toronto’s 1918 stanley cup champions: good when they were good, but when they were bad, they were rotten

Mutual Street Champs: Dated for the year after their inaugural Stanley Cup championship, this composite portrait of the 1917-18 winners includes Rusty Crawford and Jack Adams, though they were ruled ineligible to play in the final against Vancouver. Note the commemorative sweaters the players sport. By the time this photograph was published, the Torontos had undergone a name change, gaining a nickname, the Arenas, they hadn’t had during that original season.

The NHL’s first season was all over by the middle of March in 1918, when the team from Toronto edged the Montreal Canadiens in a famously brutal two-game final. A hundred years ago, the hockey season didn’t end there: next up, the team known as the Blueshirts or plain old Torontos took on the Vancouver Millionaires, champions of the Pacific coast, in a five-game Stanley Cup final. That rates a review like the one we’ll get into here below. Also worth recalling, as we’ll do later on today in a follow-up, is the fact that in the days that followed Toronto’s Stanley Cup victory — possibly even before the winning team saw the trophy they’d just won — the NHL played its first all-star game, followed by its second and its third. Not that those games seemed to have commanded much attention at the time. And in the years since, they’ve faded away to the point of having been almost entirely forgotten.

A Stanley Cup is a Stanley Cup, and a hundred years ago the team from Toronto won the very first one of the NHL era. The victory was an unlikely one, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t earned. The result wasn’t controversial, exactly, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t contentious. Played at the end of March in 1918, under two significantly different sets of rules, the inaugural Stanley Cup series involving NHL teams saw Toronto enjoy the advantage of playing all five championship games in their home rink. The ice was soft, and the hockey often brutal. If you were going to affix an asterisk to the result, you’d want to put all that in the accompanying footnote, along with something about the relative lack of excitement that attended Toronto’s triumph.

There was no parade in Toronto in 1918. It’s not even clear that the victorious team even had the satisfaction of gazing on the Stanley Cup let alone raising it aloft when they won — the trophy may well have back in Vancouver through the end of the final, safe in the keeping of the jewelers at Henry Birks and Sons, waiting to be shipped to the winners … eventually. Toronto’s players did share in some of the profits from the first three games of the final, with each man taking home a tidy $289.12 for their Cup-winning efforts — about $4,500 in modern-day money.

The deciding game was played on the second-to-last day of March, a Saturday. The champions must have enjoyed their Sunday, which led, inevitably, to the first day of April on the Monday.

The local papers announced the victory, but didn’t exactly blare the news. The sports pages of several prominent papers paid as much attention to dog-show results as they did to hockey glory. It would have been funny as April fooling, except that it was in earnest. Some 300 dogs had taken part in the Toronto Kennel Club’s 15th annual show, and the prize-winners included cocker spaniels named Perfecto and Sir Douglas Haig, a beagle called Smithfield Patience, and the whippet Granite Beauty. According to the Dog Fanciers’ Column in The Telegram, it was the mastiff named Boadicea who took top honours in the Open Bitches division.

•••

The NHL wasn’t exactly created in a flash of light and immaculate goodwill. It was conceived, instead, as part of a sly business maneuver, in the privacy of a Montreal hotel room, by a coven of businessman intent on squeezing out a colleague who annoyed them. Toronto almost missed out on a franchise — Quebec very nearly supplanted them in what was, to start off with in November of 1917, a four-team league.

This was wartime, of course, and so the ice under professional hockey was precariously thin. As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole question of just how sports should be conducted during the upheaval was very much in play. Did a hockey league like the NHL divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or was it vital to morale? While the NHL survived its inaugural season, the league’s president, Frank Calder wasn’t confident by the time it was over that the following winter would see it continue into a follow-up: he was convinced in the early months of 1918 that the government planned to order professional hockey curtailed until hostilities ceased.

It was a rough year, that first one. A rink burned down in Montreal, incinerating the future of one team, the Wanderers, along with its equipment. The gear belonging to their fellow tenants, the Canadiens, was spared: they happened to be on the road when the fire struck. Canadiens moved to a new rink, but the Wanderers expired within days, midway through the schedule, leaving three teams to finish out the year.

