Sentences tweezered from long-ago accounts of hockey games in newspapers that no longer exist on actual paper tell us that Harry Oliver was crafty and cool-headed and a treat for the eye.
Born on this day in 1898 in Selkirk, Manitoba, Oliver was a Hall-of-Fame right-winger who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 1929. He died in 1985 at the age of 86.
Other adjectives he accumulated over his career include exemplary (his lack of penalty-taking) and smooth-as-silk. His grace has likened to that of a greyhound. He was an increasingly ballyhooed Selkirk Fisherman before he turned professional in 1922. As a Calgary Tiger he got sparkling; his work in at least one third period was designated nifty.
In 1924 his Tigerish teammates voted him the team’s MVP, and gave him a medal at centre ice. Asked to pick an all-star line-up from the ranks of Western Canadian Hockey League players that year, referee Mickey Ion named Red Dutton and Duke Keats and Bill among his starters with Oliver, Joe Simpson, Dick Irvin, and Newsy Lalonde as back-ups. Oliver was deemed a menace in the goal area and a regular flash on his blades. The word out of Calgary was that he
has never been known to commit a deliberate foul of any description. He swings through the checks with a daring style that often endangers him, but he seldom suffers mishap. He whips around a net, dodging defencemen and sliding through rebounds, like a hawk swooping for prey.
As a Bruin, his qualifiers would come to include seasoned and 155-pound. In his first year, 1926-27, he often played on a speedy line with Keats and Archie Briden. The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals that spring, where Ottawa beat them. Oliver scored a goal in the final game in Ottawa, though that’s not really what the night is remembered for in hockey’s annals. Before it was all over the Bruins’ Billy Coutu had attacked the referee, Dr. Jerry Laflamme, for which he was subsequently banned from the NHL for life. The evening’s mayhem also featured Ottawa’s Hooley Smith butt-ending Oliver and breaking his nose. Smith was suspended for a month. He later admitted his mistake: the man he meant to attack was Boston’s Eddie Shore.
The night the Bruins beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to win the 1929 Stanley Cup, Oliver scored Boston’s opening goal and later set up the winner. Here’s how the former looked to John J. Hallahan of The Boston Daily Globe:
The popular, quiet right winger took a pass well down in his own territory from Shore. He skated down the right side, being bumped around by several players. He did not relinquish the disk, but took the most difficult path, between Abel and Vail on the defense. They hit him but not enough to make him lose the disk. While off balance, he made a shot, and the rubber whizzed past Roach, after 14 minutes of play.
Toronto’s Globe tabbed him in 1930 as one the NHL’s best stickhandlers. He was manning the right side that year of Boston’s top line, with Marty Barry at centre and Perk Galbraith out on left. Eddie Shore was asked in 1930 about players he admired across the league and Shore said Lionel Hitchman for body-checking, Howie Morenz for skating, Dutch Gainor for shifting, Harry Oliver for blocking body-checks, and Cooney Weiland for avoiding body-checks.
In 1934, Boston sold him to the New York Americans where Bullet Joe Simpson was the coach, and in previewing the season a local paper called Oliver classy and quoted Simpson as saying that he wasn’t through yet. In 1936 Oliver was described in 1936 as quiet-spoken and keen backchecking wingman. Following a game that year in which the Amerks tied the Montreal Maroons, The Winnipeg Tribune called him old. He was 37. The score of the game was 8-8, with Oliver contributing a goal and three assists.
In New York, he sometimes played on a line with Bob Gracie and Normie Himes; sometimes Hap Emms took Gracie’s place. By 1937, Red Dutton was running the Americans, Oliver’s old teammate from the Calgary Tigers. Old-timer is an adjective you’ll see attached to Oliver’s name in contemporary stories about Dutton’s pre-season line-up renovations. Oliver wasn’t the only one deemed surplus: those articles also toll the retirement bell for Roy Worters, Ted Graham, and Baldy Cotton.
In 1967, along with Neil Colville, Red Storey, and Turk Broda, Harry Oliver was elevated to hockey’s Hall of Fame. The Toronto Daily Star rated him one of the game’s noted stickhandlers. In The Ottawa Journal he was recalled as one of the lightest players in any era in hockey.
The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.
That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?
Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.
The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.
