“Patrice Bergeron was meant to be a Bruins captain,” a former Boston teammate of his was saying last week, Martin Lapointe, emphasis on the meant and on the destiny. Is there anyone who pays attention to the NHL who’s going to dispute it?
Bergeron’s inevitable ascension to the captaincy came last Thursday, seven days after Zdeno Chara’s 14-year tenure sporting the Boston C ended when the lofty defenceman signed with the Washington Capitals.
Was a week enough to dissipate the regret associated with Chara’s departure? Maybe not quite, but the announcement of Bergeron’s succession still made for a proud picture to add to the gallery commemorating the Bruins’ 97-year history.
It was also very much of the fraught moment: players, coaches, and managers at TD Garden that day were all masked for the dressing-room ceremony that formalized Bergeron’s new role. Elsewhere, online, the team marked the occasion with a profusion of nouns and glossy graphics, the former (“Integrity. Humility. Resiliency.”) featuring in the latter.Bruins GM Don Sweeney threw in a few more in his statement.
“Patrice Bergeron exudes leadership, character, talent, will, and empathy,” Sweeney said. “We all know Bergy embraces the legacy of the Boston Bruins, as he will with the captaincy.”
Bergeron, who’s 35, is skating into his 17th season as a Bruin. He had his say, too.
“It’s very humbling. It’s a huge honour,” he offered. “There’s been some tremendous captains and leaders along the way, and some legends of the game, and as I said it’s an absolute honour and I’m going to try to keep bettering myself and learning and leading by example, but also trying to be me.”
All in all, then, a bright note on which to get the new season going in such a fraught time.
Yes, true — unless you’re talking hockey history, which Bergy and the Bruins were. From a hockey history perspective, last Thursday’s announcement was (at best) confused. It wasn’t Bergeron’s fault, and it doesn’t make him any less deserving of the Boston C, but it was — and continues to be — a bad look for the Bruins, who’ve been careless with their own history, inattentive to the detail of their rich past, and even willfully neglectful.
If they’re willing to revel in their history (and they should), they ought to take pains to get it right.
There have been, as Bergeron noted, tremendous captains and leaders along the way since Charles Adams took his grocery money and put the Bruins on ice in 1924. They should all be remembered, and recognized.
Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Boston Bruins, as the team is content to claim. Somehow, somewhere the Bruins have forgotten — and duly erased from their records — the captaincies of at least six Bruins — and maybe as many as eight.
Included in those numbers are five (or six) Hall-of-Famers, some of the greatest names in the annals of the team.
How did this happen? It’s not entirely clear.
Are these mistakes that can be corrected? Easily.
Will they be? Hockey is full of surprises.
These are not contentious cases. The evidence backing up the claims I’m making on behalf of six (or eight) famous Bruins takes some finding, which is to say it involves a certain amount of steering search-engines through newspaper archives, which is to say, no, actually, not that much finding is required at all, just some persistence.
Other than that, it’s not controversial, or particularly difficult to decode. It’s pretty plain. I have it organized here at my desk, because, well, that’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing. I like to share, too, which is why I’ve offered this information I shuffled together to the Bruins in case they wanted to look at it and, you know, acknowledge their own, update the record.
There are errors and inconsistencies in the records of other NHL teams and their accountings of who captained them. Mostly, these are irregularities of the calendar, having to with when a certain player was appointed captain, for how long he served. With no other team (I’ve looked) is the forgetting on a scale that matches Boston’s.
There’s nothing sinister behind this. Part of it seems to be that the record has been faulty for so long that the gaps have worn down, grown over. It’s easy to accept antiquity as accuracy; it’s not just in matters of hockey history that errors get repeated over and over again to the point that they sound almost truthful. (It does happen in hockey history a lot, though.)
What’s baffling in this Bruins case is that the team seems to be so very much … not really interested. Give them that: there does seem to be a consistent commitment to indifference over the years.
“I’m not really in the know on this stuff,” Bob Bauer said when we talked a few months ago. “I mean, I know my dad’s career, but I didn’t know about the being overlooked as captain thing.”
He’s a lawyer in Toronto, Bob; his dad was Bobby Bauer, legendary Bruins, right winger on the Kraut Line, three-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy, Hall of Fame class of 1996. He died in 1964 at the age of 49, when his son was 17.
Maybe the younger Bauer could have followed his father into the NHL — Bob played at Harvard, for the Crimson, and later in Austria. “I didn’t think really — I thought I’d be more likely to be riding the buses in the IHL,” he laughed, “and that wasn’t really a pleasant thought for me, so that was kind of it.”
Bob Bauer knew his dad’s linemates well, Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart. Knowing what Bobby achieved in the hockey, Bob worked, too, on compiling the nomination package that helped see his namesake inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’96.
But the fact that his father captained the Bruins in his last year in the NHL? That was news to Bob when I first got in touch by e-mail. “I went back and looked at what I had submitted [to the Hall],” he said on the phone. “It didn’t mention one way or another about him being captain that year.”
It’s true, though. Even though the Bruins fail to acknowledge it, Bobby Bauer was indeed captain of the team for the 1946-47 season, his last in the NHL.
There’s no doubt about this. The evidence isn’t cloudy, doesn’t leave room for other interpretations.
Bauer was 31 in ’46, heading into his eighth year as Bruin. Like many hockey players — like lots of his Bruin teammates — he’d interrupted his NHL career to go to war. Serving with the RCAF, he missed three full seasons before making a return to the ice in 1945. Back on skates, he helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup final the following spring, though the Montreal Canadiens beat them in five games.
After the final game at the Forum Bauer tried to pack up his sweater, number 17, to take home as a souvenir. Manager Art Ross wouldn’t surrender it. “You’ll be using it next year,” he said.
He was right. In October, Bauer joined the rest of his Boston teammates in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Bruins convened to train for the upcoming season. It was on a Wednesday, the 16th, that Ross announced that number 17 would be the Bruins’ new captain.
“Bauer, often referred to as the ‘Brain,’ will make an excellent leader,” Boston’s Globe reported. “The Bruins will also have two alternate captains in the event Bobby is not on the ice during a dispute. These cocaptains [sic] are defensemen, Johnny Crawford, team leader the past few seasons, and Murray Henderson.”
It was a year of change in the NHL. Clarence Campbell succeeded Red Dutton as president of the league that fall. Rosters, reduced in wartime, expanded. Tweaks to the NHL’s rulebook saw changes to regulations governing penalty shots, broken sticks, and unnecessary roughness. New face-off dots were mandated and, as a safety measure, it was decreed that across the league, all gates leading to the ice now had to swing inwards.
Also, for the first time in NHL history, captains of teams got a letter for their sweaters. Never before had players actually worn a letter to indicate their role as captain or alternate. The effort to limit players crowding referees to complain and dispute calls had been ongoing over the years, and this new act of embroidery was another piece of that.
“One Captain shall be appointed by each team,” Rule 14 of the NHL Rulebook now stipulated, “and he alone shall have the privilege of discussing with the Referee any questions relating to interpretation of rules which may arise during the progress of a game. He shall wear the letter ‘C’, approximately three inches in height and in contrasting color, in a conspicuous position on the front of his sweater.”
If this new lettering aided referees at the time, now privileged with easy identification of players permitted to get in their grill, it also continues to abet historians and curious record-keepers alike. The first to wear an actual C in Boston, Bauer wore his front and centre, stitched in between the 1 and the 7 of the sweater he’d almost given up earlier in 1946. There’s no mistaking it in the Bruins’ team photograph:
It’s apparent, too, in images from games the Bruins played that year, like this one below, from Maple Leaf Gardens in March of 1947. That’s Bauer and his C lurking in front of Leaf goaltender Turk Broda. Leaf captain Syl Apps (his own C obscured) is down on a knee in the slot. Bruin winger Joe Carveth is the man with the puck.
If that’s not proof enough, then maybe could I interest you in the notation official NHL documentation for that same game, with Bauer and Apps annotated with Cs and Nick Metz and Gaye Stewart listed as alternate captains along with Crawford and Henderson?
As mentioned, I’m not the first to flag this, or to have tried to engage with the Bruins to point it out.
Others have written to the team to make the case over the years, or even phoned, cold-calling the TD Garden with the quixotic notion that somebody there might be curious.
Boston author and lifelong Bruins fan Kevin Vautour is one such optimist. For years he’s been trying to get the team’s attention and recognize Bauer’s captaincy. Vautour has collected (and shared) newspaper articles, program notes, photos of Bauer wearing the C. He’s not so much frustrated by the Bruins’ attitude towards their own history as he is flummoxed.
Okay, he is, possibly, a little frustrated. “Maybe they don’t care,” he hazarded in “Recognizing An Omission,” a 2008 article for the Society for International Hockey Research’s annual Journal. In that same piece he chronicled a call he put in to the team’s PR department, which someone named John gamely took, and from whom Vautour … never heard back.
Taking up the challenge last year, I made a little more … what? Not progress, exactly. After arrowing several e-mails into the Boston ether, I did eventually hear from Heidi Holland, the team’s director of publications and information, whose job it is to corral and compile all the stats and esoteric detail that goes into the team’s voluminous annual Guide & Record Book, the de facto official record of all things Bruin.
Team guides used to be published the old-fangled way, on paper, but now they’re only online. The latest edition, for 2020-21, went up before last week’s news, so if you scroll over to page 241, where the honour roll of Bruin captains is listed alongside the men who’ve managed, coached, and presidented the team since its start in 1924, you won’t find Patrice Bergeron’s name.
Nineteen others are there, from Sprague Cleghorn all the way through to Chara:
What about Bobby Bauer? How was the list sourced? Were the Bruins aware of Guide’s several absences and anomalies? Could I send along some corroborating evidence in the spirit of friendly good-faith remedial philanthropy?
I e-mailed my questions, then chased that e-mail with a few (exponentially irritating?) follows-up. In Holland’s perfectly gracious reply, I gleaned, if nothing else,that the reason the Bruins’ complacency when it comes to bygone captains seems as solid as it does may be largely Schmidt-based. Holland wrote:
This question has come up a couple of times over the past several years but unfortunately, I have no way of confirming it. The list of captains from earlier media guides lists John Crawford as captain in that season. The earliest media guide that I have is 1947-48 and Crawford’s bio in that book only says that he has “been captain or assistant captain of the Bruins in recent seasons.” Bauer does not have a bio in that guide.
When the subject first came up, I asked Milt Schmidt (as the only person who was active at that time) if he remembered Bobby being named Boston’s captain and he did not have any recollection that he did.
Makes sense, I guess — other than the abundance of proofs that don’t rely on the memory of the altogether eminent and venerable Schmidt, an institution unto himself, who captained, coached, and GM’d the Bruins in his day, and, right up until his death at age 98 in 2017, remained a beloved icon in and around the team.
Especially since, as it turns out, Bauer isn’t the only Bruin great to have somehow vanished off the historical ledger.
Waiting to hear back from Holland, I kept on shaking the archives, as I tend to do, to see what might fall from the branches. One of the more instructive items I came across was from Montreal Gazettecolumnist Vern DeGeer writing in 1961.
He’d been talking to Ken McKenzie, the co-founder of The Hockey News who also served as the NHL’s long-time publicist. It was thanks to McKenzie’s research that DeGeer was able to report that Chicago’s Black Hawks was the club with the most captains in its history to date, with 18. (Almost but not quite right: Chicago is another club who’ve forgotten a leader or two. But maybe that’s another day’s post.)
The captaincy-confusion seems to have been general. While Montreal’s Canadiens have subsequently righted the record, the Gazette was at in ’61 confident that new Habs skipper Jean Béliveau counted as the team’s ninth captain since the founding in 1909, when in fact he was the 16th.
Remarking on the Bruins, DeGeer alluded specifically to the scattered state of Boston records. According to McKenzie, team records of the captaincy were so lacking that they only included six names and reached back no further than 1939 and Dit Clapper.
“The Boston publicity department,” DeGeer lamented, “hasn’t been able to track down names of any earlier leaders.”
I don’t know — maybe the modern-day Bruins can find some comfort in knowing that 60 years ago, the record was already wanting.
Back in the present, I was a little affronted, I suppose, when Heidi Holland didn’t invite me to send along my Bobby Bauer findings. So along with DeGeer’s article, I didn’t send them.
I guess I was feeling a little sheepish, too, as though it were my fault that the more I juddered the archives, the more the captains missing from the record seemed to multiple.
By then, gazing back beyond Bauer through the 13 seasons before he got the C stitched onto his solar plexus, I found that five other famous Bruins had somehow been effaced from the record.
When I’d first e-mailed the Bruins, I’d been ready to pronounce that Bauer was the Bruins’ seventh captain, which meant that Zdeno Chara came 20th in the succession. Actually? Bauer is (confirmably) the 12thman to have led the team. Given that, Patrice Bergeron is at the very least the 26th captain in Boston Bruins’ history. Depending on your interpretation of a later situation from the 1960s, he could be the 28th.
Either way, that’s a big helping of oblivion. As a team proud of its history you’d want to get that looked at, you’d think.
It was at some point during the 1931-32 NHL that Art Ross made a decision that’s key to the story of the Boston captaincy and its missing protagonists. Just how Ross reasoned this isn’t clear — I haven’t seen it explained, at least — but the Bruins’ coach and manager decided that, in the future, the team would pick a new captain each season.
Hired to launch the expansion Bruins into the NHL in 1924, Art Ross steered his team that first year without naming a captain. (Vern DeGeer speculated in 1961 that if he hadchosen one, the likeliest candidate would have been left winger Herb Mitchell, sometimes said to have been the first player ever signed by the Bruins as well as — maybe not coincidentally — Ross’ brother-in-law.)
