herb gardiner: in 1927, the nhl’s most useful man

It was on a Friday of this same date in 1891 in Winnipeg that Herb Gardiner was born in 1891. If you haven’t heard of his stardom as a defenceman on the ice in Calgary and Montreal, well, here’s an introduction to that. Gardiner, who died in 1972, aged 80, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. A quick browse across his biography shows that the adjectives stellar and two-way and consistent were sometimes applied to his efforts on the ice, along with the noun rock. Also? That he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP in 1927, edging out Bill Cook on the ballot, as well as the impressive likes of Frank Frederickson, Dick Irvin, and King Clancy.

Browsing the Attestation Papers by which Gardiner signed up to be a soldier in Calgary in 1915 at the age of 23 and the height of just over 5’ 9”, you may notice that the birthdate given is May 10, which is two days late, must just be an error, since a lie wouldn’t have made any difference to Gardiner’s eligibility. Listing the profession he was leaving behind to go to war as surveyor, he started a private with the 12th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, went to England, was taken on strength with the 2nd CMR, who went unhorsed to fight in France in 1916. Gardiner was promoted corporal that year and then lance-sergeant, and we know that he was wounded in June, probably near Hooge in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The nature of the wound is inscribed in Gardiner’s medical record as “GSW Nose” — i.e. Gun Shot Wound Nose. That’s as much as I know about it, other than it seems that he was brisk in his recovery, and kept on winning promotion as 1916 went, to company sergeant-major, then temporary lieutenant. The following year he spent a lot of time in hospitals with (as per the medical file) bronchitis, pleurisy, catarrhal jaundice. He was invalided back to Canada, eventually, where he was playing hockey again for various Calgary teams before he was demobilized in 1919.

Most of the starring he did in those post-war years was on defence for the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canadian Hockey League, where he played with Red Dutton and Rusty Crawford, Harry Oliver, Spunk Sparrow. In 1926, when the league disbanded (it was the WHL by then), Cecil Hart of the Montreal Canadiens bought Gardiner’s contract.

Gardiner took Georges Vézina’s number 1 for his sweater in Montreal, which is a little surprising, but there it is: the team didn’t retire it from circulation after the iconic goaltender’s death in March of 1926. (Herb Rheaume, Vézina’s successor in Montreal’s net, inherited the number before Gardiner arrived; the following year, 1926-27, Montreal’s new goaltender was George Hainsworth, who wore 12.)

Gardiner played his first NHL game in November of 1926 at the age of 35 in the old Boston Arena on a night when another WHL import was getting his start on the Bruins’ defence: 23-year-old Eddie Shore. Boston won that contest, 4-1, and even in the Montreal papers it was Shore’s debut that rated most of the mentions, his rugged style, and some pleasantries he exchanged with Canadiens’ Aurèle Joliat. Oh, and goaltender Hainsworth was said to be hindered by the fog that blanketed the ice. “The heat in the rink,” the Gazette noted, “was fearful.”

Along with Hainsworth and Joliat, Canadiens counted Howie Morenz in their line-up that year, and Art Gagne and Pit Lepine, along with a talented supporting cast. Gardiner joined Sylvio Mantha and Battleship Leduc on the defence — and that was pretty much it, other than Amby Moran, who played in 12 of Montreal’s 44 regular-season games. Gardiner, for his part, was not so much busy as ever-present, relied on by coach Cecil Hart to play all 60 minutes of each game. With the four games Canadiens played in the playoffs, that means he played 48 games — italics and respectful props all mine — in their entirety that year.

“And sometimes it was 70 or 80 minutes,” he recalled years later. “We played overtime in those days, too. But it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. I never carried the puck more than, say, eight times a game. And besides, I was only 35 years old at the time.”

