charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

training camp, 1940: all aboard for hibbing

Slow Train Going: Ready to board the train for Hibbing, Minnesota, members of the 1940-41 Black Hawks doff their hats at Chicago’s North Western Station. From left, they are: Bill Thoms, Pep Kelly, Earl Seibert, Johnny Gottselig, Jack Portland, Mush March, coach Paul Thompson, and trainer Eddie Froelich.

The Chicago Black Hawks went to Hibbing, Minnesota, for training camp in October of 1940, which is what they did in those years, having prepped for years, pre-seasonally, in Champaign, Illinois. Later, 1943, the Hawks would shift briefly to Minneapolis before giving up on Minnesota altogether in the fall ’45, when they took their training to Regina, in Saskatchewan. In ’40, second-year coach Paul Thompson was young, 33; two seasons earlier, he’d been manning the left wing for the Black Hawks, as he’d been doing since 1931. In ’38, coached by Bill Stewart, Chicago had won a surprising Stanley Cup. Aiming to repeat that feat, Thompson’s team convened in Minnesota three weeks ahead of their opening game of their 48-game regular-season schedule, a November 7 meeting with the New York Americans slated for Chicago Stadium.

Twenty-five players travelled to Hibbing. Those who didn’t accompany the coach on the train from Chicago came south from Winnipeg. Paul Goodman was the incumbent in goal, though the Hawks were excited by a young local prospect, too, Sam LoPresti. Defensive veterans Earl Seibert, Jack Portland, and Art Wiebe would be challenged by another Minnesotan, Eveleth’s own John Mariucci, and a recently graduated mining engineer from the University of Alberta, Dave MacKay. Returning forwards included Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, Phil Hergesheimer, and Doug Bentley. The latter’s brother, Max, was given a good chance of making the team, as was a young Winnipegger  by the name of Bill Mosienko.

Thompson was enthusiastic: to his mind, this team was shaping up to be “the most evenly balanced in Chicago history.” The team’s tempestuous owner was on the page when he blew in for a visit midway through camp. Never before, Major Frederic McLaughlin declared, had a team of his looked so good so early.

This despite the fact that the Hawks hardly skated the first week of the pre-season. The ice was iffy in Hibbing that October — what there was of it. This despite the fact that the Hawks hardly skated the first week of the pre-season. The ice was iffy in Hibbing that October — what there was of it. The crew at Memorial Arena was no doubt doing its best to get a freeze on for the hockey players, but they had their troubles that first week. Five days into camp the Hawks still hadn’t seen a serviceable surface. Thompson curtailed Wednesday’s drills before they really got going: “five minutes of skating,” the Canadian Press reported, had worn the ice down to the floor.” The players took to the outdoors, where they kept themselves busy with a little road work, a little golf. Wednesday saw Mush March score a hole-in-one on the Hibbing course’s 190-yard seventh hole. He’d been prepping all summer long, you could say: March had spent the summer as a club pro in Valparaiso, Indiana.

By Thursday, the coach’s patience was almost at its end: if the Hibbing rink couldn’t get it together by Friday, he’d take his team and head west for 500 miles, to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where former Chicago defenceman Taffy Abel managed the rink.

Friday, with the team packed and ready to go, Hibbing’s ice-makers came through, and the Hawks skated for the first time with sticks and pucks. “The frozen surface stood up under two 90-minute tests,” the CP noted; “jubilation was rampant.” Art Wiebe was the season’s first casualty, suffering a gash over the right eye along with what the CP termed “a slight brain concussion.” No worries, said coach Thompson: he’d be back in action next day.

The second week of camp, the ice was fine. Monday 1,000 spectators showed up to watch Chicago’s first open scrimmage. Coach Thompson played referee, “allowing some fouls to pass unnoticed, but … quick to stop play on offsides.” It was 19 minutes before anyone could score, with Johnny Gottselig beating Paul Goodman.

As planned, the Hawks decamped the following Monday for St. Paul. They had another week of drills ahead of them there, along with a series of exhibition games against the local American Hockey Association Saints. Those were played, eventually: when the Black Hawks first arrived in St. Paul that vexed pre-season, they learned that the refrigeration plant had broken down, and that the ice wouldn’t be ready to receive them for another day or two.

 

word watch: when don cherry says dangle

Dangler: Sweeney Schriner in his Maple Leafing days. “A picture player,” Conn Smythe called him. “He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers.”

I don’t know how many tirades, total, Don Cherry launched last night on Hockey Night in Canada, I just caught the one, after the early games had come to an end. Vancouver had baned Toronto, barely, 2-1, while in Montreal, Canadiens scourged Detroit 10-1. Winger Paul Byron scored his first NHL hattrick in the latter, and all his goals were speedy. Highlights ensued as Cherry and Ron MacLean admired his fleety feet.

Cherry: Look at how he outskates guys. I mean, this guy can really … skate … dangle, as they say. I’m, a, now watch …

MacLean: Now, let’s be clear, when you say dangle, you mean he can wheel.

Cherry: [Irked-more-than-usual] I’m saying he can … Everybody knows that played the game for a long time, dangle means … And [thumbing at MacLean, about to refer to incident that nobody else has knowledge of] you remember John Muckler comin’ in, sayin’, what are you, nuts, skates fast. The guys that are in the game now, they really don’t know the game, I’m not getting’ into that …

Anybody that says dangle and it’s “stickhandling” doesn’t know the game. I just thought I’d throw that in.

