jean le valiant, riot of the ranks

Portrait Gallery: After a short stint with the Boston Bruins in 1934-35, Jean Pusie was traded back to Montreal, for whom he’d started his NHL career in 1931. Back at Boston Garden, Pusie and his Canadiens teammates posed with a portrait of Pusie in a Bruins uniform. I don’t know who everybody is here, but starting at left at the back we’re seeing: not sure, not sure, Paul Runge, Wilf Cude, Jack McGill, Aurèle Joliat, Pit Lepine. Middle, from left, not sure, not sure maybe Jean Bourcier, Johnny Gagnon, Pusie portrait, Leroy Goldsworthy, Wildor Larochelle. Front, from left: Sylvio Mantha, Art Lesieur, Joffre Desilets’ head, Pusie himself, Walt Buswell. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

A player of small abilities is something they used to call Jean Pusie, back in the far-off 1930s, that and very popular. He was said to fool around a lot, which may have pleased the people in the stands but eventually wore out the welcome of coaches and managers, of league administrators, of referees (not necessarily in that order). Sort of like Sean Avery, then, except for widely beloved and altogether a sunnier spirit? Maybe more of an Eddie Shack. Hockey historian Andrew Podnieks, for one, is not impressed: Pusie was a man, he wrote in Players, his voluminous 2003 gazetteer of all-time NHLers, “who made such a bizarre ass of himself on the ice that he is as much myth as man, as much comic as player.”

Born in Montreal  on Saturday, October 15, 1910, Pusie played defence for more 26 different teams between 1927 and 1947, most of them in minor leagues, Castors and Panthers, Cubs, Arrows, Renards, Monarchs, Tecumsehs.

I don’t know, though. Does he really deserve such an outright dismissal? There were also Rangers and Bruins and Canadiens in there, too. Pusie’s NHL career amounted to just 68 games in all, scattered across a 17-year horizon, but he could play. In 1931 he did duty in three of the five games that won Montreal the Stanley Cup. In 1934, Boston coach Frank Patrick was talking him up as “one of the most dangerous players in the game, with an extraordinarily fast and accurate shot.” And while Pusie managed just a single NHL goal over the years, he knew how to put the puck in the net. In 1933, he scored 30 goals to lead the WCHL.

He was a good lacrosse player, too, and a boxer. In 1933, not long after the Rangers signed him, Pusie made his debut as a professional wrestler, taking on a New York rival, Harvey Blackstone, and taking him down, mostly by way of (and I quote) terrific flying tackles.

Back in a hockey context,anticsis a word you often see nearby his name, which was often rolled out to full length, especially in American papers, Jean Baptiste Pusie.

Sometimes, too, they called him Gene in the U.S., where the sportswriters also had their brazen fun with his Quebec accent, to the point where (in 1939) it was deemed appropriate for The St. Louis Star and Times to render an answer he gave a reporter this way:

“I weel tell de troot. In de pazz, I have fight the referee; I have hit de fan; I have go home to Canada, for all of which I am verra sor-ree.”

Some of the other phrases associated, adjectivally, with his name over the years include:

  • a versatile athlete who goes in for wrestling on the side (1933)
  • giant defence player (1934)
  • huge rookie for the Rangers (1934)
  • the bristling and the pugilistic (1934)
  • the riot of the Canam ranks (1935)
  • Jean The Valiant (1936)
  • a swashbuckling Frenchman (1939)
  • hockey “bad boy” (1939)
  • the rogue of the American Association (1939)
  • Le Grand Jean (1943)
  • the most colourful clown in all hockey history (1953)
  • the bounce-’em-hard type (1956)
  • a 75-carat kook; a jokester and superb showman (1980)
  • an amusing fellow from Chambly (1992)

The unpredictable Jean Pusie dates to a 1940 report that details his refusal to pay a fine of $50. “Never have I paid a fine before,” Pusie declared. “There is no need to start now.” He was in the employ of the Vancouver Lions by then, in the PCHL, where Cyclone Taylor was president — he was the one to sanction Pusie, and suspend him for a game, after a fight. The Lions paid the fine, in the end, deducting it from Pusie’s wages.

Sportswriter Jim Coleman was someone who admired Pusie’s performance artistry. Called on to take a penalty shot, as he sometimes was, Pusie would preface his attempt by shaking hands with every member of his own team as well as the goaltender he was about to shoot on. “He’d circle the entire rink TWICE at high speed,” Coleman wrote, “pick up the puck and blast it at the goalie from 20-foot range. If he scored, Jean would circle the rink, waving his stick triumphantly at the crowd.”

“Pusie was at his best in his early days of pro hockey,” Bill Roche wrote in 1953, “when all his stuff was spontaneous. Later on, it got to be an act, and he turned into something of a showboat. A smart lad, despite his tomfoolery Jean Baptiste soon realized that his comedy could be developed produce more publicity than his straight hockey ability, in which he was lacking. He finally carried things too far, got into trouble more than once by tangling with cash customers and the police, and thus he disappeared from the hockey scene.”

That’s a reference, the last part, to Pusie’s stint in St. Louis in 1939. He was 27 by that time, and the Flyers there, then, were a good team, the reigning AHA champions, with Joe Matte in the line-up, and also Fido Purpur.

