Monthly Archives: March 2022

Looking At The Uke Line…

A few days ago, I got an email from my friend Tosh suggesting that perhaps a story about the Uke Line might be of interest these days. I haven’t taken a lot of requests on this web site. As I indicated in my most recent post, I don’t usually give a lot of thought to what story comes next. Something usually just pops up.

In his email, Tosh included a link to an online post from The Ukrainian Weekly that gives a pretty good history of the Uke Line. (You can read it here if you’d like.) But he wondered if I had something from my own “unique perspective” to add to the story.

Well, I did know of one thing. And sort of stumbled on to some other things too. So, here we go…

Having all played together in the minors with the Edmonton Flyers of the Western Hockey League in 1954-55, the Uke Line was formed for the 1957-58 NHL season after the Boston Bruins acquired center Bronco Horvath and left winger Johnny Bucyk in a couple of separate transactions. At training camp, the two newcomers were teamed with right winger Vic Stasiuk (who had been with the Bruins since 1955). They were a big success and by the midway point of the NHL season, the Boston trio trailed only the Montreal line of Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, and Dickie Moore as the top-scoring unit in the NHL.

On January 6, 1958, Herb Ralby of The Boston Globe wrote that back in training camp, Bruins coach (and former star) Milt Schmidt had “remarked that the new Uke Line reminded him of his Kraut Line,” Boston’s high-scoring trio of the late 1930s and 1940s. Schmidt was impressed by the way Horvath, Stasiuk, and Bucyk “were forever huddling to talk over mistakes and possible plays.”

“When Bobby (Bauer), Woody (Dumart), and I were playing on the Kraut Line,” Schmidt said, “we always huddled after rushes in practice to talk things over. We also were inseparable. We lived together, ate together, and went out together as well as playing together. The Ukes do the same thing. That’s what makes a good line.”

In The Boston Globe of January 18, 1958, Ralby wrote that Horvath, Stasiuk, and Bucyk had rented the home of former Bruins defensemen Pat Egan and were living together there. All three apparently enjoyed cooking, and they ate a “varied menu,” although it was always steaks on game day.

“We usually buy $7 worth of steaks,” explained Bucyk. “They’re really good size. Vic broils them while Bronco is the salad man. He’s good at it too.”

The Uke Line had a strong season in 1957-58, slumped a bit in 1958-59, and enjoyed their best year together in 1959-60. In fact, Bronco Horvath found himself in a tight race for the NHL scoring title with Bobby Hull that year. It went right down to the final game of the season, which pit Hull’s Chicago Black Hawks (two words in those days) against Horvath’s Bruins.

Horvath had 39 goals and 41 assists for 80 points heading into he finale at the Boston Garden on March 20, 1960. Hull had 38 goals and 41 assists for 79 points. The Golden Jet equalled Bronco with his 39th goal early in the second period, and picked up his 42nd assist and 81st point when he set up Eric Nesterenko with just 6:59 left in the game. Horvath was kept off the scoresheet all night, and when the game ended in a 5-5 tie (no overtime in those days), Hull had won the scoring title by a single point.

Some time after the season ended, Bruins radio play-by-play man Fred Cusick interviewed longtime former Bruins coach and executive Art Ross on a sports program Cusick hosted from the Clubhouse restaurant in Boston’s Kenmore Hotel. Ross, of course, is the namesake of the trophy given to the NHL scoring leader, which he and his sons, Arthur and John Ross, donated to the league after the 1947–48 season.

In earlier years, Bruins stars Cooney Weiland (1928-29), Milt Schmidt (1939-40) and Bill Cowley (1940-41) had all led the NHL in scoring. Ross told Cusick that when he had the honour of presenting his new trophy to Elmer Lach of the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum in 1948, “I said then I hoped I’d live long enough to see one of the Bruins players win it.

“This was my big year,” said Ross, “so I was really disappointed.”

Later, Phil Esposito (five times) and Bobby Orr (twice) combined to win the Art Ross Trophy for seven straight seasons from 1968-69 through 1974-75, but Ross had passed away in 1964 so he never got to see a Bruin win his trophy.

Bronco Horvath was the closest Ross got.

But was Bronco Horvath actually Ukrainian?

Before I started writing this, I was pretty sure I remembered reading somewhere that one member of the Uke Line didn’t actually have Ukrainian heritage. Wikipedia notes that Horvath was born to an ethnic Hungarian family that emigrated from Transcarpathia after the end of World War I, when it became part of Czechoslovakia. It does appear as though that region has also been part of Ukraine over the years … but I don’t know enough about the history to say that for certain.

