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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The family takes a different view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

when pittsburgh and ottawa first met, 1925: a cataract of noise was unloosed

Legged Work: Roy Worters, a.k.a. Shrimp, was the star the first time teams from Pittsburgh and Ottawa met in the NHL in December of 1925.

As Penguins and Senators prepare to open their NHL Eastern Conference Final tonight in Pennsylvania, history recalls that Ottawa and Pittsburgh have met four times previously in the playoffs (going back to 2006-07) and that the Penguins hold the advantage (winning three series to Ottawa’s one). The Penguins made their NHL entrance in 1967, of course, which makes the Senators relative newcomers: they debuted in 1992. Fetching further back, both Ottawa and Pittsburgh iced teams in the NHL’s first decade. The original Senators were there from the start in 1917, winning the Stanley Cup in 1927, and they played on until 1934, when they upped skates and departed for St. Louis. Pittsburgh got its initial team in 1925 when the erstwhile USAHA champions, the Yellow Jackets, transformed into the NHL Pirates. The team lasted five seasons in the league before a sale took them across Pennsylvania to become the Philadelphia Quakers. The new team lasted just a single season before folding in 1931.

Pirates and Senators met for the first time in early December of 1925, at Ottawa’s Auditorium. The home team prevailed 1-0. Here’s a look:

“Those bold buccaneers from Pittsburgh showed canny cutlasses,” opined The Ottawa Journal. Local reviews also called the Pirates “pesky” and remarked that the team, while speedy, lacked scoring. Pittsburgh coach Odie Cleghorn had been enthusiastic from the first, though he’d done his best to try to manage Pittsburgh expectations even as he enthused about his charges.

“Don’t expect too much of them at the start,” he’d said in November, “because what they need more than anything else is a couple of games. We will outspeed any team in the league and just as soon as some of the rough edges are worn off, you can quote me as saying we will take a whole lot of beating.”

They beat Boston and Montreal’s usually mighty Canadiens when the season got underway before losing in overtime to the New York Americans. That got them to Ottawa.

Six thousand fans were on hand —“remarkable good considering the weather,” thought the Journal: it was raining.

The Ottawa Citizen: “It was a great hockey match, one of the best ever witnessed in Ottawa’s magnificent Ice Palace, and it will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to have been present.”

Lionel Conacher had remained a star of football and lacrosse field while captaining the Yellow Jackets, and he’d surprised some when he opted to turn professional with the Pirates in 1925. The Citizen’s review:

The big boy is sound as a defensive player, a good puck-carrier, a fairly fast skater and dangerous on the offensive, as he packs a wicked shot. Conacher’s only weakness appears to be his unsteadiness on his skates. But, for such a big and powerful athlete, he is an exceptionally clean player.

“Painfully keen,” said the Journal’s man on the scene, “a good strong skater, if a trifle awkward.” He was to commended for knowing how to “husband his energy and use it at the proper time.”

Ottawa defenceman King Clancy had been injured in the team’s previous game against Boston. He’d been in hospital with a torn muscle in his back but was allowed to attend the Pittsburgh game as spectator. He went to the Ottawa dressing room after the first period, determined to get into the game; coach Alex Currie said no.

Hooley Smith dropped back from right wing to cover for Clancy. Also starting for the Senators were Frank Nighbor, Hec Kilrea, and Cy Denneny. Five of Ottawa’s nine players on the night would end up in the Hall of hockey Fame; Conacher and goaltender Roy Worters were Pittsburgh’s future Famers. Odie Cleghorn was the Pirate coach.

The Ottawa Journal noted that Frank Nighbor and Conacher were at one another throughout the game, staging “several lively bumping duels, with honours fairly evenly divided.”

Star of the game? The Pirates’ Roy Worters. “Many Legged,” the Journal called him, as well as “Argus-eyed.” How many shots did he stop? “Fully fifty.”

