A sad advisory from the Edmonton Oilers, confirming the news that former coach John Muckler died on Monday night at the age of 86. A native of Midland, Ontario, Muckler cut his head-coaching teeth in 1968-69 with the Minnesota North Stars. He joined the Oilers as an assistant on Glen Sather’s bench in 1981 and played his part in five Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton, the last one, in 1990, as head coach. Above, he’s pictured in 1984-85; the team group below finds him between Father and goaltender Andy Moog in 1983. He subsequently spent four years coaching and managing the Buffalo Sabres and another three seasons on the New York Rangers’ bench. Muckler was GM of the Ottawa Senators from 2001 through to the summer of 2007.
Born in Ottawa on this date in 1896 — it was a Monday then, there, too — Art Gagne played the right wing for a parcel of amateur teams in his hometown, Aberdeens, Royal Canadiens, Grand Trunk. That was during the First World War. In 1919, he signed with Quebec in the NHL, though he never turned out for them, heading west, instead, to join the WCHL’s Edmonton Eskimos, where he skated with Joe Simpson, Eddie Shore, and Duke Keats, and played in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1923, when the Eskimos lost to the Ottawa Senators.
As a Canadien in Montreal in the latter ’20s his regular linemates were Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat. Morenz was the tallest of the three at 5’9’’, Joliat and Gagne were both 5’7”. “Joliat and I were good skaters,” he recalled in 1965, “but we could never keep up with Howie. He was a man who flew on skates, and he had to be at top speed to shoot. For a couple of little fellows, we did fairly well. Oh, yes, they treated us rough, but they weren’t dirty to us. We didn’t stand still long enough for them to drive us into the boards.” Of Morenz he remembered that he could shoot a puck through a board; he also said that he and Joliat wore a minimum of pads in their effort to keep up with the Stratford Streak. Gagne’s best goal-getting year in the NHL was 1927-28, when he scored 20 in 44 games. Joliat had 28 that year; Morenz led the league with 33. After three seasons with Montreal, Gagne went to Boston for a year; he also had stints with Ottawa and the Detroit Falcons. Art Gagne died in 1988 at the age of 91.
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 do mention 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 Vézina was 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.)
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.
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 the 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.
The NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was, unavoidably, a year of firsts.
Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers scored the league’s very first goal, and his teammate Harry Hyland notched its original hattrick while suffering (possibly) its earliest maiden concussion. The Wanderers’ coach and captain was Art Ross, and he took the NHL’s earliest penalty, though nobody seems to have noted down, officially or otherwise, just how he transgressed.
For all their trailblazing, the Wanderers didn’t survive, of course: in early January of 1918, they made their mark even as they erased it, becoming the first NHL franchise to fold.
That left the infant league with just three teams: Torontos, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens. Later in January, the storied Canadiens made history as the first NHL club to fall sick on an eastbound train as a result of supping on a bad batch of broth in Canada’s capital.
There’s not much more we know. How did the sickness manifest itself? Where on the line between Ottawa and Montreal did it strike? Which early Habs suffered? What was the name of the restaurant that served the quease-causing potage? What kind of soup was it?
That we do know, actually: the soup was a tomato soup.
For its opening act in 1917-18, the NHL divided its 22-game regular season schedule into two. As the end of January approached, Montreal stood atop the standings with 14 points ahead of Toronto (12) and Ottawa (six). On the Monday night of January 21, Canadiens visited Ottawa for an 8.30 date with the Senators.
The 6,000 fans who packed Dey’s Arena that night saw a bevy of future of Hall of Famers. Ottawa’s line-up featured Clint Benedict in goal in back of Eddie Gerard, Jack Darragh, and Cy Denneny. Georges Vézina guarded the Montreal goal, with Joes Hall and Malone working in front of him alongside Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. Paced by a hattrick from defenceman Hall, Canadiens solidified their lead by beating the home team by a score of 5-3. The game was mostly without incident, which is to say none of the notorious malefactors involved, including Hall and his Montreal teammates Billy Coutu and Bert Corbeau, were caught swinging their sticks at their rivals, or butt-ending them, as they tended to do, to fearful extent. “The cleanliness of the hockey appeared to tickle the big crowd,” the Ottawa Citizen was pleased to report the next morning.
It’s thanks to the report, above, from the Canadian Press that we know that the winners went for a post-game feed that included the fateful soup. If only we knew more. Where did they eat? What else was on the menu? Did all nine players eat the soup or just the six reported to have been indisposed? Who were the unfortunates, and who was spared?
