perhaps some day: hockey’s early, battered goaltenders and the long wait for a better (non-baseball) mask

“All his teeth were loosened:” Not long after John Ross Roach posed in a baseball catcher’s mask in 1933, he was cut, contused, and concussed while going barefaced into the breach in the Red Wings’ net.

Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.

That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.

Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.

Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:

This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.

Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.

Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.

We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.

“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”

If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.

I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.

It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.

All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.

Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”

Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.

The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.

Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.

Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.

No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”

By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.

Fashion Forward: Could it be that hockey players might one day actually protect their heads? The case for protection came into stark focus in December of 1933 after Eddie Shore ended Ace Bailey’s career. Modelling football helmets here are (left) centre Russ Blinco of the IHL Windsor Bulldogs and his goaltender, Jakie Forbes. At right, Forbes wears a modified (and just how puck-proof?) baseball mask.

 

a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

on le maltraite: eddie shore mauled by maroons, 1929

Rematch: Bruins and Maroons line up at Boston Garden. Quite probably this is the November 26, 1929 game in which the teams met again three days after the mayhem at the Forum. The line-ups depicted here match up with the ones that took the ice that night. Eddie Shore is notably absent, as he was; Lionel Hitchman wears a plaster to protect the eye he’d had damaged in Montreal. Cooper Smeaton is the rear referee; Babe Siebert is ahead of him to his left, slightly obscured by a teammate. Yes, I’ve scoured the stands for Shore and his wife Kate; no, I can’t be sure I’ve picked them out, though I wonder about the couple by the door in the boards on the right side of the scene. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Every year it declares itself, as November ebbs away, sure as U.S. Thanksgiving, and this year was no different.

If you’re on Twitter and you have a taste for hockey history, then it may be that on Friday last, amid the day’s holiday leftovers, you saw a reference to the Legend of Eddie Shore’s Five Fighting Majors (An NHL Record). Maybe you also took in some of the replies and comments that attended the observance of the supposed anniversary: many of them, if you missed out, contained lusty endorsements of old-time hockey and its glorious bygone bad-assery.

The focus of all this is a game that the Boston Bruins played on November 23, 1929 against the Montreal Maroons at the old Forum. Although Shore didn’t, that night, accrue five majors or drop his gloves to fight five separate opponents, this was an exceedingly violent game. If it’s worth studying, it may be as an exemplar of the NHL’s troubling tendency (a big one in the 1920s) to veer into violence above and beyond the business-as-usual shoving and punching and grievous hacking and swinging of sticks that the league and its fans were more or less used to. It might have offered a chance for professional hockey to look itself in the eye and think about effecting real change. Instead, the NHL followed in a tradition it holds dear, one that’s still cherished to this day: it did nothing.

What’s not in doubt, looking back at what happened that night 89 years ago — well, several things. The game — and in particular, the third period — was vicious. Whether the malice was aforethought or of the moment, the Maroons do seem to have been intent on forcing Shore from the ice in the direction of a hospital. It’s true, too, that the referees charged with keeping the peace and reproving those who disturbed it failed in their work.

Veteran Maroons’ defenceman Buck Boucher later said it was the roughest game he’d ever played in. Fist-fighting doesn’t seem to have featured in the mayhem, so far as the written record shows. Mostly, the antagonists appear to have held onto their sticks and used them to do the damage they meant to do. Montreal trainer Bill O’Brien had been handling hockey teams for 27 years — as long as Eddie Shore had been alive at that point— and he said that never had he seen players so battered by butt-ends as on this November night.

So far as records being set? Shore took three minor penalties on the night, but didn’t incur one fighting major, let alone five. Indeed, for all the game’s turmoil, referees George Mallinson and Leo Heffernan assessed not a single major that night.

A visit to the NHL’s archive of historical game data at NHL.com confirms that (here). A review of contemporary newspaper accounts — what men who were at the game wrote and published in its immediate aftermath — doesn’t support the idea that’s so dear to the hearts of hockey-fight enthusiasts, viz. that Eddie Shore fought — i.e. dropped the gloves + exchanged punches with, or used sticks to fence against — five different Maroons on the night, thereby setting some kind of shining standard of bellicose derring-do.

•••

Eddie Shore was many things as a hockey player. He was only in his fourth season with the Bruins in 1929, but already it was clear that he was a superstar, one of the NHL’s first. His talents, I guess, had limits, but those were far beyond most of his contemporaries. He also had a temper and a lack of fear that all these years later strike you at times — well, me — as almost monstrous. Reading about his exploits on the ice in the 1920s and ’30s conjures the image of a swiftly skating mean streak. All of which is to say that when it comes to hockey’s violent side, Shore was usually front and centre. “He is 185 pounds of rather husky bone, muscle and sinew,” wrote Ralph Clifford in The Boston Traveler, “and is willing to trade bumps, legal and illegal, with anyone on skates.”

He was, in a word, game. Maybe that qualifies the events we’re talking about here, but it doesn’t really explain them. “It was a whole clan against one man,” Le Canada reported, “and that’s what made the whole affair revolting. It was obvious that it was no longer hockey but a program to get rid of Shore.”

Shore’s injuries were widely reported: along with various facial cuts and what La Pressecalled “painful but non-serious bruises,” he suffered (from the Gazette) “a broken nose, the loss of four teeth that had been originally on a bridge, and a slight concussion.”

Also injured in the game were two of the other leading men: Babe Siebert, playing wing for Maroons, ended up with a broken toe, a bruised rib, and a blackened eye (swollen “just about closed”). Montreal’s Dave Trottier also came away in some distress, which the Montreal Gazette later specified with this (possibly non-clinical) diagnosis: a butt-end administered by Shore “shoved a bone in on his lungs which resulted in the Maroon winger having a hemorrhage after the game. Trottier was still spitting up blood yesterday.”

