Monthly Archives: November 2023

A Stitch in Time…

This is, I guess, a sequel of sorts to my recent story about Walter Smaill. When finishing up my research for that one, I came across a cartoon and a brief story in the Calgary Herald from February 27, 1932. It reported on Helge Bostrom of the Chicago Black Hawks (two words in those days; not Blackhawks) who had recently been cut for 140 stitches. Having previously suffered some 100 stitches from various minor injuries, Bostrom was now considered hockey’s Most-Stitched Player. “The former title holder,” the story reported, “… was Walter Smaill, of the old Montreal Wanderers, who suffered 168 in his career.”

The 1931–32 season marked Helge Bostrom’s third year in the NHL. He’d just turned 36 years old when he joined the Black Hawks in January of 1930, and had played plenty of hockey before that. His earliest records place him in military and patriotic hockey leagues in his home town of Winnipeg (some sources say he was born in Gimli, Manitoba), playing for the Ypres team against Walter Smaill’s Somme in 1917–18. After a year of military service in England and France, Bostrom played two seasons of amateur hockey with the Moose Jaw Maple Leafs in Saskatchewan before turning pro with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Canada Hockey League during the 1921–22 season.

Calgary Herald from February 27, 1932.

Mostly a hard-hitting defensemen, but also something of a penalty shot specialist (in those days, penalty shots were taken from a fixed point, so a powerful blast was key), Bostrom helped Edmonton to a WCHL title in 1922–23, before a Stanley Cup loss to the Ottawa Senators. He spent the next four seasons with the Vancouver Maroons before top-level pro hockey collapsed in the west after the 1925–26 season. He then played three-plus seasons with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Hockey Association before finally entering the NHL.

As to the injury in question, Bostrom was hurt during the second period of a 1–1 tie with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 24, 1931. There’s not a lot of details about the injury in most game stories. The New York Times says nothing at all, noting only that Bostrom (they spell it Bostrum — as many papers did) was in the penalty box when the Rangers scored their only goal late in the first period. (Chicago tied the game late in the third period.) The New York Daily News reports, “The second session was marked only by an injury to Helge Bostrum … who cut a tendon in his leg in a mixup with [Earl] Seibert.”

From the back page of the New York Daily News, November 25, 1931.

Of the newspapers I’ve been able to check, the Montreal Gazette and the Brooklyn Times-Union had the most to say about Bostrom’s injury in their game reports the next day. “Early in the second period,” says the Gazette, “Bostrum was assisted off the ice after colliding heavily with Seibert and it was afterwards announced that the burly defence man had cut a tendon in his left leg.” The account in the Brooklyn paper says, “Bostrum was injured by a skate when he checked Seibert in the second period.”

The Times-Union story says it was Bostrom’s instep that was cut — though most stories later would say his ankle — “and the discovery of a severed tendon means that he will be lost to the team for several weeks.” The Brooklyn paper further notes that “Bostrum’s foot was to be operated on today.” A later story in the Chicago Tribune on December 6, 1931, reports that Bostrom was still in New York’s Polyclinic hospital when his Black Hawks teammates visited him there on a return trip to New York prior to a game that night against the Americans. The operation was likely performed there, as Madison Square Garden and New York Rangers team doctor Henry O. Clauss Jr. was a member of the surgical staff at the Polyclinic.

Helge Bostrom photo courtesy of Stephen Smith, Puckstruck.

In recalling the injury in the New York Times on January 4, 1932, John Kieran writes: “Remember the night Helge Bostrum of the Hawks was hurt at the Garden? Ankle cut by Earl Seibert’s skate. Didn’t seem so bad as he hobbled off the ice, but when Dr. Clauss checked up, three of the four tendons were cut and before they got through patching him up, they took exactly 142 stitches to pull him together.” (Stories in other newspapers put the number of stitches at 140 or 145, but the Minneapolis Star-Tribune asked “What’s [a] Mere 400 Stitches” in a headline above a story about Bostrom on February 12, 1932.)

Despite the early report that he would be sidelined for several weeks, word soon was Bostrom might never play hockey again. That was certainly a fear Black Hawks coach Emil Iverson expressed in a story reported in The Minneapolis Star on December 11, 1931. A story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle a month later, on January 10, 1932, explained more:

It was cruel the way the accident happened…Earl Seibert just stumbled over the half-prone Helge in a harmless-looking mixup around center ice. But the tip of Seibert’s skate bit like a rapier down to the bone, slashing tendon after tendon. The cut wasn’t more than an inch and a half long and the surgeons had to lengthen it, reach up and pull down the muscles, and fasten them. When they knit together Bostrom will be able to walk without even the semblance of a limp, but the repairs may not be able to hold under the strain of those sudden stops in hockey.

This cartoon and accompanying story appeared in several papers in January of 1931.

Apparently — according to a story in The Minneapolis Journal six years later (February 17, 1938) — things were so dire that Bostrom was receiving ads from casket owners (casket makers?) while he was in the Polyclinic hospital. But Helge was having none of it!

By early February of 1932, Bostrom was in the Twin Cities and skating again. “Out of hockey, nothing,” he roared for an Associated Press story out of St. Paul that appeared in papers on February 12. “I’ll be playing again before the season’s over.” The day before, The Minneapolis Star quoted him saying, “Whoever said I wouldn’t be able to play hockey again is crazier than the hombre who insists that the Hawks won’t be in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Why, I expect to be in those same playoffs myself.”

And he was.


From the Minneapolis Star, December 11, 1931.

Bostrom was back in action on February 17, 1932, when the Black Hawks hosted the Canadiens in Chicago. According to the NHL game logs, he played in seven more games after that, but then missed the next five, before returning for two playoff games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The strange thing is, the newspaper accounts of games late that season don’t always match up with the NHL records. And for sure, those records must have it wrong when they show Bostrom playing in Boston on November 26, 1931 — two days after the injury. It seems highly unlike that he was hurt that badly on November 24, had surgery on November 25, played in Boston on November 26, and then returned to New York to spend another week or more in hospital there.

Regardless of how many games Bostrom actually played in 1931–32, he was not only back with the Black Hawks for the 1932–33 season, he was named the team’s new captain. But that December, he was traded to the St. Paul Greyhounds of the American Hockey Association, where he would be their player-coach. Bostrom continued to play in minor league cities through the 1935–36 season, finishing up with the Kansas City Greyhounds, whom he would later coach for two years from 1937 through 1939.

The image on the left from before the game shows Helge Bostrom in the starting line up.
In the image on the right, Bostrom’s name does not appear in the summary of the game.

And tough as he must have been, it seems Helge Bostrom may have done more for the sport of figure skating than hockey. According to Roy Shipstead, one of the founders of the Ice Follies, Bostrom gave the struggling Roy, his older brother Eddie, and their partner Oscar Johnson, a significant boost. Shipstead told the story to Vern De Geer of the Gazette for his column on February 1, 1961 while in Montreal for the Canadian Figure Skating Championship.

It wasn’t easy. We were fancy skating bugs in St. Paul when most of our neighborhood pals were busy on the hockey rink. Most of the hockey players were coming in from Western Canada. They were making good money and it looked like a good career for Minnesota boys. But it was one of those imports who persuaded me to follow Eddie and Oscar in the ice skating entertainment business.

Helge Bostrom, a fun-loving Norwegian friend of ours from Winnipeg, recommended us to an entertainment booker at the Chicago Sherman Hotel’s famous College Inn. That was in 1935. We were given four weeks trial and stayed for 16 months. It was the success of this run that started us in the travelling carnival routine the next year. And we’ve been at it ever since. We’ll be forever grateful to Helge for this.

A Smaill of a Tale…

Walter Smaill is not a name likely to be recognized by many hockey fans today. (Even my spell-checker keeps trying to change his name to Walter Small.) But that’s never stopped me before! Smaill is yet another OLD old-time hockey player I have great affection for.

Walter Sydney Smaill was born in Montreal on December 18, 1884. He grew up in Westmount, playing local sports with other future hockey stars such as Art Ross, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Sprague and Odie Cleghorn. (He would play most of his his pro hockey career alongside Ross or Lester Patrick.) As Frank Patrick would write of those neighbourhood kids in the Boston Sunday Globe on January 27, 1935, in one of an eight-part series on his life when he was the coach of the Bruins, “Almost every young boy competed in football, baseball, basketball and [track] as well as hockey.” Walter Smaill was no exception. He grew up to play hockey, football, and lacrosse at the highest levels. He was also an excellent paddler, sailor, and swimmer.

