what a shame to see a great morale-building game like hockey go into the discard

With the NHL preparing for the mid-January launch of a second COVID-era season, I’ve been reporting for The New York Times on how hockey fared in some past times of crisis and contingency. That’s on the page in today’s paper, as well as online over this way.

This part didn’t make it into the Times piece, but as I was charting back through the challenges the NHL faced during World War II, I was reminded of another echo of former times that 2020’s fraught hockey season awakened.

Back in far-off February of last year, the NHL got a first inkling of the disruptions that were to follow when two major suppliers of hockey sticks, Bauer and CCM, shut down manufacturing operations in China as the coronavirus continued its insidious spread. Equipment managers fretted, along with some prominent players. None of them, of course, imagined at the time that the entire league would be summarily shuttered — along with everything else — just a month later.

World War II tested hockey’s supply chains, too. It was a lack of manpower at North American sawmills and lumberyards that raised the spectre of a scarcity of sticks in 1946, not a global pandemic. “We’re still making a few,” a Spalding spokesman warned early that year, “but we have no reserve stocks of lumber on hand. When these are finished, there won’t be any more this year.”

CCM faced a similar predicament. Disaster seems to have been averted — hockey carried on — but several minor leagues did wonder whether they’d be able to play, and those with sticks in hand were advised to wield them with caution, to preserve what they had.

Associated Press report from January of 1942.

Wartime shook hockey to its core — specifically, the small, black one at the centre of every game. In 1941, with war in the Pacific limiting the supply of raw rubber even as military demand was increasing, news of North American shortages began to spread.

In December of the year, just a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Canada’s minister of Munitions and Supply, C.D. Howe, announced a ban on the sale of all rubber tires save those new vehicles. Two months later, one of Howe’s deputies, Alan Williamson, warned that Canadians didn’t understand just how dire the rubber situation was: it was “the gravest problem confronting” Canada and the Allies, he told the Canadian Hardware Convention and Exposition that February.

In another address, he upped the ante even higher, saying that he did not consider it “an exaggeration to say that anyone who uses rubber for any unnecessary purpose is committing an act of treason.”

For effect, Williamson enumerated some of the things for which rubber was no long being made available: “rubber soles, rubber heels, rubber bands, rubber bathing suits, garters, suspenders, foundation garments, tennis balls, flooring, rubber mats, shower curtains, tires for passenger cars, bathing caps.”

In January, the Canadian Press quoted Williamson as saying that while his department did not propose “to tell manufacturers of hockey pucks, tennis balls, and golf balls to stop making them, it would be ‘nothing short of a miracle’ if they were to get the rubber to do so in 1942.”

“New Composition Expected For Hockey Pucks,” an Ottawa Journal headline announced that winter, without offering any specifics: “the future of this staple article in Canada’s winter sports calendar is still obscure” was as far as the accompanying article was willing to go.

NHL teams were already doing their best to maintain their strategic puck reserves. The Chicago Black Hawks posted signs at the Stadium asking fans to return any puck that found a way into the crowd because, well, the very future of the league depended on it.

A New Jersey newspaper reports on puck paucity in December of 1941.

“This is a great national emergency,” a team spokesman reasoned. “Everything must be saved. Rubber is in great demand and we must conserve it. Pucks are made of rubber and we must conserve them, too. It would be a great shame to see a great sport and morale-building game like hockey go into the discard because of a shortage of pucks. That’s why we call upon our fans to throw back our pucks in the interest of sport and conservation of valuable defense material.”

Earnest as it was, this appeal didn’t convince everyone. When the Black Hawks hosted the Boston Bruins on Sunday, December 14, 1941, the only puck to leave the rink during the teams’ 3-3 tie was not returned, proving (as Edward Burns wrote in the Tribune) “a souvenir bug will cling to almost anything.”

Efforts were made at other rinks, too. Madison Square Garden was still home in 1941-42 to two NHL teams, the Rangers and the Brooklyn Americans. Games there began with advisories over the public address system emphasizing that that repatriating pucks that strayed was the “patriotic” thing to do.

Those who tossed them back, it was duly noted, were cheered lustily. Louis Schneider, a syndicated financial columnist, reported on the fate of the bold soul who tried to hang on to a puck in New York. “The hockey fan that grabs one and refuses to throw it back is all but mobbed by soldiers and sailors in addition to being booed by the crowd.”

ching johnson and his highly educated hip

“With his balding head gleaming under the lights,” Deane McGowen wrote in a New York Times obituary in 1979, “the 6-foot, 210-pound Mr. Johnson would carry the puck down the rink like a runaway locomotive at full speed. There were few opponents who dared to impede his progress.”