Ottawa’s netminder was Alec Connell. “Unspectacular” was the word the Journal attached to his shutout performance; he also got “a regular bulwark.”

Another Ottawa defenceman, Ottawa captain George Boucher, scored the game’s only goal in the third period. “Buck,” they called him. He rushed from deep in his own end, fired a shot ankle-high just as Pittsburgh defenders Roger Smith and Conacher closed in on him.

The rink was loud in the first two periods, the Journal’s correspondent noted. In the third, it got louder still:

When Boucher finally broke the knot and gave Ottawas the game, old pandemonium who has done such tried and true service in the past sounded like a mere whisper alongside the cataract of noise that was unloosed. The cheer wave continued for over a minute, and the man who beggared description would have to grope for words to adequately impress the scene on what should by now be a thoroughly aroused throng of readers.

Back in Pittsburgh, despite the loss, the reviews for the Pirates were warm. “No longer are the Pirates a mystery team,” said The Press. “They established themselves as a real hockey team, one which will be troublesome for any team to beat any place and under any conditions.”

The win sent Ottawa to the top of the seven-teamed NHL standings. Like the Montreal Canadiens they’d collected six points, but the Senators were undefeated after three games while Montreal had lost one of four. Pittsburgh, at 2-2, held third place.

Ottawa prevailed the next time the teams met, and the next time after that, too. The scores were 5-0 and 1-0 respectively, with Connell refusing to allow even a single goal. It was February 2, 1926 before Roy Worters was able to return the favour, when Pittsburgh finally beat Ottawa for the first time by a score of 1-0.

Ottawa was at the top of the league when the season ended with Pittsburgh holding third place. Come the playoffs, the Pirates went out at the hands of the Montreal Maroons, who then beat the Senators for the NHL title and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup, which they did, beating the WHL’s Victoria Cougars for the championship.

 

 

 

 

can the puck break a bone?

S004

Puckbitten: “Pete Pilote,” the papers sometimes called him, “Hawk captain,” as when in March of 1963 (in Chicago’s final regular-season game) a puck shot by Boston’s Wayne Hicks cut the back of his head for 12 stitches. A.k.(mostly)a. Pierre, he suffered his share of head wounds: in December of 1960, also facing the Bruins, a puck off the boards opened up his forehead. I think that must be the wound that Hawks trainer Nick Garen is studying here, above. In his memoir, Pilote recalled the ’63 incident with a wince. “I’ll never forget that one. Those 12 stitches hurt more than anything I’ve ever known … like somebody was pressing a hot poker into my head. It throbbed so much I couldn’t sleep for a few days afterwards.” When later the sutures opened, the Hawks’ Dr. Myron Tremaine suggested that he might have to add an extra stitch to seal the deal. “No, you don’t Doc,” the superstitious Pilote told him. “Not 13! Find room for one more.”

In December of 1934, Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn American talked to Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor to the hockey players, boxers, and six-day bicycle racers who plied their trades at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The mention of the Art Ross puck is noteworthy, though it may not be entirely accurate. A new Ross puck did see service in the NHL in the early 1930s, only to be subsequently revoked, but I’ve seen no other reference to its being metal-middled. Following here, an excerpt of Parrot’s profile, edited, and poemized.

Sticks carried high, or swung viciously, (as often happens)
can do more deadly execution than
anything.

“The goalies are the ones that feel the brunt of the attack,”
said Dr. Clauss, wincing visibly. “I find that
the better the goalie, the more he
gets cut up, because
he goes to meet the play —
takes chances, to save goals.
Shrimp Worters, in the Americans’ net,
is always
getting
sliced
up.

“Can the puck break a bone?” I asked.

