sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

sprague cleghorn: prominent canadian hockey player #24

A.K.A. Peg: Born in Montreal on this date in 1890 (it was a Tuesday there, then), Hall-of-Fame defenceman Sprague Cleghorn had a vicious streak running through him that was the size of … well, him. Violent as he incessantly was throughout his 23-year professional career, he was also a supremely talented player, and the fact that he was left off the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 greatest players is, um, okay, let’s not get started on that. Here, above, he’s looking fairly peaceable, posed in the livery of the 1910-11 NHA Renfrew Creamery Kings. Cleghorn’s NHL career began with the Ottawa Senators, with whom he won two Stanley Cups. He was a Toronto St. Patrick, too, and a Canadien in Montreal (he won another Cup there), as well as, finally, a Boston Bruin. Sprague Cleghorn died in 1956 at the age of 66.

surrendered to the storm king: snowbound with the 1924 ottawa senators

Polar Express: Not, in fact, the CN train that the Ottawa Senators got stuck on in February of 1924. Not even a 1924 train, in fact: this reasonable facsimile of the Ottawa train is a 1927 CN locomotive from Saskatchewan. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

The people came early and they came eager, six thousand of them, maybe more, packing the Mount Royal Arena to its frigid rafters. Mostly they were men, as I suppose, men in neckties and overcoats — and hats. In 1924, that’s who mostly went to midweek hockey games in Montreal — men, wearing their hats and their 1924 moustaches. It’s hard not to dream this whole scene in black-and-white, as shadowy-plain and slightly sped-up as stuttery 1924 newsreel, but of course it was all in colour. I’m not actually all that certain just how universal the moustaches were — the moustaches, I confess, are largely speculative, no matter how clearly they’re formed up in my imagination.

The band played. The people waited. The ice — it must have been hard to see the ice so blank and empty for solong without leaping the boards for a dash across. Eight o’clock came and went, and half-past. The music was brassy and jolly and wafted in the hazy evening air of the rink, coalesced, coiled, rose to the rafters and condensed with the smoke and the smells and the chatter of men, all the nattering men, up there in the rafters, which it warmed, along with the adventurous boys who had climbed into these same rafters. That’s largely guesswork, too, much of that last part, in particular regarding the rising and warming properties of the music, if not the boys in the rafters — contemporary newspaper accounts domention the boys and their audacious climbing.

It was a Wednesday in February in Montreal: that we know. February 20, 1924 was the factual date of this waiting and alleged wafting. Some of the names of some of the waiters from that night we know. There was a Joliat, a Vézina, a pair of Cleghorns, a Morenz. None of them was in the rafters, of course. They were all in the home team’s dressing room, wearing skates, red sweaters, no moustaches. I’ve just checked again, and it’s confirmed: the 1923-24 Montreal Canadiens iced an entirely unmoustached line-up.

Aurèle Joliat was possibly hatted, which is to say capped: he often was, in those years, when he worked the wing for Montreal. Sprague was one of the most dangerously violent hockey players in history, as you probably know; his brother Odie, was a singular stickhandler. In 1924, Howie Morenz was a 21-year-old rookie, while Georges Vézinawas 37, with just two more years to live before his death in 1926 from tuberculosis. I’m sorry to cite that, even all these years later. Leo Dandurand was the coach of the Canadiens that year. I’m thinking of him propping the dressing-room door open so that the team could better hear the band and whatever 1924 songs they were playing — “Rose Marie,” maybe, or the “Pizzicato Polka,” maybe “Rhapsody in Blue?”

That February night in Montreal, the hockey players and their coach, all the people from the rafters on down, the brave band — they all waited together to see whether the reigning Stanley Cup champions would be showing up, or not, to play some hockey.

Spoiler alert: not.

In a time of nationwide rail disruptions, as snow falls and winds swirl across 2020 central Canada, let’s mark what followed and what did betide back in the NHL’s 1923-24 season, the league’s sixth, when winter played its part in shaping the schedule.

Ninety-six years ago, there were only four teams in the NHL mix, as opposed to today’s 31, three of them — Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton — rooted in Ontario, while the other, Montreal, was at home in Quebec. The regular season, then, saw teams play 24 games apiece, starting in mid-December, wrapping up in early March.

