crash course: hockey’s daily tutorial on how not to social distance

Hubbub: The Toronto Maple Leafs won their third consecutive Stanley Cup on the night of Saturday, April 16, 1949, beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 to sweep to the championship in four games. The game was not without melee: here Leaf captain Ted Kennedy and teammate Fleming Mackell dispute with a pair of Wings in the front of the Detroit bench. That’s possibly Black Jack Stewart with glove raised; in the foreground … maybe Ted Lindsay? Arriving to adjudicate is referee Bill Chadwick. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132811)

After a month of summertime hockey, we’ve learned what NHL playoffs look like when you play them in a pandemic: on the ice, they more or less resemble the game as it’s usually played, back in the pre-COVID past, with all the ensuing clustering, close-fought commotion, and bodily byproducts that players shed, the sweat, spit, blood, and teeth. If all goes according to script in a year in which so much hasn’t, in another month from now the Stanley Cup will be in the hands of hockey’s latest champions, riding high, and full of champagne. In today’s print edition of The New York Times — and online, here — I survey hockey’s daily tutorial — its crash course? — on how not to social distance.

 

bonnie prince chuck

Sew-Sew: Rangers’ doctor Dr. Vincent Nardiello stitches up long-suffering New York goaltender Charlie Rayner in February of 1951.

Born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan, on a Wednesday of this very date in 1920, Charlie Rayner played a couple of seasons with the New York/Brooklyn Americans before he made his mark with the New York Rangers through the late 1940s and into the ’50s. For all his heroics in those years, they were mostly strugglesome for the Rangers, though the team did make it to the Stanley Cup final in 1950, the year Rayner won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, outpolling Ted Kennedy and Maurice Richard. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.

To play goal in the early decades of the NHL was to be cut, contused, and concussed, by even by the painful standards of the profession, Rayner stands out for his suffering. In a feature published midway through the 1950-51 NHL campaign, The New York Post noted that Rayner had already been carried from the ice eight times to date.

“So far this season, he’s lost five front teeth and required a total of 20 stitches.” Several of the latter were applied in an October game at the Montreal Forum, when Rayner was cut once (on the nose) and then a second time (on the back of his head) by skates belonging to Canadiens forward Frank King.

All in all, the Post calculated, Rayner’s 12 years of hockey goaling had cost him four broken noses and “innumerable stitches” along with fractures of the jaw and cheekbone. It was a knee injury that put an end to his NHL career, in the winter of 1953, when he was 32. A 23-year-old Gump Worsley was his successor in the New York net.

Down And Out: Rangers’ staff attend to Charlie Rayner after a shot by Boston defenceman Jack Crawford felled him at Madison Square Garden in November of 1947. The referee leaning down is Bill Chadwick; linesman George Hayes is beside him. Boston goaltender Frank Brimsek looks on at left along with teammates Joe Carveth (9) and Milt Schmidt (15). The gloveless Ranger looks to me like Alf Pike, except that he wasn’t with New York that year. Could be … Neil Colville?

 

leafs in bud

Man of the Book: Ed Fitkin’s Kennedy bio appeared in 1949, five years after the man they called Teeder made his playoff debut as an 18-year-old.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs launching 18-year-old Nick Robertson into the NHL tonight — he’ll be in the line-up for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup Qualifier, making his big-league debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets — would we turn back for a moment to another youthful premiere in club history? Of course we would, and it would be a March night in 1944, when the great Ted Kennedy made his first playoff start for the Leafs.

The future Leaf captain and Hart-Trophy winner who’d go on to win five Stanley Cups with Toronto was, like Robertson, 18 when he played that first playoff game of his, though Kennedy was in fact younger on his debut than his modern-day counterpart by seven months or so.

Worth noting: Kennedy wasn’t the only 18-year-old in the Leafs’ line-up that night in the ’40s. Nor was he the youngest Leaf in the game.

This was wartime, of course, and with many NHL players having departed the league for military service, all six teams found themselves hard-pressed for manpower.

