Tiny Thompson kept his pads in a cardboard box when they weren’t strapped to his legs, and they were the very same pads he wore for almost all of his long and distinguished career, starting in 1924 in Duluth, where he suited up for the USAHA Hornets before taking his talents to Minneapolis and the AHA Millers. Thompson, who died this same week in 1981 at the age of 77, joined the Boston Bruins in 1928, playing parts of 12 seasons there before retiring as a Detroit Red Wing in 1940 at the age of 35.
Cecil was the name he was given when he was born, in Sandon, B.C. He’d grown to 5’10” by the time he was playing in Boston’s nets, wherein he won a Stanley Cup in 1929 as well as, four times, the Vézina Trophy. Thompson had stopped 100,000 pucks by the time he boxed up his pads for good; that was his calculation. “Never make a move,” he advised, “until the man with the puck has made his. There is no place for guesswork in goaltending.”
(Image © Arthur Griffin. Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography. Photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
By early afternoon, the signs at Montreal’s Forum were already up: Standing Room Only. “And long before the referees called the teams together at centre ice to start the game, all this space had been grabbed up,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil would recount. “It was a complete sell-out Saturday night. And those 13,000 fortunates witnessed a mighty spectacle that crammed action and thrills into every minute of play.”
Playing a leading role that night in January of 1931: Nels Stewart, star centreman for Montreal Maroons and the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP. In a battle between two of the NHL’s best teams, Stewart, who was born in Montreal on a Monday of yesterday’s date in 1902, powered his team to a win over the visiting Boston Bruins with a third-period outburst, setting a record for speedy scoring that stands to this day.
That being the case, today’s another day that I’ll be pleased to gripe that Stewart doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His absence from the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Players in league history tells you everything you need to know about that marred memorial. Stewart won a Stanley Cup with the Maroons in 1926 and was the first man to win the Hart Trophy twice. Along with his seven seasons in Montreal, Stewart played another five for the New York Americans along with four for Boston where, though the Bruins themselves have forgotten it, he captained the team. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison overtook Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Toronto Telegram columnist Ted Reeve grew up with Stewart in the Beaches, in Toronto’s eastern end. “The best natural all-round athlete I have ever seen in Canada,” Reeve called him.
“Extremely deceptive,” was Frank J. Selke’s verdict, “the brainiest player I have ever known.”
Selke also testified that Stewart “couldn’t backcheck a lick.”
“He is worthless as a defensive player, always has been,” Herb Manning wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939. “There is nothing streamlined about him. He lumbers along like a truck on a steep grade. He always seems to be ten feet behind the play, whether they are going backward or forward.”
“But a split second is all the time he requires to complete a chore in the enemy zone.”
He got his chores done, scoring 324 goals in 650 regular-season NHL games, nine more in 50 playoff games.
In Montreal, he centred the famous S line, flanked by Hooley Smith and Babe Siebert. “Babe and Hooley did most of the work,” Stewart later said, “because I was a shambling six-footer who took relays from the corners.”
In 1938, the Ottawa Journal wrote about his “careless, almost lazy style,” noting also that “no goalie ever feels at ease while he is lurching and wandering around the vicinity of the net.”
Ottawa Senators goaltender Clint Benedict: “Nels liked to park and take a puck and fire it quick.”
“Nels was one helluva hockey player,” New York Rangers centreman Frank Boucher said. “He was almost impossible to move once he got in front of the net.”
Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle consulted former Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard on Stewart’s virtues in 1932, when Gerard was coaching the New York Americans.
“Big and wide of beam,” was Burr’s description of Stewart, whose playing-days metrics came in at 6’1’’, 200 pounds.
No other player in the National Hockey League practices his loafing around the nets of the enemy. He doesn’t look dangerous. He isn’t a fast skater or a hard shot. But he does all his playing from the other fellow’s blue line.
“Watch him lift his shoulder to draw the goalie out,” warns Gerard, his old Montreal boss. “That’s why he scores so frequently — he makes the goalminder make the first move. But watch further. Nels never shoots from the shoulder. He just flips his wrist.”
Boston bought him in 1932. “He is a two-fisted fighting player,” coach Art Ross said at the time, “and the greatest inside player in the game.”
Which brings us back to that night at the Montreal Forum in 1931, Saturday, January 3. Nearly halfway through the season’s schedule, the visiting Bruins were heading up the league’s American section, while the Maroons were atop on the Canadian side, neck-and-neck with the Canadiens, defending Cup champions.