The weather took its toll early on. With Ottawa opening its new Auditorium that year, at the corner of Argyle Avenue at O’Connor Street, Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena was the only NHL rink still to be relying on natural ice. Having held their training camp in Grimsby, Ontario, the Canadiens returned home to an unseasonably warm December. With no ice to play on, they scrambled to take their early-season home games on the road. That worked in some cases, but not all, and just before Christmas, the scarcity of ice saw them postpone their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. Team officials calculated the loss of revenue for that game at $5,000 — about $74,000 in nowadays money.

Winter eventually took hold, and the Arena got its ice. In February, with the hockey season in full fling, the weather intervened again.

In back-to-back games to begin the month, Ottawa had lost to Montreal 1-0 on the road and overturned them 4-0 at home. As they prepared to face them again towards the end of the month, Ottawa (as happens in hockey) was missing key players in defenceman Georges Boucher, recovering from a knee injury, and star centreman and captain Frank Nighbor, who was out with a bad wrist.

Still, they were in fairly good shape as the season wound down. Only the top two teams would play for the NHL championship come March, with the winner carrying on to vie against the best team from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

With a fortnight left in the regular-season, with five games to play for each team, the defending Stanley Cup champions from the nation’s capital were riding atop the standings, with Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks eight points adrift, four points up on the lagging Hamilton Tigers.

Wednesday they were due to meet the Canadiens in Montreal. As happens in Canadian Februarys, a blizzard that had concealed western Ontario on the Tuesday was on the move east. Newspapers would tell the tale over the course of the next few days. Snow that fell across the province to a depth of 30 centimetres was whipped by 80-kilometre-an-hour winds that didn’t relent for 24 hours, making for the worst blizzard to hit Ontario since 1905. Six trains were stuck on the tracks between Toronto and Hamilton; Owen Sound was cut off. Toronto’s streetcars were stopped in their tracks, and most of its taxis. Two thousand telephones were knocked out of commission.

“The large army of the city’s unemployed saved the city’s bacon,” the Montreal Gazette contended, “and 6,000 of them — all that could be rounded up were turned loose with shovels to open the streets. It is estimated that the storm will cost the city $100,000 merely on [the] snow shovelling account.” (That’s close to $1.4-million in 2020 dollars.)

Capital-City Champs: The 1923 Stanley Cup winners, a year before they ended up stuck in the snow. Posed in the back row, left to right, are team president Ted Day, Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, King Clancy, manager Tommy Gorman, coach Petie Green. Front: Punch Broadbent, George Boucher, Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny, Harry Helman.

Ottawa’s hockey team had, originally, been scheduled to depart for Montreal on Wednesday’s 3.30 p.m. Canadian National express. Normally, that would have seen them into Montreal’s Windsor Station by 6.30, with plenty of time to spare before any puck dropped at the rink up at the corner of St. Urbain and Mount Royal. With the weather worsening, Ottawa manager Tommy Gorman rounded up his players to get out early, catching the noon train from Ottawa’s Union Station, across from the Chateau Laurier, where the Senate of Canada is now temporarily housed.

That earlier train should have delivered the hockey players to Montreal by 3.30 p.m. As it was, the CN express was late arriving from Pembroke, so didn’t depart Ottawa until 1.30. It didn’t get far — at Hurdman, just across the Ottawa River, the train and its cargo of hockey players were delayed waiting for a railway snowplow to lead the way east down the track.

Farther along the river, at Rockland, a frozen water-tank precipitated another stop. The journey continued, but not for long: just past Hawkesbury, with nearly 100 kilometres or so still to go, a plow from Montreal stalled on the westbound tracks, blocking both the Ottawa express it was leading and the progress of the eastbound trains.

Passengers from both trains joined railway crewmen to clear the way, but it was no use, the snow and the wind behind it were too much. “The snowdrifts blew back on the tracks as fast as they could be removed,” Ottawa papers recounted the next day. Conveniently for them, they had a man on the scene, a former Citizen sports editor, no less: Ottawa GM Tommy Gorman himself, who would somehow manage to file his crisis copy in time to make the Citizen’s Thursday front page.