By February of 1927, Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald was already touting Gardiner as his nominee to win the trophy for league MVP that was named for the father of Montreal’s coach. Another hometown paper called Gardiner “the sensation of the league.” When in March sportswriters around the NHL tallied their votes, Gardiner had garnered 89, putting him ahead of the Rangers’ Bill Cook (80) and Boston centre Frank Frederickson (75). I like the way they framed it back in those early years: Gardiner was being crowned (as The Ottawa Journal put it) “the most useful man to his team.” For all that, and as good as that team was, those Canadiens, they weren’t quite up to the level of the Ottawa Senators, who beat Montreal in the semi-finals before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

With Hart in hand, Gardiner asked for a pay raise in the summer of ’27. When Montreal didn’t seem inclined to offer it, he stayed home in Calgary. He was ready to call it quits, he said, but then Canadiens came through and Gardiner headed east, having missed two weeks of training. He wouldn’t say what Montreal was paying him for the season, but there was a rumour that it was $7,500.

So he played a second year in Montreal. Then in August of 1928 he was named coach of Major Frederic McLaughlin’s underperforming Chicago Black Hawks, the fourth in the club’s two-year history. Gardiner had served as a playing coach in his days with the Calgary Tigers, but this job was strictly benchbound — at first.

As Gardiner himself explained it to reporters, Montreal was only loaning him to Chicago, on the understanding that he wouldn’t be playing. The team he’d have charge of was a bit of a mystery: “What players they will have; what changes have been made since last winter, and other matters pertaining to the club are unknown to me,” he said as he prepared to depart Calgary in September.

The team trained in Winnipeg and Kansas City before season got going. When they lost five of their first six games, Gardiner got permission from Montreal’s Leo Dandurand to insert himself into the line-up, but then didn’t, not immediately, went to Ottawa and then Montreal without putting himself to use, and remained on the bench through Christmas and January, and Chicago was better, though not at all good, moping around at the bottom of the league standings.

He finally took the ice in February in a 3-2 loss to New York Rangers, when the Black Hawks debuted at their new home: due to a lease kerfuffle back in Chicago, the team was temporarily at home at Detroit’s Olympia. Gardiner played a total of four games for Chicago before Montreal, up at the top of the standings, decided that if he was going to be playing, it might as well be on their blueline, and so with the NHL’s trade-and-transaction deadline approaching, Canadiens duly ended the loan and called him back home.

Well out of the playoffs, the Black Hawks finished the season with (best I can glean) Dick Irvin serving as playing-coach, though business manager Bill Tobin may have helped, too. Major McLaughlin did have a successor lined up for the fall in Tom Shaughnessy. Coaches didn’t last long with McLaughlin, and he was no exception. While Gardiner oversaw 32 Black Hawk games, Shaughnessy only made it to 21 before he gave way to Bill Tobin, whose reign lasted (slightly) longer, 71 games.

Gardiner finished the season with Montreal, who again failed to turn a very good regular season into playoff success. In May of 1929, Canadiens sent Gardiner to the Boston Bruins, a clear sale this time, in a deal that also saw George Patterson and Art Gagne head to Massachusetts. Gardiner was finished as an NHLer, though: that fall, the Philadelphia Arrows of the Can-Am League paid for his release from Boston and made him their coach.

Sont Ici: A Pittsburgh paper welcomes Canadiens Herb Gardiner and goaltender George Hainsworth in 1927, along with (between them) Gizzy (not Grizzy) Hart, who in fact played left wing rather than defence. Canadiens and Pirates tied 2-2 on the night after overtime failed to produce a winner.

plaster cast

All Aboard: A trio of Montreal Canadiens forwards show their bandaged stuff as they take to the rails for a road trip in February of 1943. Top is right winger Joe Benoit, whose 30 goals led the team that year, along with centre Buddy O’Connor and left winger Dutch Hiller at the bottom. Canadiens squeezed into the playoffs by a single point that year before falling in the first round to the Boston Bruins. (Image: La Presse)

praising cain

Blurbing Herb: Herb Cain skated the left wing for Montreal’s Maroons and Canadiens in his day, but it was as a Boston Bruin that he made his mark on NHL history. In March of 1944, Cain collected two assists in a Boston win over the Chicago Black Hawks, giving him 75 points on the season, a new record for a single NHL season that surpassed Cooney Weiland’s 73 in 1929-30. Cain, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1982 at the age of 69, went on win the NHL scoring title that year, finishing with 82 points, just ahead of Chicago’s Doug Bentley. It was 1951 before Gordie Howe broke Cain’s record. A member of two Stanley Cup-winning teams — Maroons in ’35; Bruins in ’41 — Cain remains the only eligible scoring champion in NHL history not to have been elected to the Hall of Fame.

stretcher case

Built to endure, Dit Clapper was the first NHLer to play 20 seasons, and he was every bit a Boston Bruin for all of them. Born in Newmarket, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1907, he distinguished himself early on a right winger, joining Cooney Weiland and Dutch Gainor on the Dynamite Line before switching back to work on defence in later years. More firsts: Clapper was the original NHLer to be selected an All-Star at both forward and defence, and when he was elevated in 1947 to the Hockey Hall, he was the first for whom the Hall waived its standard waiting period. He was a Bruin captain and served as both a playing assistant coach and coach for Boston in the 1940s. He was in on three Bruin Stanley Cups as a player, in 1929, 1939, and 1941. The team retired his number 5 in 1947.

The photos here date to later on in 1941, when Clapper was 34. That’s (a bandaged) Bruin teammate with him, 29-year-old Bill Cowley, on the right in both cases. The woman, whose name has gone missing over the years, was part of a promotional campaign that swept into Boston that November and enlisted these Bruins stars to the cause of raising funds for medical supplies to be sent to the United Kingdom to aid in the war effort against Germany and its allies. In another month, of course, the United States would be joining the fight.

 

(Images: © Richard Merrill, CC BY-NC-ND)

flyby

Lift-Off: Posing here in 1940-41, Sam LoPresti puts Emile Francis to shame, I’d say, when it comes to sailing across his net in search of a puck that may or may not ever show up.

Like Frank Brimsek and Mike Karakas (Bob Dylan, too), Sam LoPresti hailed from Minnesota’s Iron Range. Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1917 in the now-ghostly mining town of Elcor, LoPresti grew up in nearby Eveleth. He played two seasons for the Chicago Black Hawks, and was a stand-out in his team’s (ultimately unsuccessful) playoff series in the 1942 playoffs against the Boston Bruins.

In March of 1941, as a rookie, LoPresti played another famous game against the Bruins. In this one,  he faced 83 shots, stopping all but three in a 3-2 Boston win. LoPresti’s teammate Doug Bentley was, for one, disgusted … with Boston. “They must have been lucky because they certainly weren’t good,” the winger told a reporter next day. “Any team which has to take 83 shots at a goalie isn’t good in my book. What a bunch of Deadeye Dicks. Phooey.” (Doug Bentley did not himself score in this game, it might be pointed out, though his brother, Max, did.)

“I couldn’t sleep all night,” offered LoPresti. “I was so exhausted from the game that I kept tossing and turning in bed.” When he did manage, finally, to sleep, his roommate, Chicago’s Eveleth-born defenceman John Mariucci, woke him up to remind LoPresti how wonderfully he’d played. “I’m so tired now I’m going to sleep all the way back to Chicago,” LoPresti said.

Following the 1942 season, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard, then transferred to the Navy. In February of 1943, he was serving as a gunner’s mate on a merchant ship that was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on an Atlantic crossing. Along with 20 or so shipmates, he spent 42 days in a lifeboat before being rescued off the coast of Brazil. He did eventually return to hockey, though never to the NHL: he played senior hockey in Duluth and Eveleth before retiring from the ice in 1951. LoPresti was a charter member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 1973. His son, Pete, followed him into the crease, tending NHL goals in the 1970s for the Minnesota North Stars and (briefly) the Edmonton Oilers.

Sam LoPresti died in 1984 at the age of 67.

sight plan: picturing a mask, one of hockey’s earliest

Eye Test: Princeton’s E.W. Gould shows off his headgear (said to be of his own design) on December 21, 1921.

First hockey goaltender to wear a mask?

