All posts by Eric Zweig

Go Leafs Go!

On May 2, 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. It was the fourth time they’d won it in six seasons. Overall, in what was then the 50-year history of the NHL, the franchise had won the Stanley Cup 13 times; 11 since the team name had become Maple Leafs 40 years earlier. And how many times have they won it in the 56 years since then? Well, we all know the answer to that! It’s the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history.

When the city’s newspapers came out on May 2, 1967, they didn’t know yet that the Maple Leafs would win that night. Interestingly, they didn’t even consider the opportunity to win it to be front-page news. I don’t have access to the Toronto Telegram, but you can see the front page from the Toronto Daily Star and The Globe and Mail here:

Sports sections were a lot smaller back in 1967, but you can see that — even in the sports pages — the Stanley Cup news was limited to one page in each paper … and not even the full page:

Tonight, May 2, 2023, the Maple Leafs will face the Florida Panthers in the first game of their second-round playoff series. (Note that in 1967, the last year of the six-team NHL, it only took two playoff rounds to win the Stanley Cup.) I still get home delivery of the Toronto Star, and in my paper this morning you can see that Leafs news is featured on the front page (it may well have been even more prominent if not for the death of Gordon Lightfoot yesterday) and it fills the entire front page of the sports section:

Leafs news also dominates the next two pages inside the sports section (which is only six pages long these days):

And the Leafs also get space on two more pages in the front section:

What does all this mean?

Nothing, really.

I just thought it was kind of interesting.

Hope you do too.

Go Leafs Go!

Back in the Blue Jay Day…

Though I’m putting this out on April 11, I actually wrote it two days ago, on April 9. With the Blue Jays opening at home today, I’m waxing nostalgic about the home opener from 40 years ago, which was played on April 9, 1983. And, really, for that entire 1983 season.

What a great year!

So many memories…

My family has had Blue Jays seasons tickets since the moment they went on sale when the team began in 1977. I worked on the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 until 1985. Those were the “Worst to First” years … and it’s hard for me to believe how long ago it was.

The Blue Jays ground crew. This might actually be 1985.

I am nothing like the sports fan I used to be. Though Lynn might tell you differently, I watch nowhere near the amount of hockey and baseball I used to. My two brothers still live and die a little with the Blue Jays. Even my mother does.

Me?

Well, I still enjoy baseball, but some times I feel like I only follow it as closely as I do out of loyalty to my younger self. Because, man, my younger self loved this team!

Our family was Blue Jays crazy … even with a team that lost more than 100 games in each of its first three seasons, and finished last (seventh place then) in the American League East five years in a row. That fifth season of 1981 was the strike year, when a big chunk of summer baseball was wiped out. The Blue Jays actually showed a lot of improvement in “the second half” of that season and, come 1982, I was optimistically predicting they would win 75 games. I remember us on the Ground Crew writing down our predictions and burying them under home plate before the season started … though I don’t ever remember digging them up to see if anyone had correctly predicted the Jays’ 78-82 record that year.

Celebrating the end of the season in 1982.

The 1982 Blue Jays finished strong. They went 44-37 in the final 81 games of the season, winning nine of their last 12. The 78th win was a 5-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners on the final day of the season, and moved the Jays out of seventh place … albeit into a tie for sixth and last with the Cleveland Indians. Jim Clancy pitched a complete game, and though there were only 19,064 at the game, the crowd roared as he came off the mound. Clancy, and several other Blue Jays, fired their hats up into the stands, where fans were shouting “We’re Number Six!” and “Bring on the Indians!”

The Maple Leafs were particularly terrible in the mid 1980s … so I couldn’t wait for spring and for baseball to start again.

The Blue Jays began the 1983 season in Boston on April 5, and I can clearly remember watching on TV in the Common Room at C House in Otonabee College at Trent University. Not a lot of other people were watching. Rance Mulliniks hit a two-run homer to cap a four-run second inning and the Blue Jays romped to a 7-1 win over Boston. But, after dropping the second game to the Red Sox, the Jays were 1-1 when they opened at home against the Yankees.

Jesse Barfield rounds the bases after three Yankees collided.

