the alluring penalty shot: introducing hockey’s greatest thrill

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Conacher’d: In December of 1934, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers was the goaltender trying to stop Charlie Conacher from scoring the first penalty shot in Leafs’ history. He didn’t.

A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.

A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.

The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.

“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.

Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”

The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.

Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”

In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.

Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.

Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:

Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.

Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.

Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.

December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.

Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.

Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:

Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.

Toronto’s 1933-34 Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: Benny Grant, Buzz Boll, Bill Thomas, Alex Levinsky, Red Horner, Andy Blair, Busher Jackson, Joe Prime, Charlie Sands, Baldy Cotton, trainer Tim Daly, George Hainsworth. Front: Hec Kilrea, King Clancy, Hap Day, coach Dick Irvin, managing director Conn Smythe, assistant director Frank Selke, Ace Bailey, Ken Doraty, Charlie Conacher.

 

ten and ohio

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“Ten to nothing is a score that requires some explanation.” I’m not sure that’s something the modern-day Montreal Canadiens have been telling themselves today, after last night’s 0-10 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets — seems like they may be more interested in getting to tonight’s game with Philadelphia to play their way out of having to account for last night’s debacle. That opening line dates back, in fact, to 1921, when a correspondent from The Ottawa Journal watched Canadiens of an earlier incarnation the very first time they lost by that disconcerting margin.

That it’s happened four times now in Canadiens history is, in its way, impressive. But precedents don’t make it any easier to deal with, for the team or for its fans. The wording they saw this morning in the headlines of Montreal newspapers was enough to curdle the stoutest Hab-loving heart. Pulvérisé was how La Presse framed the game, in which Canadiens’ back-up goaltender Al Montoya suffered through the entire excruciating game; Le Journal de Montreal opted for Piétinés à Columbus and, decked below, Le Canadien subit une raclée.

Over at The Gazette the dispatch from Ohio was spiked throughout with the words crushed, embarrassing, humiliated, trainwreck, ass-kicking, total meltdown. Columnist Pat Hickey noted that Friday also marked coach Michel Therrien’s 53rd birthday. “I don’t remember being a part of a game like that,” said Therrien. “There’s not much positive to take from it.”

Back home at the Bell Centre Saturday night, Al Montoya took the night off, leaving Carey Price to fend off the Flyers by a score of 5-4. It was the first time in the annals of Montreal’s 10-0 losses that the same goaltender who’d suffered the defeat hadn’t retaken the net for the next game. A look back:

December 24, 1921
Ottawa 10
Montreal 0

“Ottawas achieved a clear cut and decisive victory over Canadiens by the mammoth score of 10 to 0 Saturday,” was the hometown Ottawa Journal’s opening take on the first of Montreal’s historical whompings — the Canadiens were in a word smothered.

It was Christmas Eve, just three games into the new season. Both teams had a win and a loss under their belts. Ottawa was the defending Stanley Cup champion; Montreal’s powerful (if slightly aged) line-up featured Georges Vézina in goal with Sprague Cleghorn and Bert Corbeau on defence while forwards included the legendary Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. In a day when a different kind of analytics held sway, much was made of the weight players carried into battle, and The Ottawa Journal noted that Montreal averaged an impressive 176 pounds per man while the team’s aggregate tonnage came in at 2,465.

Ottawa was fast and from the start had Montreal “puffing like grampuses.” In the third, the Habs looked “juvenile.” The Senators had several bright rookies, including Frank “King” Clancy, deemed the architect of the rout by one local paper. Scoring the second goal in the opening period, “he brought the crowd to their toes in a thunderous cheer.”

Cy Denneny scored three goals for Ottawa, and Frank Nighbor added a memorable one (“it was a cuckoo,” to be exact). Goaltender Clint Benedict was good, “as a happy as a kid with a Christmas stocking” with his shutout; Nighbor’s poke check was Punch Broadbent’s determined backchecking were also cited by the Journal as playing decisive parts in the home side’s win. For the third game in a row — the entire season to date — Ottawa took no penalties. All in all, the crowd of 5,000 was “tickled giddy.”

Georges Vézina

Georges Vézina

Vézina? “The Chicoutimi Cucumber looked more like a well perforated slab of Roquefort. Vez stopped plenty, but he was handling drives from inside his defence that kept him on the hop, and was frequently forced out of his nets in desperate sorties, trying to split the Ottawa attack.”

As for Montreal’s forwards, Didier Pitre stood out. He “played hard,” the Journal allowed, “and while he has to bend forward to see his skates, uncoiled some whistling drives that would have knocked Benny’s roof into the south-end seats had they hit on the cupola.”

Newsy Lalonde seemed “passé” to the Ottawa eye — though to the correspondent from Montreal’s Le Canada, he was brilliant and gave one of the best performances of his career.

There was hope for Montreal, on the western horizon. Leo Dandurand was Montreal’s managing director (he was also one of the team’s new owners) and word was that he’d signed up an Ottawa youngster by the name of Aurèle Joliat who’d been playing out in Saskatoon.

In the end, he wouldn’t play for the Canadiens for another year, and so he was of no help when the Canadiens played the Senators again four days later at the Mount Royal Arena. This time they lost in overtime, 1-2, with Punch Broadbent beating Vézina for the winning goal — on a “flip shot from the side.”

February 21, 1933
Boston 10
Montreal 0

It was another 11 years before Montreal conspired against themselves to lose so large again, but not everything had changed: Leo Dandurand was still the team’s managing director and smothered was still the best word (in The Winnipeg Tribune this time) for a game Canadiens managed to lose by ten goals to none.

