Monthly Archives: December 2015

On Which Day in History

Though it won’t be out for a while, I’m currently working on an oral history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Recent research turned up numerous references to the famed Kid Line of Joe Primeau, Busher Jackson and Charlie Conacher playing their first game together for Toronto on December 29, 1929. So, I figured, that was a perfect story for today. But – as is so often the case with old-time hockey facts – the true story wasn’t quite so simple.

Kid Line portrait
From left to right, Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson.

Joe Primeau (born January 29, 1906) was the first of these young players to reach the NHL. He was 22, but Primeau played only a few games with the Maple Leafs in 1927-28 and 1928-29. Charlie Conacher (born December 20 1909) was more than a month shy of his 20th birthday when he joined the Leafs for the 1929-30 season. According to most accounts, right winger Conacher began his NHL career playing with center Eric Pettinger and left winger Harold (Baldy) Cotton. Soon, though, Primeau replaced Pettinger as the center on the line. Cotton was already 27 years old and in his fifth NHL season, but after the Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Cougars 1-0 on a Primeau goal on Saturday night, November 30, 1929, Toronto Star sportswriter Lou Marsh writing in the paper on Monday, December 2, referred to “Whizz-Bang Conacher, Slippery Joe Primeau and Harold Tonsilitis Cotton” as Conn Smythe’s “kid line.” Marsh uses lower-case letters (as he would for a while yet), but this is the first use of the phrase I’ve come across.

A few days later, on December 6, 1929, the Maple Leafs signed Harvey (Busher) Jackson. Born on January 17, 1911, Jackson was still just 18 years old and was the youngest player in the NHL when he made his Leafs debut the following night against the Montreal Canadiens. Jackson and Conacher had been teammates with the Toronto Marlboros the past two seasons, and were immediately paired up with the Leafs – with Primeau as their center.

To be honest, it’s unclear if Primeau, Jackson and Conacher played the entire game together on December 7, 1929, but they were certainly the combination Conn Smythe turned to with the game on the line. As Lou Marsh wrote in the Star on December 8:

Apart from the fact that the Leafs were lucked out of a win the contest did not wow the customers except in the last four minutes. But in that four minutes the customers got even with the box office. The score was 1-0 then – had been since the second minute of the second period when Hap Day deflected a Lepine to Mantha pass into his own net – and the Leafs were staging a peppery three-ply attack upon the Canadien’s citadel… Manager Smythe hurled reinforcement after reinforcement at the unbroken red-clad troops. First he had the kid line out – Harvey Jackson, the newest recruit, Joe Primeau and Whizz Conacher – and they whirled in upon the Canadien defence like vagrant cyclones… It did not look as if they could miss the tying goal. How Hainsworth kept that puck into open circulation no one knows – but he did.

Kid Line cartoon
From the Toronto Star, Monday, January 20, 1930.

Not only did the Leafs lose 1-0, but Jackson appears to have been hurt. He wasn’t in the lineup when the Leafs visited the New York Americans on December 10 and on December 12 the Globe in Toronto noted that he was “laid up with a bad leg.” Jackson missed three more games before returning to face the Pittsburgh Pirates on December 21, but it appears that he lined up with Eric Pettinger and Art Smith that night, while Primeau and Conacher stayed with Cotton. Conacher was reported as having played despite being sick, and he was out of the lineup when Toronto was defeated 6-2 in Boston on December 25.

Cotton appears to have been hurt in the Christmas night game, and when Toronto was in Chicago on December 29, Smythe was forced to juggle his lines again. The Maple Leafs beat the Black Hawks, “and what pleases Horace H. Public the most,” wrote Marsh in the Star, “is the fact that the Leafs’ kid fowards – Conacher, Primeau and Jackson – delivered on target.” Primeau set up Jackson midway through the second period for a 3-1 Toronto lead and after Chicago rallied to tie it in the third, Conacher took a pass from Primeau and beat Charlie Gardiner to give the Leafs a 4-3 victory.

While it’s clear the December 29 game wasn’t the first time they’d played together, there was no splitting up the threesome after that! The Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Maroons 5-3 on New Year’s Day, and the Globe noted:

The feature of the game was the work of the ex-Marlboro stars. Jackson and Conacher worked well with Primeau and they provided some of the best attacking plays of the game… That ‘kid’ forward line of Primeau at center and Conacher and Jackson on the wings showed some pretty hockey.