However, Elmer Ferguson wrote in the Montreal Star on January 9, 1958, that he had received a letter from a proud Hungarian Canadian taking him to task “for referring to the Uke Line as a trio of Ukrainian boys,” on a recent Hockey Night in Canada Broadcast.

“We believe that you, Mr. Ferguson, owe Bronco Horvath an apology…” wrote George Horwath of Leron, Saskatchewan. “I have the acquaintance of several fine Canadian Ukrainians. None have intimated that they wish to be known as Hungarians, and for the same reason we Hungarians wish to keep our racial identity in tact…. [A] public retraction of your error will, I am sure, suffice the rest of us Canadian Hungarians.”

Elmer Ferguson wrote that, “Our humble apologies go forward at once, and in these, we hope, the Bruins publicity department headed by the esteemed Herb Ralby, will join us.”

Still, Bronco Horvath was inducted into the Ukrainian Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 (Bucyk was inducted in 2017; Stasiuk in 2018).

So – as I often say – “Who is knowing?”

[NOTE: It turns out that Fred Addis, president of the Society for International Hockey Research, and a native of Port Colborne, like Bronco Horvath, is knowing! Have a look at the post at the bottom of the comments below.]

Howie Morenz = 2 x 7

In the first four years of my doing this web site (2014 to 2018), I wrote pretty close to one story a week. In the four years since then, it’s been more like one a month, if that. And whether or not I’ve been writing a lot or a little, there have been so many times over these eight years when I’ve thought, “Well, that’s it. That’s the last story. I’m out of ideas.”

But something new (or something old!) always comes up.

Sometimes, how they come up is as interesting to me as what comes up.

Some of you, I hope, will recall the stories I wrote back in January of 2021 about Billy Gilmour, his hockey-playing family and his getaway from Nazi-occupied France. This past weekend, I got a comment on the family story from a genealogist in Ottawa who attends the same church the Gilmours had attended and is putting something together about the family for the church records.

This image is from Wikimedia Commons credited to Maniacduhockey.

Long story short, his email prompted me to go looking to see if any new information had turned up on the Nazi getaway. Specifically, I wondered if I might find something in the Montreal Star, which has recently became available through the newspaper site I like to use and which hadn’t been available when I wrote those stories.

I didn’t find anything more about Gilmour and the Nazis, but I did find a few other items of interest. One was in a column in the Montreal Star by the legendary sportswriter/editor Baz O’Meara, who was writing about Gilmour in his column on March 14, 1959, the day after Gilmour’s death. There wasn’t anything about Billy Gilmour that was new to me … but O’Meara did write something of interest later in his column about Howie Morenz.

“[Former Montreal Canadiens owner] Leo Dandurand calls our attention to the fact that Howie Morenz’s number seven was twice retired by the Canadiens. For the first time when he was traded to Chicago in 1933 for Lionel Conacher…. The Morenz number seven was retired, but when he was brought back to Canadiens in 1937 some time before he died, he resumed the number. Then it was retired for keeps.”

Now, Leo Dandurand is known to be a teller of tall tales. It was him, for instance, that came up with the story that the great Canadiens goalie Georges Vezina was the father of 22 children. To this day, you’ll often see that story reported as if it’s a fact … which it most definitely is not! And, of course, old-time writers like Baz O’Meara were known to be great at spinning a yarn themselves without always getting their facts right either. For example, in this case, I knew that Morenz had actually been traded in 1934, not 1933.

Howie Morenz (left) and his friend and teammate Aurele Joliat.

So, why should I believe the rest of it?

As I’d always heard it, (and I think, as everyone who’s heard it knows), Morenz’s jersey was retired as part of the tributes to him at the memorial game played in his honour at the Montreal Forum on November 2, 1937. (Morenz had died on March 8, 1937 — 85 years ago last week — some six weeks after his leg was shattered during a game.) But in this case, it turns out that Dandurand and O’Meara were correct! Fortunately, O’Meara had enough right in the rest of his story about the dinner he described where Morenz’s number was first retired that it wasn’t too difficult to find.

On October 11, 1934 (not 1933) – one week after Dandurand had traded Morenz from Montreal to Chicago – the Canadiens held a dinner for their now former star. In attendance was Dandurand and other members of Canadiens management, Morenz’s Montreal teammates, Canadiens former superstar Newsy Lalonde, Montreal Maroons captain Hooley Smith and coach/GM Tommy Gorman, plus Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde and a few other dignitaries.

“His number 7 will be preserved,” read an account of the dinner in the next day’s Montreal Star, “as a sort of memento of his great achievements in Canadien memories and it will never be worn by another player so long as Howie is in action. This announcement was made by Leo Dandurand last night in graceful acknowledgement of the part that Howie had played in building up the Canadien team and tradition.”