It was 5 p.m. when the train was stopped. Senators who took up shovels were Cy Denneny, who’d end up leading the league in scoring that year, and his fellow forward Jack Darragh, along with defenceman Frank (a.k.a. King) Clancy — future Hall of Famers, all three — and Ottawa’s trainer, Cosey Dolan.

In vain. “The battle against the elements was hopeless from the start and after two hours work,” continued Gorman’s lusty telling, “a complete surrender to the storm king had to be admitted.”

It was bad news for all the crew and passengers. For the hockey players trying to get to the rink on time, there was the additional concern of not being able to get word to Montreal. It was impossible: the nearest telephone was 10 or 11 kilometres away, and many of the lines were down anyway.

Snowbound, the passengers and crew, hockey-playing and non, waited, and waited some more.

Along with the weather, the hockey players were enveloped by both humour and pathos. That’s from Gorman’s Citizen dispatch, too, though I kind of wish I’d thought of it.

The Senators shared their carriage with a bridal party from Ottawa. “The little bride stood the first part of the journey with smiles, but finally curled up and passed the night in one corner of the coach, with confetti and paper streamers scattered around the car.”

They also had the Honourable Arthur Cardin with them, the Liberal MP for Richelieu who was serving in Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. He was reported to be in a good mood throughout the evening’s ordeal.

Also aboard was a new mother travelling from Pembroke on the way to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital with her baby. This is pathos portion of the program, now — and the pay-off coming up right behind it, too. We don’t know the name of the mother, or of her child, just that the latter was on the bottle and, at a certain point, the former ran out of milk for her. Or him. The dining car couldn’t help — their dairy situation was no better.

Never fear: Conductor Dion of the CNR faithfully volunteered to venture out into the blizzard to see what he could find. The train crew, Gorman attests, were great (Roadmaster Munroe gets a shout-out, too, though no first name). Once more, Clancy and Denneny stepped up, insisting on joining the mission. Gorman’s account tells that remarkable tale while also leaving us wanting so much more:

… they tramped nearly a mile in snow up to their waists before they reached a farm house and got the resident out of his slumbers. He readily turned over his available supply, and in less than an hour the party were back at the train with a supply of milk that brought gladness to the heart of the distracted mother. Denneny fell down a well during his travels and had to be hauled out, and both he and Clancy were all in when they returned.

It was two-thirty in the morning by the time the track was cleared sufficiently for the Ottawa express to start out … back west, towards Ottawa. Three o’clock had struck by the time the rescued train made Hawkesbury, where it paused again.

Well Met: Cy Denneny, who led the NHL in scoring in 1923-24, despite having fallen down a well on a mercy mission to fetch milk for a baby in need.

As might be expected for the middle of a wintry night, the local restaurants were all closed. That didn’t keep foraging parties from setting out. “Canadian National Railway officials confiscated a big box of bread, intended for a local firm, and turned it over to the dining car staff,” Gorman wrote. The hockey players had successes of their own: “Frank Clancy landed back after their raid on the town with a can of soda crackers under his arm and [defenceman] Spiff Campbell succeeded in rounding up butter and eggs.”

By four a.m. the travellers were once again on their way east. They arrived in Montreal at 8.30. Fourteen hours after departing home, the Senators, Gorman tells us, “were hustled over to the Windsor Hotel and the players tumbled into their beds with instructions that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

Wednesday night’s crowd at Mount Royal Arena had been patient. When word began to pass that the Senators hadn’t reached the rink, the fans settled in for the wait. “It was a good humoured gathering,” Montreal’s Gazette reported, “the rooters in the east and west end sections making full use of every possible incident to create entertainment to pass away the time, while the band performed valiantly, one selection following one another [sic] in quick succession as the musicians did their bit to fill the gap.”

After an hour, some of the fans, a restless few, left the rink, though most stayed on. A line-up grew outside the box office as fans went looking for refunds.

At 10 o’clock, with no further word of where the Senators might be, Montreal coach Leo Dandurand stood up alongside presiding referee, Art Ross, to declare that the game would be postponed until Thursday night. Hold on to your ticket stubs, Dandurand mentioned in passing, they’ll be honoured then. The Gazette:

Spectators who did find themselves in a dilemma were those who threw away their stubs, and not a few were seen late in the evening frantically searching around the chairs for the lost coupons.

