Si Griffis got his start in hockey in Ontario’s northwest, up near the Manitoba border, when Rat Portage was still Rat Portage, and the hockey team was a mighty one called the Thistles.
Born on a Saturday of this date in 1883, Silas Seth Griffis started out in in Onaga, in Kansas, though his family moved north to Canada before he was two. They settling first in St. Catharines before moving on to Rat Portage, a name I’m pleased to be able to repeat, again, while continuing to feel almost personally aggrieved that the town chose to change its name in 1905 to Kenora.
Hockey there was a seven-man game back then, and Griffis took up as a rover with the local Thistles. In 1903, the team put in a challenge to play for the Stanley Cup, and travelled to the national capital to take on the Ottawa Hockey Club. The famous Silver Seven prevailed that year and again in 1905, when the Thistles made a second attempt, their last (alas) as Rat Portage.
Third time luckier, or more skillful, maybe — anyway, the Kenora Thistles won the Cup in 1907, overcoming the Montreal Wanderers in a two-game series that March. Griffis had dropped back to play cover-point by then — defence — where he partnered with Art Ross. Both were as likely to rush the puck from the defence as headman it to a forward, which made them mavericks for their day — that’s not how it was done, in those years. The two of them made a “splendid combination,” an admiring correspondent from Montreal’s Gazettewrote during that ’07 series. “Each check closely and always for the puck, and each has such ability to get into speed at short range and bear away that this pair is really as useful as a brace of extra forwards.”
Plucky Si he was dubbed in those years, according to a 1912 description of his, well, pluck, I guess, and perseverance in the face of injury. By another later account, he played the second game of the Thistles’ championship run with a broken nose and “was so badly cut up and used up that he doesn’t even to this day remember anything about the game.”
Griffis, who married in 1906, moved to Vancouver, though the good folk of Kenora were so eager for him to stay on with the Thistles that (according to an obituary from 1950) they presented him with “a purse of gold” while offering him a “handsome home.”
Griffis hung up his skates after that, but he made return to the ice in 1911 with the Vancouver Millionaires, when the Patrick brothers launched their Pacific Coast Hockey Association. In his first game back after that four-and-a-half pause, he played all 60 minutes on the Vancouver defence, scoring three goals and notching a pair of assists.
He won his second Stanley Cup as captain of 1915 Millionaires when they beat the Ottawa Senators in a three-game sweep. While the 1911-12 team pictured above was 50 per cent Hall-of-Famers, the 1915 edition upped the quotient: seven of ten on the roster would get the call to hockey’s pantheon, including Griffis, Cyclone Taylor, Frank Nighbor, Barney Stanley, and Hughie Lehman.
Griffis was elected to the Hall in June of 1950. He died of coronary thrombosis a month later in Vancouver at the age of 66.
Two last stray notes worth noting: I’ve seen it said that back in his Kenora days, Griffis was one of the first players to adopt — and thereby popularize — the tube skate that would soon replace the solid-bladed skate most commonly used to that point in hockey history.
Also: Griffis played in a tuque. You can see how stylish it was in this magnificent portrait of the 1913-14 Millionaires.
Recalling Griffis in 1950, Cyclone Taylor referred to the hat as a toorie, which is say a tasseled Scottish bonnet. Tuque or toorie, Taylor recalled that he was very particular about it.
“We hid Si’s one night,” Taylor said, “but we never did it again. He was so distracted he wouldn’t go on the ice until it was recovered. We were five minutes late going out that night.”
Another time, as Taylor told it, Griffis stickhandled his way almost to the enemy’s goal line, needing only to tap the puck into the open net for a goal when a desperate defender ran into him, knocking his hat askew. While Griffis paused to fix his hat, the defender skated off with the puck.
In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”
Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.
That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.
Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.
Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.
Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.
Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.
Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.
That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.
It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.
Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading
Was there anyone better at the skate-sharpener than the Toronto Maple Leafs’ revered equipment man Tommy Naylor? World and Olympic figure-skating champion Barbara Ann Scott wouldn’t let anyone else touch her blades; Frick and Frack, world-famous Swiss comedians-on-skates, swore that Naylor was the best. “As valuable as most players,” offered The Globe and Mail which, in 1947, when this photograph ran, was saying something. The Leafs were about to play for and win the Stanley Cup, beating the Montreal Canadiens, though not before Naylor put an edge to the players’ skates piled in front of him. That’s left winger Harry Watson attending at Nayler’s lair, beneath the stairs in the northeast corner of Maple Leaf Gardens.
If he wasn’t quite born to the grind, well, close enough. As a younger man Nayler held the Ontario half-mile speed-skating record, and he’d gone to work in 1918 as a messenger boy for A.G. Spalding Sporting Goods. When the regular skate-sharpener quit, Nayler took his job.
With the Leafs, he was the de facto equipment manager, “a bit of an expert with the needle,” as The Globe told it, offering an alternate spelling of his surname, and guardian of the sticks. (The Leafs went through 600 in 1946-47.) But:
Skates are the No. 1 priority. Each Toronto players has three sets of blades, which are kept sharpened at all times. After every practice or game the skates are rushed into Naylor’s shop for a going-over.
Every player has his favourite set and uses them, if possible, in every game, saving the extras for practices. Thus when the Leafs hit the road for an out-of-town game after a Saturday night stand at home, Tommy Naylor is a very busy man.
Between the time the players get into the dressing-room and change into street clothes for a rush to the train, Naylor sharpens 16 pairs of skates. Each player waits fro his own blades and carries them with him.
Nikolai Kulemin was the first Leaf winger to fall to what the papers were calling friendly fire. This was October and the season hadn’t even started when in practice he caught a teammate’s shot on the ankle, which chipped the bone. Two weeks he was out of the line-up. Same thing happened at the end of the month to Joffrey Lupul, “plunked” in practice, as The Toronto Sun put it — though Lupul’s was only a bone-bruise, and he missed but two games.
That was no solace to Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. Both players should have been wearing plastic foot-guards over their skates, as mandated by the team for players at practice. It was just common sense, said Carlyle. “You don’t drive your car any more without a seatbelt. It’s basically the same principle.”
Modern-day foot-guards — they’re also called shotblockers — are light and resilient. They’ve come a long way since the steel-mesh prototype that the man they called “hockey’s Edison” came up with in 1939. By then, of course, Art Ross (above) had long since retired from a stellar playing career. He’d been managing the Boston Bruins since 1924. He’d already re-invented the hockey net by the time he turned his attention to trying prevent foot and ankle injuries, and in 1940 he’d get his patent on a refined puck.
In December of 1939, at the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings in New York, Canadian Press was reporting that Ross’ skate chainmail was an experiment tried and abandoned, having “proved unsatisfactory.” Already he had a new idea, and the league had approved it for trial: “a new-style stick, which combines a wooden handle, steel tube shaft and wooden blade.”
The last time they sold these skates the price was $15,000, which would be extravagant if they were just any skates, which they’re not, obviously, because who would pay so much for skates? It’s not as though it’s even the full skate package we’re talking about here, either, these are just the blades for sale, detached blades, no boots, bootless, so if you were going to be buying them for the backyard rink this winter, you’d have to be buying boots separately, at further cost, and also paying somebody to bolt them together. Not that you’d do that. Why would you? These are blades that belonged to Howie Morenz, which means they’re not for skating so much as for — that’s the big question. What would you do with these famous blades of skates that you bought?
I guess you could display them on your dining-room sideboard. You could carry them with you in your briefcase to show clients. Christmas presents for the children? Continue reading