“It’s more damaging than a baseball
thrown by Mungo or Gomez,” said the Doc,
“and I know! It is heavy enough
to break bones now, although it is not
as bad as a few years ago,
when they used to use that Art Ross puck
with a metal center, and
they used to carry the players off
one after another. But the edge,
the cutting surface on the puck
makes it worse than
a baseball.”

the helmet debate, 1933: all for a jockey cap lined with rubber

helmets 1937

Poison Control: A few years after Ace Bailey’s grievous head injury, the Detroit Red Wings paid a visit to Madison Square Garden to play the hometown New York Americans. The Amerks won, 3-2, though this wasn’t one of their goals. Detroit’s becapped goaltender is Normie Smith, with Nels Stewart coming at him. Late to the party is Red Wing forward Gord Pettinger. (Photo: International News)

Ace Bailey’s career as a fleet Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger came to a stop on the night of December 13, 1933, when Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice, which his head hit with a sickening sound. Bailey, 30, wasn’t expected to live that night. He did recover, but never played hockey again.

 Pre-Bailey, NHL players seldom wore helmets. They started to think differently, some of them, in the aftermath. A week after the accident, Harold C. Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle polled members of the New York Americans and Detroit Red Wings to get their thoughts on covering their heads. Their answers:

Red Dutton (New York Americans, defence)

I wouldn’t wear one of the things for anybody. If I had one of those contraptions on my head I couldn’t see a forward heaving at me. There has only been one previous accident like Bailey’s. The modern hockey player won’t be able to move if you load him down with any more dead weight.

Cooney Weiland (Detroit Red Wings, centre)

All depends on the individual player. It’s a new suggestion and might work out fine.

Rabbit McVeigh (New York Americans, right wing)

I’d be all for a jockey cap lined with rubber.

Johnny Sorrell (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)

I imagine nothing could be done to prevent the sweat running down in to the eyes. And that would make you tire more quickly.

Normie Himes (New York Americans, centre)

Helmets wouldn’t be popular with the players. The agitation was started once before in Canada.

Roy Worters (New York Americans, goal)

It’s a good idea — if you could design some kind of light fibre cap. I wouldn’t want to be seen dead in front of my nets in one myself. But then goalies would have more need of a baseball mask.

Joe Simpson (New York Americans, coach)

What happened to poor Ace wouldn’t happen again in ten years. I don’t believe that you could get any of the fellows to wear ’em.

John Ross Roach (Detroit Red Wings, goal)

It would be a protector against any repetition of the Boston tragedy. The goalie could wear it easier than anybody else on the ice. It wouldn’t feel so hot on his head.

Bill Brydge (New York Americans, defence)

It’s a good idea, if the helmet wasn’t too heavy. Of course, a football headgear would be out. I wear a cap now to lessen the shock of the blows. I was hit in the eye in practice this fall, and that’s why I’m sporting a longer peak to my cap, if you’re noticed.

Hap Emms (Detroit Red Wings, left wing)

No good. Hockey players lose nearly all their teeth as it is. This way, it wouldn’t be a month before all their hair started falling out, too.

 

 

 

shrimp boat

Seven goaltenders have won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player: first (and tiniest) among them was Roy Worters, in 1929, when his puck preclusion took the New York Americans to the Stanley Cup quarter-finals.

Mostly, though, the Americans missed the playoffs in the years that Worters, a.k.a. Shrimp, maintained their nets. In 1933, despite a strong finish, the Montreal Canadiens slipped by the Amerks into the post-season thanks to a better scoring average.

So the American were left to wonder what might have been. “We should be right up there at the playoffs,” a cigarette-smoking New York coach Bullet Joe Simpson told George Currie of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as the season came to a halt at the end of March. “We dropped a couple of bad ones, one to Chicago and one to Ottawa, games we had sewed up.”

Currie wondered: how about next year?

“Ah,” said Simpson, “1933-1934 will be another season, won’t it? There’ll be lots of trades before then. And there’ll be lots of sales.”

Roy Worters didn’t have to worry about that — he’d finished his career as an American, in 1937. With no more hockey to play in the spring of ’33, he sailed away south on vacation.

