was the headline when the Duke of Edinburgh got his first taste of the NHL’s game, and the Globe and Mail had it from an eyewitness, his Royal Highness’ host, Conn Smythe who, as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had arranged for his team to skate in a command performance for Canada’s own Princess Elizabeth and her husband during the Royal couple’s five-week tour of the Dominion in the fall of 1951.
Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip died in London on Friday morning at the age of 99.
Princess Elizabeth was 25 back during that ’51 visit to Canada, Prince Philip 30. Their cross-country odyssey that fall came just months before the death of George VI, in February of 1952, and Elizabeth’s succession to the throne. Maybe hockey wasn’t the focus of the couple’s busy schedule, but it did feature prominently enough, as it happens, because, well, Canada. Twice that October, the NHL twisted its regularly scheduled programming to accommodate their Royal Highnesses.
First up was an abridged afternoon scrimmage between Toronto’s Leafy defending Stanley Cup champions and the Chicago Black Hawks. That was followed a week later by a game at Montreal’s Forum with Canadiens taking on the New York Rangers.
A fuller account of both those games and the fuss surrounding them can be found, photographs, too, by steering over here. Today we’ll recall that, according to Conn Smythe, both Royal guests enjoyed their experience at Maple Leaf Gardens “tremendously.”
“That was apparent,” Smythe told the Globe, “in the way Prince Philip roared with laughter at the upsetting body-checks and the way the eyes of Princess Elizabeth glowed as the payers shot by her at full speed.”
As Smythe understood it, the Princess had only ever seen hockey once, on television, though the Prince had spent hours attending games in London.
Smythe was charmed by his guests, to say the least. “I’ll tell you that I’m not much for feathered hats,” he enthused, “but I thought the Princess wore a beautiful creation. It was a feathered hat.”
Prince Philip? “He’s a terrific Prince and what a sportsman.”
As a parting gift, Smythe handed over the puck the Leafs and Hawks had chased. “I told the Princess it was for Bonnie Prince Charlie,” he said, “and that the Leafs were putting him on the negotiation list.”
Smythe may have misunderstood, it turns out, about Prince Philip’s hockey-spectating history. What he told the Globe in 1951 is, at least, at odds with Sir Arthur Elvin’s understanding of things from the following year.
Elvin was the founder and owner of London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. Hockey had caught his eye in the early 1930s, when he saw Canadians play at the rink at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and in 1934 he saw to it that Wembley’s new Empire Pool could be converted to a hockey-hosting rink.
By Elvin’s account in 1952, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had only ever seen live hockey on his Canadian tour, never in Britain. That changed on December 4 of that year when Elvin arranged a Wembley game in Prince Philip’s honour, pitting the Wembley Lions against an All-Star team drawing players from their English League rivals.
Reflecting the tenor of the times in British hockey, it was a mostly Canadian affair on the ice. The All-Stars lined up two homegrown players, goaltender Bill Alderson from the Harringay Racers and Streatham Royals forward Pete Ravenscroft. The Lions turned out another pair, in English-born defencemen Art Green and Roy Shepherd. Otherwise, the players involved hailed from Ottawa and Winnipeg, Flin Flon, Montreal, Grand-Mère, Timmins, and Stony Mountain. Wembley’s player-coach was Frank Boucher, son of Buck, nephew of famous Frank, and the man who’d also steered the RCAF Flyers to Olympic gold in 1948.
“Despite a display of nerves by the players in the initial stages,” Sir Arthur noted in his write-up for Ice Hockey World Annual, “the match was packed with thrills and good hockey, as all present will testify and the Duke was as excited and enthusiastic over the play as the most ardent fan present.”
The All-Stars won, 2-1; when it was all over, Elvin narrated, “the Duke descended to the arena from the Restaurant where he had dined and watched the play, to present commemorative medals to all the players participating.”