Monthly Archives: February 2024

Fred Waghorne: Facing Off With History

Last month, I received an email from Don Weekes. (For those of you who don’t know, Don is a fellow hockey historian/author who has written several books of hockey trivia and hockey firsts, as well as Picturing the Game: An Illustrated Story of Hockey, which was — for my money — the best hockey book of 2023.)

In his email, Don asked: Have you done or seen any (solid) research on Fred Waghorne and the face-off? Is he really the guy who started the puck drop? I guess it would be nice if it’s mentioned somehow in an old game report from 1900. Have you ever run across anything to prove what has appeared any number of times in books?

In my own work, I often ask questions of my fellow writers/researchers, or experts in the field, or to the editors I’m working with. Whenever I do, I want an answer NOW! So, when people ask me, I try to respond as quickly as possible As soon as I received Don’s email, I gave him a call. We mostly talked about other writing-related things, so that after he received another call he had to take, I ended up texting him my answer:

Regarding Fred Waghorne, no, I’ve never seen any direct proof about the puck drop.

A longtime referee in both hockey and lacrosse, if you Google the name Fred Waghorne, you’ll come across lots of stories about him being the first referee to drop the puck for a face-off. (Also about whether he pioneered the use of whistles among hockey referees, or the old-time practice of using a cowbell instead.) Many of the face-off stories are very similar, though all are pretty vague. Even when they give places and teams, there’s never been any specific date attached. Not even a reliable year. Still, later that afternoon, I went searching for more. Having done this before, I didn’t really expect to find anything … but there are so many old newspapers available online that there didn’t used to bet so it seemed worth a try.

From The Toronto Star Weekly, March 24, 1928.

At first, I didn’t find anything. Then I found a story in the Windsor Star from December 19, 1953. It was actually about The Hockey Book, by Bill Roche, which had come out that year. “It is a collection of hockey stories and anecdotes,” the article explains, “by the game’s great personalities — Cyclone Taylor, Art Ross, Newsy Lalonde, and many more who are legendary already… One of the first referees is here, too — Fred C. Waghorne, who changed face-off and other rules.”

Nothing new there … but I have a copy of The Hockey Book. (Art Ross’s copy, in fact, given to him by Bruins chief scout Harold “Baldy” Cotton, and given to me by Ross’s grandson, Art Ross III.) I suppose I must have read Waghorne’s stories before, but now I had reason to read them again. Though he was 88-years-old by then, and it was some 50 years after the fact, here’s what Waghorne had to say about face-offs:

When young fans see hockey played these days, the face-off that starts play must seem to be a simple, obvious thing. The referee just tosses the puck between a pair of sticks and the game is on. But it wasn’t always done that way. There were years of exasperating and often painful experiences for referees before the present style of face-off was instituted. I know, because I’m the referee who brought it about.

First, I should point out that it was not “invented” by any great wave of mental brilliance on my part. I was really just acting in self-defence and trying something that would speed up the game.

Face-offs in the early days of hockey were similar to what they still are in lacrosse. The referee would place the puck on the ice between the blades of the centers’ sticks, lean over the puck to line up the sticks fairly, step back, and shout, “Play!” But, as Waghorne explains, things seldom worked out that way.

Just after the referee had placed puck and sticks, and before he had time to move out of range, one centreman would feel the other fellow’s stick wiggling a bit, and he’d try to beat the other boy to the draw. Both would start to slash and swipe at the puck. And before the referee could move away, he’d often get banged by a stick on a shin or toe. Also, every time the centremen started chopping away before the official had a chance to give the signal, the puck had to be faced-off again. This held up play so often that it got to be monotonous.

Waghorne explains that around the year 1900, he refereed a game in Southwestern Ontario. He could no longer remember the place, “but it was in the Brantford-Paris-Woodstock area.” The rival centers were definitely cheating on the draw that night, and Waghorne was tired of it.

I said to myself, “To heck with the rules in this case!” Then I told the centremen what I was going to do. They were to place their blades on the ice about a foot and a half apart and I’d stand back and toss the puck between their sticks. After the rubber hit the ice, they could do as they darned well pleased.

Waghorne says his face-off experiment worked out well, and that he kept thinking about it.

The following winter, having journeyed to Ottawa to referee a National Hockey Association game between the Ottawa Silver Seven and Renfrew, I was ready with a suggestion when asked to handle an amateur playoff at Almonte between teams from Arnprior and Renfrew… I told the clubs’ officers of my face-off innovation and proposed that it be tried in the game coming up at Almonte. They agreed.