Desperate for skaters, the Leafs had signed a couple of 17-year-olds that season, including winger Eric Prentice, who (it so happens) grew up to be the father of the late federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier Jim Prentice. Prentice Sr. is still the youngest player to have played for the Leafs.

A bevy of 19-year-olds had seen Leaf service during the regular season in 1943-44, too, including a goaltender, Jean Marois, and winger Bud Poile, the future GM of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks whose son, David, is president and GM of the Nashville Predators.

To open playoffs that night in ’44, the Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished the regular season atop the NHL standings, a full 33 points ahead of third-place Toronto.

Though he was making his first playoff start, 18-year-old Ted Kennedy had played almost the entire regular season for the Leafs, contributing 25 goals and finishing fourth in team scoring. Joining him at centre in blue-and-white was another veteran, 18-year-old Jack Hamilton, who’d played his first playoff game for the team a year earlier, when he was 17. Also at centre for the Leafs that night was 20-year-old Gus Bodnar; left winger Don Webster was 19.

The youngest Leaf on the ice that night was the other 17-year-old in the Leafs’ stable, defenceman Ross Johnstone. A year earlier he’d been playing for the OHA’s Oshawa Generals, coached by former Leaf titan Charlie Conacher, as they vied for (but lost) the Memorial Cup against the Winnipeg Rangers of the MJHL.

The oldest Leaf player that night in Montreal in 1944? Right winger Lorne Carr was 33 while left winger and team captain Bob Davidson had just turned 32.

The Leafs did get off to a good series start, all those 76 years ago, surprising Montreal in their own building and beating them 3-1.

“Spirit,” Leaf coach Hap Day explained afterwards, “is the quality that we have the most of, and that’s what paid off dividends.”

Not to jinx anything, but it was all downhill from there for Toronto. Montreal swept back to win the next four games and the series, before continuing on to beat the Chicago Black Hawks and win the Stanley Cup. In the game that decided the series against the fledgling Leafs, Montreal swamped them by a score of 11-0.

portrait of a leaf on fire

Freeze Frame: It was on a Saturday of this date in 1947 that the Toronto Maple Leafs won their sixth Stanley Cup, dethroning the Montreal Canadiens with a 2-1 win at Maple Leaf Gardens to take the best-of-seven finals 4-2. Syl Apps was the Leaf captain, 73 years ago, while Ted Kennedy was the one to score the deciding goal. Two years later, Kennedy skippered the Leafs to their third consecutive Cup. That’s him here, after the ’49 championship, gazed upon in-studio by legendary photographer Nat Turofsky. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 9582)

room service

Sew, Now: Toronto Maple Leafs trainer Tim Daly takes pre-game needle-and-thread to captain Teeder Kennedy’s hockey pants in this 1951 Franklin Arbuckle painting that adorned the cover of Maclean’s magazine in March of that year. A little over a month later, a memorable overtime goal by Bill Barilko dismissed the Montreal Canadiens and won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. Also seen here: right wing Howie Meeker takes a seat while, and next to him (number 20), that’s centre John McCormack. I’d say it’s left winger Sid Smith beside him, watching Daly’s handiwork. (Image: Franklin Arbuckle)

come on, teeder

Born in Port Colborne, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1925, Ted Kennedy (you can call him Teeder) was never not a Toronto Maple Leaf — that is, he played all 14 of his NHL seasons in Toronto, eight of which he served as Leaf captain. He died in 2009 at the age of 83. He and Leaf goaltender Turk Broda were the first NHLers to win five Stanley Cups, which gets us to the photograph on display here. It dates to 1951, the year of Kennedy’s last Cup, the one that Toronto’s Bill Barilko decided when he scored in overtime to vanquish Montreal in the fifth game of the finals. Kennedy’s face was battered before that, in the first round of the playoffs, wherein Toronto dismissed Boston’s surly Bruins in a series that lasted six games — though only five of them counted.

Boston had opened the series with a Wednesday-night 2-0 win at Maple Leaf Gardens. The teams skated out again in Toronto on the Saturday, March 31. Tied 1-1 at the end of regulation time, the teams played a scoreless period of overtime before witching hour struck at 11.45 p.m. Just before midnight, with the teams still deadlocked at ones, they ran smack into prim Toronto’s Sunday curfew, meaning no more hockey — game over.

