on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.

curb appeal: the 1924 stanley cup by the side of the côte

Roadside Attraction: The Stanley Cup, circa 1930, was all grown up compared to the one that Sprague Cleghorn left by the side of the road six years earlier. The band that Léo Dandurand added to commemorate his ’24 champions is the bottom one. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM6, D1980-33-11-002)

After months of lay-off, the Stanley Cup reported back to work a week ago Sunday night. The routine wasn’t a whole lot different from last year, though the scene was Nashville this time instead of San Jose: up went the Cup, one more time, over Sidney Crosby’s happy head, as the Pittsburgh Penguins once more started off a summer’s-long celebration that will see members of the team show off hockey’s sacred silverware around the world while also taking time to fill it with cereal, champagne, and babies.

In September, the Cup goes to Montreal to meet with Louise St. Jacques. She’s the engraver whose solemn duty it is to hammer in new names next to older. As Ken Campbell noted recently in The Hockey News, some of those senior names will depart the Cup before next spring’s Cup presentation. In order to make room for future winners, as happens every 13 years, the topmost band of the five that encircle the base of the Cup will be removed to a display at the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a fresh blank.

It’s in this and other ways that the Cup has grown in physical stature since Lord Stanley donated the original bowl in 1892, shifting its shape through the years. The names of early winning teams were sometimes etched on the Cup, though sometimes they weren’t. The first NHL team to claim the Cup — Toronto, in 1918 — went unengraved at the time, as did the Ottawa Senators (champions in 1920, ’21, and ’23) and the Toronto St. Patricks (1922).

Léo Dandurand changed that. In 1924, his Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the second time in their brightening history. The following season, the coach and manager would add a globe to the team’s sweaters, reflecting their worldly hockey dominance. The Cup itself — one writer described it at that time as “a tureen resting on an ebony base” — Dandurand decided to annotate. As a result, to accommodate with the names of Canadiens’ players and members of management, the Cup gained a new band.

Global Express: A season after they’d won their Cup, wearing new sweaters to reflect their worldly excellence, Canadiens repeated as NHL champions before falling to the Victoria Cougars in the ’25 Stanley Cup finals. The squad included: Sylvio Mantha, Billy Boucher, Howie Morenz, Aurèle Joliat, Georges Vézina, Odie Cleghorn, Sprague Cleghorn, Fern Headley, Billy Coutu, Johnny Matz, and Léo Dandurand.

All of which winds us around to another feat with which Dandurand maintains a close association: ditching the Stanley Cup, if only briefly, by the side of a midtown Montreal street.

Eric Zweig was writing about this incident a little while ago in The New York Times — that’s what prompted all this, fore and aft. Stories involving indignities visited upon the various editions of the Cup over the years aren’t hard to come by, many involving drunken behaviour, others defecation. Zweig turned his focus on two of the best-known and most-repeated tales, staples both of hockey lore, in an effort to determine whether there might be any truth in them.

The first involves members of Ottawa’s Silver Seven, in 1905 (or maybe ’06?) punting the venerable Cup across (though possibly into) the capital’s Rideau Canal. Zweig’s conclusion, having weighed the available evidence: never happened.

The second Cup tale concerns Dandurand’s 1924 Canadiens. As Zweig details, the central source for this one is The Hockey Book, Bill Roche’s rich 1953 anthology of anecdotes, wherein Dandurand narrates the story himself. It’s a short and sweet and fairly straightforward account. The pertinent passage:

Georges Vézina, Sprague Cleghorn, Sylvio Mantha and I, got into a model T Ford to make the trip. The little lizzy stalled going up Côte St. Antoine Road in Westmount, and we all got out to push.

Cleghorn, who had been jealously carrying the hard-won Stanley Cup in his lap, deposited it on the curb at the roadside before he joined us in shoving the car up the hill. When we reached the top, we hopped back into the car and resumed our hockey chatter as we got going again.

Upon reaching my house, we all started in on a big bowl of punch which my wife had prepared. It wasn’t until she asked, “Well … where is this Stanley Cup you’ve been talking about?” that we realized that Cleghorn had left it on the side of the road.

Sprague and I drove hurriedly back to the spot almost an hour after we had pushed the car up the hill. There was the Cup, in all its shining majesty, still sitting on the curb of the busy street.

Zweig’s verdict on this one: probably true. Sprague Cleghorn himself is said to have vouched for its veracity. I’ll add a vote of confidence here, too, based on a further Dandurand account that adds further weight to the case, along with some finer — and occasionally divergent — detail.

•••

As is often the case in the canon of popular hockey lore, the original anecdote hasn’t quite kept its original shape through the years of repetition. Roche’s Hockey Book has the car stalling, and subsequent accounts (Stan Fischler’s 1970 book Strange But True Hockey Stories) stick to that. Elsewhere the version you’ll find is the one in Andrew Podnieks’ Lord Stanley’s Cup from 2004: it was a flat tire that waylaid Dandurand’s party, “and while they changed wheels they placed the Cup by the side of the road.” Other variations (see Brian McFarlane’s 2015 Golden Oldies) separate Cleghorn and Dandurand, with the former arriving chez latter sans Cup, whereupon the coach “ordered Sprague and his pals to go back and retrieve the trophy.”

Cup To The Curb: The 1924 anecdote is a familiar one in hockey folklore. Above, a Bill Reid illustration adorning Brian McFarlane’s Peter Puck and the Stolen Stanley Cup (1980).

We’ll get to the testimony back up Dandurand’s Hockey Book account — first, a pinch of background:

Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921, paying $11,000 with partners Joe Cattarinich and Louis Letourneau. Installed as managing director, Dandurand stepped in to guide the team from the bench that season after a dispute with his playing coach and team captain, Newsy Lalonde. Dandurand keep on with the coaching for another four seasons, none of which saw his Canadiens succeed as they did in the spring of 1924. That was the was the year they overcome Ottawa’s Senators to claim the NHL championship, Montreal then went on to beat the PCHA Vancouver Maroons for the right to play the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers for the Stanley Cup.

Montreal’s championship team featured Georges Vézina in goal and a defence anchored by Sprague Cleghorn and Sylvio Mantha. Up front: Joe Malone, Aurèle Joliat, Billy Boucher, and a promising rookie by the name of Howie Morenz. Calgary had Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner manning the defence, and Harry Oliver and Eddie Oatman at forward.

Montreal won the first game of the best-of-three series on home ice at the Mount Royal Arena in late March. Bad ice sent the teams to Ottawa’s Auditorium for the second game, where Canadiens prevailed again. That was on March 25, a Tuesday. They had to wait until the following Monday to lay hands on the actual Cup, when trustee William Foran made the presentation back in Montreal, at a Windsor Hotel banquet, April 1, organized by a committee of prominent Canadiens supporters.

Artist’s Impression: A La Patrie illustration highlighting distinguished guests — including, top, Dandurand and his Canadiens — at the Windsor Hotel banquet.

A crowd of 450 was on hand, with all the Canadiens ensconced at the head table, except for Vézina, who was back home in Chicoutimi. The goaltender did send along a humorous greeting, which was read aloud, along with congratulatory telegrams from Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy as well as, also, a concatenation of Canadiens’ fans in Grimsby, Ontario, where Montreal trained in the pre-season in those years.

There were toasts: to King George V, to the Canadiens, and to the NHL, as well as to “visitors” and the press.

Gifts were given, too: the team’s 11 players as well as trainer Ed Dufour received engraved gold watches. Dandurand got luggage: what the Montreal Gazette described as “a handsome travelling bag.”

When the time came for Dandurand to address the gathering, he started in French. In English, he said, “I am proud of the bulldog courage and tenacity which our English brothers revere so much and which our players exhibited so frequently throughout the season, no matter what the odds were against them. No matter what was said or done, it was understood that our players should go through the games like good, game sportsmen.”

College Fête: On a Thursday night in April of 1924, Canadiens and their newly own Stanley were head-table guests at a University of Montreal gala at the Monument National.

Thursday there was a further tribute, at a gala University of Montreal event at the Monument National theatre on Saint Laurent Boulevard. On a night on which U of M undergraduates were celebrating a season of sporting successes by some of their own accomplished fellows, the Canadiens once again occupied the head table. They got a cheer from the crowd of 1,500, of course, and more gifts: fountain pens and engraved gold pencils, by one account. Among the student athletes honoured were Leo “Kid” Roy, newly crowned Canadian featherweight boxing champion, and Germain McAvoy, who’d recently matched the national indoor record for dashing 60 yards.

After supper, the program included a display of fencing; three wrestling matches; and no fewer than eight bouts between boxers. There were musical performances, too, by the university orchestra and a jazz sextet.

And a repeat of the Cup presentation: the honorary president of the U of M’s Athletic Association, Dr. Edouard Montpetit, handed it to the Hon. Athanase David, Quebec’s provincial secretary who also served as Canadiens president. Amid (the Gazette) “mighty applause and cheering of the students,” David in turn passed it on to Dandurand.

The latter mentions this event in his 1953 Hockey Book account. “It is the only time in history,” he writes there, “that a professional hockey club has been so honoured by a major seat of learning.” He then proceeds to describe the fateful forgetting of the Cup.

