commando call-up

The RCAF Flyers proved themselves to be Canada’s best senior hockey team in 1942 when they won the Allan Cup. The Flyers benefitted from what might be classed a wartime windfall: among the Ottawa-based airmen at their disposal that season were all three members of one of the NHL’s most effective forward lines, the erstwhile Krauts (and Boston Bruins) Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer. When another stacked military team succeeded the Flyers as Allan Cup champions the following year, it was thanks, in large, part to goaltender Sugar Jim Henry. After winning the 1941 Allan Cup with the Regina Rangers, Henry had played his rookie year in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Inducted into the Canadian Army in the summer of ’42 (above, to the right), he was posted to Canada’s capital where he suited up (above, left) for the Ottawa Commandos. Replacing the Ottawa Senators in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, the Commandos had their wings clipped a little when, to begin the season, the league decreed that teams could only ice four players with NHL experience in any given game. (That limit was later raised to six.) The Commandos had plenty of options: along with Henry, the former NHLers they iced that season included Montreal Canadiens’ veteran Ken Reardon, brothers Mac and Neil Colville (New York Rangers), Jack McGill (Bruins), Alex Shibicky (Rangers), Gordie Bruce (Bruins), Joe Cooper (Rangers and Black Hawks), Bingo Kampman (Maple Leafs), Polly Drouin (Canadiens), Gordie Poirier (Canadiens), and Ken Kilrea (Red Wings). The team the Commandos beat in the Allan Cup finals was a military one, too, Victoria Army, and they boasted a bevy of erstwhile NHLers, too  including Nick Metz (Maple Leafs), Joffre Desilets (Canadiens), and Bill Carse (Rangers and Black Hawks)  but not quite enough.

frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).

drop the writ already

Vote Notes: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will call on Governor-General Julie Payette at Rideau Hall at 10 a.m. this morning to begin the process that will send Canadians to the polls for an October 21 election. Steady yourselves: the five-and-a-half week campaign will be fuelled, inevitably, by hockey metaphors and puck-adjacent photo ops. Here, to help get it going: Duncan Macpherson’s 1988 ink-and-wash-on-board cartoon “Brian Mulroney and John Turner playing hockey.” (Image: © McCord Museum)

jack darragh: ottawa’s own, the boy with the bruised forehead

Jack Darragh helped Ottawa’s original Senators win four Stanley Cups in his time (and theirs), and for those efforts (and others) he was duly inducted into the Hall of Hockey Fame in 1963. Ottawa-born on a Thursday of this date in 1890, Darragh was an industrious right winger who only ever played for teams in hometown, suiting up for the amateur Stewartons and Cliffsides before he signed with the National Hockey Association’s Senators in 1910.

He was fast on his skates, they say, deft with pucks, insistent in his checking. He also has the shared distinction of having staged the NHL’s very first contract hold-out — on the very night the new league made its debut, no less. Hosting the Montreal Canadiens at their Laurier Avenue rink on December 19, 1917, the Senators skated into the first period with just a single substitute on the bench while Darragh and teammate Hamby Shore continued to haggle with management over the salaries they’d be paid. They’d resolved their differences in time for the second period, when both players made their debuts. Having built a 3-0 lead over the shorthanded home team, Canadiens went on to win the game 7-4.

Darragh finished that first NHL season as one of Ottawa’s leading scorers, and he’d keep that up over the course of four ensuing seasons. Known for his penchant for scoring key goals, he notched the decisive pair in the 2-1 win that beat the Vancouver Millionaires in the fifth game of the finals and secured the 1921 Stanley Cup for Ottawa.

That was supposed to be Darragh’s final professional game. His day-job was as an accountant with the Ottawa Dairy Company, and he kept doing that when he’d given up hockey. He kept hens, for a hobby, and I have it on good authority that I’m willing to cite here that “he had a wonderful pen of Rhode Island Reds.” When he went to the rink through the winter of 1921-22, it was to coach or referee.

He changed his mind in the fall of 1922, unretiring and returning to NHL ice to play parts of two more seasons. He was dogged in his final year, 1923-24, by a broken right kneecap, and the word was that he planned to retire again. He died at the age of 33 in June of 1924 of peritonitis.

Phrases portraying Darragh’s exploits on the ice sometimes intimated, in 1915, say, that “when Jack is right, there is not a player in the Association that has anything on him.” At other times, in 1920, he was described as the “handy all round man of the squad,” and also as “the ice cream expert” — referring, that last one, to that aforementioned ability for scoring timely goals that won games for his team.

A 1917 dispatch suggested that in a game against the Montreal Wanderers he may not have extended himself until the second period expired, but thereafter “shot up and down the ice like a rocket, scoring the last goal of the match.”

Maybe, finally, can we reflect his prowess as a checker by way of a game from 1913 when Ottawa downed the Montreal Canadiens thanks in large part to Darragh’s bottling of Canadiens’ star Didier Pitre? He was unconscious that night — literally. Praising Darragh’s effort, The Ottawa Citizen continued on from an appreciation of goaltender Percy LeSueur’s part in the triumph:

Jack Darragh was another tower of strength. Jack matched youth and stamina against the speed and strength of Pitre and had the better of the big Frenchman in every page of the one-side story. Darragh was badly battered, but whenever Pitre attempted his fancy work he found the boy with the bruised forehead and scarred face there to outskate and outbrain him. Darragh’s checking back was [sic] in a feature of the game. Pitre tried to put him away with a wicked blow in the third session, but Darragh jumped to his feet and was in the thick of it one minute after he had been stretched out cold behind his own nets.