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.

charlie querrie’s toronto may be gone, but his legacy endures in the stanley cup championships he won and the team he (almost) named

Rink Boss: A century ago, there were few more conspicuous — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene than Charlie Querrie, seen here on the ice at Arena Gardens, the Mutual Street rink he managed.

The downtown arena he ran for more than a decade is gone now, reduced to a lonely plaque in a strip of park shadowed by condo towers in downtown Toronto. The big theatre he built on the Danforth is no more, which is also true of the daily newspaper where he worked for years.

The hockey teams he owned and coached to a pair of Stanley Cups in the early years of the NHL? Yes, that’s right: they’re history, too.

Like Charlie Querrie’s name and record of achievement, the Toronto that he moved in, and the institutions he built, occupy a faded if not quite forgotten geography of the city’s past. A century ago, there were few more prominent — or energetic — players on the Toronto sporting scene.

Time, then, to acknowledge him and lend his story some context, maybe amend an oversight or two in the historical record? As it turns out, Querrie’s legacy as a prime hockey influencer has endured, even if it has been hiding in plain sight amid the foliage that adorns the sweaters of the team that he shepherded into NHL history.

Born in Markham, to Toronto’s  north and east,  in 1877, Querrie made his mark as a field lacrosse player before he ever fixed his focus on the ice. He’s in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame for his exploits on the grass, back when the game there was a much bigger deal than it is now.

He was shifty, those who saw him play later said, and speedy, with a deadly shot. In 1902, he scored 68 goals in a run of 17 games. That was with a Toronto team, during a tour of England that included a game at Lord’s in London in front of King Edward VII and a crowd of 20,000.

Querrie played professionally after that, signing on in 1906 as the playing coach of another Toronto team, Tecumsehs. He was not, court records confirm, an entirely peaceful player. Words like firebrand and hair-trigger temper figure in reviews of his career. He was arrested for clouting a referee during a game on Toronto Island in 1904. For that, he was convicted of assault in Police Court, and paid a $5 fine for his efforts. In the aftermath, one Ottawa newspaper accorded him this recognition: “He has caused more trouble through rough work than probably any other man in the game.”

Islanders: Toronto’s Tecumsehs as they lined up in 1907. Charlie Querrie is in the front row, third from the left. Standing in the back row at far left is Tim Daly, who’d later serve several decades as trainer of the Maple Leafs.

When he wasn’t wielding a lacrosse stick, Querrie was working as a printer in those years. Later, he was a sportswriter and editor for the daily Toronto News. While there’s no record of his having played hockey of any competitive kind, he ended up rinkside all the same. In 1912, professional hockey debuted in Toronto with the opening downtown of Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. Without quitting his day job at the News or his summer lacrosse gig, Querrie took up, too, as manager of the new facility.

He was 40 in 1917, the year that the professional hockey world shifted, transforming the former lacrosse star’s trajectory as it did so. That November, after eight seasons as hockey’s major league in eastern Canada, the National Hockey Association died a quick administrative death one afternoon in Montreal’s Windsor Hotel — only to be immediately reformed as the National Hockey League.

That maneuvering was all because of one not-much-liked man, Eddie Livingstone, another former newspaper editor who’d owned several of the NHA’s Toronto franchises over the years, aggravating peers, players, and officials as he went. “The toxic Toronto owner,” hockey historian (and former prime minister) Stephen Harper called Livingstone, “quarrelsome and litigious.”

So thoroughly loathed was he by his peers in the old league that they were willing to scuttle the whole enterprise just to be rid of him. And it worked.

Backed by Montreal owners, the NHL’s new, Livingstone-free Toronto team found a home at Arena Gardens, where Querrie was still running the operation. The man originally picked to manage the team was Jimmy Murphy, another veteran of the lacrosse field who came with solid hockey bona fides, too.

And when Murphy bowed out just two weeks before the league’s inaugural season got underway? “I’ve got a new job,” Querrie told The Globe as the NHL’s four teams prepared to launch into the league’s inaugural season.

Managers in the early NHL were often more directly involved than their modern-day counterparts, exhorting their players and directing traffic from the bench as much as attending to matters of personnel, arranging trades and doling out contracts. And so while Querrie did hire Dick Carroll as a coach that first NHL season, that didn’t mean he wasn’t on the front lines himself, as thickly into the action as he could be without donning skates.