Here’s where we can expand what we know of the waylaid Cup by just a bit. A year before the Hockey Book appeared, Dandurand told the story elsewhere in print. Because Rosaire Barratte’s biography, Léo Dandurand: Sportsman (1952), seems only ever to have been published in French, this somewhat more detailed version isn’t one that’s been widely disseminated. It is broadly similar, though it does include a few key variations.

Dandurand relates (again) that, following the U of M soirée, he and his wife, Emélia, were hosting a late-evening buffet for Canadiens players and management at their house, which, we learn, was in the west-end Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. A little more digging turns up the address: 3801 Avenue Northcliffe.

Dandurand was among the last to leave the Monument National, Barrette writes (in French; the translation is mine, Google-aided), “for he had to take home the Stanley Cup.”

So our happy companion jumped into Jos Cardinal’s car, an ancient model-T Ford with three seats, into which Sprague Cleghorn and Georges Vézina also climbed. Everything went well until the Côte-Saint-Antoine, where the old wreck [“bazou”] refused to climb the slope. Jos Cardinal begged his companions to get out of the car.

Cardinal was a Montreal theatre impresario, and a friend (we’ll assume) of Dandurand’s. No mention here of Sylvio Mantha — and no room for him in the car, either. Vézina could presumably returned from Chicoutimi for this second Cup event, and indeed the Gazette account of the U of M event speaks of the players “attending in body.” Although — hmm — other French-language dispatches make specific mention of Vézina’s absence from the banquet. So maybe Mantha was aboard?

But back to Jos Cardinal. “My car can go up backwards,” Barrette has him telling his passengers. “Meet me at the top.” That’s not how it went in The Hockey Book: all got out to push there, “shoving the car up the hill.”

The Barrette narrative continues:

Léo, Sprague and Georges did as they were asked. On the pavement, Cleghorn put down the Stanley Cup at the foot of a streetlamp, and the three of them lit cigarettes. When Cardinal called them, after having accomplished his tour de force, our friends hurried up and took their places in the vehicle. But they forgot the famous trophy on the Côte-Saint-Antoine.

This is not a neighbourhood I know myself. Spying in with Google’s help doesn’t really clarify anything. This weekend, I happened to be visiting Montreal with my son Zac, so on a Sunday morning that had already started to swelter, we drove along Sherbrooke Ouest, as the Stanley Cup might have on a spring night 93 years ago. I was telling Zac the story as we turned onto Avenue Argyle, which you have to do to get to Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, taking the first left by the Westmount Hôtel de Ville.

Past Metcalfe, past Mount Stephen. The road starts to rise. The steepest stretch gets going just past Strathcona. It doesn’t last long: the serious part of the hill tops out at Arlington. This is guesswork, but I’m willing to take a stand here and now and declare that if Dandurand and Cleghorn did forsake the Cup one night in April of 1924, it was here.

I pulled over and parked. The leafy green expanse of King George Park is on the right and then there’s a stone wall that starts. A few paces up the hill and the wall opens to the house at 331. There’s a streetlamp there. Does it date back (almost) a century? I don’t know. It looks … elderly. As I told Zac, given what’s documented, I’m nominating it as the one whereby Jos Cardinal’s Model-T faltered and everybody bailed out and Sprague Cleghorn laid down the Stanley Cup. I took a bunch of photographs while Zac, to be funny, photographed me.

Site Visit: The hill on the Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, as it looks today. On the right is the streetlamp where (best guess) Sprague Cleghorn forgot the Stanley Cup in 1924.

Northcliffe isn’t far, a four-minute drive on a modern-day Sunday in June. I don’t know if the modest two-story semi-detached house at 3801 is the same one that the Dandurands occupied before they moved in 1940 to a mansion in Beaconsfield — it could be a later replacement.

Back to 1924, and back to Barrette: Madame Dandurand had prepared a punch. With her husband and his companions arriving from their gala supper, the hostess wanted (naturally enough) to be serving her brew from the Stanley Cup.

Which, of course, wasn’t there. Dandurand froze.

O wonder! O calamity! The magnate believed that his heart was caught between a hammer and an anvil. He came out of the house like a whirlwind and hailed a taxi that broke all speed records. Léo devoted himself to all the divinities and made all promises imaginable to good Saint Anthony.

Can the celestial joys be compared to that which the terrified manager experienced when he found the treasure at the same place or Sprague Cleghorn had left it?

•••

“Léo Dandurand wasn’t above stretching the truth,” Eric Zweig wrote in the Times, citing the myth he crafted concerning the score of children Georges Vézina was supposed to have fathered. Still, Zweig says, his 1924 Stanley Cup mostly holds up. Rosaire Barratte’s account only adds ballast to that conclusion.

It doesn’t, of course, answer all the questions it raises. There was a taxi cruising Northcliffe late on a Thursday night?

