Monthly Archives: February 2017

Little Jeff

Last week, I caught some of The Prizefighter and the Lady on Turner Classic Movies. It stars Max Baer, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, in his first movie role as the Prizefighter, and Myrna Loy as the Lady. It was made in 1933 and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Original Story. Generally speaking, it still gets good reviews. Admittedly, I didn’t see that much of it, but from what I did see, it seemed much more interesting now as a piece of history than it did as a movie.

I won’t go into the plot, but it builds towards a big fight scene at the end where Baer’s character (Steve Morgan) fights the real heavyweight champion of the time, Primo Carnera. (In real life, Baer would beat Carnera for the title a year later.) In the film, the fight is promoted and also refereed by Jack Dempsey playing himself, and before the bout begins Dempsey is joined in the ring by other legendary heavyweight champions of the past, Jess Willard and James J. “Jim” Jeffries. I recognized Jeffries right away from his strong resemblance to hockey legend Cyclone Taylor!

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Movie poster plus the hand and footprints of William Powell and Myrna Loy at the
Chinese Theater in Hollywood. W.S. Van Dyke, who directed The Prizefighter and the Lady, would later direct Powell and Loy in the first of “The Thin Man” movies.

I first learned of Cyclone Taylor’s resemblance to Jim Jeffries in Eric Whitehead’s 1977 biography Cyclone Taylor: A Hockey Legend. (Reading that book, and then Whitehead’s biography of Frank and Lester Patrick, inspired me to write my first book, the historical fiction novel Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.) Whitehead writes of hockey fans in New York City taking to Taylor because of his skill and because of his resemblance to the former heavyweight champ. He says they called him “Little Jeff.”

While I couldn’t find any newspaper references to that specifically, Jeffries was actually in New York at the same time as Taylor and the Ottawa Senators were there to face Art Ross and the Montreal Wanderers in a postseason series in March of 1909. Jeffries was very much in the news, with fight promoters offering him huge money for the time – $50,000 and up – to come out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson. (Jeffries would be the first “Great White Hope” to fight the controversial Black heavyweight champion when he lost to him on July 4, 1910.)

The clipping below doesn’t use the nickname “Little Jeff” but does come pretty close to confirming Whitehead’s account by referring to Cyclone as “Jeffries” Taylor…

TribArticle in The New York Daily Tribune on March 18, 1910, when Taylor
returned to New York as a member of the Renfrew Millionaires.

And while you wouldn’t exactly confuse one for the other (especially considering that Jeffries was about 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds in his prime while Taylor was 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds), there definitely is a resemblance…

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1,000 Points and Other Milestones

It was big news last week when Sidney Crosby collected his 1,000th career point. He reached the milestone on February 16 with an assist on a Chris Kunitz goal early in the first period, and then picked up another assist on the tying goal in the third period before scoring himself in overtime to give his Pittsburgh Penguins a 4-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. It was truly a feel-good moment for a player who has clearly re-established himself as the best in the game after the concussions of a few years back that threatened to cut short his career.

Crosby is the 86th player in NHL history to record 1,000 points. (Henrik Sedin and Alex Ovechkin hit the mark earlier this year, and Daniel Sedin and Shane Doan are closing in too.) The first was Gordie Howe, who reached the milestone more than 56 years ago on November 27, 1960. Coverage of that moment was widespread too – although the focus of those stories may surprise you.

Howe

Howe reached the milestone with the first of two assists that night in Detroit’s 2-0 home victory over Toronto. It was a Sunday, and Howe had also picked up an assist in the Red Wings’ 3-3 tie at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday night. With so few Sunday newspapers in this era, Monday papers had to cover the full weekend’s worth of games, and in Canada, most of the sports pages were filled with Ottawa’s 16-6 Grey Cup victory over Edmonton in Vancouver that Saturday. (The Grey Cup didn’t move to Sunday until 1969.)

The Montreal Gazette devoted the first four pages of its sports section to Grey Cup coverage on November 28, 1960:

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And when it finally got around to Sunday’s hockey games outside of Montreal, it made no mention at all of Howe’s 1,000th point. Instead, it focused on his tying for the all-time scoring lead with Maurice Richard, who’d recently retired with 965 regular-season points and 126 more in the playoffs for a total of 1,091.

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A Montreal bias, perhaps? After all, fans of the Canadiens and Red Wings had been arguing the merits of Howe versus Richard for years. But the coverage in Toronto wasn’t much different. The Star and the Globe at least mentioned that Howe now had 1,001 points in regular season play – although neither said anything about him being the first to reach 1,000 and both mentioned his tie with Richard.