It’s a question that has diverted many a hockey researcher, including some here on the Puckstruck campus. This is well back beyond NHL pioneers Jacques Plante and Clint Benedict we’re talking now, before Elizabeth Graham and Corinne Hardman, pre-Eddie Giroux. The 2020 findings of hockey historian Eric Zweig, who’s done the digging, are as definitive as you’re going to come across. He settles us on Ev Marshall, of Calgary, who did the sensible thing and masked up in a game in 1899.

Next question: where to look if we’re seeking the first photograph of a hockey mask and the player who wore it?

While we do have images of both Hardman and Giroux, from 1916 and 1907 respectively, they show goaltenders only, no masks.

So this might well be it, hereabove, from 1921.

The thing is, this isn’t a goaltender we’re facing: E.W. Gould was a defenceman for Princeton University’s hockey team. I haven’t tracked his university record or found much in the way of a civilian biography, but his hockey file is … also thin. I haven’t even been able to glean a full first name. He may only have played a single season with the Tigers, over the winter of 1921-22, when he seems to have seen duty mostly as a substitute.

Gould’s mask got some play that winter, even if he didn’t: this photograph appeared in newspapers across the United States that winter, mostly as a standalone, the novelty of the mask was enough, no need for a whole story. While (to me) it looks like it might be a baseball mask, contemporary captions explain that Gould invented his rig himself.

As it turns out, Gould wasn’t the only one wearing a mask that year: his teammate (and captain), Princeton goaltender Gene Maxwell, sported one of similar design. That’s him above, in 1922, and then in the back row of the team grouping below from Lake Placid, with Gould and his mask kneeling up front.

While Gould may well have donned his mask as a measure of prudent protection, Maxwell wore glasses behind his. He had recent precedent to draw on in this regard: in 1915, Boston A.A. goaltender Ollie Chadwick used what looks like — see an artistic impression below — a pair of motorcycling or aviator’s goggles.

I guess they did work, insofar as Chadwick could have been even more painfully injured if he hadn’t been wearing them. Playing against Hobey Baker and his New York St. Nicholas team in March of ’15, Chadwick took a stick to the eyes. “The Boston goal tender plays with glasses,” the Boston Daily Globe detailed; “these broke and the player was badly cut.” He was patched and returned to his goal — without the glasses.

(Sad to say, Chadwick was killed in action at the age of 28 in 1917, while serving with the Lafayette Flying Corps over Belgium. Baker was with the U.S. Army Air Service when he died in a crash in France just over a year later. He was 26.)

Since we’re skating American ice, it’s worth noting that Chadwick wasn’t the first to wear headgear there. In February of 1911, New York A.C. captain Riley Casselman hit the ice against Crescent A.C wearing a baseball catcher’s mask — “much to the bewilderment of the fans,” as one local newspaper noted.

Casselman, who hailed from Morrisburg, Ontario, was no goaltender, either: in the old seven-man game, he was a free-wheeling rover. Those fans in New York came around to his way of seeing things, I guess: “Some said,” the report continued, “they didn’t see why all the players weren’t equipped with masks, especially when a rough game for the amateur league championship was on tap.”

Whether Gould’s 1921 half-mask was of his own design or not, it does seem to have made a lasting impression, to the point that the apparatus that Franklin Farrell wore a decade later while tending goal for the 1932 U.S. Olympic team — images here — looks like it could have been the very same model.

 

a husky healthy lot: a vaccination mandate for the nhl — in 1920 

Benny And The Vax: An arm swollen to twice its regular size didn’t keep Ottawa goaltender Clint Benedict from the ice in 1920.

Winter was on the way, but cases were on the rise, too, and as concerns over the spread of disease mounted, players in the National Hockey League did what they had to do and took a needle to make sure that the hockey season could proceed.

If the scenario sounds as familiar and up-to-the-moment as today’s (online) edition of your daily newspaper, the case at hand comes to us as 100-year-old history. Twenty months into our 21st-century pandemic, in a week in which the NHL’s modern-day Ottawa Senators have seen their schedule suspended under a weight of Covid-19 protocols, we’re casting back here to the fall of 1919 here.