Carried things too far is one way of describing Pusie’s post-Christmas adventures that season. The question that nobody seems to have raised at the time is, even if he didn’t find himself in court in December, how did he avoid it in February and/or March?

Sorry; to be fair, he did go to jail, in Wichita, Kansas, just briefly. And his case did surface in court, too, though Pusie himself was absent. That was in February.

But first things first: a month earlier, he got into a fight with the Tulsa Oilers goaltender, Porky Levine, during which he spent some time kicking Levine. On the way to the penalty box, Pusie tripped the referee, Davey Davidson, punched him in the head. The league fined Pusie $100 for that — he paid, or his team did — and suspended him for 10 days.

In Wichita, in February, the Flyers were in to play the local Skyhawks, and a fan — or fans — threw a steel chair — maybe several chairs. One of them hit Pusie, on the head. Pusie counterattacked, with his stick. Hit a fan, on the head. Zola Moore was the fan’s name. He was 23. He ended up suing Pusie, the Flyers, and Wichita under Kansas’ mob law, seeking $5,000 in damages. (I can’t find a record of the outcome.) On the ice, there was no penalty on the play; when order was restored, Pusie finished the game. The team from Wichita lodged a protest about that, but by then Detective Captain Le Roy Bowery of the Wichita police had already arrested Pusie, charged him with aggravated assault. Flyers coach John McKinnon posted a $500 bond to spring him from jail.

There was no suspension this time, though Pusie did remove himself from the line-up, his team, the country, headed for his home in Chambly, Quebec, south of Montreal — all because, he declared, in that same game, his own goaltender, Hub Nelson, had reprimanded him for failing to stymie a Wichita rush.

Back home, he stewed in his snit for a bit. While he was gone, Judge John Hurley heard his case in Wichita’s Police Court. A local lawyer entered a guilty plea on his behalf and Judge Hurley fined him $450 plus $1.90 in court costs. That came out of the money that his coach had put up originally, as far as I can tell.

It’s hard to gauge how people felt about all this, people who were paying attention, whether they were appalled, wondered if hockey had a problem that was larger than Pusie, puzzled over the conundrum of how hockey assaults so rarely seemed to be considered actual assaults. There was a certain measure of outrage at hockey’s violent excesses that echoed in St. Louis in and around these events in ’39, if not much specific surprise when someone like Jean Pusie carried things too far, and farther. In Canada, news of Pusie running amok was often reported in a wry he’s-at-it-again tone, raising no alarms.

In the wake of Pusie’s first game back with the Flyers at the end of February, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a photo showing him being restrained by the president of the team and a member of the St. Louis Police Department’s Mounted Division, to keep him out of a melee that other players had started.

They couldn’t contain him for long. He was in a fight the next game, against the St. Paul Saints.

His next outburst was his final one that year in St. Louis. It came at the end of March, when the Flyers were facing the Tulsa Oilers in the finals. The second game, in Oklahoma, is the one we’re focussed on here. In the first period, referee Stan Swain called Pusie for slashing. To say that Pusie objected doesn’t quite capture the moment insofar as his objection involved knocking Swain to the ice. “This precipitated a near riot,” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “and grave trouble might have occurred had not Swain recovered after being unconscious on the ice for five minutes and resumed his duties as official.”

For knocking a referee out cold, Pusie was assessed a match penalty. And while Tulsa police did escort him from the arena, it was to protect him from local fans — he wasn’t, this time, charged for his assault. Pusie was subsequently suspended, despite his protests of innocence. “But I do not attack heem,” the St. Louis Star and Times heard from the accused. “Do not say Jean Pusie heet heem, he only poosh heem, an’ he fall.”

He appealed the suspension. His appeal was rejected, with emphasis: Pusie was, the AHA made clear, banned from the league for life.

And so, while his Flyers teammates got down to wrapping up the championship, Pusie changed gears, announcing that he’d signed up for a series of wrestling bouts across the U.S. Midwest.  He only ended up in a single match, as it turned out, conquering Young Joe Stecher from Boston at the St. Louis Coliseum. The Star and Times was only too pleased to hear him philosophize after it was all over. “I do not like to fight rough in the razzle reeng,” Pusie said, in reporter Ray Gillespie’s rendering. “Why should I try to hurt de odder fellow for only one hundred books. We both moost make a leeving.”

Otherwise, that pre-war summer of ’39, Pusie was in the news for familiar reasons: in June, playing in Quebec’s Provincial Lacrosse League, he was tossed out of a game for pushing referee Paul Jacobs. (Jacobs, it’s worth mentioning in passing, was a hockey player, too, and may have been, though probably not, the first Indigenous player to skate in the NHL.)

With the fall came news that St. Louis had traded Pusie to Vancouver of the PCHL. He fought there, incurred more fines, as detailed above, and generally carried with his brand of carrying things too far. He still had seven more years of pro hockey in him, at this point. He even got back to St. Louis: in 1941, in light of wartime manpower shortages, an AHA pardon paved the way for a return to the Flyers. Jean Pusie died at the age of 45 in Montreal in 1956.

One more detour, around one other loop, before we leave him. This is going back to 1931, when he made his debut in Canadiens colours at the age of 20. He’d been in the Montreal stable for a couple of seasons, but it wasn’t until December of 1930 that he made his first NHL appearance. He played six regular-season games that season while seeing regular duty with the Galt Terriers of the Ontario Professional Hockey League.

