(A version of this post appeared in The New York Times on June 10, 2019, under the headline “When the Boston Bruins Won Their First Stanley Cup. Twice.”)
The Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in Montreal one Saturday night in March of 1929, sweeping aside the mighty Canadiens. Back home, a crowd of 3,000 met the team’s train at North Station, creating a clamor on a scale usually reserved for World-Series-winning baseball players and troops returning from war.
Then again, the series with Montreal was only a semi-final. Any doubts to their hold on the trophy were put to rest six days later, when the Bruins definitively won the Cup, conquering the Rangers in New York.
Two Stanley Cups in a week? Sounds unlikely. Not something that’s reflected in the records, either: those distinctly show the Bruins having won six championships, not seven.
And yet 90 years ago, a brief confusion in the hockey continuum did seem to present the Bruins with the opportunity for an unprecedented Stanley Cup double.
The 1928-29 season was a banner year for the 12-year-old NHL. From just four teams in 1923-24, the league had spread to ten cities, six in the United States. Overall attendance was up by 22 per cent from the previous season, with the Bruins rated the biggest draw.
They had been the first American team to join the NHL, bankrolled by grocery magnate Charles Adams. His first hire in 1924 was 38-year-old Art Ross, a Montrealer with a reputation as a genius of hockey strategy and innovation who’d also, in younger, playing days, won two Stanley Cups.
First awarded in 1893 by Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s governor-general, hockey’s most coveted prize was, from the start, a challenge cup intended to reward the best Canadian team. Won by Montreal teams, mostly, in the early years, it also went to Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Kenora, Ontario. In 1917, just before the advent of the NHL, the Cup left home for the first time, claimed by Seattle’s Metropolitans.
From 1918 on, Stanley Cup finals pitted the league’s champion against the best team from western Canada. That arrangement lasted through 1926, after which only NHL teams played for the Cup. The league further consolidated its prerogative in 1947 when the trustees formally delegated full authority for Cup affairs to the league.
Still, in 1927, NHL President Frank Calder believed (so he said) in the Cup’s original mandate, and that any serious challenger deemed worthy by the trustees should be allowed to play for it. He told an Ottawa audience that he favoured a competition beyond the NHL schedule, something similar to English soccer’s F.A. Cup, whereby any team in North America, amateur or professional, might take a run at the championship.
In the spring of 1928, the Bruins and Canadiens ended up atop their respective regular-season divisions, the American and Canadian. But both teams faltered on the road to the finals, allowing the lesserly touted New York Rangers to take the Cup.
Come September of 1928, Calder and NHL’s governors prepared for the new season by revamping the playoff system. To ensure that at least one top-performing team made it to the finals, the new format saw divisional leaders granted byes to a semi-final that would send one of them on to vie for the Cup against the team that survived a two-round playoff among the best of the rest. The purported architect of this new ordering? Boston manager Art Ross.
Six months later, at the end of the NHL’s 44-game regular season, Boston and Montreal had once again finished first. The Bruins lined up eight future Hall-of-Famers that year, including superstar defenceman Eddie Shore, rookie goaltender Tiny Thompson, and forwards Cooney Weiland and Dit Clapper.
As they prevailed in their semi-final, the word from the Boston Globe was that, because this was a battle of divisional champs, the sacred trophy was indeed at stake. Why wouldn’t the winner automatically succeed the Rangers as Cup champions? Of course they would — whereupon, as of old, the competition would enter its “challenge phase,” with the new holders defending their claim against the winner of the other semi-final.
No Canadian newspaper seems to have reported any of this, despite the Globe’s assertion that the ruling was Frank Calder’s own. Hard to say whether the Globe was misled or just mistaken. Within a few days, the paper changed key: maybe the Bruins hadn’t “gained actual possession” of Canada’s Cup, but it was absolutely “theirs theoretically.” By the time Boston eliminated Montreal, Canadians used to claiming hockey as a proprietary technology all their own were otherwise occupied dealing with a traumatic new truth: for the first since in the 36-year history of the Stanley Cup, the (final) finals involved only foreign teams. Those didn’t last long: while the Rangers had earned the right to try to wrest back the title they might or might not have only just relinquished, Boston took the best-of-three final series in a brisk sweep.
“I’m proud of the boys,” Ross declared. “They’ve stood by me splendidly. Do you know not one of them has had a glass of beer since November?”
Training home again, this time from New York, the Bruins pulled into Boston’s South Station. But it was early Saturday morning, and no throng awaited the actual champions: the players quietly went home.
The team formally took possession of the coveted Cup when they reconvened, three days later, for a banquet in the Copley Plaza Hotel’s Swiss Room. The players’ rewards were individually rich, too: each received a share of playoff receipts, about $2,000 (nearly $30,000 in 2019 dollars), along with a $500 “purse of gold” from owner Adams. From Art Ross they each got a diamond ring, while faithful fans chipped in with gold watches for all.
Meanwhile, Canada kept mostly calm. One Vancouver newspaper did run a single-sentence editorial on the nation’s behalf, trying out what would become more and more of a traditional refrain as American-based teams continued to claim championships.