Would it surprise you to hear that the blood was running bad between Montreal and Boston back in the winter of ’33? They’d played a pair of games back in January, with the Canadiens winning the first, 5-2, at home before succumbing a few days later (2-3) in Boston. That second game was particularly nasty, with Boston defenceman Eddie Shore in a leading role. The crosscheck on Johnny Gagnon and the fight with Sylvio Mantha was the just beginning; the referee and judge of play were both injured at Shore’s hands. Bruins’ coach Art Ross was ill and missed the game. In a complaint to NHL president Frank Calder, Dandurand accused Boston owner Charles F. Adams of instigating the ugliness.

In the aftermath, Shore was fined $100 and told to behave: “Pres Calder intimated,” The Boston Globe advised, “that if Eddie starts any more rumpuses he will most likely draw indefinite suspension.” The referee, Cooper Smeaton, was reported to be resting in bed with two fractured ribs. He just happened to have been on duty back in 1921 for that inaugural 10-0 showing.

It was with all this in the near background when Montreal went back to Boston in February and lost 10-0.

The Boston Daily Globe didn’t gloat, too much: the headline that called the game a slaughter also turned the focus from the losers to the 16,000 fans looking on at Boston Garden. For them, it was A Goal-Scoring Treat.

Bruins who enjoyed themselves particularly included Marty Barry (five points) and Dit Clapper (four). Shore contained himself, collecting two assists, a tripping penalty, and a cut over the eye.

The only shot that troubled Tiny Thompson was directed at him accidentally by a teammate, Vic Ripley.

George Hainsworth

George Hainsworth

Back in Montreal, The Gazette didn’t said what had to be said. “The Flying Frenchmen put on about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” Along with Dandurand, coach Newsy Lalonde might have been one to recall that wasn’t quite so. Howie Morenz played as though “his speedy legs were shackled” (Boston paper took the view that he was “effectively bottled.” Boston reporters commended Canadiens’ goaltender George Hainsworth for “unusually fine saves” on Dit Clapper and Red Beattie. Back in Montreal, the Gazette noted that he had 17 shots fired at him during the third period. “He missed seven of them to cap the most wretched performance of his career.”

The Canadiens trudged home. Two days later, when they hosted the Chicago Black Hawks, Hainsworth was back at work. He had an injured ankle, it turned out, and the Gazette divulged that it caused him “acute pain throughout.” Still, he stopped 14 shots in Montreal’s 2-0 win for his sixth shutout of the season. Continue reading

ott heller night

Ott Heller returned, as promised. The Rangers were playing in Montreal that Saturday night, February 14, 1942, against the last-place Canadiens, so it qualified as an upset when Montreal came out on top by a score of 5-3. Eyeing the line-up, you don’t see a Hab team for the ages: the top line had Terry Reardon between Toe Blake and Joe Benoit. Buddy O’Connor scored a couple of Hab goals, and there were fights. Listed in the line-up among the spares, Heller didn’t figure in the newspaper accounts: he made no news. Some of them make it sound like he kept to the bench the whole game, which I guess is possible. Or maybe he was pencilled in to play and didn’t, at the last minute, feel right.

o hThe Rangers caught the train home and the following night, Sunday, they met the Brooklyn Americans at Madison Square Garden. There was a trophy they played for in those years, New York teams, the winner of the season’s series got the William J. MacBeth Memorial Cup, and this would be the night they handed it over. It already belonged to the Rangers — they’d won five out of six games already that year — but the Americans measured out some revenge on the night by winning this one by a score of 5-1. Heller did play on this night, partnered with Neil Colville; Bill Juzda sat as the Rangers’ fifth defenceman. Heller played about 12 minutes and was, again, unnewsworthy.

“We’re in a slump,” said coach Frank Boucher, “no doubt of that. I only trust we shake it off before somebody catches us.”

Tuesday they had the Canadiens coming in. “The boys in the gallery,” advised Kerr N. Petrie of The New York Herald Tribune, “are busy getting their banners ready for ‘Ott Heller Night.’” The night of Heller’s injury in January, of course, they’d called off a tribute in fear of jinxing “the hard-working defense horse of the Manhattan Blues” (The New York Daily Mirror), so I suppose the feeling was that now they were clear to proceed hexfree.

Before he hurt his shoulder, Ranger management had been talking him up as a candidate for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Jim Hurley at The Daily Mirror thought maybe he’d had better years behind him. Still:

Heller is a workman who certainly rates the highest praise for his consistently good performance over a 12-season period and the festivities tonight are quite in order.

His problem, maybe, was that fans with unschooled eyes couldn’t discern his contributions. He was hiding in plain sight. Hurley again:

Since he lacks the splash and color of some rearguard workers, and the murderous mien of others, the fans have no conception of Heller as a glamor player. His best endorsement comes from rival players and coaches, who are cognizant of the consistently steady game he turns in.

The Rangers, at least, were going to give him a trophy, inscribed “To Ehrhardt (Ott) Heller in appreciation — N.Y. Rangers,” and also (Hurley reported) “a nice boodle of defense bonds.” His teammates had presents for him, too, and the fans were planning “demonstrations.” The Brooklyn Americans (interestingly) were all planning to attend, along with 1,000 members of the Rovers Rooter Club — fans of the Rangers’ New York farm club. Continue reading