when boston and toronto first met, 1933: leafs determined to win, despite severe handicaps

Ol’ Poisoned: The first time Maple Leafs and Bruins met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Toronto centreman Joe Primeau soldiered through (mostly) on a bad leg.

Fifteen times Toronto and Boston have met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and if you’re a Leafs’ enthusiast in need of historical solace while your team’s down two games to one this time out, take heart: your team has won eight of the first 14 series. (Psst, Bruins’ fans: Toronto’s last success was in 1959, with Boston winning all four match-ups since then.)

The first time Boston and Toronto clashed in the playoffs was in the spring of 1933, in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Dick Irvin’s Leafs were the defending champions that year, with a line-up that included Lorne Chabot in goal and King Clancy on defence, spearheaded by the powerful Kid Line upfront, with Joe Primeau centering Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson. Bruins’ coach Art Ross’s formidable team featured goaltender Tiny Thompson, defenceman Eddie Shore, and Nels Stewart and Dit Clapper up front.

The two teams had similar regular-seasons records that year, with the Bruins (25-15-8) having finished slightly better than the Leafs (24-18-6). The first two games at Boston’s Garden went to overtime, with the home team claiming the first of those 2-1 when Marty Barry broke the deadlock.

The story for Toronto — in the Toronto papers, at least — was just how beaten-up the Leafs were. Ace Bailey (dislocated shoulder) and Red Horner (broken hand) missed the opening game. And the team suffered more damage on the ice the night of Saturday, March 25. In the days before hockey injuries went shrouded in euphemism, the local broadsheets were only too pleased to itemize them. The Daily Star described Bill Thoms’ sprained thumb and Hal Cotton’s hurting hand, Charlie Sands’ sore hip, Ken Doraty’s aching back, and, for Primeau and Jackson, a matching set of “swollen and bruised ankles.” The Globe submitted its own infirmary report:

Conacher was cut in the lip. [Hap] Day had a large lump on his cheek from Barry’s stick and a cut on his nose. [Alex] Levinsky was cut across the nose. Jackson is limping today with a bruised hip and slightly wrenched knee, sustained in a collision with Shore. Clancy has a badly swollen thumb and a sore chest where a crosscheck left its mark. The others have minor scratches.

Not that the Leafs were looking for excuses; Globe sports editor Mike Rodden wanted to be sure that everyone was clear on that count. “Listing of the Toronto injuries is not an attempt to provide an alibi,” he wrote, “in the event of the team’s defeat. Accidents are part of the game, and the Leafs have more than their share of them, but they are not complaining.”

Ace Bailey and Red Horner both returned to the Leafly line-up for the second game, Tuesday night, March 28, the latter with a brace fitted to protect his tender hand. The Globe’s Bert Perry called this encounter “the hottest, heaviest, hardest hockey struggle ever played on Boston ice.” More important for the Leafs was the fact that they were able to beat the Bruins on Garden ice for the first time in four years. The tension was as thick as the pall — “for smoking,” as Perry wrote, “is allowed here.” After three goalless periods, Busher Jackson scored in overtime to send the teams north knotted at a game apiece. The series was best-of-five, it’s worth noting, and the remainder of the games would be played in Toronto.

Thursday night, March 30, when the teams met again, Maple Leaf Gardens had its largest crowd of the season, 13,128, on hand. Joe Primeau’s health hadn’t improved over the course of the week, with Mike Rodden reporting that while his “blood poisoning of the leg” probably should have kept him out of the line-up, it didn’t. His gallantry was cited as an inspiration to his teammates, though not decisively so: fans who stayed for overtime saw the Bruins’ best player, defenceman Eddie Shore, end it to give Boston the 2-1 win. Only then, afterwards, did Primeau head for Wellesley Hospital. “The best team on the night’s play skated off with the verdict,” The Daily Star confessed.