Boston captain Lionel Hitchman took a stick to the head in the first period, resulting in a cut near an eye. All but unremarked amid the uproar surrounding Shore is the possibility that both goaltenders — Boston’s Tiny Thompson and Clint Benedict of Montreal — suffered concussions during the game. Both men, of course, continued on after their brief respective respites, because that’s what you did as an NHL goaltender in 1929, until you no longer could.

Sketchy: An artist for a Montreal newspaper bore witness to the chaotic events that filled the Forum on the night of November 23, 1929. His rendering includes two depictions of Shore. The caption attending the one in the middle on the left reads: “Shore was comforted by his manager, before preparing to play and after he was injured.” Above that, to the right, Shore is shown prone, dreaming of a kicking mule. That one’s captioned: “The game must have been really rough for Shore to be put out of action.”

The two teams did have a busy history of enmity. A mean-spirited game in January of 1928, for example, featured Boston defenceman Sprague Cleghorn butt-ending Maroons’ forward Hooley Smith (no penalty was called). Shore and Siebert feuded the night away, too: by the Montreal Gazette’s telling, one of their clashes in the third period saw Siebert apply stick and glove to Shore’s face. “Referee [Dr. Eddie] O’Leary waved Siebert off for a minor. Shore went to the ice as if badly injured. Referee-in-Chief Cooper Smeaton, who officiated when Alex Romeril was held up by a late train, took command and booted Siebert’s penalty to a major. Shore got up and continued in the play.”

NHL President Frank Calder had already suspended Siebert once that season, ten days for attacking Billy Boucher of the New York Americans with his stick; now, having incurred his third major of the season, Siebert faced a further one-game suspension for (as wire report put it) “belting Shore across the face with the flat of his stick.”

Another Bruins-Maroons meeting in February of 1929 was noteworthy (said the Gazette) for cross-checks, butt-ends, and “indifferent” refereeing. Hooley Smith served two minors, Shore four. Shore was Smith’s “old pet aversion,” said The Ottawa Journal; The Canadian Press recounted that the two of men were involved in “a private feud” all game. “In fact, Shore, reputed to be one of the most brilliant hockeyists in the game today, was a marked man throughout, and Smith was not the only Maroon player that paid special attention to the big fellow.”

The Gazette did on this occasion log Shore’s habit for playing “possum every chance he got.” Sometimes it helped his cause, but not always. “It looked pretty bad when the referees didn’t fall for his little spasms of emotional acting.”

•••

The season was still young when the Bruins travelled to Montreal towards the end of November of 1929. The defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston had won all three of their games to begin the campaign, while the Maroons had a record of 2-2. Art Ross’ roster, coming into Montreal, was a diminished one, with Harry Oliver laid low with the grippe and George Owen left behind in Boston: a former Harvard University football star, he had a gig writing up his old team’s big game with Yale for the Boston Globe. So it was with just two defencemen that Boston lined up at the Forum, meaning Shore and Lionel Hitchman played every minute — save those, of course, when they were sitting on the penalty bench or lying bleeding in the dressing room, about to depart for the hospital.

Contemporary newspaper accounts don’t illuminate the game in anything approaching complete its colour and detail, but they’re what we have to guide us. My review of what did and didn’t happen relies on accounts from six main Montreal newspapers: the English-language Gazette and Herald as well as, in French, Le Canada, La PresseLa Patrie, and Le Devoir. These are fairly substantial reports, if not exactly consistent. Three of these were bylined: the Herald (Baz O’Meara), La Patrie (Horace Lavigne), and Le Devoir (X.E. Narbonne).

The Boston papers I’ve examined include issues of The Boston Traveler,The Evening Transcript, and The Daily Boston Globe, none of which seems to have had a correspondent of their own in Montreal at the Forum. The Globe, for example, relied on an Associated Press account of the action. Other prominent Canadian papers (Ottawa’s Citizen and Journal; the Toronto Globe and Star) ran short wire reports from the Canadian Press.Beyond those, you’ll find that accounts appearing in farther flung newspapers keep it short and distilled. Précised in Monday’s Winnipeg Tribune, the game that Manitobans read about was merely “thrilling” and “hard-hitting.”

For two periods, the teams battled (as the Gazette told it) like bulldogs, at lightning speed. That Boston won the game 4-3 was the least of the news when it was all over. “As hectic a struggle as Forum ice has witnessed in many a moon,” was the word from Montreal’s Gazette next day, under this vivid subhead:

Contest Stopped in Third
Period While Blood Is
Scraped From Ice.

Most of the havoc occurred in the third period. But most of the penalties — six of the game’s 12 minors — were handed out in the second. The NHL’s database is not so helpful that it names the infractions involved, and newspaper summaries aren’t any help either. One of the French-language chronicles helps out somewhat on this count. Shore’s two second-period penalties were called, respectively, when he “brought down” right winger Merlyn Phillips and then Hooley Smith. In the third: “Shore shoved Trottier and was banished.”

Was this last penalty roughing, maybe, or interference? I can’t say. The French verb used here is an excellent one, bousculer. What seems clear is that Shore’s third-period bousculade followed some that both Smith and Trottier visited on him without being penalized.

Smith was first. Here, translated, is how Le Canada saw that exchange:

Smith knocked over Shore and gave him a cross-check. He escaped without punishment. Art Ross tried to pull him back but he insisted on continuing. He was all bloody. Smith charged Shore again and again withdrew without punishment.

Cut though he was, Shore carried on. “His injuries,” Le Canada was convinced at this point, “were insignificant.”

Trottier came at him next. Le Canada describes “a strong cross-check” that wounded Shore above the eye.

La Patrie’s version of this:

Towards the middle of the third period, Trottier planted his stick in Shore’s face, cutting him deeply over the eye. It took a minute for the referees to stop the game, and Shore’s face was dripping with blood.

