Monthly Archives: August 2021

Wanna Bet?

There hasn’t been much said lately about the news coming out at the end of July that the NHL will investigate claims made in a series of tweets by the estranged wife of Evander Kane that Kane not only bet on NHL games but that he had thrown a number of games while playing for the San Jose Sharks. Kane is known to have a gambling problem, and to be deeply in debt. Still these accusations have yet to be proven. But legal gambling is a big business, so sports leagues continue to cozy up to casinos and online betting sites, and the Canadian government has now legalized single-sports wagering effective tomorrow.

Hockey has no history of gambling scandals to rival anything like the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for life from baseball for conspiring with gamblers to rig that year’s World Series. (This was actually just the biggest of many gambling scandals to plague baseball in the 1910s and ’20s.) Still, hockey has had its own problems. Most notably, in 1948, when Billy Taylor and Don Gallinger of the Boston Bruins were given lifetime suspensions (eventually rescinded, but not until 1970) for feeding information about their team to gamblers and for betting on games. Possibly even against their own team. Unlike Kane or the Black Sox, there was never any indication that the two players had conspired to throw games.

Perhaps the first gambling scandal in hockey history occurred in Toronto back in 1915.

Ottawa Journal, February 23, 1915.

A story reported out of Montreal on February 22, 1915, appeared in several newspapers across Canada the next day. It was about bribes (and other efforts) made to players in the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) by gamblers. The news broke when players on the Quebec Bulldogs told their story while passing through Montreal on their way back home after a game in Toronto. The story claimed that Harry Mummery of the Bulldogs, and team trainer Dave Beland, had been offered bribes before a Saturday night game on February 20, 1915, to let the Toronto Shamrocks win.

Mummery was said to have been offered $1,000 to throw the game. Beland was reportedly offered $50 to deliver a spiked drink to a few Quebec players. Both refused, and reported the incidents to the team manager, Mike Quinn, who reported it to NHA president Emmett Quinn.

Newspapers noted that it was not the first time something like this had happened in Toronto. Another report mentioned attempts to bribe players on the Canadiens and the Toronto Blueshirts. No names were mentioned, but Harry Cameron of the Blueshirts — a future Hockey Hall of Famer — was cited in a different vein.

Harry Cameron of the Blueshirts and Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena.

“Last week,” said president Quinn, “a gambler in Toronto invited Cameron of the Toronto team out, and induced him to break training [ie, got him drunk] with the result that he was unfit to play that night. It was found out the gambler and his friend had bet a large amount on the opposing team.”

Nothing much really came out of all this in 1915. Lol Solman, owner of the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, believed the stories had been greatly exaggerated. Still, the Toronto Telegram on February 23, reported that President Quinn had instructed all NHA managers “that any player shall be expelled who has been proven guilty of offering, agreeing, conspiring, or attempting to lose any game of hockey or in being interested in any wager thereon.” Quinn vowed that he was going to take action to stop this sort of thing.

Gambling may or may not have been stamped out at Toronto’s Arena Gardens and in the NHA back in 1915, but it would certainly be prevalent in the NHL at Maple Leaf Gardens in future. If there wasn’t gambling at the Gardens right from its opening in 1931, there would certainly be a so-called “bull ring” of bookies operating from a promenade behind the blue seats at one end of the rink soon enough.

A Chicago newspaper called Collyer’s Eye and The Baseball World provided plenty of details in an issue on December 1, 1934. The paper noted that reports on hockey gambling were up all around the NHL early in the 1934–35 season. “There are even rumors that efforts have been made to [bribe] some of the goaltend[er]s.”

Montreal was said to be the long-time center of hockey gambling, but it was much quieter there that season than New York. Detroit was labeled as the new hot gambling mecca, with Boston only lukewarm. Nothing is said about Chicago, or St. Louis (where the Ottawa Senators had recently relocated), but it was noted that there was plenty of action on NHL games in non-league centers such as Kansas City, Missouri, and the Minnesota cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. There were plenty of details about Toronto too:

“Toronto is a spot where one can get a bet down at any time. In fact, in the bull ring at Maple Leaf Gardens they will give you anything you want in the line of wagering accommodations, though they deal the nuts on Leafs. You can bet on goals, the most shots, or penalties. One favorite wager is that Leafs will score as much in one period as the other team does in the whole game.”

Other stories from other sources indicate Toronto was so rife with gambling that fans were known to place bets on whether the next spectator to be hit with a puck in the stands would be a man or a woman!

Babe Pratt and Maple Leaf Gardens.

Efforts weren’t made to clean out the bull ring in Toronto until 1946, after Maple Leafs star defenseman Babe Pratt was expelled from the NHL for gambling. (Pratt would be reinstated after missing five games and forfeiting his salary from January 29 through February 14.)

But even at that, in an article about the Gardens in Maclean’s magazine on March 1, 1958, John Clare wrote: “in an emergency, as at playoff time when the public need for the service is greatest, the bookies have been known to drift back and ply their trade with the same discretion and high ethical standards that made them a tradition in less censorious times.”

For more on the bull ring, and the Toronto gambling scandals of 1915 and 1946 (and plenty more on a wide range of subjects!), look for my new book from Firefly Books, Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories, which is due out this fall but already available for pre-ordering. For more on Evander Kane, keep an eye on the sports news. And if you’re a fan in Canada who loves to risk your money, it should be even easier for you now…

Why Don’t You Try

I may have mentioned once or twice already that I have a new book about the Kenora Thistles coming out in November. It’s called Engraved in History and it’s being done by Brignall Media, a local Kenora publisher. (I also have Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories coming out with Firefly Publishing this fall.) The Thistles won the Stanley Cup back in 1907, making Kenora the smallest town ever to win hockey’s top prize. It’s a good story…

I’ve never really been able to explain (to myself or to anyone else) why I find the years before and after the turn of the 20th century to be so fascinating. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t really want to live there — “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” — but I do find so many of the stories to be fascinating!

An ad for Game Two in the Montreal Gazette on January 21, 1907.

There was no television or radio back in 1907, but fans could follow their favourite teams through many different newspapers. And when big games were played in distant cities, fans would gather (in rinks, or in theaters, in hotel ballrooms; even at the barber shop) to listen to telegraphed bulletins sent from rinkside to newspapers all across the country. The play-by-play in those bulletins could be remarkably similar to a radio or television broadcast today.

The Thistles won the Stanley Cup by defeating the Montreal Wanderers 8–6 on January 21, 1907, to sweep their best-of-three series. In reading reports of the game in newspapers on January 22, 1907, the Manitoba Free Press (which would become the Winnipeg Free Press in 1931) was among the many newspapers to run the copy of those play-by-play bulletins. In reporting on the crowd filling up the Montreal Arena prior to the game, the Free Press noted that “everyone is whistling and singing ‘Why Don’t You Try’ with the band playing it.”

From the Manitoba Free Press of January 22, 1907.

I was, of course, intrigued!

Needless to say, when I was finished writing the book, I did some poking around.

Turns out that “Why Don’t You Try” was a popular song from a 1905 New York theater production called “The Belle of Avenue A” starring Elfie Fay.

Now, unless you’re an even bigger fan of early New York theater history than I am of early Canadian hockey history, you’ve probably never heard of Elfie Fay. But she was big in her day, if only for a little while.

Born on January 11, 1879, Elfie was the daughter of vaudeville star Hugh Fay of Barry and Fay. He was described as an Irish comedian. Elfie was a redhead with a habit of ad-libbing on stage and pulling faces. She sounds like an early incarnation of Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett, although her career never got very far. (She is described in the book American Musical Theater: A Chronicle by Gerald Bordman as “a promising Broadway belter who never fulfilled her promise.”)

From the New York Tribune, January 7, 1906.

If I’m putting this all together correctly, “The Belle of Avenue A” (which she herself was actually known as) was a show created for Elfie and built around a song of the same name that she had already made popular in an earlier Broadway show. In this one, Elfie played Maggie Burns, a poor girl temporarily on the bread line who agrees to pose as the wife of socialite George Fairfax, who must be married in order to collect his inheritance. Wackiness ensues, I would assume! (You can check out the lyrics of “Why Don’t You Try” if you’d like and you can listen to it too.)

Elfie seems to have been quite popular for a while, though apparently as much for her many engagements as anything else! (Including one in 1902 to Sir Thomas Lipton, of British tea and yachting fame, which she herself actually denied). Still, Elfie was once quoted as saying: “A woman can fall in love as often as she encounters a man who is able by superior qualities of heart and mind to inspire such love.”

Reviews and stories of Elfie and her show in the New York Tribune,
New York Evening World, and New York Times from October 10, 1905.

But it seems that Elfie wasn’t actually very lucky in love. Married twice, the first ended in divorce after only three years. The second ended when her new husband died early in 1921 just three months after their wedding. Samuel Armstrong Benner is said to have been a wealthy steal executive, but Elfie inherited only $500 from his estate.

Later moving out to California with an actor-director brother named Hugh for their father, Elfie Fay appeared in a handful of movies between 1924 and 1927, but died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1927 at the age of only 48. (Not 46, as the clipping below says.) Her father Hugh had died at age 81 in 1925, while brother Hugh also died young in 1926. Elfie was still enough of a name at the time of her death that the Associated Press picked up on the story and reported it in newspapers across the United States.

Obituary in the Brooklyn Times-Union from September 19, 1927.

What does any of this have to do with the Kenora Thistles or hockey?

Nothing at all. (Elfie’s story won’t appear in the book.) It’s just an example of why the stories from the early days can be so much fun to dig into … even if the music can be pretty awful!