Ross did name a leader in 1925, making Sprague Cleghorn the team’s first captain. At 35, Cleghorn was an old Montreal friend of Ross’, as well as a wily, much-scarred — and all-too-willing-to-scar — veteran who, in the five years before joining Boston, had played in four Stanley Cup finals, three times on the winning side.
Cleghorn captained the team for three seasons. To start the last of these, 1927-28, Ross, ever the innovator, named a 25-year-old Lionel Hitchman as his deputy — vice-captain, he called him. This was an NHL first, as far as I know.
“Sprague Cleghorn,” Ross explained to the Boston Globe, “continues, of course, as the Bruins’ captain, but Hitchman a year ago was the regular starting defenceman with [Eddie] Shore, and he will be the playing captain of the team when he is on the ice. Cleghorn will continue to have the entire supervision of players’ conduct as team captain, and when on the ice he will make all decisions.”
Like Cleghorn’s, Hitchman’s stint as captain lasted three years. In his first year at the helm, 1929, he led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup. In 1930, slowed by injuries, Hitchman tried to relinquish his role. Ross wouldn’t hear of it, convincing him to stick with it for one more season.
As the manager told it in 1931, the team picked his successor in their dressing room at the Montreal Forum the day before they opened the season against the Maroons. Hitchman nominated 30-year-old defenceman George Owen, with Eddie Shore seconding the motion. The resulting vote was unanimous. Owen himself missed the election: he’d stayed back in Boston to tend tending to his business, joining his teammates for the game next day.
Dit Clapper was next. He was 25. “The likable right winger yesterday was elected to lead the Bruins,” the Globeheralded in October of 1932, “continuing the policy of selecting a new captain each playing season.”
By his biographer’s account, Clapper’s inauguration involved a ceremonial shower of snow and ice-shavings in the Boston Garden dressing room.
As far as the Bruins are concerned, Ross’ one-off policy ended the following year, with Clapper re-upping and continuing on as captain for five further seasons, through 1937-38.
As with Bobby Bauer, that’s where their history is wonky.
The policy didn’t expire: in early November of 1933, in Quebec City, where the Bruins convened their training camp, 27-year-old Marty Barry was anointed captain.
He was expected, I suppose, to lead by example — nobody could have been expecting him to rule by oratory. The Globe sketched the scene as his captaincy was announced. “Barry, who never utters a word in the dressing room, as usual had nothing to say, but his playmates insisted, so Marty stood up and made the longest speech of his career. ‘Thanks fellows,’ then he sat down.”
Barry was the first of four captains from the 1930s who are now forgotten by the Bruins. Nels Stewart, 31, came next, a 32-year-old Eddie Shore after him, Hall-of-Famers both. Next was Red Beattie, who was 30.
The announcements of these appointments are all there in 90-year-old print, not just in the Boston papers, but across North America as, year by year, the merits of Boston’s new captains were duly discussed.
In 1934, the Globe noted that Bruins’ goaltender Tiny Thompson had been in the running alongside Stewart, but that coach Frank Patrick “felt a goalie-captain tends to slow up the game in case of disputes on the ice. In 1935, extolling Shore, the Globe reminded readers that Boston captains were appointed (by Ross) rather than elected, and that their term lasted just a year.
That policy was in fact finally coming to its end. Cooney Weiland, 34, was the new captain in 1937 and kept the job for a second year, during which he also served as Art Ross’ assistant coach, and so might deserve a double measure of credit for the fact that Boston claimed the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1939. (Not to rain on that parade, but I have to report that the Bruins have their dates wrong on Weiland, crediting him with just a single year as captain instead of his two.)
Weiland’s 1939 retirement opened the door for a return to the captaincy by Dit Clapper, now 32, starting into his 13th season as a Bruin. He lasted five seasons this time around, raising a Stanley Cup in 1941.
And the Bruins … well, the Bruins have him staying on through to 1946-47, after which (they assert) John — a.k.a. Jack — Crawford stepped up.
It was the fall of 1944 that Clapper handed over the captaincy to concentrate on his duties as Boston’s playing coach. Yet another long-unacknowledged name took his place: 32-year-old Bill Cowley.
It was after Cowley that Crawford got his turn as captain, and while the Bruins give him credit for four years’ service in the role, he actually only lasted one. Bobby Bauer was next, as mentioned, followed by his (forgetful) friend and linemate Milt Schmidt.
There are other kinks in the Bruins’ list as you go on, mostly to do with dates, nothing on the scale of the gaps that mar the ’30s and ’40s. A corrected list of the entire span of those first decades and the captains who (actually) reigned is here for your consideration, in case you’re interested. Eventually I’ll add in the later decades and highlight some of the confusions and anomalies therein.
For now, let’s just preview a single, significant one of those.
