severely jarred, badly wrenched: the life and sore times of howie morenz

An unhappy anniversary, Friday: 82 years ago, on March 8, 1937, Montreal Canadiens’ legendary centre Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. He was 34. In the pages of my 2014 book Puckstruck, I wrote about the hurts and hazards Morenz endured during his 15-year NHL career, on the ice and off it. An updated and expanded version of that would look like this:

I don’t think goalposts hated Howie Morenz — there’s no good proof of that. From time to time they did injure him, but you could reasonably argue that in those cases he was as much to blame as they were. Did they go out of their way to attack him? I don’t believe it. What, possibly, could the goalposts have had against poor old Howie?

Morenz was speedy and didn’t back down and, well, he was Morenz, so other teams paid him a lot of what still gets called attention, the hockey version of which differs from the regular real-life stuff in that it can often be elbow-shaped and/or crafted out of second-growth ash, graphite, or titanium. But whether your name is Morenz or something plainer with hardly any adjectives attached to it at all, doesn’t matter, the story’s the same: the game is out to get you.

In 1924, his first season as a professional with Canadiens, Montreal battled Ottawa for the NHL title, which they won, though in the doing Morenz developed what the Ottawa Citizen diagnosed as a certain stiffness resulting from water on the knee.

That drained away, or evaporated, or maybe it didn’t — in any case, Morenz played on as Montreal advanced to vie for the Stanley Cup against Western challengers from Vancouver and Calgary. In a March game against the Vancouver Maroons, he was badly bruised about the hip, I’m not entirely sure how, perhaps in a third-period encounter with Frank Boucher that the Vancouver Sun rated a minor melee?

Canadiens beat the Calgary Tigers in Ottawa to win the Cup, but not before Morenz went down again. He made it back to Montreal before checking into the Royal Victoria Hospital. Montreal’s Gazette had the provisional report from there. The ligaments in Morenz’s left shoulder were certainly torn and once the x-rays came back they’d know whether there was any fracture. What happened? The paper’s account cited a sobering incident without really going into detail:

His injury was the result of an unwarranted attack by Herb Gardiner in the second period of the game, following a previous heavy check by Cully Wilson.

(Wilson was and would continue to be a notorious hockey bad man, in the parlance of the time; within three seasons, Gardiner would sign on with Canadiens.)

Subsequent bulletins reported no fractures, though his collarbone had relocated, briefly. Morenz would be fine, the Royal Victoria announced, though he’d need many weeks to recuperate. Those came and went, I guess. There’s mention of him playing baseball with his Canadiens teammates that summer, also of surgery of the nose and throat, though I don’t know what that was about. By November was reported ready to go, signing his contract for the new season and letting Montreal manager Leo Dandurand that he was feeling fine.

In 1926, January, a rumour condensed in the chill air of Montreal’s Forum and took shape and then flow, and wafted out into the winter of the city, along Ste. Catherine and on through the night, and by the following morning, a Sunday, it had frozen and thawed and split into smaller rumours, one of which divulged that Howie Morenz has broken his neck, another blacker one still, Howie Morenz is dead.

The truth was that in a raucous game against the Maroons he ran into Reg Noble. With two minutes left in the game he carried the puck into enemy ice, passed by Punch Broadbent, was preparing to shoot when … “Noble stopped him with a body check.”

Not a malicious attack, said the Gazette. Still,

Morenz went spinning over the ice. He gathered himself together until he was in a kneeling position after which he collapsed and went down, having to be carried from the ice.

In the game’s final minutes, with Noble serving out punishment on the penalty bench, Maroons’ centre Charlie Dinsmore’s efforts to rag the puck, kill off the clock, so irritated some Canadiens’ fans that they couldn’t keep from hurling to the ice their bottles, their papers, many of their coins — and one gold watch, too, such was their displeasure, and their inability to contain it. Police arrested five men who maybe didn’t expect to be arrested, though then again, maybe it was all worth it, for them.

Dinsmore kept the watch for a souvenir.

In February, when the Maroons and Canadiens met again, this time at the Mount Royal Arena, Maroons prevailed once more. It was the third period when, as the Gazette recounted it,

Morenz had got clear down the left aisle. He tore in at terrific speed on Benedict but before he could get rid of his shot, Siebert and Noble tore in from opposite directions. Siebert bodied Morenz heavily. The Canadien flash came up with a bang against the Montreal goal post and remained on the ice doubled up. He had taken a heavy impact and had to be carried off the ice.

The diagnosis: not only was Morenz (and I quote) severely jarred, a tendon at the back of his ankle proved badly wrenched.

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chicago stadium, 1929: keen ice, no boos

On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period.  The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”

black hawks at training camp, 1929: wrapped up in woolen sweaters and trunks of hockey

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Field Force: The Chicago Black Hawks on the Notre Dame field, October 25, 1929, lending an ear to new coach Tom Shaughnessy. Back row (from left): Assistant trainer Hayden, Johnny Gottselig, Ralph Taylor, Cy Wentworth, Frank Ingram, Charlie Gardiner, coach Dick Irvin, Stew Adams, trainer Tom Dyer. Front row: Vic Ripley, Tom Cook, Ty Arbour, Lolo Couture, Art Somers, Bobby Burns, Earl Miller, Mush March.