Montreal recalled him in early April to bolster their defence as they took on the Chicago Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup finals. The Canadiens were, of course, successful in defending their title, dispensing with the Black Hawks in five games. Pusie dressed for three of those — and yet his name wasn’t one of the 28 that would end up being stamped on the Cup itself.

I wondered about that. Why didn’t Pusie rate the recognition along with teammates Howie Morenz, George Hainsworth, Wildor Larochelle, and the rest? Right winger Bert McCaffrey was the other Canadien whose name was left off the Cup that year, but then he’d only played in the regular season, and wasn’t called on for any of Montreal’s ten post-season games, so there’s a trace of logic there.

I checked in with Craig Campbell, manager of the Doc Seaman Resource Centre and Archives at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which is where the Cup is at home when it’s not out and about with the current champions. No, he confirmed, Pusie’s name is not on silver band that enumerates the ’30-31 winners. Furthermore, the Hall has no documentation noting why he might have been left off. “It’s a mystery,” Campbell e-mailed.

Mining the archives, I may have found an explanation. It doesn’t seem fair, but it could just be the reason Pusie’s effort in showing up and getting into his gear for 60 per cent of Canadiens’ successful campaign in ’31 wasn’t rewarded: he never got on the ice.

Heading into the Cup finals after a five-game semi-final against the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens were a battered bunch. Winger Armand Mondou was in hospital with what the AP described as “wrenched chest muscles,” while Battleship Leduc, stalwart defender, was out with what they were still calling a “brain concussion:” he’d collided with Dit Clapper and hit his head on the ice.

And so when the series opened at Chicago Stadium on a Friday, April 3, Pusie was one of five defencemen in the 13-man Canadiens line-up. Coach Cecil Hart mostly went with just three of them to secure Montreal’s 2-1 win, relying on the Mantha brothers, Sylvio and Georges, and Marty Burke. “Arthur Lesieur was on the ice only for a few minutes altogether,” the Ottawa Journal reported. As for Pusie, Hart “hesitated to try the youngster.”

Two days later, when the Black Hawks evened the series in a game that went into double overtime. Pusie was again in the line-up; La Patrie subsequently noted that “management did not use him.”

Back in Montreal, the teams went to three overtimes before Chicago’s Cy Wentworth settled the matter in the Black Hawks’ favour. At one point, with Lesieur and Sylvio Mantha both serving penalties, coach Hart deployed forwards AurèleJoliat and Pit Lepine alongside Burke rather than blood Pusie. “Although in uniform,” La Patrie recounted next day, he “never had the opportunity to take the ice.”

He never got another chance. Though Battleship Leduc had, according to the Gazette, spent more than two weeks in hospital, he and his rattled brain returned to the line-up for the fourth game of the series and the fifth, both of which Montreal won to claim the Cup.

Pusie appeared in just a single game for Canadiens the following year. He’d wait two years after that before making his return to the NHL ice as a New York Ranger.

Le Grand Jean: Pusie and friend at Boston Garden. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

mitchell’s meteor

The great Howie Morenz was born on this date in 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, in southwestern Ontario, when it was a Sunday. While he did most of his speediest skating for the Montreal Canadiens, Morenz did also stray, notably to Chicago, when he played a season-and-a-half. He was 33 at the end of January, 1936, when the Black Hawks traded him to the New York Rangers in exchange for winger Glen Brydson.

“How much has Morenz left in his aging legs?” Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eaglewondered. With the Rangers sinking in the standings, manager Lester Patrick was seen to be grasping at straws, “drafting an old, old hoss to put new life in the spavined Rangers.” The great but waning Morenz, Parrott pointed out, had been shopped to and turned down by every team in the league. It was said that Tommy Gorman of Montreal’s Maroons weren’t even willing to give up utility forward Joe Lamb.

In the first game he played as a Ranger, Morenz faced none other than his old mates from Montreal. “Old Time Morenz Dash Aids To Down Canadiens,” the Gazette headlined its dispatch from Madison Square Garden. Shifting from centre to left wing, he lined up alongside centre Lynn Patrick and right winger Cecil Dillon on New York’s top line. Wearing number 12 on his back rather than his old Montreal seven, he soon showed the crowd of 11,000 some of his old stuff, with (as the Gazette saw it) “an exhibition of end-to-end rushing that brought back memories of his hey-day when he was the greatest figure in the game.”

Here’s how Harold Parrott of the Daily Eagle opened his report: “The answer is: Morenz can still fly!”

He set up Dillon’s opening goal in the first period, then beat Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude for a goal of his own on the powerplay. After Montreal got goals from Pit Lepine and Georges Mantha, the game went to overtime, with Dillon scoring again to decide the matter.

Parrott caught up to him in the dressing room:

“I have not played in two weeks,” he explained, as trainer [Harry] Westerby wrapped steaming hot towels around his swollen ankle after the game. “So I say to myself: ‘You go like Hell soon in game, before legs tire.’ By gosh, I did it!”

Morenz scored in New York’s next game, too, a 4-2 home win over the Maroons, notching his sixth of the season. That was all, so far as his New York goal-scoring was concerned: he scored no more in the next 16 games he played as the Rangers finished the season out of the playoffs.

Come the fall, Morenz was back in Montreal. Suiting up once again for one final season, he had his old number seven on his back, along with a pair of familiar wingers at his side, Johnny Gagnon and Aurèle Joliat.

