herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

Tuesday this week marked a birthday for Herb Gardiner, born in Winnipeg in 1891, whose stardom on the ice in Calgary and Montreal you may not have heard about. (He died in 1972, aged 80.) If you look Gardiner up at the Hockey Hall of Fame, whereinto he was inducted in 1958, you’ll see that his adjectives include stellar and two-way and consistent, and that one of his nouns is rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, along with the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is wrong, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract. He took the number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, and played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantrieshe exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and Montreal goaltender George Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy named for his coach’s father. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to comply, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first. As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September. The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Attestee: Herb Gardiner signs up to serve, c. 1915.

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.”