If we’re going to talk about Normie Himes, then it’s worth mentioning that he was born in April of 1900, in Galt, Ontario, which is now part of Cambridge. It’s important to say, too, I suppose, that nobody played more games for the long-gone and maybe a little bit, still, lamented New York Americans than Himes did (402). Nobody scored more goals for them, either (106), or piled up more points (219). He was a centreman, except for those rare occasions when he dropped back and helped out in net — just twice, though that would be enough, as it turned out, to see him rated eleventh on the Americans’ all-time list of goaltender games-played.
The elongated Normieis a phrase that would have been familiar to readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eaglein the 1930s, wherein he was also described as the size of a slightly overgrown jockey(he was 5’9”). Articles calling him kingpin of the New York offence also sometimes mention that he was hard to unseat and refer to his dandy shot. For a while there he was, I also see, considered one of the shrewdest and trickiest forwards in professional hockey.
Ronnie Martin and Rabbit McVeigh played on his wings in 1932; in 1934, he often skated on the Amerks’ top line with Bob Gracie and Harry Oliver — though sometimes it was Oliver and Hap Emms.
Here’s the great Harold Burr describing a goal Himes scored in 1931 against Ottawa. Taking a pass from New York defenceman Red Dutton, Himes swooped in on Senators’ goaltender Alec Connell.
Himes’ first slam was fended by the Ottawa goalie, but the puck fell at his feet, so much dead rubber. Now Himes hasn’t kept very much of his hair, but he has all the gray matter saved. He pounced on the loose puck like a hungry cat after an old shoe and the Americans were leading again.
“I wouldn’t trade him for any centre in the league,” claimed Himes’ coach, Eddie Gerard, in 1931, a year in which Howie Morenz, Frank Boucher, and Joe Primeau were centres in the league.
His best season would seem to have been the year before that, 1929-30, when he scored 28 goals and 50 points to lead the Americans in scoring. That was the year he finished sixth in the voting for NHL MVP when Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons ended up carrying off the Hart Memorial Trophy. That same season and the next one too, Himes was runner-up for the Lady Byng (Boucher won both times. He also finished third on the Byng ballot in 1931-32, when Primeau prevailed.
Playing for the lowly Americans, Himes never got near a Stanley Cup: in his nine years with the team, he played in just two playoff games.
The boy in the baseball cap is from a New York profile of Himes 1931, and it’s true that like Aurele Joliat he went mostly hatted throughout his career as an NHLer, either because he was bald-headed (as mentioned in a 1938 dispatch) orbecause as a boy he wanted to be a professional ballplayer and roam the outfield grass (1930) — possibly both apply.
Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox was Himes’ hero, pre-1919 game-fixing scandal. “I want to tell you I felt pretty mean,” Himes once told a reporter, “when the evil news about Joe broke.” Himes played shortstop for a famous old amateur baseball outfit, the Galt Terriers, and he was bright enough as a prospect that a scout for the ballplaying Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League tried to sign him before he opted to to stick to hockey. Himes didn’t think he was good enough with the ball and the bat.
His first stint as a goaltender came by way of an emergency in 1927, back when most NHL teams didn’t carry back-ups, and skaters were sometimes drafted in to take the net when goaltenders were penalized or injured.
Sprague Cleghorn, Battleship Leduc, and Charlie Conacher were others who found themselves employed temporarily in this way in the early years of the NHL. Mostly they went in as they were, without donning proper goaltending gear, and I think that was the case for Himes on this first occasion. It’s often reported to have been a December game against Pittsburgh, but that’s not right: the Americans were in Montreal, where their goaltender, Joe Miller, started off the night watching Canadiens’ very first shot sail over his shoulder in to the net.
Howie Morenz scored that goal and another one as well, and by the third period the score was 4-0 for Montreal. Morenz kept shooting. The Gazette:
The Canadien flash whistled a shot from the left. Miller never saw it. The puck caromed off his shoulder, and struck him over the right cheek just under the eye. Miller toppled over like a log, and had to be carried off the ice. Fighter that he is, the Ottawa lad soon revived in the dressing room and wanted to return to the fray. But Manager “Shorty” Green decided against taking risks and sent Normie Himes into the American net to finish out the game.
Comfortable in their lead, Montreal, it seems, showed mercy — “eased up in their shooting,” the Gazette noted. New York’s temp, meanwhile, looked to be enjoying himself.
Himes warmed up to his strange task and towards the end of the game was blocking shots of all descriptions with the aplomb of a regular goalie.
It’s not clear how many pucks came his way — fewer than ten — but he did repel them all. The score stayed 4-0.
Himes got his second chance in net a year later, when his coach, Tommy Gorman, got into a snit. With this outing, Himes would become the only NHL skater to play an entire game in goal, start to finish.
After helping the New York Rangers win the 1928 Stanley Cup, vagabond Joe Miller landed in Pittsburgh on loan from the Americans. The Pirates had (1) a new owner and (2) an unhappy incumbent in net. Roy Worters, one of the league’s best, was asking for double the $4,000 salary he’d received previously; owner Benny Leonard was offering $5,000. With Miller aboard, Leonard then signed Worters (for considerably less than he was seeking, according to the owner), intending to trade him.
The Americans were interested. Having started the 1928-29 season with Flat Walsh and Jake Forbes sharing duty in the nets, they now offered Miller and a pile of cash, $20,000, in exchange for Worters. Leonard wanted Himes or Johnny Shepard in the deal, so he said he’d go shopping elsewhere.
NHL President Frank Calder had his say in the matter, and it was this: Worters was suspended, and if he were going to play in the NHL, it would be with Pittsburgh. “He will not play with any other club,” Calder declared.
Calder refused to relent even after the Pirates and Americans went ahead with a deal that send Worters to New York in exchange for Miller and the $20,000. So it was that on the night of December 1, 1928, at Toronto’s Arena Gardens, the home team refused to allow the Americans to use Worters, though he was in uniform and took the warm-up, unless New York could prove that Calder had given his blessing.
New York couldn’t. Coach Gorman’s best option at this point was Jake Forbes, who was in the building and ready to go. But starting Forbes wouldn’t sufficiently express Gorman’s displeasure with Calder in the way that putting Himes in would. So Forbes sat out.
Himes did his best on the night — “made a fairly good fist of the goalkeeping job,” said The New York Times. It’s not readily apparent how many shots he stopped, but we do know that there were three did failed to stymie. Toronto Daily Starcolumnist Charlie Querrie said the Americans looked lost, not least because “they missed the said Himes on the forward line.”
The Americans had a game the following day in Detroit and who knows whether Gorman would have called on Himes again if Frank Calder hadn’t lifted the suspension and allowed Worters to begin his New York Americans’ career, which he did in a 2-1 loss. “I have no desire to be hard on anyone,” Calder said that week, “but rules are rules and must be followed.”
So Normie Himes closed his NHL goaltending career showing two appearances, a loss, and a 2.28 average.
Worters would be still be working the Americans’ net in the fall of 1935 when clever but agingwas a phrase that spelled the end of Himes’ NHL career. Himes didn’t even get as far as New York that year: by the end of the team’s October training camp in Oshawa, Ontario, teammate Red Dutton had decided Himes’ time was up. While he was still playing defence for the Americans, Dutton also happened to be coaching the team that year so it meant something when he deemed Himes surplus and gave him his release. One of the best defensive centres and play-makers in the league a few years agois a sentence dating to that period, closely followed by failed to keep pace with the younger playersand left at once for his home at Galt. Himes was 35.
He did sign that year with the New Haven Eagles of the Can-Am league on the understanding that they’d release him if he could secure another NHL gig. He couldn’t, and so stayed on in New Haven, where he eventually took over as the coach.
When Himes married Ruth Connor in 1928, he gave his occupation as “Pro. Hockey + Golf.” He was good on the grass, I guess, and worked at it in the off-season. “When the cry of the puck no longer is heard in the land,” a slightly enigmatic column reported in 1929, “Normie retires to Galt, Ontario, where he is resident professional. He says hockey and golf are very much alike — in theory.” He was later, in practice, manager of Galt’s Riverview Gold Club.
Normie Himes died in 1958, at the age of 58. He was in Kitchener at the time, collapsing after a golf game with an old New York Americans’ teammate, Al Murray.
A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.
A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.
The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.
“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.
Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.
“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”
The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.
Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”
In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.
Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.
Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:
Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.
Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.
Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.
December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.
Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.
Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:
Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.
For all the uproar over the puck Edmonton’s Kris Russell fired into his own net last week, you’d think it was NHL’s first own goal. It wasn’t. Just ask — no, actually, let’s leave Steve Smith out of this. Hasn’t he suffered enough?
Patrick Laine, then. Not quite a year has passed since the then-rookie winger for the Winnipeg Jets scored a goal that counted for the Oilers — won them the game, in fact. Laine skated away without so much as a producer’s credit: Edmonton’s Mark Letestu goes down in scoresheet history as the game-winning-goaler. What else is there to say? “I think everybody saw what happened,” Laine told reporters after the game. “That’s my comments.”
He has a point. Though if hockey is, as they say, is a game of mistakes, the suggestion that we shouldn’t dwell on own goals does kind of limit the conversation. I agree that we probably don’t need a central registry of every last self-inflicted score in NHL history. That doesn’t mean we can’t revisit a bunch of them here. Where to start, though? And once you have started, where then to stop?
In 1931, Boston’s Eddie Shore hammered the puck past teammate Tiny Thompson to win a game for the New York Americans. He did it again five years later, in Toronto: the Leafs’ Bill Thoms took a shot on Thompson, which he saved, only to see the puck bounce up. “As Tiny went down,” the Daily Star’s Andy Lytle wrote, “Eddie Shore batted it into the net instead of over it.”
Detroit defenceman Benny Woit snared a rebound in front Red Wings goaltender Terry Sawchuk at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1954. Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail saw it all. “There wasn’t a Toronto player near him. Evidently he planned to flip the puck behind the net but somehow his radar became fouled up and he tossed it directly into the open goal.”
In 1998, Montreal defenceman Vladimir Malakhov whacked Pittsburgh’s winning goal past Canadiens’ goaltender Andy Moog. Penguin Stu Barnes claimed that one. Moog said it was his fault. Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appointed Malakhov a member of Sigma Alpha Oops.
I’ve seen a reference to a couple of “reverse hattricks” — long-ago Amerks’ defencemen Pat Egan and Detroit’s Marcel Pronovost are both implicated in scoring three goals in a single game on their own nets, though I haven’t been able to further verify either one of those claims.
That’s probably enough. Almost. Two last incidents and we’ll leave it there. It’s embarrassing to score on your own net, and terrible-feeling. In Toronto in ’54, 13,115 Leaf fans (quote) roared with delight after Woit scored on Sawchuk. “Woit,” Rex MacLeod wrote, “looked appealingly around the ice, probably praying for a manhole to materialize so that he could jump in.” In Edmonton in ’86, Steve Smith was down on the ice weeping. Which gets us to Roy Worters and Jack Portland.
Roy Worters • January, 1931
Is it an own goal when a goaltender puts the puck past himself? There’s probably a good argument to made that no, it’s not. That’s not going to slow us down here. In February of 1927 Roy Worters was guarding the Pittsburgh Pirate goal in a game that ended up 2-1 for the New York Rangers. The first goal went like this, according to the Associated Press:
Bun Cook went the length and shot, but the puck hit the backboards and bounded back to the front of the net to one side. Worters attempted to clear with his hand and accidentally pushed the disc into the net.
“A tough break,” the AP’s man on the scene called it; an editor for The Pittsburgh Daily Post amplified that to “Bone Play” in the headline overhead.
On to 1931. Worters was tending the New York Americans’ net by now. This time, Montreal Canadiens were in visiting Madison Square Garden. Last minute of the second period, score tied 1-1, Canadiens were pressing. Left winger Georges Mantha flipped the puck high towards the Americans’ goal. Worters dropped to his knees to catch it, did, left-handedly, but then (as one report put it) “became flurried.” In trying to throw the puck into the corner, as goaltenders used to do, he tossed it into his own net. Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle picks up the story:
From the press rows it looked as if the rubber was hot and Roy wanted to get rid of it. But he was just trying to clear his net, as he had done some 25 times before during the evening. However, the puck caught in the tear he didn’t know anything about and, instead of going into the corner, it went right into to the cage behind him. To his horror, the red light went up and the winning goal was scored.
A tear in the leather of his glove, that is. Neither Worters nor Amerks’ trainer Percy Ryan had noticed it, I guess. Burr:
When Roy saw what had happened he fell forward on his face and laid prone on the ice and refused to be comforted.
New York coach Red Dutton had to come out on the ice, and did so, and lifted up his goaltender. Told him to forget it.
Not often does Red’s voice break, but it broke then. For the rest of the game Worters was the most pathetic figure in the rink No one could read his thoughts as he crouched there in his cage, but they must have been scalding.
No-one scored in the third, so Canadiens won 2-1. Burr was down in the New York dressing room for the post-game denouement.
Worters sat staring blindly at the offending glove, bulky and shapeless with its reinforcement of felt padding. It was the first of his harness he discarded belowstairs but the last to toss aside.
“I’ve worn that glove for three years and now I’ll have to throw it away — after this,” he was muttering. “I made the same kind of a play every goalie in the league makes when he catches the puck. But it caught in my glove. I’ve never seen it happen before, all the years I’ve been in hockey. Say, Percy!”
The passing trainer came climbing gingerly over discarded heaps of rag-bag underwear so dear to the heart of a hockey player. He was woebegone for the first time this winter.
“Yes, Roy,” he gulped.
Worters handed him the glove that had failed him. “You’d better order me a new pair of gauntlets from the sporting goods store,” he said kindly. “Those old babies are fairly well shot, anyway,” continued Roy, showing the places where the faithful Percy had darned and patched and darned again. “But it’s going to take me all the rest of the season to break in a new pair. I sure liked those old gloves — until tonight.”
Jack Portland • March, 1940
Chicago was the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs that year, though Toronto finished higher in the standings: that’s what The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer was saying in 1940 as the regular season rounded into the playoffs. In the opening round, the Maple Leafs ended up sweeping past the Black Hawks in two straight games. It was closer than that sounds. The first game went to an overtime that Syl Apps ended in the hometown Leafs’ favour. The second game, back in Chicago, was tied 1-1 in the third period when — well, there was nothing so remarkable to Jack Portland’s gaffe. Toronto rookie Hank Goldup had taken a shot on Hawks goaltender Paul Goodman and in trying to swat rebound clear, Portland failed to do that.
The Chicago Tribune’s Charles Bartlett didn’t make a whole lot out of the mistaken game-winner: inadvertent, he called it. But in Toronto’s Daily Star, Andy Lytle went to town on Portland:
That makes him an athletic goat comparable to Roy Reagels, who ran a ball the wrong way for a touch-down in football, to “Wrong-Way Corrigan” in the air, to Merkle in baseball, who forgot to touch a base, and to Snodgrass who muffed a fly in world series baseball and kissed a flock of easy dough a tragic [sic] good-by.
Which seems altogether heartless. Max Bentley was a Chicago rookie that year, and while he didn’t make it to the ice in those playoffs, he was with the team. He later said that he’d never seen a man so heartbroken as Portland, who cried bitterly in the dressing-room after the game, and for days after that locked himself in his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone.
Not that it would have provided much solace at the time, but I hope Portland knew that he wasn’t alone that spring. The Leafs ended up going to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Rangers. In the ten playoff games they played, they scored a total of 21 goals. Nineteen per cent of those were, in fact, knocked into nets by helpful opponents — along with Portland, Chicago’s Art Wiebe and New York’s Mac Colville and Alf Pike scored goals they regretted that counted for the Leafs that spring.
Sentences tweezered from long-ago accounts of hockey games in newspapers that no longer exist on actual paper tell us that Harry Oliver was crafty and cool-headed and a treat for the eye.
Born on this day in 1898 in Selkirk, Manitoba, Oliver was a Hall-of-Fame right-winger who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 1929. He died in 1985 at the age of 86.
Other adjectives he accumulated over his career include exemplary (his lack of penalty-taking) and smooth-as-silk. His grace has likened to that of a greyhound. He was an increasingly ballyhooed Selkirk Fisherman before he turned professional in 1922. As a Calgary Tiger he got sparkling; his work in at least one third period was designated nifty.
In 1924 his Tigerish teammates voted him the team’s MVP, and gave him a medal at centre ice. Asked to pick an all-star line-up from the ranks of Western Canadian Hockey League players that year, referee Mickey Ion named Red Dutton and Duke Keats and Bill among his starters with Oliver, Joe Simpson, Dick Irvin, and Newsy Lalonde as back-ups. Oliver was deemed a menace in the goal area and a regular flash on his blades. The word out of Calgary was that he
has never been known to commit a deliberate foul of any description. He swings through the checks with a daring style that often endangers him, but he seldom suffers mishap. He whips around a net, dodging defencemen and sliding through rebounds, like a hawk swooping for prey.