“Players imported from Canada won the Stanley Cup for Boston,” the Province wrote.
“The boys were whooping it in slightly mad fashion,” The Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson wrote of the April night in 1949 that the Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up another championship, “when through the bedlam of the crowded Maple Leaf dressing-room came the stentorian tones of portly Tim Daly. “‘I don’t know why you guys are so excited at winning the Stanley Cup,’ he needled. ‘We do it every year.’”
The long-time team trainer wasn’t far off: the Leafs had just, it’s true, won their third consecutive Cup, and their fifth in eight years. (They would claimed it again two years later, in 1951, on the strength of Bill Barilko’s famous final goal.) In ’49, coached by Hap Day, Toronto had dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep. They won the decisive game 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on goals by Ray Timgren, Max Bentley, and Cal Gardner. Ted Lindsay scored for Detroit. Once it was all over, NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hockey’s most coveted trophy to Leaf captain Ted Kennedy — as seen above — before the Stanley Cup was carried in the Gardens’ press room and (as Nickleson recounted) “filled with bubbling champagne.”
In street clothes, Leafs joined officials, newspapermen, and friends to sip from the Cup. Garth Boesch, hard-hitting defenceman, stroked the outsize trophy gently, and said, “See you again next year, honey.”
In March of 1929, the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup. A week later they won it again … maybe? My story about a confusion in the hockey continuum is in The New York Times this week. You can find the online version here.
Today’s the day that Punch Imlach was born, on a Friday, in 1918, in a Toronto that was about to see the local professional team play for (and win) the Stanley Cup in the NHL’s first season. George was the name he was given that year; the nickname dates to the late 1930s, and seems (unfortunately) to have been concussion-based. Knocked out playing senior hockey for the Toronto Goodyears, Imlach is supposed to have revived and started swinging at teammates, who dubbed him “Punchy.” That was eventually trimmed as Imlach played on, never in the NHL, but notably with the QSHL Quebec Aces, with whom he would start his coaching career and oversee, in so doing, a young Jean Béliveau.
Imlach joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958 as an assistant GM. In his first 11 seasons as Leaf coach, he steered the team to four Stanley Cups. Fired in 1969, he went to join the fledgling Buffalo Sabres as coach and GM. That’s the era from which this team-issued photo dates. “His dry acerbic wit is as much an Imlach characteristic,” the caption on the back explains, “as the intriguing hats he wears behind the players’ bench.” After a year-and-a-half’s tenure in Buffalo, he had another stint with the Leafs in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t pretty and — under Harold Ballard’s erratic stewardship — didn’t last. His 370 regular-season coaching wins remains a franchise record for the Leafs; he won 44 more in the playoffs, second in team history to Hap Day’s 49. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984, Punch Imlach died at the age of 69 in 1987.
The Chicago Black Hawks weren’t supposed to beat the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs in 1938. When they did, moving on the meet the New York Americans — well, no way they’d get past the Americans. Facing the young, fast, hard-hitting Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Finals that April, Chicago was almost everybody’s underdog. Steered by an American-born rookie (and MLB umpire), 43-year-old Bill Stewart, the Hawks dispensed with the mighty Leafs in five games. Marc McNeil was summed it up the morning after in his column in Montreal’s Gazette: “So today, after accomplishing one upset victory after another, the Chicago team stands on top of the pro hockey world, a phenomenon for the rest of the NHL to contemplate with vast astonishment, no little awe, and deep respect.”
Missing from their triumph, which unfolded on the ice at Chicago’s Stadium on a Tuesday night: the Stanley Cup itself. Instead of receiving the silverware they’d earned and parading it around the ice, the Hawks … didn’t. The Cup simply wasn’t there. Instead, they hoisted their coach, wrenching his arm in so doing. Charles Bartlett of The Chicago Tribune was at the scene to see that, reporting that “the little Yankee avers that at the moment he doesn’t care if he loses an arm, or both.”
Where was the Cup? There was talk that it had been shipped to Toronto on the assumption that the Leafs would win the fifth game to force a sixth back on their home ice. In Chicago, it was alleged that it was all a nefarious scheme cooked up by Toronto manager Conn Smythe — which, come to think of it, is entirely plausible. In fact, the Cup was in Detroit, under the care of the two-time defending champions. Shipped west direct from the jeweler who’d been tasked with hammering out the dents and giving it a polish, what the Tribune heralded as “an antiquated bit of silverware denoting world hockey supremacy” arrived in Chicago on the Thursday. So the Black Hawks had their visit then. Some of them had other celebratory business to attend to: defenceman Roger Jenkins, for one, had promised goaltender Mike Karakas that he’d trundle him up Chicago’s State Street in a wheelbarrow if they won the Cup. He did that, with (according to one report) “thousands of onlookers cheering he perspiring Jenkins during a block-long journey.” (Historian Eric Zweig has more on this on his website, here.)
And the Cup? It spent the following week not from there, on display in a corner window at Marshall Field’s, the big Chicago department store on State Street.