Back then, in the wake of a world war, another devastating pandemic still wasn’t finished its dreadful work, but this isn’t a Spanish flu story. Seven months after that virulent virus shut down the Stanley Cup finals in Seattle, sickening most of the Montreal Canadiens’ line-up and killing defenceman Joe Hall, it was smallpox that was on the loose across Ontario.

 News of a “mild” epidemic in Toronto made news in Ottawa at the beginning of November. “Fifteen cases are in the smallpox hospital,” the Journal advised, “but no deaths have been reported. All teaching institutions, included colleges, are ordered vaccinated. The City Council is to be asked to issue a proclamation ordering everybody to be vaccinated.”

By mid-month, the case count in the provincial capital was at 361, with 1,000 people in the city under quarantine. (Across the rest of Ontario, 541 cases were reported.) But Dr. Charles Hastings, the city’s medical officer of health, estimated that the actual number of infected Torontonians to be between 2,000 and 3,000. The smallpox vaccine was the first to have been developed against a contagious disease, going back to the end of the 18th century, and in Toronto that fall, the effort to vaccinate city’s population was working well, Dr. Hastings felt: in a city of some 520,000, as many as 100,000 had been inoculated by mid-November, “including a large proportion of schoolchildren.” Still, urgency was required: he sought compulsory vaccinations for all Torontonians.

Plus ça change: Anti-(smallpox)-vaxxers demonstrate in front of Toronto’s City Hall in 1920. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2517)

The fact that Mayor Tommy Church and a majority of city councillors didn’t agree meant this was anything but a straightforward matter. Mayor Church declared his belief in vaccines; he just didn’t think the people of his city should be compelled to get them. Ontario’s Board of Health sent a letter requesting that the city issue a mandate; Council declined to issue one. Dr. John McCullough was the province’s top doctor: he reminded the Mayor and his stubborn councillors that any of them (as the Globe noted) “to whom responsibility for failure to issue this proclamation may attach will be liable to a penalty under the Vaccination Act.” There was talk of fines, of indictments under a grand jury, of jail sentences.

As Christmas approached — and cases increased — the struggle between the politicians and the doctors intensified. While the politicians refused to give ground, the local Board of Health saw to it that unvaccinated children were barred from city schools: on December 4, more than 1,000 were sent home. But it was politicians who manned the Toronto Board and by early January dissenting councillors had the upper hand, such that the city’s BOH not only refused to cooperate with the Ontario Board in its effort to enforce general vaccination, but suspended its earlier exclusion of unvaccinated schoolchildren.

The Ontario Board kept up its pressure on Toronto’s council, warning of lawsuits that would surely follow as a result of the city’s neglect and noting that smallpox outbreaks in the rest of the province were all traceable to Toronto. By early January, the Globe was reporting the epidemic’s first two Toronto deaths, a baby girl of 17 months and a man of 66.

Ontario’s neighbours were watching, and worrying. In November, the United States Public Health Service announced that all travellers crossing from the province into Michigan at Detroit would need to show proof of vaccination to enter; similar rules applied at Buffalo and other New York ports of entry. On December 20, Manitoba imposed a similar restriction. By January, Quebec was ready to follow suit, imposing “one of the most severe and sweeping health protection measures in years,” and extending an order already in place in Montreal requiring all visitors from Ontario be vaccinated was extended to include the entire province. “Quebec,” declared Dr. Hector Palardy, district health officer for Montreal, “has no smallpox whatever, and does not want any.”

It’s here that we circle back to the ice. Papers across the country carried the news as the old year shifted into a new one:

Needle News: Word of NHL vaccinations went on the wires across Canada in early 1920.

By then, the NHL’s third season had been underway for a week. It was a four-team loop that year, with Quebec having joined in with Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. The Senators would end up winning the league championship and the Stanley Cup by the time it was all over. With a line-up that included Clint Benedict, Eddie Gerard, Punch Broadbent, and Frank Nighbor, they were already working with a formula that would bring home two more Cups over the course of the next three seasons.