Maroons prevailed, 5-3, despite going into the third period trailing 3-1. D.A.L. MacDonald wrote up the game for the Montreal Gazette, and he speculated that if the frenzied Montreal fans had any regrets, they might have centred on the hurry with which the home team turned the game around.
First winger Jimmy Ward scored. Six minutes later, Stewart stepped up after Hooley Smith slammed a shot into Tiny Thompson’s pads. “The rebound dropped barely a foot in front of the Boston goalie and big Nelson Stewart was in like a flash to flip the puck over his prostrate form,” was how MacDonald saw it. “If Nels had scooped it up with a dessert spoon he couldn’t have done it more neatly.”
That tied the game. Four seconds later, Stewart scored the winner. It went like this:
From the face-off once again, Stewart slipped a pass over to Smith that left the Boston front rank behind and at the defence back came the disc to Nelson. The big fellow rode right in on Thompson and the goalie never had a chance. Another flip of those steel wrists and Maroons were in front to stay.
Two goals in four seconds. “Shades of Frank McGee!” MacDonald enthused. “For quick scoring feats and high-powered excitement, Nelson the Great has few equals.” It would, indeed, take 64 years for another NHLer to match Stewart’s record. No, not Gretzky or Lemieux: in1995, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Deron Quint scored a pair of goals in four seconds versus the Edmonton Oilers to slip into the record book alongside Stewart.
Is there any indication that in scoring his brisk brace, Stewart might have distracted or disabled Tiny Thompson by spitting tobacco juice into his unsuspecting eye?
No, none. Though that is a stratagem that is persistently attributed to Stewart in latter-day accounts of his career. Mostly it’s offered up as passing proof of his cunning and/or outright nastiness, often with a hint of admiration — if not any specificity.
The general tobacco-spitting charge shows up in Stewart’s Wikipedia profile, for instance. Floyd Conner slots it into Hockey’s Most Wanted (2002), with his own twist: the eye-spitting was motivated by Stewart’s “contempt” for goaltenders. In his 2012 book, Next Goal Wins, Liam Maguire goes out on a limb of his own to venture that the nickname Old Poison derived directly from “his habit of spitting chewing tobacco into the eyes of opposing goaltenders.”
Stan Fischler has been one of the more enthusiastic purveyors of the expectorating story over the years; it repeats throughout his broad oeuvre. Here it is in his The All-New Hockey’s 100 (1998):
It was not uncommon for Stewart to chew a wad of tobacco, produce juice, and then spit it unerringly in the eyes of a goalie as he shot the puck.
None of the above mentions is sourced; not one identifies a particular instance which any first-hand accounting to back up the chewing/juicing/spitting combo that Stewart is reputed to have employed to such (purported) devilish effect. None of the authors cited above seems to have done any digging of their own. If they had, they’d have found that no-one seems to have been taking note of Stewart’s spitful habit when he was actually playing: my scourings of contemporary newspaper accounts from Stewart’s active years in the 1920s and ’30s haven’t turned up even a fleeting mention of any tobacco-chewing let alone spitting.
The legend does (fittingly?) crop up in the five-part hockey-history TV series that Vancouver’s Opus Pictures produced in 1996, Legends of Hockey, and my guess (it’s mostly a guess) is that it’s from this (also unsourced) documentary that the subsequent literary mentions originated and proliferated. (Wikipedia’s mention of Stewart’s adventures in chaw footnotes it.) The second episode includes short biographies of several colourful hockeyists, including Eddie Shore, Red Horner, and Ol’ Poison himself. You can click in to review it here, starting at the 27:26-minute mark, where you’ll soon hear narrator Alan Maitland intone:
As well as being poison around the net, the Montreal Maroons’ Nels Stewart had the nasty habit of spitting his chewing tobacco in the goalie’s eyes. Never a great skater, never a great checker, he was still a lethal goalscorer.
As Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star wrote back in 1996, Legends of Hockey is, as a whole, a delightful confection. Specifically citing Stewart and his alleged spitting, Woolsey also notes that “in the off-hand fashion of such productions, this pungent detail is presented without elaboration. Legends delivers with more similar tidbits of history, whetting the appetite. What it might not explain meatily, the series suggests delectably.”
