sprague cleghorn: prominent canadian hockey player #24

A.K.A. Peg: Born in Montreal on this date in 1890 (it was a Tuesday there, then), Hall-of-Fame defenceman Sprague Cleghorn had a vicious streak running through him that was the size of … well, him. Violent as he incessantly was throughout his 23-year professional career, he was also a supremely talented player, and the fact that he was left off the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 greatest players is, um, okay, let’s not get started on that. Here, above, he’s looking fairly peaceable, posed in the livery of the 1910-11 NHA Renfrew Creamery Kings. Cleghorn’s NHL career began with the Ottawa Senators, with whom he won two Stanley Cups. He was a Toronto St. Patrick, too, and a Canadien in Montreal (he won another Cup there), as well as, finally, a Boston Bruin. Sprague Cleghorn died in 1956 at the age of 66.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a horse for hooley

S & S: Hooley Smith (right) spent a single season with the Boston Bruins, in 1936-37, after starring for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. Here he poses with his old Maroon linemate, Nels Stewart. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Before he got going on a 17-year NHL career that would see him elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Smith was the youngest member of the Canadian team that brought back hockey gold from the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France, and one of its leading scorers. Aged 21, he netted an impressive 18 goals in five games. Of course, Canada’s schedule did include a 33-0 drubbing of Switzerland and a 30-0 squeaker over Czechoslovakia, and Smith’s bounty of goals was only half as many as that of his teammate Harry Watson — but still, gold is golden, and when Smith got home to Toronto that March, the neighbourhood where he’d grown up fêted him on a scale — well, I’m not sure that any local hockey player has seen the likes of the welcome that the Beach organized for Smith.

Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1903, Smith started out under the name Reginald. As a toddler, the story goes, he had a thing where he navigated the family backyard with a tin can balanced on his head, just like the namesake of the popular American cartoon The Happy Hooligan, which is how his father started calling him Hooligan which, soon enough, diminished to Hooley.

Out on the ice, it was as a centreman that Smith helped the Toronto Granites win the 1923 Allan Cup, which is how they ended up representing Canada at the Olympics in ’24. Arriving home triumphant in Toronto a month after vanquishing the United States for gold, the team climbed aboard a bus that paraded them from Union Station up Yonge Street to City Hall. Mayor W.W. Hiltz was one of the speechifyers there: paying his tribute, the Star reported, he mentioned “fine calibre of young manhood which composed the team” and “the manly attributes of the Canadian athlete” before expressing “hopes of continued success.” Engraved gold cufflinks were the gift the city gave the players. Before they were released, they also received three cheers and a couple of anthems, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save The King,” for their troubles.

Later, at a winter carnival in the city’s east-end Kew Gardens, Smith was honoured with displays of fancy skating and fireworks. His appreciative neighbours also unveiled a 400-ton likeness of their hockey hero that they’d sculpted out of ice and illuminated with coloured lights. One of my dearest new year’s wishes is to find a photograph of that — I’m still looking.

NHL clubs were eager, post-Olympics and ice-statue, to sign Smith to a pro contract. The Montreal Canadiens maintained that he’d agreed to join them, and the Toronto St. Patricks were eager to lure him, too, but in the end he chose Ottawa’s Senators. He played three seasons in Canada’s capital, where he learned how to hook-check from the maestro himself, Frank Nighbor, while helping the team win a Stanley Cup in 1927. He subsequently joined the Montreal Maroons, for whom he played nine seasons, captaining the team to a Cup in 1935. It was as a Maroon that Smith played on the famous S line alongside Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert. After a single season with the Boston Bruins, Smith played his final four seasons in the NHL as a New York American. Hooley Smith died in 1963 at the age of 60.