 

limbering up on the gymnasium floor

Usual Suspects: From left to right, three unnamed attendants pose at the National AAA gymnasium alongside Montreal Canadiens Johnny Gagnon, Amby Moran, Aurèle Joliat, Wildor Larochelle, Billy Boucher, Pit Lepine, Rollie Paulhus, Sylvio Mantha, coach Cecil Hart.

Star centre Howie Morenz wasn’t there — he was on his way, from Cleveland — and right winger Art Gagne had yet to depart his off-season home in Prince George, B.C. A couple of highly touted new recruits hadn’t arrived in Montreal, either: defenceman Herb Gardiner (coming from Calgary) and (from Saskatoon) goaltender George Hainsworth. Still, first-year Montreal Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart made a start with what he had that last week in October of 1926, convening his in-town charges for what the local Gazette classed “a limbering-up session on the gymnasium floor” of the National AAA Club House on Rue Cherrier at St. Andre.

With the NHL season set to open in Boston on November 16, Hart was aiming to have his players hit the ice at Mount Royal Arena by the first of the month. They never got there, as it turned out: in the last days of October, Canadiens announced that they were breaking their lease at the Arena to make a move to the bigger and newer west-end Forum, where they’d share the ice with the Maroons. Surveying his roster, Hart felt that he still had one hole to fill, at left wing, where he wanted someone to relieve Aurèle Joliat when he tired. Young Leo Lafrance was the man he had in mind; once he’d negotiated his arrival from Duluth of the Central Hockey League, Hart would (as the Gazette opined) “be able to sit back and survey his 1926-27 edition of the Canadiens with equanimity, as he will have a balanced squad with two players for every position.”

(Image: Classic Auctions)

billy (of the bouchers) at the montreal forum

Among NHL Bouchers, Billy wasn’t as celebrated as his younger brother Frank, who won all those Lady Byng trophies. And unlike his elder brother, Buck, he never captained the mighty mark-one Ottawa Senators when they were glorious in the 1920s. Billy Boucher didn’t make it to hockey’s Hall of Fame, either, as both Frank and Buck did. Make no mistake, though, Billy was a player, as those Bouchers tended to be (a fourth brother, Bobby, played in the league, too). Billy, who died on this date in 1958, played eight seasons at speedy right wing, most of them for the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he twice won the Stanley Cup, though he was also a Boston Bruin and a New York American.

Ottawa-born, as those Bouchers also tended to be, Billy was the man who scored the first goal at the Montreal Forum the night it opened in November of 1924. He was 25, in his fourth season with Canadiens, skating on a line with Howie Morenz at centre and his old Ottawa teammate Aurèle Joliat over on left. Actually, Boucher scored the first three goals in the Forum’s NHL history, collecting a natural hat trick in Canadiens’ 7-1 opening-night win over the Toronto St. Patricks. Defenceman Sprague Cleghorn passed him the puck for the first goal, which came in the first minute of the game; the second and third both came when Boucher picked up and netted rebounds of shots of Howie Morenz’s.

Boucher had played centre until he arrived in Montreal and in the pre-season of 1921 he battled Canadiens’ veteran Newsy Lalonde to stay in the middle. It was only after the two of them ended up in a fistfight at practice that coach Leo Dandurand sent the rookie to the wing.

On another night, not so proud, perhaps, as that Forum debut, Boucher featured in a contentious game when his Canadiens met the Maroons in December of 1925.

In the first period, Joliat thought he’d scored a goal on Clint Benedict, though the goal judge didn’t see it that way; play went on. The arbiter in question was Ernie Russell, a former centreman himself, a one-time star of the Montreal Wanderers who would later be elevated to the Hall of Fame. When play stopped, Joliat skated at Russell with his stick held high, as if to chop a reversal out of him. “Then,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the action started.”

Policemen were standing nearby, apparently, but they just watched as an incensed spectator opened the door of Russell’s cage and pinned his arms. The Gazette:

Billy Boucher swept in from a distance of forty feet and while Russell was unable to defend himself, cracked the official across the face with his stick. Players intervened and tore Joliat and Boucher and Russell was free to defend himself against the rabid spectator. This he did to his own satisfaction, the fan beating a hasty retreat under the barrage of fists that were coming his way. He ran into the arms of policemen and was escorted to the Forum office where his name and address were taken and verified and he was let go with the understanding that a warrant would be sworn out against him …, the Forum management stating that they are determined to put a stop to this sort of thing from the first and as an example to others who may be tempted to act in this way.

Referee Jerry Laflamme missed the melee, reportedly; no penalties were imposed. As far as I can tell, Ernie Russell went back to work, as did Canadiens, racking up a 7-4 win.

NHL President Frank Calder did intervene, eventually. As Canadiens prepared to play their next game in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, Joliat learned that he’d been fined $50. Billy Boucher, Calder announced, was suspended indefinitely. Actually, that wasn’t quite the wording — Boucher would be out “until sufficiently punished,” Calder said.

Boucher was suitably remorseful, wiring Ernie Russell from Pittsburgh to express his regrets. They were “sincere,” it was reported, though the note was of a private nature, and not “an official apology.”