A further clockly note might be in order here, too. In The Hockey Book, Dandurand writes that the Cup was stranded for “almost an hour.” With the evening’s slate of gala events starting at 8 p.m., the proceedings can’t have wrapped much before midnight, can they? (I’m assuming that the team and its trophy stayed until the end.) The journey to and through Westmount would have taken a little time, followed by the delay before the rescue. If that’s the case, is it fair to suppose that events in question unfolded in/around/after 1 a.m.? A nocturnal setting doesn’t forgive the forgetfulness; the context of the whole episode taking place on a slumbering residential street does, however, slightly undercut the end of Dandurand’s English account in which he refers to retrieving the Cup from “the curb of the busy street.”

Whatever the hour, there’s no doubting Dandurand’s relief. With the Cup safe, he took home a bright anecdote. Many years later, he wondered how, if things had turned out differently, how he would have explained the disappearance of “a trophy that has no price and which represents the most important emblem of the universe!” The evening’s events remained, he told Barrette, a “hallucinatory adventure.”

“There was surely,” he firmly felt, “a little Infant Jesus of Prague who protected me, as always!

prologue to a riot

Sticks swung in Boston: that was where it all started, near the end of the NHL’s regular season, when Maurice Richard was the first to strike — unless it was Hal Laycoe. When it comes to the riotous events in Montreal in 1955, it’s Thursday, March 17, fest of St. Patrick, that mostly resonates.

But it was the previous Sunday, March 13, where the violence that convulsed Montreal later in the week got started, 500 hundred kilometres to the south, in Boston’s cavernous Garden.

It was the last week of the NHL regular season. Montreal, battling the Detroit Red Wings for first place, had beaten Boston 2-1 at home on Saturday night. Sunday’s encounter had the Bruins leading 4-1 halfway through the third period when Bruins’ defenceman Warren Godfrey took a holding penalty. On another night Montreal coach Dick Irvin’s desperate gambit might have made more news: with six-and-a-half minutes to go, he pulled goaltender Jacques Plante to give his team a two-man advantage. That’s when the first moments of the Richard Riot began to play out.

The most comprehensive account of the whole affair is the one that Sidney Katz would publish in Maclean’s in September of 1955.

Here’s how he narrated what happened on Boston ice between Richard and Laycoe as the Montreal’s powerplay revved up:

Richard was skating across the Boston blue line past Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe when the latter put his stick up high and caught Richard on the left side of the head. It made a nasty gash which later required five stitches. Frank Udvari, the referee signaled a penalty to Laycoe for high-sticking but allowed the game to go on because Canadiens had the puck.

Richard skated behind the Boston net and had returned to the blue line when the whistle blew. He rubbed his head, then suddenly skated over to Laycoe who was a short distance away. Lifting his stick high over his head with both hands Richard pounded Laycoe over the face and shoulders with all his strength. Laycoe dropped his gloves and stick and motioned to Richard to come and fight with his fists.

An official, linesman Cliff Thompson, grabbed Richard and took his stick away from him. Richard broke away, picked up a loose stick on the ice and again slashed away at Laycoe, this time breaking the stick on him. Again Thompson got hold of Richard, but again Richard escaped and with another stick slashed at the man who had injured him. Thompson subdued Richard for the third time by forcing him down to the ice. With the help of a team mate, Richard regained his feet and sprang at Thompson, bruising his face and blackening his eye. Thompson finally got Richard under control and sent him to the first-aid room for medical attention.

Richard was penalized for the remainder of the game and fined $100. Laycoe, who suffered body bruises and face wounds, was penalized five minutes for high-sticking and was given a further ten-minute penalty for tossing a blood-stained towel at referee Udvari as he entered the penalty box.

Richard’s emotional and physical resistance were at a low ebb on the night of the Boston game. It was near the end of a long exhausting schedule. The Canadiens had played Boston only the previous night in Montreal. Richard had been hurled against a net and had injured his back. The back was so painful he hadn’t been able to sleep on the train trip to Boston in spite of the application of ice packs. On the morning of the game he confided to a reporter, “My back still hurts like the dickens. I feel beat.” He never considered sitting out the Boston game. There was too much at stake. With three scheduled games left, the Canadiens chances of finishing first in the league were bright. Furthermore, Richard was narrowly leading the league for individual high scoring. If he won, he would receive a cup, $1,000 from the league and another $1,000 from his club. He was still brooding over an incident that had threatened his winning the top-scoring award. In Toronto the previous Thursday, he had been in a perfect position to score when he was hooked by Hugh Bolton of the Maple Leafs. Bolton was penalized but it still meant that Richard was deprived of a goal he desperately wanted.

