Keeping Up With the … Smiths!

On a late Friday morning, right around noon, on April 17, 1931, Henry Smith was going down the stairs to the cellar in his home at 47 Empress Avenue in Ottawa. A widower living alone for the past six months after 60 years of marriage to Anne McLaughlin, Mr. Smith was suddenly overcome by a dizzy spell and fell. He suffered seven cracked ribs and was taken to the Walter Street hospital.

Once a contractor of great renown, Henry Smith and partner John Henney had built many bridges in Ottawa, and public structures across much of Canada. He was a man who had always enjoyed robust health, and was said to have been in full possession of all his faculties at the time of his accident. Hopes were held out for a complete recovery, but the shock to his system was too much. Complications set in, and Henry Smith died shortly after 9 am on the morning of Tuesday, April 21. He was a month shy of his 88th birthday.

The family of Henry Smith and Anne McLaughlin, circa 1891. Though stories say they had 15 children, genealogical records show “only” 14. The eleven seen here survived into adulthood. (Photo courtesy of Francie Heagney, granddaughter of Bill Smith.)

So, why do we care about this?

(I guess the better question is, why do I care about it?)

Because of the seven sons of Henry and Anne Smith, all seven became prominent hockey players in their hometown of Ottawa. Alf Smith, the oldest son, and his brother, Tommy, 12 years his junior, are both members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Another brother, Harry, probably had the talent to join them there, although perhaps he had even more of Alf’s belligerent nature than he had of Tommy’s scoring skill.

Smith brothers Alf, Jack, Dan, (top) Harry, Tommy and Bill (bottom).
(Courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.)

As I mentioned in my recent story about the Gilmour brothers, Alf, Tommy, and Harry were all members of the Silver Seven in their final dynasty season of 1905–06. Smith brothers Dan (known as Moxie) and Jack both played briefly with Alf on the Ottawa hockey club before it earned the Silver Seven moniker, while Billy, or Will Smith, played with several other top Ottawa clubs after the Silver Seven era. Youngest brother George Smith played alongside Billy briefly with the Ottawa Emmetts in 1909–10, but appears to have had less talent for the game than his six elder siblings.

There are no hockey pictures of George Smith, but he may be wearing a sweater from his 1913-14 Nipissing team. Photo is courtesy of his granddaughter, Marian Scollan.

Alf Smith was 17 1/2 years older than his youngest brother George, but it is mentioned in the obituaries for both Henry and Anne that Henry had once issued a challenge to any other “seven sons” hockey team to face-off against his talented Smith tribe. The challenge, it’s said, was never accepted.

That appears to be true.

But it certainly doesn’t appear to have been due to any lack of trying on the part of proud papa Henry!

I recall coming across stories of the Smith family challenge years ago, but had mostly forgotten about it until a recent post about the Smiths on the Society for International Hockey Research web site by a Swedish member named Oskar Tallqvist. After reading it, I went hunting through old newspapers for stories about the challenge … and found quite a lot.

The first time that a family challenge from the Smiths appeared in the newspaper is in the Ottawa Citizen on March 10, 1899:

“Defi” is apparently a French word for challenge.

Alf Smith was two months shy of his 26th birthday. He had played with Ottawa in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (the NHL of its day) from 1894 through 1898 (and would star for the team later, from 1903 through 1908) but appears not to have been playing anywhere in 1898–99. Dan was two years past his stint with Alf on Ottawa’s top team, and Jack was still two years away from his. Harry and Tommy were only teenagers, and their official hockey records don’t date back that far. And, despite what the paper says, Will (Bill) was actually the nine-year-old (though his next birthday was coming soon, on April 20), while George had only turned eight in January.

Still, the big question for me now was, “who were the Sime, or Sims brothers?”