From the start, the league was missing some of hockey’s best talents. In 1917-18, the NHL lacked many of the game’s greats, some of whom were in uniform, while others missed that first season through injury. Still others were happily ensconced out on the Pacific coast, preferring to ply their sticks in the very good rival league, the PCHA, that Frank and Lester Patrick were running out there, to the continuing irritation of the eastern owners.

A lot of that first NHL season was played on iffy ice in arenas that were poorly lit and shrouded in cigarette smoke. Attendance was up and down.

And the hockey? A lot of it was brutally violent. At its worst, it prompted Toronto police to arrest Montreal’s Joe Hall and his hometown antagonist, Alf Skinner, after they used their sticks to batter one another about their respective heads when Canadiens visited Toronto’s Arena Gardens at the end of January.

And yet for all that, the NHL’s first fans did some legendary talents perform. Almost half of the 44 players who suited up that year would eventually find their way into hockey’s Hall of Fame, including Joe Malone and the sublime Frank Nighbor, Art Ross and Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, Newsy Lalonde, and goaltenders Clint Benedict and Georges Vézina.

Coached by Dick Carroll, Toronto’s roster counted on the superior skills of future Hall-of-Famers Harry Cameron and Reg Noble. In support they had Harry Mummery and the merciless Ken Randall, Corb Denneny (who could fly), and Skinner (a deft stickhandler when he wasn’t under arrest). Later in the season, manager Charlie Querrie bolstered the line-up with the addition of three more Hall-worthy talents in Jack Adams, Rusty Crawford, and goaltender Hap Holmes.

With other goaltenders, a pair of them who failed to distinguish themselves, Toronto started the season with a 10-9 loss to the Wanderers in Montreal. Even before the Wanderers dropped out and saw many of their players dispersed, Canadiens dominated the first half of the season. The three teams that survived it played 14 games, which took them to early February.

For the second half, Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa embarked on an eight-game schedule. When that wound up in March, Toronto was atop the table. That set up a NHL final, Montreal versus Toronto in a home-and-home match-up, which would produce a champion to take on its counterpart from the PCHA for the Stanley Cup.

Assuming, of course, that Toronto could be bothered to participate. Charlie Querrie wanted to play the final game in Toronto, and part of his posturing involved a languid assertion that he didn’t mind forgoing the championship and settling for an exhibition series against Ottawa. He didn’t really put much stock in the Stanley Cup anyway — it didn’t matter to himif the NHL skipped the whole thing entirely.

Querrie got his way, in the end, along with a success that few had foreseen. After upsetting Canadiens in Montreal by a count of 7-4, the Torontos lost the return game at home, 4-3. It was enough to command the NHL championship on total goals. They would meet the PCHA Vancouver Millionaires for the Lord Stanley’s famous cup.

Getting ahead of themselves and events, perhaps, Montreal had already negotiated to play the Stanley Cup games in Vancouver, but Toronto had no interest in going west. So the Millionaires came to them.

The line-up they brought with them was an impressive one, headlined by Cyclone Taylor, who’d led the PCHA in scoring. Vancouver’s other future Hall-of-Famers were Mickey MacKay, Barney Stanley, and goaltender Hughie Lehman.

Long before the advent of the NHL, eastern and western clubs had fought over players. They also played under fundamentally different sets of rules, including those governing offside rules and how penalties should properly be served. Out west, teams iced seven players aside, whereas the NHL went with six.

The 1918 final would see both sets of rules on display. As had been the case in 1917, when the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans hosted and beat the NHA Montreal Canadiens, the teams would start by playing six-man hockey and then alternate through the rest of the best-three-out-of-five series.

Eagle-Eye: Hughie Lehman later kept goal and even coached the Chicago Black Hawks, but in 1918, the puckstopping he did was all for Vancouver’s PCHA Millionaires. (Image: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-777)

And so it was under NHL code that Toronto beat Vancouver 5-3 on the night of Wednesday, March 20. They did so without Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford, signed after February 1 and thereby ruled out of playing in the entire final. The fans at Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street were disappointed, reportedly, by Cyclone Taylor’s lacklustre performance. Though he scored a pair of goals, he didn’t show his speed, and had trouble remembering that, under NHL rules, he couldn’t skate ahead of the puck.