Nobody called him Mr. Johnson: though first and officially labeled Ivan Wilfred, he was nicknamed early on and certainly as an NHL defenceman was only ever really known as ChingJohnson. Today’s his birthday: he born in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 7, 1897.

Johnson served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, as a driver for the 3rd Division’s ammunition column. The record of his military service testify that he acquired both a social disease and a Good Conduct Badge in France before he was demobilized in 1919.

He played some hockey in Belgium before he came home, after the Armistice, he was among a group of Canadian soldiers who “satisfied their hankering for the blades and sticks with games on a pond in front of a chateau outside Brussels.”

That’s according to Damon Runyon, the writer, of Guys and Dolls repute, who was also a hockey fan and sometime (what else could he be?) Runyonesque hockey columnist in the late 1920s

Johnson had signed on with the New York Rangers by then — was, in fact, one of the long-serving original Rangers, along with Frank Boucher, Bun and Bill Cook, and Murray Murdoch, whose numbers the team has somehow failed to retire. (Johnson’s was 3.)

He played 11 seasons in all with the Rangers, plus an extra one at the end of his career with the Americans across town. The Rangers won two Stanley Cups during Johnson’s tenure. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team twice, in 1932 and ’33. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.

Here’s Runyon’s perspective on Ching Johnson and his predilection for bodychecks from a 1927 column:

Weighing 211 pounds, splendidly distributed in bone, muscle, and skin of healthy glow, he believes firmly in the efficacy of a hip movement that combines the dexterity of Gilda Gray’s shimmy and the potency of a battering ram. In a game against the Chicago Black Hawks, he floored five men — all but the goalie, who cannot be charged on without fracturing a rule — through the medium of his highly educated hip and sheer driving power.

black friday, 1931: the leafs fire a flying ace

Conn and Coach: Managing director and all-round Leaf overlord  Smythe at Boston Garden at some point in the 1930s with Leafs’ coach Dick Irvin. Irvin steered Toronto to a Stanley Cup in his first year with the team, and took them to six more Finals thereafter. In his nine seasons with the Leafs, his teams never missed the playoffs . (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

“Personal relations between Art Duncan and myself are of the best,” Toronto Maple Leafs managing director Conn Smythe was saying 89 years ago today, on another Friday of this same date, stepping up to announce his utmost and ongoing confidence in his coach. “I cannot speak too highly in praise of Mr. Duncan’s attitude since he has had the team.”

Actually, no, sorry, my mistake: fond as that speech sounds, Smythe was in fact firingthe man who’d been guiding his hockey team for just over a year. Five games into the new season, with the Leafs mired at the foot of the NHL’s four-team Canadian Section on a record of three losses and two overtime ties, Smythe had decided that Dick Irvin was the change that the Leafs needed.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Art Duncan had turned 40 in the summer of 1931. He was already a veteran defenceman when he came to the Leafs in 1927. A trade brought him in from the Detroit Cougars, with whom he’d served as playing coach before ceding the bench to Jack Adams.

Having headed up the syndicate that bought the Toronto franchise earlier in ’27, Conn Smythe would soon take over as manager and coach of the team, too. In 1930, after three years of guiding the team, Smythe decided that the time had come for him to fix his attention on getting a new arena built. Smythe had hoped that Frank Nighbor would succeed him, but when he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Pembroke Peach, he handed the job to Duncan.

This wasn’t Duncan’s first stint playing big-league hockey in Toronto: a decade earlier, during the First World War, he’d enlisted in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and played for the 228th Battalion team during its brief tenure in the pre-NHL NHA.

After the 228th cut short its season in 1917 to deploy to France, Duncan transferred to Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, as a lieutenant flying an S.E.5a fighter over Belgium and northern France, he was credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. For “continuous gallantry and initiative,” Duncan was awarded the Military Cross and bar.

By the fall of ’31, Conn Smythe had done what he’d set out to: on November 12 that year, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in a blaze of pomp and ceremony. The Leafs couldn’t contribute a win to the festivities. Two weeks later, they still didn’t have one to their name.

Duncan’s last game in charge saw Toronto fall in Montreal, 3-2 to the Canadiens, on the night of Thursday, November 26. When he was fired next day, he had coached the Leafs in 47 regular-season games — the same number, as it happens, that the present coach, Sheldon Keefe, has overseen to date. (Keefe’s winning percentage stands at .400 to Duncan’s .250.)

Several reports of Duncan’s dismissal noted that he would remain on the Toronto payroll, though that doesn’t seem to have worked out over the longer term. In February of 1932, news reached the popular press that Duncan was suing the Leafs for several thousand dollars in pay, claiming wrongful dismissal and breach of contract. (I haven’t been able to determine how that was resolved, or wasn’t.)

Dick Irvin, who was 39, had also served with the CEF, with the Fort Garry Horse. He was already a veteran star of the Western Canadian Hockey League when he joined the expansion Chicago Black Hawks in 1926, becoming the team’s first captain.

After a fractured skull put an end to his playing career in 1929, he took over as coach the team. He didn’t last, but then not many coaches did, for long, in those torrid years when Major Frederic McLaughlin was the owner in Chicago.

After just a year-and-a-half on the job — and having beaten the Leafs on the way to the 1931 Stanley Cup final, where Chicago lost to Montreal — Irvin resigned his post with the Black Hawks in September of ’31.

He was back home in Regina in mid-November as the rumours circulated that he might be convinced to return to the Black Hawks. Smythe, though, was persuasive enough over the telephone from Toronto that Irvin decided his future lay in Toronto.

He wasn’t on hand to get it started right away, as it turned out. With the new coach en route from Saskatchewan, and not due to arrive on in Toronto until the following Monday, Conn Smythe stepped in to take command of the Leafs that Saturday, 89 years ago tomorrow.

He did fine, steering Toronto to a 6-5 decision over the Boston Bruins — the Leafs’ very first victory in their new building. Andy Blair scored the overtime winner.

Dick Irvin’s first game in charge was at the Gardens on Tuesday, December 1, when another overtime failed to unlock a 2-2 tie between Toronto and the New York Americans. It was another two games before the new coach got his first Leafly victory, a 4-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.

Things got better and better from there, to the extent that in April of 1932, Irvin’s Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.

Fly Guy: Art Duncan depicted by Jimmy Thompson in 1930, his first year as Leaf coach.

rookie move

Gaye Stewart was a stripling left winger of 18 when the Toronto Maple Leafs called him up to aid in their effort, in the spring of 1942, to supersede the Detroit Red Wings and win the Stanley Cup. Together they duly did that, which is how Stewart became the first NHLer to win a Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, a distinction he would come to share, subsequently, with Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, and Danny Grant.

Stewart, a son of Fort William, Ontario, died at the age of 87 on a Thursday of this date in 2010. In his first full season as a Leaf, 1942-43, the 24 goals and 47 points he scored were enough to secure him the votes to take the Calder. Second on the ballot was Montreal defenceman Glen Harmon, followed by Boston centre Don Gallinger; Detroit blueliner Cully Simon; and another Bruin, 17-year-old left winger Bep Guidolin. (That season was, notably, Maurice Richard’s first in the league, too; he didn’t rate in the top five.)

Following his breakout year, Stewart put a pause on his NHL career to serve two years in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, before returning to the Leafs in 1945. In 1947, he helped the team win another Stanley Cup. What else? He was a First Team All-Star in 1946, the same year he scored 37 goals to lead the league — the last Maple Leaf to do so. In his latter NHL years, Stewart played for Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Montreal.

somewhere in england

Wartime precautions kept the Royal Canadian Air Force from identifying the precise setting for this memento of a gathering of high-level hockey talent: the caption affixed to the back of the photographs says “somewhere in England” and leaves it at that. My best guess is that it dates to early 1944 and the rink we’re seeing is the one in Durham in Yorkshire, which is where the RCAF’s Sixth Bomber Group was stationed. Wherever Canadians gather there will be, of course, hockey, and so it was that the Bomber Group Championship came to be played in March of ’44 between teams named the Rossmen (not for Art Ross, but after the CO of an air-station) and the Lancasters.

The final was a two-game, total-goals series featuring some high-powered talent: the Rossmen iced a pair of former Boston Bruins stars in Flying Officer Milt Schmidt and Leading Aircraftman Bobby Bauer, while their former NHL linemate, Pilot Officer Woody Dumart, turned out for the Lancasters.

The Rossmen won the first game 5-0. To start the second, the Lancasters took a 2-0 lead. It didn’t hold: Bauer eventually tied the game before Schmidt scored a pair of goals ten seconds apart. Final score: 4-3 Rossmen.

The men posing here were all serving in the RCAF that spring, though not all of them played for the championship. From left, they are: Roy Conacher (another Boston Bruin before he enlisted); Alf Pike (an erstwhile New York Ranger who’d go on to coach the team); Paul Platz (who played pre-war with the AHL’s Providence Reds); Jimmy Haggerty (a member of Canada’s team at the 1936 Winter Olympics who also played a handful of games with Montreal); Bob Whitelaw and Sid Abel (both Detroit Red Wings); Frank Boucher (a member of the RCAF team that won the 1941-42 Allan Cup and a nephew of the Hall-of-Famer of the same name); Lloyd Gronsdahl (Boston); Ernie Trigg (AHL Cleveland Barons); Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart (Bruins both).

leafs in bud

Man of the Book: Ed Fitkin’s Kennedy bio appeared in 1949, five years after the man they called Teeder made his playoff debut as an 18-year-old.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs launching 18-year-old Nick Robertson into the NHL tonight — he’ll be in the line-up for the Leafs’ Stanley Cup Qualifier, making his big-league debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets — would we turn back for a moment to another youthful premiere in club history? Of course we would, and it would be a March night in 1944, when the great Ted Kennedy made his first playoff start for the Leafs.

The future Leaf captain and Hart-Trophy winner who’d go on to win five Stanley Cups with Toronto was, like Robertson, 18 when he played that first playoff game of his, though Kennedy was in fact younger on his debut than his modern-day counterpart by seven months or so.

Worth noting: Kennedy wasn’t the only 18-year-old in the Leafs’ line-up that night in the ’40s. Nor was he the youngest Leaf in the game.

This was wartime, of course, and with many NHL players having departed the league for military service, all six teams found themselves hard-pressed for manpower.

Desperate for skaters, the Leafs had signed a couple of 17-year-olds that season, including winger Eric Prentice, who (it so happens) grew up to be the father of the late federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier Jim Prentice. Prentice Sr. is still the youngest player to have played for the Leafs.

A bevy of 19-year-olds had seen Leaf service during the regular season in 1943-44, too, including a goaltender, Jean Marois, and winger Bud Poile, the future GM of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks whose son, David, is president and GM of the Nashville Predators.

To open playoffs that night in ’44, the Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished the regular season atop the NHL standings, a full 33 points ahead of third-place Toronto.

Though he was making his first playoff start, 18-year-old Ted Kennedy had played almost the entire regular season for the Leafs, contributing 25 goals and finishing fourth in team scoring. Joining him at centre in blue-and-white was another veteran, 18-year-old Jack Hamilton, who’d played his first playoff game for the team a year earlier, when he was 17. Also at centre for the Leafs that night was 20-year-old Gus Bodnar; left winger Don Webster was 19.

The youngest Leaf on the ice that night was the other 17-year-old in the Leafs’ stable, defenceman Ross Johnstone. A year earlier he’d been playing for the OHA’s Oshawa Generals, coached by former Leaf titan Charlie Conacher, as they vied for (but lost) the Memorial Cup against the Winnipeg Rangers of the MJHL.

The oldest Leaf player that night in Montreal in 1944? Right winger Lorne Carr was 33 while left winger and team captain Bob Davidson had just turned 32.

The Leafs did get off to a good series start, all those 76 years ago, surprising Montreal in their own building and beating them 3-1.

“Spirit,” Leaf coach Hap Day explained afterwards, “is the quality that we have the most of, and that’s what paid off dividends.”

Not to jinx anything, but it was all downhill from there for Toronto. Montreal swept back to win the next four games and the series, before continuing on to beat the Chicago Black Hawks and win the Stanley Cup. In the game that decided the series against the fledgling Leafs, Montreal swamped them by a score of 11-0.

cooper smeaton: one ref to rule them all

Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, southwest of Ottawa, on a Tuesday of this date in 1890, Cooper Smeaton was the NHL’s very first referee-in-chief. It was the reffing that got him into the Hall of Fame, years and years of it, but Smeaton also played the game, served time (briefly) as an NHL coach, and presided as a trustee of the Stanley Cup. He got his start playing point — defence — with several Montreal teams in the 1910s, and was a teammate of Odie and Sprague Cleghorn’s with the New York Wanderers in the American Amateur Hockey League. He refereed in the old National Hockey Association before signing up, in 1917, to serve in the artillery with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was a sergeant when he returned from France, and decorated, having been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for saving an ammunition dump from destruction after it was hit by a German shell.

The Hall of Fame says that as a referee he was fearless and always showed good sense. Enforcing the rules in the NHL in the early 1920s was not, let’s recall, for the frail-hearted or self-doubtful. An account I’ve been browsing of a 1923 game between Canadiens and Senators at Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena describes how unruly fans besieged the Ottawa dressing room after the game, and how the referees, Smeaton and Lou Marsh, tried to defend the visitors. “Cooper Smeaton used his fists freely in the battle,” one report goes, “and the police grabbed two or three of the ringleaders.” It was in the aftermath of Billy Coutu’s attack on referee Jerry Laflamme that Smeaton was appointed as the NHL’s  one-ref-to-rule-them-all in 1927. He kept on as a full-time whistler, too, and continued to pay the price. In 1929, overseeing a game in New York between Canadiens and Americans, he ended up with a broken leg after tumbling into the boards in a melee of players. That was in the second period; he finished the game before seeking treatment.

In 1933, after he cracked a pair of ribs breaking up a fight between Boston’s Eddie Shore and Sylvio Mantha of Montreal, he was back on the ice a couple of days later for a game between Canadiens and Senators. He had to warn the visiting team, that night, for foul language. “The  Ottawans,” Montreal’s Gazette noted, “were very loquacious all evening, climaxing a night’s oratorical effort with a barrage of Smeaton as he left the ice.”

He took a break from refereeing in 1930 to coach the Philadelphia Quakers through their only NHL campaign, after the franchise moved from Pittsburgh, and before it folded for good in 1931. A couple of young Quakers, like Syd Howe and Wilf Cude, would go on to have fruitful NHL careers, but as a team that season, Philadelphia was a bust, winning just four of 44 games, and finishing dead last in the ten-team NHL.

Smeaton later said that he lost 40 pounds that year just from worrying whether there would be enough money day-to-day to keep the team on ice. He recalled waiting with his players on a Philadelphia street in hope that a messenger would show up from the bank. “We were scheduled to play in Chicago and it was getting near train time and we needed the money for the trip. The man finally arrived with the money but a succession of things like that can wear you out.”

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?

behind the lines

Off Duty: The game goes on in “Military Moscow,” by Soviet painter Aleksandr Deyneka, which he completed in the span of wartime years 1941-46. The question is … which game is it? As I wrote in a book of mine, the story of how Russians came to the hockey we know involves a bit of a tangled provenance, a layer of mist, and a Chekhovian touch of men quarrelling offstage. Before 1946, Russians tended to play soccer in the summer and bandy — russki hokkei — when winter came. They’d been doing it, in one form or another, going back to Peter The Great’s time. Canatsky hokkei (ours) wasn’t unknown, especially in the Baltics, but mostly they bandyed, chasing a ball, with 11-man teams skating on a rink the size of a soccer field. Sticks were short and curled and wrapped in cord. Lawrence Martin says that there was a Canadian-sized hockey rink in a central Moscow soccer stadium going back to 1938, and that puck-hockey was introduced to phys-ed curricula starting in 1939. It was in ’46 that the first hockey league got going in a serious way. And so, here, under the barrage balloon? The sticks look fairly hockey-shaped, to me. There seems just to be the one goal, so it could be that they’re just taking shots. Either way, there’s no mistaking, or oppressing, the pure shinny spirit of the moment.

hello, canada, and hockey fans in the united states and newfoundland

He Shoots, He … You Know: Franklin Arbuckle painted Foster Hewitt at work high up above the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for the cover of Maclean’s that found its way to newsstands on March 3, 1956.

A big anniversary today for radio in Canada: it was 100 years ago, on a Thursday of this same date in 1920, that the first scheduled broadcast took place, when XWA in Montreal relayed a musical program from the top floor of the Marconi building on William Street to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. That was a North American first, too: the inaugural American broadcast, emanating from Pittsburgh, didn’t hit the air until November of 1920.

Hockey’s radio debut came in the winter of 1923, via the Toronto Star’s radio station, CFCA. No, it wasn’t Foster Hewitt narrating the play, though he still often gets the credit. Historian Eric Zweig has cast the most light on this in recent years, and you can step into it here, if you have a subscription to the Star.

Hewitt was at the the paper in 1923, and did just a few days later get on the air to talk hockey. But it was in fact a part-time Star sports reporter Norman Albert who first gave a voice to hockey, on February 8, when he called the third period of an OHA intermediate game at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena.

Albert also seems to have been on the job for the first broadcast of an NHL game. That came on February 14, 1923, when the hometown St. Patricks overturned the Ottawa Senators, the eventual Stanley Cup champions that year, by a score of 6-4.

Again, listeners heard just the third period that night, which means that Jack Adams’ goal for the St. Pats was the first in NHL history to be broadcast. Ottawa’s Frank Nighbor was next, with a pair. His teammate Punch Broadbent scored the final goal of that auspicious evening.

Albert died in 1974. I’m hoping someone asked him if he remembered how he called those landmark goals, and/or whether the words “He shoots, he scores” formed in his mouth that evening. And if someone did ask? I hope they wrote down the answer somewhere where I can snuffle it out, at some point.

Even if he wasn’t first off the mark, Foster Hewitt quickly — and lastingly — became a hockey broadcasting institution, of course. In his 1975 book, A Pictorial History of Radio in Canada, Sandy Stewart notes that while radio soon featured prominently in Canadian living rooms in the 1920s, most of the listening the citizenry was doing was to American stations.

There were two reasons for this, he posits: “the Canadian government’s indifference towards financing radio broadcasting prohibited big Canadian stations and the Canadian radio programming was not significantly different from American programming, which did it better.”

It was hockey that made the difference, Stewart says.

In the U.S., “going to the movies” had become the Saturday night pastime, but in Canada there were not as many movie houses available to a widely scattered population, and so Canadians stayed home to listen to the radio. Since almost everybody in the U.S. was at the movies on Saturday nights, the American broadcasters often didn’t bother to list the evening’s programs, but in Canada General Motors sponsored the Saturday night broadcasts. Canadians tuned in and hockey became as Canadian as maple syrup and still is.

General Motors eventually gave way to Imperial Oil as sponsor of hockey on Canadian radio, but Hewitt remained constant all the way through to 1968. (From 1952 through 1963, his broadcasts were simulcast on television, too.)

Sandy Stewart expounds on how Hewitt’s on-air talents ensured that his hockey broadcasts dominated the radio scene through the 1930s and on through the Second World War. And yet when hockey went national in 1932, General Motors was worried that the broadcast wouldn’t be able to hold its audience between periods. Their answer? They switched to dance music from Toronto’s Silver Slipper Dance Hall.

Stewart:

Later they produced drama sketches during intermissions, and eventually they hit on the “The Hot Stove League” with Elmer Ferguson, Wes McKnight, and Court Benson discussing the game. Another institution that survived from the 1930s to this day is the 3-Star Selection inspired by 3-Star Gasoline, [which] advertised on the broadcast.

For years Foster started the broadcast after his introduction from Charles Jennings with, “Hello, Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.”

During the war, he also greeted “our men overseas,” and on one occasion when it was known that the Germans were transmitting the hockey game to our troops in Belgium and Holland along with the pitch from a Nazi female broadcaster, “Why not call off the war and go home to see the hockey games,” Foster added on the Christmas broadcast, “and an extra big hello to Calamity Jane of Arnhem.”

Gondola Gazing: Hewitt at the mic in the late 1940s.

 

coming up rosebud

He was 25 in 1918 when he signed up to go to the war with the Fort Garry Horse, 5-foot-8-and-a-quarter, according to his Attestation Papers. His eyes were hazel, his hair was dark, his complexion fresh. He was Single and Presbyterian. He while Dick Irvin told the Canadian Expeditionary Force in that last year of war that his Trade or Calling was Salesman and Butcher, he was also an accomplished hockey player who’d already played a year as a professional centreman with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds. Irvin, who died at the age of 64 on a Thursday of this date in 1957, may be best remembered nowadays as an NHL coach, winner of four Stanley Cups, but he was counted as one of the best players of his generation, too, in his day. The photograph here dates to his second stint with Portland’s Rosebuds, which came in the old WHL in 1925-26. The following year he joined the fledgling Chicago Black Hawks. At 34, he served as the team’s first captain and finished the season second in the list of the NHL’s top scorers, a point behind Bill Cook of the New York Rangers. Dick Irvin suffered a fractured skull in his second NHL season, and that led to his retirement as a player in 1928-29 as well as the start of a coaching legend.