La Presse saw this intervention as somewhat more forceful. Near Montreal’s net, Trottier struck Shore “with a blow of the stick that would have felled an ox.”

This heinous assault was carried out under the eyes of referee Leo Heffernan and he did not even make a comment to the attacker. It is hard to believe that the blow was accidentally struck.

Along with these individual attacks, Smith and Trottier may also to have teamed up for more Shore-mauling. Baz O’Meara of The Montreal Star saw this:

Smith and Trottier sandwiched Shore and gave him plenty of butt end. He was sent reeling and was groggy when he came up. He was taken out by Art Ross and blood was streaming from his eyes as he went to the side for repairs.

The correspondent from La Presse couldn’t understand why Boston’s marquee defenceman remained in the game. “From the reporters’ gallery,” he wrote, “as from any prominent spot in the rink, you could see that Shore was barely standing on his legs.” Others noted that Ross’ efforts to pull Shore from the game were met by the defenceman’s refusal to withdraw.

It was almost over — so close. Under the heading “Siebert’s Villainous Act,” La Patrie told of the game’s furious finale. With a minute to play, down by a goal, “the Maroons were making unheard of efforts to equal the score.” There’s a lively shifting of tenses here on the page, past to present, present back to past:

Shore is everywhere, multiplying himself to stop his opponents. Suddenly, Siebert goes up the centre of the ice and Shore goes to meet him and blocks him. For an answer, Siebert raises his stick and hits Shore on the nose. The Bruins’ defense player bleeds in abundance, and even falls on the ice. The blow was struck under Mallinson’s gaze, five feet from him, and the least that the culprit should have had was a major punishment. But then the game was stopped several seconds later, when it was apparent that Shore was not getting up again. When he was helped to his feet, a pool of blood marked the ice, and it had to be scraped to remove it.

That’s the lengthiest of the accounts I’ve looked at describing the incident that ended the night. Others feature what seems to be conflicting information — did Shore make it off the ice on his own or was he borne? These include:

• La Presse’s, wherein Siebert “pitilessly” cross-checked Shore’s nose. “The victim collapsed to the ice in a pool of blood and his teammates then carried him to their dressing room.”

• Le Canada: “There was a melee and Shore was seriously injured. Siebert gave him a cross-check to his face. The game ended a few seconds later.”

• Le Devoir: “Siebert was especially distinguished by his wild action in the final minutes of the game as he deliberately attacked Eddie Shore, applying a cross-check full in the face with the result that the defence player’s nose was broken and he lost a large amount of blood.”

• The Gazette says only that “Shore was cut down and so beaten that he lay prone on the ice.” (An accompanying aside asserts that Shore had, earlier in the game, gone unpunished when he “smack[ed] Siebert over the Adam’s apple when he lay prone on the ice behind the Boston cage.”)

• The Montreal Star: “Then in the final couple of minutes of the third period, Shore was victim to a high stick and was knocked down again. Siebert delivered the wallop. Shore was given a great hand as he went over to get attention. The ice was smeared with blood. He had another bad cut over his eyes. Siebert escaped without a penalty.”

• The Boston Globe’s AP report leaves it at “Siebert checked Shore heavily and the Bruin defense man was assisted off the ice by his teammates, leaving the ice stained with blood where he fell.”

Shore was eventually taken to Western General Hospital, where he stayed overnight. He was released in the morning in time to join the rest of the Bruins for their train trip back to Boston.

While the hockey players travelled, the newspapermen prepared their columns for Monday morning’s editions. For Shore, the local papers had praise and commiseration: “the courageous athlete,” they called him, “brave” and “intrepid,” “a fortress in front of [Tiny] Thompson,” even “poor Shore.”

But this was mostly secondary: they had blame to lay. Montreal’s French-language press was particularly scathing when it came to calling out those deemed responsible for what La Pressecalled the “revolting butchery” and a “slaughter.” Le Canada’s writer was likewise sickened: he’d seen many “regrettable scenes” in the 20 years he’d been watching hockey, but none that surpassed what he’d viewed on this night.

A plurality of fans leaving the Forum were, from what X.E. Narbonne of Le Devoir could tell, “disgusted” with the “treacherous, anti-sporting, and repugnant tactics” practiced by members of the team they supported. Several spectators were reported to have sought out Boston coach Art Ross after the game to volunteer to testify about the attacks on Shore, if witnesses were needed for prosecutions. A pair of Boston city councillors who happened to be attending the game also stepped up to offer testimony on Shore’s behalf.

The papers reserved most of their disgust for referees Mallinson and Heffernan for allowing the violence to escalate. La Presse spoke of their “unspeakable indifference.” Ralph Clifford of The Boston Traveler described how, usually, two capable referees would split the work on the ice, with one man watching the puck and the other the players. “In this case,” he declared, “both must have been watching the puck, for Shore did not have the puck at any time that he was slashed or butted.”

“As the duel developed and personal feuds kindled into flame,” the Gazette would say, “practically everything went, including cross checking and open butt ends in opponents’ eyes, yet no penalties were given.”

“Both clubs agree,” Clifford offered, “that had officials been prompt in putting down the high sticks and other cute little innuendoes which virile hockey players sometimes inject into a red hot game, that no injury would have been done to any player.”

NHL supremo Frank Calder deserved some scorn, too — the man paid $12,500 to run the NHL certainly had to answer, La Presse said, for “culpable negligence” in appointing such terrible referees.

The papers didn’t spare the Maroons: La Patrie decried Trottier’s and Siebert’s “brainless” behaviour, La Presse their “wild acts of savagery.” The latter delineated the dishonour and shame they’d brought down on themselves and their team. There was much speculation regarding how long Siebert would be suspended, and whether it might be for life. Trottier deserved some kind of sentence, too, probably. Both men would, La Presse said, have ample opportunity while they sat out to “meditate on their inhumane acts.”