The plan at that early point in the series was to play an eighth game, if needed. It wasn’t: Toronto would win four straight after that to advance.

Interestingly, while the game was wiped from the record books, its statistics weren’t. Among other things, that means that the third-last goal that Barilko scored before his death later in the year was duly counted, along with the 21 minutes in penalties he accrued on the night.

Overall, it was, as the Globe and Mail reported, “a bruising night in big-time hockey.” Boston winger Johnny Peirson suffered a fractured cheekbone before it was through, with five other players taking on a total of 34 stitches to close their respective cuts. Not that anyone was counting, but Barilko did inflict the majority of the damage, wounding a couple of Bruins’ wingers, Dunc Fisher (12 stitches) and Pete Horeck (ten). It was Boston captain Milt Schmidt who sliced Kennedy for a further seven stitches, under the eye.

“I lost my head,” Schmidt owned afterwards, admitting that he deserved the major that he was assessed. “It was my stick that cut him. But we were both high-sticking, and it might have been I who was cut.”

Canada’s Governor-General watched it all from a flag-draped seat in back of the penalty benches, Viscount Alexander of Tunis.

And Kennedy’s chin? That was a souvenir of the next game, the following night, April 1, at Boston Garden. The Leafs won that one 3-0 on the strength of Turk Broda’s shutout. “Ted Kennedy added five stitches to his facial collection,” the Globe’s Jim Vipond noted. “He was cut under the chin but couldn’t recall how it happened.”

just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

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won and all

Yours, Truly: NHL President Clarence Campbell, suited on the right congratulates Toronto coach Hap Day, on the ice at maple Leaf Gardens on April 16, 1949. Arrayed behind are (from left) Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, Vic Lynn, Bill Barilko, Garth Boesch, (obscured by the Cup, so hard to say, but maybe) Sid Smith, Turk Broda, Cal Gardner, and Tod Sloan. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132795)

“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.”

advantage leafs

Toronto’s Cal Gardner and Boston’s Grant Warwick each scored shorthanded in the first period of the game depicted here, a Wednesday-night tilt towards the end of March in 1949 in which the Leafs ended up beating the hometown Bruins by a score of 3-2. It was enough to put the Leafs into the playoff finals that year, where the would end up — seems so easy to say — beating the Detroit Red Wings to claim the Stanley Cup.

Toronto got a second goal in the first period from 20-year-old left winger Ray Timgren (lower left), and that’s the one we’re seeing going in here. “With his back to Frank Brimsek, Ray managed to move his stick just in time to nudge in a 35-foot drive by [Jim] Thomson,” reported Boston’s Daily Globe on the morrow. Max Bentley put away what would be the Leafs’ winner in the second period. The goal Boston’s Johnny Peirson scored in the last minute of the game? “Really only a gesture,” wrote Tom Fitzgerald. Also on hand here are Boston’s Fernie Flaman (10) and Murray Henderson (8) and Toronto’s Joe Klukay alongside Ted Kennedy (9). The attentive referee is, unmistakably, King Clancy.

hockey players in hospital beds: gordie howe

It was on this day in 1950 that Gordie Howe was grievously injured in a clash with Toronto’s Ted Kennedy, falling head-first into the boards at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on the opening night of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Rushed to Harper Hospital, Howe was soon in surgery, where neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Schreiber saved his life by draining fluid building up near the brain. In the memoir that writer and broadcaster Paul Haavardsrud ghosted on Howe’s behalf in 2014, the patient recalled being aware of the noise of the operation, and pressure on his head. “My most vivid memory from the 90-minute operation,” the tale is told in Mr. Hockey: My Story, “is hoping they’d know when to stop.”