I don’t remember much about that game (I had to look up most of this), but I do remember the key play. The Jays had led 2-0 since the bottom of the second, but the bullpen (a crippling weakness all that season, and the next) coughed up two in the seventh and two in the eighth and the Yankees led 4-2. In the bottom of the eighth, Damaso Garcia led off with a single off Doyle Alexander, and the Yankees went to Goose Gossage, who was a little past his prime but still one of the most intimidating closers (we called them “stoppers” then) of his day. But Gossage walked Dave Collins and then gave up a run-scoring single to Willie Upshaw and it was 4-3. Surprisingly, Cliff Johnson laid down a bunt, moving Collins to third and Upshaw to second.

That’s when the key play happened.

Ernie Whitt was the batter, and he popped up into shallow right field. Collins was fast, but no way this ball was deep enough to score him. But then second baseman Willie Randolph, center fielder Jerry Mumphrey, and right fielder Steve Kemp all collided.

They didn’t need a pitch clock to play quickly back in 1983!

The ball fell in!

I leaped so high I hit my head on the bottom of the concrete roof atop the third base photographers dugout where I was watching the game! But it was worth the pain. Collins scored to tie the game, and then Jesse Barfield hit a three-run homer. Roy Lee Jackson — who had pitched poorly over 1 1/3 ineffective innings, helping to blow that 2-0 lead — pitched the top of the ninth and hung on to get the victory as the Jays won 7-4. (Jackson did this sort of thing so often, we used to call a reliever blowing the lead but getting the win “a Roy Lee victory.”)

The Jays actually struggled during that first month of the season, but won a huge game on April 19. I was back at university in Peterborough, where I had trouble getting radio reception in my dorm room. (Not a lot of TV coverage in those days.) But for some reason, I could tune in the game on my car radio in the parking lot behind C House. So, I was sitting out there on a cool evening, listening to the bottom of the ninth. The Jays were trailing Cleveland 7-5 when — with two outs — first Cliff Johnson and then Lloyd Moseby (after a Buck Martinez single) hit two-run homers to pull out a 9-7 victory.

The cover of Sports Illustrated … and my souvenir Lineup card.

That big win turned the season around, and the Jays won 22 of their next 35 games. When they moved into first place all alone in the AL East with a 7-6 win over Detroit on May 24, I took Bobby Cox’s team lineup card from the wall in the dugout to keep as a souvenir.

Toronto, Baltimore, New York and Milwaukee were all in a tight race for first throughout June, and when they reached the All-Star break on July 3, the Blue Jays were 44-33 and on top by a single game. Not only was it the first time Toronto had been in first place at the All-Star break, it was the first time the team had been anywhere other than last place! Three days later, Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb started, and won, the 50th anniversary All-Star Game.

The Jays remained in first place until July 25. But not everyone was a believer. I remember Duke Snider, the Hall of Fame player and Montreal Expos broadcaster, saying, “Water always finds its level, and so will the Blue Jays.” And Hal McRae of the Kansas City Royals said something along the lines of he didn’t think the Blue Jays would win the AL East because they never had. That seemed stupid to me! Nobody wins anything until the first time they win something.

The Blue Jays did begin to slip from contention in August, but there were still highlights. A doubleheader sweep of the Yankees on August 2 … and Dave Winfield sort of accidentally-on-purpose killing a seagull with a throw two nights later. Still, it all fell apart late in August at the end of a two-week road trip with a series of crushing, last-inning losses in Baltimore and Detroit.

Monday Night Baseball came to Toronto on July 18, 1983.

Our family was in Detroit, visiting our American cousins, when the Jays played the Tigers. At least 10 of us were at the first game of the series on Friday night, which was a tense, tight, 3-3 tie through nine innings. With no faith anymore in our terrible bullpen, Bobby Cox stuck with starter Jim Gott to pitch the bottom of tenth … and, with two out, he gave up a game-losing homer to Alan Trammell.

Jim Gott was the friendliest Blue Jays player during my five years on the ground crew, and before the Jays set out on that long road trip, I had asked him if he would be able to put aside tickets for my brothers and me for the Saturday game in Detroit. Of course, at that time, I had no idea he’d been pitching on Friday night … nor how devastating that game would be. Still, on Saturday morning, he called at my aunt and uncle’s house to tell me he’d got the tickets.

(My family’s end of the bargain was that we were going to invite him and his wife to dinner after the season … but he never followed up on that. I was in touch with Gott via email through the Los Angeles Dodgers about 10 years ago and reminded him that we still owed him dinner! He didn’t follow up then either.)

