outdoor game, from the on-field décor to the in-game ceremonies to the more than 500 U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) midshipmen in attendance. The NHL regulation rink sits atop a Navy-inspired aircraft carrier flight deck complete with model fighter jet.

• NHL Public Relations, February 28, 2018

So the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing the Washington Capitals tonight in Annapolis, Maryland, in order to celebrate … U.S. naval might?

I have no special objection to the NHL theming its latest game in the Stadium Series in this way, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. Does it seem just a little forced, though, even for the NHL? I wasn’t paying attention, I guess, as closely as I might have been. A couple of weeks ago, when I saw the smart all-white duds the Leafs will have their ratings wearing tonight, I didn’t know that they had the Royal Canadian Navy’s motto (“Ready, Aye, Ready”) stitched inside the collar let alone that the design is supposed to allude to our Naval Ensign.

By the time I registered, earlier this week, that the game is being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Russian President Vladimir Putin was out and about touting his new and invincible arsenal, including speedy underwater drones capable of carrying nuclear bombs. For just a moment there it seemed vaguely possible that if the NHL’s military parading had nothing to do with global arms races before Alex Ovechkin’s favourite strongman started missile-rattling, maybe it would now be enlisted to the effort. I waited in vain, as it turned out, to hear that tonight’s venue had been shifted to a rink frozen atop the actual flight deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford as she cruised up and down Chesapeake Bay.

To get into the maritime spirit, how about a sea shanty from hockey’s history? Well, a sail-past, at least, of the NHL’s third season, involving one of the First World War’s most prominent personalities, a true naval hero. That should serve, shouldn’t it, for something?

John Jellicoe’s our man, born in Southampton in England in 1859. Hockey was still untamed, which is to say unruled and disorganized, wandering in the wilds, when Jellicoe got his first job with the Royal Navy at the age of 13, as a midshipman, in 1872. I’m not going to paddle through the whole of his career here, though I am going to glory, for just a moment, in the names of some of the ships he sailed on in his time: HMSes Britannia and Colossus, Sans Pareil, Ramillies, Centurion, Albermarle.

He survived the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was shot in the lungs and should have died but didn’t — “defied his doctors” is a phrase attached to this episode, which you should look up, between periods, instead of bothering with Coach’s Corner.

He was a protégé of Admiral Jackie Fisher’s, and very involved in modernizing the Royal Navy, a big proponent of dreadnoughts, & etc. Winston Churchill was First Sea Lord when Jellicoe took command of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet in August of 1914. In 1916, he was in command at the Battle of Jutland — that’s your second-intermission reading assignment.

He was a small man, and taciturn, and (I’ve learn from a 1915 profile) shaved “so carefully that they say his face is cleared for action.” His voice was soft and pleasant and he scarcely raised it to give an order. “Under no circumstance,” the same feature asserts, “has he ever been seen in a rage.” He was a man of so few words, apparently, that a dark joke during the First World War maintained that if the Germans were to prevail, Admiral Jellicoe would not be able to say the words “I surrender.”

The war had been over for a year when, aged 60, he and his wife, Florence, visited Canada in November of 1919. Sailed in, of course, aboard the battle-cruiser HMS New Zealand, arriving in Victoria to great fanfare. He eventually made his way east (terrestrially, by train), where he was attended with more pomp and ceremony while talking a lot about naval policy and shipbuilding, and what we here in the Dominion should and could be doing, and also gave a public lecture at Massey Hall on “Sea Power,” for which reserved seats cost 25 cents.

But — hockey. In early December, after dinner at the King Edward Hotel on King Street, the Jellicoes and their party, which included Mayor Tommy Church, headed north to Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Continue reading

ottawan on ice

1929 La Presse

Winter Classic: As the modern-day Ottawa Senators gird themselves for tonight’s (big breath) Scotiabank NHL100 Classic™ at Lansdowne Park, here’s a pre-Melnyk Senator, Hec Kilrea, out on a 1929 floe. Born in 1907 in what’s now the Ottawa suburb of Gloucester, Kilrea played seven seasons for his home team, helping them to the 1927 Stanley Cup. He skated two seasons for Toronto, too, as well as for Detroit, Falcons and Red Wings, raising two more Cups with the latter. That was all before he was a war hero — but that’s maybe a tale for another day.

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)