“Leafs Determined To Win Despite Severe Handicaps” was a subhead topping Bert Perry’s report ahead of the fourth game. Primeau was anxious, of course, to play, but the Leafs weren’t banking on getting him back. “The blood-poisoning has been checked to some extent,” Perry divulged, “but he is still in pain, and the swelling in his leg has not been entirely reduced.” Rookie Bill Thoms was slated to replace Primeau on the Leafs’ top line, though he was poorly, too, “with a large lump on his head where he had been struck with a stick,” along with an acute charley-horse that trainer Rube Bannister was tending.

Never fear, Perry wrote: “The Leafs, crippled badly, are far from downhearted.” A win would be fuelled mostly by nerve, he felt, “for no team has ever been so badly handicapped in a championship series as they are.”

Coach Irvin wasn’t a bit rattled. “Why worry about Saturday’s game,” he breezed. “Even had we won on Thursday night, we would have had to play it anyway, and win it, too, and I am convinced the Leafs are far from out of the running yet.”

In the end, Primeau remained in hospital, listening in with the rest of Canada to Foster Hewitt’s radio broadcast. What he heard was a crowd of 14,511 delighting in a 5-3 Leafs’ win powered by a pair of Charlie Sands’ goals. The Globedetailed new Leaf injuries, notably to Bob Gracie’s knee and King Clancy’s scalp — “minor incidents in the lives of this stout-hearted band of Maple Leafs.” Collectors of unreported concussions from the 1930s might want to note down that Clancy surely suffered one, hitting the ice with what the Starcalled “a resounding smack” before staggering off with a bleeding head. And (of course) he was “back again minutes later, full of fight but with his condition wobbly.”

Primeau was back in for the final game of the series on Monday night, April 3. (Clancy was, too.) The crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens this time was 14,539, a new record for the rink, though I can’t say how many of those fans stayed until the end. With neither team able to score in three periods of play, they again went to overtime, extending it famously this time, into a ninth period. The Leafs outshot Boston, with Tiny Thompson stopping 113 Leafs’ shots while Lorne Chabot turned away 93 of Boston’s.

The one that got away from Thompson came at twelve minutes to two on Tuesday morning, when Boston’s Eddie Shore made a mistake and the Leafs’ Ken Doraty scored. At 164 minutes and 46 second, the game was the longest in NHL history at the time, and kept that distinction for a whole three years, until the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons went longer in March of 1936.

The Leafs caught a special train out Tuesday morning an hour after they’d won, and they played the first game of the Stanley Cup finals that same evening in New York. The Rangers beat them 5-1 and carried on to win the Cup in four games.

Like Mike Rodden, I don’t mean to be offering alibis when I tally Toronto’s injuries. But I will pass on what the Star reported after that last elongated Boston game. Red Horner had so much bandaging on his bad hand that he couldn’t hold his stick properly, it was noted, while Baldy Cotton played with one of hishands rendered “almost useless.” Ace Bailey was wearing so much extra padding, meanwhile, on his wounded shoulder that he looked like “an overstuffed chesterfield.” Joe Primeau, everybody in Toronto agreed, should have been back in hospital, even though (of course) he wasn’t. He stayed on the bench for most of the night, finally making his first appearance on the ice well into overtime, as the clock ticked up towards midnight.

 

crowding the crease

Dual Purpose: Mike Karakas (left) and Paul Goodman share a Chicago net in October of 1938. Note the script on their sticks: “Professional Goalie.” And if you zoom in on Goodman’s left mitt, you’ll see it’s inscribed with the name “Alex Connell.” Did Goodman borrow the leather, perhaps, from the august Ottawa goaler, whose career had come to an end in 1937, or maybe did he inherit it? Could be an autograph, I guess, or an invocation, Goodman’s reminder to himself of who he wanted to be emulating when the pucks started to fly.

Chicago Black Hawks goaltender Mike Karakas fractured a toe on the eve of the 1938 Stanley Cup finals, and for a while there that April it looked liked the Hawks would open the championship series against the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs with New York Rangers’ borrowed backstop Dave Kerr fighting their corner. There was a whole kerfuffle over that, featuring fistfights among coaches. As it ended up, the man featuring in the Black Hawks net was Alfie Moore, who’d played a little previously for the New York Americans, and happened to be on hand. In search of a more permanent solution, Chicago also rushed out and bought Paul Goodman from the AHA Wichita Skyhawks, though when the 33-year-old Moore helped Chicago beat the Leafs by a score of 3-1, they thought maybe he’d do fine.

But the NHL wouldn’t let them keep Moore, so it was Goodman — also 33, born in Selkirk, Manitoba — who got the start in game two.

The Leafs roared back with a 5-1 win, which can’t have done much for Goodman’s confidence, let alone Chicago’s. Karakas, 26, was back in for games three and four, sporting a customized shoe and toe-splint, and Chicago won both those games, which won them the Cup.

Initially, Chicago’s patchwork goaling trio all had their names engraved on the Cup with the rest of their teammates. They stayed there for 20 years, until the Cup was redesigned 1957, at which point five Hawk players whose names should, by rights, be etched into hockey history (including Moore’s and Goodman’s), were, by wrongs, left off.

You may have heard tell of the story that Alfie Moore was drunk in a Toronto bar just before he was hauled in to Maple Leaf Gardens to play for the Black Hawks. It’s one of those popular old hockey tales that’s trotted out over and over again to see whether it might someday harden into a piece of authentic truth. The Chicago Tribune devoted an entire page to retailing it in 2013, enriched with quotes from former Hawk captain (and later, PR man) Johnny Gottselig, who scored two goals in front of Moore that night. “He had about ten or a dozen drinks,” Gottselig seems to have told John Devaney for his 1975 book The Stanley Cup: A Complete Pictorial History. “We put some coffee into him and put him under the shower. By game time, he was in pretty good shape.”

Moore, who died in 1979, remembered things a little differently. He was at home in Toronto that April afternoon in 1938, he recalled — and sober. The Leafs called, collected him, took him to the Gardens. “I didn’t know what they wanted,” he told Larry Spears in 1965. It was only when he got to Chicago’s dressing room that he learned he’d be suiting up to play for the Stanley Cup.

“I had no interest in playing,” he said. “And Chicago didn’t want me. They thought I was in league with the Leafs.”

They changed their minds, later, of course. “I wouldn’t say that it was my best game, by any means,” Moore said subsequently. “It was just the circumstances of it, a minor league goalie, the Stanley Cup, and all of that.” He was duly fêted when he travelled to Chicago to see the Black Hawks finish the job he’d started. Paid $300 for his game-one troubles, he later got a gold watch from his fleeting Hawks teammates, while the club contributed a week’s holiday at their expense.

Paul Goodman was back with the Hawks in the fall of ’38; the photograph here dates to that pre-seasonal October. Toe-healthy, Karakas wasn’t quite ready yet to cede the goal on anything like a full-time basis, and so Goodman returned to Wichita for the duration of the 1938-39 season.

The year after that, Chicago had three goaltenders at camp, adding a young Frank McCool to the mix. He eventually returned to university in Spokane, while Goodman was assigned to the IAHL Providence Reds; Karakas kept his net. But only for a month or so: with the Black Hawks faltering in December, coach Paul Thompson decided a switch was in order. So Goodman finished the season as Chicago’s first-choice puck-parryist.

Karakas played a bit for Providence before he decided he didn’t want to be in the minors. Suspended, he, too, ended up as an emergency replacement before the season was out, appearing for the Montreal Canadiens in stead of the injured Wilf Cude and Claude Bourque. Karakas did eventually make it back to the Black Hawks’ crease, but it took a while: he had two more seasons in the minors ahead of him before he made his return.

Paul Goodman would keep Chicago’s 1940-41 net, but only temporarily. He got hurt not long after Christmas, and the Hawks called up 23-year-old Sam LoPresti — a son, like Karakas, of Eveleth, Minnesota. About to turn 36, Goodman decided he’d had enough, announcing his retirement before January was over.

 

when fans attack: out on the street in his skates, the eel gives chase

Shake It Off: Showing the wound he was willing to forgive, the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry makes peace with Detroit salesman Eric Steiner in January of 1960.

He was just small, the newspapers liked to point out: at 5’10”, the New York Rangers’ centreman Camille Henry scaled in at a feathery 151 pounds. In 1960, the Associated Press decided this was news enough to flash out as free-standing story across the wires to its North American readers. In his sixth NHL season, the 27-year-old Henry had made his mark in the league in other ways, too, starting out with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in NHL. Dubbed, inevitably, the Eel, he was a reliable scorer. As a mostly peaceable presence on the ice, he won a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly proficiency in 1958. In his first five seasons, Henry accrued just 20 minutes in penalties, and while 1959-60 was a more delinquent year, his total by the end of the regular season was a mere six minutes.

That’s not to say that his restraint didn’t have its limits. On this day in 1960, he seems to have crossed over as he left the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium at the end of a game that saw the Rangers tie the Red Wings 2-2. An account of what happened next made up of sentences cut and pasted from several contemporary newspaper reports might look like this:

Some fans threw small objects at the players and words were exchanged.
Bumped when the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry stumbled and dropped his stick …
Eric Steiner, a 37-year-old Detroit salesman, picked up the stick and gave Henry a good thumping under the right eye.
Henry — skates and all — lit out after the fan.
He caught Steiner in the street outside the stadium, some 50 yards from the rink, and held him for police.
A half-dozen other players were chasing fans but officers quickly quelled the uprising.

While the police questioned Steiner, Henry took on four stitches. Detroit coach Jack Adams conferred with New York Alf Pike and, by one report, they were all for pressing charges. But Henry demurred. He settled for an apology and (above) a handshake. “I just lost my head,” Steiner is on the record as explaining; he also gained a ban attending future hockey games at the Olympia.

A week later, the two teams met again New York, tying again, 3-3. This time, the damage Henry sustained was on the ice, in the rush of play. Again he stumbled, crashing this time into a goal post, fracturing his left forearm. The Rangers’ Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa took care of the surgery later that week, putting in a pin. Henry was back in the line-up by the end of February.

can the puck break a bone?

S004

Puckbitten: “Pete Pilote,” the papers sometimes called him, “Hawk captain,” as when in March of 1963 (in Chicago’s final regular-season game) a puck shot by Boston’s Wayne Hicks cut the back of his head for 12 stitches. A.k.(mostly)a. Pierre, he suffered his share of head wounds: in December of 1960, also facing the Bruins, a puck off the boards opened up his forehead. I think that must be the wound that Hawks trainer Nick Garen is studying here, above. In his memoir, Pilote recalled the ’63 incident with a wince. “I’ll never forget that one. Those 12 stitches hurt more than anything I’ve ever known … like somebody was pressing a hot poker into my head. It throbbed so much I couldn’t sleep for a few days afterwards.” When later the sutures opened, the Hawks’ Dr. Myron Tremaine suggested that he might have to add an extra stitch to seal the deal. “No, you don’t Doc,” the superstitious Pilote told him. “Not 13! Find room for one more.”

In December of 1934, Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn American talked to Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor to the hockey players, boxers, and six-day bicycle racers who plied their trades at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The mention of the Art Ross puck is noteworthy, though it may not be entirely accurate. A new Ross puck did see service in the NHL in the early 1930s, only to be subsequently revoked, but I’ve seen no other reference to its being metal-middled. Following here, an excerpt of Parrot’s profile, edited, and poemized.

Sticks carried high, or swung viciously, (as often happens)
can do more deadly execution than
anything.

“The goalies are the ones that feel the brunt of the attack,”
said Dr. Clauss, wincing visibly. “I find that
the better the goalie, the more he
gets cut up, because
he goes to meet the play —
takes chances, to save goals.
Shrimp Worters, in the Americans’ net,
is always
getting
sliced
up.

“Can the puck break a bone?” I asked.

“It’s more damaging than a baseball
thrown by Mungo or Gomez,” said the Doc,
“and I know! It is heavy enough
to break bones now, although it is not
as bad as a few years ago,
when they used to use that Art Ross puck
with a metal center, and
they used to carry the players off
one after another. But the edge,
the cutting surface on the puck
makes it worse than
a baseball.”

hockey players in hospital beds: ching johnson on the fire-escape

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

Embedded: A broken-ankled Ching Johnson reposes in his hospital bed at Montreal General in December of 1928, a few hours before flames forced him and his fellow patients out of the building.

“Ching Johnson, heaviest and oldest player in major league hockey, has spent 29 weeks of his career in hospitals.”
• Norman Thomas, “Ye Sport Sandwich,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 16, 1937

I’m not going to catalogue all of Ivan Johnson’s hockey ailments here — this isn’t the time for that, and it isn’t the place. Regarding that introductory tally of Norman Thomas’, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny his calendar calculation for the Hall-of-Fame defenceman better known as Ching. What I can confide is what a newspaper aside dating to 1926 alleged, just as Johnson was just starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers: that the hockey he’d played to that point had conferred “27 scars.” That’s a number that — maybe it’s just coincidence — recurs in a 1938 edition of Time: “in twelve seasons of big-league of big-league hockey he has had bones broken in 27 different parts of his body.”

Hockey hurt more in the early years of the NHL: the game was sharper, blunter, more broadly brutal in the damage it inflicted on the professionals who played it. That’s part of the Ching Johnson story. The abandon he played with had something to do with his hospital tenancy, too. He enjoyed throwing his body at oncoming forwards. Frisky was one of his adjectives, and bumptious was another. He was tall, 5’11”, and what contemporary newspapers liked to call husky and/or burly — paired as he often was in his first years as a Ranger with Taffy Abel, he was half of what The New York Times called “the beefiest combination defense in the game,” a blueline bulwark that brought some 461 pounds to bear (at least 210 of them were Johnson’s).

Sounds like a brute, I know. But Johnson was fast, too, and if we loiter, for a moment, on the skill that went with his physical dynamism, we can find his boss in New York, Lester Patrick, likening him to Babe Ruth. “Great boy, Ching!” he gushed to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1928. “He has only one superior as a stick-handling defenceman and that is Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins.” Ten years later, a Ranger teammate, Bill Cook, classed Johnson as the greatest hockey player he’d ever seen.

But. Hospitals. There is one in particular I’m heading for, though not before a few more paragraphs to gather momentum. Maybe, to start, a sampling of vintage newspaper headlines from the Ching Johnson Injury Archive:

Injured

Johnson Injured In Hockey Clash

Blesse Dangereusement Samedi Soir

Johnson Unable To Rejoin Ranger Sextet This Season

Injured, He Stars

If he was a hockey Babe Ruth, it’s also the fact that there were oft-hurt ballplayers — Del Bissonette was one — who were referred to as the Ching Johnson of baseball, as in much-mended.

Ching Johnson injuries we’re not going to discuss, too much:

• the collarbone he broke in a collision with Charlie Langlois of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke in 1926;

• three of his ribs, damaged when he tripped Herb Drury of the Pirates in 1928 and (as The Pittsburgh Press had it) Drury’s “feet flew up and crashed into Johnson’s side;”

• the jaw Dit Clapper’s shoulder smashed in 1930, causing a dislocation and compound fracture that attending doctors (according to Ranger publicist Jersey Jones) used 80 inches of copper wire to repair;

• the forehead that Detroit’s Ebbie Goodfellow clipped with his stick in the playoffs in 1933 which left him, Johnson, “looking as though a horse had kicked him in the forehead” (said The Associated Press), leaving a scar that carved “in a livid crescent from the top of his nose to near his left eyebrow” in which five stitches could be counted.

Something else we’re not really going to get into: Johnson’s many stitchings, other than to say he himself denied having taken on 1,000 in his career, as was sometimes claimed by others on his behalf. “Where could they put them?” he said in 1937. “I’ve had only 374.”

His lack of meanness is important to emphasize, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been any spite in him. “Johnson,” wrote Horace Lavigne in La Patrie, “is a gentleman on the ice and he never abuses his strength or his bulk.” He bodychecked with bonhomie, sometimes helping those he’d knocked down back to their feet. When he rushed the puck, Lavigne went on, it was “with the impetuosity of an overflowing torrent.”

If you study the Ching Johnson literature you come across many sentences regarding his good nature and perpetual smile, which was said to grow as the going got rougher. “Often,” said his 1979 obituary in The New York Times, “when Mr. Johnson was knocked down, he would flash a grin that bespoke his delight at the contact.” A 1932 Le Canada dispatch almost scans as poetry:

Haynes et Johnson en collision;
Ching n’en perd pas son sourire,
Haynes non plus. Mais,
de l’équilibre, c’est autre affaire.

•••

Johnson was about to turn 30 in early December of 1928, when he took to the ice at the Montreal Forum. The new NHL season was just six games old and the Rangers were in town to take on the local Maroons. When the two teams had faced each in the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring, it was the Rangers who’d prevailed. At 4-1-1, they were off to strong start in the new season, though it was the Maroons who’d handed them their lone loss so far.

Other game notes? Dave Trottier, star winger of Canada’s 1928 Olympic team, was making his home debut on the Maroons’ left wing.

Also in the house, front and centre in Forum crowd that numbered about 12,000: Su Alteza Real Don Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, cousin to King Alfonso XIII. With his wife, Infanta Doña Beatrice, and their son, Prince Alvaro, and a small retinue of retainers, Don Alfonso was on a North American tour when he stopped in Montreal. Mayor Camillien Houde met him at the train station, along with his host, Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor, general manager of the Bank of Montreal.

The visitors spent a busy two-and-a-half days, touring the Royal Victoria Hospital and their host’s bank, attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica — and taking a pew at Saturday night’s hockey game, where the band opened the proceedings by playing of the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem.

On the ice, Maroons’ goaltender Clint Benedict was the star of the game, per The Gazette, “turning aside one drive after another with a brilliance that was uncanny.”

The game was fast. Also: rugged and robust and even peppery, but: not rough. Ching Johnson was a big part of this, and of the spectacle. “He is booed lustily by the fans,” The Gazette noted, “but they all admire him for a clean, hard playing, good natured defenceman, who smiles through fortune and adversity in hockey.”

The latter struck in the second period. With the game still goalless, Johnson took the puck and skated for the Montreal net, where a defenceman named Henry Hicks poke-checked him. The Gazette:

The Maroon defenceman started for the Ranger goal, and Johnson, somewhat off balance, kept on towards the corner behind the Maroon net. He could not get himself straightened out and crashed into the boards.

A later account described how the “pachydermic and bald defense ace” fell and slid feet first into the boards: “The weight of Johnson’s huge body carried such impetus that the ankle shattered under the strain.”

There were other Ranger casualties on the night: Taffy Abel didn’t return for the third period, and was reported to have suffered a gash from a skate to his left ankle, while left winger Butch Keeling went down with a (Montreal Gazette) “severely wrenched shoulder,” the right one. Torn ligaments, said the doctors later, when they looked.

Nels Stewart scored a goal for the Maroons before the second period ended, and he put another past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach early in the final period before Red Dutton made it 3-0.

That’s how it ended. The champions were beaten again. The Ottawa Journal rated Dave Trottier “fairly impressive,” particularly in the third; he also took two penalties. For Don Alfonso, well, he’d seen hockey before, in St. Moritz and Chamonix, but that was nothing like this.

“It is wonderful,” he said, “and we have all enjoyed every minute of the game.” He and his wife had both been touched to hear their anthem played. “We appreciated immensely the kindly touch and all that it meant.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was in a hospital that the Spaniards hadn’t seen, the western unit of Montreal General on what was then Dorchester Street. X-rays confirmed that his ankle, the left one, was indeed broken.

