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.”

 

noshing (no more) with 99

Say your so longs to Grandma Gretzky’s Perogies, get your goodbyes in for WGS Plant Based Vegan Caesar Salad: after 27 years, Wayne Gretzky’s own Toronto flagship restaurant is closing today for good. A condo development (of course) will rise in its downtown stead.

I was only ever there once, in — wait, now — 1994? Wayne was on hand himself, I wish I could say he was manning the stoves, but no, it was a book launch, for Jim Taylor’s Wayne Gretzky: The Authorized Pictorial Biography. I talked to Taylor, who was friendly, and to Wayne’s dad, Walter, who was friendlier. There was no getting near the then-Great One: like the appetizers, he was besieged as soon as he appeared.

The restaurant had opened a year earlier, down on what used to be Peter Street, just north of the used-to-be-SkyDome, in the year-of-our-Lord-the-Blue-Jays-won-a-second-straight-World Series. Back then, of course, the local hockey team was still at home uptown, at Maple Leaf Gardens. The restaurant debuted in July of 1993 with the intent (as WG’s website explained right up to the end) of striving “to honour this Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer by creating a dining experience with Gretzky’s greatness in mind.”

The gall. That same spring, Gretzky had taken a break as a fine-dining impresario to join the Los Angeles Kings in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Against Toronto in the Campbell Conference Final, Gretzky escaped justice in the sixth game of the series when he high-sticked Leaf captain Doug Gilmour and failed to surrender himself after referee Kerry Fraser missed the call. Maybe you don’t remember; Toronto will never forget.

The Kings won that game, in overtime, on a goal of Gretzky’s. He had a say in the deciding game, too, scoring a hattrick as the Kings dismissed the Leafs 5-4 to win the series and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.

How did Toronto forgive #99 his trespass? It’s hard to remember. Somehow. Gretzky’s opened a month after the Kings ceded the Cup to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of five games, so I guess there’s that.

It wasn’t just Gretzky, of course, who made the restaurant happen, he was just a partner, and the brand. The Bitoves were the majority owners; there was talk, too, that they were after an NBA franchise. In August, not long after the restaurant opened, Globe and Mail sportswriter William Houston dropped by.  He came out unimpressed. “The food was mediocre and the service slow,” he griped in the paper. “It took 35 minutes to get a ‘King’s Clubhouse.’ When it arrived the French fries were soggy and cold — not even tepid, but chilly.”

Houston was all over the story of the restaurant that month: he also broke the news that the first question prospective WG’s employees were asked when they came in for an interview was, “What does Wayne Gretzky mean to you?”

Wayne and his wife Janet were on hand for the grand opening in September, and so too was a forgiving Gilmour. His Toronto teammate Wendel Clark showed up, too, as did Gretzky’s old Oilers pal Paul Coffey, a Detroit Red Wing by then, along with future Leaf president Brendan Shanahan, still toiling on the ice in those years as a winger with the St. Louis Blues. Vladislav Tretiak came, and Alanis Morissette, and Toronto’s mayor, June Rowlands.

What else?

It’s worth noting, maybe, that Gilmour opened his own restaurant that same fall, Gardoonies, not far from the rink where he worked his day job.  I’m pretty sure it’s no longer around, though I should probably check on that, just to be sure.

What I can report is that #93’s new digs didn’t make quite the immediate impression that Gretzky’s did — not, at least, if the December, 1993 issue of Toronto Life is your source, as it is mine. Consulting the magazine’s year-end awards issue, I find that while Gardoonies figured not at all,  #99’s place had endeared itself so thoroughly to its host city that it featured twice, winning recognition as the city’s

NOISIEST RESTAURANT

Wayne Gretzky’s on Peter Street; take earplugs.

and for the year’s

MOST AUDACIOUS ATTEMPT AT STICKHANDLING THROUGH CITY COUNCIL

By Wayne Gretzky, who tried to get 41 Peter Street (the location of his jock – stop/restaurant) changed to 99 Blue Jay Way. The Great One’s request is tied up in city council.

