my first hockey game: admiral of the fleet the earl jellicoe

The homage to the Navy will be on display throughout the historic outdoor game, from the on-field décor to the in-game ceremonies to the more than 500 U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) midshipmen in attendance. The NHL regulation rink sits atop a Navy-inspired aircraft carrier flight deck complete with model fighter jet.

• NHL Public Relations, February 28, 2018

So the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing the Washington Capitals tonight in Annapolis, Maryland, in order to celebrate … U.S. naval might?

I have no special objection to the NHL theming its latest game in the Stadium Series in this way, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. Does it seem just a little forced, though, even for the NHL? I wasn’t paying attention, I guess, as closely as I might have been. A couple of weeks ago, when I saw the smart all-white duds the Leafs will have their ratings wearing tonight, I didn’t know that they had the Royal Canadian Navy’s motto (“Ready, Aye, Ready”) stitched inside the collar let alone that the design is supposed to allude to our Naval Ensign.

By the time I registered, earlier this week, that the game is being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Russian President Vladimir Putin was out and about touting his new and invincible arsenal, including speedy underwater drones capable of carrying nuclear bombs. For just a moment there it seemed vaguely possible that if the NHL’s military parading had nothing to do with global arms races before Alex Ovechkin’s favourite strongman started missile-rattling, maybe it would now be enlisted to the effort. I waited in vain, as it turned out, to hear that tonight’s venue had been shifted to a rink frozen atop the actual flight deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford as she cruised up and down Chesapeake Bay.

To get into the maritime spirit, how about a sea shanty from hockey’s history? Well, a sail-past, at least, of the NHL’s third season, involving one of the First World War’s most prominent personalities, a true naval hero. That should serve, shouldn’t it, for something?

John Jellicoe’s our man, born in Southampton in England in 1859. Hockey was still untamed, which is to say unruled and disorganized, wandering in the wilds, when Jellicoe got his first job with the Royal Navy at the age of 13, as a midshipman, in 1872. I’m not going to paddle through the whole of his career here, though I am going to glory, for just a moment, in the names of some of the ships he sailed on in his time: HMSes Britannia and Colossus, Sans Pareil, Ramillies, Centurion, Albermarle.

He survived the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was shot in the lungs and should have died but didn’t — “defied his doctors” is a phrase attached to this episode, which you should look up, between periods, instead of bothering with Coach’s Corner.

He was a protégé of Admiral Jackie Fisher’s, and very involved in modernizing the Royal Navy, a big proponent of dreadnoughts, & etc. Winston Churchill was First Sea Lord when Jellicoe took command of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet in August of 1914. In 1916, he was in command at the Battle of Jutland — that’s your second-intermission reading assignment.

He was a small man, and taciturn, and (I’ve learn from a 1915 profile) shaved “so carefully that they say his face is cleared for action.” His voice was soft and pleasant and he scarcely raised it to give an order. “Under no circumstance,” the same feature asserts, “has he ever been seen in a rage.” He was a man of so few words, apparently, that a dark joke during the First World War maintained that if the Germans were to prevail, Admiral Jellicoe would not be able to say the words “I surrender.”

The war had been over for a year when, aged 60, he and his wife, Florence, visited Canada in November of 1919. Sailed in, of course, aboard the battle-cruiser HMS New Zealand, arriving in Victoria to great fanfare. He eventually made his way east (terrestrially, by train), where he was attended with more pomp and ceremony while talking a lot about naval policy and shipbuilding, and what we here in the Dominion should and could be doing, and also gave a public lecture at Massey Hall on “Sea Power,” for which reserved seats cost 25 cents.

But — hockey. In early December, after dinner at the King Edward Hotel on King Street, the Jellicoes and their party, which included Mayor Tommy Church, headed north to Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Continue reading

duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

in new york, on this night in 1937: the mother and the father of a rage

Enlivened By A Free-For-All: This scene at Madison Square Garden on this night in 1937. While the Leafs’ Turk Broda watches from the comfort of his crease, policemen try to quell the second-period uprising. That’s Sweeney Schriner with a patrolman at lower left, as New York goaltender Alfie Moore looks on, with referee Mickey Ion nearby. The Amerks’ Roger Jenkins, wearing 10 in white, does his best to restrain a Leaf who’s swinging at Hap Emms, 15. Joe Lamb is 14 in the foreground; I don’t know that I can see Red Horner.