Also brutal (“to a lesser degree, certainly”): Nels Stewart, Red Dutton, Merlyn Phillips, and Hooley Smith.

Ross was livid. I’ve seen reference to a heated radio interview he gave when he got back to Boston, but I don’t know what he said there. Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam quotes his outrage without sourcing it: “The hockey displayed by the Maroons was a crime. It was brutal. Eddie Shore was knocked out four times.” As in unconscious? I don’t think that’s his meaning here: a Boston Globe write-up about Ross’ ire doesn’t quote him directly but says that it stemmed from “the fact that Shore was hurt four times and that he finally had to be carried from the ice.”

Ross made his report to Bruins’ owner and president Charles F. Adams, who duly submitted a formal protest to Frank Calder specifically citing Babe Siebert’s conduct. There was some urgency to the matter: the two teams were due to meet again on Tuesday, November 26, just three days after the hurly-burly at the Forum.

As for the Maroons, it should be noted that the Montrealers had their own narrative of what happened at the Forum. Here’s Ralph Clifford in November 26’s Boston Traveler:

The Maroons are peeved at being called vicious, or perpetrators of frightfulness. They declare that they are as much sinned against as sinning and that if certain of the Bruins were hurt it is because they were beaten to the punch. To a man they indignantly deny that there was any attempt to “get” Shore or any other member of the Bruins and whatever Shore or any other player got was merely what he was attempting to hand out to the Maroon players.

Would Siebert play? What about Smith and Trottier? All three did, in fact, line up for the Boston re-match, tender lungs and all. Frank Calder decided against suspending Siebert: as he explained it to Adams, “statements of the Shore-Siebert clash were so highly contradictory that the Montreal player was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.”

Eddie Shore hoped to skate in the rematch. He was home all day Monday, under the care of Bruins’ physician Dr. Martin Crotty. Shore wasn’t talking, but The Evening Transcript reported Tuesday morning that he was ready to go. “The only drawback out of his injuries is that the broken nose impairs his breathing.” If he did skate, it would be with a football helmet (“equipped with a nose protection”) borrowed from the Harvard University team.

Ralph Clifford noted Shore’s silence in Tuesday’s Traveler:

He has not uttered a single chirp about last Saturday’s game. He won’t even admit that he played. Surely the player who took such a beating as he got and won’t squawk to offer the tiniest alibi or make any statement is deserving of admiration. There are not many in the game who would let an opportunity like this go by without making a bid for sympathy, but the Edmonton Express is as mum as the Sphinx over the whole matter.

In the event, Shore only made it as far as the stands at Boston Garden, watching from a box with his wife, Kate, as the teams took the ice. George Owen took his place on defence. Anticipating that the 15,000 home fans on hand might try to take revenge on the Maroons in Shore’s name, the Bruins brought in extra police to keep the peace. As for Shore’s teammates, A. Linde Fowler reported in The Evening Transcript that Adams and Ross would “send their players on the ice with strict orders to play straight legitimate hockey, with no attempts at retaliation for what happened in Montreal.”

There was a local view, too, that the visitors weren’t to be feared. “When playing away from the Forum,” Fowler reflected, “the Maroons do not put on their rough stuff. In fact, they are about as meek an outfit as there is in the NHL while playing abroad.”

Just in case, Calder assigned head NHL referee Cooper Smeaton to work the game alongside George Mallinson. Smeaton started the night by assembling the teams at centre-ice to (the Globe) “read the riot act amid the hoots and jeers of the capacity crowd.” Whatever fireworks were expected, this second Maroons-Bruins summit “was devoid of real rough work.” Babe Siebert was booed, and “came in for much razzing,” but “attended to his knitting,” contributing an assist on Nels Stewart’s first-period goal.

The thermometer in the Garden didn’t help the home team, the Globe reported: the heat in the rink was “almost depressing,” and may have contributed to the Bruins’ lethargy. When it was over, Boston had lost its first game of the young season by a score of 6-1.

They righted themselves four days later in Pittsburgh. With Shore back in the line-up and scoring a goal, the Bruins beat the Pirates 6-2 .

The other news of the week was that Bruins’ president Charles F. Adams presented his hardy defenceman with a cheque for $500. This much-reported gift was said to be based on an admiring calculation of “$100 for each scar received,” according to Boston’s Globe. In an accompanying letter, Adams “spoke of the untiring efforts and high sportsmanship of the star since he joined the Bruins.”

Shore promptly cashed the cheque and shared the money among his teammates, “believing that every one of them was subjected to the same treatment” he’d suffered.

Forgive, Forget: A 1933 trade sent Babe Siebert to the Boston Bruins, where he played three seasons before moving on to Montreal’s other team, the Canadiens. Here he poses peaceably with, left, former foe Eddie Shore and, right, Bruins’ goaltender Tiny Thompson. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

That’s almost all. In Boston if not anywhere else speculation lingered that the league might yet take action against Babe Siebert and/or make change rules to check the violence that seemed to be on the rise — or perhaps just look into improving the quality of the referees. The league’s Board of Governors met in Chicago in December of 1929 and there was some conjecture that the events of November 23 might be on the agenda. Maybe they were; nothing came of it.

A coda: after all his years with Montreal followed by a short stint with the New York Rangers, Babe Siebert was traded to Boston in December of 1933. For the Bruins, it was a bit of an emergency measure. With Eddie Shore’s indefinite suspension that month for his attack on Toronto’s Ace Bailey, the Bruins found themselves short on manpower.

••

So that’s what happened, back in November of 1929.

As for what didn’t, I can’t say where the apparently immortal myth of Shore’s five fighting majors first bloomed, just that it weeds Twitter every November 23, as it probably will again next year.