Well, though Ancestry has some records showing the name spelled as Symms and Simms, this was the family of Henry Francis Sims, another pioneering Ottawa citizen who was even older than Henry Smith. Henry Sims and his wife Rachel had seven sons, who in 1899 would have ranged in age from about 34 to 16. (They also had three daughters.) The sons were all hockey players, and a year later, in 1900, at least five of them would play together for the same team in Ottawa’s Merchant’s Hockey League: the Henry J. Sims & Co. hockey team. Henry Francis Joseph Sims, the third son and fourth child in the family, was a furrier and a hatter operating on Sparks Street.

Bert Sims in on the left in a McGill uniform. Percy is with Ottawa on the right.
(Courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.)

The Society for International Hockey Research has records for only two of the hockey playing Sims brothers. Youngest son Herbert (1883-1947) was better known as Bert. He played at McGill University in the early 1900s along with future Hall of Famers Tommy Phillips in 1902–03 and with Billy Gilmour in 1904–05. Bert Sims went on to become a noted North American medical specialist as an ear, nose and throat doctor and was president of the Ottawa Rough Riders football club (known as the Senators at the time) when they won the Grey Cup in 1926. The second youngest Sims boy, Percy, played with the Ottawa Silver Seven in 1902–03 and helped them win the Stanley Cup that year.

But in 1899, the Sims brothers were mostly playing hockey for fun when a challenge to any hockey-playing family was issued by another Ottawa merchant family, the McCrackens, in local newspapers on February 21. A day later, it was reported that the McCracken crew (they were tailors on Bank Street) had agreed to face-off with the Sims boys:

From the Ottawa Citizen on February 21, 1899 and the Ottawa Journal the next day.

The game was played at Dey’s rink in Ottawa on March 3, 1899. Hockey in these days was played with seven players a side, the extra player being the rover who lined up between the forwards and the defencemen, who were known in those days as point and cover point. But because the oldest Sims brother, William, was out of town, the families agreed to drop the rover and play with six men aside. They only played 40 minutes, but the Sims ran up a one-sided 12–0 victory.

Percy and Bert were the stars of the game, according to the Ottawa Citizen. There was a longer report in the Ottawa Journal, showing the following lineups:

R. G. Sims   -  Goal   -  Sam McCracken
Edgar Sims   -  Point  -  Alex McCracken
Percy Sims   -  Cover  -  Joe McCracken
Henry Sims   - Forward -  George McCracken
Herbert Sims -         -  David McCracken
Fred Sims    -         -  Robert McCracken

Little wonder, then, that Henry Smith issued the challenge on behalf of his hockey-playing offspring just a week later. And it’s no surprise why the Smiths wanted to face the Sims.

There is no report as to why the game was never played.

Perhaps the fact that two of the Smith children were under the age of 10 had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, it seems that nearly five years passed before more talk of the Smith family playing together versus another family of seven appeared in newspapers. A story out of Perth, Ontario (not too far from Ottawa) on January 13, 1904, was picked up in capital city newspapers the following day:

Ottawa Citizen on the left, and the Ottawa Journal on the right; January 14, 1904.

I knew the name Frank McLaren from writing in the past about the Stanley Cup challenges of the Toronto Wellingtons and the Toronto Marlboros, but not the fact that he was also one of seven hockey-playing brothers. On January 16, 1904, the Montreal Gazette noted that the Smiths “are out to accept the challenge of the McLaren Freres of Perth” — although the paper got several of the Smith brothers’ names wrong. The Ottawa Journal that day only noted that the Smiths “should accept the defi,” and introduced me to another set of seven hockey playing brothers, when it noted that, if not the Smiths then the Christmas brothers of Montreal should accept the challenge. (This clarified the “Christmas” reference in that paper’s January 14 headline above.)

The Christmases seem to be a family of seven sons and no daughters born to Thomas Henry Christmas and his wife Jennie. Brothers Ernest, William, Archie, Howard, Alex, Percy and Walter ranged in ages from 27 to 16 in 1905.