He wouldn’t be back playing for most of the rest of the season, The New York Times reported subsequently, and with Taffy Abel said to be gone for ten days, Rangers coach and GM Lester Patrick’s line-up was down to two defensemen, Leo Bourgeault and Myles Lane. For their next game, in Boston, the Rangers played with a reduced roster, 11 men. Abel’s and Keeling’s names were noted in the boxscores, though I don’t think either one of them got on the ice. The Bruins won that one, 2-0.

Johnson stayed in Montreal, resting his enplastered leg. The day after his teammates took on Boston, a photographer from La Patrie found the patient in his bed and pointed his camera. That’s it, above: Johnson looks comfortable, if a little unfocussed.

Later the same day, when the hospital caught fire, he’d be on the run. Continue reading

hitch hype

nels & hitch

Headcase: In the aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending head injury in December of 1933, NHL players tried on, tested, and (some of them) took up protective headgear. The man who took Bailey down, Eddie Shore, famously donned a fibre helmet when he returned to the ice following a suspension. Here, in January of 1934, a couple of his Bruin teammates show off the same model that Shore would make famous. Left, prone, is Lionel Hitchman, with Nels Stewart on the right. (AP)

Joe Primeau said he was the toughest player he ever faced. The big fellow, you sometimes see him called in contemporary dispatches (he was 6’1,” if only 170 pounds), as well as a fearless blocker; this lone hockey wolf; and the stone wall on which Montreal’s hopes were dashed.

Toronto-born, defenceman Lionel Hitchman got his NHL start with the old Ottawa Senators, but it was with Boston starting in in 1925 that he made his name, pairing with Eddie Shore on the fearsome Bruins’ defence for years not to mention captaining the team to its first Stanley Cup in 1929. “There is no smarter hockey brain than Hitchman’s,” an admirer in the press wrote in 1931, “and there isn’t a man playing with a bigger heart in the sport.”

Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? That’s been a pertinent question without a good answer for some years, and it’s one that the estimable Dave Stubbs has taken up this week. Stubbs, late of Montreal’s Gazette, now resident columnist and historian at NHL.com, makes the case in a column, here, calling for the wrong to be righted. Which calls for more, differently spelled hears: hear, hear.

The list of those overlooked by the Hall is a long one, of course, in which Hitchman’s name lines up with … Well, in the matter of Hall absentees, the question isn’t one of where to start, it’s where you stop. Lorne Chabot, Paul Henderson? Claude Provost, Reggie Leach? What about Rogie Vachon, and Herb Cain? Why aren’t they in?

Is the Hall listening? Inscrutable at the best of times, the selection process doesn’t seem to favour candidates from the distant past. So maybe Leach and Henderson ascend before Chabot (who retired after the 1936-37 season and died in 1946) or Hitchman (retired 1934; died 1969)? Maybe.

Meanwhile, while we wait, a few further Hitchman notes:

• He wasn’t first the first Boston captain, but he was the second. Dave Stubbs suggests that the Bruins played their first three years without a skipper when in fact they were only leaderless on the ice for their inaugural season, 1924-25. In the fall of ’25, manager Art Ross brought in veteran marauding defenceman Sprague Cleghorn, who was the captain for two seasons ahead of Hitchman, who you’ll see sometimes referred to as vice-captain in newspaper accounts from that time.

• Fred, as he was often called — he was born Frederick Lionel in 1901 — Fred was often injured, of course; in other words, he was a hockey player. In 1924, still an Ottawa Senator, he was rushing the puck at the Montreal net when Canadiens’ Billy Coutu hit him and he went down, a stick must have done the slicing, he was prone on the ice and had to be carried off with a big gash on his forehead. He returned to the Ottawa bench, with a big plaster on the wound, but didn’t play again that game. In 1928, he was pretty sure he’d broken a shoulder bashing up against the New York Rangers, though x-rays showed it was only separated, and he was back on the ice after missing just a single game. In 1930, teammate Eddie Shore hoisted a puck to clear it but hit Hitchman in the jaw instead, fractured it. That put him out for a while. When he returned, for the playoffs, he was wearing a helmet — though a different one, I think, than the one pictured above.

