dave kerr turns a blind eye

Born in Toronto on another Tuesday of today’s date, this one in 1910, Dave Kerr got his NHL start in 1930 with the Montreal Maroons. He played seven seasons with the New York Rangers, with whom he had a very good year in 1940, winning a Stanley Cup championship and a Vézina Trophy. In 1944, Wilf Cude rated his old friend Charlie Gardiner as the best goaltender he’d ever seen, with Frank Brimsek and Kerr tied for second in his estimation. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s selection committee discussed Kerr’s candidacy in 1969 and ’75, but he didn’t get the support he needed to be inducted, and I guess his time has passed. Kerr died in 1978 at the age of 68.

In the 1980s, Montreal Gazette columnist Dink Carroll recalled his keen eyesight and extraordinary reflexes. Nobody could score on him on a breakaway or a penalty. “Like Ted Williams,” Carroll said, “he went out of his way to protect his eyes, wearing sunglasses and refusing to refusing to look out a train window at the snow.”

I haven’t seen Kerr talking about that, but in 1935 he did have an answer when Harold Parrott of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle asked him how many of the shots coming at him he failed to see because his vision was blocked.

“Fully 50 per cent,” he volunteered. “The rubber will come out of a scuffle, out from behind somebody, and you have to grab in the dark for those kind. Then they yell at you from the stands that you’re blind.”

 

total prose, that’s what I’m here for

Crease Crouch: Born in Toronto on a Saturday of this date in 1945, Al Smith tended goals in the NHL for Leafs, Penguins, Red Wings, Sabres, Whalers, and Rockies in the 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s. Pictured here in the fall of 1978, he was also a star in the WHA with New England, and thereby an inaugural member of the league’s Hall of Fame. A busy writer, too, in his later years. Al Smith died at the age of 56 in 2002.

 

locomotive at large

Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.

In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.

He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.

After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.

A writer for  Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:

I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.

Theme Park: Conacher and his legacy are commemorated in a midtown Toronto park.

(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

charlie querrie’s toronto may be gone, but his legacy endures in the stanley cup championships he won and the team he (almost) named

Rink Boss: A century ago, there were few more conspicuous — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene than Charlie Querrie, seen here on the ice at Arena Gardens, the Mutual Street rink he managed.

The downtown arena he ran for more than a decade is gone now, reduced to a lonely plaque in a strip of park shadowed by condo towers in downtown Toronto. The big theatre he built on the Danforth is no more, which is also true of the daily newspaper where he worked for years.

The hockey teams he owned and coached to a pair of Stanley Cups in the early years of the NHL? Yes, that’s right: they’re history, too.

Like Charlie Querrie’s name and record of achievement, the Toronto that he moved in, and the institutions he built, occupy a faded if not quite forgotten geography of the city’s past. A century ago, there were few more prominent — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene.

Time, then, to acknowledge him and lend his story some context, maybe amend an oversight or two in the historical record? As it turns out, Querrie’s legacy as a prime hockey influencer has endured, even if it has been hiding in plain sight amid the foliage that adorns the sweaters of the team that he shepherded into NHL history.

Born in Markham, to Toronto’s  north and east,  in 1877, Querrie made his mark as a field lacrosse player before he ever fixed his focus on the ice. He’s in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame for his exploits on the grass, back when the game there was a much bigger deal than it is now.

He was shifty, those who saw him play later said, and speedy, with a deadly shot. In 1902, he scored 68 goals in a run of 17 games. That was with a Toronto team, during a tour of England that included a game at Lord’s in London in front of King Edward VII and a crowd of 20,000.

Querrie played professionally after that, signing on in 1906 as the playing coach of another Toronto team, Tecumsehs. He was not, court records confirm, an entirely peaceful player. Words like firebrand and hair-trigger temper figure in reviews of his career. He was arrested for clouting a referee during a game on Toronto Island in 1904. For that, he was convicted of assault in Police Court, and paid a $5 fine for his efforts. In the aftermath, one Ottawa newspaper accorded him this recognition: “He has caused more trouble through rough work than probably any other man in the game.”

Islanders: Toronto’s Tecumsehs as they lined up in 1907. Charlie Querrie is in the front row, third from the left. Standing in the back row at far left is Tim Daly, who’d later serve several decades as trainer of the Maple Leafs.