We have Richard’s own account, or at least a version thereof. In 1971, guided if not ghosted by Stan Fischler, he published an eight-chapter memoir of his career that was appended to Fischler’s The Flying Frenchmen: Hockey’s Greatest Dynasty.

Chapter Four is “The Riot.” Richard notes that Laycoe, one of hockey’s few bespectacled players, had once been a teammate of his with Canadiens. He says he wasn’t particularly rough or dirty, but nor was he entirely pacific.

In Richard’s version, he recalls hitting Laycoe, who went down. “As he fell he hit me in the eye with his stick, opening up a bleeding wound over my eye.”

The parties involved would subsequently be summoned for a hearing with NHL president Clarence Campbell at NHL HQ in Montreal — we’ll get to that tomorrow. For the moment we’ll skip ahead to his findings, which he released in a statement that ran to 1,200 words.

Richard, Campbell wrote, skated by and Laycoe high-sticked him on the side of the head.

That doesn’t quite rhyme with what Laycoe told Tom Fitzgerald of The Daily Boston Globe the day after the incident. “Richard and I were both going for the puck,” he said then. “I was hooking the puck away from him, and he brought his stick up over his shoulder hitting me over the bridge of the nose. I was stung and I acted automatically. I admit I brought my stick up then.” Continue reading

make way for the leafs

standwitness

Toronto’s upstart Maple Leafs head into tonight’s game with the Washington Capitals with a five-game winning streak in hand, but the real news may be the optimism and glad-heartedness attending the team in the wake of Sunday’s outdoor overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings feels like something of a new commodity in the city. The surging Leafs have their fans talking about making the playoffs for the first time in four years, even as they bask in the lustre of the bright youth of Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and the incandescent Auston Matthews.

Toronto has, in fact, seen the hope before. It was this very time of the year in 1992, for instance, when GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the ten-player trade that brought in Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.

A new day dawns for the team that forgot how to win

was the headline in Toronto’s Financial Post on this day 25 years ago, while in The Windsor Star, columnist Lloyd McLachlan wrote about the notion of Gilmour as, “if not the second coming of Dave Keon, at least a playmaking Moses possibly capable of helping inspire a miracle escape from the wilderness.”

Twenty years further back, Stan Fischler’s 1975 book Make Way For The Leafs outlined an end for another era of Toronto hockey woe. Once, he wrote in opening his thesis, the Leafs had been Canada’s own New York Yankees: “the supreme professional sports organization.” By the end of the page, he’d outlined the glories composed by Conn Smythe, emphasized the success of his teams, the colour of its characters, the team’s toughness, his material proof of which cited Bingo Kampman,

a defenceman of such herculean strength he would win bets that he could lift heavy dinner tables just by placing a side of the table top between his teeth and then hoisting the table using sheer mouth power.

Fischler’s quick sketch of Toronto’s downfall centred mostly on GM Punch Imlach. His account of the team’s ongoing resurrection got going in chapter two with Imlach’s sharp young successor, Jim Gregory, along with the savvy coach he hired in Red Kelly, and a cadre of “youthful skaters” like Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe, and Lanny McDonald.

Fischler pegged the start of the Leafs’ “rebirth” to the opening of the NHL’s 1973-74 season — just as, it so happens, team president Harold Ballard was getting out of prison after serving a sentence for theft and fraud.

Ballard isn’t everyone’s idea of a hero, of course. Fischler called him “the most intriguing and one of the most engaging personalities in Toronto sports,” framing him as “a hard man in what he feels is a hard world.” In ’73, Fischler said, Ballard believed the Leafs were three years away from establishing a Stanley Cup-winning team.

They did get to the semi-finals in 1978, losing there to the eventual champions from Montreal. That was as good as it got, though: what the Leafs had to look forward to beyond that were the grim ’80s. Was the team’s wilderness ever so deep and dark as it was in that decade in which they traded away McDonald and Sittler, and squandered one draft pick after another?

The legacy of those years under the Ballard regime lingered a long time. It’s what Cam Cole was alluding to in ’92 as Doug Gilmour arrived from Calgary, and it’s something that Leaf-loving hearts trust is history of a kind that doesn’t repeat itself.

Players turn to mush in Loserville North

Cole’s Edmonton Journal column that January morning was headlined, and it carried on in a key that even, now, still, in these heady times of Marners and Matthewses, can send a shudder through a city:

For reasons not clearly understood to this day, good players turn to mush instantly upon contact with Toronto. It may be the acid rain. Veteran star, proven role player, promising draft pick — you name it, the Leafs can ruin it.

one of hockey’s great unflappables  

dry 73Lanky law student was an epithet applied to Ken Dryden in 1971, the year he burst into the NHL by way of the Montreal net, helping the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup. Phil Esposito was one prolific shooter he stymied that spring and he’s the one generally credited as the first to call the 6’4” Dryden an even-toed ungulate. Stan Fischler told the tale in Boys’ Life in 1972:

Somehow, Dryden managed to blunt Esposito’s best shots with his 42-inch arms or block them with his enormous chest. At one point the enraged Esposito crashed his stick against the protective glass, glared at Dryden and shouted: “You thieving, four-story giraffe!”

