cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

my first hockey game: stan fischler

No-one has talked and written more hockey in the past 50 years than Stan Fischler. Today in Puckstruck’s occasional series, the man they call “The Hockey Maven” recalls the first NHL game he saw in person.

Eighty-five now, Fischler got his start on the page in the mid-1950s with The Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Journal-American. Nowadays he’s on air for MSG’s broadcasts of games involving New York Rangers and Islanders and New Jersey’s Devils. Born in Brooklyn, he’s an authority on New York’s subways and American-Jewish humour as well as all things puckish. He’s bylined stories over the years for The New York Times and The Toronto Star, Sports Illustrated, and Hockey Digest. He’s a columnist for The Hockey News, and has been publishing his own weekly Fischler Report for more than 20 years.

Stan Fischler

Fischler has been publishing books since 1967, and his bibliography, which runs to more than 100 titles, includes biographies of Gordie Howe and Stan Mikita, memoirs by Brad Park and Maurice Richard, along with team and oral histories, and …. there’s not much in the game that hasn’t caught Fischler’s attention. Among the best, in my books: Those Were The Days: The Lore of Hockey by The Legends of the Game, his 1976 compendium of interviews with greats of the game going back to Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde; and Metro Ice: A Century of Hockey in Greater New York (1999).

 In 2007, Fischler won the Lester Patrick Trophy, which recognizes significant contributors to the cause of hockey in the United States, adding his name to an all-star roll that features the likes of Jack Adams, Eddie Shore, Scotty Bowman, and Art Ross.

 His first NHL game? Here’s his recent recollection of how that happened in 1942, followed by some further historical fleshing-out of the night in question.

I saw my first hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 1939. It was an “amateur” doubleheader: Met League game at 1:30 Sunday, followed by a Rovers Eastern League game at 3:30 p.m.

I was seven years old at the time and not allowed to go to Rangers or Americans games because they did not start until 8:30 p.m., and I had to get up early to go to P.S. 54 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in those days.

Of course, I yearned to see an NHL game and finally got my wish in November of 1942. World War II was on in its intensity and every NHL team had lost players to the armed forces, including the Rangers. Having begged my father to take me and a friend named Jerry, he finally agreed.

However, the rain was coming down in torrents that afternoon and Dad hesitated because of that. Finally he agreed and we took the subway to the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. Dad bought the cheapest seats — side balcony — and it was Rangers vs. Chicago Blackhawks.

Problem was the side balcony seats — except for first two rows — had obstructed views and we couldn’t see anything that happened along the side boards right below us. Nevertheless, we were thrilled beyond belief. Chicago still had the Bentley Brothers, Max and Doug, while the Blueshirts were reduced to lesser stars.

I was so dazzled by the mere viewing of my first major league game that I was more observer than fan. Besides, I was a Maple Leaf fan and could no summon any rooting interest.

As it happened, I continued going to every Sunday afternoon game and did not see another NHL game until the 1945-46 season when my Dad took me to see Toronto vs. Rangers. New York won by a goal and while I was very disappointed, I enjoyed seeing my Leafs in person.

A year later I started going to Leaf games at MSG on a regular basis and became a season ticket holder for the 1947-48 season.

Stan Fischler’s first obstructed-view experience of NHL hockey came on a Tuesday night, November 10, 1942, along with 8,558 other fans at Madison Square Garden. It was the Rangers’ fifth game of the season, the second they’d played on home ice. Neither New York nor Chicago would fare well that season — both teams missed the playoffs — but on the night, Rangers prevailed, 5-3, in overtime.

 One of the stories for the Rangers that nascent season was in goal. Sugar Jim Henry was gone to the war, and to replace his preventative measures, GM Lester Patrick had brought in a 25-year-old rookie, Steve Buzinski, from Saskatchewan’s senior-league Swift Current Indians. When he wasn’t watching for pucks, Buzinski worked as a wheat and cereal expert with Swift Current’s Dominion Experimental Station. As one newspaper wag, Harry Grayson, was writing in ’42, Patrick was considered “the smartest man in the dodge,” so when he plucked up Buzinski, “everyone expected he would have another ace to show them. Hadn’t the Rangers had such illustrious netkeepers as Lorne Chabot, John Ross Roach, and Davey Kerr?”

 It didn’t go so swimmingly. The Rangers lost three of their four first games, including a 12-5 loss to Detroit and a 10-4 Montreal drubbing, with Buzinski surrendering 32 goals as they did so. “By now,” Harry Grayson cruelly reported, “the boys were calling Steve ‘Sieve.’”