The fable of five fights seems to be seeded in, and mutated from, a lively description of the November 23 game that appears on page 69 of Liam Maguire’s 2001 book What’s The Score? A One-of-a-Kind Compendium of Hockey Lore, Legend, History, Facts, Stats. This account includes many of the same scenes and circumstances mentioned above, along with several that don’t show up in any of the contemporary accounts I’ve considered. What’s The Score? doesn’t cite sources, so it’s not clear where the outlier incidents originated.

Maguire doesn’t, to be clear, mention major penalties. His original claim for November 23, 1929 is that “Shore made hockey history with five separate fights in one game.” To wit: he exchanged punches with (in order) Maroons Buck Boucher, Dave Trottier, Hooley Smith, Red Dutton, and Babe Siebert.

Maguire has written elsewhere that it was no less of an authority than Aurèle Joliat who got him going on this in the first place. They were friends back in the 1980s and one night — December 12, 1985, in fact —the conversation turned to Sprague Cleghorn. Joliat declared that Eddie Shore was not only a better fighter than old Sprague, but had once, long ago, taken on five Maroons in a single raucous game. Maguire was surprised, and intrigued. “There was no record of this, no way to check it up. Seemed impossible.”

He duly dug up the details, he says, by consulting the second volume of Charles Coleman’s Trail of the Stanley Cup (1969), wherein he eventually came across the potted account of the 1929 game — this one — that seemed to fit the bill he was after.

It was at Ottawa’s public library, trawling microfiche, that Maguire subsequently turned up an account in a Montreal newspaper that backed up and fleshed out the story. He can’t recall which one it was, just that it confirmed the Maroons’ mandate to put Shore out of the game. And: “The story also detailed the incidents with Boucher, Smith, Siebert, Trottier, and Dutton.”

And the fact that so many Montreal newspapers that took a deep and even passionate interest in this game, along with others from Boston and beyond, don’t offer any evidence of this?

Doesn’t matter.

“It’s my contention,” Maguire says, “that Shore dropped the gloves in all five of those confrontations.”

That last assertion dates back a couple of years, to another late November, when Twitter was once again minorly abuzz with the spurious anniversary. I took the bait, bit, ended up, eventually, in a back- and-forth with Maguire that was exactly as edifying as any social-media back-and-forth ever is. I suggested that notwithstanding my admiration for Aurèle Joliat, I was having difficulty getting past the, well, history of the thing, and how primary accounts from 1929 failed to corroborate what Maguire was telling me and Twitter.

“Gotta go with the Trailand what I read,” was one response Maguire posted as a closing argument. Also: “You may choose to disagree.” Charles Coleman, he felt, still proves out his dream of Eddie Shore’s quintuple fight-night. “They were altercations. Violent. Sticks involved. For me, fights.”

I was back on the case on Twitter last Friday, as was Maguire. He’s sticking to his story:

naming rights, naming wrongs: brownies, montreals, defenders of the realm

mtl-24

Maroons-To-Be: The Montreals, 1924-25

Vegas Golden Knights is the name of the NHL’s newest franchise, as you know if you watched the big unveiling live this week from Toshiba Plaza, out in front of T-Mobile Arena, in hockey’s new Nevada home. Rumours of what the team might be called had been tumbleweeding around the internet for months. Nighthawks maybe? Desert or perhaps Silver Knights? Sand Knights, possibly? The announcement came with accents of fire and ice and, in keeping with hockey tradition, a crowd that booed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who smiled his tight smile.

So. Las Golden Knights of Vegas. No — sorry: lose the Las. Vegas Golden Knights™ is what it is, as per official NHL pronouncements the following day. Team colours? Black, gold, steel gray, white, and red. Seems like a lot, but fine. “Our base colour, in my mind, really exudes strength,” the GK GM George McPhee is seen to say in a promotional video, referring (I think) to the gold. Team owner Bill Foley was the one to explain the thinking behind the name: “We selected ‘Knights’ because knights are the defenders of the realm and protect those who cannot defend themselves. They are the elite warrior class.”

How did these medievals make it from the realm over to the Sagebrush State? I’d hoped Foley would go on to that. That’s the story I’m waiting to hear. I’m sure it’s coming. Maybe in time for next June’s expansion draft?

In the meantime, let’s look back to an earlier NHL expansion. It was, after all, at this time of year in 1924 that another new NHL team announced its name, even as another did not.

The league grew by 50 per cent that fall, with Boston and a second Montreal team joining a loop that already included Canadiens, Ottawa’s Senators, the Toronto St. Patricks, and Hamilton’s Tigers.

Expansion had, it’s true, been brewing for a while — for the full story, I recommend Andrew Ross’ Joining The Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945 (2015). Still, compared to today’s process, the whole thing looks hasty if not altogether last-minute: with the new season slated to start at the end of November, news of the new franchises didn’t appear in the press until mid-October. In 1924, Boston and Montreal each paid $15,000 to join in the fun, which amounts to something like $200,000 in modern dollars; Foley’s franchise fee sends the NHL $500-million.

In Boston, owner Charles F. Adams, the grocery-store tycoon, had hired wily old Art Ross to manage his hockey operation ahead of the team’s debut, December 1, at home to Montreal’s not-Canadiens. If the names of the initial Bruins players Ross gathered didn’t exactly soak into hockey history, men like Bobby Rowe and Alf Skinner and goaltender Hec Fowler were doughty veterans, and there was some young talented blood, too, in Carson Cooper and Werner Schnarr. Most of the players met up with Ross in Montreal. Together they took the train south to their new hockey home.

Friday, November 14, they arrived. They checked in at the Putnam Hotel on Huntington Avenue, walking distance to the Boston Arena, where manager George Brown had starting making new ice a day earlier: hockey was coming, yes, but public skating was opening for the season, too, Saturday morning at nine o’clock. He’d had to reduce the size of the ice surface to bring it into line with NHL norms, but in doing so, the Arena also gained 1,000 new seats for paying customers.

The hockey players had a hotel and a rink, and they got a name and colours in time for the weekend.