Waghorne explains that after that game, “the new face-off spread rapidly across Eastern Canada, and eventually all leagues, both amateur and pro, made it official.”

So, there it was from the man himself.

But there were still plenty of problems.

Leaving out the question of where the game around 1900 had been played, there was the fact that the National Hockey Association wasn’t formed until the winter of 1909–10. So, if the Renfrew-Arnprior game at Almonte had been “the following winter” as Waghorne remembered it, he had either tried out his new face-off as late as the 1908–09 season … or “the following winter” actually had to be closer to 1901 and therefore several years before the start of the NHA. Also, Ottawa’s early hockey dynasty didn’t become known as the Silver Seven until winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in the spring of 1903. (And only until about 1906.) So it seemed likely to me this had all happened between 1900 and 1906.

I knew (and confirmed with some quick online research) that hockey playoffs between the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League and the Lower Ottawa Valley Hockey League for the Citizen Shield (donated by the Ottawa Citizen) had begun around that time. In the winter of 1902–03, it turned out. So searching for a playoff game between Arnprior and Renfrew played in Almonte in 1903 or 1904 seemed like a good place to start.

It proved easy enough to find!

As it turns out, Waghorne journeyed to Ottawa late in February of 1904 — 120 years ago this week — when the Toronto Marlboros (for whom he was a club executive) faced the Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup on the 23rd and the 25th of that month. As it happens, on Friday night, February 26, 1904, Arnprior beat Renfrew 6–2 in a game played on neutral ice in Almonte to win the championship the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League and the right to meet the champions of the Lower Ottawa Valley Hockey League for the Citizen Shield.

The referee that night?

Fred Waghorne.

The image on the left is from the Ottawa Journal. The right is from the Citizen.

The game report in the Ottawa Citizen from Saturday, February 27, notes how “well pleased” everyone was with the job Waghorne had done. There’s also coverage in the Ottawa Journal that Saturday saying Waghorne “gave perfect satisfaction.”  No mention in those game stories about face-offs, but in a further story about the game in the Ottawa Citizen on Tuesday, March 1, 1904, the unnamed writer goes to great lengths in explaining the fine job Waghorne did in keeping the two teams under control in a contest where “The crowd was prepared to be treated to a slugging match.” The writer later noted:

Another little incident that impressed the spectators as being an improvement over the eastern style of play was that, in facing the puck … instead of letting the two men bang it around, each trying to have the advantage over the other … the referee simply dropped the rubber between their sticks and the game was on the moment it touched the ice…”

So, it would seem that February 26, 1904, is the true start date for the modern face-off.

As to the earlier game where Waghorne first tried it, that’s proven harder to pin down.

Newspaper stories from his hometown in Toronto in the 1920s make it fairly clear that Waghorne didn’t begin to referee games in the Ontario Hockey Association until the winter of 1902–03. Maybe not until 1903–04. Prior that that, he only seems to be involved in hockey through local Toronto leagues.

Searching the Toronto Star, the earliest reference I found to Waghorne in the OHA comes on December 29, 1902, when it was reported he was a referee in the OHA’s Intermediate division. Group 12 in the OHA intermediate series had teams in Brantford and Paris. Group 13 had teams in Simcoe, Stratford, Ingersoll, and Woodstock. So, it it all fits pretty nicely. Then again, going through the Globe as well circa 1902 to 1904, it doesn’t look like Waghorne actually called OHA games on a regular basis until the 1903–04 season … which matches a Star Weekly story from March 24, 1928, saying he didn’t begin in the OHA until his friend William Hewitt (Foster’s father) became the league secretary in December of 1903. So, maybe all the face-off stuff actually happened during the 1903–04 season?

Of course, there’s always the chance that Fred Waghorne merely popularized something he’d seen from someone else and then outlasted them so that he became the “inventor.” That same Star Weekly story about his 25-year-career as a referee says only that Waghorne “was one of the first to introduce the dropping of the puck,” not THE first. Then again, no one else ever came forward to claim the distinction. So, if Waghorne was remembering correctly that the Arnprior–Renfrew game in Almonte had come “the following season” after his first face-off experience in Brantford, Paris, or Woodstock, there’s a decent chance that happened during the 1902–03 season. But maybe it really was earlier in 1903–04. (For what it’s worth, I’m beginning to like the chances that’s actually the case.)

No luck yet in tracking down a face-off story from any of those cities in those years.