If you study the Bruins’ master list, you’ll see that they declare “No Captain” for the years 1967-68 through 1972-73. Johnny Bucyk’s name appears on either side of this chasm in the captaincy, before (1966-67) and after (1973-74 to 1976-77).
It’s complicated and (in this later case) open to some interpreting. I’ll spare you most of that here, focussing (for now) on the first of those No-Captain years, 1967-68, if only because I have a fairly explicit explanation at hand of what went on that year.
Again we go to the Boston Globe, for whom reporter Kevin Walsh was on the Bruins beat as a new NHL season, the first of the expansion era, approached in October of 1967. Here’s Walsh’s lede from a piece headlined “Three Captains Leading Bruins:”
The big ‘C’ Johnny Bucyk wore on his uniform a year ago that designated him as team captain of the Bruins has been retired. He now wears an ‘A’.
Coach Harry Sinden was happy to explain the spelling correction. He and his GM had were opting in this new hockey age for co-captains — that’s the word that he and (none other than) Milt Schmidt were using.
“We decided,” Sinden said, “the important duties of the captain would be shared among Bucyk. Ted Green, and Phil Esposito. All share equally the responsibility of captain.”
Bucyk, he reported, was all aboard. “He thinks it’s a good idea.”
“If the league rules allowed it,” Sinden went on, “we would have three men on the ice wearing a C. We may eventually have a captain but right now we will have three players share the duty.”
“We are the first team in the league to have co-captains,” he added, perhaps as a nod of trailblazing respect to Art Ross, “and I feel it’s a good idea.”
So, then: do Ted Green and Phil Esposito deserve to be tallied in the catalogue of Boston captains? Is the proper total 28 rather than 26?
As well as it might have worked at the time, the decision to divide the captaincy in three clearly posed a problem for the team’s records-keepers who, maybe, decided that “No Captain” was simpler that Co-captains. I suppose it’s an easier solution than having to annotate and explain, even if annotating and explaining might better reflect and even honour the team’s history.
I’m satisfied to offer Green and Esposito up for debate. It’s true that they never wore the C for Boston, so it makes a sort of sense that they’re not counted in the overall tally of Bruins captains. Does it, though? By Harry Sinden’s description here, they were captains of the team just as much as Johnny Bucyk was before and after he shared his title.
As for the earlier others, I don’t see how Boston can continue to ignore them. With all due respect to Milt Schmidt’s memory, proof of the Bruin captaincies of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Bill Cowley, and Bobby Bauer is available and confirmable.
It’s time to elevate their distinguished names to the register up alongside Patrice Bergeron’s.
Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.
Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.
With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.
I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.
Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.
Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.
That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.
One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.
That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?
Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.
I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”
Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.
Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.
Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”
The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.
By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.
Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.
Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.
“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”
“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”
“In other words … it was a great game!”
For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.
January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”
Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.
The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.
“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.
Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.
Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”
Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”
Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.
“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.
Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12.
“Ten to nothing is a score that requires some explanation.” I’m not sure that’s something the modern-day Montreal Canadiens have been telling themselves today, after last night’s 0-10 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets — seems like they may be more interested in getting to tonight’s game with Philadelphia to play their way out of having to account for last night’s debacle. That opening line dates back, in fact, to 1921, when a correspondent from The Ottawa Journal watched Canadiens of an earlier incarnation the very first time they lost by that disconcerting margin.
That it’s happened four times now in Canadiens history is, in its way, impressive. But precedents don’t make it any easier to deal with, for the team or for its fans. The wording they saw this morning in the headlines of Montreal newspapers was enough to curdle the stoutest Hab-loving heart. Pulvérisé was how La Presse framed the game, in which Canadiens’ back-up goaltender Al Montoya suffered through the entire excruciating game; Le Journal de Montreal opted for Piétinés à Columbus and, decked below, Le Canadien subit une raclée.
Over at The Gazette the dispatch from Ohio was spiked throughout with the words crushed, embarrassing, humiliated, trainwreck, ass-kicking, total meltdown. Columnist Pat Hickey noted that Friday also marked coach Michel Therrien’s 53rd birthday. “I don’t remember being a part of a game like that,” said Therrien. “There’s not much positive to take from it.”
Back home at the Bell Centre Saturday night, Al Montoya took the night off, leaving Carey Price to fend off the Flyers by a score of 5-4. It was the first time in the annals of Montreal’s 10-0 losses that the same goaltender who’d suffered the defeat hadn’t retaken the net for the next game. A look back:
December 24, 1921
“Ottawas achieved a clear cut and decisive victory over Canadiens by the mammoth score of 10 to 0 Saturday,” was the hometown Ottawa Journal’s opening take on the first of Montreal’s historical whompings — the Canadiens were, in a word, smothered.