The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”
That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 79, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”
Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”
All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.
He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400. He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued to do on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patricks to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.
On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t know, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his initial investment.
Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.
The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.
“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.
In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared. Continue reading
Never mind the NHL’s ongoing historical confusion: the consensus remains that it was Boston coach Art Ross who was first to pull the proverbial goalie in an NHL game. Ever the innovator, Ross was, of course, trying to outman the opposition and tie up a game his team was losing. Tiny Thompson was the ’tender in question on that inaugural essay; leaping to the ice in his stead was Red Beattie. This was in 1931, in a Stanley Cup semi-final, and for the Bruins, a vain effort: Montreal held their lead and won the game, 1-0.
Now that we’ve got that all cleared up (again), a few further findings from the last several weeks to expand the pulled-goalies file.
• Windsor Star columnist and hockey biographer and historian Bob Duff has reset the chronology on the first empty-net goal to have been scored on a team with its goalie gone. Previously, Clint Smith of the Chicago Black Hawks was the man widely acknowledged first to have hit a vacant net, on November 11, 1943, in a 6-4 victory over Ross’ Bruins. That’s what the Fame-Hall of Hockey reports in their Smith biography, and it’s in several authoritative books, too, like Kings of the Ice: A History of World Hockey (2002) by Andrew Podnieks, Dmitri Ryzkov, et al. The Hall alludes to a change in league rules at that time, allowing goalie-yanking, but that’s not right: there was never any legislation like that before or after Tiny Thompson’s 1931 departure. Kings of the Ice is mistaken, too, when it says that the practice was seldom used until the 1950s.
In fact, coaches whose teams were in need of a late goal didn’t seem to hesitate to try it all through the 1930s, especially if their names were Ross and/or Lester Patrick. Which, when you think about it, makes 12 years look like a long, long time for all those professional hockey players to be not scoring when they had all those unguarded net to shoot at.
That’s why Bob Duff’s finding makes much better sense. As he pointed out to members of the Society for International Hockey Research this past week, it’s time we adjusted the date of the NHL’s first empty-net goal to January 12, 1932. New York Rangers were in Boston that night, so some of the protagonists remained from the Montreal game nine months earlier. It’s worth noting that after three periods, tied 3-3, the teams played on into unsudden, non-lethal overtime — i.e. the teams played a full ten-minute period with all the goals counted. It wasn’t long before Ranger right winger Cecil Dillon took a pass from Murray Murdoch and beat the Bruins’ Tiny Thompson. A little later, when Ross called Thompson to the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Dillon — but let the AP reporter tell how it was, as he did, in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Cecil pulled the rubber out of a pack near his goal, and after beating every Bruin, belted home the final score with no opposition.
Sorry, Clint Smith.
• As it turns out, Cecil Dillon found a way to emphasize his 1932 empty-net achievement. By coincidence — I guess it could also have been fated — either way, exactly a year later, he did it again. This time around, January 12, 1933, the Rangers hosted the Bruins at Madison Square Garden. With the Bruins down by a goal with two minutes left in the third period, Art Ross once again summoned Tiny Thompson to the bench. A Ranger shot hit the Boston post, followed closely by a Ranger defenceman, Ott Heller, who then had to be carried off with a suspected leg injury. The Daily Boston Globe:
From the next face-off Dillon let fly from the middle of the center zone and scored a bull’s-eye on the vacant net. It came with 26 seconds to go.
• The first empty-net goal scored in a rink where Ross, Thompson and the rest of the Bruins were not present seems to have been one that Aurele Joliat put away nine days after that inaugural Dillon effort in 1932. Toronto’s Leafs were in Montreal for this one, trailing the Canadiens 1-2 when Lorne Chabot departed the crease. The AP report in Boston’s Globe:
Toronto, always dangerous, was confident that it could score with six forwards, but Joliat hook-checked the puck away from Red Horner and scored the last goal and Howie Morenz almost repeated before the bell.
• In case anyone’s asking: the first goalie to be pulled at Maple Leaf Gardens was Montreal’s Wilf Cude by coach Sylvio Mantha on February 20, 1936. No goal ensued: Toronto won the game 2-1. Andy Lytle from the hometown Daily Star termed it a “showmanship stunt.”