There was much debate in 1950 about just what had happened on the ice that night. (In later years, the incident would be fodder for the pages of comic books.) Many witnesses at the Olympia held that Kennedy had high-sticked Howe with purpose, sending him into the boards, though Kennedy swore it wasn’t so. Howe’s version, circa 2014: “As I recollect it, I believe his stick hit me, but I don’t blame him for it. He was just following through on a backhand and trying not to get hit. Hockey’s a fast game and sometimes things happen.”

While Howe recovered (and, above, tended his mail) in hospital, Detroit went on without him to beat Toronto in seven games. They did the same to the New York Rangers to win the 1950 Cup, the Red Wings’ first since 1943. “As close as I came to shuffling off into the sunset at the tender age of 21,” Howe narrates in My Story, “I bounced back relatively quickly from surgery.” He joined Detroit for training camp that fall, donning a helmet, if only for a short spell, on the advice of his doctors.

below the belt: the great leaf groin crisis of 1957

“Guts, goals, and glamour” was the slogan that GM Hap Day Toronto Maple Leafs draped on his team in the mid-1950s and it was one that his coach Howie Meeker gladly took up when he took charge of the team for the 1956-57 campaign. But halfway through the season, with the Leafs cruising closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than the top, another not so melodious g-word was crowding into the phrasing: groins.

Toronto had gone nearly six years without winning a Stanley Cup, and ’56-57 wouldn’t be their year again. That March, not long after the team missed the playoffs, Day resigned his post, and while Meeker hung around for a little longer, Leafs president and managing director Conn Smythe fired him before the spring had turned to summer. Smythe himself was retiring that year after a lively 30 years helming the Leafs, though not before naming a new coach (Billy Reay) and installing a committee of GMs (it included his son Stafford and Harold Ballard, among others) to steer the team into the future.

Whatever the particular lacks and flaws of the ’56-57 Leafs might have been, injuries did play a significant part in their failure to launch. Hap Day was talking about that in a story that appeared on this very January day in 1957 in The Globe and Mail. “I can recall some pretty rough seasons but never one to equal the present campaign,” he told Red Burnett. “I don’t believe we’ve been able to put a full-strength team on the ice since the season started.”

Injured Leafs had by that point missed a total of 124 games — and they still had 27 games to play. Over the entirety of the previous season, they’d lost a total 66 man-games to injuries. (As of today, this year’s Mike Babcock-led edition of the Leafs have lost 50 man-games.)

Among the ’56-57 wounded were defenceman Hugh Bolton, who’d been out 27 games with a broken leg, and forward George Armstrong, 16 games on the shelf with torn ligaments. Bob Pulford (strained back), Gerry James (battered shoulder), Barry Cullen (charley horse + fractured hand), Marc Reaume (gammy foot), and Tod Sloan (shoulder separation) had all been absent.

For all that pain and damage, it was the ubiquity of one particular ailment that seems to have concerned Conn Smythe most. Defencemen Jim Thomson, Tim Horton, and Jim Morrison had all at some point gone down with groin injuries that season, along with forwards Rudy Migay and Ted Kennedy.

As the pair of memos shown here memorialize, Conn Smythe was on the case. Could his team of highly tuned professional athletes be failing to stretch properly before they threw themselves into the fray? And what about these nefarious stops and starts? Were theyto blame? On this day 62 years ago, he started his investigation with a phone message to GM Day, who duly answered.

the winnipeg arena’s royal quandary: if the queen herself walked in, would she know who it was?

Elizabeth The First: Gilbert Burch’s original Winnipeg Arena portrait, c. 1979. (Image: Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18 A81-012, Box 64, Folder 6315, Item 18)

A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.

What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.

Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.

I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”

In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.

queen winnipeg 72

Royal Highness: The Winnipeg Arena’s original, non-Burch portrait of Queen Elizabeth presides over the pre-game anthems ahead of Team Canada’s Summit Series game against the Soviet Union on September 6, 1972.

This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”

Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.

“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.

Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”

He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.

So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).

By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.

QE2: Gilbert Burch puts the finishing touches of his second 1979 portrait for the Winnipeg Arena. (Image: Peter Levick, Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18, Box 2, Folder 49, Item 9)

Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”

Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”

The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.

That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk  then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.

Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.