“None of the boys reported sore arms,” the Ottawa Citizen reported in the wake of Dr. Graham’s needling, “but they are liable to develop in a day or two and may handicap the club considerably in the championship race.”

Still: “As a husky healthy lot, Dr. Graham does not believe that any of the men will be disabled.”

Frank Nighbor wasn’t so sure. Along with teammates Broadbent, Jack MacKell, and Morley Bruce, he’d been previously vaccinated against smallpox while on military service during the war. Lacking certificates to prove it, all four had submitted to repeats from Dr. Graham. Nighbor hadn’t forgotten the first time: “he says he was a very sick boy when the Flying Corps surgeon jabbed him at Toronto.”

Frank Nighbor

Several of Nighbor’s teammates did suffer in the days that followed. On January 3, before they hit the road for Quebec, the Senators traveled to Toronto to take on the St. Patricks. It was a rough game, with the home team prevailing, 4-3. Ottawa defenceman Sprague Cleghorn did score his team’s second goal, but the Citizen asked for some sympathy on his behalf: “Cleghorn went into the game so sick that he could hardly stand.” A week after Dr. Graham’s visit to the dressing room, he was still suffering. “His left arm was swollen,” the Citizen explained, “and he complained of pains and dizziness in his head. Yet Cleghorn insisted on playing.”

Ahead of Ottawa’s next game, at home to Montreal, the Citizen later revealed, a couple of Senators were ailing: while Punch Broadbent had a case of pleurisy, goaltender Clint Benedict’s “vaccinated arm was swollen was swollen twice its normal size.” Both insisted on playing in what turned out as a 4-3 Senators win; Broadbent scored a hattrick and added an assist.

It’s not clear whether or not Ottawa’s players were still feeling any side effects by the time they finally got to Quebec in mid-January. We do know that the road trip east yielded a split: after beating Quebec 2-1, they lost to Montreal by a score of 3-2.

NHL notes from January of 1920.

When Toronto’s players got their vaccinations in early January, the news was that “several of the players were laid up with sore arms.” As for players from Montreal and Quebec — I’ve seen no mention in contemporary accounts of them getting their needles, though I assume that if they were travelling to Toronto and back home again, Quebec’s mandate must have caused them to be vaccinated, too.

Ontario’s Board of Health gave up its fight for a city-wide Toronto mandate in early January of 1920 after the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled that the board didn’t have the power to tell the city what to do. “The Provincial Board of Health has done its utmost to protect Ontario and others from the peril of smallpox,” Dr. McCullough said. “Owing to the opposition of the Toronto City Council, we have not been completely successful.”

Case numbers did begin to drop, even if Dr. McCullough didn’t soften his tone as the weeks went on. Addressing Windsor’s Chamber of Commerce at the end of January, 1920, he charged that “the city of Toronto has been guilty of spreading smallpox all over the province of Ontario and would have spread it all over the continent had not the Americans taken steps to prevent it.”

He was referring, of course, to U.S. border restrictions, but let’s not diminish Quebec’s efforts. After that province lifted its restrictions on Ontario travellers in early March, health officials went to the trouble of releasing a bevy of impressive analytics. In the two months of monitoring railway traffic from Ontario, Quebec inspectors had boarded 1,501 trains carrying 89,275 passengers. Of these, 69,933 were found to have vaccination certificates (“which were examined and stamped,” the Montreal Gazette divulged) while a further 12,549 rolled up sleeves to show vaccination marks (“which were verified”). Another 6,639 passengers who had neither certificates nor vaccination marks submitted to vaccinations on the spot.

And those who refused a frontier shot? There were 154 of them. “The inspectors were adamant,” the Gazette noted; “that number was turned back and prevented from crossing into this province.”

Playing Hurt: Punch Broadbent scored a January hattrick for his Ottawa Senators in 1920, pleurisy notwithstanding.

 

 

smokey smith at centre ice

War over, time for some hockey.

Not that the NHL had paused any of its winter maneuvers during the early 1940s as the Second World War roiled, though there were annual discussions, early on, about whether it might be right for the league to suspend operations for the duration.