Councillor Howard Levine was chairman of the committee considering the application, and he said the city was being seen as “pliant and lacking in principles” for even contemplating allowing the change.

Another councillor, Robert Maxwell, said that letting Gretzky have his Way would give the impression that anybody could have a street name changed.

“You just don’t play with history like that,” said Councillor Michael Walker, though I guess in the end the lesson we all learned is that you do, if you can, and Gretzky did, eventually. But then, like the restaurant at 99 Blue Jays Way itself (as of tonight), that’s also, well, history.

therein lies the hub

The hockey players won’t be arriving until Sunday, but in Toronto yesterday the downtown lockdown that is the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs was underway as the NHL prepares to quarantine itself away to try to get to the end of its 2019-20 season. By this morning, the Leafs’ own Scotiabank Arena (above) was fully fortified behind the fencing that will keep out the (possibly contagious?) public + any media who don’t work for the league while the hockey players attempt to do their thing until its done. Also sealed-off is the nearby Fairmont Royal York (below), one of two Toronto hotels that will be housing hockeyists and only hockeyists for the next two months. Yes, that’s right: as Kevin McGran explained this week in The Toronto Star, the NHL is restricting all but its own NHL.com writers when it comes to covering these strange, sequestered playoffs.

In this, the year of our dread and disruption, 24 teams will gather, 12 in Toronto, 12 in Edmonton, as the league follows its Return To Play Plan that will see teams (probably) hit the ice on Tuesday for a quick round of exhibition games before (here’s hoping) they get into the competitive sort in another week’s time, on Saturday, August 1.

What’s hub life going to be like for those on the inside? The NHL got into that, a little bit, yesterday, here, which is how we know that Toronto’s hub will be guarded by “97 security guards and health ambassadors” (Edmonton gets 125), and that the league has secured “more than 1,000 cases of Gatorade, 1,000 practice pucks, and 12,000 shower towels” in each city to last through the early qualifying games.

And for those of us on the outs, peering in? The man in charge of overseeing what fans will see and hear on TV is Steve Mayer, the NHL’s senior executive VP and chief content officer. “We hope that we do something that is memorable, sticks out, something that our fans will really enjoy,” is what he told NHL.com.

There won’t be, he says, virtual fans or cardboard cut-outs, or teddy bears in the stands. Broadcasters NBC and Sportsnet will be employing twice as many cameras as usual. For atmosphere, the NHL plans to pipe in “goal songs, goal horns, in-arena music compilations and motivational videos from each of the 24 teams participating.”

And if, in the coming weeks, you get the feeling you’ve crossed over from the real world into the virtual confines of NHL ’94? Know, too, that the league is partnering with EA Sports to fake the ruckus you’d be making if you were in the Scotiabank in person — or, as they phrase it, “to use [EA’s] library of in-game sounds to mimic some crowd noise.”

 

 

reg noble: fastest on the ice, and a very hard man to relieve of the puck

Noble Oblige: Reg Noble strikes a pose in the late 1920s, when he turned out, and captained, the Detroit Cougars.

Here’s a story, for Reg Noble’s birthday — well about Reg Noble, the day after his birthday, which was yesterday. June 23 was a Tuesday in 1896, in Collingwood, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay, which is where was Noble was born 124 years ago. If you’re vague on Reg Noble details, here are a few of his hockey specs: he was very good, possessed of a wicked shot, a forward at first, then later a defenceman, played for the old Toronto Blueshirts and the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, the final year of the old National Hockey Association.

The following year, 1918, when the NHA was supplanted by the brand new National Hockey League, Noble signed with Toronto, whom he duly helped to win the Stanley Cup. He stayed with Toronto on into the 1920s, playing and captaining and even coaching the team as they turned into the St. Patricks, and winning still another Stanley Cup in 1922. The St. Pats eventually sold him to the Montreal Maroons, and he won yet another Cup with them, in 1926, before joining Detroit’s original NHL team, the Cougars, in 1927. That’s their livery he’s wearing in the photograph here, posing on a wintry tennis court colonized by the Cougars for a team practice and photo session.