(Image: Oregonian/Barcroft Studios. Oregon Journal; Lot 1368; Box 371; 371N5905)

maroosh

Now Hear This: John Mariucci makes his point with an unidentified member of the post-war Montreal Canadiens. That’s Chicago coach Johnny Gottselig looking in from behind (the second hatted man from the right); Montreal defenceman Kenny Reardon is the Canadian interceding on Mariucci’s right. The other Montrealer looks to me to be numbered 15, which means he could be George Allen or Bob Fillion or … Floyd Curry? The Chicago player nearest the camera could be a 3 but might be an 8, so who knows: Joe Cooper, possibly?

“To be sure there was hockey before Mariucci. But it was Mariucci who made hockey a game for more than Canadians. It was Mariucci who, by force of his play and his personality, made the game a Minnesota game, and then a U.S. game, as well. Pee Wee leagues and summer camps and a state high school hockey tournament and Brotens and Herbies and gold medals … all those things, which have become so much a part of Minnesota’s culture, can be traced to the toughest member of the Hay Street gang, John Mariucci.”

That was Doug Grow writing in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, paying tribute to the man they called Maroosh — also the godfather of Minnesota hockey —in the days following his death, at the age of 70, in 1987. A long-serving coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mariucci also steered the U.S. team to a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. He spent his latter years managing and assisting with the coaching of the Minnesota North Stars.

To mention that he was born on a Monday of this date in 1916 in Eveleth, Minnesota, is to circle back to Hay Street, where he grew up, and where the Mariuccis’ neighbours included the LoPrestis (Sam tended goal for the Chicago Black Hawks) and the Brimseks (Frank, a Hall-of-Famer, made his name with the Boston Bruins).

After a late start — by some accounts, Mariucci didn’t play organized hockey until he was 17 — he starred at hockey and football at the University of Minnesota before joining the Black Hawks in 1940. The adjectives his play as an NHLer generated include rugged and feisty and bruising, as well as the associated phrase never one to miss a bodycheck. “Mariucci Thinks It’s Silly To Fight; He Has Been In About 100 Battles,” ran the headline of a 1948 profile when he was playing for the AHL St. Louis Flyers.

“I’m really sorry every time I get into a fight,” he volunteered, “and I swear I’ll never fight again. … But I hope no opposing player takes advantage of me. I won’t stand for it.”

Top Hawk: Mariucci with the C (and a big old pair of gauntlets)  during the 1947-48 season, his last in the NHL.

His NHL career only lasted five seasons, interrupted as it was by the two wartime years he served with the U.S. Coast Guard. He did play some EAHL hockey in the service —Frank Brimsek was a teammate — with the formidable Cutters.

Back with the Black Hawks after the war, the quality of his leadership saw him named captain of the team. That was a distinction in its own right, of course, and press reports at the time suggested that Mariucci’s appointment was even more notable since he was the first American-born player to serve as captain of an NHL team. That wasn’t the case, in fact: Billy Burch, the man named as the New York Americans’ first captain in 1925, was born in Yonkers, New York — though it’s true, too, that he moved with his family at a young age to Toronto, where his hockey skills were mostly refined.

Not Quite So: The Blackhawks’ 2019-20 media guide errs on Mariucci’s dates.

There is a more noteworthy glitch in what passes as the official record regarding Mariucci’s captaincy that could do with some correcting. Could we fix that, somebody? Many of the standard sources you might find yourself consulting — including both the Blackhawks’ own website and the team’s 2019-20 Media Guide — assert that Mariucci was captain for two seasons, 1945-46 and 1947-48.

That’s not so. The first of those, 1945-46, did see Mariucci return to Chicago ranks from the Coast Guard, but it was left winger Red Hamill, a Toronto-born Chicago veteran making a return from a year on duty (and playing hockey) with the Canadian Army, who was elected captain that season, succeeding Clint Smith.

Hamill continued as captain the following year. And he was still with the team in October of 1947 when Mariucci supplanted him. That was Mariucci’s last year with Chicago and in the NHL: in the fall of ’48, when he was 32, the Black Hawks released him, and Gaye Stewart took over as captain. That’s when Mariucci joined the St. Louis Flyers of the AHL. He was named captain there; press reports from the time also note that he’d be doing some work, too, in his new Midwest home as a scout for the Black Hawks.

Right Said Red: The Chicago Tribune noted Red Hamill’s appointment as Chicago’s first post-war captain in October of 1945.