Dey’s Arena was on Laurier Avenue in those years, facing the canal, occupying the southwest corner near the modern-day Confederation Park. Is it fair to surmise that they bunked nearby, taking their late supper in their hotel’s restaurant? Probably, though that doesn’t really help us much. Then, as now, there are plenty of hotels in that area of downtown Ottawa. Did the 1918 Canadiens alight at the Chateau Laurier? That wasn’t far from the rink, though the Windsor Hotel at Metcalfe and Queen would have been closer. Or what about the Russell House Hotel that still then occupied the corner of Sparks and Elgin? From a hockey history perspective, that would be satisfying: it was at a banquet at the Russell House, of course, that the Lord Stanley’s donation of a challenge cup was first announced in 1892. Then again, the Canadiens may have been lodged at an entirely different hotel. And indeed, on their way back there after the game, it’s true too that they could have stopped in at any local restaurant along the way. The New Idea, for instance, located at the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe, ads for which appear in the pages of Ottawa newspapers around this very time, featuring the slogan “For Quality, Quantity, and Quick Service.”
Not that I’d want to impugn their soup, even retroactively, without further evidence. What I can say is that this was wartime, remember. The First World War had been seething for more than three years, and November’s armistice was still, at this point, ten months away. While the Canadian government didn’t impose food rationing on the general population in aid of the nation’s war effort, the federal Food Board was, by early 1918, limiting hotel and restaurant menus.
An article in the Citizen a week before the Canadiens fell ill explained the lengths that local eateries were cutting back. “The purpose of the food controller in laying restrictions on hotels and restaurants,” it reported, “was to effect a saving in the three commodities most needed by the men at the front and by the Allied people — beef, bacon, and wheat, and to awaken the public conscience to the need of the hour.”
For at least three months, it seems, restaurants in the nation’s capital had been going beefless and bacon-free on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the Chateau Laurier, to conserve flour, no bread was being served at breakfast “except rolls and corn muffins,” while at lunch and supper, patrons were allowed nothing but “rolls and perhaps a couple of slices of brown bread.”
People didn’t mind, said the manager of the Russell House, where bread cutbacks were also in effect. “Bread is by no means a necessity in the hotel meal,” he confided. “I find that it is only eaten when people are waiting for the next course.”
Soupwise? All I can tell you is that the Chateau in earliest 1918, white flour was no longer being used to thicken soups and sauces: “cornstarch and arrowroot are taking its place,” the Citizen says.
Impossible to say whether this had any effect on the Canadiens. How did they know it was the soup that turned their stomachs? That, to me, is the nub of the whole thing. Did Jack Laviolette look over his spoon and wince his suspicion at Louis Berlinguette that something was up with the bisque? Could it be, perhaps, that club captain Newsy Lalonde, going on instinct, tried and failed to wield his authority with a plea for the team to order the untainted cream of mushroom instead of the tomato?
We just don’t know. Tuesday morning, the players boarded the train, whereon some of them sickened. They would have been home in about two hours. Montreal newspapers don’t seem to have noted their plight.
On Wednesday, Canadiens played a return date against Ottawa at the Jubilee Arena on St. Catherine Street East. Only Lalonde was missing from the Montreal line-up, though the reason for his absence doesn’t seem to have been soup-related: he had what the Citizen (painfully) refers to as “a spiked foot.”
Ottawa dominated this time out, prevailing by a score of 4-3. “The result came as a surprise,” reported the hometown Gazette; Canadiens were “listless.” The Ottawa papers took a slightly different view, crediting the victory to the stalwart work of captain Eddie Gerard, who played almost the entire game, and goaltender Benedict, who withstood an unrelenting Montreal barrage in the third period. “Canadiens set a smashing pace,” the Journal reported. “Canadiens piled in with everybody but Vézina and it looked as if they might batter in a goal by sheer weight.”
Joe Malone did score a pair in the final frame to tie the score, but Harry Hyland, who’d joined Ottawa after the demise of the Wanderers, got one back to make the difference. It as the fifth time the two teams had met in the history of the NHL, and Ottawa’s very first victory over Montreal.
Wartime Wing: Ken Kilrea was born in Ottawa on a Thursday of this date in 1919. He followed his older brothers Hec and Wally to the NHL, making his debut as a 20-year-old with the 1938-39 Detroit Red Wings. Hec, 31, was in the Motor City line-up that year, too, though Wally, who was 29, had departed the team at the end of the previous season. (Legendary junior coach Brian Kilrea was a nephew, son of the eldest Kilrea brother, Jack.) Young Ken, a left winger, played parts of five seasons with the Red Wings; he’s pictured here in his last campaign, 1943-44, when NHLers doubled as billboards for U.S. war bonds. Kilrea’s other war service included a stint with the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps that saw him skate (and win a 1943 Allan Cup) with the Ottawa Commandos on a team that also featured the talents of Sugar Jim Henry, Ken Reardon, Mac and Neil Colville, and Bingo Kampman. Ken Kilrea died at the age of 70 in 1990.
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.
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.