I think that just about covers it, though maybe is it worth mentioning also his gift for, well, getting gifts? When he played for the Senators, Ottawa owner Frank Ahearn gave him a fur coat. I’ve seen it reported that as a Maroon he was given a Rolls Royce and a yacht. Because he wasn’t a sailor, he’s supposed to have returned the yacht in exchange for a farm. Kenneth Dawes might have been the generous donor in question in both these cases, though I can’t confirm that. What I do know is that Dawes, a brewing magnate who served on the Maroons’ executive committee, did promise Smith a horse if the team won the Stanley Cup, which it duly did. The presentation of the black Percheron went ahead in Montreal in April of 1935 in front of a crowd of some 3,000. Smith got the horse, but it was Maroons’ coach Tommy Gorman who climbed aboard to take the first ride.

dear ottawa senators: wash your pants

How to solve a problem like the Ottawa Senators? A hundred years ago, as the NHL headed into its third season, a helpful fan of the city’s original Sens thought he’d share his blueprint by way of his local newspaper. The he is a guess, based on this is 1919 we’re talking about and, also, because men.

Some notes for the margins: the league was a four-team affair that year, with a 24-game schedule that faced-off late in December. Pete Green was Ottawa’s new coach for 1919-20, insofar as this was his first season steering in the team in the young league: in the team’s pre-NHL days, he’d been involved with seven Stanley Cup-winning teams as trainer and coach going back to 1903.

Jack Darragh, a winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, had been playing for Ottawa since 1910, but now, at 29, he was negotiating a new contract by talking about retiring. He signed just before the season got underway. Darragh, who played all but one game that season, at home and away, finished fifth in NHL scoring.

The Senators were in the market for another defenceman: by mid-December, Coach Green was looking to add a man on the line to aid captain Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn. He didn’t, in the end, electing to move a forward back to help out, Georges Boucher.

I can’t speak to the state of the roof at Dey’s Arena, which stood on what is today Laurier Avenue on the site of Confederation Park. I can report that in April of 1920, the Senators did win their first NHL Stanley Cup beneath it, defeating the PCHL’s Seattle Metropolitans in five games. Jack Darragh decided it in the last of those: his game-winning goal was one of three he scored in a 6-1 Senators’ romp. I don’t have good information on whether or not his pants had been recently laundered.

of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

playing hurt: I’m getting back into that game if it kills me

Special Ed: Eddie Gerard in 1914, when he first joined the Ottawa Senators. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / e003525294)

So the Boston Bruins’ 42-year-old captain Zdeno Chara is in tonight, leading his team into the fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues despite that jaw of his that a puck broke two nights ago and (as Ron MacLean reported just before puck-drop) “we believe to be wired shut.”

Chara got medical clearance to play this afternoon, we’re told, whereupon he himself made the decision to play. Much of the coverage through the day focussed on Chara, watching him at the Bruins’ optional skate, imaging his discomfort. Much of the punditry heading into the game toggled between expressions of amazement at Chara’s pain-threshold/courage and reminders that he is, after all, a hockey player.

Along with frontline dispatches from Boston came historical reviews of other ghastly injuries suffered by other stout NHLers who gamely played on. None of those reached back to the 1923 Stanley Cup, so maybe that’s our duty here. A comparable case? Maybe not exactly, but here it is nonetheless.

Eddie Gerard is the man in question, captain of the (original) Ottawa Senators as they won their third Stanley Cup in four years. Coached throughout those years by Pete Green, this is a team (it’s worth mentioning) that has been called one of the finest in NHL history. Just because that’s impossible to verify doesn’t make it untrue. In its 1923 edition, the team’s 10-man line-up included eight future Hall-of-Famers, including Frank Nighbor, King Clancy, Clint Benedict, and Cy Denneny. A ninth player, defenceman Lionel Hitchman probably should be in the Hall, which leaves another blueliner, poor Harry Helman, as the odd man out.

Gerard, for his part, was one of the original nine players to be chosen for the Hall’s inaugural class in 1945, joining the likes of Howie Morenz, Hobey Baker, and Georges Vézina in that auspicious cohort.

In 1923, aged 33, he was still a dominant defenceman in the league, which the Senators duly topped. By beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on aggregate in a two-game playoff, Ottawa earned the right to represent the NHL in a three-team Stanley Cup tournament played in Vancouver. The Senators had to dispense with the Vancouver Maroons to make it to the finals, which they did, setting up a two-game sweep of the Edmonton Eskimos that won them the Cup.