Now, hostilities among nations having ceased, there was, in 1945, a sense that real hockey was back for the first time in years.

“We’re in for our greatest season,” NHL president Red Dutton was enthusing 76 years ago this very week.” The boys are playing for keeps this season. It’s something we’ve never experienced before. You have a rugged bunch of boys back from the services, bent on proving they’re still the best hockey players in the world. You have another bunch of wartime-developed boys battling to prove they’re as good as the veterans. And you have some ambitious youngsters that don’t see any reason why they can’t keep pace with the older ones.”

On a Saturday of this date that October, Boston’s Bruins were in Toronto to open the first season of the new peace at Maple Leaf Gardens. It ended up a good one, for the Leafs, the season: the following April, they were Stanley Cup champions again, claiming their first title since 1942.

 For opening night, along with the traditional appearance by the massed brass and pipes of the 48th Highlanders, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leafs had arranged to host six of the 16 Canadian servicemen to have been recognized during the war with the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour, conferred for extraordinary courage and devotion to duty.

That’s one of the distinguished guests here, the man who dropped a ceremonial to kick off the new season: 30-year-old Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith, a son of New Westminster, B.C., the only Canadian enlisted soldier to have won a V.C. during the Second World War. (More on Smith and his colleagues at MLG here.)

With Smith here, from the right, that’s Boston Bruins’ captain Jack Crawford (last seen in yesterday’s post) and Leafs’ chairman J.P. Bickell. Bob Davidson is the Leaf at left. In 1943, when Toronto captain Syl Apps went to war, Davidson assumed command of the hockey team. After two years, Apps was back with the Leafs, and early that October week, the Globe reported Davidson’s greeting to the team’s star centreman: “Welcome back, Syl, and I’m officially turning the team captaincy back to you.”

Apps was excused, however, from this Leafs’ opener. During one of the final preparatory scrimmages that week, he’d suffered a broken nose and a bad cut. The Toronto Daily Star’s Joe Perlove filed a report from the Gardens:

He was the same cyclonic Apps of pre-war days, if slightly breathless. He was still hammering away three minutes before game’s end when hit on the nose by Gaye Stewart’s stick which flew out of the latter’s hand as he was heavily bodied by Elwyn Morris.

X-rays disclose Apps suffered a broken nose. He needed a stitch to close a slash under his right eye. The classic Appsian schnozzle was not badly dented and he will still take fine pictures from either side.

Without him, the Leafs skated to a 1-1 tie. A crowd of 14,608 saw Bill Shill score for Boston; Davidson countered for the Leafs.

 

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7084)

 

pencil’s case

Jack Adams called Jim Conacher “the best looking prospect in my 15 years in Detroit,” and hoped to add the 20-year-old left winger to his Detroit Red Wings line-up. That was in 1941, and Adams would have to wait: Conacher spent the next four years honing his skills in the minors and serving in the Canadian Army before he finally made it to the NHL in 1945. The Red Wing sweater he’s wearing here is a wartime edition, featuring the shoulder V for Victory, which is also spelled out below in Morse code.

Born in 1921 on a Thursday of this date, Jim was a Scot, born in Motherwell before his family emigrated to Toronto when he was just young. Everybody asked, but no, Jim was not related to those other Toronto Conachers, Lionel, Charlie, and Roy. He was slender, Jim, so he got the nickname Pencil. He played four seasons with Detroit before being traded to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1948. He put up the best statistics of his career in Chicago, collecting 25 goals and 48 points in ’48-49. After four seasons with Chicago, he played two more with the New York Rangers. Jim Conacher died a year ago, in April of 2020, at the age of 98.    

johnny peirson, 1925—2021

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera against a background of trousers and underwear in the Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

He described himself as an “above-average not-great player,” but maybe flag that for excess of modesty, because Johnny Peirson was a very proficient goalscorer in the 11 seasons he played the right wing for the Boston Bruins between 1946 and 1958, scoring 20 goals in four of those campaigns, and finishing among the NHL’s top ten scorers three times. 