Is it possible that there’s truth at the root of the legend, wherever that might lie? Of course. But without any first-hand account of where Stewart might have been chewing his tobacco and loosing it on contemptible goaltenders, or when, or who the goaltenders might have been, I’ll be wary of treating the tale as fact. I don’t mind James Marsh’s formulation in his biography of Stewart in The Canadian Encyclopedia:
The story that he spat tobacco juice in the eyes of opposing goalies may be apocryphal but apparently is in keeping with his temperament on the ice.
If Newsy Lalonde merits a mention here (and he does), it’s because he’s a, well, key witness in the larger case — as well as a prime suspect.
Lalonde, of course, was one of hockey’s greatest talents, as well as another fairly glaring absentee from that centenary list from 2017. His pro career on ice started as early as 1906, and he went on to play seven NHL seasons, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens, before it was over in the late 1920s. He was famously uncompromising — which is one generous way of saying that he played the game violently and often with what still looks like, over the distance of years, breathtaking spite.
Not that he was (apparently) alone in his willingness to twist rules or (as the case may be) soak them in tobacco juice in those early decades. Long after he’d hung up his skates he was still recalling the transgressions of opponents like Paddy Moran, Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender for the Quebec Bulldogs and a fellow Hall-of-Famer. Here’s Lalonde reminiscing in 1951, as reported in the Montreal Gazette:
“Paddy chewed tobacco,” Newsy said, “and he could hit a keyhole at 40 paces. You had to duck when you skated behind his cage or he’d get you right between the eyes.”
Lalonde elaborated on this theme a decade later. This time he was talking to Andy O’Brien for a feature on hockey malice for Weekend Magazine.
“Paddy [Lalonde said] was in a class by himself by himself when it came to chopping toes of opposing forwards who came within range, and in those days the skate toes weren’t so well padded. But his pet skill was squirting tobacco in your eye.”
What would it have cost Any O’Brien to press for just a few more details? As it is, I guess Lalonde’s long-range memories do get us closer to a confirmed case of tobacco-juice-in-the-eye without pinpointing anything precisely. The best we might be able to hope for on that count focusses again on Newsy Lalonde, though he’s not (and probably shouldn’t be expected to be) implicating himself this time. It’s another goaltender of old giving evidence here, Jakie Forbes, who was playing for the Toronto St. Patricks in the early 1920s when Lalonde was skating for — and captaining and coaching — the Canadiens.
Forbes’ news wasn’t exactly fresh when he got around to reporting it: one version I’m looking at dates to 1969, 50 years after the fact, when Forbes was 72, and the other is from Trent Frayne’s 1974 book The Mad Men of Hockey.
Both accounts are, it has to be said, fairly vivid, even if they don’t perfectly match up.
The first, from a genial Globe and Mail retrospective, has Forbes telling his tale this way to writer James Young:
The game is much faster now, but not nearly as rough as it was. In one game at the old Mount Royal rink in Montreal, Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went skating out to protest to the referee and skated right into him, knocking both of us down. He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net.
The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side of me, spit his tobacco juice in my face and when I fell skated around me to score in the open net.
Trent Frayne’s framing of this same tale five years later isn’t quite the same; it does up the colour balance.
“He was,” Forbes says this time, by way of introducing Lalonde, “the dirtiest son of a bitch I ever played against.”
In Frayne’s version, Forbes stopped Lalonde and the puck was headed back the other way. As Lalonde rounded the net to follow it, he paused to punch Forbes squarely — and hard — in the face.
“Blood spurted from the goaler’s nose,” Frayne writes, “and he took off after Lalonde, brandishing his stick like a lariat.”
The referee is named as Cooper Smeaton, and he does get knocked down. Jumping up, he’s quoted threatening Forbes:
“Get back in the goal, you crazy little bugger,” he shouted at the five-foot-five goaltender, “or you’re out of the game.”
Frayne adds some fine points to the final act of the piece, too. Near the end of the game, with Canadiens leading 4-1, Lalonde broke in with the puck. Forbes was ready for him, “readying an axe-swing at Lalonde’s head.”
But at the last instant the flying Lalonde spat a long stream of tobacco juice into Jakie’s face, circled the net laughing, and pushed the puck into the goal past the sputtering Forbes.
Triangulating with a few of the details provided by Frayne, it’s possible to key in a couple of games from the two seasons Forbes spent with Toronto. The first time he played Canadiens in Montreal was on Wednesday, March 10, 1920, a night on which the local Gazette found plenty in his performance to praise: “Forbes the Youngest Goaler in NHL Made Many Brilliant Stops at Mount Royal Arena,” reads a subhead from the next morning’s dispatch.
Too bad for Forbes, Montreal won, 7-2, with Lalonde scoring a hat trick. But contemporary accounts mention no high sticks, punches, or other hijinks. Also, the referee that night was Harry Hyland. So that’s probably not the night in question.
A better bet altogether is a game from almost a year later, a Monday-nighter played on February 28, 1921. It was noteworthy affair on several counts. A former U.S. president was one of the 5,000 spectators on hand, for one thing: what’s more, William Howard Taft was “in position to have a good view” of a first-period fight between Toronto’s Ken Randall and Didier Pitre of Montreal.
It was a thoroughly bad-tempered occasion even before the teams hit the ice. Toronto was lending winger Cully Wilson to Canadiens that season, but just before the game, with centreman Corb Denneny ill and unable to play, the St. Pats tried to claim Wilson back for their own line-up.
NHL President Frank Calder was in the building and presided over a summit in the referee’s room. The Montreal Star mapped the terrain:
If he played with Canadiens, Toronto would protest him. If he played with Torontos, Canadiens would no doubt protest him, and if he refused to play with Torontos, whose property he was, he would be suspended. The president, however, refused to counsel him what to do, and told him to suit himself, bearing in mind that he was Toronto’s property.
Wilson sat out and, indeed, never suited up for either Montreal or Toronto again: the following season he turned out for the Hamilton Tigers.
In Montreal in 1921, the game went sourly on without him. “There were many unparliamentary clashes,” the Star reported. The Mount Royal Arena’s natural ice deteriorated as the game continued, too. In the second interval, the Star’s reporter watched as “the men who were supposed to scoop the snow off the ice only got water for their pains, and when the third period began, the ice was like mud. When a man fell he got up sopping wet.”
It was in the second period that Forbes and Lalonde first sparred, though whether it was a high stick or a punch that the latter perpetrated isn’t clear. Press reports make no mention, either, of a collision between Forbes and Smeaton. “Lalonde was given a minor for charging Forbes,” is as much as we get from the Gazette, though with an interesting coda: “Lalonde was booed for his attack on the net custodian.” (Le Droit: “Lalonde was hissed when he jostled Forbes.”)
In Trent Frayne’s telling, the game ended 5-1 for Montreal, which wasn’t the case on this night. Lalonde did score Canadiens’ final goal, towards the end of the third, to complete a 4-0 Montreal win (and Georges Vézina shutout). As the Star had it, “Lalonde’s brilliant lone-handed shot finished the scoring.”
But if reporters present saw Lalonde score, none of them would seem to have noticed him spit his tobacco or laugh, and nor did they catch Forbes’ sputtering as he failed to foil him. That doesn’t mean that a spit-assisted goal isn’t part of hockey history which remains, after all, mostly a matter of the many moments, savoury or not, that go unrecorded.
Born in Egmondville, in Ontario’s southwest Huron County, on a Saturday of this date in 1904, Cooney Weiland grew up in nearby Seaforth. He started his 11-year NHL career in Boston and finished it as a Bruin, too, winning bookend Stanley Cups in 1929 and 1939 with Art Ross’ team. He also saw ice-time for the (original) Ottawa Senators and Detroit’s Red Wings. He was Boston’s ninth captain. Appointed in 1937, he served two seasons in the role, between the tenures of Red Beattie and Dit Clapper. As a coach, Weiland had charge of the Bruins for two seasons, steering them to another Cup in 1941. Weiland went on coach the AHL Hershey Bears and then, enduringly, from 1950 through to 1971, Harvard University’s men’s team.
If the measure of NHL success is whether or not your team hoists the Stanley Cup to finish a given season, then Patrice Bergeron’s first campaign as captain of the Boston Bruins was a flop.
The season itself wasn’t so dire. The Bruins, you’ll recall, finished third in their division, the old MassMutual East, accumulating 73 points, which was good enough for tenth overall in the NHL’s regular-season standings — just three points behind the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Boston won their first-round playoff series, dismissing the Washington Capitals in five games. Then, of course, they faltered, losing out in six to the frisky New York Islanders.
Historically, in the annals of Bruinly seasons going back to the team’s founding in 1924, Bergeron’s first as captain rates … fairly well. Measured by the percentage of points earned during the regular season, Bergeron’s Bruins (who went 33-16-7 in wins/losses/overtime losses) come in at .652, which ties them for 21st on the chart showing 96 seasons played to date.
That’s well behind the Bruins best season, 1929-30, when the team compiled a .875 record in Lionel Hitchman’s second year as captain. But it’s better than a whole raft of other Boston seasons, including those in which some of the greatest names in team history took over as captain.
Nels Stewart’s 1934-35 Bruins registered a .604 record before departing the playoffs in the semi-finals. Red Beattie’s 1936-37 team put together a .552 record, losing out in the quarter-finals. Bobby Bauer oversaw a .525 Bruins season in 1946-47; his Bruins lost in the semi-finals. Eddie Shore? He led Boston to a .521 record in 1935-36 and then out of the post-season in the quarter-finals. Marty Barry and Bill Cowley fared worse still: their respective teams, from 1933-34 and 1944-45 respectively, show points percentages of .427 and .350. Cowley’s team failed to get through the semi-finals; Barry’s missed the playoffs altogether.
Six times the Bruins have won the Stanley Cup in their history; it’s not unreasonable to imagine Patrice Bergeron raising a seventh during his tenure as Boston captain. Until that happens, he can take solace (maybe?) in the fact that the team he plays for actually acknowledges his captaincy.
It’s the least the Bruins could do, of course, though not (for the Bruins) so straightforward as you might think. Because while Boston does celebrate (and proudly) Bergeron’s role as team captain, the team still doesn’t allow that Barry, Stewart, Shore, Beattie, Cowley, and Bauer preceded him in the role.
Yes, it’s back to that refrain again, which is to say, this one.
To sum up, quick-like: at some point in the Bruins’ 97-year history, the team has mislaid a prominent chunk of that history, somehow overlooking the captaincies of at least six of their most famous players. Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Bruins, as the team is content to claim: he’s the 26th (or possibly the 28th).
It’s not clear when exactly the forgetting originated, just that it’s well-entrenched and, now, widespread: the team’s erroneous record-keeping has become the standard for a bevy of (mostly otherwise) reputable online registers of hockey history. I could go on (and have) about the team’s carelessness when it comes to its own rich past. I took an interest in Bobby Bauer’s unacknowledged captaincy in 2019, following where others, like Bruins historian Kevin Vautour, have gone before. Finding evidence of Bauer’s tenure wasn’t hard, and before long I happened on references to all the others — Barry, Beattie, Shore, Cowley, et al — who’ve been ignored.
I first contacted the Bruins in December of 2019 to ask about this and (politely) to offer to share my files. I’ve previously quoted the response I got, but it’s worth repeating here. It was Heidi Holland I heard back from, the Bruins’ the team’s director of publications and information, and thereby the gatekeeper of the team’s history, statistical and otherwise, as enshrined in the team’s annual Guide & Record Book.
Focussing on Bobby Bauer’s claim, she wrote:
This question has come up a couple of times over the past several years but unfortunately, I have no way of confirming it. The list of captains from earlier media guides lists John Crawford as captain in that season. The earliest media guide that I have is 1947-48 and Crawford’s bio in that book only says that he has “been captain or assistant captain of the Bruins in recent seasons.” Bauer does not have a bio in that guide.
When the subject first came up, I asked Milt Schmidt (as the only person who was active at that time) if he remembered Bobby being named Boston’s captain and he did not have any recollection that he did.
Fair enough, I guess … if also fairly dismissive of the idea that there just might be proofs out there that go beyond Milt Schmidt’s memory.
Evidence of the overlooked captains has been out there, of course, for going on 90 years, available for the finding by anyone, including club employees, willing to bother to take the initiative to look for it. I keep coming across references in my archival wanderings, as do others, like Kevin Vautour and Jeff Miclash, a researcher in Burlington, Ontario, who’s working on a book about the Bruins in the 1930s. At this point, we have a regular online marketplace going where we gather to share newfound references to the snubbed captains and roll digital eyes at the Bruins’ ongoing oblivion. It was this past January, as Patrice Bergeron inherited the C, that I piled up the evidence and made my case in that puckstruck.com post of mine. I cc’d that to Heidi Holland and several other interested parties attached to the team without hearing anything back. At the risk of annoying these same people, I got back in touch in July, in the quietude of Boston’s post-season, in the interest of getting the record straightened out in time for the upcoming season. The response, again, was … none.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Bruins are doubling down on the institutional inattention to detail that’s prevailed to this point. The end of their willful neglect of this history of theirs might well be on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet, or access it on our browsers.
Because here’s the thing: as a new NHL season approaches, the Bruins will be, in the next few weeks, unveiling their 2021-22 Guide & Record Book. It’s entirely possible that the team has tidied up the register of captains altogether quietly, on their own, righting the record that’s been wrong.
I’ll be happy to see it; I’ll salute their diligence. Meet me back here when — if — that happens.
Meantime, I’m happy to barge back into the question of just how the Bruins came to not remember that Bobby Bauer and Eddie Shore et al. served the team as captains. The answer is probably lost for good, actually — but maybe can we narrow in to take a look at the timeline of the neglect?
In that e-mail of hers, Heidi Holland mentioned the 1947-48 Bruins guide as the earliest edition she’s seen. That’s the one with Milt Schmidt on the cover, proudly wearing his C in the centre of his sweater. I haven’t tracked down a copy of that one, but I do have in hand the guide published ahead of the previous season, 1946-47 — that is, the one over which Bobby Bauer presided as captain.
It’s hard to discern just how involved the team was in this producing this 64-page booklet that bears the subtitle “The complete story of a great hockey team” on its opening page. Compiled by a pair of Boston Globe sportswriters, Harold Kaese and Herb Ralby, it was promoted and sold through the paper (35 cents a copy, plus another five for postage), I’m surmising that it was a Bruin production through and through. I think it may be the very first Bruin guide to have been published, though I can’t confirm that. It’s packed with player profiles, historical rosters, team records — all the usual fodder you’d expect, if not (notably) a comprehensive listing of team captains.
There’s no mention, in fact, of any captain in this ’46-47 guide. As the Bruins erringly tell it, defenceman John (a.k.a. Jack) Crawford skippered the team that season, continuing in the role he’d had the previous year. As I’ve noted before, Bauer had changed his mind about retiring in the fall of 1946, rejoining the team for one more campaign. On October 16, he was named captain of the team.
The Bruins guidebook pictured above was published a month later, on November 13. I’m speculating here, but my guess is that it was already in production when Bauer was crowned. That would explain why his captaincy isn’t mentioned.
Game for a little more esoterica? I thought so. The NHL had an official guide of its own in the 1940s. Overseen by a former newspaperman from Vancouver, Jim Hendy, it had been keeping scores and stats since the early 1930s. By the start of the 1947-48 season, it had split into two publications: Who’s Who In Hockey, which compiled active player data, and the Official Guide and Record Book, overseeing the NHL as a whole as well as minor and amateur leagues.
It’s the latter of these booklets that’s of interest here: specifically, the write-up on page 37 and the photograph following on page 56. The former commemorates the winner of the 1947 Lady Byng Trophy: “Bobby Bauer, Boston Bruins’ great little captain.”
The latter, reproduced here, shows Bauer front and centre, proudly wearing the C denoting his rank between the 1 and the 7 on his sweater. As previously noted, the 1946-47 season was the first in which letters were added to NHL sweaters to denote captains and their alternates. Bauer’s deputies show their As here: Murray Henderson standing tall beside coach Dit Clapper and, seated three places to Bauer’s left, then-former captain Jack Crawford.
One last (for now) thread from the fabric. Fast-forwarding through the decades, we find the Bruins heading into the NHL’s 1973-74 season looking forward to their 50th anniversary. This is duly noted on the cover of the team guide they published that fall:
A gallery of remarkable hockey players on that cover, you’ll agree. Of the 11 depicted, all but four (goaltenders Frank Brimsek and Tiny Thompson, along with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito) served with distinction as Bruin captains.
And yet two of them shown here — Bill Cowley and Eddie Shore — are still (then as now) missing from the historical record.
Their captaincies, along with those of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Red Beattie, and Bobby Bauer, are plain facts, despite what the Bruins recall. What the ’73-74 guide tells us is that the neglect that still seems to be in place goes back at least 48 years. The proof that the team was getting it as wrong in 1973 as it was in 2021 is on page 38:
What this may also illuminate is the how — and the who — of just what happened here. I don’t mean to be casting blame, or getting anybody into historical trouble, but, well, um, the man in charge of the ’73-74 guide was, somewhat remarkably, one of the men who’d collaborated on that ’46-47 edition, 27 years earlier.
Herb Ralby was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe starting in the 1930s, when he was in his early 20s, and he was on the job until 1970, when he left journalism to join the Bruins full-time as the team’s director of publicity. (He died in 1994 at the age of 81.) Ralby was on the scene, that’s to say, going back all the way to the time Eddie Shore’s tenure as captain, and even reported on Bobby Bauer’s tenure (below), well before he took charge of — and didn’t repair — the Bruins’ not-so-well-tended history that nobody since has bothered to set right.
Score it 0-0: the game that particular February 24 on a Sunday night in 1935 ended up without a puck getting by either goaltender through three regular periods and a ten-minute overtime. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the scene, with 26-year-old Dave Kerr tending the nets for the hometown Rangers against Tiny Thompson and the Boston Bruins in front of a crowd of 16,000 or so. The ice, by one account, was wretched.
“For Rangers,” the Boston Globe disclosed the next day, “Kerr was the whole works.” He stopped 43 pucks, recording the 15th shutout of his five-year career. His closest call? Harold Parrott from Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle said it came on a “rifle shot” from Boston’s Babe Siebert, “which nearly tore the goaler’s little finger off and hit the goal post with that dull ping which signifies failure.” Thompson deterred 39 New York shots — or maybe 34. The NHL didn’t keep official counts in those early years, and the Globe and the New York Times begged to differ in their accounting of Thompson’s work. To the latter’s eye, his hardest test came in the second period on a “ripping long shot” from New York’s Murray Murdoch.
For Thompson, who was 31 and playing in his eighth NHL season, the night marked a milestone of distinguished denial: this was the 50th regular-season shutout of his career. He was the seventh goaltender in league history to make it to that mark, following in the venerable skates of (not in order) George Hainsworth, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Lorne Chabot, Alec Connell, and John Ross Roach.
Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.
Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.
With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.
I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.
Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.
Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.
That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.
One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.
That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?
Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.
I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”
Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.
Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.
Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”
The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.
By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.
Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.
Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.
“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”
“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”
“In other words … it was a great game!”
For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.
January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”
Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.
The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.
“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.
Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.
Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”
Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”
Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.
“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.
Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12.
Born in Calgary on a Friday of this date in 1906, Paul Thompson played 13 seasons in the NHL, five of them as a Ranger in New York, the rest with the Chicago Black Hawks. A younger brother to goaltender Tiny Thompson. Paul was a left winger. Three times he got his name on the Stanley Cup, with the Rangers in 1928, in 1934 and 1938 with the Black Hawks. “Chicago’s high-flying sniper” is a phrase associated with him in ’36, when he finished up third in NHL scoring behind Sweeney Schriner of the New York Americans and Marty Barry of the Detroit Red Wings. Two years later, he was third-best again, this time chasing Gordie Drillon and Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was twice named to the NHL’s All-Star Team.
In the winter of 1938-39, the Black Hawks launched their defence of the ’38 Stanley Cup with four straight wins. In the 17 games that followed, they only won four more, and by early January of the new year, Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin decided that coach Bill Stewart had to go. In his place, he appointed a former Black Hawk, Carl Voss, who’d been scouting for the team, to share coaching duties with Thompson, who would continue to play.
According to Edward Burns of Chicago’s Tribune, Thompson was supposed to be in civvies on the night, but showed up dressed for action. He only sent himself once in the first two periods, for powerplay duty, when Boston’s Eddie Shore went to the penalty bench. He played more in the third, assisting on a Joffre Desilets goal, and engaging in “light fisticuffs” with Cooney Weiland of the Bruins. Final score: Boston 2, Chicago 1.
“Co-coach Carl Voss,” Burns reported, “who is supposed to have equal authority with Thompson under Maj. McLaughlin’s new brain trust system, was on the bench as scheduled, but so far as could be observed, functioned only as a cheer leader when the Hawks seemed to be doing all right.”
Voss subsequently seems to have settled in as assistant coach, in support of Thompson. Though Chicago ended up missing the playoffs, McLaughlin decided to stick with Thompson, and late in the season he signed on as the team’s full-time coach. He would coach another six seasons in Chicago before his tenure came to an end in 1944.
Paul Thompson died at the age of 84 in 1991.