It was in the final game against Vancouver, a 5-1 Ottawa win at the Denman Street Arena, that Gerard was hurt, Monday, March 26. He was rushing for goal, as Ottawa’s Journal had it, when he collided with Eskimos’ centre Corb Denneny, Cy’s brother. Gerrard ended up on the ice with his left shoulder dislocated and an injured knee. Helped off, he spent the third period on the bench with his arm in a sling, “shouting and coaching his players,” according to the eyewitness account of Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman, who was beside him, and would later write the game up for the front page of the Ottawa Evening Citizen.

“Twice he begged me to let him get back on the ice,” Gorman reported. “‘I can hold my arm up,’ he kept saying. ‘Let me on and they’ll never get in.’”

Gorman demurred; Gerard stayed put. The following day, the latter wrote, “the gallant Ottawa captain” lay in hotel room “smiling in the face of his pain and assuring his teammates that they’ll beat Edmonton without him.”

“There is,” Gorman concluded, “only one Eddie Gerard.”

A visit to a Vancouver hospital revealed that his injury wasn’t so singular: “Eddie suffered a double fracture,” the Journal noted, “and his shoulder ligaments are torn.” Gerard’s optimism was page-one news back home in the Citizen: he now said he expected to join his teammates when they took the ice Thursday night.

Gorman wasn’t so sure. By Wednesday, a compromise seems to have been reached. The shoulder was responding to treatment and Gerard would dress, though he would most likely stay on the bench. “If he should get into the game it will be for a few minutes at a time,” the Citizen’s correspondent wrote, “just to relieve George Boucher or Frank Clancy.” With defenceman Harry Helman ruled out entirely due to a cut on a foot and Lionel Hitchman (broken nose) uncertain, the Senators were looking at going into the game with (Gerard aside) a grand total of five skaters out in front of goaltender Clint Benedict.

Hitchman did play, in the end, scoring Ottawa’s first goal; Gerard remained for the entire game on the bench, even after yet another defenceman, George Boucher, hurt a foot. Despite a line-up that featuring the legendary likes of Duke Keats and Bullet Joe Simpson, the Eskimos (to the slightly impartial eye of the Citizen) “looked like an ordinary hockey team.” Cy Denneny decided it in Ottawa’s favour when he scored in overtime.

Ahead of the second game, played on Saturday, March 31, the word again that Gerard would be dressed, though it wasn’t clear how much he would play. George Boucher’s ankle was swollen to twice its usual size, but he too would be in the line-up. In event, it was Boucher who kept to the bench the whole game while Gerard made his return.

Ottawa’s victory was a narrow one: Punch Broadbent scored in the first period and they held on from there to claim the tenth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Gerard’s part in the piece was duly recognized. As Citizen sports editor Ed Baker saw it, the captain’s mere presence on the ice was an “exhibition of courage rarely witnessed in any form of sport.”

“He was unable to raise his lift arm as high as his chin at any time since he was injured,” Baker wrote, “but knew the serious position the Senators were in and went into the game more for the moral effect it would have on his teammates than with any expectation of playing up to his usual form.”

He mainly kept to coaching his teammates, Baker noted, though there were a couple of occasions on which he couldn’t resist a rush into Edmonton territory. In the second period, he fell badly, had to be helped from the ice — “but pluckily returned to the fray.”

Tommy Gorman filed his view from the Ottawa bench:

Eddie Gerard actually played for the greater part of the game, notwithstanding his injuries. Twice he went down with a crash and three times with the  shoulder, and after each occasion he skated over to the bench groaning under the pain, but refusing to retire. “Pull that shoulder back,” he would shout to Trainer [Cozy] Dolan. “I’m getting back into that game if it kills me.”

With Hitchman fading in the third, Gerard insisted on relieving him. “It was a physical torture to skate and could not shoot or handle the stick,” Gorman attested, “yet he blocked with all his old-time effectiveness, and steadied his team at critical moments. The Ottawa captain gave the greatest exhibition of pluck and endurance ever seen in Vancouver.”