The Boston Daily Globe laid it all out for prospective fans. Uniforms would be brown with gold stripes around the chest, sleeves, the stockings. “The figure of a bear will be worn below the name Boston on the chest.” Yes, brown. That was, after all, the Adams hue in all things:

The pro magnate’s four thoroughbreds are brown; his 50 stores are brown; his Guernsey cows are of the same color; brown is the predominating color among his Durco pigs on his Framingham estate, and the Rhode Island hens are brown, although Pres Adams wouldn’t say whether or not the eggs they lay are of a brown color.

Bruins was the name Adams and Ross had agreed on, having considered and discarded Browns. The worry there: “… the manager feared that the Brownie construction that might be applied to the team would savor too much of kid stuff.”

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Was it Art Ross’ secretary who came up with the name? That’s what Brian Macfarlane says in The Bruins (1999), drawing on (I’m guessing) a few terse newspaper accounts from the late 1960s — I can’t find any earlier source. So Bessie Moss from Montreal, the story goes, was Ross’ assistant, handling the mail before he headed south, and once she heard that the team would be clad in brown suggested Bruins. Could be. Why not? The name wasn’t unknown at the time in U.S. sports, it’s worth noting: in college sports, it’s the Brown’s Bears were widely known as the Bruins, as were baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

Saturday the hockey team practiced for the first time. “I appreciate the fact,” said Ross, “that we don’t have too much time to get ready, and I’ll have to work fast with the amateurs.” The word from the rink over the course of the next ten days was that Ross was driving his men at a terrific pace and that no team that has made Boston its headquarters has ever been sent through such vigorous workouts. Ross had two players for every position other than goal, a correspondent for The Boston Daily Globe advised. “This double shift of men in good condition means hockey of the thrilling type.”

Thanksgiving night the new team lined up for its first and only pre-season game against the Saskatoon Sheiks of the Western Canadian Hockey League. A formidable professional crew, they’d just beaten the world-champion Canadiens twice in three exhibition games in southern Ontario. Manager Newsy Lalonde also played on the defence, and he had former NHLers Harry Cameron, Corb Denneny, as well as future stars Bill and Bun Cook skating for him, along with George Hainsworth in goal.

There were lots of possible reasons why only 5,000 spectators showed up. It was a holiday, and football season hadn’t quite wrapped up, and nobody knew the hockey players who’d just arrived. “Thrills were almost lacking,” was The Boston Daily Globe’s verdict on what an unfull house witnessed on Arena ice, “the crowd becoming enthusiastic only over an occasional clever stop by a goaltend.”

Sheiks won, 2-1, on a Bill Cook winner set up by Lalonde. The home team might have had a second goal, but referee Lou March rescinded it:

Late in the first period a mix-up in front of the Sheiks’ goal heaped half-a-dozen players on the ice, and when the tangle was straightened out by referee Marsh, the puck was in the net. Saskatoon, with two men serving out penalties on the side-lines, had five men on the ice.

Furthermore, there was an extra puck on the playing surface.

Marsh could not find the explanation, so he reduced the Sheiks by one and disallowed the goal.

On to the regular season. For their first NHL game, the Bruins faced Montreal’s newest team, known mostly in those infant months as “the new Montreal team.” Under the managerial eye of Cecil Hart, they’d been getting themselves up to seasonal speed in Montreal and Ottawa. Clint Benedict was the goaltender; notable skaters included Punch Broadbent and Canadian Olympic star Dunc Munro. Continue reading

dickie moore, 1931—2015

dickie m

Dickie Moore was 84 when he died on Saturday in Montreal. A Hall-of-Fame left winger, he twice won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. While he also turned out, later in his career, for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the St. Louis Blues, it’s as a Montreal Canadien that he’ll be remembered, a Habs’ legend on six of their Stanley Cup-winning teams through the 1950s. The New York Times has an obituary here — though better, first, to read Red Fisher’s heartfelt memoir of his long-time friend from Montreal’s Gazette. Then, maybe, these few views of Dickie Moore’s years on ice:

1

He was supposed to be headed for New York, the Rangers, in exchange for Dean Prentice, it was in the papers, except for, well, then, no. The Canadian Press reported that Rangers GM Frank Boucher called up Selke to say he didn’t have anyone of Moore’s calibre to trade, other than maybe Danny Lewicki. Selke: You can’t trade Lewicki, he’s playing too well. As Selke told it, Boucher said Prentice and Ron Murphy weren’t good enough and they left it at that. Next day, Rangers’ president General J.R. Kilpatrick phoned up to say he’d pay cash for Moore. “I told him,” said Selke, “we couldn’t play with cash.”

So he stayed, as did Mazur, though the latter was sent down to the Montreal Royals, and eventually found his way to Chicago. Three seasons later, Moore topped the league in scoring for the first time.

2

His nickname, of course, was Digging Dickie.

As a rookie for Montreal in 1952, he played with Elmer Lach and Dick Gamble on what was described as the league’s most torrid line. His most famous linemates: Maurice and Henri Richard.

3

Adjectives that appear next to his name in the register of Hall-of-Famers include aggressive and robust. Stan Fischler has called him brash to a fault and at first believed to be uncontrollable.

In sundry newspapers he was described as the problem child of Quebec junior hockey (1950) as well as a bellicose showboating rugged winger and colorful type and darling of the crowd and paradoxically, roundly despised by others because of his flair for showmanship (1950); speedy young forward (1951); brilliant rookie (1952); chippy operator (1952); aggressive, two-way performer (1955); also plucky (1961); a dependable playoff performer (1962); battle-scarred (1967); and once-proficient (1967). Toronto GM Punch Imlach called him a great competitor (1964) and sore-legged all-star (1966).

4

For his first Art Ross in 1957-58 he scored 36 goals and 84 points in 70 games. The following year he piled up 41 goals; his 96 points that years were the most an NHL player had ever accumulated in a season.