It was Christmas Eve, just three games into the new season. Both teams had a win and a loss under their belts. Ottawa was the defending Stanley Cup champion; Montreal’s powerful (if slightly aged) line-up featured Georges Vézina in goal with Sprague Cleghorn and Bert Corbeau on defence while forwards included the legendary Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. In a day when a different kind of analytics held sway, much was made of the weight players carried into battle, and The Ottawa Journal noted that Montreal averaged an impressive 176 pounds per man while the team’s aggregate tonnage came in at 2,465.
Ottawa was fast and from the start had Montreal “puffing like grampuses.” In the third, the Habs looked “juvenile.” The Senators had several bright rookies, including Frank “King” Clancy, deemed the architect of the rout by one local paper. Scoring the second goal in the opening period, “he brought the crowd to their toes in a thunderous cheer.”
Cy Denneny scored three goals for Ottawa, and Frank Nighbor added a memorable one (“it was a cuckoo,” to be exact). Goaltender Clint Benedict was good, “as a happy as a kid with a Christmas stocking” with his shutout; Nighbor’s poke check and Punch Broadbent’s determined backchecking were also cited by the Journal as playing decisive parts in the home side’s win. For the third game in a row — the entire season to date — Ottawa took no penalties. All in all, the crowd of 5,000 was “tickled giddy.”
Vézina? “The Chicoutimi Cucumber looked more like a well perforated slab of Roquefort. Vez stopped plenty, but he was handling drives from inside his defence that kept him on the hop, and was frequently forced out of his nets in desperate sorties, trying to split the Ottawa attack.”
As for Montreal’s forwards, Didier Pitre stood out. He “played hard,” the Journal allowed, “and while he has to bend forward to see his skates, uncoiled some whistling drives that would have knocked Benny’s roof into the south-end seats had they hit on the cupola.”
Newsy Lalonde seemed “passé” to the Ottawa eye — though to the correspondent from Montreal’s Le Canada, he was brilliant and gave one of the best performances of his career.
There was hope for Montreal, on the western horizon. Leo Dandurand was Montreal’s managing director (he was also one of the team’s new owners) and word was that he’d signed up an Ottawa youngster by the name of Aurèle Joliat who’d been playing out in Saskatoon.
In the end, he wouldn’t play for the Canadiens for another year, and so he was of no help when the Canadiens played the Senators again four days later at the Mount Royal Arena. This time they lost in overtime, 1-2, with Punch Broadbent beating Vézina for the winning goal — on a “flip shot from the side.”
February 21, 1933
It was another 11 years before Montreal conspired against themselves to lose so large again, but not everything had changed: Leo Dandurand was still the team’s managing director and smothered was still the best word (in The Winnipeg Tribune this time) for a game Canadiens managed to lose by ten goals to none.
Would it surprise you to hear that the blood was running bad between Montreal and Boston back in the winter of ’33? They’d played a pair of games back in January, with the Canadiens winning the first, 5-2, at home before succumbing a few days later (2-3) in Boston. That second game was particularly nasty, with Boston defenceman Eddie Shore in a leading role. The crosscheck on Johnny Gagnon and the fight with Sylvio Mantha was the just beginning; the referee and judge of play were both injured at Shore’s hands. Bruins’ coach Art Ross was ill and missed the game. In a complaint to NHL president Frank Calder, Dandurand accused Boston owner Charles F. Adams of instigating the ugliness.
In the aftermath, Shore was fined $100 and told to behave: “Pres Calder intimated,” The Boston Globe advised, “that if Eddie starts any more rumpuses he will most likely draw indefinite suspension.” The referee, Cooper Smeaton, was reported to be resting in bed with two fractured ribs. He just happened to have been on duty back in 1921 for that inaugural 10-0 showing.
It was with all this in the near background when Montreal went back to Boston in February and lost 10-0.
The Boston Daily Globe didn’t gloat, too much: the headline that called the game a slaughter also turned the focus from the losers to the 16,000 fans looking on at Boston Garden. For them, it was A Goal-Scoring Treat.
Bruins who enjoyed themselves particularly included Marty Barry (five points) and Dit Clapper (four). Shore contained himself, collecting two assists, a tripping penalty, and a cut over the eye.
The only shot that troubled Tiny Thompson was directed at him accidentally by a teammate, Vic Ripley.
Back in Montreal, The Gazette didn’t said what had to be said. “The Flying Frenchmen put on about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” Along with Dandurand, coach Newsy Lalonde might have been one to recall that wasn’t quite so. Howie Morenz played as though “his speedy legs were shackled” (Boston paper took the view that he was “effectively bottled.” Boston reporters commended Canadiens’ goaltender George Hainsworth for “unusually fine saves” on Dit Clapper and Red Beattie. Back in Montreal, the Gazette noted that he had 17 shots fired at him during the third period. “He missed seven of them to cap the most wretched performance of his career.”