Good luck to anyone who wants to take on that challenge … and I want to hear about it if you find it!

Oh, and about the bells and whistles, here’s what Fred Waghorne had to say about that in The Hockey Book:

Alex Levinsky: What’s “Mine” is My…

Though many stories — then and now — claimed he was the first of his religion to play in the NHL, Alex Levinsky wasn’t quite the Jewish Jackie Robinson. At least three players, and perhaps a fourth, preceded him. There was Sam Rothschild and Joe Ironstone, both from 1924 to 1928, Moe Roberts in 1925, and also Charlie Cotch in 1924, who may have been born Jewish, but if so turned his back on his faith. Still, Alex Levinsky was the first Jewish player to have a full-fledged NHL career (nine seasons), and he was definitely recognized as — and embraced being — Jewish.

Playing with the Maple Leafs in his hometown of Toronto gave Levinsky a high profile as a Jewish hockey player during a time of open anti-Semitism. And even if he wasn’t the Jewish Jackie Robinson, he may well have been the Jewish Lionel Conacher. Ten years younger than Conacher — who was also from Toronto and would be named Canada’s outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th century in 1950 — Levinsky is worthy of the comparison.

Two cartoons by Lou Skuce. The first appeared in the Toronto Star
on March 20, 1931. The second was part of a series of Maple Leafs coasters
produced by O’Keefe’s for the 1932–33 season. (Coaster courtesy of Irv Osterer.)

Levinsky’s son, Richard, says Alex was an even better baseball player than he was a hockey player. He was a pitcher and a hard-hitting outfielder who was offered a contract by the St. Louis Browns. Richard still has a letter from the Maple Leafs to his father allowing Levinsky to play baseball in the offseason, and while that was fairly common among hockey players of the time, Levinsky had also been a local basketball star and a football player in high school and university. He also starred in softball, was good at tennis and golf, and was apparently a strong swimmer. This isn’t just family pride talking, nor the hometown press lauding his many skills. A story in the Daily Eagle of Brooklyn, New York, on October 3, 1929, shortly after Levinsky had enrolled at the University of Toronto, refers to him as “probably the best all-around athlete in Toronto today.”

Alex Levinsky was born February 2, 1910, in Syracuse, New York. It was always known he’d come to Canada at a young age, but American newspapers often made it sound like he was an American. Technically, he was, but as Levinsky told Paul Patton of the Globe and Mail for a ‘Where are they now’ feature on November 11, 1985, “My mother was from [Syracuse] and she returned home to be with her mother when it came time to have me.”

Richard Levinsky confirms that baby Alex and his mother returned to Toronto right away after his birth. Though There’s no entry for the child, the 1911 Canadian census shows Alex’s father, Abraham, and his mother, Dora, living in Toronto with Abe’s father, Louis Levinsky. The Levinsky family had been in Toronto for quite some time by then.

Louis Levinsky was prominent in Toronto Jewish life.
This is from the Toronto Star on January 4, 1932.

The 1901 Census shows that Louis Levinsky was from Russia, and came to Canada in 1881 (the 1911 Census says 1880), bringing over his wife (also named Dora) and eldest son Abraham in 1883. Later records indicate the family came from Poland, so Louis Levinsky was likely born in the western part of the Russian Empire, rather than Russia itself; perhaps in the area known as the Pale of Settlement. He came to Toronto at a time when the Jewish population was growing rapidly. (In 1871, 157 Jews lived in Toronto, rising to 1,425 by 1891 and 3,090 by 1901.) The community grew in the wake of immigration from Europe, where Jews suffered from persecution and pogroms.

Differing records seem to show Alex’s father, Abe Levinsky, being born in 1881 or 1883. His World War I Attestation papers say 1892, but that must be wrong. Richard says his grandfather was born in Canada … and later Census records seem to confirm that. But even if he was born in Russia or Poland, Toronto was definitely home. And it appears Abe Levinsky was also an athlete. When he served in World War I, it was with the 180th (Sportsmen) Battalion of Toronto.

Alex Levinsky began to show his sporting prowess at a very young age. “When he wasn’t in school,” says Richard, “his mother would bring him lunch and dinner at the field or the rink.” By the time he was a teenager, Levinsky was earning city-wide recognition playing basketball and baseball for the Elizabeth Street playground team commonly known as the Lizzies. He was also a multi-sport star in high school at Harbord Collegiate.

Image courtesy of Ernie Fitzsimmons, Society for International Hockey Research.