Tiger fans celebrate Chet Lemon’s homer.

The Jays won that Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday, we drove back to Toronto from Detroit listening to the game on the car radio. The Jays were leading 2-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth when the bullpen struck again. Dave Geisel, who’d come on with two out in the seventh and done well since then, got the first out in the ninth, but then walked Lance Parrish. Bobby Cox went to Randy Moffitt (brother of tennis star Billie Jean King), who retired Glenn Wilson on a screaming line drive for the second out of the inning.

Maybe Cox always planned to use Moffitt for just one batter.

Or maybe the loud out changed his mind.

Whatever the reason, Cox made the switch to our supposed relief ace, Joey McLaughlin.

Tigers first baseman Rick Leach singled on McLaughlin’s second pitch.

Then, on Joey’s third pitch to Chet Lemon, the Tigers’ centerfielder smashed a three-run homer.

At that point, we had turned off the 401 at London for either a late lunch or an early dinner. That part, I can’t quite remember. But, what I can clearly recall is that as we drove up to the restaurant (a Swiss Chalet) in stunned silence, my father asked, “Anybody still feel like eating?”

None of us did.

So he turned the car around and got back on the highway.

A special Toronto Star section celebrating the 1983 season.

The Blue Jays finished in fourth place in 1983 with a record of 89-73, but were only nine games out of first. It took another two years, and the addition of Tom Henke to the bullpen, before they finally won the American League East in 1985.

It was another seven seasons until the first of back-to-back World Series titles.

It’s now been 30 years since that second Blue Jays championship.

We’re still waiting for the third.

Maybe this is the year.

Maybe not…

But, I guess I’ll remain loyal to my younger self a little while longer.

Celebrating with the Varsity Grads

On this date in history, March 21, 1928, Toronto newspapers were filled with stories and photographs welcoming home the Varsity Grads from Europe. Canada’s representatives in hockey at the 1928 St. Mortiz Winter Olympics had returned to the city the previous day (March 20 was a Tuesday ninety-five years ago) after a successful European tour and had been paraded from Union Station (on Front Street) to City Hall (now Old City Hall) at Bay and Queen in downtown Toronto.

As the name implies, Canada’s gold medal-winning hockey team was made up mainly of graduates of the University of Toronto. The Varsity team had reached the finals of the Allan Cup, Canada’s national senior amateur championship, in 1925 and 1926, only to be defeated by the Port Arthur Bearcats in both seasons. Returning to the final as the Varsity Grads in 1927, they defeated the Fort William Forts in a tight series in Vancouver to earn the right to represent Canada at the 1928 Winter Olympics.

Two images of the crowd scenes in front of City Hall. The top is from the Toronto Star
on March 21, 1928. The bottom is from the Sault Ste. Marie Star on March 28.

To prepare for their European journey, the Varsity Grads withdrew from competition in the Ontario Hockey Association for the 1927-28 season. From November 26, 1927, through January 21, 1928, the Grads played a series exhibition games before departing for Europe from Halifax on January 22, 1928. If I counted right, a total of 14 games were scheduled, although one was never played. Of the games they did play, most resulted in one-sided romps. Among the very few close games, the Grads defeated the University Club of Boston 2-1 in Boston on January 6, 1928 and suffered their only loss when they were beaten 1-0 in a rematch two nights later.

After playing their final home game in Toronto on January 17, 1928 (either a 10-2 or 12-2 victory playing one period against each of three different Toronto teams at Varsity Arena), the Grads played in Kingston, Montreal, and Halifax on January 18, 19, and 21 and then sailed for France.

Olympic ice facilities in St. Moritz.

The Grads had a rough crossing before arriving in Cherbourg, on Sunday, January 29 after six days and 18 hours at sea. They had traveled with the figure skaters, speed skaters, and skiers who would also be representing Canada at the Olympics. All athletes made their way to Antwerp the following day, but while the other competitors left the Belgian town immediately for St. Moritz, the hockey team stayed in Antwerp a while longer. They had their first workout on Olympic ice on February 6. The hockey tournament began on February 11, 1928.

The United States didn’t send a hockey team to Switzerland for the 1928 Winter Olympics, and so the decision was made to split the 10 European countries into three round-robin groups, with the winners of each advancing to the final round to play off with Canada, who had been given a bye. After nearly a month without any games, Canada then played three times on three straight days, but it didn’t matter. The Grads defeated Sweden 11-0 on February 17, Great Britain 14-0 on February 18, and then Switzerland 13-0 on February 19 to win the gold medal.