With his wife Alice and their daughter, Joyce, Worters boarded the Santa Elena, the brand-new $5-million, 17,000-ton luxury steamship of the Grace Line fleet. Pictured above in their cabin, the Worters partook of her maiden voyage, which took them to Cuba and Colombia, through the Panama Canal, and on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, ahead of stops in Seattle and Victoria, B.C.

When they got back to New York in the middle of May, Worters was one of the celebrities cited in the Daily Eagle’s review of the passenger list — along with the newspaper publisher Colonel Ira Copley and the moving picture actress Miss Verree Teasdale.

 

 

 

the man in the nhl’s first mask: not clint benedict?

hainsworth hopital

Head Case: George Hainsworth, battered Canadiens goaltender, rests in his hospital bed after his friendly fire incident in January of 1929.

It’s settled in, now, rooted deep enough that feels like permanent truth: whereas Jacques Plante in 1959 is the acknowledged trailblazer when it comes to goaltenders wearing a mask in the NHL — the man who changed everything in that department — Clint Benedict did, of course, get there before him, donning a mask of his own in February of 1930.

That’s how it’s rendered in the hockey literature — in the new edition, for example, of Saving Face (2015), a handsome history of hockey masks Jim Hynes and Gary Smith, or in the goalie-focussed edition that The Hockey News put out in December.

But maybe was Benedict not the first goaltender to mask himself in an NHL game? Could a damaged Montreal rival of his have beaten him to it by almost a year, viz. George Hainsworth of the Canadiens? If so, this would be news. But is it true?

The evidence that I’ve come across is tantalizing, if not exactly conclusive. Here’s how it goes:

In 1959, it was a vindictive backhander by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that changed everything for Montreal’s Jacques Plante. Once he’d stopped the puck with his face and had his cuts stitched, he returned to the ice with his famous mask in place — what the next day’s Montreal Gazette called “a flesh-colored helmet, with slits for his eyes and mouth.”

In 1930, Clint Benedict suffered head wounds in successive games — followed by a 15-game absence — before returning to the ice with mask in place to patrol the net for the Montreal Maroons.

First up, on January 4, Boston’s Dit Clapper broke in on a third period rush and his shot knocked Benedict out cold. Revived, he went to the dressing room to collect himself. Ten minutes later, he was back to finish the game.

Three nights later, Maroons and Canadiens, it was Howie Morenz who brought the puck towards Benedict’s net. His first-period shot flew high and hit the goaltender, as Horace Lavigne of La Patrie wrote it, with incredible violence. Lavigne thought the goaltender jumped to stop the puck — just before he dropped “like a lead weight.” There was plenty of blood and this time when Benedict departed the ice, he went to the hospital to be tended for a broken nose and a cut that needed seven stitches to close.

The Maroons did have a second goaltender, Flat Walsh, but he was himself indisposed that night — at home, suffering under a fever of 102. Still, when the call from the Forum came, he got himself up, into a taxi, and over to the rink — where he arrived wearing a coat over his pyjamas. After a half-hour’s hiatus, the game resumed with Walsh in the Montreal net.

Benedict, for his part, left the hospital as soon as he was able, heading back to the Forum to catch the end of the Maroons’ 2-1 win.

Protecting Device: Clint Benedict in his mask, 1930.

Protecting Device: Clint Benedict in his mask, 1930.

Walsh kept the net (with a little help from Abbie Cox) for a month after that. The infirmary report on Benedict spoke of a rest of three weeks or more: “His face is now swollen to such an extent that it is barely possible for him to open either eye.” February 20 was the date he got back: the Maroons were in New York for a game at Madison Square Garden against the Americans. This was the night he first wore his famous mask — a.k.a. “a large protector” (The Gazette). “Clint looked as if he had stepped out of the Dumas novel, ‘The Iron Mask,’ or in the modern manner, was appearing as a visitor from Mars.”

