philip enjoys heavy hockey bumping

A Royal Guest: The cover of the 1953-54 British Ice Hockey World Annual featured Prince Philip (with Sir Arthur Elvin by his side) and his patronage of hockey at Wembley.

Philip Enjoys Heavy Hockey Bumping

was the headline when the Duke of Edinburgh got his first taste of the NHL’s game, and the Globe and Mail had it from an eyewitness, his Royal Highness’ host, Conn Smythe who, as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had arranged for his team to skate in a command performance for Canada’s own Princess Elizabeth and her husband during the Royal couple’s five-week tour of the Dominion in the fall of 1951.

Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip died in London on Friday morning at the age of 99.

Princess Elizabeth was 25 back during that ’51 visit to Canada, Prince Philip 30. Their cross-country odyssey that fall came just months before the death of George VI, in February of 1952, and Elizabeth’s succession to the throne. Maybe hockey wasn’t the focus of the couple’s busy schedule, but it did feature prominently enough, as it happens, because, well, Canada. Twice that October, the NHL twisted its regularly scheduled programming to accommodate their Royal Highnesses.

First up was an abridged afternoon scrimmage between Toronto’s Leafy defending Stanley Cup champions and the Chicago Black Hawks. That was followed a week later by a game at Montreal’s Forum with Canadiens taking on the New York Rangers.

A fuller account of both those games and the fuss surrounding them can be found, photographs, too, by steering over here. Today we’ll recall that, according to Conn Smythe, both Royal guests enjoyed their experience at Maple Leaf Gardens “tremendously.”

“That was apparent,” Smythe told the Globe, “in the way Prince Philip roared with laughter at the upsetting body-checks and the way the eyes of Princess Elizabeth glowed as the payers shot by her at full speed.”

As Smythe understood it, the Princess had only ever seen hockey once, on television, though the Prince had spent hours attending games in London.

Smythe was charmed by his guests, to say the least. “I’ll tell you that I’m not much for feathered hats,” he enthused, “but I thought the Princess wore a beautiful creation. It was a feathered hat.”

Prince Philip? “He’s a terrific Prince and what a sportsman.”

As a parting gift, Smythe handed over the puck the Leafs and Hawks had chased. “I told the Princess it was for Bonnie Prince Charlie,” he said, “and that the Leafs were putting him on the negotiation list.”

Smythe may have misunderstood, it turns out, about Prince Philip’s hockey-spectating history. What he told the Globe in 1951 is, at least, at odds with Sir Arthur Elvin’s understanding of things from the following year.

Elvin was the founder and owner of London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. Hockey had caught his eye in the early 1930s, when he saw Canadians play at the rink at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and in 1934 he saw to it that Wembley’s new Empire Pool could be converted to a hockey-hosting rink.

By Elvin’s account in 1952, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had only ever seen live hockey on his Canadian tour, never in Britain. That changed on December 4 of that year when Elvin arranged a Wembley game in Prince Philip’s honour, pitting the Wembley Lions against an All-Star team drawing players from their English League rivals.

Reflecting the tenor of the times in British hockey, it was a mostly Canadian affair on the ice. The All-Stars lined up two homegrown players, goaltender Bill Alderson from the Harringay Racers and Streatham Royals forward Pete Ravenscroft. The Lions turned out another pair, in English-born defencemen Art Green and Roy Shepherd. Otherwise, the players involved hailed from Ottawa and Winnipeg, Flin Flon, Montreal, Grand-Mère, Timmins, and Stony Mountain. Wembley’s player-coach was Frank Boucher, son of Buck, nephew of famous Frank, and the man who’d also steered the RCAF Flyers to Olympic gold in 1948.

“Despite a display of nerves by the players in the initial stages,” Sir Arthur noted in his write-up for Ice Hockey World Annual, “the match was packed with thrills and good hockey, as all present will testify and the Duke was as excited and enthusiastic over the play as the most ardent fan present.”

The All-Stars won, 2-1; when it was all over, Elvin narrated, “the Duke descended to the arena from the Restaurant where he had dined and watched the play, to present commemorative medals to all the players participating.”

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 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.