Thursday night, Ottawa was still shorthanded, dressing just nine players for the rescheduled game. George Boucher was back, but not Frank Nighbor. With Boucher and Lionel Hitchman taking care of defending goaltender Clint Benedict, Clancy shifted to centre.

The rink was, again, jammed to its 1924 rafters. “Little sympathy was shown the Senators by the crowd for the hardships they experience Wednesday,” the Gazette noted, “and when they took the ice last night they were greeted with good-natured boos.” All in all, the waylaid visitors performed as if they’d spent a night in a snowdrift after having fallen down a well: “Ottawa was never in the picture.”

Maybe, too, were they confident enough in their lead in the standings to allow themselves a night of letting up and coasting? The Gazette considered the possibility. “At any rate the Ottawas gave the impression of not being interested in the tussle. The forwards, barring King Clancy, lacked their customary aggressiveness; Hitchman played carelessly and even Benedict was off colour. Canadiens’ third goal was practically a gift from the Ottawa goalkeeper.”

Montreal captain Sprague Cleghorn scored that one, his second of the game, to increase a lead that Aurèle Joliat had given Canadiens. There were no more goals after the first period, and 3-0 for Montreal was how the game ended. The natural ice got stickier as time went on: “players from both teams found difficulty in keeping their feet and frequently overskated the puck.”

Two nights later, back home again, Ottawa beat the Canadiens 1-0 on a goal by Punch Broadbent. But while the Senators held on to their lead in the standings, they couldn’t turn their seasonal dominance into playoff success. In March, when the two teams ended up facing off for the NHL title in a home-and-home series, it was Montreal who came out on top, winning both games.

The Canadiens went on to meet the Calgary Tigers in the Stanley Cup Finals later on that month, sweeping both of the games they played towards the end of March. Winter wasn’t quite finished having its say that year: due to poor ice at the Mount Royal Arena, the Tigers and Canadiens caught the train to Ottawa, where they played the conclusive game of the 1924 season at the Auditorium.

Plow Now: A railway snowplow also not exactly related to the ordeal of the Ottawa Senators, but even unplaced, undated, illustrative all the same, no? (Image: Alexander Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-138699)

ken randall: a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed

Pepperman: Randall as a Toronto St. Patrick, probably during the 1922-23 NHL season. Though not so clear in the photograph, the patch high on his left breast is most likely commemorating the team’s 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

He was a Lindsay Midget and a Brantford Redman, a Port Hope Pro. In the old NHA he was a Montreal Wanderer before he was a Toronto Blueshirt. Mostly he played on the defence, though he also deployed as a winger and, back when the game was a seven-man affair, as rover. In Saskatoon he played for a team called Hoo-Hoos and another one called Real Estates. Out east, he was a Sydney Millionaire before he returned to central Canada in time to join the Toronto Hockey Club when the NHL started up in 1917. He stayed with the team when it became the Arenas and then the St. Patricks. Later, still in the NHL, but in Hamilton, he was a Tiger and, in New York, an American. In his later years, career winding down, Ken Randall was a Niagara Falls Cataract, a Providence Red, and an Ottawa Patricia.

Yesterday’s the day he was born, in Kingston, Ontario, in the year 1887, when December 14 was a Wednesday.

Toronto was where Ken Randall’s fame as a hockey player flourished, along with his infamy. He played in the city’s very first professional game, around this time of year in 1912, when the Blueshirts hosted the Montreal Canadiens, losing 9-5 in front of 4,000 fans at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The line-ups that night featured some of the greatest names the game has ever known, Georges Vézina, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Walker, Frank Nighbor, Didier Pitre.

Five years later, when the NHA expired and was all but instantly reborn as the NHL, Ken Randall was named captain of Toronto’s team that wound up, in the spring of 1918, winning the Stanley Cup.

He won a second Cup with the team in 1922, though he’d relinquished the captaincy by then, and the team had repurposed itself as St. Patricks. Though Randall remains unrecognized by the hockey’s Hall of Fame, he was without a doubt one of the most effective players of his era. He was also what they used to call, mostly in earnest, a hockey bad man, a vehemently violent player who carried his stick high and often swung it, much-suspended, and seemingly as heedless of the injuries he inflicted as he was of the damage he himself suffered on the ice.