The Canadiens trudged home. Two days later, when they hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, Hainsworth was back at work. He had an injured ankle, it turned out, and the Gazette divulged that it caused him “acute pain throughout.” Still, he stopped 14 shots in Montreal’s 2-0 win for his sixth shutout of the season. Continue reading
Never mind the NHL’s ongoing historical confusion: the consensus remains that it was Boston coach Art Ross who was first to pull the proverbial goalie in an NHL game. Ever the innovator, Ross was, of course, trying to outman the opposition and tie up a game his team was losing. Tiny Thompson was the ’tender in question on that inaugural essay; leaping to the ice in his stead was Red Beattie. This was in 1931, in a Stanley Cup semi-final, and for the Bruins, a vain effort: Montreal held their lead and won the game, 1-0.
Now that we’ve got that all cleared up (again), a few further findings from the last several weeks to expand the pulled-goalies file.
• Windsor Star columnist and hockey biographer and historian Bob Duff has reset the chronology on the first empty-net goal to have been scored on a team with its goalie gone. Previously, Clint Smith of the Chicago Black Hawks was the man widely acknowledged first to have hit a vacant net, on November 11, 1943, in a 6-4 victory over Ross’ Bruins. That’s what the Fame-Hall of Hockey reports in their Smith biography, and it’s in several authoritative books, too, like Kings of the Ice: A History of World Hockey (2002) by Andrew Podnieks, Dmitri Ryzkov, et al. The Hall alludes to a change in league rules at that time, allowing goalie-yanking, but that’s not right: there was never any legislation like that before or after Tiny Thompson’s 1931 departure. Kings of the Ice is mistaken, too, when it says that the practice was seldom used until the 1950s.
In fact, coaches whose teams were in need of a late goal didn’t seem to hesitate to try it all through the 1930s, especially if their names were Ross and/or Lester Patrick. Which, when you think about it, makes 12 years look like a long, long time for all those professional hockey players to be not scoring when they had all those unguarded net to shoot at.
That’s why Bob Duff’s finding makes much better sense. As he pointed out to members of the Society for International Hockey Research this past week, it’s time we adjusted the date of the NHL’s first empty-net goal to January 12, 1932. New York Rangers were in Boston that night, so some of the protagonists remained from the Montreal game nine months earlier. It’s worth noting that after three periods, tied 3-3, the teams played on into unsudden, non-lethal overtime — i.e. the teams played a full ten-minute period with all the goals counted. It wasn’t long before Ranger right winger Cecil Dillon took a pass from Murray Murdoch and beat the Bruins’ Tiny Thompson. A little later, when Ross called Thompson to the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Dillon — but let the AP reporter tell how it was, as he did, in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Cecil pulled the rubber out of a pack near his goal, and after beating every Bruin, belted home the final score with no opposition.
Sorry, Clint Smith.
• As it turns out, Cecil Dillon found a way to emphasize his 1932 empty-net achievement. By coincidence — I guess it could also have been fated — either way, exactly a year later, he did it again. This time around, January 12, 1933, the Rangers hosted the Bruins at Madison Square Garden. With the Bruins down by a goal with two minutes left in the third period, Art Ross once again summoned Tiny Thompson to the bench. A Ranger shot hit the Boston post, followed closely by a Ranger defenceman, Ott Heller, who then had to be carried off with a suspected leg injury. The Daily Boston Globe:
From the next face-off Dillon let fly from the middle of the center zone and scored a bull’s-eye on the vacant net. It came with 26 seconds to go.
• The first empty-net goal scored in a rink where Ross, Thompson and the rest of the Bruins were not present seems to have been one that Aurele Joliat put away nine days after that inaugural Dillon effort in 1932. Toronto’s Leafs were in Montreal for this one, trailing the Canadiens 1-2 when Lorne Chabot departed the crease. The AP report in Boston’s Globe:
Toronto, always dangerous, was confident that it could score with six forwards, but Joliat hook-checked the puck away from Red Horner and scored the last goal and Howie Morenz almost repeated before the bell.
• In case anyone’s asking: the first goalie to be pulled at Maple Leaf Gardens was Montreal’s Wilf Cude by coach Sylvio Mantha on February 20, 1936. No goal ensued: Toronto won the game 2-1. Andy Lytle from the hometown Daily Star termed it a “showmanship stunt.”
• Six forwards: that does seem to have been the norm in those days. Today a coach might be content to leave his defenceman in place while adding a further forward but in the 1930s, more often than not, teams appear to have been going for offensive broke.