Three nights later, when the Leafs beat the Canadiens 4-3 on January 4, 1930, the Kid Line earned headlines … and capital letters!

Kid Line headline
From the Toronto Star, Monday, January 6, 1930.

The rest is history, with scoring titles and All-Star berths to come for Primeau, Jackson and Conacher, and Stanley Cup championships and a nation-wide fan frenzy (thanks to Foster Hewitt’s radio broadcasts) soon to follow.

Makes a Great Gift…

A hockey book for Christmas has been a good idea since 1909. The Ottawa Journal had only good things to say about Percy Lesueur’s effort in this article from December 16 of that year. Lesueur was a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and as the paper notes,  the “famous goaltend” of the Stanley Cup champion Ottawa Senators.

Lesueur

If you’re still searching for a gift for the hockey fan or history buff on your list, might I suggest my latest efforts — Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins and, for younger readers, The Ultimate Book of Hockey Trivia for Kids. Or check out these suggestions from Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun in his annual Christmas hockey book list.

Happy Holidays everyone!

The Ross-Smythe Feud

Art Ross and Conn Smythe didn’t like each other. You’ll sometimes read that the feud between the two men was staged to sell tickets. It certainly seemed to help the box office, and maybe they played it up in the years after World War II, but it seems to me that they truly disliked one another throughout the 1920s and ’30s.

There are many theories as to what sparked this hatred. I go into greater detail about much of this in my book Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins, but the leading contenders seem to be:

  • Smythe mocked the first-year Bruins on a trip to Boston with his Toronto Varsity team in 1924 and Ross never forgave him
  •  Ross duped Smythe into trading for Sailor Herbert for the Maple Leafs in 1927 and Smythe never forgave him

These and many other petty reasons no doubt added up, but I think they were just two strong personalities who each wanted what was best for themselves and their team and damn anyone who got in the way.

One of the last great flare-ups in the Ross-Smythe feud occurred on this week back in 1939 when Conn Smythe showed up at the office of the Boston Globe. The defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins would be the NHL’s highest scoring team by far during the 1939-40 season, but Smythe was spewing venom about the Boston’s boring defensive play in a 1-1 tie in Toronto a few days before. As quoted in the Globe on December 19, 1939:

“First of all, I want to put a paid advertisement in your paper to let the fans of Boston know that they can see at least one great hockey team in action [to]night.”

Ad

“Mind you, we’ll get no financial return from this ad because the visiting club doesn’t get a share at all in the receipts. But if we’ve got to carry the whole National League while the other clubs fall asleep and try to scare the customers away, then we’re willing to put out the dough.

“I’m referring particularly to that game the Bruins played in Toronto last Thursday night. That, my friends, was a living disgrace. It was a perfect exhibition of how to drive the customers away in droves. Sure, I know the Bruins have lost Eddie Shore and Roy Conacher, but they’re still the champions, aren’t they? Everybody calls them champions. Why can’t they play like champions then, both on the road and at home?

“We have anywhere from 500 to 1000 fans from Kitchener every time the Bruins are in town to see the Sauerkraut Line. All they saw last Thursday night was the ‘Sauer’ part…. I guess Ross is so busy inventing things that he doesn’t find time to make his players play hockey… Well, if that’s the way they want to play, we’ll carry the load and show the customers hockey as it should be played.”

Smythe’s outburst helped to attract a crowd of 14,107 to the Boston Garden that night. It was the largest crowd of the season to that point, and they saw the Bruins score a 3-2 victory in overtime. Ross later demanded that the NHL fine Smythe $1,000 for his conduct. The issue was raised at the next league meeting, but was dismissed. Instead, a motion was passed censuring both Smythe and Ross for their unseemly bickering over the years.

Rosses & Smythe
Art Ross, Conn Smythe, and Art Ross Jr.

Soon after, Ross’s sons Arthur and John enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Smythe was a World War I veteran who would re-enlist during World War II. “I was a little sorry about having been on [Ross] all the time when his sons came up and joined the RCAF,” Smythe would write in his autobiography. “We weren’t so hard on one another after that.”

The feud did seem to abate as the years went by, though the two men probably never liked each other much. Perhaps, though, there was at least some level of mutual respect. At the end of my book, I mention a telegraph that arrived at the Boston Garden following Ross’s death on August 5, 1964. Here it is:

Wire

And, in light of the recent decision by Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred on Pete Rose, a link to my story from February 18.