So. Interesting discussion. To recap: Don Cherry is ready to go to vocabulary war with anyone who doesn’t agree that there’s only one true hockey definition for a fairly common word, and it’s not the one that most people think it is, which proves how ignorant they are, i.e. very.

Cherry’s correct on this count, at least: dangle has long been a word in hockey referring to the speed with which a player skates. Here, for instance, is the venerable Vern DeGeer, Globe and Mail sports editor, writing in 1942:

Sid Abel, the talented left-winger for Detroit Red Wings, watched Saturday’s Bruins-Leafs game from the Gardens press box … Sid did not attempt to conceal his open admiration for Syl Apps, the long-striding speed merchant of the Leafs … “I think most players are pretty well agreed that Apps can dangle faster than any skater in the league,” said the observing Sid …

And from Bill Westwick of The Ottawa Journal in 1945, talking to Billy Boucher whether Maurice Richard was as rapid as Howie Morenz:

He takes nothing away from Richard. “He can dangle, breaks very fast, and is a top-line hockey player. But they can’t tell me he moves as fast as Howie. I’ve yet to see anyone who could.”

On the other side — what we might call the anti-Cherry end of things — most recent dangles you’ll come across, in print or on broadcasts, involve a player’s ability to manipulate a puck. If you want to go to the books, Andrew Podnieks’ Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007) mentions skillful stickhandling in its dangle definition, and The Hockey Phrase Book (1991) concurs.

As does Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. “You know what,” he was saying in 2015, talking about then-Canuck Zack Kassian. “He can dangle and make plays.” A year earlier, Detroit defenceman Brendan Smith had a slight variation as he hymned the praises of teammate Gustav Nyquist: “He’s a hell of a skater, he’s a great puck-mover, he makes great plays, he’s got great skill, he can dangle you, he’s hard to hit, he’s wormy or snakey, whatever you want to call it.”

Can we agree, then, even if Don Cherry might not, that dangle has more than one hockey application? Is that a compromise we can get behind without further hoary accusations regarding who and who doesn’t know the game.

The dictionaries, it’s true, need to make room for Cherry’s definition alongside theirs.

On the other side, it’s not as though Cherry’s sense of the word is the original or even elder one. In fact, as far back as 1940 you can find The Ottawa Journal using dangle to mean stickhandling. And here’s Andy Lytle from The Toronto Daily Star jawing with Conn Smythe that same year about some of his Leaf assets:

He waxed lyrical over [Billy] Taylor whom he calls “a player with a magnificent brain” and [Sweeney] Schriner whom he says emphatically and with gestures is the best left winger in the game today.

“Schriner,” he enthused, “ is the maestro, the playmaker deluxe who is so good he can distribute his qualities amongst [Murph] Chamberlain and [Pep] Kelly until they too play over their heads.”

“He can dangle a puck.”

“Dangle it,” exclaimed Conny, now thoroughly stirred, “I tell you I’ve never seen anything comparable to his play for us in Detroit last Sunday night. It was a revelation in puck-carrying. He was the picture player. He isn’t like Apps going through a team because Schriner does it with deliberate skill and stick trickery. He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers. Apps is spectacular, thrilling because of his superlative speed. Schriner is the same only he does his stuff in slow motion so everyone can enjoy him.”

In other words, Apps may have been able to dangle, but Schriner could dangle.

 

the happy gang

Joy Division: As the regular season wrapped up in March of 1938, many pundits thought it would be the New York Rangers playing the Boston Bruins when the playoffs reached their finals and the Stanley Cup was at stake. That’s not quite how it worked out, of course. The Rangers fell at the first fence, making way for the eventual champions from Chicago to forge ahead. As for the Bruins, who finished the season in first overall, they went out to a feisty Toronto team in a semi-final sweep that saw the Leafs take all three games in overtime. Above, some of those victorious Torontonians celebrate in their Boston Garden dressing following their series-clinching 3-2 win on March 29. At the back, from left to right that’s Busher Jackson, Leafs coach Dick Irvin, and Murph Chamberlain. Up front: Bob Davidson helps to hoist game-winning goalscorer Gordie Drillon — Syl Apps is on the other leg. Alongside are Reg Hamilton, Bill Thoms, and Pep Kelly. (Image: Acme)

leafs at training camp, 1935: king, red, happy and buzz, fido and flash, and the boys

maple-leafs-kitchener2-version-2

Camp Site: The Toronto Maple Leafs gathered in Kitchener, Ontario, in October of 1935 — this way for a full report. Above, players and coaches face the camera at Victoria Park. Back row, from left: Major Harold Ballantyne, Ken Doraty, Phil Stein, Mickey Blake, Pep Kelly, Flash Hollett, King Clancy, Red Horner, Bob Davidson, Frank Finnigan, unknown. Middle row: Eddie Powers, George Parsons, Norval Fitzgerald, Red Hamilton, Jack Howard, Chuck Shannon, Hap Day, Jack Shill, Nick Metz, Dick Irvin. Front row: Art Jackson, Andy Blair, George Hainsworth, Bill Thoms, Bill Gill, Buzz Boll, Joe Primeau, Fido Purpur, unknown — possibly Tim Daly.