When he wasn’t wielding a lacrosse stick, Querrie was working as a printer in those years. Later, he was a sportswriter and editor for the daily Toronto News. While there’s no record of his having played hockey of any competitive kind, he ended up rinkside all the same. In 1912, professional hockey debuted in Toronto with the opening downtown of Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Without quitting his day job at the News or his summer lacrosse gig, Querrie took up, too, as manager of the new facility.

He was 40 in 1917, the year that the professional hockey world shifted, transforming the former lacrosse star’s trajectory as it did so. That November, after eight seasons as hockey’s major league in eastern Canada, the National Hockey Association died a quick administrative death one afternoon in Montreal’s Windsor Hotel — only to be immediately reformed as the National Hockey League.

That maneuvering was all because of one not-much-liked man, Eddie Livingstone, another former newspaper editor who’d owned several of the NHA’s Toronto franchises over the years, aggravating peers, players, and officials as he went. “The toxic Toronto owner,” hockey historian (and former prime minister) Stephen Harper called Livingstone, “quarrelsome and litigious.”

So thoroughly loathed was he by his peers in the old league that they were willing to scuttle the whole enterprise just to be rid of him. And it worked.

Backed by Montreal owners, the NHL’s new, Livingstone-free Toronto team found a home at Arena Gardens, where Querrie was still running the operation. The man originally picked to manage the team was Jimmy Murphy, another veteran of the lacrosse field who came with solid hockey bona fides, too.

And when Murphy bowed out just two weeks before the league’s inaugural season got underway? “I’ve got a new job,” Querrie told The Globe as the NHL’s four teams prepared to launch into the league’s inaugural season.

Managers in the early NHL were often more directly involved than their modern-day counterparts, exhorting their players and directing traffic from the bench as much as attending to matters of personnel, arranging trades and doling out contracts. And so while Querrie did hire Dick Carroll as a coach that first NHL season, that didn’t mean he wasn’t on the front lines himself, as thickly into the action as he could be without donning skates.

Querrie’s team was named the Torontos that year, plain and simple, though imaginative press reports sometimes styled them as the Blueshirts. Before they hit the ice that December, 103 years ago, Querrie issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto, distilling his own rigorous sporting philosophy as he laid down the law for the players in his charge on how they should apply themselves.

Point #4: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

Point #8: “You will be punished for indifferent work or carelessness. If you are anxious to win all the time you will be a good player. Indifference or lack of pepper is one thing we never did like.”

The season that ensued in the winter of 1917-18 was as tumultuous as any in the NHL’s 103-year history — present company, perhaps, excepted.

Still, Querrie’s team found a way through. After he tended to an early goaltending crisis, the team that styled themselves simply as the Torontos went out and won both the NHL title and the subsequent Stanley Cup final, beating the Vancouver Millionaires, the west-coast champions, in five games.

It wasn’t always pretty. Frank Patrick was president of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association that year. There was too much gambling in the Toronto rink at the final, he felt. Also? “Torontonians are very prejudiced.” As for Querrie, “he acted pretty friendly,” Patrick allowed, “except when under stress of excitement.”

That might help explain the feud that Querrie cultivated in that same series with Art Ross, then a former star defenceman assigned to referee a pair of the 1918 Cup games. Querrie was only too pleased to describe the exchange he had with the man who would go on to more or less invent the Boston Bruins. “Ross started in by telling me that I was a poor loser,” Querrie said, “and went on to say that I was mixed up in a crooked league, and was a crook in sport. I promptly called him a liar, and then he threatened to lick me.”

However else it’s remembered, the early history of the NHL stands out for the pains the league took to go on thwarting Eddie Livingstone, who was bent on revenge if acceptance wasn’t in the cards.

Pre-Leafs: By the time the St. Patricks posed for this photograph during the 1923-24 season, Querrie had already steered two Toronto teams to Stanley Cup championships. Back row from left, that’s trainer Billy Popp, Shrimp Andrews, Red Stuart, John Ross Roach, Bert Corbeau, Toots Holway, assistant trainer Oh Boy Saunders, Querrie. Front, from left: Chris Speyer, Amos Arbour, Jack Adams, Babe Dye, captain Reg Noble, and Stan Jackson.