In 1917, at the dawning of the NHL, he was living on McGee Street in Toronto, a half-hour’s walk due east along Queen Street from his place of business, Arena Gardens. You’ll find him, if you look, in the city directory, where you’ll see him identified for the job he did when he wasn’t on the ice: plumber.

There was no mention of that in the sport pages. Randall’s Actions This Winter Cause Surprise To His Friends is a headline from a 1916 story in an Ottawa newspaper reporting on an NHA suspension levied on him after he threatened referee Cooper Smeaton. Fiery is an adjective applied to him in 1918. In 1923, another Ottawa paper described him as not as dangerous as Cleghorn, alluding to the vicious Sprague, and not as a compliment.

Skating in 1925 for Hamilton against Canadiens in Montreal he inspired this account:

Randall was the target for abuse from spectators and also for a pipe thrown in his direction. He was also slapped on the head by a woman spectator during a scuffle with Morenz alongside the boards.

During the NHL’s inaugural week in December of 1917, Randall was down for having run amuck on several occasions. He scuffled and scored, too, on into January, during which he was also fined by President Frank Calder for using bad language to a referee. That levy was forgiven, apparently, when Randall apologized, though Calder hit him up again in early February, $5 for abusing referee Lou Marsh. A couple of weeks later, he was up $35 owing for bad behaviours, which is when Calder threatened to suspend if he didn’t pay up forthwith.

“I am sorry for Randall, who is a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed,” Calder said. “But our officials must be protected at any cost. I can see no other step to take. It will serve as a warning to other players also.”

There are various versions of how Randall resolved the situation at Arena Gardens on the Saturday night of February 23. Toronto was hosting Ottawa again, with Lou Marsh refereeing. Before the puck dropped, Randall presented the referee with a brown paper bag containing either (the Montreal Gazette’s version) $31 in bills + $4 worth of pennies or (Toronto’s Daily Star) an IOU for $32 and 300 coppers.

Either way, the bag ended up on the ice and either a curious Ottawa player (the Star) or one of the Toronto players (Gazette) batted it with his stick.

“It burst, scattering the pennies over the ice,” the Gazette’s man wrote. “A number of small boys were on the ice in an instant, and there was a scramble for the coins, as exciting as a game in itself.”

“The affair was received good naturedly all around,” the Star reported, “and everybody had a good laugh.” Toronto manager Charlie Querrie held Randall out of the game, it should be noted; Calder had wired to warn that if he did take part without having settled his debt, the game would be forfeited to Ottawa. Randall-free, Toronto skated to a 9-3 victory.

Shayne Randall in 2017, when he published a biography of his grandfather.

Shayne Randall wrote about that and more in a 2017 biography of his grandfather, The Pepper Kid: The Life and Times of Ken Randall, Hockey’s Bad Hombre. A Peterborough, Ontario, businessman and writer, the younger Randall, who’s in his 70s now, is the son of Fen Randall, the eldest of Ken’s nine children.

In a full and fascinating account of a largely forgotten career, he revealed his grandfather to be a prodigiously hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving player who happens not only to have been Toronto’s very first NHL captain, but also, it turns out, a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24thplayer to wear the franchise’s C. (Gilmour’s great-grandmother was Ken Randall’s sister.)

“He made me a hockey fan,” Shayne told me when I talked to him at the time of the book’s publication. “I was only five years old, but I recall listening to Foster Hewitt on the radio with him on a Saturday night, the winter he died — the winter of 1946-47.”

While he recognizes just how turbulent a player his grandfather was — “He seemed to be a banshee on the ice,” he said — he’s also quick to emphasize that Ken Randall could play. Take that first NHL season: “He played 21 games that year, he had 12 goals — playing defence. But he also had 96 penalty minutes. Which was a lot; only [Montreal’s] Joe Hall had more.”

What surprised him most about his grandfather’s hockey career? “I didn’t realize how versatile he was,” Shayne Randall told me. “He’d start out on defence with, say, Harry Cameron. Then Harry Mummery would come in and Randall would go up on the wing. So he was a 60-minute man — unless he was in the penalty box. And he was in there a lot.”