Price Check

I wish the Blue Jays had signed David Price. I’d love to have him back. Still, $217 million over seven years seems like too much money for too long a time. So, I’d like to take Mark Shapiro at his word that the $31 million per season will be better spent filling the various spots that still need addressing. It’s not that I doubt Shapiro’s integrity … but I don’t trust Rogers. My guess is they learned nothing from last season – “If you build it, they will come”, not “If everything goes perfectly, we might win” – and will put most of that money into their pockets while jacking up ticket prices (which they’ve already done!) and cable rates.

I admit I’m conflicted by the huge salaries in sports. On the one hand, if there really is that kind of money to be made, I like to see the players getting their share. On the other hand, the older I get the harder it is for me to cheer for people making five times as much money for every single game they play (and starting pitchers like Price watch four out of every five of those games!) as I’m earning in an entire year. But the truth is, no matter how much money is involved, fans and/or the media have always been angered by player salaries since the days they started getting paid.

Professional baseball in the United States dates all the way back to the mid 1860s. Pro hockey in Canada didn’t get started until the winter of 1906-07 when two of the country’s top leagues decided they would allow professional athletes play alongside of amateurs. This was quite the controversy in its day, and by the 1907-08 season people were already expressing amazement, if not quite outrage, at what the top stars were earning.

Price Phillips

On December 15, 1908, a story in the Vancouver World discussed the lucrative offer Tom Phillips had recently turned down to return to the Ottawa Senators for the 1908-09 season. “Two hundred dollars a game for ten games of hockey!” the story started. “How would you like to be offered that amount? Would you refuse $2000 for practically two months work? There are few men who would; yet that is just what was declined with thanks the other day by Tom Phillips, the celebrated Ottawa hockey player, who is now in Vancouver.”

The story then went on to explain how Phillips, longtime captain of the Kenora Thistles who’d led them to the Stanley Cup in January of 1907, had received a salary of $1,600 to play in Ottawa during the 1907-08 season, but that wasn’t all. “Ottawa paid Tom Phillips $1600 cash,” the story said, “with a $60 a month job [which is a pretty fair indication that a yearly salary of $720 was not a bad bit of money for a working man in 1908] and all living expenses last winter, for approximately two months’ hockey, which figured out at ten league games.”

In all, Phillips earned about $1,800 for a little more than two months, and the paper compared his take to the $7,500 Napoleon Lajoie had been paid to play for the Cleveland Indians for a season of five months numbering approximately 154 games. “Getting down to real figures, Lajoie received about $49 every time he went on the diamond. Phillips practically cost his club … $180 ever time he went out to play a league game.” The hockey star, it was said, “would have received the stupendous sum of $17,720” if his season had as many games as a baseball season.

But the numbers were about to become even more outrageous!

Clips

On the same day the Vancouver paper reported that Phillips had turned down the $2,000 offer from Ottawa came news that he had agreed to join Edmonton for its two-game, preseason Stanley Cup series against the Montreal Wanderers at the end of December, 1908. It was soon learned that Phillips was promised $300 per game plus a bonus of $200 if the challengers beat the defending champions.

If Edmonton wins the Stanley Cup,” the Vancouver World trumpeted on December 29, “Tom Phillips will receive: $800 for two games, or $400 an hour, or $6.66 a minute, or $0.11 a second. A man is supposed to involuntarily wink about a dozen times a minute. Therefore every time Phillips bats an eyelash it costs the Edmonton club about 50 cents.”

The paper went on to explain that the highest-paid person in Canada was the Governor-General (by coincidence, Lord Grey, whom I wrote about two weeks ago) with an annual stipend of $50,000. That was broken down as $5.80 per hour for every hour of every day for an entire year … which meant Tom Phillips was to be paid more per minute by Edmonton to play hockey than Lord Grey made in an hour. Sixty-nine times more to be exact. At that rate, the World reported that he would make just over $3.4 million in a year. “Pierpont Morgan, John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie had better look out,” the paper mocked.

As it happened, Edmonton lost the Stanley Cup series. Phillips played the entire 60 minutes of the first game despite breaking his ankle partway through it. He had to sit out game two. It’s unclear if he actually received the full $600 or just $300 for his one game.