From the Montreal Star on October 12, 1934.

NHL jersey retirements were obviously in vogue at the time. The Toronto Maple Leafs had retired number 6 in honour of Ace Bailey on February 14, 1934, following his recent career-ending injury in Boston. Then eight days later, on February 22, 1934, the Bruins announced the retirement of number 3 when Lionel Hitchman played the final game of his NHL career.

Howie Morenz (who wore number 3 during his 1 1/2 seasons in Chicago, and number 12 in a half-season with the New York Rangers) did, indeed, resume wearing number 7 when he was traded back to Montreal for the 1936–37 season. But even with the first retirement of his number on October 11, 1934, Morenz would still be the third player in NHL history to have his number retired, which it was, permanently, in his memory in 1937.

Sadly, Morenz was the first in the NHL to have his number retired because of his death.

The Kenora Thistles: Try, Try Again

If all continues to go according to schedule, by early May you’ll finally be able to read my new book Engraved in History: The Story of the Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles. With the NHL season scheduled to end on April 29, and the Stanley Cup playoffs expected to start on May 2 (and quite possibly run until late June), I hope we’ll be able to generate some good buzz for the book during that time.

In my most recent post from last month, you may recall Evelyn Gunne of Kenora singing:

Three times you’ve tried to win, boys,
“Three times and out,” they say,
But now the Cup is ours, boys,
For you’ve brought it home to stay.

The Thistles, who beat the Montreal Wanderers in 1907, had first gone after the Stanley Cup in March of 1903, when Kenora was still known as Rat Portage. They faced Ottawa that year and were beaten rather easily in two straight games in a best-of-three series by the soon-to-be legendary Silver Seven. Everyone seemed to agree the Thistles were too young and unproven to win the Cup that year, but that they would be back.

Indeed they would.

The Rat Portage Thistles of 1904-05. Seven of the eight players (all but goalie Eddie Giroux) were either born or raised in the small town. McGimsie, Griffis, Hooper and Phillips would all one day be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Two years later – on March 7, March 9 and March 11, 1905 – Rat Portage (the town name wouldn’t change to Kenora for another two months) took on Ottawa for the Stanley Cup again in another best-of-three series. Hockey fans who know anything about the history of this era are likely to know of Ottawa trouncing Dawson City 9-2 and 23-2 (behind 14 goals from Frank McGee) in January of 1905. The Ottawa-Dawson series might be the most famous from the Stanley Cup’s early “Challenge Era,” but the Silver Seven versus the Thistles that March was easily the greatest series of that time.

The Rat Portage Thistles of 1904-05 were a powerhouse. Playing in the Manitoba Hockey League with the Victorias and the Rowing Club of Winnipeg, as well Brandon and Portage la Prairie, the Thistles were overwhelming favourites for the league title. They began their season on January 2, 1905, with a 14-2 win over Portage. After a shocking 3-2 loss to the Rowing Club, Rat Portage finished the season (hockey schedules were MUCH shorter in those days!) with six straight wins. The Thistles ended the 8-game season with a 7-and-1 record and outscored their opponents 81-22. The average score in their seven victories was close to 11-3.

The 1903 Rat Portage Thisles, shown in the Montreal Star on March 12, 1903.

The high scores, in those years and others, are the reason why there times in the book when I draw comparisons between the 1900s Thistles and the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

The Thistles, of course, are remembered today because of the 1907 championship which made Kenora the smallest town ever to win the Stanley Cup. And yet star player Si Griffis thought the 1905 Rat Portage squad was actually the better team. (In the Edmonton analogy, Griffis would be the Thistles’ Mark Messier to captain Tommy Phillips’ Wayne Gretzky.) With a group of stars who excelled in speed and had the stamina to play the full 60 minutes without tiring, Griffis was quoted in a story for the Winnipeg Tribune on August 29, 1914, as saying, “I believe our seven of that season was the greatest ever placed on the ice.”

“Ottawa…” said Griffis of the 1905 team, “were better stickhandlers than the Thistles … [but as] a team, we excelled Ottawa.”

Rat Portage just didn’t get the breaks that year.

Headlines from the Ottawa Journal on March 8, 1905,
after Game One between Rat Portage and Ottawa.

If the Thistles of this era were the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, then the Ottawa team of the 1900s was the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers. The Silver Seven were talented, but they were tough … and they were dirty too. So when the Thistles challenged for the Stanley Cup in 1905, they asked for the new two-referee system that had been used for the first time that year in the Manitoba Hockey League.

Ottawa refused.