As part of that program, the Toronto team relaunched in 1918 as the Arenas. A year later, when Querrie and an old lacrosse pal took control, the team was briefly renamed the Tecumsehs, though almost overnight the owners of hockey’s senior-league St. Patricks swooped in to buy the club and change the name again.

Querrie remained a part-owner of the NHL St. Patricks, newly clad in green, and he continued his hands-on management, with success — the St. Pats won another Stanley Cup championship in 1922.

When in 1924, the NHL fined Querrie $200 for “abusing an official,” the object of his ire was — guess who? — Art Ross.

Their quarrel continued after Ross took over as coach and manager of Boston’s expansion Bruins. One night in December of 1926, with Querrie’s St. Patricks battling the Bruins at Boston Garden, a melee broke out over a called-off goal. Ross was already out on the ice remonstrating with the referee when the Toronto manager followed him.

“Someone hurled a monkey wrench at my head,” Querrie recalled when he was back safe in Toronto. “It wasn’t any toy either but a full sized three-pound wrench and I brought it away for a souvenir. It only missed my head by a foot. Then someone socked me with a hard-boiled egg and not an overly fresh one at that. There were plenty of eggs flying.”

Even when they weren’t under barrages, the St. Patricks were not very good that season. Querrie was back behind the bench, but he didn’t seem to have any answers as the team won just two of their first ten games. Local newspapers reported that he and his partners were ready to sell the team, with C.C. Pyle stepping forward as the likeliest buyer, an American promoter who wanted to move the team to Philadelphia.

The story of how the hockey team stayed in Toronto has been burnished into legend. It’s the one in which Conn Smythe — war veteran, gravel contractor, hockey coach — saved the day, backed by a partner or two. Smythe had been hired and quickly fired by the fledgling New York Rangers that fall and parlayed his earnings into even bigger money with a couple of sports bets. Then he combined those winnings with his own daring, pluck, and sense of civic duty to buy the St. Patricks. In February 1927, he duly transformed them — in the middle of the NHL season, no less — into the Maple Leafs.

And that’s, more or less, the way that it went.

The team’s new name was nothing particularly novel. The maple leaf had been a national emblem since before Confederation and had been appropriated by hockey and lacrosse teams across the country ever since — complete with the spelling-error of the plural. Toronto’s minor-league baseball Maple Leafs had been swinging away since 1895.

If nowhere in the historical record does Smythe take explicit credit for the recycling the Leaf, nor did seem to mind when credit accrued to him and his patriotic pride.

“I had a feeling that the new Maple Leaf name was right,” he wrote in his 1981 autobiography, invoking the 1924 Olympic team and the insignia he himself had worn while serving with the Canadian artillery in the First World War. “I thought it meant something across Canada.”

That was right, of course, as nearly a century of subsequent Leaf history bears out. It’s just Charlie Querrie got that feeling first.

As Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth note in their 2002 book Deceptions and Doublecross, Querrie had had a name-change in mind three months earlier.

Back in December of ’26, before anyone had hurled any tools at his head, Querrie had been mulling the very switch that Smythe and his new partners would make official in February.

It wasn’t any secret. The Toronto Daily Star reported (and endorsed) the Querrie plan.

“The name St. Patricks doesn’t mean anything,” the Star opined, “and he is seriously considering dubbing his team the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

A more recent review of contemporary accounts reveal that Querrie’s first choice was, fun fact, to return the team to its NHL roots, rebranding as the plain-and-simple Torontos — only to discover that Eddie Livingstone owned the rights to that. Star columnist (and NHL referee) Lou Marsh declared himself on board with Querrie’s “non-partisan” second choice that was, to boot, “a name of fame in sport.”

“A lot of folks,” Marsh wrote, “never could understand why the club was labeled St. Pats.”

“If the switch in nomenclature is made,” the Star went on to hazard, “the green sweater may be dropped in favour of some other color scheme with a large Maple Leaf on the back.”

If Querrie was even minorly irked at not getting credit for his plan coming true, he doesn’t seem to have shared his annoyance in any public way. After the deal was done with Smythe and company that winter, he was reported to have walked away from NHL ownership with $65,000 — almost $1 million in 2020 terms. His 1919 original stake was said to have been no more than $1,200.