 He rallied under Fischler’s young gaze. Joseph Nichols wrote it up for The New York Times. “Aided not at all by the Rangers defence, which had trouble with the fleet Black Hawk wings, Buzinski nevertheless had the creditable total of thirty-nine saves.” Tied 3-3, the teams headed for (non-lethal) overtime, which saw Bryan Hextall and Lynn Patrick score to secure the Ranger win. Wartime cutbacks would shelve regular-season overtime, so this, as it happens, was the last one the NHL would see for 40 years.

 True to Fischler’s memory, the Bentleys were on show that night, with Doug counting two of the Chicago goals and Max adding an assist. Brother Reg was with Chicago that year, too, his only season in the NHL, though he wasn’t in the line-up for this Ranger game.

 And Buzinski? He didn’t last the month of November. Stan Fischler’s first game was the last one Buzinski won in the NHL. He guarded the Ranger net for four more games after that, losses all, whereupon the Rangers brought in a Detroit farmhand, Jimmy Franks, and Buzinski’s NHL career was over. While the Rangers sent him down to the AHL New Haven Eagles, he didn’t last there, preferring to head back to Saskatchewan, where he was reinstated as an amateur. He enlisted not long after that. He did get back into the nets, post-war, with the Swift Current seniors.

 Around the time he was shipping out of New York in 1942, he wrote a letter home to the editor of The Swift Current Sun. “These New York sportswriters are really something to fear,” it read, in part.

Brothers In Arms: Chicago’s own Saskatchewaners coming at you, in 1942, Reg Bentley on the left alongside Max and Doug.

 

maurice richard had a bad night; fern majeau picked up a pocketful of pennies

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before the war interrupted his skating. He returned after it was all over, in 1946-47, but only briefly.

Seventy-four years ago tonight, Maurice Richard had a terrible night.

That’s not the anniversary that tends to be observed, of course. Seems like people prefer to recall that it was on a night like this in 1943 that Montreal coach Dick Irvin debuted a brand new first line, one featuring wingers Toe Blake (left) and Maurice Richard (right) centred by Elmer Lach, that would soon come to be known, then and for all time, as the Punch Line.

October 30 was a Saturday in 1943, and it was opening night for four of the NHL’s six teams. Montreal was home to the Boston Bruins. After an injury-plague start in the Canadiens’ system, Richard, 22, was healthy. Having played just 16 games in 1942-43, he was ready to start the season as a regular. The Canadiens had lost some scoring over the summer: Gordie Drillon was gone and so was Joe Benoit, both gone to the war. The latter had scored 30 goals in ’42-43, leading the Canadiens in that department as the right winger for Lach and Blake. That line was already, pre-Richard, called Punch, with Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald claiming that he’d been the one to name it.

Richard didn’t recall this, exactly. In autobiography Stan Fischler ghosted for him in The Flying Frenchmen (1971), Richard erred in saying that he took Charlie Sands’ place on the Punch Line rather than Benoit’s.

Roch Carrier added a flourish to the story in Our Life With The Rocket (2001), a poetic one even if it’s not entirely accurate.

Richard’s wife Lucille did (it’s true) give birth to a baby girl, Huguette, towards the end of October of 1943, just as Montreal’s training camp was wrapping up in Verdun. True, too: around the same time, Richard asked coach Irvin whether he could switch the number on his sweater. Charlie Sands wasn’t a Punch Liner, but he was traded during that final week of pre-season: along with Dutch Hiller, Montreal sent him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Phil Watson. Richard had been wearing 15; could he take on Sands’ old 9? “He’d like that,” Carrier has him explaining to Irvin, “because his little girl weighs nine pounds.”

“Somewhat surprised by this sentimental outburst, Dick Irvin agrees.”

Here’s where Carrier strays. To celebrate Huguette’s arrival, he writes, Richard promised to score a pair of goals in the Canadiens’ season-opening game: one for mother, one for daughter. “The Canadiens defeat the Bruins,” Carrier fairytales, “three to two. Maurice has scored twice. And that is how, urged on by a little nine-pound girl, the Punch Line takes off.”

Huguette’s birthday was October 23, a Saturday. The following Wednesday, Richard did burn bright in the Canadiens’ final exhibition game, which they played in Cornwall, Ontario, against the local Flyers from the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Maybe that’s when he made his fatherly promise, adding an extra goal for himself? Either way, the Canadian Press singled him out for praise in Montreal’s 7-3 victory: “Maurice Richard, apparently headed for a big year in the big time, paced Dick Irvin’s team with three goals in a sparkling effort.”