For Gerard and Gorman alike, 21-year-old King Clancy was the pick of Ottawa’s litter. Gorman:

In the last period Clancy outskated every other man on the ice. With Gerard unable to carry the puck, and Hitchman hardly able to move, Clancy bore the brunt. “Heavens!” Eddie Gerard once ejaculated through his pain-racked [sic] body, “look at Clancy playing the whole Edmonton team. He’s the greatest kid in the world.”

Clancy stood out in this game for another reason: in the second period, when Clint Benedict was called for slashing Joe Simpson, the Ottawa goaltender (as one did in those years) headed to the penalty bench to serve his sentence. “King Clancy then went into net,” Ed Baker wrote, “and that gave the youngster unprecedented distinction of having played every position on the line-up during the present tour. He had previously subbed in both defence positions, center, and on right and left wing.”

The Senators enjoyed their victory — and nursed their wounds. “Eddie Gerard and George Boucher lie in their rooms smarting under injuries,” Gorman wrote, “but smiling and happy.”

The team enjoyed their triumphant cross-country train trip home. Ed Baker was aboard. From Moose Jaw he sent word that Gerard and Boucher were “both doing nicely and picking up more as every mile is reeled off.” Gerard (a.k.a. The Duke of Rockcliffe) was “getting the injured shoulder back to a working basis again” while Boucher hobbled his way around with increasing dexterity.

When the team’s train arrived in Ottawa on the morning of Friday, April 6, it was met by a crowd of thousands. There was a parade, and there were speeches, a lunch at the Chateau Laurier. “Men,” declaimed Mayor Frank Plant, “we are glad and proud to welcome you back home after your splendid victory. Ottawa is proud of you.”

The Citizen took one more survey of the cost of victory:

Many of the players bore evidence of their honorable scars. Eddie Gerard shoulder was bothering him and George Boucher walked lame from the effect of the bad smash he got in the West. Others had pieces of skin missing, but all were cheerful and smiling.

The Senators spent the summer months recovering their health. For Eddie Gerard, though, there would be no return to NHL ice. Though shoulder was recovered in time for the start of the new campaign, he fell ill in October with throat and respiratory problems that would keep him out of the line-up for the entire 1923-24 season. He spent the year helping coach the team before finally retiring in 1924 to sign on to coach the expansion Montreal Maroons.

Stanley Cup Sens: Ottawa’s 1923 line-up, showing (back row, left to right) Owner Ted Dey, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Pete Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, and Harry Helman.

 

flour-pot

Let’s be honest: caught up in the chaos of Christmas, we all forgot. That today’s Ottawa Senators missed a chance to mark an important historical milestone doesn’t seem so strange, I guess, in this year of capitalized turmoil — though can we grant Eugene Melnyk & co. the benefit of the doubt and surmise that they skipped the celebrations on purpose, preferring to do it up properly when next year’s centenary rolls around? Assuming that’s the case, let’s keep our observance of the 99th anniversary here brief, recognizing, simply, that on the night of December 23, 1919, as the Ottawa Senators hosted Toronto’s St. Patricks to open the NHL’s third season, the great Frank Nighbor put his famous hook-check to use in the first period to thief the puck from Ken Randall and slap it decisively past goaltender Howie Lockhart. The goal itself was important, winning a game for Ottawa that would end 3-0, and the Senators would use this auspicious start to go on to both NHL and Stanley Cup championships that year. Those should be duly venerated when the time comes, but our business here, today, is to honour and revere the truly first-class way in which Nighbor’s goal was celebrated that winter’s night in 1919. In those days, when Ottawa still knew how to treat a superstar, Nighbor was called to centre ice after the game to receive his rightful due. For having scored that inaugural goal that season, Pembroke’s own peerless peach received from the hand of Mr. A. E. Ford of the Interprovincial Flour Mills Company a reward such as a modern-day hockey sharpshooter might only dream of taking home from the rink: