A Snowball’s Chance…

Here in Owen Sound, we didn’t quite get the 7 feet of snow they got in some areas around Buffalo this past weekend. Still, the 2-or-so feet we got was plenty for mid November! But, as the old saying goes, It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, and so the storm put me in mind of a story. One that — by happy coincidence — is told in my new book, Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories.

On March 4, 1971, 18 inches of snow fell on Montreal in the space of just 12 hours. As a result, mayor Jean Drapeau asked NHL president Clarence Campbell to suspend the game that night between the hometown Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks. Reports at the time noted that NHL games had been canceled before. (In the wake of the deaths of King George V and King George VI of England and the assassinations of U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1963 and of Martin Luther King in 1968. Another game had been canceled in 1950 when heat inside the Boston Garden caused fog over the ice.) But it was generally noted that the Canadiens–Canucks game was the first in the NHL ever to be canceled by weather.

The storm of February 20, 1924, was front-page news in these Ottawa papers.

Bill Westwick, longtime sports editor of the Ottawa Journal, knew that wasn’t true. “After reading for the third time the uncorrected claims that in the recent snow storms a major league hockey game was cancelled in Montreal by weather ‘for the first time in the history of the National League,’” Westwick wrote on March 10, 1971, “the urge must be strong among just a few remaining members of Ottawa’s one-time almost unbeatable National League teams to say: ‘It just ain’t so.’”

Westwick then spun the incredible tale of the Senators’ ill-fated train trip to Montreal on February 20, 1924. It’s an account that is more than backed up by Ottawa newspapers from the time.

More on the team’s travel problems on the front page
of the Ottawa Journal (left) and Citizen (right).

Ottawa was scheduled to face the Canadiens in Montreal that night and because of the threat of bad weather, the Senators decided to catch an early train. “All the players were rounded up and ordered to board the Canadian National express, which left at noon,” reported the Ottawa Citizen on February 21, 1924.

But trouble was already in the air. The train was late arriving from Pembroke because of the snowstorm and didn’t pull out of Ottawa’s Union Station until 1:30 p.m. It had barely gotten out of the city before it was held up again, awaiting a snowplow to be sent ahead and clear the track. This time the train got as far as Rockland, Ontario, about 25 miles (40 km) east, where it was delayed again due to a freeze-up in the water tank.

Many members of the 1923 Stanley Cup champs were stuck on the train that night.

“There was no great danger that the Ottawas would be delayed,” reported the Citizen, “until shortly after Hawkesbury [another 37 miles / 60 km] was passed.” Just a short distance farther, near Cushing Junction, “a terrific blizzard” was raging. Another snowplow had gotten stuck and the train couldn’t get through. By then it was a little after five o’clock.

From 5:30 p.m. until 2 a.m., the players and other passengers were stranded on the train, with practically no provisions. The game in Montreal was, of course, canceled. A plow was finally able to get through to the train and clear the tracks enough to get everyone back to Hawkesbury, where the train sat until some time after 4 a.m. when the line was cleared sufficiently for departure.

The Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1924 and wore these
uniforms in 1924-25 to commemorate their ‘World’ championship.

Montreal was only about 60 miles (100 km) away, but it wasn’t until 8:30 a.m. that the train finally arrived. The Senators slept the day away at the Windsor Hotel on February 21 before showing up at the Mount Royal Arena for the reschedule game that evening. Reports say the Ottawa team was never really in the game, and they were beaten by the Canadiens 3-0.

There were lots of strange goings-on during the Senators’ ill-fated train ride to Montreal, but to get the whole story, you’ll have to read Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories!

From the Montreal Daily Star, February 21, 1924.

And hey, just in case you’ve forgotten about that other new book I’ve got out now, if you care to, you can listen to a recently recorded interview I did for the CBC Radio affiliate in Thunder Bay about Engraved in History: The Story of the Stanley Cup Champion Kenora Thistles.

Finally, congratulations to the Toronto Argonauts on their Grey Cup victory over the weekend. Though I’m far from the fan I used to be, the Argos will always be my first favourite team with many memories of my father. And, good luck to the Canadian soccer team this afternoon in their first game at the 2022 World Cup! Before I wrote a book about North American football for National Geographic Kids this year (It’s a Numbers Game! Football), I wrote a book about the game the rest of the world calls football (Absolute Expert: Soccer) back in 2018.

8 thoughts on “A Snowball’s Chance…

  1. Good story, Eric. I will recount it to friends who bemoan the snowy weather here in Regina! Prairie people tend to forget how much snow Eastern Ontario receives. When I lived in the Gatineau Hills I often had to hire a grader driver to plough my driveway. There is no snow like Ottawa snow! And the coldest winter I ever had was the winter I spent in Montreal. Ice rain, heavy snow, unplowed streets, crazy drivers. Oh Canada!

  2. Eric’s fabulous story reminds me of the time that the Rangers had a game with the Flyers at MSG. Since the Blueshirts lived on Long Island, they had to take the Long Island Rail Road to the Garden. A fierce blizzard had one of the trains — including goalie Ed Giacomin and other players — marooned somewhere in Queens and they never made it.

    Rangers g.m. Emile Francis, a former goalie, signed himself to a $1 contract just in case his backup. Gil Villemure got hurt. I covered that game and remember trudging to Western Union with my wife, Shirley, to file my story to the Toronto Star. Thank you, Eric — and, of course, Shirley and Western Union!

  3. Great stories Eric. When I lived in Southern Ontario I attended several Buffalo Bills games and snow was often a challenge for some of the December games and I remember going through lots of snow in the parking lot and stadium to see a game. One year, we never got out of Hamilton for a December game in Buffalo because of the snow… I still have my ticket to see Buffalo vs. Minnesota on December 20, 1975.

    I have a hockey snow story from January 1950…Michigan Tech had played Michigan State and on their return trip to Houghton, their northbound charter bus sideswiped a southbound Greyhound bus in a blinding snowstorm in mid-Michigan. Five were killed and over twenty persons were injured in this tragic crash.

    I will add your railroad story to my collection of stories that connect hockey with transportation. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Thanksgiving from one of your US readers.

  4. Another wonderful tale, Eric…I don’t always comment, but I always read and enjoy your stories. And though snow is a rare event on the West Coast, I’m a prairie chicken at heart.
    Happy Holidays! Helen

  5. It’s really quite remarkable that more games have not been canceled in over a century of events. Sadly, I suspect global warming (aka climate change) is going to change all of that.

  6. Excellent, it was great to read of the train trip down from Ottawa and while I certainly wasn’t around for the 1924 storm and cancellation I was in ’71 when I made a last-minute decision to forsake my Crescent Street, bachelor apartment and caught the LAST commuter train of the day, as it turned out, at around 5:30 PM, back to my suburban, family home in Pointe-Claire on Montreal’s West Island.
    The normal, thirty-odd-minute, commuter train ride took the better part of an hour and a half and when we disembarked at Valois Station, instead of the normal step down to the station platform we had to physically clamber UP from the train car’s platform onto the top of the snow drifts that were packed against the sides of the train.
    All’s well that ends well as my buds and I made our way, like Scott of the Antarctic, by foot and Skidoo to the Hymus Tavern in Pointe-Claire, one of the few gathering spots to remain open, and even without a game to watch a great time was had by all.

  7. Having once spent an extra 12 hours on a train in mid December waiting for the tracks to be cleared I can totally sympathize with the players. No surprise that they didn’t win the game. What a draining experience!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *