Monthly Archives: December 2016

Top Toronto Rookies…

The Toronto Maple Leafs have certainly been a much more entertaining team to watch this season. Still, with two games to go before a four-day break over Christmas, they currently sit in last place in the Atlantic Division – although only six points out of third place, which would net them a playoff spot.

While it wouldn’t be impossible, I don’t believe they’ll make the playoffs this year. Even so, with rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, plus William Nylander and several others, Leafs fans seem satisfied that the plan in place of building patiently through the NHL Draft is already showing positive results.

Brit Selby was the last Maple Leaf to be named rookie of the year back in 1965-66.

With Matthews turning 19 just a month before the start of the season, and Marner not turning 20 until May, these two may well be the most promising pair of teenagers to join the team together since 19-year-old Charlie Conacher and 18-year-old Busher Jackson way back in 1929-30. Matthews is on pace to break the Maple Leafs rookie record of 34 goals, set by Wendel Clark as a 19-year-old (and #1 overall draft pick, like Matthews this year) back in 1985-86. Yet like Wendel, who finished second in Calder Trophy voting behind Gary Suter that season, Matthews is certainly no shoo-in as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Patrick Laine is currently outscoring him in Winnipeg, and rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has been impressive as well for the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets.

There was not yet a Calder Trophy for rookie of the year when Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson broke into the NHL. Conacher led all NHL newcomers with 20 goals in just 38 games played that season. That may have won for him, if there’d been a reward, but the best newcomer during that season was probably Detroit’s future Hall of Famer Ebbie Goodfellow. He played the full 44-game schedule and had 17 goals and 17 assists to top all rookies with 34 points.

Howie Meeker was top rookie in 1946-47, but didn’t get all that he should have for it.

Though it’s not talked about nearly as much (for obvious reasons!), Toronto’s Calder Trophy drought is even longer than its Stanley Cup drought. This season marks 50 years since Toronto’s last championship in 1967, but 51 years since Brit Selby was named rookie of the year in 1965-66.

Selby had just 14 goals and 13 assists in 61 games as a Leafs rookie in 1965-66, but comfortably outpointed Bert Marshall and Gilles Marotte (98-90-68) in Calder Trophy voting that year. Clearly, though, the best rookie in the long run from that season would turn out to be goalie Bernie Parent, who finished fourth in the voting with 69 points.

Frank McCool was a wartime replacement who battled debilitating ulcers.
After helping Toronto win the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 1944-45,
he was out of hockey by the end of 1945-46.

Selby, and Kent Douglas, who won the Calder for Toronto in 1963, hardly went on to superstars careers – although Dave Keon, who won it in 1961, certainly did. All in all, through the years, most of the NHL’s rookies of the year have gone on to be fine players. Many have gone on to Hall of Fame careers. But there are some quirks. Frank Mahovlich beat out Bobby Hull for the Calder in 1958, and though both went on to stellar careers, it’s hard to argue that Hull wasn’t the better player in the long run. Back in 1946-47 (when the Leafs underwent a similar youth movement to what we’re seeing this year,) Howie Meeker was clearly the NHL’s best rookie and was deservedly rewarded with the Calder Trophy – as he should have been. Yet who could disagree that a kid in Detroit by the name of Gordie Howe went on to become the better player!

According to Meeker, who tells the story in his own book, Golly Gee, It’s Me and told it to author Greg Oliver for his book, Written in Blue and White, Leafs owner Conn Smythe had promised him a $1,000 bonus if he won a league trophy in his rookie season. Oliver points out that there is no such clause in the contract, but Meeker tells him that “[Smythe] told me verbally twice, and we shook hands on the deal.”

Gus Bodnar’s goal 15 seconds into his first game on October 30, 1943, is still an
NHL record for the fastest goal by a player in his NHL debut. He had a
career high 22 goals and 40 assists as a rookie, but was still a surprise winner
of the Calder Trophy over Montreal goalie Bill Durnan.

When he won the Calder Trophy, the Globe and Mail noted: “Meeker also collected a $1,000 bonus, given by the NHL for the first time this year. The bonus will be matched by another $1,000 from Maple Leaf Gardens.” So, clearly, more than just Meeker and Smythe were aware of the promise, and yet Meeker never got his money. As he told Oliver: “When the time came around, [Smythe’s] excuse was ‘You got $1,000, but it was from the NHL.’” Meeker wasn’t happy! “I was pissed off for a long time,” he told Oliver.

At the time, Meeker was the fourth Toronto Maple Leafs player to win the Calder Trophy in five seasons, following up on three straight wins by Gaye Stewart (1943), Gus Bodnar (1944) and Frank McCool (1945).

Syl Apps was recently named #2 all-time among the Leafs’ top 100 players,
behind 1961 Calder Trophy winner Dave Keon.

Still the strongest season in history for Leafs freshmen was likely 1936-37. This was the first year in which NHL president Frank Calder provided a trophy for the league’s best rookie and Toronto players finished 1-2 in the voting. Syl Apps, having finished just one point back of Sweeney Schriner for the NHL scoring title, won the Calder Trophy. Gordie Drillon (who would win the scoring title the following year – the last Leaf ever to do so!) finished second. And if you don’t recognize the name of that guy who finished sixth in the Calder voting that year, it might be because you know him better as Turk Broda.

The Montreal Wanderers

This past weekend, various “this day in history” sources noted that December 10, 1924, marked the first “All-Montreal” game in NHL history. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the NHL’s new Montreal expansion team (who, as I mentioned two weeks ago, had no nickname at this point) 5-0 that day at the Mount Royal Arena. But, as my Society for International Hockey Research colleagues Todd Denault and Lloyd Davis noted on Facebook, this was actually the second “All-Montreal” game in NHL history. The first came on December 22, 1917.

Dec 22
Banner atop the sports page in The Toronto World, December 22, 1917.

On that date 99 years ago, on just the second night of action in NHL history, the Canadiens crushed the Montreal Wanderers 11-2. The Canadiens featured six future Hall of Famers in their nine-man lineup that night: Georges Vezina, Joe Hall, Joe Malone, Newsy Lalonde, Didier Pitre and Jack Laviolette. The Wanderers had two, both playing in their final season: Art Ross and Harry Hyland.

Dec 24
Accounts from the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto World, December 24, 1917.

Like its two star players, the Wanderers team was nearing the end of its time too. Art Ross (who was both player and manager) and owner Sam Lichtenhein had not been quiet about the fact that their team was undermanned heading into the inaugural NHL season. After winning just one of their first four games, the Wanderers were only too happy to bow out after fire destroyed the Montreal Arena on January 2, 1918.

Fiery times were nothing new to this franchise, which was born of trouble and died of trouble. They were often in the centre of any hockey storm.

The Wanderers were officially formed on December 1, 1903, when several key players from the Montreal Hockey Club broke ranks with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association over the running of the team. These players enticed a few members of the Montreal Victorias to join them, and not only set up their own new team, but also formed a rival league to play in, breaking away from the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (the NHL of its day) to establish the Federal Amateur Hockey League.

Dec 1
Accounts of the formation of the FAHL and the Wanderers in the
Winnipeg Tribune
on December 1, 1903 and the Montreal Gazette on December 2.

In reading about the early history of the Wanderers, you’re likely to come across stories about how they chose their name because they intended to wanderer across Canada, playing challenges for the Stanley Cup. I have my doubts about that!

For one thing – and all their players would have known this! – once the Wanderers became Stanley Cup champions (which they soon would), they would be entitled to host those challenges at home. For another, there was plenty of newspaper coverage of their story all across the country and none of the players were even willing to discuss what had led to their break with the Montreal AAA. Even if they felt their new team was championship material, they don’t seem like the types to have bragged about it so openly. Also, “Wanderers” was already a popular team name in English soccer. It’s thought to have started with teams that had no clear home base and played mainly as travelling clubs. The hockey Wanderers always intended to call Montreal home, but perhaps the name appealed to the players for the somewhat renegade status it would give to their breakaway club.

It certainly seems that no matter who owned the Wanderers, or who played for them, the team was always a maverick. In their not quite 15 seasons of existence, the Wanderers were involved in the formation of at least four new hockey leagues, and as many as six depending on how you choose to count a couple of name changes. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1905-06, they became the first team in Canada to openly pay for players in a sport that was supposed to be strictly amateur. Their part in the formation of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) is explained in great detail in my biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend who Built the Bruins and in my novel Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada so I won’t go into it here. (If you haven’t read them, why not?!?)

The Montreal Wanderers of 1911-12 from Art Ross: The Hockey Legend
Who Built the Bruin (photograph courtesy of the Ross family).

After Stanley Cup championships in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910, the Wanderers began to fall on hard times during World War I, as did several other professional hockey teams. The team was losing money, and clearly, re-forming the NHA as the NHL was not going to help the Wanderers any. The fire that destroyed the Montreal Arena came at a pretty convenient time for them.

Was it too convenient?

In Volume One of The Trail of the Stanley Cup, Charles Coleman notes: “The fire started from an unknown source in the Wanderer dressing room.” Coleman’s book is compiled mainly from items he found in newspapers, so I have to think someone in Montreal wrote that at the time.