Other highlights: Toronto’s Harry Meeking tripped Taylor and then (by a Toronto account), falling as well, accidentally brought his stick down on Taylor’s back. Taylor retaliated by slashing his assailant, two, three times, before Ken Randall intervened to punch Taylor. Hughie Lehman played well in the Vancouver net, and also attacked Noble, who still managed to score a couple of goals on the night, and fell and hurt his shoulder.

Toronto fans were impressed by Mickey MacKay. “He was easily the fastest thing on the ice,” noted The Toronto World. But: “the game was not as interesting as most fans would like.” There was sympathy for Vancouver’s situation. “Train-weariness and the strange eastern rules had a lot to do with the Pacific coast players’ showing.”

Playing by their rules, the Millionaires got their revenge three nights later, posting a 6-4 win. “The weather in Toronto has been very mild,” Vancouver’s Daily World reported, “and the ice is heavy, a marked difference from the ice on which Vancouver has been playing on the coast.” The coastal view had the visitors looking 50 per cent better than they had in the first game.

The wounded included the judge of play — an extra referee — Tom Melville, whose face Harry Mummery accidentally cut with his skate, and a rinkside Toronto spectator, whose ear Alf Skinner shot a puck into (“no damage resulted,” said the World).

Mickey MacKay had another banner night, scoring three goals for Vancouver while showing (said a Vancouver correspondent) “dazzling speed, wonderful stickhandling, good judgment.” Alf Skinner scored three for Toronto.

Vancouver’s Daily World described this game as “one of the roughest games of the season.” There was “a fray that developed into a regular Donnybrook,” though I don’t know who was involved. In the third period, Ken Randall smashed Taylor across the arm, dropping him to the ice and, soon after that, forcing him out of the game. Vancouver’s Si Griffis shot a puck at Corb Denneny “for no reason whatever.” Hughie Lehman was observed attempting “to cut down nearly every player that bored in on net.”

Without expressing too much shock, The Globereported that the game had “bristled with rough, brutal, illegal tactics in which good hockey apparently was the last feature considered by the players of either team”

Neither team approved of the work that referee George Irvine put in that night; both said they wouldn’t have him back for another. The other official on the ice, Art Ross, was frank about what he’d seen. “The Blues gave a most brutal exhibition,” he said, “and unless the western club gets absolute protection from the referee, they will all be killed.”

Particularly offensive? Toronto captain Ken Randall, whom Ross fined $15 for “using foul and abusive language.” Mummery wasn’t much better: Ross noted that his efforts were “so crude and brutal” that he’d been booed by his team’s own faithful.

There was some question whether Cyclone Taylor would be healthy enough to play in the third game after all the punishment he’d taken. He was able, in the end, and did play, scoring another pair of goals in Vancouver’s losing effort on a Tuesday, March 26. The final score (under eastern rules) was 6-3.

According to The Globe, despite “occasional outbursts of ill-feeling,” the temper of the game was “mild as milk” compared to what had transpired previously. Harry Cameron was a stand-out for Toronto, scoring their first goal on a “sensational rush,” while Ran McDonald was Vancouver’s best player.

Final verdict: “It was a clean, fast fixture, with the Toronto forwards outfooting the Vancouver lot.”

Western rules were back in effect for the fourth game on March 28, a Thursday, when Vancouver overran the home team by a score of 8-1. The Globe rated it a poor display, if fairly placid.

The home team just couldn’t keep up: “Vancouver ran all over them with speed and had a bag of tricks that left the Blue Shirts gasping.” The Millionaires, said Toronto’s World, “made the Torontos look like a juvenile team.” They tried a three-man defence at one point, with Ken Randall playing out in front of Harrys Mummery and Cameron, but that didn’t seem to help.

Mickey MacKay once again impressed for Vancouver: “He tore up and down the ice like a crazy man.” Barney Stanley and Lloyd Cook each scored a pair of goals for the Millionaires, as did Taylor.