Canada versus Switzerland in the gold medal game.

After the 1928 Winter Olympics closed on February 19, the Grads embarked on a European tour. They defeated the Austrian Olympic team 13-0 in Vienna on February 22, and then traveled to Berlin where they defeated Germany 12-2 and Switzerland 12-1 on February 25 and 26. The game with Switzerland may have been played in Davos, although some newspapers report the scores as 13-2 and 12-0, and also list a 6-0 score at a different game in Davos, so it’s a little unclear.

The Canadians finally had some real competition in Berlin on February 27 … when the Olympic starters played their own backups and scored a 5-4 victory. Some members of the team then flew from Berlin to Paris, where they beat a Paris team 6-0 on March 2. Next, the team flew to London, where they defeated an English team 11-4 on March 8. The Grads were to be presented to the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII, briefly) the following day — although it appears he abdicated on them too! He is said to have sent a telegram congratulating the team on its gold medal victory and expressing regret that he would not be able to entertain them in person (as he had with the Toronto Granites following their Olympic championship in 1924).

The Varsity Grads were coached by Conn Smythe, but he didn’t go to the Olympics over a dispute involving players added to the team’s roster. Two other big Toronto hockey names of the future were with with the team in Europe. The arrow on the left points to Harold Ballard. The arrow on the right points to Foster Hewitt.

On March 10, 1928, the Varsity Grads sailed for home from Liverpool. They arrived in Halifax on March 17, and then played a final exhibition game either that night or the next. After defeating the Moncton Atlantics 6-1, they boarded a train home for Toronto. Delayed 14 hours by snow in New Brunswick, they arrived in Montreal some time between midnight and 2 am in the early morning of March 20. Still, they were able to find food and drink in the city before returning to their train car to sleep until late morning when they departed for Toronto.

Scheduled to arrive at Union Station at 5:40 in the afternoon, the players were greeted at the train platform by family and friends who hadn’t seen them in two months. “But,” as the Toronto Star reported, “at every step towards the exits they became more and more public property.”

The Varsity Grads wore Ballard skates, and Harold paid his own way to Europe to help take care of the team’s equipment. (Foster Hewitt accompanied his father and mother on the trip, as W.A. Hewitt was in charge of the team through his position with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, as he had been in 1920 and 1924.)

Greeted at the end of the “underground station labyrinth” by representatives of the city and their university, they then stepped out into a huge traffic jam on Front Street. Loaded into cars, they were led by horses, motorcycles, and marching bands to City Hall, where the Mayor of Toronto, Sam McBride, made a welcoming speech. Each player was presented with a diamond stickpin before addressing the crowd themselves. And for those who couldn’t make it out to see the players in person, the whole thing was broadcast on the radio.

We’re On the Air!

One hundred years ago tomorrow, on February 8, 1923, the first radio broadcast of a hockey game was made from Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena. But the man who made that pioneering broadcast, Norman Albert, a Toronto Star employee working that night for the newspaper’s CFCA radio station, would soon disappear from the historical record and remain lost to a rather tangled history for nearly 50 years. And, really, it’s only been recently that he has once again gotten his due.

The game on February 8, 1923, was an Ontario Hockey Association intermediate playoff where North Toronto beat Midland 16-4. Six nights later, on February 14, Albert was on the air again for the first broadcast of an NHL game where the Toronto St. Pats beat the Ottawa Senators 6-4. Those broadcasts on CFCA covered the third period of these games, but they were (as far as we know!) the first of their kind. For more on all this, you can read the story I wrote for the Toronto Star on the 90th anniversary back in 2013.

From the Toronto Star radio page, February 9, 1923.

CFCA was on the air again for the third period of every big game from the Mutual Street Arena until the end of the hockey season, but Norman Albert is only known to have broadcast one more game that year. On February 16, 1923, Foster Hewitt called his first game, a 3-3 tie between the Toronto Argonauts (yes!) and the Kitchener Greenshirts. Hewitt very quickly became a hockey broadcasting legend. His domination of this new field pushed Albert out of the spotlight, and Albert’s pioneering efforts would soon be all but forgotten.

Foster Hewitt must have known that Norman Albert preceded him, but over the years he did very little to dissuade people from believing that he had been the first. However, in his 1967 autobiography, Foster Hewitt: In His Own Words, Hewitt would recall the date of his first broadcast as March 22, 1923. (Other stories, over the years, would list the date as March 23, 1923.) But March 22, 1923, was actually the date of the last of many hockey broadcasts Hewitt made that season. His confusion over the dates would lead to another misconception over early broadcasts … and eventually bring Albert’s name back into the picture.

On March 14, 1923, radio station CKCK, owned by the Regina Leader newspaper, aired a playoff game between the Regina Capitals and Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Canada Hockey League, then a Stanley Cup rival of the NHL and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The man who called the game that night was Lionel Dyke “Pete” Parker. There were many in Western Canada who recalled Parker’s game and as the date of March 22, 1923 for Hewitt’s initial broadcast came into vogue, there were those who believed that Parker’s performance must have been first.

A youngish Foster Hewitt and and old Norman Albert. These pictures accompanied
Bruce Levett’s story when it appeared in the Red Deer Advocate on June 28, 1972.

Among those most strongly in Parker’s corner was Tom Melville, whose family had moved from Scotland to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, in 1910 when Melville was only two years old. He may well have heard Parker’s first broadcast. He’d certainly heard of it. Melville would work for Regina newspapers from 1933 until 1998, and he made Parker’s case to hockey authorities in the late 1960s.

Writing in the Regina Sun on December 5, 1993, Melville recalled, “[i]n the late 1960s an eastern company used television to promote a series of phonograph records dealing with Canadiana. Frank Selke Jr. did the TV commercial. Among his statements was one that people could listen to an excerpt from a hockey game played in Maple Leaf Gardens as broadcast by Foster Hewitt ‘the first-ever hockey broadcaster.’”

Melville writes that he “had been fighting for a long time to get recognition for Parker, who was living in retirement in Kelowna.” Melville wrote to Selke and told him he was wrong. Selke told Melville he was surprised to learn that Hewitt was not number one and promised to look into it. Selke — probably by looking through old issues of the Toronto Star, as I did in 2004 when all this first came to my attention — discovered the February 8, 1923, broadcast by Norman Albert.

From the Regina Leader, March 14 and 15, 1923.

Though he doesn’t say so, Melville was also likely surprised to learn of Albert, and relayed the information to Parker in Kelowna. “Getting information from the telephone office in Toronto, [Parker] came up with a number for Norman Albert and called him.”

Albert told Parker that he had, indeed, broadcast the third period of a game that night as an experiment for the radio station owned by the Toronto Star, the paper for which he worked … and where Foster’s father, William A. Hewitt, was the sports editor.

Perhaps this all happened a little bit later than Melville recalled. Or maybe it just took a while for the story to emerge, since it’s not until 1972 that Norman Albert appears to have finally gotten his due. Bruce Levett, sports editor for Canadian Press, spoke to both Albert and Hewitt for a story that appeared in many newspapers across Canada in late June of that year.

“Who broadcast the first radio account of a hockey game?” wrote Levett. “Tradition says it was Foster Hewitt on March 23, 1923: files seem to indicate it was Norm Albert on Feb. 8, 1923. But neither of the pioneer broadcasters knows for certain.”

From the Toronto Star on March 8, 1928, telling how
Albert was filling in on the air for Foster Hewitt.

“People are always telling me I was the first, but I’ve never claimed that, Hewitt says. But then, I never argued the point.”

Hewitt may not have come clean, but the rest of Levett’s story makes it pretty clear that Albert knew the truth! “If that game (Feb. 8) was the first,” he told Levett, “then I guess I was the first.”

In Albert’s recollection, CFCA manager William Main Johnson had actually asked Hewitt’s father to make the first broadcast. “Bill couldn’t do it,” Albert remembered, “and looked around for son Foster, who was out on another assignment. He offered the job to the late Lou Marsh, who turned it down. There was nobody else available, so Main Johnson asked me. I had been doing a lot of sports reporting and had a loud, clear voice.”

As Albert remembered it, he broadcast the game from “a little hut about the size of a coffee table” beside the penalty timekeeper’s bench. “I sat bent over and we broke in halfway through the game, somewhere in the second period. [The broadcast definitely began with the third period.] I think we followed the Hambourg Trio, I seem to recall a bass drum and a violin.” The Star’s radio listings from February 8, 1923 do show a Concert program from 8 to 9 p.m. that night, but no act called the Hambourg Trio.

Manitoba Free Press, February 22 and 23, 1923.

Albert, who had left the Star for the Toronto Telegram in 1927, and then got out of the newspaper business in 1950 to work with an investment firm, was, said Levett, philosophical about it all. “If I had stayed with the Star, I might have laid claim to being first – but what’s the point now? [Still] if anyone doesn’t believe you when you write this, send them to me. I’ll straighten them out.”

And so, Norman Albert briefly returned to the limelight, only to pretty much disappear again after he died on Christmas Day in 1974. But still, the story of hockey on the radio was being told wrong. This was because no one had yet discovered that Foster Hewitt’s first broadcast was actually on February 16, 1923, nor Albert’s pioneering NHL broadcast of February 14, nor the other early broadcasts in Toronto. Bill Fitsell may have been the first to report on these, in the Kingston Whig-Standard on November 23, 1985, when Bill took Scott Young to task for his lazy research in Young’s Hewitt bio Hello Canada! Yet, I think that until I wrote about all this for the Society of International Hockey Research in 2004, anyone telling the story still believed that Albert was hockey’s first broadcaster, Pete Parker the second, and Hewitt third … even though Hewitt had actually been on the air before Parker by nearly a month.

In Parker’s first broadcast on March 14, 1923, he was on the air for the full 60 minutes, so regardless of whether he’d been first, second, or third, his supporters now claimed that he was the first man to broadcast an entire hockey game. But that’s not true either. On February 22, 1923, radio station CJCG in Winnipeg, owned and operated by the Manitoba Free Press, aired the complete game as the Winnipeg Falcons defeated the Port Arthur Hockey Club 4-1. It seems that none of the stations in Toronto, Winnipeg, or Regina had been aware of what the others were doing. The name of the Winnipeg broadcaster seems never to have been reported.

Foster Hewitt, of course, would go on to call thousands of games, on radio and television, before ending his broadcasting career with the 1972 Canada-Russia series. In addition to the two other games Norman Albert was known to have called in 1923, he also returned to the air for a few games during Hewitt’s absence from the CFCA booth in March of 1928. (Albert had left the Star by then, but was refereeing OHA games. Hewitt was in Europe, with his father and the Varsity Grads, during and after the 1928 Winter Olympics.)

Images of a young and old Pete Parker from the Regina Leader-Post, 1937 and 1997.

As for Pete Parker, his was the first complete broadcast of a professional hockey game. He called more games during the winter of 1923-24 (six more, according to a Leader-Post story from March 31, 1991), but apparently none beyond that. He seems to have been out of radio entirely by the 1930s and when he passed away in Kelowna on February 11, 1991, Parker’s obituary in the Leader-Post said nothing at all about his radio career.

On September 13, 1997, on the 75th anniversary of CKCK, the Regina Leader-Post ran a transcription of an interview taped in 1962, with the station’s first (and long-time) employee, Bert Cooper. In his interview, Cooper spoke of Parker and their first hockey broadcast. It was a nurse in a sanitorium in Fort Qu’appelle who suggested hockey on the radio as something her patients would enjoy. Cooper got permission from the owner of the Regina Capitals, who said he would go along with it … as long as they didn’t announce it ahead of time. He didn’t want to cut into potential ticket sales.

“I told Pete Parker, assistant to the manager of the Leader-Post. He was quite a sports fan, and he was a baritone singer. He had a deep low voice, an excellent voice, and he loved hockey, and he knew hockey. We built a booth at the south end of the rink…. That night I announced, “We’re now switching you to Studio No. 2, where you’ll hear the voice of Pete Parker, our new announcer. I gave Pete the cue, and he went ahead, and you could hear the hockey sticks, and the crowd, as plain as can be.

“Pete Parker was a minister’s son. One of the Edmonton Eskimos came down the ice with the puck, and time and time again, he couldn’t get it in the net. And he swore. Pete Parker had the window open, and he shouted down to the player, ‘Cut it out, we’re broadcasting!’”