• Six forwards: that does seem to have been the norm in those days. Today a coach might be content to leave his defenceman in place while adding a further forward but in the 1930s, more often than not, teams appear to have been going for offensive broke.
Which was why Bullet Joe Simpson, for one, didn’t like it. Famous in his own playing days, he was the coach of the New York Americans by the time Cecil Dillon scored his anniversary empty-netter in early 1933. “I don’t believe taking your goalie off is a good thing,” he confided. It was “freak hockey and unsound;” Boston, he felt, deserved what it got. He wasn’t done, either:
Six men are too many to have around the enemy nets. They are sure to get in one another’s way, because there isn’t room enough for them to deploy. And if they should shoot a goal, it’s apt to be called back for interference — somebody between the man with the puck and the goalie.
• What about the other end of the ice? Surprising how little has been written about the success stories. The reason you pull your goalie, if you’re Art Ross or anyone else, is to use that extra manpower to score that all-important tying goal. So who was the first to do that? The NHL.com’s paltry historical miscellany has nothing on that, and nor does the Hockey Hall of Fame, or any of the stand-by reference books. At least, if they do, not anywhere that I’ve been able to fathom.
It did take a long time for that first goal to go in, as it turns out. Years and years. In today’s NHL, pulling the goalie has developed into a strategy that yields a good return. It’s worth doing; it often works. That’s what the modern numbers tell us, along with the charts on the websites where they’re crunched and glossed, and the studies who’ve made it their business to study the stats.
I don’t know how often, exactly, goalies were leaving their nets in hope and desperation in the 1930s because I haven’t done the sifting you’d have to do to figure that all the way out. I can say, anecdotally, that Tiny Thompson was a fairly frequent fleer, in Boston and then later when Jack Adams was calling him to the bench in Detroit. Dave Kerr of the Rangers was another regular, as Lester Patrick’s goaltender with the Rangers. Alec Connell was yanked, in Ottawa. In Montreal, I haven’t myself seen an instance of Flat Walsh leaving the Maroon net, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. George Hainsworth, of the Canadiens, definitely did. Given Bullet Joe Simpson’s feelings, it’s possible that he left Shrimp Worters where he was throughout the Shrimp’s Americans career.
So: lots of goalies leaving many nets. And yet the first time the tactic paid off seems to have been in … 1937, five-and-a-half seasons after Art Ross first gave it a go. The newspapers noted the achievement, if only in passing: there was no great huzzah.
It seems only fitting that Ross was the one who finally got it right. Tiny Thompson was still in (and out of) the Bruins’ net. Also of note: five players who were on the ice that first time in 1931 (Boston was shorthanded at the time), four were in the 1937 game wearing Boston colours — Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, and Dit Clapper — while the fifth, Art Chapman, was playing for the visiting New York Americans.
He scored the game’s opening goal in the second period. By the time that was over, the Americans had built up a 4-0 advantage. Boston didn’t look good, as even the hometown Daily Boston Globe was forced to concede:
Lorne Chabot could have held the New York citadel inviolate with an eclair in either hand.
The Amerks were leading 5-1 and 6-4 in the third before Clapper made it 6-5 on a pass from Weiland.
Twenty-five seconds remained when Ross called in Thompson. (The Associated Press says 30. Not sure how much I trust the AP account, though, given that it also contains this sentence: “It was probably one of the most weird games in the Boston’s hockey history.”) Boston defenceman Flash Hollett followed his goaltender to the bench to let a forward go on and so (just like in 1931) the Bruins only had five players on the ice and no numerical advantage when Hooley Smith scored the goal that tied the game and made the history that eventually got mislaid.
The teams played a ten-minute overtime without any more goals. Neither goaltender, said the Globe, had to make a difficult save. Right until the end, both of them stayed in their nets.
• So that’s that. Except for — well, no, not quite.
About an hour after I’d tracked down the 1937 Hooley Smith goal, complete with contemporary confirmation that it was unprecedented, I came across a 1933 game in which Eddie Shore scored a goal to tie up the Chicago Black Hawks while (do you even have to ask?) Tiny Thompson was on the bench. So that would be the first time a goalie pulled resulted in a goal scored, no?
Yes. I think so. It’s not an entirely straightforward case, though. Continue reading