A brilliant goal from the Habs’ 1959 Cup-winning game against Chicago was described this way:

Instead of passing from the end boards, he sprinted out and jammed the puck past Hall.

5

Some wounds and infirmities:

He went to hospital in 1952 with badly bruised knees.

In 1958 his fractured hand impaired his stickhandling and shooting. Canadiens’ physiotherapist Bill Head said it was a small bone just under the thumb that was broken, and that it was injury often incurred by baseball players.

Irwin Spencer of the New York Rangers slashed him in 1961, fractured a bone in his foot.

Later that year, in the playoffs, he was on a list of Hab casualties compiled by Bill Head that included: Billy Hicke, concussion and head gash; Tom Johnson, pulled groin; Phil Goyette, mild concussion; Ralph Backstrom, leg and ankle; Jean Béliveau, head injury; Dickie Moore, wrist; Jean-Guy Talbot, loose teeth.

In the summer of 1961 he had surgery on his left knee to remove cartilage. At training camp that September the knee was weak.

With the Leafs in 1964, he bruised the base of his spine hitting the boards backwards in New York, an injury he concealed for two weeks until he couldn’t skate.

A word often associated with his knees was gimpy. Back again in 1962, he was 31 with a limp and a question mark hovering just in front of him, in front and up a bit. He’d had knee surgery in the summer, the left knee again, this time the doctors removed a cyst. Moore hoisted the leg of his trousers for a reporter to study the aftermath of all the hospital work: three six-inch scars.

“The thing is that I have to work at this game,” he explained. “The knee will never be perfect and I have to do some things a little differently. I have to know how to twist and turn without straining it and to expect a little pain once in a while.”

At training camp in Verdun he had his best day on September 19 when he scored a picturesque goal and set up another by Lou Fontinato and (Pat Curran wrote in The Gazette) “was skating much like The Digger of old.”

“I should have had another goal but that Patate picked it off when I tried to flip the puck past him.”

Patate: wily old Jacques Plante.

6

Youths attacked him: youths. The Habs were in Detroit, April of 1952, in the finals. The Red Wings won the game, 3-0, to take a three-game lead, it was all over, except for the hallway scuffling. The Ottawa Citizen told the tale: a jostling group of youthful fans was waiting for the Canadiens outside their dressing room when

One youth laid into Moore with a body check. Moore shoved him and the band grabbed the Canadiens. But [Red Wing Leo] Reise and [Ted] Lindsay, passing by, grabbed two of the youths and ended the scuffle.

7

He couldn’t do it any more in 1963, his ailing legs wouldn’t let him. He was 33 a year later when Punch Imlach plucked him off waivers and brought him to Toronto (he also grabbed Terry Sawchuk). “When I draft players,” Imlach said, “I tell them to throw away the medical reports and birth certificates

“We have nothing to lose by taking a shot with Moore, we’ve had guys play with almost broken legs so I’m certainly not worried about a couple of sore knees.”

He played 38 games for the Leafs before he decided his knees really weren’t up to the work.

He did come back for one more season, in 1967-68, when the St. Louis Blues convinced him to give them a whirl. On a team that iced Glenn Hall, Doug Harvey, and Red Berenson, Moore only played 27 regular-season games, but he was instrumental in getting the Blues into the playoffs, and he was the team’s leading scorer (seven goals, 14 points) as they fought a way to the finals, where Montreal beat them in four games.

“They’re paying me well and when a guy likes the game as much as I do, it’s pretty hard to turn down something like this,” he said as the season got underway. “They’re not expecting the world from me. They want me to set my on pace and I don’t think I’ll disgrace anyone.”

“I mean, people don’t go out now strictly with the idea of knocking somebody down. In my day, guys would come off the bench with only one idea in mind: run the other guy into the boards or knock him off his skates.”

 

(Photo: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e002343728)

cocaine drops, hockey high sticks, and other tales from the history of human flight

wright

Not a full biography, faulted Daniel Okrent in May, appraising for The New York Times Book Review the big new book by (quote) our matchless master of popular history. I guess by our he means America’s, though could possibly be humanity’s, too. Anyway, the book, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster) sounds good, even if our/their/everybody’s august historian is interested in only one thing, namely how it was possible that two autodidacts from Ohio managed to satisfy a longing that that the species had harbored for centuries.

In this singular pursuit (Okrent declares), the master soars, and with an empathy and fluency that’s uncommon.

Which is good to hear. What Okrent doesn’t mention in his Times review is how McCullough does when it comes to that crucial episode in the history of the Wright Brothers and indeed of human flight, i.e. Wilbur’s hockey accident.

Without it, we’d all still be earthbound. You could argue that. Would you? Would I? Not with any real enthusiasm. The fact that Wilbur Wright took a hockey stick to the mouth in the 1880s is one link only in a long chain of events that put him in the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903. I don’t think there’s any dispute: upper-body injury or no, the brothers Wright were going to fly one way or another.

The hockey link leads back to the winter of 1884-85 (though I’ve also seen it as 1886) on a lake (that may have been a pond), although the hockey actually might have been closer to the old shinny than the hockey we know today, and that the sticks they were using may or may not have been more like bats. Either way, I think we can all understand what Elmo Scott Watson means when he says, as he did The Walnut Grove Tribune in 1930, that whatever game they were playing, there was a melee.

So Wilbur was a brilliant student, a star high-school athlete at the time we’re talking here. He was the third-born of five Wright children, aged 17 in the winter in question. This was in Dayton, Ohio, on a pond/lake adjoining the Dayton Soldiers’ Home.

McCullough:

Wilbur was smashed in the face with a stick, knocking out most of his upper front teeth.