Peirson, who was born in Winnipeg in 1925, died on April 16 at the age of 95. The Bruins’ alumni site has an obituary, here. After 98-year-old former Detroit Red Wing Steve Wochy, Peirson was the second-oldest NHLer.

Peirson got much of his hockey upbringing in Montreal, where he chased high-school pucks for Westmount Academy before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After a stint in the Canadian Army, he studied and skated at McGill. In 1946, he signed for Boston’s AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, for a princely $4,500.  

As a rookie with the Bruins, Peirson found a berth on what teammate Woody Dumart dubbed the “Muscles Line,” for the irony: at 5’11” and 170 pounds, 22-year-old Peirson was the bulk of a unit that also counted centre Paul Ronty (6’, 150) and left winger Kenny Smith (5’7”, 155). 

“I would say I was above average because I was a better balanced player,” he told writer Frank Pagnucco, “a forward that knew how to backcheck. I had some defensive skills as well as being able to find the net sometimes.”

The first time he retired was in 1954, when he was 28. He stashed his skates to go into the furniture business with his father-in-law, across the river from Boston in Cambridge. He unretired after a year, rejoining the Bruins in 1955. His first game back, he played on a line with Cal Gardner and Vic Stasiuk, scoring a goal and setting up another to spark the Bruins to a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks.

He played three seasons, after his comeback, and could have kept it going beyond that, maybe, but decided not to.  “You reach a point in your career where you realized you’ve lost half a step,” he said, looking back. “In those days, with six teams, there weren’t a lot of places to go. I had a job offer which I had to weigh against the possibility of making the team again or moving to another team … and with four kids, that didn’t make any sense.”

Regrets? Hockey-wise, he had at least a couple. “I’d have given my eyeteeth to play on a Stanley Cup winner,” he once said. He also wished he’d worked harder on developing his upper-body strength — his, well, muscles. “I would have been a better player. I lost a lot of battles and wasn’t able to do what I would like to have done from the point of view of strength.”

While the Bruins Peirson played for never won a Stanley Cup, he was at close hand when the team started winning championships in the late 1960s, serving as a long-time colour analyst on Bruins’ TV and radio broadcasts alongside Fred Cusick. 

Golden Bears: Boston’s Bruins, 1956-57 edition. Back row, from the left: Trainer Win Green, Larry Regan, Cal Gardner, Johnny Peirson, Floyd Smith, Leo Boivin, assistant trainer Hammy Moore. Middle, left to right: Doug Mohns, Jack Caffery, Floyd Hillman, Vic Stasiuk, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Jerry Toppazzini. Front, from left: Allan Stanley, Fleming Mackell, GM Lynn Patrick, Terry Sawchuk, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, Leo Labine, captain Fern Flaman.

once upon a winged wheel

Red Winner: Johnny Mowers in his Red Wings rig in the 1940. Note the jerryrigged blocker he’s wearing here.

It was on another Thursday of this date in 1943 that the Detroit Red Wings swept to the third Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. Having surpassed the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games in the first round of those wartime playoffs, Detroit dismissed the Boston Bruins in four straight games in the finals. Goaltender Johnny Mowers, 26, was a big part of the Red Wing story: winner of the Vézina Trophy that year and the netminder voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team that year, he shut out the Bruins in both of the final two Cup games. In ten playoff games, Mowers made 263 stops and allowed 22 goals that year.

Along with the Stanley Cup, Detroit’s winning line-up collected a pile of championship cash. Thirteen players plus coach Jack Adams and trainer Honey Walker each earned $1586 as their share of playoff revenues, with six other players receiving a lesser amount. From Red Wings owner James Norris, the players received a bonus to split of $5000, with $2500 more added in for having won the Cup in four straight games. A pair of anonymous fans rewarded the players with a further $1000 for their victorious troubles, while Bill Pfau, head of Detroit’s Sportsman’s Show, ponied up $500 for the sweep as well as individual bounties for notable Red Wings performances in the finale: Joe Carveth and Carl Liscombe got $25 each for the goals that sealed the 2-0 win while Mowers scored $30 — a buck for every puck he stopped on the night.