It was Vancouver’s Daily World that was reporting that the host city may have been wearying of the championship. “Interest in the series is waning locally,” was their report, “as the demand for seats is not large.” Toronto also followed up the loss by lodging a “formal objection” against referees Art Ross and George Irvine. Another western dispatch had it that Toronto manager Charlie Querrie was threatening that his players would use the final game to “get” unspecified Millionaires.

Going into the game that would decide the 1918 Stanley Cup champion, on Saturday, March 30, PCHA President Frank Patrick went on the record to state categorically that Vancouver would accept nothing but a victory. Querrie, for his part, declared himself that his team would “win or bust.”

With all that had gone on before, the two teams had failed to agree on who should referee the final game, so it was left for Stanley Cup trustee William Foran to appoint the officials. He settled at first on Tom Melville and Harvey Pulford, but then couldn’t get in touch with Melville, so drafted in Russell Bowie instead.

Neither man was keen to take part. “I had trouble inducing them to do so,” Foran confessed.

Their instructions were to keep the game clean at any cost. For all their reluctance, the two former greats of the game — both would be inducted in the Hall of Fame for their exploits as players — delivered on the job they didn’t want to do. They performed “without fear or favour,” said The Telegram, where their work was praised as the best the city had seen all season.

The first period, scoreless, did feature a display of skating by Cyclone Taylor that the Globe said delighted the crowd with “stops, starts, and turns that seemed only possible for a contortionist.”

After Toronto’s Alf Skinner scored in the second, his team did its best to rag the puck, play out the clock, but Cyclone Taylor scored to tie the game. When Corb Denneny scored in the third to restore Toronto’s lead, the skill he used to outwit Hugh Lehman was said to constitute one the greatest pieces of individual play ever seen at the Arena.

Vancouver pressed after that, with Taylor and MacKay coming close, but Toronto held their fort. Harry Mummery’s shot-blocking came in for special mention: he was operating as “a sort of advance goal-tender, throwing himself in front of shots.”

Reports of that final game in 1918 fail to report the kind of frenzying we’d expect to see today if a Toronto team were to win a Stanley Cup. No doubt players and managers were pleased to beat Vancouver, and that fans allowed themselves a certain amount of hooting along with a measure of hollering in the aftermath.

There was, again, a war on, and that has to have sobered the celebration. As of Monday, April 1, 1918, it had been underway for 1,340 days. The fighting may have been far away in France, but Toronto was filled with soldiers, the unblooded (recruits perfecting their marching and trench-fighting before they shipped out) as well as the wounded (recovering in local hospitals) and the dead (returned, some of them, from France for local burial).

Ahead of the hockey and the award-winning dogs, the pages of Toronto’s first April papers were filled with news of French battlefields and others closer to home.

Canadian troops were holding the line at Arras and Vimy Ridge in the face of German offensives. Meanwhile, battalions were being rushed from Toronto to Quebec City to help police the anti-conscription riots there. Under the headline “New Toronto Names in Casualty Lists,” The Telegram listed 22 local men, five of them recently killed in action, the others “gassed and wounded.”

Twenty-year-old Harold Meyrick of 334 Wellesley Street East was one of the gassed, a former hardware clerk who’d been serving as a driver with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Lieutenant Jack Newcombe of 79 Brunswick Avenue had been with the British Army’s Royal Engineers when he died in France on March 21, the day after Toronto’s first Stanley Cup win. He was 24, the same age as Corb Denneny.

•••

The reviews of the 1918 Stanley Cup final were mixed, even in the Toronto papers. The champions and their rivals from Vancouver were evenly matched, decided The Telegram, with outstanding goaltending at both ends. There was too much close-checking, in the end, for the hockey to be described as exciting; it was, finally, “nothing to rave over.”

The debrief from Toronto’s Daily Star allowed that Vancouver had adapted to alien rules better than the home team. They’d also outscored Toronto through the five-game series by a count of 21 goals to 18. The praise accorded the victorious Torontos was this: “when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are rotten.”

Toronto’s fans, to their credit, had been fair-minded, giving “wonderful support” to the visitors. “They cheered their good work to the echo and booed and hissed the local players when they roughed it up. They sat hard on the referees whom they did not like and generally had a whale of a time, but at no time did any except a few rowdies roast or verbally abuse the visiting players.”