As hockey injuries go, it’s familiar as it is painful-sounding and Bobby Clarke-reminding. Wilbur was treated at the scene by an army surgeon, as John R. McMahon tells it in his book, The Wright Brothers, Fathers of Flight (1930). The opposing team, he also elaborates, was composed of the sons of army officers. And:

He refused the offers of a ride home, saying that he would walk lest it frighten his mother if he were carried home.

While McCullough misses that detail, he and McMahon do coincide in most of what happened next.

Here’s McCullough:

For weeks he suffered excruciating pain in his face and jaw, then had to be fitted with false teeth. Serious digestive complications followed, then heart palpitations and spells of depression that seemed only to lengthen. Everybody grew more and more concerned.

McMahon:

There followed a long period of delicate health if not semi-invalidism, with a diet confined to liquids, eggs and toast. It seemed to every one that the boy was handicapped for life and none dreamed of the possibility of a great compensation …

The boys’ father, Milton Wright, was a bishop in the United Brethren Church. Wilbur’s plan had been to go to Yale and thereby, eventually, to follow in his father’s pious footsteps. His delicate convalescence put an end to the college talk. His brothers went out into the world, travelled, married. Wilbur stayed home with his parents. For three years he was more or less a recluse, “cook and chambermaid,” as an older brother wrote, to his parents. In the seven years or so he spent fully recovering his health, he spent much of his time reading, worrying now and then about his lack of ambition. He eventually joined his younger brother in business, first at Orville’s printing press and newspaper, then at his bicycle shop. This is the period, in the 1890s, that they began to turn their attention in earnest to the effort of getting themselves off the ground.

wilbur

What’s new from McCullough on all this is, at best, a footnote — but it’s a pretty sensational footnote at that. Where most previous accounts frame Wilbur’s injury as accidental and by the hand of an anonymous opponent, McCullough offers another view. Quoting Bishop Wright’s diary, he identifies the perpetrator as Oliver Crook Haugh, i.e. up there with Ohio’s most notorious all-time murderers, executed by electrocution in 1907 for killing his father, mother, and brother, and implicated in the deaths of perhaps a dozen others.

“At the time of hockey incident,” McCullough writes,

Haugh lived just two blocks from the Wrights. He was only fifteen, or three years younger than Wilbur, but as big as a man and known as the neighborhood bully. As would be written in the Dayton Journal following the execution, ‘Oliver never was without the wish to inflict pain or at least discomfort on others.’

Oliver Haugh, photographed before his execution in 1907. (Photo: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

Oliver Haugh, photographed before his execution in 1907. (Photo: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

Haugh “threw the bat that struck Wilbur” is the phrasing in Bishop Wright’s diary. Did he have a score to settle with Wilbur, or was he just mean and/or carried his stick carelessly on the ice or — high? We’ll never know for sure, but as the old master writes in an unexpected coda to the hockey episode, it turns out the murderer-to-be did have a job working at a Dayton drugstore where the druggist, taking pity on the boy’s complaints regarding his painfully rotting teeth, gave him a popular cure of the day: “Cocaine Toothache Drops.”

Hard to say what lessons we can draw from all of this. Mouthguards might have helped, if someone had thought to invent them in time. It’s always a good idea, too, to try to keep the psychopaths off the ice. Unfortunately for Wilbur Wright, it was at this time, as McCullough recounts, that

young Haugh became so dependent on drugs and alcohol, his behavior so out of control that he had to be committed for several months to the Dayton Asylum for the Insane.

this week: is god a jets fan?

elixir

“Hej, Heja, Heja, Cracovia Mistrzem Hokeja,” chanted the fans in Poland this week, after Cracovia Krakow beat GKS Jastrzebie in game seven of the finals of the Polish national championships.

“I’ve never even been at an NHL playoff game,” one of Toronto’s goalies, James Reimer, told one of The Toronto Star’s columnists, Rosie DiManno.

“Is God a Jets fan?” a reporter from The Free Press asked Winnipeg’s team chaplain this week. Great question. “I’ve always been taught that God loves everybody and God loves all the teams,” said Lorne Korol. “And in fact we pray for a spirit of competition for our players, we pray that they would leave it all on the ice for that audience of one, the one being God. And we pray for their safety, both on and off the ice. But we never pray for victory or good weather.”

Alex Ovechkin explained a 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders this week. “Holtsy play unbelievable, make the biggest save, keep us in the game and big win,” he said.

“The history of icing is a harrowing one, involving horrible injuries and even death,” wrote Jeff Z. Klein in The New York Times. This after Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen was injured in a race to touch up a puck for icing. Puzzled Damien Cox from The Toronto Star: “Guy hurt on icing, immediate calls for rule changes; guy gets brain injury in a fight, ho-hum, part of the game #absurd”

On Hockey Night in Canada, Ron Maclean called Toronto’s Nazem Kadri “Nazem-a-taz.” Kadri had just scored a hattrick against Ottawa, so he was happy, as were his teammates, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, who stood behind him. “Hard-hat hockey,” is what Toronto plays, said McLaren. Don Cherry was there, too, and he kissed Kadri.

Before that, Maclean said to Kadri, “Your parents knew, your teachers knew, in London, that that was kind of, that you had the spit, you had the self-confidence, and you didn’t take losing lightly, so … congrats is the simplest way to say it.”

“Thank you,” said Kadri, as well as “Lups is a great player” and “My old man’s a pretty gritty guy, too.”

“Who taught you to hit?” Maclean had asked him, “because I know you were good at volleyball and basketball.”

The New York Rangers were having troubles scoring goals, so reporters on the beat asked coach John Tortorella why. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

A puck, slapshot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, flew into Sidney Crosby’s jaw, which broke, shedding teeth and blood. Everybody grimaced. Nobody wanted to think the worst. Crosby left the game.

“I just know,” said his coach Dan Bylsma, after the game, “he had some issues with his teeth. Just from the replay I know that.”

Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle wondered, “Is that the hockey gods sending a message?” Continue reading