Charlie Conacher broke his wrist in the fall of 1936, in an exhibition game the Toronto Maple Leafs played against the Detroit Red Wings. Turk Broda and Syl Apps both made their Leafs debut that night, and Conn Smythe was pleased with what he saw from them. Of Apps he said, glowingly if unkindly, “He’s a better player than Joe Primeau ever thought of being.”

But the Conacher news was bad. As it turned out, he’d still be recovering come late February of 1937 when the Leafs welcomed the New York Americans to Maple Leaf Gardens. Rivals in the NHL’s four-team Canadian Division, they were battling for the last playoff spot. This was a Saturday night, and the Leafs won 4-3, which put them nine points ahead of Red Dutton’s team. Catching a train after the game, the two teams headed for a return date in New York the following night — 81 years ago tonight.

Conacher wouldn’t be ready to return for a few more games, but he was travelling with the team. In his spare time, he was putting his name to a newspaper column for The Globe and Mail, which is how we know that the Leafs wandered down to the docks in New York, to look at the Queen Mary. Conacher’s take? “What a ship! It certainly is one of the modern seven wonders of the world.”

At Madison Square Garden, the Leafs went down with “all the honours of war.” That was George Currie’s view, expressed on newsprint next morning in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Other dispatches described “a torrid match,” (the Associated Press), “climaxed by fisticuffs,” and (from the United Press) a second period “enlivened by a free-for-all.”

The Leafs got the first goal, from Gordie Drillon, assisted by their leading scorer, Syl Apps. Also featuring in the first: New York’s Nels Stewart earned a a ten-minute misconduct for insulting referee Mickey Ion. “It seems that Stewart was pretty saucy to Irons and hurt that worthy’s feelings pretty badly,” was how George Currie wrote it, muddling the referee’s name. “So into the dungeon he was cast.”

Most of the fuss, some of which is depicted here, came later, when Ion whistled for a penalty shot after the Leafs’ Jimmy Fowler tripped Hap Emms. As that was unfolding, Toronto defenceman Red Horner parleyed with New York forward Joe Lamb. Horner had the NHL’s leading collection of penalty minutes at this time, so talking was never going to settle it. He later said that Lamb had high-sticked him. “I told him to keep that stick down and he said he’d shove it down my throat,” he explained. “So I let him have it.”

With his stick, Horner meant, about the head, as Lamb was turned to talk to Ions. “The blow landed on Joe from behind,” George Currie wrote, “and he flew into the mother and the father of a rage. He raised his stick and if Horner hadn’t ducked, there might have been a serious carnage. As it was the blade landed on Horner’s heavily padded shoulder. The issue was joined and the air was filled with flying fists.”

“Hockey,” wrote Joseph Nichols of The New York Times, “was forgotten.”

George Currie:

With a glad whoop, the crowd egged them on. Americans streamed on to the ice, a silent but bland Dutton holding the dasher door wide open, lest his janissaries be delayed even a split second. Connie Smythe, the mercurial Leaf pilot, ran out on the ice, thereby making himself very illegal though not felonious. It developed that Connie for once was not bent upon leading his cohorts into a battle-royal. He simply wanted to coax the angry Horner off the ice before his team in the Polyclinic Hospital or the W. 47th St. police station.

Policemen, as you can see, did intervene. Fifteen minutes the affray went on, with everybody but goaltenders Broda and New York’s Alfie Moore joining in. “Amerks and Leafs paired off,” Currie reported, “and looked with an elegant bellicosity at each other but swapped only menacing gestures and tall words” before something like peace was restored.

It didn’t last. As he skated to the penalty box, Horner went after Lamb again, who raised his stick. Horner was stickless, so he stopped, whereon his teammate Busher Jackson stepped in. They fenced, Nichols wrote, “while somebody held the huge Horner.”

Aftermath: Headline from the sports pages of a St. Louis newspaper, February 23, 1937.

When it came to doling out penalties, Mickey Ion went with the simplest math he could muster: Horner and Lamb each got 20 minutes and a game, meaning they were banished and the teams had to play four-on-four for the duration of a period. Everybody else was forgiven their sins. And, I guess, simmered down: Ion called no more penalties for the rest of the night.