Benedict wore his mask for four more games after that — or three and a third. It’s often written that he discarded the mask after a game or two, but as Eric Zweig has written, that’s not so — what happened was that, five games after he returned, Benedict discarded hockey. Injured again in a game against Ottawa — someone fell on him, or cracked him on the mask, or both — he gave way again to Flat Walsh, who played the Maroons’ final four regular-season games as well as the team’s first-round playoff series, which was lost in four games to Boston.

Benedict didn’t, right away, say he was finished — with this “hoodoo season” behind him, he vowed, he’d be back. But come the fall, the Maroons decided that at the age of 38, he didn’t figure in their plans. There was regret in Montreal but maybe not overwhelming surprise. “Benny’s downfall,” explained The Canadian Press in November, “came towards the end of last season when he was hit in the face by a puck during a game here. His nose was badly smashed keeping him out of the game for several weeks. When he returned still with a protecting device on his face he found that he had lost some of his old ability to stop the tricky ones.”

 •••

George Hainsworth was the Canadiens goaltender on the night, January 7, 1930, when Morenz’s shot sent Benedict to the hospital.

He might have winced, or shuddered: possibly a stab of phantom pain in his nose made his eyes water. Hainsworth was 36, just a year younger than his rival down at the other end. But while the battered Maroons goaltender was nearing the end of his distinguished NHL career, Hainsworth was just getting going.

Leo Dandurand had signed him in the summer of 1926 from the WHL Saskatoon Sheiks and, after a brief tussle with the Toronto St. Pats, who believed they owned his rights, Hainsworth took to the Montreal net to succeed the late lamented Georges Vézina.

He proved a worthy successor, playing in every Canadiens game for the next three seasons, most of which were victories. In 132 regular-season games in those first three years, he had 49 shutouts. After Vézina’s death at the end of March of 1926, the NHL inaugurated a trophy in his name, for the league’s best goaltender, and Hainsworth won it for the first three years that it was awarded.

“Spry as a two-year-old” was a description applied to Hainsworth later in his NHL career; “cool and collected” was another. “A paragon of nonchalance,” advised The Chicago Tribune. “His utter sang froid in stopping the puck affords a rare thrill in hockey,” Montreal’s Gazette trilled. “His severest critic is his wife, who reads the newspapers reports of the games, and writes George in no uncertain terms what she thinks.”

But, for all his successes, were Canadiens loyalists slow to embrace him? Did they possibly not love him as much as they had loved Vézina? That’s what Ron McAllister suggests in the Hainsworth chapter he wrote in his popular compendium of profiles, Hockey Heroes (1949); it wasn’t until early in 1929 that the Montreal faithful finally learned to love Hainsworth. Which brings us, at last, to the (possible) case of Hainsworth’s pre-Benedict mask.

The night Montreal faithful learned to embrace their new(ish) goaltender was a Thursday, January 24, 1929, when the Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Forum. The game ended in a 1-1, with Montreal winger Aurèle Joliat scoring the home team’s goal.

But before he fired that shot, Joliat unloosed another: in the warm-up he hit Hainsworth full in the face — an accident, of course, as much as it might have seemed like a rehearsal, or demonstration for his linemate Morenz showing how to go about it in a year’s time.

Hainsworth bled and, as Le Canada reported, bled. While Canadiens’ physician Dr. John Corrigan did his best to stanch the flow, he found that the nose was broken. While the doctor dressed the wound, the team’s management saw to it that an announcement went out over Forum loudspeakers: would Hughie McCormick please present himself, if he happened to be in the house?

McCormick was a practice goalie for the Canadiens, a former minor-league guardian of nets, whose story is worth a telling on another day. He didn’t answer the Forum call, though. If Hainsworth was thinking of taking the night off to recover from Joliat’s friendly fire, he now changed his mind. “Courageous,” Le Canada wrote, “Hainsworth insisted on resuming his place. Dr. Corrigan gave him a preliminary dressing and he played the entire game.