I honestly can’t recall whether or not Coleman’s book is the first place I read that about the fire, but it always sounded suspicious to me. Was it some sort of anti-Semitic shot at Sam Lichtenhein hinting that he’d had  the Arena burned down on purpose? A twist on the racist phrase “Jewish Lightning,” in which arson is committed to collect the insurance money?

From the Montreal Gazette, June 22, 1936.

The truth is, fires destroyed an awful lot of sports venues back in the day, and Lichtenhein had carried on with the Montreal Royals baseball team despite fires burning down the grandstand in ballparks they played at in 1914 and 1916. Fires, it seems, followed Lichtenhein around. According to an obituary by D.A.L MacDonald in the sports section of the Montreal Gazette shown above, Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed his father’s business and was the reason the family had moved to Montreal in the first place. And yet something about that sentence still bothers me…

The NHL’s First Game?

Ninety-nine years ago today, on December 6, 1917, at 9:04 Atlantic Time (just about the time I’ve set this story to be published), the French ship Mont-Blanc, with a cargo of military explosives intended for the First World War, blew up in the harbour at Halifax shortly after colliding with the Norwegian vessel Imo. The explosion – often said to be the largest man-made blast until the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima – destroyed the community of Richmond in the north end of Halifx, leveling buildings, snapping trees, bending iron rails and shattering windows throughout the entire city of 50,000. In fact, the blast shattered windows 100 kilometers away in Truro, Nova Scotia, and could be heard in Prince Edward Island.

Close to 2,000 people were killed and another 9,000 injured. Some 25,000 people were left without adequate shelter. The Halifax Explosion resulted in $35 million in damages, which would be close to $600 million today. Rescue efforts began almost immediately – although they would be hampered by a blizzard that struck the next day. Supplies and money soon arrived from across Canada and the northeastern United States.

Newspaper accounts of the Halifax Explosion, December 6 & 7, 1917.

The hockey community did its part too. In Montreal the new season opened on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with a pair of fundraising games for the Halifax relief effort. The second of those games was little more than a glorified scrimmage, but was, in fact, the first game played in the history of the NHL – or, at least, the first game contested by players belonging to NHL teams.

I’m not the first to write about this – although I only know of two other sources. (One is the excellent 2002 book Deceptions and Doublecross by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth about the formation of the NHL and the other is the web site Third String Goalie.) Neither says much about the game … but that’s likely because there was so little written about it at the time, and what there was is rather conflicting.

The NHL had been formed from the ashes of the recently defunct National Hockey Association in late November of 1917 and would officially open its schedule on December 19. This exhibition game on December 15  – despite what the Montreal Gazette says in the clip below – was played by mixed teams made up of players from the Montreal Wanderers and the Montreal Canadiens. The lineups in both the Gazette and the Montreal Star show the teams as follows:

                  Team 1                                                     Team 2

  • Bert Lindsay (W)              G             Georges Vezina (C)
  • Jack Laviolette (C)          D             Joe Hall (C)
  • Dave Ritchie (W)              D              Bert Corbeau (C)
  • Joe Malone (C)                 F               Harry Hyland (W)
  • Newsy Lalonde (C)         F               Jack McDonald (W)
  • Didier Pitre (C)                 F               Billy Bell (W)
  • Louis Berlinguette (C)  Sub          Billy Coutu (C)
  • Phil Stephens (W)          Sub          George O’Grady (W)

Brief coverage of the game in the Ottawa Journal
(December 18) and Montreal Gazette (December 17).

Team 1 was the winner, but different sources list the score as 11-3, 10-3, and 10-2. The Montreal Star has it as 10-3 and reports the scorers as Lalonde (4), Pitre (3), Malone (2) and Berlinguette for the winners with Hyland scoring all three for the losers.

One night before the games in Montreal, the senior amateur season of the Ontario Hockey Association kicked off in Toronto on Friday, December 14 with its own exhibition for the Halifax Relief Fund. The defending Allan Cup champion Dentals Hockey Club of Toronto (and, yes, they were all either dental students or recent graduates of the dental program affiliated with the University of Toronto) defeated the Hamilton Tigers 5-4.

Toronto’s Globe newspaper ran an ad for the local benefit game on December 14
and had a brief summary of the game in Montreal on December 17.

Though it was advertised as a fundraiser (and said afterwards to have been a very entertaining game), only 1,200 fans showed up. No account seems to give the attendance for the games in Montreal, and nothing I’ve come across indicates how much money was actually raised in either city for the victims in Halifax.

[NOTE: I was later sent a story about the Montreal game in the French-language Le Devoir newspaper that stated “Huit cents personnes environ” – about 800 persons – attended. This newspaper also has the score 10-3, but again, no mention is made of how much money was raised. Thank you Daniel Doyon.]