When Smaill died at the age of 86 on May 2, 1971, he’d outlived almost all his contemporaries, save for Cyclone Taylor. Smaill lived most of his life in Montreal, but spent time in Victoria, Winnipeg, and a few smaller cities across the country too. In his younger days, he worked as an athletic instructor, often running sports clubs for youths, and even after going to work as a car salesman around 1925 he stayed involved in sports for many years, serving as a coach, referee, or league executive in hockey, lacrosse, football, canoeing, and other sports. He even served as an NHL referee during the 1924–25 season, and was suggested as a potential president of a professional hockey players union before the 1925–26 season. “Smaill denied all connection with the movement,” reported the Montreal Gazette on September 2, 1925. “He stated that ten years ago there had been such a move in which he had been interested, but that the present plans … did not concern him directly.”

Smaill seems to have been a guy that people liked, and likely because of his “good guy” status — and also because he lived so long — many sportswriters (particularly in Montreal) who’d been on the job since his playing days would occasionally mention his name in columns during the 1960s as someone who should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was definitely a good player.

Smaill’s career at the highest levels of hockey lasted from the winter of 1904–05 through 1915–16. He played mainly with the Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, and Cobalt Silver Kings of the National Hockey Association (forerunner to the NHL), and with the Victoria Aristocrats of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. He played both forward and defense and had a couple of decently high-scoring seasons in his early days. He helped the Wanderers win the Stanley Cup in 1908, and Victoria to victory over the Stanley Cup champion Quebec Bulldogs in a “world championship” exhibition series in 1913. Still, he was probably more of a support player than a true Hall of Fame star — although he seems no less worthy of selection than some of the other inductees from his playing days.

One thing, it seems, most other players of his era agreed on was that Smaill was “the worst battered man playing hockey.” In a story that made the rounds in at least a few Canadian newspapers in January and February of 1918, Smaill’s numerous cuts and scars over the course of his career — “he has over one hundred stitches sewn into him by surgeons in all parts of the Dominion” — were detailed. One of the more than 50 times his nose had been cut occurred in the first game ever played in the history of the PCHA, on January 2, 1912, when he collided with future Hall of Famer Harry Hyland of the New Westminster Royals. Smaill was married six days later, and as several of the papers in Victoria, Vancouver, and Montreal that reported on the wedding noted: “[he] looked anything but the happy bridegroom with his nose all swathed up in bandages.”

The Vancouver Province, January 22, 1918.

The 1918 stories mention nothing of one of Smaill’s more unusual injuries/afflictions, which was detailed in the New York Telegraph on March 18, 1908, the morning after the Montreal Wanderers played the Montreal Shamrocks in New York:

Walter Smaill, who played with the Wanderers, has the distinction of being the only man in this or any other country who has a silver-plated shin bone. Vicious blows from hockey sticks in the hands of his opponents in games he has played have from time to time so battered Smaill’s right leg below the knee that he was for a time retired from the game. He sought medical aid for months, but was compelled to continue the use of crutches until he visited a prominent surgeon in Quebec. The physician told him that the hurt could be remedied if he was willing to undergo a very tedious and painful operation. He consented at once.

Suffering the most excruciating pain, he permitted the surgeon to lay bare the bones of his leg an inch at a time and bind it with thin plates of silver. The operation required more than three months to complete, but was very successful.

Back in Montreal, the Gazette repeated the story the next day, under the headline HIS SILVER SHIN, but explained the original injury had actually occurred while playing a different sport. “The foundation for the story,” said the Gazette, “is that Smaill was laid up three years ago from a kick on the leg received in a [Quebec Rugby Football Union] game against Ottawa on Atwater Park.”

The whole truth of the story is difficult to confirm, but you can see below in this article from the Montreal Star on October 23, 1906, that Smaill did hurt his shin playing football for Westmount and would likely require surgery:

While he did miss the end of the 1906 football season, which wrapped up early in November, he was out for practice with the Montreal AAA hockey team by mid December.

Ironically , Smaill suffered the worst injury of his hockey career shortly after the appearance of the newspaper articles outlining his battered career. It occurred on February 21, 1918. Technically, Smaill had retired from hockey by then.

Having spent four seasons from 1911 to 1915 playing and living in Victoria, work took Smaill to Winnipeg in the summer of 1915. Having been granted free agency by the PCHA, he returned to Montreal for the winter of 1915–16 and played for the Wanderers in the NHA. Hockey at this time was suffering during the years of World War I. Many amateur leagues shut down for the duration, and several pro teams went out of business. Not surprisingly, salaries were slashed. A Toronto Star story from December 14, 1916, notes that Smaill had once earned as much as $200 per week to play hockey (probably a $2,000 contract for 10 weeks with Cobalt during the first NHA season of 1909–10), but was being offered only $40 per week to return to the Wanderers for the 1916–17 season. He quit hockey instead, and took a full-time job working for the YMCA in Winnipeg. In the fall of 1917, Smaill was appointed secretary of the YMCA for military athletics in the Winnipeg area. “Smaill has had a vast amount of experience in sport,” reported the Winnipeg Tribune on November 20, 1917, “and should be able to provide many attractive events for the khaki boys.”

