They’re some of the biggest names in hockey, standing there in their skates on the pavement, as though surprised by a photographer in their attempt to escape the bounds of the rink in Portland, Oregon, or maybe of hockey itself. That’s the dominant Canadian athlete of the first half of the 20th century in the middle, Lionel Conacher. Beside him is T.P. Gorman, a.k.a. Tommy, who as an NHL coach and manager was involved in winning four Stanley Cup championships with three different teams. The other future Hall-of-Famers here are Billy Burch, to Gorman’s right, and the tiny mighty goaltender Roy Worters, out on the end at far left.
There’s a mystery man lined up here, too, over on the right. Inquiring hockey minds have wondered about him, in recent years, who was he, what was his role with the team, how did he end up crossing sticks with Rabbit McVeigh outside the Portland Ice Arena in the spring of 1929? In another version, he’s in between Burch and an even happier Conacher:
Thanks to photographer Theo Mentzer’s annotations we know his name is Beckett. Beyond that — I haven’t been able to find out too much more about him. Not that the first photograph doesn’t have surprises to spring. I came across those recently, as I looked for traces of him. As surprises go, these ones aren’t particularly momentous, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth waiting for. They seem to have been concealed for decades in … well, no, not exactly plain sight, I guess.
Some background, first. For that, we tunnel back to April of 1929 and the end of the NHL’s twelfth season. The Stanley Cup finals had wrapped up at the end of March, with the Boston Bruins collecting their first championship by overcoming the New York Rangers in a two-game series.
There were ten teams in the league at this point, and the New York Americans were one of the good ones. For all the team’s star-power, coach Gorman had failed to urge them past the first round: two weeks earlier, they’d been ousted from the playoffs by the Rangers, in a close-fought two-game, total-goals series.
The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, had ridden a bye into the second round of the playoffs, but they faltered there against the Bruins. To ease the pain of defeat — and supplement the club’s coffers — both disappointed teams, Canadiens and Americans, went west, departing on a post-season exhibition tour, a common practice for NHL teams in those years.
As April got going, as the Americans arrived in Oregon, for the first of six games they’d play on the Pacific coast, the NHL was concluding its last bit of business for the season, announcing the year’s individual trophy winners. Among them was Roy Worters, who had the high distinction of being winner of the David A. Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. It was the first time in the trophy’s six-year history that it had gone to a goaltender. Worters wasn’t deemed to be the best at his own position, it might be worth pointing out: in 1929 it was the Canadiens’ goaltender, George, Hainsworth, who was named winner of a third consecutive Vézina Trophy.
Hainsworth didn’t join his teammates in the west that spring: along with defenceman Sylvio Mantha and star winger Aurèle Joliat, the goaltender stayed home. I don’t know about the other two, but Hainsworth had a job to do, heading home to Kitchener, Ontario, where he worked as an electrician during the summer months. To tend to their goaling in his absence, the Canadiens borrowed Clint Benedict from the Montreal Maroons. He had just one more year left in his NHL career: the following one, 1929-30, was his finale, featuring a pair of fearful facial injuries suffered at the sticks of Boston’s Dit Clapper and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens, a prolonged absence, and a revolutionary (if ultimately unhappy) experiment with a mask.
Benedict and the Canadiens would play four games in Vancouver that April in ’29. In the first three, they took on the Vancouver Lions, Frank Patrick’s team, who’d just wrapped up the championship of the new four-team Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHL), Frank Patrick’s newly launched loop. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank. Percy Jackson was the goaltender: according to Frank Patrick, he was the best backstop there was, anywhere in hockey.
Ahead of the first game between Montreal and Vancouver, on the basis that the former were the best of the NHL’s Canadian-based teams, Patrick boldly declared that at stake in the three-game series between Canadiens and Lions would be nothing less than the “professional championship of Canada.”
This was news to NHL President Frank Calder, already wary of the PCHL, a more or less outlaw operation, in the NHL’s view, not to mention a possible threat to its hockey hegemony. One of the rumours making the rounds that spring was that Patrick was preparing to expand his operation eastward, setting up a league to rival the NHL there. That would never be, of course: this incarnation of the PCHL would fizzle out after a second season of play, with Frank Patrick heading east, eventually, to become managing director of the NHL, under Calder, in 1933.
Back in 1929, Calder was quick to kibosh the championship talk, noting to Montreal reporters that the PCHL was merely a “minor league” operation, “and it is therefore absurd to say that a minor and a major league team can be engaging for the championship.”
“Then there is the fact,” Calder continued, “that Canadiens went west with only half a team. They left Hainsworth, Mantha, and Joliat behind, and that surely is half their regular club.
“When the team left for the west understrength, I anticipated there would not be any big success for the Canadiens, and when I read advance notices that the games were being booked for the Canadian championship, I took steps to stop this, as it was not correct. But the enthusiasm of some of the western writers has overcome their discretion apparently, for the championship booking is repeated, and I have notified President Frank Calder to discontinue such references. These are merely exhibition with no championship involved.”
True to Calder’s lack of confidence, Montreal lost two of its three games against Vancouver, going down 2-0 on April 6 before rebounding two days later with a 4-1 win. On April 10, the Lions prevailed by a score of 3-2. A shot from Howie Morenz knocked Percy Jackson cold that night, if not out: the aforementioned Vancouver goaltender was revived and, as happened as often as not in those years, he carried on.
Gorman’s Americans, meantime, had alighted in Oregon. That’s them there, above, in their civvies in what seems to be yet another Theo Mentzer photograph. It has to be said: they’re looking great. No Beckett here, but another player makes an appearance, one who doesn’t show up in the top two photographs, Bullet Joe Simpson. Take a note of that, if you would: we’ll come back to him and why, though he was on the ice for New York throughout their tour, he happened to be absent from these pictures.
The Americans played two games at the Portland Ice Arena, beating the PCHL Buckaroos on April 1 by a score of 2-1 (in overtime) and again on April 4 by a score of 4-3. Portland had a couple of future NHLers in its line-up in centreman Paul Runge (a Bruin-, Maroon-, and Canadien-to-be) and left winger Red Conn (who’d join the Americans in the early ’30s).
The second game was a costly one in that Lionel Conacher was injured, sent to hospital when his head accidentally met up with a skate belonging to Buckaroos defenceman Ted Jacques. The cut he suffered behind one ear took 16 stitches to close, and while he tried his best to get back on the ice the team’s final game on April 15, medical prudence prevailed and he sat out.
Lacking Conacher, the Americans did borrow a defenceman for the rest of the tour from the Buckaroos, Earl Armstrong, who seems to have acquitted himself well, though this was as close as he’d come to skating in the NHL.
The Americans went to Seattle next, where they split a pair of games (6-4; 1-4) against the PCHL Eskimos, who had Jack Walker leading the way on the ice.
Finally, New York followed the Canadiens to Vancouver. Montreal had completed its series with the local Lions, who New York now met, and beat, 1-0. Bullet Joe Simpson notching the decisive goal. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank.
The Americans played one last game, returning to Vancouver’s Denman Arena on April to outlast their NHL rivals from Montreal by a score of 5-3. Worters was outstanding in the New York net, came the report from the coast, while Benedict was only ordinary. Billy Burch scored a pair of goals for the Americans, with Johnny Sheppard, Harry Connor, and Earl Armstrong contributing the others. Battleship Leduc (with 2) and Armand Mondou scored the Montreal goals. Referee Mickey Ion called not a single penalty.
And that was all for the (non-championship) tour. The Canadiens had been planning to carry on to Portland and Seattle, but those games were cancelled. West-coast interest in hockey was waning as the spring sprang, apparently; Portland, it was reported, had lost money on its two games with New York.
As for the Americans, they headed home to nurse their wounds. Joining Lionel Conacher on the clinical ledger were Harry Connor, cut for seven stitches on the head after a Seattle collision with Smokey Harris, and Joe Simpson who (the Montreal Gazette reported) “had his right wrist twisted.”
Which brings us back to the photograph we started with.
As mentioned, historians and others who pore over the hockey past have puzzled over the second man in civilian clothes (after Gorman), including several of us who frequent the virtual byways of the Society of International Hockey Research, where no detail of hockeyana has yet proven too abstract or obscure for study. The fact that his name — his surname — has been preserved hasn’t (so far) been a factor in the investigation into his role with the Americans (if any) or how he happened to be lining up with the players that April day in Portland.
Was Beckett maybe a bootlegger? Prohibition had been the law in the United States since the Volstead Act went into effect in 1920, and it would be 1933 before it was repealed. SIHR speculation has hovered over the possibility, the bottles prominent at Beckett’s feet having wetted speculation, at SIHR and elsewhere, around that possibility. That notion might be plausibly fortified by the fact that the Americans were owned by the prominent New York rum-runner Bill Dwyer who, starting in 1925, had spent more than a year in jail for his efforts attempting to bribe members of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Or maybe was Beckett a boxer? That’s been hypothesized, too, if not proven out. An Oregon newspaper did note that fight promoter Herb Owen would be coinciding in Portland with the Americans that first week of April, and that his “party” planned to attend the hockey game, so maybe Beckett was with him, and could have been invited to pose with the visiting hockey players?
But there’s no further corroborating evidence to substantiate either one of the bootlegging or boxing theories — none that I’ve come across, anyway.