Born on this day in 1947, Dryden turns 69 today. That seems like reason enough to excerpt an interview he gave in 1976 to an unnamed writer for Maple Leaf Magazine, Toronto’ game-day program:

Q: Is there anything about hockey that is not so much fun?
A: Practices are not much fun. The least fun of all is being inactive. There is very little satisfaction in being a non-participant; those games I can do without. I watched a couple of games from the press box this year and I couldn’t stand it. Jeez, I felt like an idiot.

Q: Is that a comment about sportswriters, with their hot dogs and beer?
A: What I’m saying is that I felt uncomfortable, partly because I don’t enjoy sitting out hockey games and partly because the press box has got to be the worst place in the world to watch a hockey game. It is so far removed from the action. Very few customers, I think, would pay to sit there. You can’t blame the club owners for sticking the press way up at the top, back out of the way. You wouldn’t want all the press guys taking the expensive seats. But I have never yet seen an exciting game from the press box. You’re so far away that the game is slowed down to nothing. Cournoyer looks like a dump truck idling down the ice.

Q: You seem to be the original Cool Hand Luke, one of hockey’s great unflappables. Don’t you get just a little nervous down there, or are you good at hiding it?
A: Cool Hand Luke. You gotta be kidding me. He ate 50 hard-boiled eggs. Are you trying to say I’m one of hockey’s great egg-eaters? Or do you mean I play hockey with egg on my face?

Q: No, no. I was just trying to find out if you get nervous.
A: I rarely get nervous anymore. Very infrequently. Sometimes a bit nervous during the day of an important game. Most of the time I feel like I’m prepared, ready to play, without the physical elements such as butterflies or throwing up that are a part of being nervous. The most nervous I’ve ever been in my whole life was a few minutes before the end of Game Seven in Moscow in 1972. Paul Henderson had just scored the goal that had put us ahead of the Russians 4-3. I was watching from the stands. I already knew I had the starting assignment for Game Eight. The seconds ticked away. I realized that if we could hold on, Game Eight would be the decider. Were my knees jelly? Were my legs shaking? You bet they were. I had no idea what it was like, even though I’d already played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. From that point on and for the next two days I began to feel worse. My stomach started to churn. My legs got weaker by the hour. It stayed with me right up until game time.

(Maclean’s cover painting by Peter Swan)

boom-boom and minor boom

b'boom

Handmedown Hab: Danny Geoffrion was three years old in March of 1961; his father, Bernie, had just turned 30. Boom-Boom, as Geoffrion père was better known, was in the midst of his best scoring season, one in which he’d score 50 goals for the Canadiens and lead the NHL with 95 points. Sporting his dad’s number 5 here, Danny would, in time, earn a Habs’ sweater of his own: after GM Sam Pollock drafted him in 1978, he made the team as a 20-year-old right winger the following season, wearing number 20 and an uninspired nickname: Little Boomer. The defending Stanley Cup champions got a new coach that year, too: Bernie Geoffrion.

It didn’t go so well, familywise. In December, though the team was at the top of the Norris Division, Boom-Boom resigned as coach, handing the reins to an assistant, Claude Ruel. It was a few months before Geoffrion talked publicly about the pressure of coaching his son. Frank Brown of the Associated Press was one of the writers who told the story:

“I should have been like the other coaches and give a chance to my son,” said Bernie Geoffrion, “but I was afraid I’d be criticized for putting him in too much.”

So he barely put him in at all. As time passed, things worsened.

“For three weeks, we didn’t talk — not a word. Can you imagine that?” said Bernie Geoffrion. In the Montreal Forum, on the buses, in the airports, in the hotels, they would walk past each other as strangers. “It was unbelievable.”

It got to be too much. One day, Bernie Geoffrion walked into his home and sat with his wife of 29 years, Marlene. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m 50 years old. I don’t need the money. I want my kid back.’”

The two reconciled after Bernie quit. “I’ve got my son back,” the ex-coach said, “and that’s all that matters.” Danny still didn’t play much, however. He went without a goal during his Hab tenure: in 34 games before he left the team at the end of the unhappy season, Boom Minor recorded six assists and 19 minutes in penalties. The following season, playing for Winnipeg, he scored a respectable 20 goals and 46 points. But that was his last turn in the NHL.

Bernie Geoffrion does tell a bit of a different tale in Boom-Boom (1997), the autobiography he published with Stan Fischler’s help. It was Ruel and maybe vice-president Toe Blake — anyway, “the organization” — who didn’t want Danny to play. Bernie would try to put him into the line-up and he’d be told no. “Nobody,” he writes, “could give me a good explanation of why I couldn’t play Danny. I could never find the answer.”

He’d dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup as coach of the Canadiens: the dream, he writes, turned into a nightmare. His Marlene is the one, in this telling, who sees his unhappiness and tells him to quit. He did it, Ruel took over, Montreal ended up losing in the playoffs to lowly Minnesota. Finis.

Back to the photo: that’s Marlene up there on the wall, below the Stanley Cup, off to the right of the big smiling Boom-Boom portrait. She was a very good figure skater when she married Boom-Boom; she was 19 and he was 21. Her father is up there, too, on the end: the late Howie Morenz, Streak of Stratford. Marlene didn’t remember him: she was just two when the legendary Montreal star died in 1937 after a career-ending leg injury complicated (as the tale’s told, at least) by a heart broken by the news that he’d never play another game for his beloved Canadiens.

messrs. belvedere

belvedere handball pkstrk

A hidden gem! A setting said to be distinctive for guests on business and leisure alike! Unparalleled location in the heart of Manhattan! Rates starting at around US$167 per night!

That’s the pitch browsers online can find looking for a booking at New York’s Belvedere Hotel, which I wasn’t, recently. I can’t say one way or the other whether it’s the place for you; what I can report, confidently, is that if you do go, your hopes of emulating these early New York Rangers, above, and getting in a game of handball on the roof is zero.

There is a gym at the Belvedere: indeed, the hotel’s website says it’s “proud” to have one, “encouraging health-conscious guests to maintain their active lifestyle while traveling and dining out.”

I guess handball’s heyday has come and mostly gone, but I had a moment’s reverie in which you could still catch a game on high at the Belvedere.

The woman I talked to there when I phoned seemed worried by my rooftop questions. “No,” she told me, “there’s no tennis court.” Handball. “Nope.” When did it close? Did she know? Did someone know? What’s up there now? Anybody I can talk to who can talk about the history of the hotel? I was panicking her, though. “Honestly,” she said, “nobody that’s here has ever seen anything like that.”

•••

That’s Ching Johnson here, of course, on the left, with Bill Cook leaping high over his fallen brother, Bun. All three had been with the Rangers since their inaugural season, 1926-27. It was 1929 now, springtime, and the team was girding to defend the Stanley Cup title it had won the previous year over the Maroons of Montreal. Bun Cook was 25, his brother (the Ranger captain) and Johnson older, 32 and 30, respectively. The team couldn’t quite pull off the defense, falling in that year’s two-game final to the Boston Bruins.

The Belvedere, at 319 West 48th Street, was new in the late 1920s. “The Outstanding Success of the City,” bragged a newspaper ad from those years, before getting down to details: 450 baths complemented the Belvedere’s 450 rooms, all of which were outside rooms, featuring two large windows. The Moderately Priced Restaurant served a Peerless Cuisine. You could get a large double room for US$6 a day; furnished suites with serving pantries ran anywhere from US$35 to US$150.

Times Square wasn’t far and, more to the point, Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden was just a block north up 8th Avenue. Handball was just the start of it — over the years, many hockey players would call the Belvedere home. Following, a few notes on that and other Belvedere/hockey associations.

•••

In early April of 1928, just before the Rangers went into Stanley-Cup battle with the Montreal Maroons, the Belvedere and its inimitable menu played host to a hockey awards dinner. At this time, the NHL proper awarded three individual trophies, the Hart (for league MVP), the Vézina (goaltender allowing the fewest goals), and Lady Byng (high skill and gentlemanly conduct), but these weren’t those.

First among honourees on this night were handballing defenceman Ching Johnson, who took the Paramount Theatre Trophy as MVP of the New York teams, Rangers and Americans. The Broadway director and producer (and native-born Newfoundlander) John Murray Anderson sponsored that one, with the New York Hockey Writers Association taking care of the voting. Out of 26 ballots cast, Johnson’s name was on 12, while the two centreman, the Rangers’ Frank Boucher and the Amerks’ Normie Himes, appeared on seven each.

Boucher was the highest scoring New Yorker that year, finishing third in the NHL chart behind Hart-winner Howie Morenz and his Canadiens teammate, Aurele Joliat, and that was good enough to win him the Belvedere Hotel Trophy. (His Cook wingers, Bun and Bill, were runners-up.) But while Boucher would that same year win the first of his seven Lady Byng Trophies (in 1935, they actually gave him trophy, ordered a new one), on this night Boucher had to concede the Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy to Harold Darragh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton seems to have been responsible for deciding this one, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report calls his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Darragh, a winger, was sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.