Querrie’s team was named the Torontos that year, plain and simple, though imaginative press reports sometimes styled them as the Blueshirts. Before they hit the ice that December, 103 years ago, Querrie issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto, distilling his own rigorous sporting philosophy as he laid down the law for the players in his charge on how they should apply themselves.

Point #4: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

Point #8: “You will be punished for indifferent work or carelessness. If you are anxious to win all the time you will be a good player. Indifference or lack of pepper is one thing we never did like.”

The season that ensued in the winter of 1917-18 was as tumultuous as any in the NHL’s 103-year history — present company, perhaps, excepted.

Still, Querrie’s team found a way through. After he tended to an early goaltending crisis, the team that styled themselves simply as the Torontos went out and won both the NHL title and the subsequent Stanley Cup final, beating the Vancouver Millionaires, the west-coast champions, in five games.

It wasn’t always pretty. Frank Patrick was president of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association that year. There was too much gambling in the Toronto rink at the final, he felt. Also? “Torontonians are very prejudiced.” As for Querrie, “he acted pretty friendly,” Patrick allowed, “except when under stress of excitement.”

That might help explain the feud that Querrie cultivated in that same series with Art Ross, then a former star defenceman assigned to referee a pair of the 1918 Cup games. Querrie was only too pleased to describe the exchange he had with the man who would go on to more or less invent the Boston Bruins. “Ross started in by telling me that I was a poor loser,” Querrie said, “and went on to say that I was mixed up in a crooked league, and was a crook in sport. I promptly called him a liar, and then he threatened to lick me.”

However else it’s remembered, the early history of the NHL stands out for the pains the league took to go on thwarting Eddie Livingstone, who was bent on revenge if acceptance wasn’t in the cards.

Pre-Leafs: By the time the St. Patricks posed for this photograph during the 1923-24 season, Querrie had already steered two Toronto teams to Stanley Cup championships. Back row from left, that’s trainer Billy Popp, Shrimp Andrews, Red Stuart, John Ross Roach, Bert Corbeau, Toots Holway, assistant trainer Oh Boy Saunders, Querrie. Front, from left: Chris Speyer, Amos Arbour, Jack Adams, Babe Dye, captain Reg Noble, and Stan Jackson.

As part of that program, the Toronto team relaunched in 1918 as the Arenas. A year later, when Querrie and an old lacrosse pal took control, the team was briefly renamed the Tecumsehs, though almost overnight the owners of hockey’s senior-league St. Patricks swooped in to buy the club and change the name again.

Querrie remained a part-owner of the NHL St. Patricks, newly clad in green, and he continued his hands-on management, with success — the St. Pats won another Stanley Cup championship in 1922.

When in 1924, the NHL fined Querrie $200 for “abusing an official,” the object of his ire was — guess who? — Art Ross.

Their quarrel continued after Ross took over as coach and manager of Boston’s expansion Bruins. One night in December of 1926, with Querrie’s St. Patricks battling the Bruins at Boston Garden, a melee broke out over a called-off goal. Ross was already out on the ice remonstrating with the referee when the Toronto manager followed him.

“Someone hurled a monkey wrench at my head,” Querrie recalled when he was back safe in Toronto. “It wasn’t any toy either but a full sized three-pound wrench and I brought it away for a souvenir. It only missed my head by a foot. Then someone socked me with a hard-boiled egg and not an overly fresh one at that. There were plenty of eggs flying.”

Even when they weren’t under barrages, the St. Patricks were not very good that season. Querrie was back behind the bench, but he didn’t seem to have any answers as the team won just two of their first ten games. Local newspapers reported that he and his partners were ready to sell the team, with C.C. Pyle stepping forward as the likeliest buyer, an American promoter who wanted to move the team to Philadelphia.

The story of how the hockey team stayed in Toronto has been burnished into legend. It’s the one in which Conn Smythe — war veteran, gravel contractor, hockey coach — saved the day, backed by a partner or two. Smythe had been hired and quickly fired by the fledgling New York Rangers that fall and parlayed his earnings into even bigger money with a couple of sports bets. Then he combined those winnings with his own daring, pluck, and sense of civic duty to buy the St. Patricks. In February 1927, he duly transformed them — in the middle of the NHL season, no less — into the Maple Leafs.

