frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bringing up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to, but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th 1909.”

Could she have erred?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mail could very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe got it wrong again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

same old same old: must be something very sick with those canadiens, 1933 edition

Bencher: Newsy Lalonde was Montreal’s man in charge in 1932-33, another trying year in Canadiens’ history.

“Cette année, c’est terminé.” That was Michel Bergeron writing last week at TVA Sports about — of course — the Montreal Canadiens and the dismal season they’ve been lurching through. With 28 games to go in the season, the likelihood of Montreal making the playoffs was a wretched two percent going into Saturday’s game against Nashville. By this morning, post-shootout-loss, it had drooped to 1.2.

The autopsying has been underway for a while now, which has to be painful for the patient. When Carey Price hasn’t been injured, he’s been — how to put this, so it’s polite? — not quite himself. Max Pacioretty has been someone else, too, which nobody would be complaining about if that someone were Steve Shutt or Toe Blake, but no, sorry, that hasn’t been the case, and so the talk is, as it has been, that is/should be/must certainly find himself traded away before the NHL’s February 26 trade deadline.

Jonathan Drouin, meanwhile, is still looking for his inner Pierre Larouche, while Joe Morrow’s Jacques Laperriereitude has been erratic at best. P.K. Subban has been P.K. Subban, it’s just that he’s been P.K. Subbaning it on Broadway in Nashville rather than more locally on Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal.

Columnists and commentators, pundits and podcasters — most of the Montreal chatterati has written the year off. For Bergeron, the worry now is the future. “L’an prochain,” he wonders, “les Canadiens feront-t-ils les séries? Très difficile de répondre oui à cette question.”

At the Montreal Gazette, Jack Todd is one who’s been gazing back. If only in 2003, then-GM Bob Gainey hadn’t drafted so cautiously, and/or known what we know now. The result of his bumbling back then?

Two appearances in an Eastern Conference final and a quarter-century without a parade. That was not the goal when Gainey took over and began his career by drafting Andrei Kostitsyn with the 10th pick overall, while Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, and Corey Perry were still on the table in the first round alone, then taking Cory Urquhart with Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber still out there.

Somehow, the Canadiens have to come out of the carnage of this season with a quality centre to fill that hole in the donut on the top line — and, somehow, they need to close the charisma gap.

Another Gazette writer thinks it’s time Canadiens did what they’re doing in New York. Maybe you saw the letter that Rangers’ president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton posted for fans of the team last week, the one that began, ominously if honestly enough, “We want to talk to you about the future.” It went on to outlining what may be coming in the way of tearing down a team that’s 23.6 percent headed for the playoffs.

Brendan Kelly wants a letter like that:

Team president Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin should take a page out of the New York Rangers’ playbook and come clean to their fans for the travesty that is the 2017-18 Habs. Better yet, they should concede that their plan has failed and that the time has come to rebuild this team.

It may be in the mail. In the meantime, can we consider that there’s nothing so new under Montreal’s cold winter sun? It won’t boost any playoff percentages, nor calm any restive hearts or keyboards to hear it, but Canadiens have been here before.

In February of 1933, for instance.

Leo Dandurand

Leo Dandurand was the man in charge back then. He co-owned the team, with partner Joseph Cattarinich, who’d once (way back) tended the Canadiens’ goal. Dandurand had coached the team in the early 1920s, and continued to manage the roster after he gave that up. Over the course of a decade, his Canadiens won three Stanley Cups. The last of those weren’t such ancient history in ’33, either: Dandurand’s teams were back-to-back champions in 1930 and ’31.

In ’32, they’d topped the standings during the regular season only to fail at the first fence they faced in the playoffs.

The team they iced the following year still had most of the winning timber intact

George Hainsworth was 37, sure, but he was still playing every game, and in ’31-32 he’d won more of them (25) than anyone else tending an NHL net. Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, and Battleship Leduc were stalwarts, still, on defence. Upfront, Canadiens had Howie Morenz, Aurele Joliat, and Johnny Gagnon as their leading line.

Hockey, of course, was only one of Dandurand’s guiding interests. He was heavily into horses that ran, owned race tracks, spent his winters, increasingly, in the southern U.S. In January of ’33, he was down in New Orleans, ensconced for the season at Jefferson Park.

Or maybe not. Canadiens were struggling in the early days of the new year, stuck in last place in the NHL, down at the bottom of the five-team Canadian Division.

Pundits like Walter Gilhooly of The Ottawa Journal were ready to pronounce that “the great Canadien comet that flared over the hockey firmament” had passed. Coach Newsy Lalonde wasn’t panicking, though. Following a 6-1 loss in Detroit, he was reported to be confident, quote, that the team would soon shake its losing ways. But: “If weaknesses are apparent anywhere in future, I will take immediate measures to remedy such a condition.”

Leo Gaudreault

Lalonde was shuffling his lines that month, extracting Morenz from the top line with Joliat and Gagnon, slotting in Pete Lepine. Dandurand was back in town, too, to monitor the situation. Canadiens won a couple of games, but they couldn’t keep it going. By the end of January they were looking to the Providence Reds of the lower-loop Can-Am League for a boost. Lalonde reportedly had designs on drafting in an entire line of theirs, the one featuring Gus Rivers, Hago Harrington, and Leo Murray.

Dandurand went two-thirds of the way, sending forwards Armand Mondou and Leo Gaudreault to Providence in exchange for Murray and Harrington.

The team continued its indifferent play into February. The situation wasn’t hopeless: with 20 games remaining in the 48-game schedule, Canadiens were level, now, with Ottawa, lurking just five points behind the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans. String some wins together and Canadiens would be right back into the thick of it.

It wasn’t happening, though. They lost, and badly, to the Americans and Maroons in succession. It was with the latter defeat that the team seemed to cross a line of Dandurand’s.

Time to for a change.

“To Dismantle/ Famous Team” was the couplet atop a photo of Dandurand in The Winnipeg Tribune. The word from Montreal was grim: he was ready to rid the roster of as many as five underperforming players, “asking waivers” in the parlance of the day, though he wasn’t yet naming names. Having lost 7-2 to their cross-town rivals, the players were reported to “gloomy, dispirited” when Dandurand came in to see them in the dressing room.

He’d watched, he told the players, waited, hoped the team could turn themselves around. Now, drastic measures were in order. “Dandurand stated he knew the weak spots on the team,” the Tribune reported, “and speedy action would ensue to strengthen these positions.”

You can see why the players’ emotions would be running strong: “one or two all but broke down.”

Dandurand announced that wasn’t going to fire Newsy Lalonde: the coach had his confidence. Rumours of imminent trades bustled around Montreal, involving … everybody, up to and including Howie Morenz, who’d been great to start the season but had tailed off in the new year.

The uproar in the press wasn’t what it is today, but that’s not to say the players weren’t scrutinized, one by one. Pit Lepine had been suspended, briefly, for “breaking training rules,” a euphemism you often see in early NHL days that sometimes alludes to hangovers, though it might just as well be that Lepine overslept. Either way, he was playing better now, as was Sylvio Mantha, who’d started the season slowly. The best you could say, apparently, for Gagnon and Joliat was that they’d been inconsistent. Battleship Leduc, too: spectacular in one game, he was ineffective the next.

Hainsworth had to shoulder some of the blame, too. I don’t know whether he was pleading his case or just mentioning the math he’d been doing in his spare time, but that desolate February the goaltender did mention to an attentive reporter that he estimated that since he’s started his career in 1912, he’d faced 18,500 shots.

At first, Dandurand’s dismantling involved another influx from Providence. He brought in defenceman Bob Trapp and forwards Art Alexandre and Gizzy Hart. The new-look Canadiens beat Toronto 2-0 after that, which was good, though they followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Chicago, after which Dandurand fined Johnny Gagnon $200 for not showing sufficient interest in the game he was playing.

A trade this week in 1933 saw veteran defenceman Marty Burke depart for Ottawa in exchange for blueliners Harold Starr and Leo Bourgeault.

With Gagnon rumoured to be the next one to move, Canadiens beat Detroit 6-2 and Ottawa 6-0. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on how that worked: “A few changes and a hair-raising string of forcible ejection threats, including sale by auction of more than one star, lifted Canadiens to peak from in jig-time.”

Down they crashed a week later. The verb smother featured in the stories from Boston that final week of February, along with the noun walloping, as the Bruins beat Montreal by a score of 10-0. Here’s Walter Gilhooly whooping it up in The Ottawa Journal:

Ten goals to noting is something that French ears will hardly be able to credit. Crapeau de mer, par bleu, and sacre nom d’un chien! There must be something very sick with those Canadiens. Maybe they are not getting enough pea sup. Perhaps they are getting too much, but something is very wrong with that team.

The other night when they defeated Ottawas they looked like a good bet for a play-off position. Now Leo Dandurand will be tearing what’s left of his hair and throwing it all over the dressing room floor. It’s nothing, however, to where he may throw some of his hockey players before another season comes.

In Montreal, the reviews rated it “almost unbelievable” and “about the most woeful exhibition in their history.” You had to cast back to 1920 for a debacle so dire, when Newsy Lalonde was in a Canadien uniform for an 11-3 drubbing at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa. (Canadiens suffered another 10-0 Ottawa schooling in 1921.)

It was the worst performance in Hainsworth’s history of bombardment, the third period in particular, when seven of the 17 shots that came his way passed him by.

Leo Dandurand showed a brave face. “It was just one of those bad games,” he said. “There are no excuses: the fault can be laid to no particular player’s door. Hainsworth was not to blame, he was given weak protection. The team as a whole played poorly. But it’s out of our systems. We have eight home games left and five away. I think we can gain points in the majority of them and I think we can still make the playoffs. And the team thinks so, too.”

Dandurand’s command of the schedule was a little off: Montreal, in fact, had six home games remaining, six on the road. He did get the part about the playoffs right: Montreal went 6-4-2 to pip the Americans and the Senators for the last post-season spot on the NHL’s Canadian side. Their exit was speedy: on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers dispensed with them in two games.

Leo Dandurand had another couple of years before he got out of the harrowing business of owning the Montreal Canadiens. He still had some adventures ahead of him before he sold the team two years later, of course, including threatening to move the team to Cleveland and, even more shocking insofar as it actually happened, trading away Howie Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks.

A syndicate headed by Ernest Savard eventually bought the team in the fall of 1935. The new coach was the old defenceman Sylvio Mantha, who planned to still play as he guided the team. It would be another ten years before Canadiens would raise the Stanley Cup in triumph again, but nobody knew that then, of course. Hopes were high, as they perennially are in Montreal, where Canadiens are and always have been the process of re-inventing themselves. We’ll end, why not, with a newspaper headline as the 1935-36 season got underway: “Make-Over in Ownership, Management and Personnel Expected to Transform Flying Frenchmen Into Dangerous NHL Contenders.”