Smaill in the sweaters of the Cobalt Silver Kings and Montreal Wanderers,

Among the sports Smaill organized was a military hockey league, with three Winnipeg teams dubbed Vimy, Ypres, and Somme. (Future Hall of Famer Dick Irvin starred for Ypres, and led the league with 29 goals in just nine games played.) Smaill returned to the the ice with the Somme, and was injured in the final game of the season. A report in the Tribune on February 22, 1918, notes only that, “in clearing an attack Walter Smaill was badly hurt in the head and was obliged to retire.” The next day’s Manitoba Free Press tells more:

The greatest anxiety prevails among Walter Smaill’s friends on account of the serious reports received from the General hospital last night of his condition. On examination his skull was found to be fractured, and he had suffered a series of convulsions during the day and was unconscious the greater part of the time; it was found that the only relief can be found in an operation of a highly dangerous character. The physicians in charge of the patient believe there is either a blood clot on the brain or a piece of the broken bone pressing upon it.

When the accident happened at the Amphitheatre rink Thursday night in the Somme-Vimy game, the final of the schedule, Smaill and [Harry] Wilson were making an attempt to stop [Cecil] Browne who was going down at a rapid gait. The two Somme players bumped into each other and Smaill was a little overbalanced when he met Browne, and he fell heavily, his head striking the ice with terrific force. Though he was able to walk from the dressing room to the ambulance he was in a much more serious condition than at first believed.

There were concerns that Smaill’s injuries might prove fatal. As it was, he would spend five weeks in hospital before (as the Winnipeg Tribune would report on March 25, 1918), “his grand physique pulled him through in good style.” Even then, it was thought he would require another two or three weeks of recovery at home. He never played hockey again.

The Montreal Star, March 2, 1918.

Smaill had suffered a dangerous head injury once before, in a manner similar to the way in which hockey star Hod Stuart had been killed in the summer of 1907. On July 1, 1909, Smaill and some friends were standing on a dock in Cartierville in the North End of Montreal. A woman dropped her glasses into the river, and she asked Smaill — an expert swimmer — if he would dive in and recover them. “He was told,” reported the Montreal Gazette on July 3, 1909, “the water at this point was sixteen feet deep, and so he dived almost straight down.” But the water was only three feet deep with a rocky bottom. “The result was that Smaill hit bottom with sufficient force to stun him, and he remained for a few moments head down in the river.” His friends thought he was just fooling around, and were laughing until “he suddenly came up with his face a mass of blood and bruises…. He was badly dazed, and was helped to the shore, where he soon recovered.”

Still, with all of his sporting mishaps, perhaps the closest Smaill ever came to death was while he was helping in the construction of the Victoria Arena he would play in for four seasons. Smaill told the story to Lloyd McGown of the Montreal Daily Star for a column on February 22, 1941:

I went to the Coast to play hockey for Lester [Patrick] in 1911. I went with Skinner Poulin, Dubby Kerr and Bobby Rowe… We went out to play for $1,500, which was more than we were making here in the East…. We went out in August of 1911. The Patricks were building the rinks at Victoria and Vancouver. Both rinks went up at the same time, so we went to the contractor for jobs—Poulin, Kerr and Rowe and I. We bought canvas aprons with pockets, T-squares, chisels and hammers. We helped build the rink to play in at 50 cents and hour.

I almost fell from the roof, about a sixty-foot drop to the ground. I happened to catch a scantling [a small cross-section of lumber] and there I hung with my feet dangling over the edge. Finally they lassoed my legs and hauled me up to safety. I was sick for three days. It was that close…. [T]he sports writer of The [Victoria] Times was there. ‘Walter, I thought you were done for,’ he told me.

After that, Smaill helped install the ice-making system in the Victoria rink. (The Patrick arenas in Vancouver and Victoria were the first in Canada to feature artificial ice.) “We helped lay 15 miles of pipes,” said Smaill. “When we got them down they had a test and found about 150 leaks. We had threaded the pipe-ends the wrong way, though a plumbing inspector was supposed to be overseeing the job. We weren’t very good plumbers.”

It’s stories like these that are the reason I find hockey of this era so fascinating!