Noble captained the team in Detroit for three seasons, and played on when they shifted identifies, from Cougars to Falcons. He was still there in 1932 when the team re-launched as Red Wings, though not for long: Detroit released him early in the season. He had one final whirl later that year when he returned to the Maroons, by which time his was the distinction, at age 36, of being the very last player from the league’s inaugural season to still be skating on NHL ice.

Noble was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 — a few months after his death, as it happens, at the age of 65.

And the story? It’s a wartime tale, going back before the NHL, in 1916, when Noble did what many young men were doing in the torrid time: he went to war.

He tried to, at least. Unlike Red Dutton and Joe Simpson and several other of his fellow Hall-of-Famers, Noble never made it overseas much less into the frightful fight of the Western Front.

As much as he might have wished to serve, he was ruled out and discharged before he got the chance. Hockey had rendered him unsuitable.

Noble was 19 in the winter in which 1915 turned to 1916. He was playing with Toronto Riversides that winter, as rover on the seven-aside team that won the OHA Senior championship that wartime winter. When the team’s regular season came to a close at the end of January, Noble was featuring prominently in a 4-0 victory over a military team, the 40th Battery. “Noble, as usual, was the fastest man on the ice,” the Globe reported, “and some of his rushes bordered on the sensational. He is a very hard man to relieve of the puck and is learning every game how to go in on a defence.”

Six days later, Noble joined up, presenting himself at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on the Exhibition grounds. His attestation papers from that day tell the tale, and show his orderly signature as he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, promising to fight all HM’s enemies and obey all of his orders, as well as those of all his Generals and Officers, so help him God.

Noble was measured for height (he was 5’8”) and girth of chest (40”), and the locales of his five scars noted down: three on a shin, one each on a foot and a knee. His complexion was deemed fair, his eyes blue. A Captain Barton was in charge of this medical examination, declaring Noble fitfor duty with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

That was just the beginning of Noble’s busy Saturday. That same evening, he lined up with his fellow Riversides to see to beating Toronto R and AA by a score of 7-2 in a playoff game at the Arena on Mutual Street. By midnight, Noble was home and suffering, not so fit as he’d been earlier: “he was in bed,” according to a subsequent report, “with a raging fever and a beautiful attack of la grippe.”

The battalion that Noble joined was a newborn unit, the 180th, formed in Toronto in January of ’16 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Greer, a prominent Crown Attorney who’d been a distinguished athlete in his own right in his University of Toronto days. “Pals” battalions had been common in the British Army since the start of the war, whereby men with common backgrounds — friends or neighbours or co-workers — enlisted to serve together. Conceived as a Sportsmen’s battalion, the 180th was one of the first units in Canada to follow that lead.

It did a roaring business filling its ranks that winter. Football players, scullers, boxers, and runners flocked to attest their willingness to serve in the early days of February. The famous Mohawk marathoner Tom Longboat, made on his way on foot from Brantford to Toronto to join up. Tommy Daly volunteered for the 180th, too, the well-known Toronto boxer who was also making a reputation as a baseball and hockey trainer — and who, post-war, having shifted his name to Tim, served for decades in that role for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lou Marsh, who’d played football for the Argonauts and wrote sports for the Toronto Daily Star was a lieutenant in the 180th as well as keeping up a busy schedule as a boxing and hockey referee. He was on the ice the night Reg Noble enlisted, in fact, whistling the game between Riversides and Toronto R and AA. Noble, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only hockey player bound for the ranks of the 180th: a report from a few days later made clear that the team’s entire line-up was joining up, the coach, too, Bonny Gard, who said “he might as well go along with them in France as stay at home here and be lonesome.” (With another month of the season still to play, possibly, Colonel Greer graciously agreed to make sure that the Riverside recruits would be granted leave for all and any games.)

Later that same week, on February 14, a recruiting jamboree for the 180th filled Massey Hall. “Half a dozen boxers, recently enlisted, gave sparring exhibitions, enlisted bike riders raced on rollers, and there was a long program free to members of athletic clubs,” a dispatch in the Montreal Gazette affirmed. “Massey Hall was packed to the roof with the flower of the Queen City’s athletes.”

In two hours, the 180th had signed up 325 new recruits, breaking, it was reported, “all Canadian recruiting records.”

At strength, the battalion eventually counted 31 officers and 833 other ranks. They spent the spring and summer training as infantry at Toronto’s Exhibition Camp. There was time for some hockey, too, before the ice thawed out for the season. In March, a few days after Noble and the Riversides wrapped up the OHA Senior championship over a Berlin, Ontario, team anchored in goal George Hainsworth, the 180th’s hockey team took on the 93rd Battalion from Peterborough in a St. Patrick’s Game at the Mutual Street Arena.

Reg Noble skated in that game, at rover, and he was judged to be the best player on the ice. He had a couple of teammates with OHA Senior experience skating with him, but they couldn’t overcome the 93rd squad, who’d played the season on the OHA’s Intermediate loop. The visitors ended up winning by a score of 2-1. Between the first and second periods, a speedy local skater named Fred Robson scampered (unofficially) 50 yards in just under the world’s record time of five seconds. In the second intermission, he returned to entertain the crowd with a barrel-jumping show.

Noble still had more hockey to play before he fully devoted himself to soldiering. Though Riversides opted out of heading west to Winnipeg to play for the Allan Cup, the national Senior championship, they did play several exhibitions late in March. Facing Dick Irvin’s visiting Winnipeg Monarchs at the Arena, the Riversides prevailed 8-7, with Noble playing a starring role that included scoring a goal while (the Daily Star related) “practically standing on his ear and with four Monarchs glued to him.” (The team that did win the Allan Cup, by the by, was Joe Simpson’s 61st Battalion from Winnipeg.)

At some point, with hockey having reached its seasonal end, the sporting soldiers of the 180th moved north out of Toronto to continue their training at Camp Borden, southwest of Barrie, where as many as 25,000 soldiers were under canvas that summer. When they weren’t learning infantry tactics and how to use their weapons, the men of the 180th boxed and raced and hit baseballs whenever the opportunity arose. In July, they helped build an in-camp stadium with seating for 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

“Good athletes do not always make good soldiers,” a column in The Windsor Star warned around this time, noting that Lieut.-Colonel Greer had been forced to make some hard choices as the summer went on. “Much to the colonel’s surprise, he has been compelled to drop several champions from the ranks because they could not stand the wear and tear of a hard route march.” Names were named: Erme Woods, “the well-known distance runner” was ousted along with a couple of accomplished boxers who couldn’t keep up.

“Colonel Greer is handling his battalion just as he would [a] baseball team,” the Star said, “and is rapidly getting rid of the ‘dead-wood.’ He wants only the best, and it is his determination to make the 180th battalion second to none.”

He must have pleased when, in August, the Sportsmen dominated the 4th Brigade athletic meet, showing particularly well in the mile-run, the 16-pound shot put, and the tug of war. The Sportsmen didn’t fare so well in the bayonet-fighting contest, which they lost by a score of 5-3 to the 147th (Grey) Battalion from Owen Sound.

No Noble: Bidding farewell to Toronto in November of 1916, the men of the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion prepare to leave Union Station on their way to Halifax and, from there, the war in France. Reg Noble had already been discharged by this point. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 821)

In September the battalion got its notice from Ottawa to be ready to ship out — the 180th was  “warned for overseas,” in the parlance. In fact, it would be November before they made their move by train to Halifax. From there, they crossed the Atlantic to England in four days aboard the Olympic.

Many of the men would see action — some would die — the following year in the harrowing battles around Vimy Ridge in northern France. But the 180th was no longer, by then, a unit. In January of 1917, the battalion was absorbed into the 3rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, from which the men were assigned to other battalions in need of reinforcement.

The Leafs’ trainer-to-be got to England, where Private Tommy Daly served as Colonel Greer’s orderly — his servant, basically — before being invalided home and discharged from the CEF because of a wonky right shoulder. Daly had hurt it in February of 1916, not a month after enlisting. “Injured slightly while boxing,” his medical records testify, “Feb. 21/16, and has had pain since then.”