Out of hockey, Querrie busied himself running the Palace Theatre, the popular movie-house he’d opened in 1924 on the Danforth, in Toronto’s west end. He returned to writing, filing a genial weekly column in the Star and penning features for Leafs’ programs. He was proud of his ongoing devotion to Toronto hockey: in 1944, he noted that in the 32 years since professional hockey first launched in the city, he’d witnessed every game but three.

His feud with Art Ross withered away, then sprouted into friendship. Querrie had stowed away the wrench that just missed his head and in 1939 he had it mounted, with a clock, as a decorative desk-set, and presented it to his old rival.

Charlie Querrie died in April of 1950. He was 72. The Leafs were trying, that week, to defend the Stanley Cup they’d won three times in a row. Querrie’s last regret was said to have been that he couldn’t be on hand to watch the team he’d once owned — and almost named.

In Memoriam: Charlie Querrie’s grave in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, fall of 2020.

 

(A version of this post appeared on TVO.org in January of 2021.)

 

 

we didn’t have the heart to tell him

Bench Strength: Abby Hoffman, all-star blueliner, with the OHA St. Catharines juniors in March of 1956. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3184)

Now 74, Abby Hoffman tore through an athletics career that saw her win Pan-American gold running the 800 metres and representing Canada in track and field in four Olympic Games from 1964 through to 1976. In 1956, when she was nine years old, she was making front-page news in her hometown on the hockey rink when officials in the Little Toronto Hockey League determined that she was … a girl.

“She begged us to do something about getting her on a hockey team,” her mother, Dorothy, recounted. “She went down to the THL when the season started and she was taken on a boys team, even though she had to present her birth certificate. Later I got a call from a very nice gentleman who said he would like ‘our boy’ to play on one of the teams. We didn’t have the heart to tell him the boy was a girl and spoil her chances of playing.”

“Ab” Hoffman played defence for the St. Catharines Tee Pees; it was when she was selected to play in the league’s all-star game that it the league discovered that she was Abigail. This was page-one copy in The Toronto Daily Star this week in ’56: she had played “more than a dozen games over the past four months with her team without arousing the suspicions of league officials, her coach, her manager, or her 15 teammates.”

“League officials,” the Canadian Press advised, “at first debated her eligibility to play … but decided to let her continue.”

By the following week, newspapers across Canada were reporting on Hoffman’s whirlwind weekend.

She collected an assist in her team’s 5-0 win over St. Michael’s.

Having sold $30 worth of tickets to the LTHL all-star game, she learned she’d earned a brand-new batch of hockey equipment.

On the Saturday night, she attended her very first NHL game, witnessing the local Maple Leafs dispatch the New York Rangers by a score of 5-2.

Sunday, she was out on the Maple Leaf Gardens ice, skating as the mascot for the OHA Junior A St. Catharines Tee Pees and giving a solo skating exhibition between periods, as well as climbing to the arena’s famous gondola for a radio interview.

She also prompted the league to set up a three-day hockey school for girls. Five days after the Hoffman story broke, LTHL chairman Earl Graham reported that “an appeal for would-be girl hockey players produced 40 applicants, ranging in age from six to 15.”

The following Friday was the all-star game. Hoffman’s team prevailed 1-0 over their Hamilton opposition. She didn’t score, but according to a Canadian Press dispatch, “little Abi [sic] outskated and outchecked her nine-year-old opponents with the gusto of a major leaguer.”

sometime other than now

Brighter Days: Toronto is in the Grey as of today, under the coding of the Ontario government’s COVID-19 response, which is to say locked down again for a stretch of 28 days. In hockey terms, that means you could get yourself skating on an outdoor rink, if you felt the need and could find one, but not get anything resembling a game going, especially not in front of spectators: all that’s forbidden. Once, though, once … in this case, what we’re looking at is a scene of women facing off on the frozen field beside Burwash Hall at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. The date given is a general one, 1910-20, but since the building of Burwash Hall, a student residence, was completed in 1913, we can narrow that down a bit more. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 477)

as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton-born (and B.C.- and Swiss-based)  photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. For more of his work, visit http://scottconarroe.com. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”