Was it true that local interest had flagged during the course of the final? The crowd at that last game was a mere 4,500 in a rink with capacity for 7,500. “Perhaps it was because Toronto fans have become fed up on hockey,” ventured The Telegram, “or perhaps it is because they figured the world’s titular series was being drawn out into five games in order to get the gates.”

Dissatisfaction with the NHL’s and PCHA’s duelling sets of rules was widespread. Without a uniform code, The Telegram offered, “the series for the Stanley Cup will never be satisfactory.” The NHL’s Frank Calder agreed: the sooner it was seen to, the better. “Perhaps an arrangement may be reached before President Patrick goes west again,” Calder said.

Patrick seemed willing, travelling to Montreal for further discussions. The two men made headway: by April 10, Frank Patrick was saying that the PCHA was willing to play six-man hockey during future Stanley Cup series. The two sides came to agreements on other key matters, too, from offsides and how penalties should be served to the question of whether players should be allowed to kick the puck so long as they didn’t do it near the goal. In Patrick’s opinion, Stanley Cup finals should in future be kept to three games — but that was still to be determined. Further talks were planned; meanwhile, Patrick said, the western league reserved the right to continue playing by its own rules in its own league.

And so the NHL’s tumultuous first season came to its natural end. April 1 was a Monday in triumphant Toronto. At the rink on Mutual Street, staff was removing the ice: preparations were underway (per The Ottawa Journal) “to turn the big Arena into the dancing garden.”

The hockey players, meanwhile, prepared to disperse. Harry Mummery was headed to Winnipeg to resume his real-life job as a CPR engineer. Jack Adams had managed to play the latter half of the NHL schedule even though he was serving in the Artillery, and he was headed, now, to London, Ontario, to join his battery. Reg Noble was going home to Collingwood, Harry Cameron to Pembroke. Others were home already in Toronto, where Ken Randall worked as a plumber, and Alf Skinner for the City.

The Millionaires, too, were on their way, home to Vancouver and off-season employment — or, in Barney Stanley’s case, to a job at the Edmonton City Dairy.

By the Tuesday, though, many of those best-laid plans had shifted. The off-season would have to wait: there was more hockey to be played. By the end of the week, Toronto’s world champions would suit up against an all-star team for a series of games that would sink into obscurity almost as soon as it was completed. No-one recalls it now, but in 1918, the NHL took its show on the road, venturing for the first time across the southern border to the United States for its first, forgotten all-star weekend.

Next up: on the road with the NHL’s first all-stars.

 

on a night like this, in 1918: montreal 11, toronto 2

Tor Stars: The Toronto Hockey Club, as it lined up in January of 1918. Back row, left to right: Harry Cameron, Alf Skinner, coach Dick Carroll, Harry Mummery, Reg Noble, captain Ken Randall. Front: Hap Holmes, Harry Meeking, coach Charlie Querrie, Corb Denneny, Sammy Hebert.

Toronto’s latter-day Leafs are feeling fine, having handily beaten New York Islanders and Rangers on Wednesday and Thursday this week to strengthen both their confidence and the chances that they’ll be playing playoff hockey in a couple of months.

Would it be muddying the mood if we were to cast back a hundred years to summon up a colossal loss from this day in 1918, during the franchise’s original season? Yes? Sorry.

The NHL schedule was divided in halves that first NHL year. Only three of the four teams that had started the season in December were still standing by this point in 1918: with the Montreal Wanderers having withdrawn in early January, it was the Toronto Hockey Club, Montreal Canadiens, and Ottawa Senators left in the loop. February 2, a Saturday, had Toronto meeting Canadiens in Montreal. Two days later, on Monday, Toronto would host Ottawa, wrapping up the league’s tumultuous first demi-season. The second half would get going the following Wednesday. That would a shorter schedule, eight games for each team as opposed to the 14 the survivors had played in the opening section. In March, the winner of an NHL championship series would then play the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for the Stanley Cup.