Which was why Bullet Joe Simpson, for one, didn’t like it. Famous in his own playing days, he was the coach of the New York Americans by the time Cecil Dillon scored his anniversary empty-netter in early 1933. “I don’t believe taking your goalie off is a good thing,” he confided. It was “freak hockey and unsound;” Boston, he felt, deserved what it got. He wasn’t done, either:
Six men are too many to have around the enemy nets. They are sure to get in one another’s way, because there isn’t room enough for them to deploy. And if they should shoot a goal, it’s apt to be called back for interference — somebody between the man with the puck and the goalie.
• What about the other end of the ice? Surprising how little has been written about the success stories. The reason you pull your goalie, if you’re Art Ross or anyone else, is to use that extra manpower to score that all-important tying goal. So who was the first to do that? The NHL.com’s paltry historical miscellany has nothing on that, and nor does the Hockey Hall of Fame, or any of the stand-by reference books. At least, if they do, not anywhere that I’ve been able to fathom.
It did take a long time for that first goal to go in, as it turns out. Years and years. In today’s NHL, pulling the goalie has developed into a strategy that yields a good return. It’s worth doing; it often works. That’s what the modern numbers tell us, along with the charts on the websites where they’re crunched and glossed, and the studies who’ve made it their business to study the stats.
I don’t know how often, exactly, goalies were leaving their nets in hope and desperation in the 1930s because I haven’t done the sifting you’d have to do to figure that all the way out. I can say, anecdotally, that Tiny Thompson was a fairly frequent fleer, in Boston and then later when Jack Adams was calling him to the bench in Detroit. Dave Kerr of the Rangers was another regular, as Lester Patrick’s goaltender with the Rangers. Alec Connell was yanked, in Ottawa. In Montreal, I haven’t myself seen an instance of Flat Walsh leaving the Maroon net, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. George Hainsworth, of the Canadiens, definitely did. Given Bullet Joe Simpson’s feelings, it’s possible that he left Shrimp Worters where he was throughout the Shrimp’s Americans career.
So: lots of goalies leaving many nets. And yet the first time the tactic paid off seems to have been in … 1937, five-and-a-half seasons after Art Ross first gave it a go. The newspapers noted the achievement, if only in passing: there was no great huzzah.
It seems only fitting that Ross was the one who finally got it right. Tiny Thompson was still in (and out of) the Bruins’ net. Also of note: five players who were on the ice that first time in 1931 (Boston was shorthanded at the time), four were in the 1937 game wearing Boston colours — Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, and Dit Clapper — while the fifth, Art Chapman, was playing for the visiting New York Americans.
He scored the game’s opening goal in the second period. By the time that was over, the Americans had built up a 4-0 advantage. Boston didn’t look good, as even the hometown Daily Boston Globe was forced to concede:
Lorne Chabot could have held the New York citadel inviolate with an eclair in either hand.
The Amerks were leading 5-1 and 6-4 in the third before Clapper made it 6-5 on a pass from Weiland.
Twenty-five seconds remained when Ross called in Thompson. (The Associated Press says 30. Not sure how much I trust the AP account, though, given that it also contains this sentence: “It was probably one of the most weird games in the Boston’s hockey history.”) Boston defenceman Flash Hollett followed his goaltender to the bench to let a forward go on and so (just like in 1931) the Bruins only had five players on the ice and no numerical advantage when Hooley Smith scored the goal that tied the game and made the history that eventually got mislaid.
The teams played a ten-minute overtime without any more goals. Neither goaltender, said the Globe, had to make a difficult save. Right until the end, both of them stayed in their nets.
• So that’s that. Except for — well, no, not quite.
About an hour after I’d tracked down the 1937 Hooley Smith goal, complete with contemporary confirmation that it was unprecedented, I came across a 1933 game in which Eddie Shore scored a goal to tie up the Chicago Black Hawks while (do you even have to ask?) Tiny Thompson was on the bench. So that would be the first time a goalie pulled resulted in a goal scored, no?
Yes. I think so. It’s not an entirely straightforward case, though. Continue reading
Time Share: Lionel Conacher of the Montreal Maroons, left, shares the penalty bench with Roger Jenkins of the Bruins, serving out their sentences together during the 1935-36 season. Possibly it was on the night of December 10, 1935, when the Bruins blanked the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-0. Art Ross had warned the lowly Bruins that if they didn’t show something that game, the changes would ring. Red Beattie scored both Boston goals on the night, which ended with Conacher flailing at a front-row spectator who (as the newspapers put it next day) “clipped” him from behind. The benches cleared. There was “a free-for-all.” It was “furious.” It last “a full minute.”
The photograph here — guessing — is from earlier, the second period, after this happened:
(Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)