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.
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.
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.”
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.