And that’s, more or less, the way that it went.

The team’s new name was nothing particularly novel. The maple leaf had been a national emblem since before Confederation and had been appropriated by hockey and lacrosse teams across the country ever since — complete with the spelling-error of the plural. Toronto’s minor-league baseball Maple Leafs had been swinging away since 1895.

If nowhere in the historical record does Smythe take explicit credit for the recycling the Leaf, nor did seem to mind when credit accrued to him and his patriotic pride.

“I had a feeling that the new Maple Leaf name was right,” he wrote in his 1981 autobiography, invoking the 1924 Olympic team and the insignia he himself had worn while serving with the Canadian artillery in the First World War. “I thought it meant something across Canada.”

That was right, of course, as nearly a century of subsequent Leaf history bears out. It’s just Charlie Querrie got that feeling first.

As Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth note in their 2002 book Deceptions and Doublecross, Querrie had had a name-change in mind three months earlier.

Back in December of ’26, before anyone had hurled any tools at his head, Querrie had been mulling the very switch that Smythe and his new partners would make official in February.

It wasn’t any secret. The Toronto Daily Star reported (and endorsed) the Querrie plan.

“The name St. Patricks doesn’t mean anything,” the Star opined, “and he is seriously considering dubbing his team the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

A more recent review of contemporary accounts reveal that Querrie’s first choice was, fun fact, to return the team to its NHL roots, rebranding as the plain-and-simple Torontos — only to discover that Eddie Livingstone owned the rights to that. Star columnist (and NHL referee) Lou Marsh declared himself on board with Querrie’s “non-partisan” second choice that was, to boot, “a name of fame in sport.”

“A lot of folks,” Marsh wrote, “never could understand why the club was labeled St. Pats.”

“If the switch in nomenclature is made,” the Star went on to hazard, “the green sweater may be dropped in favour of some other color scheme with a large Maple Leaf on the back.”

If Querrie was even minorly irked at not getting credit for his plan coming true, he doesn’t seem to have shared his annoyance in any public way. After the deal was done with Smythe and company that winter, he was reported to have walked away from NHL ownership with $65,000 — almost $1 million in 2020 terms. His 1919 original stake was said to have been no more than $1,200.

Out of hockey, Querrie busied himself running the Palace Theatre, the popular movie-house he’d opened in 1924 on the Danforth, in Toronto’s west end. He returned to writing, filing a genial weekly column in the Star and penning features for Leafs’ programs. He was proud of his ongoing devotion to Toronto hockey: in 1944, he noted that in the 32 years since professional hockey first launched in the city, he’d witnessed every game but three.

His feud with Art Ross withered away, then sprouted into friendship. Querrie had stowed away the wrench that just missed his head and in 1939 he had it mounted, with a clock, as a decorative desk-set, and presented it to his old rival.

Charlie Querrie died in April of 1950. He was 72. The Leafs were trying, that week, to defend the Stanley Cup they’d won three times in a row. Querrie’s last regret was said to have been that he couldn’t be on hand to watch the team he’d once owned — and almost named.

In Memoriam: Charlie Querrie’s grave in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, fall of 2020.

 

(A version of this post appeared on TVO.org in January of 2021.)

 

 

joe benoit: pacing a punch line in montreal, scoring a scad across pre-war europe

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before war interceded. After serving with Canada’s armed forces,  he returned to the Canadiens in 1945.

The Montreal Canadiens headed into the 1940 NHL season with optimism — though, of course, what else were they going to embrace, having finished the previous campaign plumb last in the seven-team NHL?

They did have a new coach at the helm, the great Dick Irvin, and as the team’s training camp wound down towards the start of the new season, he was talking … well, he sounded a little defensive, to be honest. “We’ll have a team by November 3,” he said; “we won’t be any pushovers.”

He did have an impressive rookie class at his disposal. That fall, Canadiens added 20-year-old centre Johnny Quilty, who end up winning the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, along with a few other quality assets (and future Hall-of-Famers) in centre 23-year-old Elmer Lach, defenceman Ken Reardon, 19. Also making his debut: 24-year-old right winger Joe Benoit, who was born on a Sunday of today’s date in 1916.