Going into the February 2 game, Charlie Querrie’s Toronto squad still had a shot at overtaking Canadiens at the top of the standings. The Ottawa Journal was good enough to do the math for the Torontos: all they needed to do to overhaul Montreal was (a) win both of their final two games and (b) score 32 goals in so doing.

The weather that weekend in Montreal was February cold, with northwest winds and snow expected. The news was warlike: from France, tidings of hostile artillery at the front near Lens; in Russia, Bolshevik gains at Odessa. The latest casualty lists just in from Ottawa counted 97 Canadians, including 15 killed in action; seven died of wounds; one accidentally killed; one presumed dead. None of them were Montrealers, though five of the wounded were. Draftees, meanwhile, were streaming in from outside the city, many of them English-speaking, and headed for the Guy Street barracks, where they were being enlisted to the Army’s 1st Depot Battalion. Egg authorities were reporting that the city’s supply was waning, and could run short within two weeks; butter was also wanting. At Recorder’s Court, Nellie O’Hara was fined $500 for “having cocaine in her possession for other than medical purposes;” she had been trying to sell it to passersby on De la Gauchetière Street when Constable Blanchette arrested her.

At the Jubilee Rink at the corner of Saint-Catherine and Marlborough, the Torontos didn’t quite get the job done that needed doing. The game “was free from roughness,” The Globe chronicled, but “too one-sided to be exciting.” “Listless” was the adjective the paper hoisted to its headline; Montreal’s Gazette bannered its column on the evening’s proceedings with the subhead “Uninteresting Game.” The crowd was small, the drubbing (of Toronto) outright. For Montreal, it was (as The Ottawa Journal framed it) “a common canter.”

Final score: Canadiens 11, Torontos 2.

The fact that Montreal was missing Newsy Lalonde, fourth in NHL goal-scoring to that point, didn’t matter. Joe Malone was leading the league, and he scored four Canadiens’ goals, with Didier Pitre adding a further three. The Journal appreciated Malone’s stickhandling as “wizardry that hasn’t been equalled on Montreal ice this season.”

For all the humdrum headlines, it wasn’t a night entirely lacking for excitements. Earlier in the week, when the teams met in Toronto, Montreal defenceman Joe Hall and Toronto winger Alf Skinner had ended the game under arrest, charged by police for common assault after a stick-fight left Skinner unconscious on the ice. Subsequently released under suspended sentence by Magistrate Ellis, the two players started Saturday’s game by making a show of meeting at centre ice to shake hands.

Not everybody endorsed the peace: during the second period, amid calls from the gallery for Hall to re-punish Skinner, the game was interrupted. As the Journal’s man on the scene saw it:

Some plutocrat in the gallery had brought with him a large-sized bottle of gin. When the expensive beverage had been disposed of, the owner either let the bottle fall or threw it out on the ice and it went whizzing past the head of Alf Skinner, missing him only by a couple of inches, and smashing to pieces on the ice. The game was stopped and a dozen policemen rushed to the scene. Didier Pitre had a friend in the gallery who pointed out the party alleged to have thrown or dropped the bottle and Pitre in turn pointed him out to the police. The man was hauled out of his seat without ceremony and hustled from the rink, after which the game proceeded.

Also of note on the night: Montreal defenceman Billy Coutu got a major for speaking unkind words to referee Tom Melville.

For Toronto, I think it’s worth excusing goaltender Hap Holmes. He faced Montreal’s barrage “valiantly;” several of his stops were rated by the Journal critic as “spectacular.” One of the defencemen in front of him, Harry Mummery, hurt his knee falling into the boards early on, and he wasn’t much use after that.

And Toronto did only have two extra players on the bench on the night. Three if you want to count Reg Noble, Toronto’s leading goal-scorer, who sat there for the entire game in his uniform without playing. Coach Querrie was already peeved at him for, quote, breaking training rules. When Noble showed up late at the rink for the game, Querrie sat him out for the first two periods. The coach relented, apparently, in the third, and wanted Noble out there on the ice. This time, it was the player who refused to play. Querrie threatened to fine him $100, but he refused to budge. As the man in the newspaper said, “the blues had to struggle along without him.”

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “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.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.

At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”