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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.