With Irvin at the helm, Montreal did improve that year, clambering into the playoffs … before clattering out, in the first round, at the hands of the Chicago Black Hawks. Quilty finished as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals and 34 points in 48 games, just ahead of the veteran captain Toe Blake (12 goals, 32 points) and Benoit (16 goals, 32 points).

As one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players, Benoit deserves more recognition than he’s been accorded to date. If we’re talking about the league itself, that recognition is — well, non-existent. At this late date, the NHL still, for some reason, chooses to ignore the stories of trailblazers like Buddy Maracle, Jim Jamieson, Johnny Harms, and Benoit.

His story, Joe Benoit’s, seems to have started in the northern Alberta community of Egg Lake, though he grew up (like Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla) in St. Albert, to Edmonton’s north. The records I’ve reviewed aren’t entirely clear on his family’s history.  His father’s mother was Métis. In 1921, when Joe was four, the Census of Canada lists his father’s “origin” as French and the rest of the family (his mother and four siblings) as Cree.

Later, the story of young Joe’s hockey origins was told this way: with no arena in St. Albert or even an outdoor rink, he puckhandled through the streets. “Benoit learned his hockey with a homemade stick and a piece of ice as a puck, stickhandling his way up and down the main street of the tiny western hamlet. He developed his stickhandling wizardry by flipping the pieces of ice out of reach of paws and jaws of two gambolling dogs. This was Joe’s only opposition until he went to the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in 1935, where he had his first taste of team play.”

That’s from 1943. No telling now how romanticized a scene-setting that is. There’s no explicit mention, you’ll note, of skates, though subsequent retellings added those, too.

Benoit’s NHL career was noteworthy, interrupted as it was by war and service (and hockey) with the Canadian armed forces. He played just five seasons in the big league, all of them with Montreal. He was the original right winger for the Canadiens’ top line in the early ’40s, skating with Lach and Toe Blake on the original Punch Line, before a bright young prospect by the name of Maurice Richard took his place. Benoit’s best season was 1942-43, which he finished with 30 goals and 57 points. The year he returned to the NHL, 1945-46, Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but a back injury kept him out of the playoffs, and his name wasn’t among those stamped in the silverware.

Back between his street-skating years in St. Albert and his first turn on Montreal Forum ice, Benoit, who died at the age of 65 in 1981, did win a couple of notable championships. In 1938, his Trail Smoke Eaters burst out of B.C. Western Kootenay Hockey League to win the Allan Cup, the national senior title.

That earned the team the right to represent Canada the following year at the World Championships, which they did, embarking on a truly remarkable odyssey through Europe on the brink of the war.

Sailing from Halifax aboard the Duchess of York in mid-December of 1938, the Smokies eventually made their way to Switzerland in the new year, where they defended the world title won the previous year by the Sudbury Wolves and by the Kimberley Dynamiters the year before that. In 1939, Trail went undefeated in eight games, beating Germany, Czechoslovakia (twice), and the United States along the way.

Glory to that, but that’s not the remarkable part. Before they set sail for Canada on the Duchess of Richmond in April of 1939, the Smoke Eaters barnstormed their way around Europe, playing 70 games in three-and-a-half months. In Scotland and England they skated, and through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

Along the way, they compiled a record of 67-1-2, with their only loss coming by a score of 4-1 in London against an all-Canadian team, the Wembley All-Stars.

Joe Benoit counted the only goal for Trail that night. All told, he scored some 60 goals on the tour, leading all the Smoke Eaters in scoring, including a couple of other future NHLers in left winger Bunny Dame, who’d join Benoit in Montreal, and right winger Johnny McCreedy, who served a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mere months from the outbreak of war, the hockey players returned to Canada happy but tired, with tales to tell. “The players criticized the food in Germany,” the Regina Leader-Post noted, “where they said a lack of butter, white bread, and meat existed.”

“The players had never seen so many soldiers before,” reported Vancouver’s Province, quoting an unnamed player: “It was terrible in Germany — soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.”

“The streets were full of the them,” the Province continued, “and windows full of uniforms. England was busy digging tunnels as a precaution against air-raids and gas attacks.”

Our Joe: An Edmonton report on the European adventures of Benoit and the Smokies from January of 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

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.