If not for him, said the Gazette, who knows how Montreal would have withstood Toronto’s onslaught. “His sterling work in the middle session probably saved the Flying Frenchmen from defeat, for in the middle session the Leafs swarmed all over the local team.” One eye was swollen nearly shut; after the game, he went by ambulance to Notre Dame Hospital. Still, Dr. Corrigan told reporters that he was confident that the goaltender would be ready to play two nights hence, when the Canadiens went to play in Ottawa.

Can we pause here for a moment to consider the season that Hainsworth was having at this point? This was the year he recorded 22 shutouts in 44 regular-season games. Before Joliat broke his face for him, Hainsworth had slammed the proverbial door in 11 of 25 games, including four of the five leading up to the Toronto game.

In case Hainsworth couldn’t play in Ottawa, the Canadiens got permission from the NHL to use Hughie McCormick. There was also talk of calling in a young goaltender who’d practiced with the team in the pre-season, Alex Bolduc. At the hospital, X-ray confirmed Dr. Corrigan’s diagnosis: Hainsworth’s nose was fractured. Canadiens coach Cecil Hart was, all the same, holding out hope that his goaltender would be on the ice in Ottawa.

Hainsworth himself didn’t have any doubt. On Friday, a reporter from La Patrie dropped in on him at the hospital, room 512. “It was with exquisite urbanity that Hainsworth received your representative,” the visitor wrote. It wasn’t the first time, Hainsworth said, that he’d taken a smack to the head. Back when he’d played for the Saskatoon Sheiks, a shot had smashed seven teeth: “But I stayed in my position anyway.” Another time, he’d taken a ball to the temple, playing baseball: “I had a cerebral concussion.” His face still hurt from Joliat’s shot, he told the reporter. Still, he didn’t mind posing for a photograph in his sick-bed, even as he insisted that he would be leaving it soon. “I want to go to Ottawa, and I am able to play tomorrow night,” he said. “I am able to play and I do not want to hear that the Canadiens have departed tomorrow afternoon without me.”

hainsAt some point on Friday he did check himself out. He felt well enough, it seems, to head for a rink — an artist for La Patrie caught him at the Mont-Royal Arena watching from the penalty bench as a local senior team, Montreal St. Francois Xavier, went through its practice paces.

Saturday Hainsworth travelled to Ottawa with his teammates and he played, as promised, as the Canadiens beat the Senators 2-1. It was the second game in a row in which he’d allowed a goal — Frank Finnigan beat him — but Hainsworth earned only praise and sympathy in the press. “Alert,” The Globe called him; “Hainsworth was just fine,” La Patrie noted. His view must have been impaired the bandage he wore over his nose (“a heavy plaster,” The Globe called it), but he was his usual stalwart self. The Ottawa Journal: “Hainsworth in the nets didn’t show any effects from his broken nose if his stopping was any criterion.”

The Canadiens trained down to New York next for a pair of games at Madison Square Garden to start the new week. The first of these, Monday night, was a make-up game against the Rangers, defending Stanley Cup champions. The two teams had originally been scheduled to meet on January 8, but promoter and Rangers’ founder Tex Rickard had died, and the game was postponed to honour him.

The crowd was small, about 5,000. Many of the spectators spent much of the second and third periods jeering the home team. On the ice, the game was “bitterly fought,” The New York Times said. Referees Jerry Laflamme and Eddie O’Leary called many penalties, including a charging major against Bill Cook, his third of the season. When Armand Mondou scored the game’s only goal, the Canadiens had a four-on-three man advantage. The Rangers thought they’d scored a tying goal, through Leo Bourgeault, who (The Times):

… crashed the disk past Hainsworth, only to have the shot disallowed as the crowd booed. Bourgault was all alone at the rival net, and though the spectators thought the goal had been made the ruling was that it had hit the top bar and did not fall into the net.