That Saturday, October 30, 1943, the home team could only manage to tie the visiting Bruins 2-2. Montreal had several rookies in the line-up, including goaltender Bill Durnan, who was making his NHL debut. Likewise Canadiens centre Fern Majeau, who opened the scoring. Herb Cain and Chuck Scherza replied for Boston before Toe Blake scored the game’s final tally. The Boston Daily Globe called that one “a picture goal” that same Blake skate by the entire Boston team. “The ice was covered with paper and hats after the red light flashed.”

That was the good news, such as it was. Leave it Montreal’s Gazette to outline what didn’t go so well. “Four Bruins Are Casualties,” announced a sidebar headline alongside the paper’s main Forum dispatch, “Maurice Richard Has Bad Night.” Details followed:

richard oct 30 43 (1)

hockey players in hospital beds: maurice richard, trop fragile pour la nhl

This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.

At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:

Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …

Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:

The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.

Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”

The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):

The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.

He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.

Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”

(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)

jim henry: sweet as sugar, gritty as a spinach salad

Born on this day in 1920, Sugar Jim Henry got his start as an NHL goaltender as a 22-year-old when he leapt straight from amateur hockey to took charge of the New York Rangers’ net in the fall of 1941. Dave Kerr had retired and Henry, Winnipeg-born, had spent the spring of the year backstopping the Regina Rangers of the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League to an Allan Cup championship. Henry played all of New York’s 48 regular-season games that first year, leading them to a first-place finish overall. (Toronto, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, beat the Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs.) The following year Henry interrupted his Ranger career to enlist and serve in (while tend ing occasional goal for) both the Canadian Army and, subsequently, the Royal Canadian Navy. Postwar he made his NHL return as a Chicago Black Hawk before catching on as a Boston Bruin. That was him, of course, in the famous photo, shaking hands in 1952 with a just-as-battered Maurice Richard. Henry died in 2004.

The photo here dates to early in 1942 when Henry featured in a newspaper exposé syndicated across the United States in the cause of demystifying hockey goaltenders and their gear. Readers learned that Henry’s equipment weighed a total of 35 pounds and cost US$130. Also: “His is a task demanding keen muscular coordination, the eyesight of an eagle, the dexterity of a young gazelle, and the grit of a spinach salad.”

The nickname? It went back to his early days, apparently. The standard story is the one on file within the Hockey Hall of Fame’s registry of player profiles:

As a toddler growing up in Winnipeg, he used to waddle next door to visit some girls. “They’d dip my soother in a sugar bowl,” he recalled, “So the girls gave me the name ‘Sugar.’ Then I couldn’t get rid of it!”

Variations on that theme have been proffered over the years:

Sugar Jim Henry, the Brandon netman, gets his unusual nickname through his great love for anything alluringly sweet.

Winnipeg Tribune, March 23, 1939

Maurice (Winnipeg Free Press) Smith says ‘Sugar’ Jim Henry, former New York Ranger netminder, got his nickname because he had a craving for brown sugar when he was a schoolboy. His mother used to feed him bread and brown sugar when he came home from school. Smitty comments: “He thought he earned it because of his ability to turn in a sweet job in the nets.”

Nanaimo Daily News, April 10, 1944

Goalie ‘Sugar Jim’ Henry got his nickname for his love of sweets.

• Floyd Conner, Hockey’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Wicked Slapshots, Bruising Goons and Ice Oddities (2002)

The nickname, Sugar Jim, came from his fondness for brown sugar, particularly on cereal.

• Steve Zipay, The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: New York Rangers (2008)

With his hair slicked back neatly around a part on the side, Jim Henry was deserving of the nickname ‘Sugar Jim.’ He was a sweet guy and a sweet goaltender in the most positive sense of reach word.

• Stan Fischler, Boston Bruins: Greatest Moments and Players (2013)

Henry addressed the matter himself in a Toronto Daily Star profile soon after he beat the Leafs in his 1941 NHL debut. Andy Lytle:

He became known as ‘Sugar’ because he loved to get a piece of bread and turn the contents of the family sugar bowl upon it.

“I could eat prodigious quantities,” he recalled. “I’m still fond of it. But now I take it mostly in cubes.”

He was still explaining it almost 50 years later when The Globe and Mail caught up to him for a “Where Are They Now?” segment, though the story had shifted next door once again. “I was always in the neighbour’s sugar bowl,” he gamely told Paul Patton in 1988.

 

 

 

 

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!