Ernie Christmas is on the left. That’s Billy Christmas on the right. (Courtesy of SIHR.)

The Ottawa Citizen had more about the McLaren challenge in its paper on January 18. Among other things, it introduced yet another hockey-playing family of seven with a story out of Newmarket, Ontario, indicated that Doyle family — Larry (goal), Fred (point), Frank (cover point), and forwards Ern, Harry, Ed and Tom — would be happy to hear from the McLarens. The Citizen noted that Henry Smith was also up for the challenge, and reminded readers what the seven Smiths were currently up to.

“Alf is now putting up superb hockey on the Stanley Cup holders and both Dan and Jack have figured on the Ottawas previously.” (Neither appear to have been playing anymore by 1904). “Harry was captain of the Aberdeens last season and now plays center for the Arnprior aggregation of puck-chasers. Tommy Smith was one of the Emmetts’ best forward last year… Willie tips the scales at about 105 pounds but is rapidly learning the fine points of the game…. The youngest of the family is George, age 12.” (He actually turned 13 the day this story appeared in the paper.) “George has been taught hockey from the cradle and is plucky to the core.”

McLaren brothers Mervyn, Robert and Frank. (Courtesy of SIHR.)

On February 14, 1904, the Citizen reports that the Beavers of the Ottawa City league (who featured future Ottawa star Hamby Shore) had agreed to play a couple of games against the Smiths to get them prepared for their clash with the McLarens. However, there doesn’t appear to be any record of the Smiths ever facing the Beavers … nor of a challenge match against the Perth family ever being played.

But Henry Smith wasn’t giving up on the dream of seeing his seven sons face-off together against other teams, be they family squads like his or not. First, in January of 1907, there were stories about Henry having been in Winnipeg arranging for his boys to face teams from that city. Then, in the late fall of 1908, there was talk of a lengthy trip through the United States and western Canada. Finally, in November of 1910, there were stories about the Smiths going west to Edmonton to take on the Banford boys, another hockey-playing family said to have seven sons who were originally from the Ottawa Valley, but had relocated to Alberta around 1903. In all cases, no games were ever played.

Newspaper clipping is from the Edmonton Journal on November 23, 1910. Photo of Bill Banford is courtesy of SIHR. Other Banford brothers were Charles, Gordon, Howard, Ernie, Chester and Arthur. Father Charles Sr. apparently played with the boys too.

Talk of the Smith family playing together as a team of seven ended, sadly, on June 9, 1911, with the unexpected death of Jack Smith. He’d been ill for about two weeks with inflammation of the stomach when, suddenly, his heart gave out.

“Hockeyists and sportsmen in all parts of the country will, with deep regret, learn of his untimely demise,” said an obituary in the Ottawa Citizen on June 10. “He was the third member of a hockey family which could hold its own with anything in the country….

“The Smith Brothers Seven was known from coast to coast and one of Mr. Smith’s fondest dreams had been to get the boys together again.”

As for the rest of the Smith boys, Dan passed away in 1926 at the age of 50. Alf, who had finished playing by 1909, but would coach in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators (1918–19) and New York Americans (1925–26), died in August of 1953 at the age of 80. Harry had died that May at 69, while youngest brother George died in 1954 at age 62. Tommy, whose last season as a player was in the NHL with the Quebec Bulldogs (sometimes called the Athletics) in 1919–20, died in 1966 at the age of 80.

Bill Smith was the last and the longest-lived of the seven brothers. He passed away on October 30, 1977 at the age of 88.

15 thoughts on “Keeping Up With the … Smiths!

  1. Another compelling and brilliant bit of research and writing. Bill Bentley of Delisle,
    Saskatchewan would have been proud. He had quite a brood, including an all Bentley girls club.

  2. That was a fascinating lesson. Imagine all these brothers playing hockey. Today, or course, they would even include the sisters, or would that make the challenges too scary for all those macho men! Keep up the good work!

  3. Your column holds great interest to me. Before I started tracking brothers and dad/son
    combos of the NHL, I did research and wrote a column on family teams. (That was about 1973.)
    I have more info about some family teams than others.
    There was a Schnarr family from Kitchener who did a lot of travel to play. (I have their photo.) There was also a Siebert team from that area.
    The Carroll family from Moncton made headlines.
    There were the Cormiers and the Goyers (Belleville) and the LaMoores (Trenton), and the Leducs from Valleyfield. There is mention of the Cormier ad Chiasssons in Quebec province.
    That’s all I have at the moment.

    1. That’s plenty!
      When I started out, I was just trying to find the article I remembered about the Smith family challenging all others … which, I guess, was the article I found now from 1899. Then, as I said, I kept find more and more right from that era. I didn’t really go beyond that. (I already had much more than I expected!)

  4. 7 sons, that’s ridiculous. We had enough with 3 sons playing hockey. Every Saturday afternoon Steve and I were there watching the 3 of you play hockey in the freezing Cummer rink. And because of your ages, you each played in a different division. If we were lucky two games followed in a row, but usually not so often .
    We were often there til early evening . But we did enjoy watching all of you. Now, when there was no COVID, David plays and sometimes I even go and watch him. And of course I watched grandson, Jorey . I guess old habits die hard.

  5. Wow! I can’t imagine having seven or more children, let alone seven playing hockey! Great research as usual, Eric! Quite impressive.

  6. Talent, or lack thereof, often runs in families. The Howe family in recent times, though one son disgraced the family by becoming a doctor! The Richard family. Espositos. And others. Sometimes only one is blessed though others try as in the family Gretzky. Of course having the right parents to nurture you helps. Wayne had Walter. Often a father, when a son is born, rushes out to buy some item of sports equipment to urge on his progeny to fame and, of course, fortune. Usually it doesn’t pan out. Today they do it for daughters born to sports fans too. In politics we see the same drive to be special. The Roosevelts. The Trudeaus.
    But as Joyce, my young friend, exclaimed…7 sons plus four daughters! And had Henry not fallen he could have lived on.
    But then again, in the 1800’s there was no television to occupy a couple’s leisure time!

    Great article.As usual

  7. Huh! I must say that my first thought was to the tune of what the heck was in the water in Ottawa back in the day, what with all these newsworthy families of 6 and 7 sons all playing hockey. And then I read Glen Goodhand’s ‘comments’ and I’m now wondering if there isn’t a really big “…rest of the story…” yet to be written from a Canada-wide perspective down through history.
    Once again, amazing research and subsequent historical revelations, Eric.

  8. There is something ever so compelling about brothers playing together to form a line in hockey or as this example an entire hockey team. Thanks for adding to the brothers mythology.

  9. Thanks so much, Eric, for a great hockey story about my great grandfather Henry Smith, my great uncles and grandfather Bill Smith. I enjoyed how you put the story together, capturing the competitive spirit of Henry seeking other families for the challenge. A pity it did not come together. Reading about the other hockey families was interesting as well.

    Hockey must have been exciting in its early days! Wouldn’t those players and fans be shocked by how sophisticated things became!

    1. When I was working on my biography of Art Ross, who I’m sure must have known a Smith or two (certainly Alf) pretty well, I used to think sometimes that all those old guys’ heads would explode if the saw the game now. And the salaries!

  10. Hi Eric,
    Hockey certainly is a family affair. Wouldn’t it have been ironic if “Battling Billy” of the Islanders dynasty had some small link to this illustrious family? Sounds like you are enjoying yourself connecting all of these obscure threads.
    Enjoyed the read!

  11. Thanks so much for writing this. Percy Sims was my great-grandfather. I had no idea about this history in my family. I learned so much from this that I would have otherwise not known since everyone from that side of my family has passed on.

    The stories about the seven brothers was so fascinating. I had no idea they used to put challenges in the newspapers. So interesting!

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