The winter he turned 18 (1927–28), Levinsky played hockey for Moore Park, a top organization in the Toronto Hockey League, and helped the team reach the city finals in the juvenile division. A year later, he joined the powerhouse Toronto Marlboros, along with future Hockey Hall of Famers Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson, who would soon be his teammates with the Maple Leafs. That April, the Marlboros won the Memorial Cup as Canada’s junior champions. Levinsky also played basketball for the Lizzies that winter, and in May, he led them to the Canadian junior championship as well. (In the fall of 1928, he’d led the Lizzies baseball team to the city finals, and in 1929 he would do the same with St. George’s. )

When Levinsky entered the University of Toronto in 1929, he played football in the fall and hockey in the winter. The Varsity junior hockey team reached the provincial semifinals of the Ontario Hockey Association, and when they were eliminated, Levinsky joined the senior team, who reached the provincial finals. While still a U of T student in 1930–31, Levinsky played senior hockey with the Marlboros. After they were eliminated from the OHA semifinals on February 28, 1931, he turned pro when he signed with the Maple Leafs on March 2. (NHL records currently show him and Marlboros teammate Bob Gracie playing their first games at home against the Canadiens on February 28, but local newspapers make no mention of that while reporting they would both play their first game for the Leafs in Philadelphia on March 3, 1931.)

At the time he turned pro, it had been expected that Levinsky would remain in school, having enrolled at Osgoode Hall to study law. Levinsky told Paul Patton (and Richard Levinsky confirms it) that Conn Smythe convinced him to go pro by arranging an off-ice job with the law firm of Plaxton, Sifton and Company. Hugh Plaxton had played for Smythe at the University of Toronto, and was a member of the Olympic gold medal-winning Varsity Grads of 1928. He was also Levinsky’s coach with the senior Marlboros. (A story in the Toronto Star on April 24, 1931, reports on Hugh Plaxton engaged as council for the plaintiff in a case with Levinsky as his assistant.) Levinsky never did finish school, nor practice law, but he would have a successful post-hockey career running several different businesses.

Copy of Alex Levinsky’s first contract, and a letter from
Frank Selke of the Maple Leafs. (Courtesy of Irv Osterer.)

Meantime, in reporting on his upcoming home debut with the Maple Leafs against the Montreal Maroons, Lou Marsh of the Toronto Star wrote on March 4, 1931: “Levinsky’s appearance in a Leaf uniform here tomorrow should be good for at least three thousand new faces at pro games, his race is solidly clannish when it comes to sports.”

This is an example of the sort of casual racism Levinsky would often face throughout his career. Richard Levinsky says his father didn’t face a lot of anti-Semitism; at least not among teammates and fellow players. At 5’10” and with his weight listed over the years as being between 184 and 205 pounds, Levinsky was big … and he was tough.

According to Richard, when members of the Swastika Club attacked Jews in the summer of 1933 in the infamous Riot at Christie Pits — where his father had played plenty of baseball — Levinsky got a phone call and rushed to the park with a bat to help in the fight. Unlike Jackie Robinson, who was embraced in Montreal in 1946, Richard says his father faced his worst anti-Semitism in hockey when playing on the road in Montreal, where fans would scream “Jew!” at him in French the moment he got on the ice. But there’s also an interesting incident in Toronto from early in Levinsky’s first full season with the Maple Leafs in 1931–32.

Image courtesy of Ernie Fitzsimmons, Society for International Hockey Research.

Though the Leafs would go on to win the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1932, when the season opened at the brand new Maple Leaf Gardens in the fall of 1931, the team started poorly with three losses and two ties in their first five games. In a letter to the Sports Editor of the Toronto Star (now Lou Marsh, taking over from Foster’s father, W.A. Hewitt) on November 24, 1931, a fan writes:

Can Conny Smythe give the fans any reason why Alex Levinsky, who was the best defenseman that the Maple Leafs displayed in their first two games, has not been used since?… There was a lot of talk up at the Arena Saturday night that some of the Leaf players have stated openly that they will not play on the same team with a Jew, and that if Levinsky plays they will refuse to step out on the ice and for that reason Smythe rather than hurt the feelings of some of his pet hirelings intends railroading the big lad to one of the minor league teams…. There’s something rotten in Denmark and I think Conny Smythe owes the fans an explanation.

Richard Levinsky had never heard that story. There’s no actual proof any of the Leafs felt that way, and Alex Levinsky himself had a good relationship with the team owner. “Smythe stood behind his players 100 percent,” he told Dick Beddoes years later for a story in the Globe and Mail on October 28, 1966. “Big on loyalty, even — (he laughed to himself as he said it) — even to the point of naming race horses after us.” Conn Smythe called the Levinsky horse Mine Boy, which was Levinsky’s nickname.