Burns Johnson

Whatever Phillips got, it paled in comparison to what another Canadian athlete earned at virtually the same time. On December 26, 1908, world heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Burns of Hanover, Ontario, was paid $30,000 to fight Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia. The fight lasted 40 minutes, meaning Burns earned almost as much as per minute ($750) as Phillips could have potentially made in both games for Edmonton. Johnson – the controversial African-American whom many other white boxers refused to face – was paid $5,000 and won the fight.

A Spark of Greatness?

On Monday, Garret Sparks became the first goalie in Maple Leafs history to earn a shutout in his NHL debut when Toronto beat Edmonton 3-0. His emotional reaction in an interview after being named the game’s first star – and the shot of his parents in the stands – is definitely worth checking out.

I haven’t researched it myself, but according to hockey goalies.org, Sparks is the 23rd goalie in NHL history to begin his career with a shutout. Bad news for Leafs fans, but only a few went on to notable careers, and only one – Boston Bruins legend Tiny Thompson – went on to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Though he didn’t begin with a shutout as Thompson had in 1928-29, the debut of Frank Brimsek in Boston 10 years later was even more spectacular. Brimsek – the first American-born NHL star – was in the news last season when Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond tied his NHL record by allowing two goals or less in 12 straight starts to begin his career. Still, unless you’re into hockey history, Brimsek’s not a name many fans know today. That may change due to a book out soon by Ty Dilello.

Book

Ty and I have never met in person, but we have been touch online. He’s only about 23 years old … and he’s the first person I know who grew up to become a writer after reading my books for kids when he was a boy! So, I’ll admit, it was a kick when he sent me an early copy of his Brimsek book and asked me to provide a “blurb” for the back cover.

The book is called “Mr. Zero” and if you know anything at all about Frank Brimsek it’s likely to be that that was his nickname, coined after the string of shutouts he put up at the beginning of his career. But pretty much everything you think you might know about him is wrong. Not meaning to steal any of Ty’s thunder, but some of this already appears in my Art Ross biography, so here’s a brief rundown of the fact versus fiction.

It’s generally reported that Art Ross’s decision to trade Tiny Thompson and replace him with Brimsek came as a bolt out of the blue. While it’s true that Boston fans – and even Bruins teammates – were shocked by the move, it had actually been a long time coming. Thompson had first told Ross he was contemplating retirement at the end of the 1936-37 season. He even suggested Brimsek as his replacement, and so Ross signed him for the Bruins farm team. Thompson was talking retirement again in April of 1938 and there was soon talk that he and Brimsek would share time in the Bruins net during the 1938-39 season.

painting
Painting by Darrin Egan. Contact him at: inthebluepaint@gmail.com

Even so, Brimsek was ticketed to return to the minors until Thompson suffered an eye injury late in training camp. Brimsek opened the season with the Bruins, posting a 3-2 win in Toronto and a 4-1 victory in Detroit. With Thompson now recovered, Brimsek was dispatched to Providence. Boston went 3-1-1 in the next five games with Thompson allowing just 8 goals in 310 minutes for a 1.56 average. Still, Ross had liked what he’d seen in Brimsek and on November 28, 1938, it was announced that Thompson had been sold to Detroit for $15,000. At the time, it was the richest deal for a goalie in NHL history.

The other thing you might know about Brimsek is his run of six shutouts in his first eight games, but that’s not quite true either. That total ignores Brimsek’s first two starts at the beginning of the season and only begins from the time Thompson went to Detroit. After recording those two early wins, Brimsek actually lost his first start as Boston’s number-one goalie with Thompson gone, but then he bounced back with three straight shutout wins. After a 3-2 victory in his next start, Brimsek strung together another three shutouts in a row. He was now 9-1-0 in 10 games with six shutouts and a 0.70 goals-against average and was the talk of the hockey world.

Paper

Brimsek finished the 1938-39 season 33-9-1 and led the NHL with 10 shutouts and a 1.56 average. He became the first goalie to win both the Vezina Trophy and the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and he led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup championship since Tiny Thompson’s rookie season in 1928-29. He never put up such spectacular numbers again, but Brimsek did win the Stanley Cup for a second time in 1941, the Vezina again in 1942 and was a perennial All-Star both before and after taking two years out in the prime of his career to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.