However, the trustees who oversaw Stanley Cup competition ordered that game one be played with the two-referee system (a referee and a judge-of-play), and game two with just a single referee. If a third game was needed — which it would be — there would be a referee and a judge of play in the first half but just the referee in the second. (Hockey was played with two 30-minute halves until the 1910-11 season.)

Like the Thistles, Ottawa had posted a 7-and-1 record in 1904-05. Playing in the Federal Amateur Hockey League with the Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Montagnards and teams in Brockville and Cornwall, Ontario, the Silver Seven outscored their opponents 60-19. Throw in the Stanley Cup victory against Dawson City in January, and Ottawa was 9-and-1 with 92 goals scored and only 23 goals against. Still, fans in the Canadian capital knew the competition hadn’t been great that winter and looked forward to a real test from the Thistles.

Images from the Montreal Star on March 8, 1905.

But no one could have expected what happened in game one!

Playing on hard, fast ice with two officials to call penalties, the Thistles stunned Ottawa with a 9-3 victory. Tommy Phillips scored five goals. (Some sources say six). Griffis added a pair and the two stars were recognized as the best players on the ice.

Ottawa had played that first game without future Hall of Famers Billy Gilmour and the great Frank McGee — who was Tommy Phillips’ only rival as the best player in hockey at this time. Both were back for game two, and with only one referee that night, Ottawa played much rougher.

Headlines from the Ottawa Journal on March 10, 1905 note the ice was slower.

“The second game of this series was the most punishing that I, or for that matter, any member of the old Thistles was ever in,” Griffis recalled for the 1914 Winnipeg Tribune story. “I don’t remember exactly what the other players received for their share, but I left the ice with my nose broken in two places, the first time by McGee, who was equally proficient in using the butt of his stick for jabbing as the other end for shooting purposes. Later on, I had it knocked back in position by Alf Smith.

“Players did not wear as many pads in those days as they do now,” Griffis continued, “and from having the wood laid on I had water on the knees, elbows, and hips. Even as late as today I have tangible evidence of the milling that I went through in Ottawa.”

Cartoons in the Ottawa Journal depict Si Griffis and Frank McGee.

The state of the ice in game two drew at least as much attention as the injuries and rough play in the newspapers the next day.

In the Capital, papers only remarked on the “slow” or “heavy” conditions, but elsewhere across Canada, fans were more than willing to believe the worst about Ottawa’s Silver Sluggers! In later years it would be claimed that after Rat Portage’s easy victory in game one, the Ottawa ice crew at Dey’s Arena, or possibly even the Ottawa fans, salted the playing surface in a deliberate attempt to slow down the Thistles in game two.

That probably wasn’t true.

Headlines in the Manitoba Free Press after Game Two.

However, it is possible that the ice was flooded a little too close to game time to allow it to freeze into a hard, fast surface. That’s what Griffis believed, although he didn’t think the Ottawa club had anything to do with it.

Still, “Ottawas Won by Doctoring the Ice,” cried the front-page headline in the Manitoba Free Press the morning after game two.

Soft ice wasn’t a problem for the final game of the 1905 series, and playing with the two-referee system in the first period, the Thistles led 2-1. Even with just the one referee, there were plenty of penalties called in the second half. Phillips and McGee traded hat tricks in the game, and Ottawa rallied for a 5-4 victory on a late goal by McGee. Yet everyone seemed to agree the Thistles would have tied it if there had been just a little more time left to play.

Game Three on March 11 was played on a Saturday night.
These were the headlines in the Ottawa Citizen on Monday.

“It was a hard fought game on the part of both teams,” said referee Mike Grant. “I do not care to say anything about the relative merits of the two teams, but it was anyone’s game until the final whistle sounded…. It was a great game of hockey, easily the best ever played for the Cup.”

Tommy Phillips, speaking for his team, said: “We were beaten, but only by the closest possible margin…. We led for three-quarters the distance and were only beaten under the wire by a nose. The gong saved the Cup-holders. The way the play was going we were sure of a score within a few minutes.”

“A couple of minutes more and they would have won,” said the Thistles’ honourary president Dr. Nelson Schnarr, speaking on behalf of the club executive. Schnarr added that he “really believed” the results might have been different if the judge of play had been used in the second half, “but it’s no disgrace to be beaten by a team of the calibre of the Ottawas.

The winners and still Stanley Cup champions: The Ottawa “Silver Seven” of 1905.

“I’m proud of the Rat Portage boys,” said Schnarr, “as proud of them in defeat as in victory. Where will you find another town of [this] size in Canada that can turn out such a team, all with one exception, home brews. We’ve been here before for the Cup and we’ll come again…. Next time, we’ll lift it for sure.”

And next time, they would.

If only for a little while.

For that story, you’ll have to wait a little longer … and buy the book!