Max Kaminsky was the NHL’s next Jewish player after Levinsky.
(Image courtesy of Kevin Vautour.)

Interestingly, the earliest reference to the nickname I could find in newspapers is in the Owen Sound Sun Times on February 12, 1930. In a preview of game one of a series where the University of Toronto junior hockey team would eliminate the hometown Greys, the Sun Times notes: “Levinski [sp] is the lad to watch in this game. ‘Mine boy Alex’ as he is called by the Toronto fans, is a rushing back line man. And he has a shot!” Obviously, the nickname was already known in Toronto by then. The first reference to “Mine Boy” in the Toronto Star appears to come in a Lou Marsh report on a Marlboros game on January 8, 1931. It begins to appear regularly in Toronto papers very shortly after his Maple Leafs debut in March of 1931, and later stories mainly say it was Marsh who helped popularize it.

As the story goes, the nickname comes from the fact that Abe Levinsky would root for his son — his only child — by proudly shouting “That’s Mein Boy!” (‘mein’ or ‘meyn’ being the Yiddish word for ‘my’ … though technically מיין). Alex Levinsky in newspaper stories in 1934 said he preferred his nickname Mine Boy to any others, but there still may be some anti-Semitism behind it. Richard Levinsky says his grandfather was born in Canada and would have said “My boy,” not “Mein boy.” So, if it was Lou Marsh playing it up, he was likely playing to common stereotypes at the time. (There are certainly plenty of racist tropes in much of Marsh’s writing, which is why the name of the Lou Marsh Trophy, first awarded to Canada’s best athlete after Marsh’s death in 1936, was changed to the Northern Star Award in 2022.)

“Mine Boy” Levinsky was one of four Maple Leafs defensemen during his time in Toronto along with future Hall of Famers King Clancy, Hap Day, and Red Horner. He helped the Leafs win the Stanley Cup over the New York Rangers in the spring of 1932, and reach the finals again when they were beaten by the Rangers in 1933. But ever since Levinsky had entered the NHL, there had been talk of what a success he would be in New York, where the Rangers so longed for a Jewish star they had tried to pass off goalie Lorne Chabot as Lorne Chabotsky. (Original NHL game sheets from the 1926–27 season occasionally list the names Shabatsky and Schavatsky for Chabot; Ollie Reinikka was sometimes listed as Rocco to appeal to Italian New Yorkers.) So, when the Leafs found themselves short of cash after the 1933–34 season, they had a pretty good idea how to come up with it. Frank Selke told the story to Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star on October 12, 1981:

Because we had been unable to sell as much stock [when building Maple Leaf Gardens] as we expected due to The Depression, there was a threat that the insurance company which held our mortgage might take over the building. Part of our agreement was that we must have at least $40,000 in our bank account at all times. At one stage, our cash on hand got so low that we had do do something quickly. I went down to New York and explained our situation to Lester Patrick (general manager of the Rangers). Lester bought Alex Levinsky from us for $12,000.

Image courtesy of Ernie Fitzsimmons, Society for International Hockey Research.

But Levinsky barely lasted half a season in New York. Richard says his father didn’t get along well with the coach … also Lester Patrick. There are certainly several newspaper articles in which Patrick is critical of Levinsky and future Hall of Fame defenseman Earl Seibert before Levinsky is sold to Chicago on January 16, 1935, where he would replace Taffy Abel.

Alex Levinsky spent four years in Chicago, helping the Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup in 1938 by defeating the Maple Leafs. But midway through the 1938–39 season, he was traded to the Rangers’ Philadelphia Ramblers farm team. Richard Levinsky remembers a very interesting story about that.

Richard recalls his father saying that when he was playing in Chicago, he became a favourite of Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Seigel. When the Black Hawks traded him to Philadelphia, the men asked Levinsky if he’d like them “to take the coach for a ride.” Richard was never sure he believed the story, until he saw it confirmed in a book. But the only reference I could find tells the story somewhat differently. In the book But He was Good to His Mother about the lives and crimes of Jewish gangsters, author Robert Rockaway writes of an unnamed group of Jewish mobsters offering to protect Levinsky on and off the ice after a particularly blatant anti-Semitic outburst.

Whichever version of the story is the real one, in both tellings, Alex Levinsky turned them down.