There was a rumour that Leo Dandurand hoped to fill the Billy-Boucher-shaped gap in his line-up by buying Babe Dye, Toronto’s leading scorer. He offered $20,000, but Toronto wasn’t interested. Instead, Dandurand shifted rookie Pit Lepine onto the wing with Morenz and Joliat, and that seemed to work: he scored the winning goal against Pittsburgh. Montreal also won the second game that Billy Boucher missed without learning how long he’d be in limbo. Frank Calder relented a couple of days later, and Boucher was back in the line-up for Montreal’s next game, a loss to the New York Americans.

herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

Tuesday this week marked a birthday for Herb Gardiner, born in Winnipeg in 1891, whose stardom on the ice in Calgary and Montreal you may not have heard about. (He died in 1972, aged 80.) If you look Gardiner up at the Hockey Hall of Fame, whereinto he was inducted in 1958, you’ll see that his adjectives include stellar and two-way and consistent, and that one of his nouns is rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, along with the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is wrong, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract. He took the number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, and played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantries he exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and Montreal goaltender George Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy named for his coach’s father. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to comply, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first. As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September. The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Attestee: Herb Gardiner signs up to serve, c. 1915.

conflict of interests: crashing the net, 1937

“I guess it’s discretionary,” Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was saying earlier this winter. He’d been asked by a reporter about goalie interference, what it looks like, how to identify it in the wild. He was calm, as he tends to be. He was also, as he doesn’t, mostly befuddled. “I couldn’t tell you what’s a penalty and what’s not. That’s something that I don’t understand.”

The NHL can’t be pleased that this kind of bewilderment has emerged as a central theme of the centenary it’s celebrating this year. What the league would prefer, I’m guessing, is for a magical intervention whereby all goalie interfering would cease, and thereby all the complaining, too, that players and coaches and fans and commentators are doing.

Failing that, NHL general managers last week took a run at refining the protocol for reviewing purported cases of goalies being jounced, jarred, and otherwise jolted. The GMs want to take the decision-making on what’s happening in and around creases out of the hands of referees on the ice and pass it over to the league’s all-seeing hockey operations headquarters in Toronto. That’s now been approved, apparently, and will be the way things are done starting this week.

Since this is such a big anniversary year, maybe the NHL should be doing more to commemorate the history of its skaters crashing, inadvertently or not, into its goaltenders. In that direction, I’m offering up this photograph, from December of 1937, when the Montreal Canadiens met the local Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Seen here is Montreal attacking the Rangers’ net in the third as Pit Lepine buffaloes past New York goaltender Dave Kerr on the way to scoring Canadiens’ second goal. Babe Pratt is the Ranger defenceman to the fore, with stick raised; the Montrealer partly obscured by the net is possibly Toe Blake, who assisted on the goal.

I don’t know if there was a review — none of the newspapers accounts I’ve consulted mention any. “Lepine poked the puck into the cage,” is the most detailed account I’ve seen of the goal.

If that is Lepine. Another item I’ve come across from later on this same season might cast some doubt on that — maybe.

Look at the head of the player crashing past Dave Kerr. The resolution of the image isn’t so sharp, but you can see that there’s something going on up there. Assuming that’s not a monkly tonsure, then he’s probably wearing a helmet. If so, it doesn’t look like a wholly protective model, sitting as it seems to be mostly to the back of Lepine’s head. The Detroit Red Wings experimented with a head-protector like that earlier in the 1930s, so it could be one of those.

Another possibility? Just a month after the game depicted here, in January of 1938, a keen-eye New York reporter noted that Toe Blake was sporting “perhaps the oddest headgear” in the NHL. “It is made of a discarded set of shoulder pads,” he advised, “one fibre cup on the front of his head, the other in back. He finds this contraption lighter than a helmet.”

So is this maybe Toe Blake crowned with shoulder-pads we’re viewing here? I guess it’s possible too that Lepine could have taken a page from his winger’s stylebook and fashioned his own colloquial headgear. Either way, whoever it is, and whatever he’s wearing, Dave Kerr doesn’t look too impressed. That’s clear enough.

 

same old same old: must be something very sick with those canadiens, 1933 edition

Bencher: Newsy Lalonde was Montreal’s man in charge in 1932-33, another trying year in Canadiens’ history.

“Cette année, c’est terminé.” That was Michel Bergeron writing last week at TVA Sports about — of course — the Montreal Canadiens and the dismal season they’ve been lurching through. With 28 games to go in the season, the likelihood of Montreal making the playoffs was a wretched two percent going into Saturday’s game against Nashville. By this morning, post-shootout-loss, it had drooped to 1.2.

The autopsying has been underway for a while now, which has to be painful for the patient. When Carey Price hasn’t been injured, he’s been — how to put this, so it’s polite? — not quite himself. Max Pacioretty has been someone else, too, which nobody would be complaining about if that someone were Steve Shutt or Toe Blake, but no, sorry, that hasn’t been the case, and so the talk is, as it has been, that is/should be/must certainly find himself traded away before the NHL’s February 26 trade deadline.

Jonathan Drouin, meanwhile, is still looking for his inner Pierre Larouche, while Joe Morrow’s Jacques Laperriereitude has been erratic at best. P.K. Subban has been P.K. Subban, it’s just that he’s been P.K. Subbaning it on Broadway in Nashville rather than more locally on Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal.

Columnists and commentators, pundits and podcasters — most of the Montreal chatterati has written the year off. For Bergeron, the worry now is the future. “L’an prochain,” he wonders, “les Canadiens feront-t-ils les séries? Très difficile de répondre oui à cette question.”