The Chicago Black Hawks shuffled through coaches after the coffee baron Major Frederic McLaughlin bought them into the NHL for the 1926-27 season. When Tom Shaughnessy’s turn came up in the spring of 1929, he was the fifth man to take the job. He wasn’t like the rest, all of whom were Canadians, all of who had played the game at the highest level (three of them ended up in the Hall of Fame). Shaughnessy was American-born, a Chicago lawyer, and the hockey he’d played was back in college at Notre Dame, though he was active, too, in Chicago’s amateur leagues. He’d played Fighting Irish football, too, as a teammate of the legendary Knute Rockne.

And maybe he was just what the Black Hawks needed. They’d finished each of the last two seasons sunken down at the bottom of the ten-team league. And Shaughnessy did have a plan, which he put into motion in early October of 1929 when he took his team, 15 players strong, for 12 days of pre-season training on the football fields of his alma mater at South Bend, Indiana. For an assistant he had Dick Irvin, just retired as a player, who’d also coached the Hawks from the ice at the end of the 1928-29 campaign. To crack the whip, the new boss looked to trainer Tom Dyer, a former British Army sergeant-major.

American press reports were only too pleased to declare Shaughnessy’s innovations that October, one of which was said to be the notion of putting hockey players under “military discipline” — even though Conn Smythe had his Leafs in Toronto under command of Corporal Joe Coyne a year earlier.

Among the Hawks at Notre Dame were veterans Cy Wentworth, Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, and goaltender Charlie Gardiner. Newcomers included Tom Cook, Taffy Abel, Helge Bostrom. Only captain Duke Dukowski was absent — he’d stayed back home to tend to his wife’s illness.

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Blocking Party: Black Hawks at work in South Bend. From left, Taffy Abel, Ralph Taylor, Cy Wentworth, Ty Arbour, Johnny Gottselig.

Harland Rohm was on hand to report on the preparatory proceedings for The Chicago Tribune. The labour was hard, he said, but the hockey players had reported in fair to good condition. “The weight sheet for the first five days shows no man to have lost more than two pounds and several of them have put on a pound or two.”

The camp was ice-free: the daily routine featured a three-hour field workout, with calisthenics, medicine balls, wind sprints. “A few dashes the length of the field and the boys are dropping on the grass, panting for breath — which isn’t unnatural, considering they’re wrapped up in woolen sweaters and trunks of hockey.”

Later, in the afternoon, they took to the softball diamond where two teams — Dick Irvin’s Shadows and Shaughnessy’s Plugs — vied for a $50 prize put up by coach Shaughnessy. (Irvin’s team won the first game 22-21 and the second 5-2, with Lolo Couture and Mush March distinguishing themselves.)

After lunch, those who wanted to golf headed out to the green (Ralph Taylor and Vic Ripley were among the keenest), while the rest of the team went for a walk.

Supper was at 7, followed by “a roundtable conference on hockey plays and rules” and lights out at 11.

Harland Rohm proved to be a serious scout:

Moving over to the shower, a casual server gets a surprise. Frank Ingram, rookie wing from St. Paul, weighs 172 pounds and has a physique a Big Ten coach would like to see among his candidates for back field. Art Somers, another rookie, a center from Vancouver, is like him, only twenty pounds lighter. Big Abel, who always looks fat when dressed, hasn’t a sign of any fat around his waist and appears ready to step on the ice. He weighs 224 now and is usually over 220 in playing condition.

Finishing up in Indiana, the team entrained for Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they started the season’s exhibition schedule against the local Oilers, champions of the American Association. Once the regular season got underway in November, Shaughnessy had his new and improved Black Hawks ascending the NHL standings. By the new year, he had them sitting second in the American Division, just back of the mighty Boston Bruins.

When the two teams met in mid-January, Chicago became the only team to beat the Bruins twice. Dousing the joy of victory somewhat was the news, next day, that Tom Shaughnessy was resigning. The official word was that he needed to devote more time to his law practice, but I’m going to venture here that there more to it than that, and that it just might have been that he and Major McLaughlin didn’t see eye to eye.

What we do know is that for the next several years Shaughnessy laid steady siege to the Major’s hockey dominion in Chicago. In the summer of 1930, he bought the American Hokey Association’s Minneapolis franchise for $60,000 and talked it about moving it west to the Lake Michigan shore. With James Norris’ backing, he also looked into buying the beleaguered Ottawa Senators and shifting them. McLaughlin was able to veto that, though Shaughnessy did eventually fall in with the upstart American Hockey League and get a team, the Shamrocks, into Chicago Stadium. As Bruce Kidd writes in The Struggle For Canadian Sport (1996), the Shamrocks actually outdrew the Black Hawks in 1931.

That was the year the AHL challenged the NHL for the Stanley Cup and the NHL refused, declaring they’d prefer to forfeit than face the “outlaws.” J. Andrew Ross has a full and fascinating account of this in his book Joining The Clubs (2015), which I recommend. The short version: the AHL and Tom Shaughnessy lost, and the league disbanded.