Even in Detroit, the headline in the Free Press said “Howe Ties Record” as did the story picked up from the Canadian Press in the Star-Phoenix in Gordie’s home town of Saskatoon.

Sask

Only the United Press International, it seems, played up the fact that Howe’s first assist in the 2-0 win over Toronto made him the first player to reach the 1,000-point plateau. But even they gave pretty much equal billing to his tying Richard at 1,091.

UPI

Howe, himself, seemed to play down the milestone. As noted in the UPI story, what he really wanted was to be able to play another five seasons to reach 20 for his career. Numerous stories pointed out that he didn’t even take the puck from his 1,000th point as a souvenir, although someone must have because the colourized photo above is all over the Internet, and Detroit GM Jack Adams stated that the Red Wings planned to put the puck on display.

Meantime, Howe quickly moved himself into the undisputed spot as hockey’s all-time scoring leader. Despite a 3-2 loss to Boston at home in Detroit’s next game on December 1, he picked up assists on both Red Wings goals to move two points clear of Maurice Richard with 1,093.

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Howe, by the way had reached 1,000 points in 938 games over 15 seasons and had needed 1,033 in all to achieve 1,091. Richard hit that total in 1,111 games over 18 years – 978 in the regular season and 133 in the playoffs.

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But Maurice Richard continued to loom large in NHL milestones. Even after Gordie Howe became the second player to score 500 goals in 1962 and went on to surpass Richard with 545, sportswriters well into the 1970s would note not just when players reached 500  but when they reached 544 as well. And, of course, 50 goals in 50 games in a single season (which Richard accomplished in 1944-45) would remain a magic mark until Mike Bossy matched it in 1980-81 and Gretzky obliterated it with 50 in 39 the following year.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ace Bailey

Today is Valentine’s Day, but it also marks two important Toronto hockey anniversaries. Ninety years ago, on February 14, 1927, the group assembled by Conn Smythe made its first $75,000 payment (they’d already put down a $10,000 deposit and would pay the final $75,000 over the next 30 days) to purchase the Toronto St. Pats. The deal was ratified that day at a meeting of NHL officials at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. The team played its final game under its old name at Detroit the following evening before making its debut as the Maple Leafs at home against the New York Americans on February 17, 1927.

Today also marks the anniversary of the Ace Bailey benefit game; the first All-Star Game in NHL history, played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto 83 years ago on February 14, 1934. Recently, I wrote about some of the back story behind the Howie Morenz Memorial in 1937. Today, here are some of the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the Ace Bailey Game.

I’m sure that many of you reading this will be familiar with the basic story of the Ace Bailey Incident. If not, my friend and colleague Kevin Shea wrote about it recently in the Toronto Star. There’s also an entire chapter devoted to it in my book Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins.

Briefly, Bailey was a star for the Toronto Maple Leafs who had his career (and almost his life) ended in a dirty hit from behind by Bruins legend Eddie Shore at the Boston Garden on December 12, 1933. Bailey fell and his head struck the ice. His skull was fractured, and over the next few days there was a blood clot discovered on the left side, and extensive hemorrhaging on the right side, of his brain. His chances of survival were poor, but a series of operations performed by a Boston specialist saved his life.

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The scene on the ice at the Boston Garden, with Ace Bailey down on the left and Eddie Shore, after being punched by Red Horner, at the right. Photo courtesy of Art Ross III.

For his hit on Bailey, Eddie Shore was suspended for 16 games, which was one-third of the NHL’s 48-game season. Toronto’s Red Horner was suspended for six games for attacking Shore. Today, Shore is considered one of the dirtiest players in hockey history. His reputation as a dictatorial minor league owner – which I touched on in my recent story about Chick Webster – certainly hasn’t helped! But Shore was no goon. In his day, he was considered rough and tough but not violent. As such, Art Ross of the Bruins felt his suspension was too severe. (Boston fell apart without Shore, and Ross claimed his loss cost the team $50,000 in gate receipts, which was a steep price during The Great Depression.)

Conn Smythe – who had stayed at Bailey’s bedside in Boston for several days –  was incensed at losing Horner for any time at all, given that they had already lost the services of Bailey. He also didn’t feel that his Maple Leafs – who’d paid out about $2,500 by early January – should be on the hook for all of Bailey’s medical expenses. The Bruins had already donated the gate receipts from their next home game on December 19 (reported first as $6,642.22 and later as $6741.21) directly to Mrs. Bailey, but the Toronto owner wanted more.

As early as January 4, 1934, Smythe announced that he would ask for a special meeting of the NHL board of governors to discuss the financial angle. “The Toronto Maple Leafs have been penalized enough already,” he declared, “without incurring a further loss of what I figure will amount to $8,000. Who is going to pay the hospital bill, physicians’ fees and all the expenses resulting from Bailey’s injury. We will have to pay the salary of a hockey player who won’t be on the ice for a single minute during the rest of the season. Boston will have Shore back January 28 and besides that we lost Horner for six games. Is there any justice in that?”

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Photos from the pages of Life Magazine in a story about Conn Smythe from 1955.

On January 9, 1934, Smythe, backed by the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons, requested that NHL President Frank Calder call the meeting. It took place at the Lincoln Hotel in New York on January 24. Despite reports that there would be some discussion of extending Shore’s suspension, compensation for Bailey was the only issue. The Boston Globe reported that the meeting lasted three hours. The Toronto Star said five hours. The governors clearly believed Bailey was entitled to something, but seemed worried about setting a precedent that would make teams financially liable for injuries to an opponent.

“The league,” wrote Toronto Star Sports Editor Lou Marsh, “certainly took no chances on establishing a dangerous precedent by making any allowance of league funds to Bailey or accepting any responsibility for injuries to individual players, no matter how they were incurred.”

In the end, it was James Strachan of the Maroons who suggested a benefit All-Star Game, although Ottawa Journal sports editor Walter Gilhooly had already written a similar proposal. The NHL’s announcement was made when the governors broke for lunch at 2 pm. Smythe declared himself satisfied with the action.

AceBailey_OttawaClick the photo above to read Walter Gilhooly’s open letter to the NHL
Governors as it appeared in the Ottawa Journal on January 8, 1934.

“My only idea was to get something for Bailey,” the Leafs boss said. “Yes, he’s all through playing hockey. I decided he ought to get $15,000 and I don’t care much how he gets it…. If we don’t draw enough to make up that amount with the exhibition game the Toronto club will put up the rest. If we have something over we may apply the surplus on his hospital and doctors bills.”

In the end, a capacity crowd of 14,074 saw the Maple Leafs beat the All-Stars 7-3. They paid a total of $20,909.40 for their tickets, all of which was turned over to Bailey and his family.

All Time Over Time

As I said in these “pages” two weeks ago, selecting an all-time list of greats is a bit of a mug’s game. You can’t ever win. While there are certainly a few guys on the NHL’s recent 100 Greatest Players list that I wouldn’t have selected – and not nearly enough names from the game’s early days for my liking! – most people want to see names they remember.

People have been debating the game’s all-time greats pretty much from the time organized hockey began. Newspapers were selected all-star teams as long ago as the 1890s, and there was no more censuses then than there is today. Then as now, it seems, a big part of the debate was shaped by where you came from and who you grew up watching.

On January 20, 1912, the Vancouver World ran a story debating “Who Was The Best of Big Hockey Players?” Though I think it’s meant as a straight account, it reads almost like a parody. None of the people proposing possible players (all of those I list below are future Hall of Famers) is identified by name and yet they seem to come from all across the country.

Vancouver

No sooner is someone naming Russell Bowie as the greatest player they’ve ever seen, then “a former backer of the Ottawa club” is saying that Frank McGee was better. Then a former Winnipeg resident currently living in Calgary is making the case for Kenora’s Tommy Phillips, where upon a Montreal man states his claim to Hod Stuart. There are also voices speaking in favour of Cyclone Taylor, Alf Smith, Rat Westwick, Lester Patrick, Percy Lesueur and Harvey Pulford. (Alas, no one speaks up for Art Ross!)

Except for Lester Patrick, none of these old-time greats ever played in the NHL and wouldn’t have been considered for the Centennial list. But this was not the case 30 years later, when Cooper Smeaton listed the greatest players he’d ever seen. Smeaton was a fine hockey player in his youth, but made his mark in the game as a referee, first in the National Hockey Association and then the National Hockey League, earning his own spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In the Ottawa Journal on November 14, 1942, Smeaton made two lists of all-time greats from the earlier and later stages of his career. Of the 12 players he named, 11 would make it to the Hall of Fame, but only Georges Vezina made it to the NHL’s current list of 100 Greatest Players. Interestingly, Smeaton snubs Eddie Shore (who did – very deservedly! – make it) in favour of his Boston teammate Lionel Hitchman, who has never made it to the Hall of Fame, having been overlooked pretty much forever as have so many other defensive defensemen throughout the years. Give the image below a click to see Smeaton’s list and read his reasons.

All Time Ottawa

The Morenz Memorial

The NHL All-Stars skills competition this past Saturday took place 80 years to the day that Howie Morenz – arguably the first true NHL superstar – suffered the broken leg that would not just end his career but his life.

Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadiens was the biggest star in hockey from the mid 1920s until the early 1930s. After an offseason in 1933-34 (and fears that his all-out approach to the game had seen him burn out early), the Canadiens decided to trade him. He spent the 1934-35 and 1935-36 seasons playing in Chicago and New York, doing little to convince anyone that he had much left. But after being sold back to Montreal in the fall of 1936, Morenz seemed rejuvenated. He wasn’t quite putting up the points that he had in his heyday, but the old speed seemed to be back and the Canadiens were once again playing first-place hockey.

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Montreal Gazette stories from January 29, 1937.

In a game against the Black Hawks on January 28, 1937, Morenz sped into the right corner behind the Chicago net to chase a loose puck. He fell just as defenseman Earl Seibert was catching up to him. Morenz slid into the corner and his left skate caught in the boards. Seibert fell on top of him. Morenz’ leg snapped. It was broken in at least four places. According to some reports, the sound could be heard throughout the Montreal Forum.

There was some brave talk that Morenz might be back in time for the playoffs, but it was widely believed he was done for the season. Charlie Conacher of the Toronto Maple Leafs (who missed most of the 1936-37 season with a wrist injury) was writing a column for the Globe and Mail at the time. Two days after the accident, on January 30, he wrote: “It is too much to hope that [Morenz] will be ready to play again, even by the time the finals arrive.”

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Introduction and photo in the Globe on November 11, 1936, when Charlie Conacher’s
column launched. (The paper would formally become the Globe and Mail on November 23).
Conacher’s column ran until April 4, 1937. Editor Tommy Munns may well have ghosted it.

At age 34 in 1937, Morenz was considered old for an athlete. For that reason any comeback was soon seen as a long shot. “[W]hile I admire Howie’s courage and hand him the palm as the greatest centre player in the league (in my time, at least),” wrote Conacher in his February 15 column, “it is my opinion that he is through. His great heart makes him say that he hopes to play next season, but the courage that has taken him past so many opposing players can’t beat nature.

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“The opinion that Morenz is through is based on the fact that athletes in all lines of sport who have been seriously injured at Morenz’ present age, or even younger, have been unable to return to competition and stay there. Examples of this are too numerous to mention.”

For this reason, Conacher urged ownership of the Canadiens and the Montreal Maroons to arrange a benefit game for Morenz right away. “Now, with the fans still talking about [him], is the time for the Montreal clubs and fans to rally to his support and show him what they think of what he has done for hockey in their city. Next fall, if he finds he is through, it will be too late, for they soon forget in sport….

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Howie Morenz in hospital. (Wikipedia states this photo is in the Public Domain.)

“Such a tribute is due Morenz, quite apart from the money that would be raised for him. He would appreciate the gesture from the officials and fans of the city that has been his hometown as far as professional hockey is concerned.

“In Montreal they may say they prefer to wait and see if Howie can come back but I repeat it will be too late… Now is the time for a testimonial to one of the greatest hockey players of them all. Howie has done plenty for you, Mr. Gorman and Mr. Hart. WHAT IS YOUR ANSWER TO THIS CHALLENGE?”

Conacher would continue to bring up the idea in his column over the next few days, and by February 23 he could report that the Canadiens had agreed to stage a benefit before the end of the season. But then, on March 8, 1937, Howie Morenz died while still in hospital.

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It’s often been written over the years that when he realized he could never play again, Morenz died of a broken heart. There have also been those who contend that he took his own life. Newspapers at the time said a heart attack. In truth, it’s most likely that Morenz died of an embolism brought on by blood clots, which his doctor had apparently detected the night before. “It’s our understanding,” wrote grandson Howard Morenz III back in 2005, “that, even in 1937, they had the means to dissolve blood clots. But the doctor decided the problem could wait until morning. The morning was too late.”

“Readers of this column,” wrote Charlie Conacher on March 10, 1937, “will realize that I feel this loss personally, as will any other former opponents of Howie. It was in this space that I advocated a testimonial game for Morenz. As Tommy Gorman is quoted as saying in a despatch from Montreal, it will become a memorial game now.”

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Globe and Mail headline on March 18, 1937; ten days after Morenz’ death.

The NHL fully committed to the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at a meeting in New York on March 17, 1937. The game was originally to be played in mid April, after the Stanley Cup Finals, but was later rescheduled to the fall and was played on November 2, 1937. The stories in March claimed that the Morenz Memorial was supposed to be the beginning of an annual All-Star Game to create a future fund for injured players. There had been talk of such a thing since the first NHL benefit game for Ace Bailey in 1934, but an annual All-Star Game (originally created to aid player pensions) would not begin until 1947.