Private Reg Noble’s story was a little different: he never even made it to the wharf in Halifax. Declared “Medically Unfit,” Noble departed Camp Borden, the battalion, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force in one fell swoop at the end of September of 1916, a victim of — well, I guess in Colonel Greer’s way of seeing things, he was surplus to the battalion’s second-to-none purposes.

Noble may have had an 18-year NHL career ahead of him but that fall, as it turns out, he just couldn’t march the way soldiers of the infantry are meant to march.

An old hockey injury was to blame. Or maybe newer baseball damage? Contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that he hurt an ankle playing ball at Borden in the summer of 1916 and that the injury was not only serious enough to see him mustered out of uniform, it looked like it might keep him off skates, too.

That could well have been the case but if so, it doesn’t happen to have been entered as the official reason for Noble’s military career coming to its end.

As detailed in Noble’s CEF discharge papers, one of the scars that Captain Barton had marked down when Noble attested in February, the one on the instep of his right foot, commemorated a cut from a skate he’d suffered in 1914 playing hockey back home in Collingwood. The blade had gone deep, enough to cut the tendon and immobilize his big toe.

The 180th’s Medical Officer, Captain Brown, wrote it up. “Can follow the marching under difficulty but has to have frequent periods of light duty,” he noted. “Sent him to hospital where they could do nothing for the condition.”

On a second page, Captain Brown gave his own interpretation of Noble’s scar status — unless Noble had acquired a new configuration in a summer of mishaps? Now, instead of 3 shin scars and one apiece on a foot and a knee, he was credited with

Scar on palm of left hand. Scar on right foot. Bullet scar on right leg.

Farther down the page, in answer to the military form question What is the probable duration of the disability?Captain Brown wrote “Permanent.”

Next question: To what extent will it prevent a full livelihood in the general labour market? Please state in fractions. Captain Brown’s answer: “Will not prevent his earning full livelihood more than before enlisting.”

True enough. By mid-November, as Noble’s former brothers in arms set sail, the word from Toronto was that Eddie Livingstone, wildcard owner of the local NHA Blueshirts, had signed Noble to his first pro contract.

And so, in the winter he didn’t go to war, Noble lined up for a team that included Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Duke Keats. He made a quick impression, and a good one. The Blueshirts started the season in Montreal by beating Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions, by a score of 7-1. Noble didn’t score, but neither did he seem to show any signs of a tender ankle or instep. “He checked [Didier] Pitre, the Canadien star forward,” Toronto’s Daily Star noted, “and smothered him throughout the game. … His rushes were effective, too, and he had speed to burn.”

Reg Noble scored his first pro goal, and his second, in Toronto’s next game, back at the Mutual Street Arena, when the Blueshirts did away with the Quebec Bulldogs by a score of 8-5.

The Blueshirts didn’t last out the season: early in 1917, when the team from the 228th Battalion famously left the NHA in a whole lot of hurry, the league decided to eject Toronto, too, mostly because they didn’t want to deal with owner Eddie Livingstone any longer. That’s when Noble made the switch to Montreal, seeing out the ’16-17 season with Canadiens.

That fall, of course, the NHA collapsed and the NHL arose all on the same day, in Montreal, mostly, again, to stymie Livingstone. Toronto launched a whole new team that year, and Reg Noble was one of the players they signed up. That’s how, in December of 1917, he was on the ice to score an Auston Matthewsesque four goals in his and his team’s National Hockey League debut, as they started out on their way to winning the franchise’s very first Stanley Cup.

For a panoramic view of the many men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, proudly paraded in April of 1916 at Toronto’s east-end Riverdale Park, click over this way, then click again to zoom in. Reg Noble is in there somewhere, along with the man-who-would-be-Tim-Daly, long-serving Maple Leafs trainer. Let me know if you find them. Look beyond the soldiers, too, over to the right: those are hockey rinks coming down for the season, aren’t they?