“I read accounts from Lou Marsh, Elmer Ferguson, old hockey writers, and Charlie Querrie, his general manager, and they all agreed that that he was the key guy for both those Stanley Cups [Toronto won in ’18 and ’22], because he was so versatile. In 1918, he was the rover in two of the games against Vancouver for the Cup. He had played it when he was younger and he was up against Cyclone Taylor. And he held him off. So that proved to me how good a player he was. He could face up against Cyclone Taylor, who’s supposed to be the fastest man ever on skates, and hold him back — and he did — the had to be quite a player.”

Talking about his grandfather’s hockey years, Shayne Randall didn’t shy from considering the cost he paid. “The family never said it, but I think near the end he was he was suffering from what we’d call CTE today. He was really beaten up.”

“There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

There’s no means, now, of calculating how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his 26-year hockey career, but the sombre conclusion that his grandson reached in his book is that the blows Toronto’s first NHL captain took to his head playing the game he loved “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

Ken Randall died in 1947. He was 58.

 

 

dear ottawa senators: wash your pants

How to solve a problem like the Ottawa Senators? A hundred years ago, as the NHL headed into its third season, a helpful fan of the city’s original Sens thought he’d share his blueprint by way of his local newspaper. The he is a guess, based on this is 1919 we’re talking about and, also, because men.

Some notes for the margins: the league was a four-team affair that year, with a 24-game schedule that faced-off late in December. Pete Green was Ottawa’s new coach for 1919-20, insofar as this was his first season steering in the team in the young league: in the team’s pre-NHL days, he’d been involved with seven Stanley Cup-winning teams as trainer and coach going back to 1903.

Jack Darragh, a winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, had been playing for Ottawa since 1910, but now, at 29, he was negotiating a new contract by talking about retiring. He signed just before the season got underway. Darragh, who played all but one game that season, at home and away, finished fifth in NHL scoring.

The Senators were in the market for another defenceman: by mid-December, Coach Green was looking to add a man on the line to aid captain Eddie Gerard and Sprague Cleghorn. He didn’t, in the end, electing to move a forward back to help out, Georges Boucher.

I can’t speak to the state of the roof at Dey’s Arena, which stood on what is today Laurier Avenue on the site of Confederation Park. I can report that in April of 1920, the Senators did win their first NHL Stanley Cup beneath it, defeating the PCHL’s Seattle Metropolitans in five games. Jack Darragh decided it in the last of those: his game-winning goal was one of three he scored in a 6-1 Senators’ romp. I don’t have good information on whether or not his pants had been recently laundered.

of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

a hockey babe ruth, they called him

There’s none of us now who was around to see Joe Simpson skate, so let’s listen to what his contemporaries had to say. Newsy Lalonde, circa 1923, called him the greatest hockey player alive. The great Duke Keats rated Simpson one of the best defencemen he ever saw, on a par with Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn. “He made dazzling, dodging rushes,” Jim Coleman hymned in 1973, “a technique of puck-carrying that earned him [the] nickname ‘Corkscrew Joe.’”

There’s more on Simpson — including discussions of his many nicknames; just what the corkscrew might have looked like; reference to my grandfather; and Wally Stanowski turning pirouettes at Maple Leaf Gardens — over here. Here, for now, we’ll go on to recall that Harold Edward Simpson happens to have been born on an 1893 Sunday of this date in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he ended up skating with his hometown Fisherman before war broke in 1914.

There’s more to know about his military service — that’s still to come — but the short version with hockey at the forefront goes like this: having enlisted with Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion in the summer of 1915, Simpson led the battalion’s hockey team to an Allan Cup championship in 1916 before the soldiers stowed their hockey sticks and shipped out for France. Simpson was wounded on the Somme in ’16 and then again later in the war — but, again, we’ll come back to that another time. Returning from France in 1919, he rejoined the Selkirk Fishermen. The five subsequent seasons he played with the Edmonton Eskimos of the WCHL included a trip, in 1923, to the Stanley Cup finals (Edmonton lost to the Ottawa Senators). They called him Bullet Joe and the Babe Ruth of hockey when he arrived in the NHL in 1926, joining the newfound New York Americans at the age of 33. He played five seasons in New York and, later, served as coach for another three. Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963, Joe Simpson died in 1973, at the age of 80.