The likeliest answer is that Mr. Beckett was a railway porter. Jim Coleman identifies him as such in a 1942 Globe and Mail column, and he has the authority of Roy Worters himself behind him on this: Coleman describes studying one of the same rinkfront photographs we’ve been looking at in Worters’ own office at the Toronto hotel he ran (with Charlie Conacher) at the corner of Lawrence and Dufferin.
Along with everybody else in the first decades of the 20th century, hockey players took the train. In the NHL, that was the case in the 1920s whether it was the Ottawa Senators going to Montreal for a regular-season encounter with the Canadiens, or bands of barnstormers crossing the continent.
The history of Black railway porters in Canada is a long, fascinating, and oftentimes fraught one in its own right. The points where that history intersects with professional hockey are worth investigating, too. I’m waiting for someone to file a feature on Hamilton, Ontario’s own Norman “Pinky” Lewis, for example. He was a beloved figure in his time, and would serve as trainer for the football Tiger Cats in his hometown, where one of the city’s downtown recreation centres is named in his honour.
Columnist Jim Coleman thought he ought to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his services to the game. In the 1920s, when he worked as a sleeping-car porter for the CPR while also working as trainer for Newsy Lalonde’s WCHL Saskatoon Sheiks (for whom George Hainsworth was the goaltender, in those years). By 1929, Lewis was trainer for the C-AHL Newark Bulldogs, where Sprague Cleghorn was the coach. Lewis himself went on to coach, notably for the OHA’s Owen Sound Greys.
Someone else could look into the bow-tied and behatted man who appears in a photo from another coastal barnstorming tour, this one from the fall 1922, when the Toronto St. Patricks, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, played a series of pre-season games in the west. Above, the team poses aboard the ship they took from Vancouver to Seattle. The man standing between Harry Cameron and Babe Dye is identified as F. Williams, though there’s no consensus on that initial: another contemporaneous version of this image calls him H. Williams, identifying him as a CPR porter while also adding the more than slightly disturbing designation we see here: “mascot.” I’ve never found any other trace of him and his time with Toronto.
The erasure of Messrs. Williams and Beckett, their names and contributions and experiences, isn’t unprecedented, unfortunately, or surprising. Maybe the blanks can be filled in: I hope so. It’s not impossible to imagine that they’re gone forever.
The past does have a way of continuing to churn, and of pressing its artifacts to the surface. These aren’t always of high importance or lasting significance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold their value. Sometimes you might even have been staring at them over a period of years without noticing what you were seeing.
Look again at the photograph we started with. Later commentaries on what we’re seeing here (one from 1942, another from 1960) reveal that Bullet Joe Simpson would have been in it, alongside his teammates — if only he hadn’t climbed into the car you can see behind Tex White and Billy Burch for a nap. By one account, the photographer, Mentzer, was taking too long in setting up his gear. In the other, Simpson was just plain tired.
Then again, if you study the second team photo, there does seem to another player in the line-up, next to Tommy Gorman on the far right, who’s been … excised? Is that Simpson, possibly? Why leave him out?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I can report that shenanigans were at play that day. The car in the first photo, you may also have noticed, is … not all there? Take a look: it seems to be missing its front half, including one wheel. This suggests a long exposure, and movement, of car, camera — maybe both. Which leads to the second surprise. It’s one that Montreal Gazette columnist Vern DeGeer revealed when he wrote about the full, uncropped version of this photograph, a copy of which Tommy Gorman used to have hanging in his office at the old Ottawa Auditorium.
Here’s DeGeer on what that, in its glory, looked like:
When the picture was developed there was much guffawing in the ranks. It showed the impish Roy “Little Squirt” Worters at both ends of the group.
The photog had used a panoramic camera. He started at one end with Worters and slowly swung the magic lantern down the line. As he was doing this Worters sprinted behind his mates, and was at the end other end of the group when the camera completed its arc.
They say that whenever Tay Pay Gorman feels depressed or tired, or just plain nostalgic, he parks the picture on his desk and laughs, and laughs and laughs.
So while Joe Simpson napped, Roy Worters scampered from one end of the line to the other. Knowing that, is it possible to surmise that something the same was going on in the other photo from that day, and that the shoulder next to Tommy Gorman belongs to a second Harry Connor? Maybe so.
I wonder where Gorman’s office copy is parked now. It may well be hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere, generating guffaws as it has since 1929. All that’s left to us in our vandalized version of the photograph is the edge of Roy Worters’ oven-mitt blocker and a bit of the butt-end of his stick, not far from the bottles, next to Mr. Beckett, on the far right:
And just to be clear: Worters would, of course, have had to have sprinted behind the photographer, rather than his teammates, on his way to replicating himself.