Emms scored on his penalty shot, and teammates Eddie Wiseman and Sweeney Schriner later followed his lead, giving the home team a 3-1 win. The Americans didn’t make it into the playoffs that year, and while the Leafs did, they were gone in two games, losing to the New York Rangers.

Charlie Conacher returned to the line-up a couple of nights after the fracas in New York. In the meantime, he wrote it up, cheerfully, for his Globe column:

Although Joe Lamb put plenty of weight behind his stick when he walloped “Red” Horner Sunday night, Horner doesn’t look a bit the worse for it. “Red” always could take it. The Leafs say the only thing wrong with the crack “Red” took at Lamb was that it wasn’t half hard enough. Lamb doesn’t rate very highly in their popularity league.

 

the windsor draft

Ice Infantry: Soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment, starters and spares, pose in hockey garb, and not, in early 1917, in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Back, left to right: Rex White, Sydney Bennett, Jack Strong, Duke Winter. Middle: Hayward Williams, Charlie Strong, Lionel Duley, Stan Newman. Front: Ernest Churchill, Harry Mews. (Image: The Rooms, Provincial Archives Division, St. John’s, Newfoundland)

They’d been bank clerks and accountants in St. John’s, where they’d lived on Mundy Pond and on Forest Road, on Monkstown and on Rennie’s Mill Road, the sons of jewelers, of civil servants, and of sea captains, and were 18 and 19 years old, several of them, when they enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment for the duration of the war at the Church Lads Brigade Armoury, and then attested, some in the First Draft in 1914, others later on, in the Twelfth. They shipped over to England on the Bowring Brothers’ steamship Florizel, and trained at Salisbury and Aldershot and in Scotland at Hawick, and were promoted corporal and colour sergeant, and reinforced 1st Battalion at Suvla Bay, at Gallipoli, in 1915, and took ill there, before the Allied withdrawal, with catarrhal jaundice. Some of them who subsequently returned to duty in France were wounded by splinters of a bomb in raids on enemy trenches at Beaumount Hamel a few days before the disastrous attack on July 1, 1916.

In October of 1916, the plan was to reinforce the Newfoundland Regiment with a draft of recruits sailing from St. John’s to Halifax. From there they’d sail to England. But then there was an outbreak of measles in town, and the plan was postponed. Reports of German submarines hunting in the Atlantic further delayed a departure. The Florizel finally delivered what became known as the Windsor Draft to Halifax in early February of 1917. The second leg of the journey still wasn’t yet worked out, so the Newfoundlanders trained over to Windsor, Nova Scotia, 319 of them, all ranks. They found temporary barracks (some ranks) in a sawmill — some (the officers) checked into the Victoria Hotel. Waiting for what was next that damp winter, they fell sick, many of them, with measles and mumps, influenza, pneumonia, which meant that once again, plans were changed. At the end of February their sailing orders were cancelled until they were healthy.

They recuperated and, as they were able, kept busy: “route-marches, Swedish drill, platoon drill, and squad drill figured prominently in the training time-tables that appeared in Daily Orders,” G.W.L. Nicholson writes in The Fighting Newfoundlander (2006). It’s not surprising that hockey figured into the recreational program. By Gregory White’s account, the regiment had already been playing in Scotland, taking on (in one case) a team of Canadian students from the University of Edinburgh and defeating them 16-1. In Windsor, that ancient hockey capital, the Newfoundlanders skated against teams from town as well as from nearby King’s College. The visitors had to adjust their game to the local landscape, White notes: while the Newfoundlanders were used to playing a seven-man game parcelled into two halves of 30 minutes each, in Nova Scotia they converted to the six-man version, with its three 20-minute periods.

The regimental line-up seen here included several subalterns who were returning to European duty from convalescent leave in Newfoundland. Second Lieutenant Ernest Churchill, down in front in the photograph, was the Gallipoli jaundice case. In the middle row, second over from the left, is Second Lieutenant Charlie Strong, who survived that bomb — a hand grenade — at Beaumont Hamel.

It was April before the Windsor Draft continued on its way to war. Most of them: one soldier had died in February, and was buried in Windsor, while 25 others were too ill to leave hospital when the majority departed for Halifax to take ship for England aboard ships called Ansonia, Grampian, and Northland.

Among the hockey players, Harry Mews went to Ontario, after the war, where he was a sales representative for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. Ltd. of Canada. When he returned to St. John’s in 1927, he went into insurance and municipal politics. He served as the city’s eighth mayor from 1949 to 1965.