At the Montreal Gazette, Jack Todd is one who’s been gazing back. If only in 2003, then-GM Bob Gainey hadn’t drafted so cautiously, and/or known what we know now. The result of his bumbling back then?

Two appearances in an Eastern Conference final and a quarter-century without a parade. That was not the goal when Gainey took over and began his career by drafting Andrei Kostitsyn with the 10th pick overall, while Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, and Corey Perry were still on the table in the first round alone, then taking Cory Urquhart with Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber still out there.

Somehow, the Canadiens have to come out of the carnage of this season with a quality centre to fill that hole in the donut on the top line — and, somehow, they need to close the charisma gap.

Another Gazette writer thinks it’s time Canadiens did what they’re doing in New York. Maybe you saw the letter that Rangers’ president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton posted for fans of the team last week, the one that began, ominously if honestly enough, “We want to talk to you about the future.” It went on to outlining what may be coming in the way of tearing down a team that’s 23.6 percent headed for the playoffs.

Brendan Kelly wants a letter like that:

Team president Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin should take a page out of the New York Rangers’ playbook and come clean to their fans for the travesty that is the 2017-18 Habs. Better yet, they should concede that their plan has failed and that the time has come to rebuild this team.

It may be in the mail. In the meantime, can we consider that there’s nothing so new under Montreal’s cold winter sun? It won’t boost any playoff percentages, nor calm any restive hearts or keyboards to hear it, but Canadiens have been here before.

In February of 1933, for instance.

Leo Dandurand

Leo Dandurand was the man in charge back then. He co-owned the team, with partner Joseph Cattarinich, who’d once (way back) tended the Canadiens’ goal. Dandurand had coached the team in the early 1920s, and continued to manage the roster after he gave that up. Over the course of a decade, his Canadiens won three Stanley Cups. The last of those weren’t such ancient history in ’33, either: Dandurand’s teams were back-to-back champions in 1930 and ’31.

In ’32, they’d topped the standings during the regular season only to fail at the first fence they faced in the playoffs.

The team they iced the following year still had most of the winning timber intact

George Hainsworth was 37, sure, but he was still playing every game, and in ’31-32 he’d won more of them (25) than anyone else tending an NHL net. Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, and Battleship Leduc were stalwarts, still, on defence. Upfront, Canadiens had Howie Morenz, Aurele Joliat, and Johnny Gagnon as their leading line.

Hockey, of course, was only one of Dandurand’s guiding interests. He was heavily into horses that ran, owned race tracks, spent his winters, increasingly, in the southern U.S. In January of ’33, he was down in New Orleans, ensconced for the season at Jefferson Park.

Or maybe not. Canadiens were struggling in the early days of the new year, stuck in last place in the NHL, down at the bottom of the five-team Canadian Division.

Pundits like Walter Gilhooly of The Ottawa Journal were ready to pronounce that “the great Canadien comet that flared over the hockey firmament” had passed. Coach Newsy Lalonde wasn’t panicking, though. Following a 6-1 loss in Detroit, he was reported to be confident, quote, that the team would soon shake its losing ways. But: “If weaknesses are apparent anywhere in future, I will take immediate measures to remedy such a condition.”

Leo Gaudreault

Lalonde was shuffling his lines that month, extracting Morenz from the top line with Joliat and Gagnon, slotting in Pete Lepine. Dandurand was back in town, too, to monitor the situation. Canadiens won a couple of games, but they couldn’t keep it going. By the end of January they were looking to the Providence Reds of the lower-loop Can-Am League for a boost. Lalonde reportedly had designs on drafting in an entire line of theirs, the one featuring Gus Rivers, Hago Harrington, and Leo Murray.

Dandurand went two-thirds of the way, sending forwards Armand Mondou and Leo Gaudreault to Providence in exchange for Murray and Harrington.

The team continued its indifferent play into February. The situation wasn’t hopeless: with 20 games remaining in the 48-game schedule, Canadiens were level, now, with Ottawa, lurking just five points behind the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans. String some wins together and Canadiens would be right back into the thick of it.

It wasn’t happening, though. They lost, and badly, to the Americans and Maroons in succession. It was with the latter defeat that the team seemed to cross a line of Dandurand’s.

Time to for a change.

“To Dismantle/ Famous Team” was the couplet atop a photo of Dandurand in The Winnipeg Tribune. The word from Montreal was grim: he was ready to rid the roster of as many as five underperforming players, “asking waivers” in the parlance of the day, though he wasn’t yet naming names. Having lost 7-2 to their cross-town rivals, the players were reported to “gloomy, dispirited” when Dandurand came in to see them in the dressing room.

He’d watched, he told the players, waited, hoped the team could turn themselves around. Now, drastic measures were in order. “Dandurand stated he knew the weak spots on the team,” the Tribune reported, “and speedy action would ensue to strengthen these positions.”

You can see why the players’ emotions would be running strong: “one or two all but broke down.”

Dandurand announced that wasn’t going to fire Newsy Lalonde: the coach had his confidence. Rumours of imminent trades bustled around Montreal, involving … everybody, up to and including Howie Morenz, who’d been great to start the season but had tailed off in the new year.

The uproar in the press wasn’t what it is today, but that’s not to say the players weren’t scrutinized, one by one. Pit Lepine had been suspended, briefly, for “breaking training rules,” a euphemism you often see in early NHL days that sometimes alludes to hangovers, though it might just as well be that Lepine overslept. Either way, he was playing better now, as was Sylvio Mantha, who’d started the season slowly. The best you could say, apparently, for Gagnon and Joliat was that they’d been inconsistent. Battleship Leduc, too: spectacular in one game, he was ineffective the next.

Hainsworth had to shoulder some of the blame, too. I don’t know whether he was pleading his case or just mentioning the math he’d been doing in his spare time, but that desolate February the goaltender did mention to an attentive reporter that he estimated that since he’s started his career in 1912, he’d faced 18,500 shots.

At first, Dandurand’s dismantling involved another influx from Providence. He brought in defenceman Bob Trapp and forwards Art Alexandre and Gizzy Hart. The new-look Canadiens beat Toronto 2-0 after that, which was good, though they followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Chicago, after which Dandurand fined Johnny Gagnon $200 for not showing sufficient interest in the game he was playing.

A trade this week in 1933 saw veteran defenceman Marty Burke depart for Ottawa in exchange for blueliners Harold Starr and Leo Bourgeault.

With Gagnon rumoured to be the next one to move, Canadiens beat Detroit 6-2 and Ottawa 6-0. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on how that worked: “A few changes and a hair-raising string of forcible ejection threats, including sale by auction of more than one star, lifted Canadiens to peak from in jig-time.”

Down they crashed a week later. The verb smother featured in the stories from Boston that final week of February, along with the noun walloping, as the Bruins beat Montreal by a score of 10-0. Here’s Walter Gilhooly whooping it up in The Ottawa Journal:

Ten goals to noting is something that French ears will hardly be able to credit. Crapeau de mer, par bleu, and sacre nom d’un chien! There must be something very sick with those Canadiens. Maybe they are not getting enough pea sup. Perhaps they are getting too much, but something is very wrong with that team.

The other night when they defeated Ottawas they looked like a good bet for a play-off position. Now Leo Dandurand will be tearing what’s left of his hair and throwing it all over the dressing room floor. It’s nothing, however, to where he may throw some of his hockey players before another season comes.

In Montreal, the reviews rated it “almost unbelievable” and “about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” You had to cast back to 1920 for a debacle so dire, when Newsy Lalonde was in a Canadien uniform for an 11-3 drubbing at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa. (Canadiens suffered another 10-0 Ottawa schooling in 1921.)

It was the worst performance in Hainsworth’s history of bombardment, the third period in particular, when seven of the 17 shots that came his way passed him by.

Leo Dandurand showed a brave face. “It was just one of those bad games,” he said. “There are no excuses: the fault can be laid to no particular player’s door. Hainsworth was not to blame, he was given weak protection. The team as a whole played poorly. But it’s out of our systems. We have eight home games left and five away. I think we can gain points in the majority of them and I think we can still make the playoffs. And the team thinks so, too.”

Dandurand’s command of the schedule was a little off: Montreal, in fact, had six home games remaining, six on the road. He did get the part about the playoffs right: Montreal went 6-4-2 to pip the Americans and the Senators for the last post-season spot on the NHL’s Canadian side. Their exit was speedy: on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers dispensed with them in two games.

Leo Dandurand had another couple of years before he got out of the harrowing business of owning the Montreal Canadiens. He still had some adventures ahead of him before he sold the team two years later, of course, including threatening to move the team to Cleveland and, even more shocking insofar as it actually happened, trading away Howie Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks.

A syndicate headed by Ernest Savard eventually bought the team in the fall of 1935. The new coach was the old defenceman Sylvio Mantha, who planned to still play as he guided the team. It would be another ten years before Canadiens would raise the Stanley Cup in triumph again, but nobody knew that then, of course. Hopes were high, as they perennially are in Montreal, where Canadiens are and always have been the process of re-inventing themselves. We’ll end, why not, with a newspaper headline as the 1935-36 season got underway: “Make-Over in Ownership, Management and Personnel Expected to Transform Flying Frenchmen Into Dangerous NHL Contenders.”

 

a hundred years hirsute: the nhl’s first moustache (and other moustaches)

Lanny McDonald and Moustache: “Put a handle on it and you could clean your driveway.”

Start with Andy Blair. Talking hockey moustaches, you had to start with him: for a long time in the early years of the NHL, his Toronto Maple Leaf lip was the only one in the entire loop to be adorned with any growth of hair. Or so we thought. Turns out hockey wasn’t quite so clean-shaven as we were led to believe. In fact, Blair wasn’t even the first Toronto player to skate mustachioed. Puckstruck exclusive: the NHL’s first recognized moustache made its debut as early as the league’s second season.

Jack Adams was the man to wear it. Better known for his later (smooth-faced) exploits as coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Adams was an accomplished player in his time, too, of course, winning two Stanley Cups in the NHL’s first decade. The first of those came in the spring of 1918 with Toronto.

It was when he returned to the team — now the Arenas — later that year that he changed his look. We have just a single source on this so far, but it’s persuasive: Adams, an astute Toronto reporter took note, boasted

a tooth brush decoration on his upper lip. You’ve gotta get pretty close to Jack to see it, as he is a blonde.

