odie cleghorn had a shift that was deception itself

Descriptions of Odie Cleghorn from back when he was playing high-level hockey include relatively slow afoot, pudgy, and master showman. Phrases associated with his career, which saw him play ten NHL campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh’s long-gone Pirates, sometimes mention that no more gifted stickhandler ever graced the ice. He liked a short stick, and would nurse the puck close to his skates, I’ve learned. Also: he had a shift that was deception itself, as in a swerve.

Born on September 19 in 1891, James Albert Ogilvie Cleghorn debuted in Montreal to find an older brother  already in the house. That was Sprague, of course, who’d become the better-known hockey player, as much for his skill and leadership (momentous) as for his brutality and propensity for injuring opponents (legendary). Sprague, who played defence, is in the Hall of Fame, and Odie, almost always a forward, probably should be.

The brothers broke into professional hockey together, signing with the Renfrew Creamery Kings of the old NHA in 1910, where they played with Steve Vair and Skene Ronan and — imagine it! — Cyclone Taylor.

The brothers were with Sammy Lichtenheim’s Montreal Wanderers in 1912 when the team met Canadiens in an exhibition game in Toronto, the very first professional game in that fair city, at the Arena on Mutual Street, just before Christmas. Wanderers won, 4-3, but that was the least of the news. Canadiens’ Newsy Lalonde seems to have been in a bad mood on the night. He was warned by the referee for charging Wanderers’ goaltender Bert Cadotte, and fined, too, for cross-checking. This before he collided with Odie Cleghorn and cut his mouth badly while also going down to the ice himself. He was lying there, Lalonde, “prostrate on the ice,” in The Globe’s account, when Sprague skated up and with “utmost deliberation, dealt Newsy a terrible blow on the head with his stick” causing a wound (“gaping”) that bled (“freely”).

Sprague was fined $25 and suspended and called to court in Toronto; Lalonde took on ten stitches, Odie three. In court, Sprague’s defence lawyer read a letter from Lalonde in which he said, “Sprague saw his brother fall and saw that he was bleeding and apparently lost control of himself when he saw his brother was injured. As far as I am concerned, I do not hold any hard feelings against Sprague for having struck me, and I do not desire him to be punished further.”

The judge in the case liked this. “I am glad to see that amity has been restored between you and Lalonde,” he told Sprague, who pleaded guilty to assault and paid a further $50 fine. His hockey suspension was lifted within days.

When Odie joined Canadiens, now in the NHL, in 1918, Lalonde was the coach; Sprague signed on a few years later. The brothers Cleghorn won a Stanley Cup with Canadiens in 1924, though Lalonde was gone by then. That was Odie’s only Cup; Sprague was in on three. In 1925, Odie, then 34, went to Pittsburgh to become the playing coach of the expansion Pirates, and he got them to the playoffs in his second season, though they didn’t really prosper there — anyway, he stayed on in Pittsburgh until 1929. It’s worth noting that in Pittsburgh in 1926 he actually started a game in goal when Roy Worters, sidelined with grippe, couldn’t manage it. Started and finished and won, beating his old team, Canadiens, with a line-up that featured Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat, by a score of 3-2.

Later, he signed himself up as an NHL referee. He seems to have been a good one, though that doesn’t mean that Eddie Shore didn’t shoot a puck at his back in utter disgust in 1936 over a goal Shore believed the Leafs hadn’t scored, and it didn’t keep a gaggle of Canadiens chasing him off the ice at the Forum to protest a penalty he’d called against them and then having to be rescued by another referee, Billy Bell, when the Canadiens started to shove. That was in 1935. After Odie put away his whistle, in the late 1930s, he was appointed manager of Montreal’s Mount Royal Golf Club.

In 1915, still playing for the Wanderers in the NHA, Odie was out on Montreal’s mountain one December afternoon just before the season opened, taking a long walk by way of getting himself into shape for the campaign ahead. There was a military band and a boy on a horse, the story goes, and when the band struck up, the horse bolted. The boy dropped the reins to cling to the saddle while the horse fled. Cleghorn was able to seize the bridle and drag the horse to a halt not far from a row of carriages. “Odie Cleghorn in Hero Role” was the headline in the papers a couple of days later. The boy, described as “small,” name not known, was reported to have fainted promptly upon rescue.

les méprisables

hatersYes, that’s right, the Montreal Canadiens are looking good, sitting up atop the Eastern Conference, even if they did lose last night in a shootout to Ottawa. Cheers to you, Brandon Prust! Way to play, Alex Galchenyuk! Great going, Lars Eller! And yet as natural as it is to cherish the Habs and their success, there are those who take a dimmer view. Art McDonald, for one. Instead of toasting the team’s health and happiness, he might be one to note that today is the day, back in 1910, that Les Canadiens lost by a score of 15-3 to the Haileybury Hockey Club. As he did, in fact, in his comprehensive 1988 Montreal Canadiens Haters Calendar, dedicated “to those who believe there are only two teams in hockey — their favourite team and whoever is playing the Montreal Canadiens.”

With an anti-Hab barb for each day of the year, the calendar does its best to bring down even the sunniest supporter.

February 20: Birthdate of Gilles Lupien, the worst Canadiens’ player of recent years. (1954)

June 14: Canadiens pass up Mike Bossy in the NHL draft. (1977)

July 15: Canadians laugh at a ridiculous Grecian Formula ad featuring ex-Canadien Rocket Richard. (1981)

September 14: North America adopts the Gregorian Calendar, featuring February 29 in leap years. Canadiens are winless on this date. (1752)

An accountant who described himself as a former Montrealer transplanted to Halifax, McDonald professed to have spent 500 hours compiling his record of the team’s ignominy. “It’s been a labour of love,” he told The Hockey News in 1987.

As for that loss to Haileybury, it came during the Canadiens inaugural season, when they played in the short-lived National Hockey Association. They finished last in the seven-team league, McDonald would be glad for you to know. As the Canadiens’ own historical website observes, Montreal met Haileybury twice, noting a 9-5 win at the beginning of February while conveniently leaving out the subsequent 15-3 smothering. Didier Pitre skated for the Habs that year, and Newsy Lalonde, too, who ended up leading the league in scoring. Neither man was on hand in Haileybury, though. “On the French team,” a witness reported, “no player starred.” Jack Laviolette did his best but “was unable to pull off any spectacular skating stunts being too closely watched.” Still, the score was tied 3-3 at the half before the local team ran wild. They weren’t a bad bunch, with Art Ross at point and Skene Ronan playing cover. Alex Currie scored six goals that night and Nick Bawlf another five. And Art Throop. He may not have appeared on the score-sheet, said our reporter, but “also played a great game.”