Sergeant Marmaduke Winter would, by December of 1917, be at Wandsworth Hospital in London recovering from a bullet wound in the back. In the summer of 1918, Newfoundland Prime Minister Sir John Crosbie came to see him there, and the regimental band was on hand, too, to play as Sergeant Winter received his Military Medal, having (as the citation read) “displayed great personal bravery in attacking two snipers single handed and killing them.”

Sydney Bennett would transfer to the Royal Flying Corps with whom, promoted captain, he won a French Croix de Guerre for his part in an air raid on German positions. He was commended for having “given proof of great courage and activity” by way of “a personal encounter” during which he “forced two enemy machines to descend.”

In June of 1917, when the Newfoundland Regiment’s 2nd Battalion deployed to the Ypres Salient in Belgium, Lieutenant Ernest Churchill was in the battle through the summer and fall in the country around Passchendaele. By March of ’18 he was back in England, in hospital in Sheffield, suffering from the effects of “shell gas poisoning.” A Medical Board report listed his symptoms: “vomiting, cough, fever, loss of voice, and pain across chest, his eyes were closed for a few days.”

Captain Charlie Strong was at Passchendaele and then, early in 1918, with 1st Battalion as they tried to hold a German advance at the Franco-Belgian border. He was commanding two companies when he was wounded by a shellburst on April 12 around 3 p.m. near a crossroads called De Seule. Transferred to a Canadian casualty clearing station near Poperinghe, he died there of his wounds, at the age of 28, at 9.15 p.m. He’s buried at Ligssenthook Military Cemetery in Belgium.

Second Lieutenant Lionel Duley is the goaltender in the photograph. He was 20 in September of 1918. He was leading his platoon forward near a Belgian village called Keiberg, northeast of Brussels, when he was hit in the thigh by machine fire. It was 11 in the morning when he died. “He was buried where he was killed,” his commanding officer later noted, “a cross being erected by the Regiment.” His remains were moved after the war, not far: he lies now at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near Zonnebeke.

 

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 ship they sailed out on

Sail, Past: The Canadian Pacific steamship (and conveyor of Europe-bound hockey teams) SS Montcalm makes a mid-channel turn in April of 1937. (Photos: Top, Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-063360)

Sail, Past: The Canadian Pacific steamship (and conveyor of Europe-bound hockey teams) SS Montcalm makes a mid-channel turn in April of 1937.
(Photos: Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-063360)

Canada opened the IIHF World Championships on Friday and they played another game today. In both cases, this year’s team did what Canadians usually do when the tournament is played in Prague: they skunked a lesser hockey nation. On Friday it was Latvia, we crushed (Sportsnet), downed (CBC), levelled (The Score) and/or piled on (Hamilton Spectator) by a score of 6-1. Today it was Germany we steamrolled (IIHF.com), routed (National Post), dominated (CBC.ca), and/or trumped (Hockey Canada). The score this time was 10-0.

I’m exaggerating, of course: we haven’t always made a clobbering debut in Prague. In fact, with today’s win, we’re only just now up to 50 per cent in terms of initial Euro-whuppings in the Czech capital. The breakdown looks like this: of the ten occasions the competition has been played there since 1930, Canada has been in attendance eight times. Those have indeed included some smoking starts, with keelhaulings of Germans (5-0 in 1933), bushwhackings of Poles (9-0, 1959) and fricasseeings of East Germans (9-1, 1985). But we’ve also only lightly pan-fried Swedes (3-2, 1938) and barely deglazed France (4-3, 1992), while in 1978 we — somehow; wait, what? — Canada actually lost to Finland (4-6).

The last time the world played in Prague, 2004, Canada opened its account by rallying to tie Austria, 2-2. Though not to worry: we did eventually win gold that year, as we’d done before in Prague, in 1959 and 1938.

The first time the world went there to play hockey was in February of 1933. Canada was represented by the Toronto Nationals, who’d earned the trip by winning the 1932 senior hockey championships, beating Fort William to claim the Allan Cup. That’s how it worked in those years, mostly, the Allan-Cup winner taking up the cause of the maple leaf on European ice — except when the runners-up went, as they did (for instance) in 1934, when the Saskatoon Quakers went to Milan in Italy to play.

With a name like Nationals the 1933 team seemed perfectly suited to the job they were taking on, but there was more to their name than plain patriotism. Sponsored by Toronto’s National Yacht Club, the Nats were known colloquially as the Yachtsmen or, more often, the Gnats. That they owed to their full and not-to-so-mighty-after-all name: the Toronto National Sea Fleas.

See Flea: Ready for racing, a sea flea on the water at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition in September of 1929.)

See Flea: Ready for racing, a sea flea on the water at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition in September of 1929.

The team’s manager was a fan of marine parasites, I guess — no, sorry, the actual story is that he was a keen racer of the small outboard hydroplanes — early jet-skis, sort of — that enjoyed a bit of a heyday in the 1920s and ’30s across North America and Europe. So that’s why Canada’s national hockey team went to the world championships in ’33 with a logo on their red sweaters that looked like a rising torpedo or a … speedy cucumber? While teams before and after them donned new national-team sweaters for the world tournament, the Sea Fleas were satisfied to play in their regular duds.

Wearing those in 1932, they’d claimed the Dominion championship in Montreal, beating Fort William (a.k.a. the Forts and/or Thundering Herd) in two straight games. Harry Watson was the Flea coach for that, a star of the Toronto Granites team that won gold at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics and a subsequent Hall-of-Famer. (Unlike another, later Hall-of-Fame Harry Watson who won five Stanley Cups, mostly with the Leafs, this earlier Watson never played in the NHL.)

That was a good year to be a hockey fan in Toronto: on the night of the April day that the Sea Fleas arrived back in town with their cup, the Maple Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the club’s first Stanley Cup. When in May the Leafs threw themselves a banquet at the Royal York, they were good enough to include not only the triumphant Sea Fleas in the festivities but a raft of other accomplished local teams, including O.H.A. junior Marlboros and National midgets as well.

Mayor William James Stewart regretted that city bylaws prevented him giving gifts to the professional Leafs, but he was pleased to lavish the senior Fleas with wrist-watches.

Harry Watson didn’t return as the coach the following year, though most of the players stayed on. There some ongoing question about who would replace Watson before the team’s hydroplaning manager decided to take the bench. Beyond his interest in boat racing, he had experience in international hockey, having served as assistant manager with the 1928 University of Toronto Grads when they won Olympic gold at St. Moritz in 1928. He was 32, scion of a sewing-machine and skate manufacturer. His name was Harold Ballard.

On the domestic front, the team fell out of the 1933 Allan Cup early on, a failure that did free them to head off to Europe in plenty of time to get to their Prague appointment. On February 2, Ballard and his ten players caught the 10.45 p.m. train from Toronto’s Union Station for Halifax.

Two days later the team took ship and sailed away. It was the Canadian Pacific steamship SS Montcalm they were aboard, a lucky ship for Canadians on their way to win hockey titles, as might or might not have been noted as they headed out in the Atlantic chop: she’d borne Harry Watson’s Granites to Europe in 1924.

 

pluck, sinew, pride, gumption

2014 olympics

Once Sochi’s Olympics open on Friday, Canada’s women are quick to the ice, starting the tournament on Saturday against Switzerland. The men face-off with Norway on February 13. Today, hints from history that may or may not help maple-leafed teams find success. Originally published on February 16, 2010, “The Secret To Olympic Hockey Gold” appeared in The Globe and Mail

The Winnipeg Falcons went over to Antwerp in 1920 aboard a ship called the Melita and when they disembarked what they did was win the hockey gold at the Olympics. Of course. I mean, obviously. That’s what Canadian hockey teams do at Olympics, in case you weren’t paying attention. How do we do it? Apart from skating faster than anyone else, passing better, scoring ridiculously good goals? The grit we have isn’t like other people’s, not to mention our pluck. If you could see inside our hearts, that’s what you’d witness, pluck and sinew, pride and gumption — mixed in with the, you know, regular blood. That’s what wins us golden hockey medals — that, and because we’re Canadian and nobody else is.

Or so we thought. History doesn’t necessarily agree. That’s worth knowing as we head into our own Olympics. That’s history job: to complicate what once seemed straightforward. History doesn’t like to see a glass of still water sitting on the counter. It just can’t resist dumping in a big spoonful of flour and stirring.