At the finish it remained Canadiens 1, Rangers 0.

This January 28 game is the one in which Hainsworth may have worn some kind of protective mask to guard his wounded nose — which, again, would ante-date Clint Benedict’s famous face-guard by more than a year.

Unless there was no Hainsworth mask: the evidence I’ve come across comes down to a single reference in a single newspaper account.

In the ten reports of the game I’ve looked at, there are several mentions of Hainsworth injured nose, most of which refer to a save he made with it. Montreal Gazette was one of these, running an Associated Press dispatch that mentions a combined attack by the brothers Cook: “Hainsworth saved at the expense of a blow on his nose, broken less than a week ago.” La Patrie mentions this, too, while commending Hainsworth’s all-around play (“merveilleux,” “superbe,” “solide”). When Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick sent out five forwards in the third period in an attempt to tie the score, “Hainsworth had to make miracles.”

Two New York papers go into more detail — it’s just that the details don’t agree.

Grover Theis wrote up the game for the Times. “When the two teams skated out on the ice,” he remarked, “the most striking thing was that Hainsworth had a piece of plaster from one side of his face to the other.” He went on:

He was hurt in practice, but the goalie was undaunted by the handicap, because he stood up in the face of the first Ranger assaults with real courage and stopped several hard shots that the Ranger forward line carried against him.

On the beat for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was Harold C. Burr, an enthusiastic hockey correspondent with a vivid style. Here’s his overview of the game:

Not a spectator dared leave until the final whistle. One goal really decided it, but there was much ado before and after it. Once the playing surface was swept practically clean of Rangers. Frank Boucher tied the score, yet didn’t, in one man’s opinion. Excitable Frenchmen hugged and kissed on the ice. The crowd did everything but mob the referees. And Bill Cook drew his third damaging major penalty.

Quite a game, by and large, once everybody got their mad up.

“Les Canadiens sent some cripples into the melting pot,” he continued:

Howie Morenz reported with an ailing ankle and Goalie George Hainsworth wore from ear to ear a rubber protector across the bridge of a nose broken in practice at Montreal last week. But Morenz ran into a blue pocket with a tightening draw-string every time he attempted to advance and Hainsworth’s nose was in danger only once.

It was when rubber met rubber. The goalie was hit in the face by a high shot from Bill Cook’s weapon of wood. He put up both hands as if blinded. Both Cook brothers put their arms around him. But his mask had literally saved his face.

So there it is. A rubber protector. His mask. More than merely a passing reference, Burr’s is a very specific description And yet he remains all alone in his specificity. Assuming he wasn’t the only one to spy this mask of Hainsworth’s, could he really have been the only man on the reporting job to deem it worth a mention? Continue reading

scrub on skates

worters

A birthday today for Roy Worters, born this day in 1900, in Toronto. Shrimp they called him, of course, because he was a tiny goaltender, smaller even than Darren Pang. The smallest man to have played in the NHL? Maybe so. Five-foot-three, 135 pounds are the dimensions generally given in the standard hockey references. He played nine seasons, most of those for the New York Americans, and won a Hart Trophy and Vézina for his miniature efforts, though never a Stanley Cup. He died in 1957; 12 years after that, in 1969, he was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote about a stop Worters made in January of 1933 against the Rangers:

Bill Cook took Frankie Boucher’s pass and beat Roy, refusing to go in and draw the Shrimp’s spread-eagle defense. The Rangers were riding rubber now and Bun Cook sent one swishing in on Worters, at the height of the little fellow’s jugular. It came with the velocity of a projectile, and from well beyond the blue line, lots of room to pick up speed.

“I swear I didn’t know how to play it,” confessed Worters, still rubbing a red spot on his neck and voice a little husky. “There wasn’t any time to jump and take it on my wishbone. So I got it in the Adam’s apple instead. It hurt, all right.”