As a Bruin, his qualifiers would come to include seasoned and 155-pound. In his first year, 1926-27, he often played on a speedy line with Keats and Archie Briden. The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals that spring, where Ottawa beat them. Oliver scored a goal in the final game in Ottawa, though that’s not really what the night is remembered for in hockey’s annals. Before it was all over the Bruins’ Billy Coutu had attacked the referee, Dr. Jerry Laflamme, for which he was subsequently banned from the NHL for life. The evening’s mayhem also featured Ottawa’s Hooley Smith butt-ending Oliver and breaking his nose. Smith was suspended for a month. He later admitted his mistake: the man he meant to attack was Boston’s Eddie Shore.
The night the Bruins beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to win the 1929 Stanley Cup, Oliver scored Boston’s opening goal and later set up the winner. Here’s how the former looked to John J. Hallahan of The Boston Daily Globe:
The popular, quiet right winger took a pass well down in his own territory from Shore. He skated down the right side, being bumped around by several players. He did not relinquish the disk, but took the most difficult path, between Abel and Vail on the defense. They hit him but not enough to make him lose the disk. While off balance, he made a shot, and the rubber whizzed past Roach, after 14 minutes of play.
Toronto’s Globe tabbed him in 1930 as one the NHL’s best stickhandlers. He was manning the right side that year of Boston’s top line, with Marty Barry at centre and Perk Galbraith out on left. Eddie Shore was asked in 1930 about players he admired across the league and Shore said Lionel Hitchman for body-checking, Howie Morenz for skating, Dutch Gainor for shifting, Harry Oliver for blocking body-checks, and Cooney Weiland for avoiding body-checks.
In 1934, Boston sold him to the New York Americans where Bullet Joe Simpson was the coach, and in previewing the season a local paper called Oliver classy and quoted Simpson as saying that he wasn’t through yet. In 1936 Oliver was described in 1936 as quiet-spoken and keen backchecking wingman. Following a game that year in which the Amerks tied the Montreal Maroons, The Winnipeg Tribune called him old. He was 37. The score of the game was 8-8, with Oliver contributing a goal and three assists.
In New York, he sometimes played on a line with Bob Gracie and Normie Himes; sometimes Hap Emms took Gracie’s place. By 1937, Red Dutton was running the Americans, Oliver’s old teammate from the Calgary Tigers. Old-timer is an adjective you’ll see attached to Oliver’s name in contemporary stories about Dutton’s pre-season line-up renovations. Oliver wasn’t the only one deemed surplus: those articles also toll the retirement bell for Roy Worters, Ted Graham, and Baldy Cotton.
In 1967, along with Neil Colville, Red Storey, and Turk Broda, Harry Oliver was elevated to hockey’s Hall of Fame. The Toronto Daily Star rated him one of the game’s noted stickhandlers. In The Ottawa Journal he was recalled as one of the lightest players in any era in hockey.
It’s said that Frank Brimsek hated having his photograph taken for fear that the flash would harm his eyes and thereby his puckstopping prowess. I don’t know how true that is — he does seem to have posed unblinkingly for a whole lot of (very handsome) portraits during his NHL career, in several classic poses, including the Standing Tall and the Pucks Have Been Known To Feint Dead Away, Facing My Icy Glare. Those aren’t the only ones available to the goaltender facing a photographer, of course. Roy Worters perfected the Ennui I’m Projecting Oughta Stop At Least A Few. And as Emile Francis demonstrates here, in 1947, there’s also the No Way That Puck Is Going To Dip Down Under The Crossbar, But Oh Well, Best Maybe To Fling Myself Across The Net Just In Case. Now 91, Francis is maybe best remembered now as a long-time and even legendary coach and general manger of the New York Rangers, but his career as a guardian of NHL nets lasted six years before that. Brimsek and Chicago’s Mike Karakas are generally credited with introducing a pocketed catching-glove to the goaltender’s armour in the late 1930s, but it was Francis who adapted a first-baseman’s mitt into what we recognize today as the goaltender’s trapper. In Francis’ first season as a Black Hawk, Detroit coach Jack Adams tried to have the glove banned as oversized and therefore illegal. He wasn’t successful, and after NHL president Clarence Campbell took a look and deemed it permissible, the Francis trapper became standard gear in NHL creases. The man they called the Cat would play two seasons in Chicago Black Hawks before a trade took him to the Rangers, where he served mostly as a back-up to Chuck Rayner.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”