I’m not saying those 1920 Falcons weren’t great. Or the Toronto Granites, who won gold in 1924. I have nothing but respect for all those senior teams that used to ship out to Europe to defend our national honour at all those old Olympics and world championships. Belleville McFarlands! Terriers of Galt! Vees and Sea Fleas, Eaters of Trail Smoke! Hats off to all of you. Great work, Whitbyites, Lethbridgers, Pentictonavians!

Trounced is the word the newspapers used in 1920 to describe the 15-0 beating we laid on Czechoslovakia, a good word, too, deriving from the Middle English for bouncing mercilessly next to somebody on a trampoline until they fall down and still you don’t stop, even when they say please. We’ve done a lot of that over the years, bamboozling Hungarians by 15, shamwowing the Austrians 23-zip. Early Olympic hockey looks like we were punishing all the novice hockey nations for the crime of loving our game so much, wanting to learn from us, be like us.

Not so. In 1920 the Falcons ran practices and clinics for their opponents before games, tutoring before they trounced. In 1924, the Granites schooled the attentive Swiss in the primary hockey principle that if you let us score 33 goals while notching none for yourself, well, that’s going to be pretty embarrassing for you.

Tough love? You have to remember, hockey was really the only imperialism we had available to us for a long time. And, plus, did we have a choice? A member of the 1924 team explained how it worked. “We weren’t trying to rub it in. … They would never improve if we played down to their level; instead they should expect to come up to our standards. Besides, it doesn’t flatter anyone to ease up on them; and it hurts the morale of your own team when you ask the players to give less than their best.”

Exactly. What we also realized was if we were going to do this triumphing properly, what we really needed was to do was develop a set of verbs that truly reflected and paid tribute to the magnificent margins of our whompings. It took a while, this, mostly because of our national inbred Canadian inclination to hold back, not to seem sore in our winning.

Though if we were so merciless on the ice, did it really matter how kind we were in print? Topple, overwhelm, stun: all the vanquisher verbs we take for granted now have their roots in those early hockey Olympics. A couple of useful rules of thumb: verbs associated with fairytale ogres marauding through tiny upland villages also work well for big hockey victories, e.g. conquer, smash, crush, squash, quash. The contractor renovating your basement is a pretty good guide, too: hammer, plaster, and shellac. For some reason culinary terms don’t really translate, which is too bad when you consider how the satisfaction involved in speaking aloud words like fricassee and spatchcock.

These are lessons that that Soviets never really absorbed. To them, when then smoked us 11-1 at the 1977 world championships, the best they could come up with was defeat. “I hate them,” said Walt McKechnie, a member of the losing team. “I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink.” Two years later, in Moscow, they drubbed us 9-2. Sorry: “They insulted us,” is how Alan Eagleson saw it. “I felt they were a little cruel in rubbing it in,” he steamed. “There was no need for it.” Had they never heard of respect? “I just hate to let them think they can treat us arrogantly and get away with it.”

We’d like to think that these Olympics of ours will be decided on merit, and that our alloy of Crosbys, Iginlas, and Brodeurs will provide all the mettle we need to win. And maybe in the future, one day, that’s exactly how Olympic hockey tournaments will be decided. In the meantime, we’ll have to work with what we’ve got. What we know now, after nearly a century of sending hockey teams to Olympics and world championships, Summit Series and Izvestia tournaments, Cups Spengler, Canada, and World, is that hockey adds up to no more than a quarter-measure of the formula that decides these things. Without the other three determinants — nautical, nominal, botanical — there’s only so far that the hockey can carry us.

1. The Ship They Came In On

This one is pretty obvious. Does anyone really believe that the 1920 Falcons would have won Olympic gold without Canadian Pacific’s Melita to ship them to Belgium? Where would they have been without it? Saint John, New Brunswick is where. On the voyage out, nobody got seasick. The ship’s carpenter is supposed to have carved all the sticks that the Falcons wielded in Belgium, which is pretty great, if true.

I guess the Toronto Granites could easily have steered an overland passage to Chamonix in 1924. And you know what? They probably would been better for it, just in terms of bonding as a team and, you know, generally toughening themselves up as they trekked the sea-ice between Alaska and Siberia, cutting down to meet antiquity’s Salt Road, on to the Silk Route, quick left at the road to Damascus, straight on through via the Appian Way and the Path of Righteousness. Instead they shipped over aboard Montcalm. Continue reading