mars fatal

mars fatalHowie Morenz died late on the night of Monday, March 8, 1937, in his hospital room at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. Many Montrealers would have first known the shocking news next morning through the pages of Tuesday’s morning paper, The Gazette, Le Canada, La Patrie. None of them had much light to cast on just what had happened, how the leg Morenz had fractured in late January on the ice at the Forum could now have killed him. His doctor reported that his heart and his pulse had been normal on Monday, according to La Patrie, and yet he’d died in his sleep.

Amid the many tributes and reviews of Morenz’s career, La Patrie also saw fit to remind readers that there’s no more mournful month in Montreal Canadiens’ history than March. It was just 11 years, after all, since legendary goaltender Georges Vézina had died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, four months after opening the 1925-26 season in the Montreal net. Seven years before that, Canadiens’ notorious 37-year-old defenceman Joe Hall had succumbed to pneumonia he’d contracted while suffering from Spanish influenza.

A terrible thing that was, of course, if not entirely fair to March. La Patrie had a key detail wrong: Hall actually died on April 5, 1919.

Back on March 19, he was still resting in his room in Seattle’s Georgian Hotel, one of several Canadiens to have sickened while the team was battling the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup. Transferred to the Providence Hospital in early April, Hall was saidto be improving, his temperature a steady 103. With five games of the six-game Stanley Cup series in the books, the ravaging flu had by then forced Montreal to forfeit the deciding game on April 1. When Seattle manager Pete Muldoon refused to accept the forfeit, the championship was abandoned.

On April 3, Montreal manager George Kennedy announced that his players were not all, as rumour had it in Eastern Canada, on the verge of death. Hall’s condition had, however, worsened. “He still has a chance for his life,” The Vancouver Daily World wrote the day before he died, “and he is fighting hard.”

In 1937, Canadiens were scheduled to play the Maroons the night after Howie Morenz died. The team planned to cancel, but Mary Morenz insisted that her husband would have wanted the game to go on. Two days later, on Thursday, his body would lie in state at centre ice in the Forum, but on Tuesday it was hockey night.

The referees and players on both teams wore arm-bands; ushers and program-sellers had black ribbons pinned to their jackets.

Canadiens president Ernest Savard spoke to the crowd of 10,000. “It is with sincere regret and deep emotion that we announce the death last night of the one and only Howie Morenz,” he said. “He was a gentleman and the finest hockey player ever known.”

Two minutes of silence followed his words. “The monotonous whirling of the ventilating fans alone broke the stillness,” The Canadian Press reported, “until the drums of the Victoria Rifles began to roll. Then, the bugles sounded Last Post.”

Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude cried, The Gazette noted, “unashamedly,” and defencemen Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert “had to skate to his side and talk to him.”

In the dressing room, coach Cecil Hart said, “You know, boys, there is little I can say on an occasion like this.” He told them to “forget all your troubles, to go out there and play — play as Howie would have played if he were here.”

“The game that followed helped make those in the Forum a bit forgetful of the tragedy of the night before,” was the way The Gazette described it. “A fighting Canadien team saddened by the loss and minus two regulars, Aurel Joliat and Toe Blake, hurled itself at Maroons.” They couldn’t overcome: the final score was Maroons 4, Canadiens 1.

il est malade

vezinaHe doesn’t look well but only because he wasn’t: Georges Vézina was one ill goalie in the fall of 1925. That’s when the Montreal photographer S.J. Hayward got him out on a plank outside the Mount Royal Arena to take this photograph, a print of which sold online this month for nearly US$1,000 at RMY Auctions. Vézina was 38 by the time it was taken. The only man to have guarded the Canadiens’ goal since 1910, he had, at this point, just one more regular-season game to play. He won his first Stanley Cup in the old NHA in 1916 and then he won another (in the NHL) in 1924. Between the two leagues, he was the goalie to allow the fewest goals seven times. He was a baker’s son and — this you already knew — his nickname was The Chicoutimi Cucumber.

Heading into the new season, Montreal coach (and owner) Léo Dandurand wasn’t sure whether Vézina was going to play. Just in case, he signed Alphonse Lacroix, who’d backed the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. On November 12, Vézina sent a telegram that he’d be back. In the week that followed, he played in exhibitions against the Victoria Cougars, the reigning Stanley Cup champions from the Western Canada Hockey League. And when the season started on November 28, he was in the Montreal net for the opening game against Pittsburgh’s mighty Pirates. Steered by Odie Cleghorn, their right wing/coach, with Roy Worters in goal, the Pirates ended up winning the game, 1-0, on a goal by Tex White. Montreal’s line-up featured Howie Morenz, Aurèle Joliat, and Billy Coutu. The Pittsburgh Press carried a lively narrative of the game next day, in which Morenz featured both for storming offense and pugnacity. In the first period, he took a penalty for “bumping” while in the second he had “a fist fight in the corner” with Jesse Spring.

Only briefly did the Press note a line-up change at the start of the second period:

 Lacroix was in the nets for [sic] Canadians at start of second period. Vézina was reported ill.

 Montreal’s Gazette carried a more detailed report under the sub-head “Vezina Was Shadow:”

But the high spot of the evening for the Canadien supporters came at the beginning of the second period when Lacroix, former United States Olympic goalkeeper went into the Canadien goal in place of Georges Vézina. The veteran goalkeeper started the game with a high temperature. He was pale and haggard looking as he turned shots aside in the first period. At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.

A few days earlier, The Gazette had reported that Vézina was suffering from “a severe cold;” now he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was soon home in Chicoutimi. Within four months, before the end of March of 1926, just 39, he was dead.