Andy Blair’s moustache was much more distinctive, not to mention very well documented. A Winnipeg-born centreman, Blair made his NHL debut in 1928. As best we can trace, he came into the league smooth-faced. The evidence isn’t conclusive but as far as we know he did get growing until the early 1930s.

When we think of classic Leafian moustaches, it’s Lanny McDonald’s full-frontal hairbrush that comes to mind, or maybe Wendel Clark’s fu manchu. Blair’s was trim. A teammate, Hap Day, described it as “a little Joe College-type.” Trent Frayne preferred “Charlie Chaplin.” It even rates a mention in Blair’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players — even though it didn’t survive the end of his NHL career.

After eight seasons with the Leafs, Blair and his laden lip went to Chicago in 1936 for a final fling with the Black Hawks. Blair, at least, lasted the year: “I see the boys got together and made him shave off his Clark Gable moustache,” former Leafs teammate Charlie Conacher noted that year. “That is something more than we could get him to do when he played in Toronto.” The story goes that it disappeared under duress: only after his Chicago teammates repeatedly threatened to do the job forcibly did Blair get around to shaving the moustache away.

Lucky for Blair that it hadn’t happened sooner: like his Canadiens counterpart Pit Lepine, Conacher actually headed up a fervent anti-moustache campaign through the ’30s. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong: Conacher was a paid pitchman through for Palmolive Shave Cream (Giant Size Double Quantity 40 cents!). I don’t doubt that he used the stuff himself. I do wonder whether he actually said, of his own free will, “Palmolive knocks my whiskers for a goal every time I use it.”

It was another Leaf who picked up where Blair left off, though it took a few years. In the fall of 1945, The Globe and Mail introduced rookie defenceman Garth Boesch as the man sporting “the most impressive crop of lip foliage in a major hockey dressing room since Andy Blair.” Columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld was willing to go even further: if you left the Calder Trophy voting for NHL rookie-of-the-year to women, and Boesch would win hands (face?) down. “That Garth moustache,” she wrote, “which is a la Caesar Romero, has the femmes swooning every time the Leafs’ defence star steps on the ice.”

“I started growing it when I was 18 and I still have it,” Boesch told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1975, when Boesch was 54. Red Dutton was supposed to have watched him as a young prospect, declaring, “With that moustache, he’s got two strikes against him before he starts.”

“I never heard that,” Boesch said. “Nobody ever complained to me.” He was proud to say he never lost a tooth in his five years playing in the NHL. He did acquire an honest share of stitches, though. “Lots on my lower lip, but never on my upper lip. I always had a big nose and I guess it protected my moustache.” Continue reading

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and legacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

•••

The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

pall

Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”

 

the lightning game

That the New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens three games to one in March of 1932 and advanced to play Toronto in the Stanley Cup final has no bearing on tonight’s meeting between the two teams, of course. If you’re a Canadiens’ fan, it might give you a bad, twitchy feeling all the same. Courage: those antique Rangers ended up losing to the Maple Leafs.

If it is 1932 that this British Pathé newsreel shows. If, as the title card tells us, it was a game played on New York ice and “CANADA (Montreal)” beat “AMERICA in play-off for Stanley Trophy — in the fastest game on earth!” … well, that didn’t happen in ’32. Montreal, two-time defending champions, only managed to win the first game that year, and that was at home. They then lost the second game, 4-3 (in epic overtime), before heading for the old Madison Square Garden and losses of 1-0 and 5-2. I think what we’re watching here is the middle New York game. That’s defenceman Ott Heller, number 14, we see scoring, as he did. A recent call-up from the Springfield Indians, he also scored in the next game, a pair of goals, but Montreal centre Pit Lepine didn’t play in that one, and he’s here in ours, number 9, at the opening face-off. (He’d collide with the Rangers’ Bill Cook before the night was out, breaking a leg.)

That said, L.S.B. Shapiro’s description of Heller’s goal in The Gazette doesn’t perfectly match up with what we see in skittering black and white:

The fair-haired rookie took the puck at his own defence, rushed down centre ice in a brilliant burst of speed and split the Canadien defence as though with a knife to burst in on Hainsworth. The goalie dived to save, but Heller played the shot with the wisdom of a veteran and flipped the puck over the goalie’s hurtling body high into the far corner of the nets. The exact time was two minutes and eight seconds after the start of the second period.

Close enough, I guess. Joseph Nichols from The New York Times saw it a little more succinctly. Heller picked the puck in his zone and sped along “the north lane.” Then:

Marty Burke advanced to check him, but the Ranger defense man feinted cleverly and evaded his eager opponent. Gaining a clear path for a shot, Heller rifled the puck past George Hainsworth, the Canadiens goalie, to register in 2:08.

When the final game of the series was all said and done, Heller was being hailed, again, as the difference-maker. The Gazette:

The brilliant reign of the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal ended in the coronation cheers of a new king of New York sportdom for, while the Canadien veterans, were fighting their hardest in the face of fatigue and painful injury, the flying feet and the tricky shift of 21-year-old Eberhardt (Ott) Heller proved the mainspring of the New York Rangers’ attack …

Hats off to him. Still, for me, Heller wins only supporting-actor laurels for his British Pathé performance. I’m much more interested in Ching Johnson’s headlong rush and Howie Morenz’s sinuous skating. Best of all, though, is George Hainsworth’s fantastic disgust with the puck in the moments after it has so brutally betrayed him.