He had a poor season the following year. The jaw hadn’t healed as it should have, got infected, and (as Victor Jones explained in The Daily Boston Globe) “this poison running through his system is what has been responsible for his mediocre play.” Another report mentioned the unhappy effects of “the puss [sic] in his teeth roots.”

• Hitchman resigned the captaincy ahead of the 1931-32 season. He’d tried to do it a year earlier, during that off-season of his, but Art Ross wouldn’t let him. Not sure how much he was going to play, or at what level, Hitchman was insisting now. This was the year, too, that NHL president Frank Calder made it clear that no longer would managers (looking at you Messrs. Ross and Smythe) be permitted to talk to referees during games, only captains would be able to remonstrate. Ross had appointed Cleghorn and then Hitchman as his captains; this time, he decided to let the players to elect a successor. Hitchman nominated another defenceman, George Owen, and Eddie Shore seconded that, and so it was. Ross said he was so pleased by this that he vowed that all his future captains would be chosen democratically rather than be handpicked by him.

• A 1929 rumour had him going to the Montreal (along with $50,000) in exchange for Howie Morenz. Canadiens manager Cecil Hart was quick to douse that one. “Put this down,” he said, Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.” That would prove to be true, strictly speaking: after a short odyssey that took him to Chicago and New York, Morenz did of course return to Montreal, where he died a Canadien in March of 1937.

Other rumours circulated the year of his jaw infection. Was he headed to Detroit to succeed Jack Adams as manager of the Falcons? Other whispers had Hitchman going to Montreal in the fall of 1931 in exchange for Tommy Cook, a pair of young brothers called Giroux, and cash. This time it was Bruins’ owner and president Charles Adams who did the kyboshing. “It is not the policy of the Bruins to sell any player who is of value to the club.”

• So he played on. I don’t think he ever returned to his old form, though. In January of 1934, the Montreal Gazette was reporting that “his days of effectiveness as a player were numbered,” the only question was would he hang up his skates to take a job as an assistant coach under Art Ross or head down to steer the minor-league Boston Cubs? The Bruins weren’t going to make the playoffs, but they still had eight games remaining. They were already missing Eddie Shore, still serving his suspension for ending the career of (while nearly killing) Toronto’s Ace Bailey. On the night of February 22, Hitchman played his final game, going out in style — that is, “Lionel Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden saw the Bruins lose 3-1 to the Ottawa Senators after a ceremony in which the man of the moment received plaques and cheques and flowers and a chest filled with silverware. His parents were on hand, too, and they were rewarded with their venerable son’s sweater and stick.

• The Bruins did retire Hitchman’s number 3 that night. Just about a week earlier Conn Smythe had vowed that no other Maple Leaf would ever wear Bailey’s number 6 again, so that would seem to make Hitchman’s the second number to be taken out of circulation in professional sports. In Hitchman’s case, the retirement seems to have taken some time to stick. Myles Lane wore Hitchman’s 3 at some point in 1934, and it was back on the ice a couple of years later, worn (if only briefly) by both Bert McInenly and (below) Flash Hollett.

In the 1940s, Hollett got Eddie Shore’s number 2 when the legendary Bruins’ defenceman moved on, under stormy circumstance, to the New York Americans. Some fans in Boston were outraged, said the Shore’s 2 should be withdrawn post haste with even more (as one Shore loyalist wrote) ceremony than Hitchman’s 3.

The Bruins did eventually get around to it, but not until 1947, the year they also retired Dit Clapper’s number 5.

Boston players lobbied hard, apparently, in 1938 to get Ross to honour Tiny Thompson’s number 1, but Ross refused. Thompson was still playing, for one thing — he’d been traded to the Detroit Red Wings to make room for young Frank Brimsek — and, two, Ross was said to be worried about running out of numbers.

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)