Bandleader and hockey fan Paul Whiteman presided over the proceedings — or as the Daily Eagle called him, “corpulent ‘Oom’ Paulie Whitehead,” who made Ching Johnson look like a mere “mite.”

•••

In the late 1930s, the Belvedere played host to an annual dinner given by the NHL for the aforementioned New York Hockey Writers Association. At the 1938 edition, Rangers GM Lester Patrick unveiled his proposal for an all-new playoff format. Harold Parrott wrote it up for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In fact, the Silver Fox of the ice rinks was practically lopsided after expounding his playoff theories to hockey writers last night with the aid of calculus, logarithms, a financial expert he brought along for the purpose — and a lot of patient good humor.

Ahead of the season, Montreal’s troubled Maroons talked of migrating to St. Louis, or maybe Cleveland, but the league turned them down, so they’d suspended operations, leaving seven teams. Patrick wanted the NHL to collapse the remaining teams into one division (previously they’d been divided into American and Canadian halves) with the team that finished on top declared league champion. All seven teams would them compete for the Stanley Cup, with the first-place finisher leaping past the first round with a bye while — importantly — not missing out on its share of ticket profits. Revenue was an important feature of the plan, with teams’ percentages based on (as far as I can discern) a formula accounting both for regular-season and how far they advanced in the playoffs. “The Ranger boss,” Parrott wrote, “figures this will make the teams hustle until the season’s last whistle.”

Interesting that Patrick was sharing with the writers before he took it to the NHL and the teams involved. “Manager Patrick,” noted The New York Times in its report, “is hopeful that his plan will be accepted, although at first blush it seems a most radical and fantastic one, he himself declared.” If the NHL did put this Patrick plan to a vote, it failed to pass. The league did end up rejigging divisions that year, decanting two into one, but when the playoffs came around in the spring of 1939, only the top six teams were in. Last-place Chicago had to watch as Boston went on to beat Toronto in the finals.

•••

The Belvedere is where Stan Fischler got his start to his career in hockey journalism, books, broadcasting and general, all-around mavening. He writes about this in New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players (2015). As a Brooklyn College student in the early 1950s he not only joined a Rangers fan club organized by team publicist Herb Goren but launched a club newspaper with a pair of willing friends. “This gave us entrée to interview players,” he recalls, the first being Ed Kullman, “cross-examined in his suite at the Belvedere Hotel.”

•••

Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times called on Fischler’s formidable Ranger memory when he wrote Don Raleigh’s obituary in 2012. “Bones Raleigh was the quintessential antihero,” Fischler said of the former centreman, Kenora-born, who captained the Rangers and scored back-to-back overtime winners in the team’s losing struggle with Detroit in the 1950 Stanley Cup finals. “He was an intellectual; he would write poetry on the Staten Island Ferry. He would get the puck behind his net and just wend his way up ice on spectacular rushes. Problem was, Bones being so skinny, by the time he got inside the enemy zone, he was usually body checked. But we didn’t mind because he was our guy.”

For much of his ten-year NHL career, he was one of many Rangers to make a hockey-season home at the Belvedere. Klein talked to teammates Harry Howell and Pentti Lund, among others. They both remembered him calling in teammates to his suite for pre-game strategy sessions. He was a book-reader and a bon vivant, loved life in New York, enjoyed the sense of humour:

“Old Bones Raleigh, he used to be our cook in the hotel,” Howell said. “He used to buy the groceries, and we’d pay him. One night, he gave a huge can of peaches to the players, and we thought, Boy, this is really something. So Bones, before we ate the peaches, said, ‘Now you guys realize you each have to give me 12 cents per peach.’ We all knew what he was like and just laughed.”

•••

I’m assuming that Raleigh was on hand at the Belvedere on the last night of 1952 as the Rangers, with wives and girlfriends, heralded the new year. Frank Boucher was there, the Rangers’ GM now, and so was Bill Cook, his coach, who’d almost died twice in the year gone by thanks to irate bulls and exploding tractors. The Leafs and Rangers had played to a 3-3 tie that night but while Toronto’s hockey players had packed up and travelled on to Boston after the game, several of her hockey writers had stayed on to party at the Belvedere. The Globe and Mail’s Gord Walker was one of them, which is how we know that Gladys Gooding was at the piano when the time came to sing Auld Lang Syne, when Rangers captain Allan Stanley wore a plastic fireman’s hat to welcome the midnight. “There was quite a noise for a while,” Walker wrote. “It died down shortly because he wives kissed their husbands, and the girl friends kissed their escorts and the Toronto hockey writers shook hands with each other.”