Torn from the Pages…

This week, as Owen Sounders take part in Hockey Day in Canada festivities prior to Saturday’s day-long broadcast from here in The Scenic City, as least one current Own Sound resident is also noting the anniversary (albeit the somewhat inelegant 116th) of another small-town hockey story: the Stanley Cup championship of the Kenora Thistles. On this day in 1907, the Thistles were resting up from the first game in their best-of-three series with the Montreal Wanderers — a 4-2 victory on January 17 — and preparing for the second game, which resulted in an 8-6 victory and series sweep on January 21.

This victory, of course, is the centerpiece of my book, Engraved in History: The Story of the Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles. Hopefully, some of you received the book at the holidays last month; or had a copy already. (If you didn’t, or don’t, they’re still for sale at Amazon in Canada or at Rat Portage Press. Get yours today!)

Front page in the Winnipeg Morning Telegram, January 22, 1907.

In many of the interviews I’ve done to promote the book, people asked about doing the research for a story that’s so old. Yes, it took a lot of work, but, in some ways, it was very easy. It mainly involved reading and reading through many, many old newspapers … which is one of my favourite ways to pass the time anyway.

During these days of the decline and fall of print media, it can be hard to imagine just how many newspapers there used to be. Any town of almost any size was likely to have, if not its own daily paper, at least a weekly or a biweekly (as Rat Portage/Kenora did). And in bigger cities, there were many, many different dailies competing for readers.

In newspapers of only 10 to 12 pages, with perhaps only a single page of sports news, the coverage was still be quite in depth. Especially if you were a Stanley Cup contender boasting some of the greatest players in the game — even if your team hailed from a town of only about 6,000 people. So many rumors of player movements in or out of Kenora were reported year-round in the early 1900s all across Canada. Multiply that by all the other hockey teams playing in communities across the country and even the “insiders” reporting on television today would be hard-pressed to keep up. As Stanley Cup games approached, coverage only intensified.

As I’ve written in these “pages” several times before (How They Watched…, Hello Out There…, and Tuning in Over Time), the earliest telegraphed reports of Stanley Cup games being sent out to crowds of listeners date back to 1896. Not too long after that, newspapers reporting on games the following day would provide those telegraphed play-by-play accounts for their readers. They are remarkably detailed and modern. Consider this from the pregame leading up the January 17 Thistles-Wanderers game from the Winnipeg Tribune of January 18, 1907:

  • 8.20 p.m.—The rink is filling up rapidly and the prospects are for an immense crowd in spite of the extreme cold. The 50 cent seat crowd are smoking in spite of the prohibitory notice against the practice. The [Thistles] are favorites in the betting at about 100 to 80. The general opinion is favorable to Kenora for tonight’s game.
  • 8.25—Reserved seats are now filling rapidly. The crowd is going to be a tremendous one. The [Thistles] are now in the dressing room getting the preliminary rub-down.
  • 8.35—Wanderers are out on the ice for warming up. They look in good shape, except for [Moose] Johnson, who wears a souvenir of the game with Ottawa. Ernie Russell changed his mind at the last moment and is in uniform. It had been said during the day that he would not be out.
  • 8.37—The [Thistles] are out on the ice. They got a tremendous ovation. Their skating is taking immensely with the crowd in spite of Wanderer sympathies. [Kenora captain Tommy] Phillips seems to be up to his old-time gait….
  • 8.45—Both teams are warming up waiting for referee. There are very few empty seats, and those only in the reserved section. About 5,000 people now in the rink and a steady stream of humanity floating in. Players are now shaking hands at the side. Phillips wears a broad confident smile. [The Wanderers’ Lester] Patrick is looking businesslike.
  • 8:53— [Referee Bob] Meldrum calls teams to centre of ice. Now tossing for ends. Getting final instructions from referee. Crowd wild with excitement. Wanderers win toss and defend southern goal. A horseshoe with Wanderers colors covering it is just thrown on the ice.
  • 8.55—They’re off!

As to the extreme cold referenced in the first notice, I discovered the Government of Canada has a website with historic weather data. Through that site, I was able to confirm the newspaper reports that not only was it freezing cold in Montreal on January 17 with a low of -31° Celsius (24 below zero Fahrenheit), but that it really did warm up so much in the next couple of days (as newspapers also reported) that it actually rained on January 19 and 20 before plunging well below freezing again on January 21.

The cartoon is from the Montreal Daily Star, January 18, 1907.

Up in Kenora, the temperature that night, according to the historical data, ranged from a high of about -23° Celsius (about 10 below Fahrenheit) to a low of -37 (35 below). The Victoria rink, where Thistles fans gathered to hear the telegraphed reports read out, was only heated by wood-burning stoves in the two dressing rooms, but it seemed to have been warm enough inside. In its local recap of the game, the Kenora Miner and News reported that the scene inside rink had been “enlivening to the limit,” particularly as the Thistles build up a 6-2 lead that night. But things got tense (in Kenora and in Montreal) as the Wanderers fought back to tie the game 6-6 with only a few minutes remaining before the Thistles won the Cup.

With all the reading of old newspapers I did, I came across a story in the Winnipeg Telegram from March 20, 1907, telling about those final minutes on January 21, 1907, that I’d never heard before. The teller of the tale was Mike Shea, one of the referees in game two.

“You can talk as you like about peculiar circumstances under which big games have been decided,” said Shea, “but I want to tell you that the Stanley Cup was once lost as the result of a torn pair of pants. And it occurred just two months ago when Kenora beat the Wanderers in the final game of the series.”

Shea sets the scene, reminding readers that the Thistles had jumped out to a big lead before the Wanderers roared back to tie the game. “It was a fine rally,” said Shea, “and the tide switched right around…. The Thistles, to a man, were all skated out; they looked beaten and in fact were beaten had not the incident on which this story hinges cropped up…. Wanderers were there with a bundle of speed and I expected them to turn in and utterly rout Phillips and his men.

“Away went the forwards and I started after them when [Jack] Marshall skated up to me and shouted: ‘Mike, blow your whistle!’

Mike Shea’s story in the Winnipeg Telegram.

“‘What for?’ I asked.

“‘My pants are ripped!’

“‘Do you mean it?’ I asked.

“‘Sure,’ was his reply.

“…I gave a blast of the horn and the game stopped. Marshall skated off to have his breeches pinned up and the Kenora players were hugging themselves at the chance of getting their wind. The delay took about three minutes, and when the game was restarted, Kenora immediately starred on the offence.

Front page in the Kenora Miner and News, January 23, 1907.

“You know the rest,” said Shea, describing the late penalties to Montreal’s Hod Stuart and Lester Patrick and the goal that Roxy Beaudro scored to reclaim the lead for the Thistles, but: “Had Marshall played with the torn pants and not stopped the game, I think the Stanley Cup would still be in the east.”

So, there you go.

The Kenora Thistles might just owe their Stanley Cup victory to a pair of torn pants … 116 years ago this Saturday.

            *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Hockey Writers in Canada

A reminder that, in conjunction with Hockey Day in Canada,  I’ll be taking part in Hockey Writing in Canada via Zoom with Owen Sound-born author and historian Paul White through the Owen Sound library tomorrow (Friday, January 20) at 3pm ET. You can contact the library for the zoom link at  info@library.osngupl.ca or email me at eric@ericzweig.com and ask me for it. 

Lanny McDonald brought the Stanley Cup on stage for the finale last night. The
Hockey Day in Canada concert at the Roxy Theatre in Owen Sound was a big hit!

The Bruce County Boys

This is, I guess, a sort of a sequel to my post last month, Early Era Hockey Heroes Played in Owen Sound. The names, this time, aren’t as prominent in hockey history as Howie Morenz and Cyclone Taylor, although these two contemporaries of Taylor are also members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. And, with Hockey Day in Canada hitting town next week, they’re relevant today because — like Taylor, who was born in Tara, Ontario — they were both born in small towns near Owen Sound. Remarkably, these two would later join Cyclone Taylor on the West Coast, giving the Vancouver Millionaires three Bruce County boys on their Stanley Cup team of 1915.

Russell Stanley, known as Barney Stanley for unknown reasons (and an uncle of latter-day NHL star Allan Stanley), was born in Paisley, Ontario, on June 1, 1893. Duncan McMillan “Mickey” MacKay made his debut almost a year later, on May 25, 1894. Both would begin to make their names in hockey during the winter of 1910-11, playing for their respective hometown teams in District 2 of the Northern Hockey League (NHL) along with clubs in Durham, Hanover, Walkerton and here in Owen Sound. MacKay’s Chesley team also competed in the Ontario Hockey Association’s junior series that winter.

Paisley’s 1910-11 NHL team was a weak one, finishing the 10-game season with a record of just 2-8. Stanley was obviously a standout, though, and after Owen Sound crushed his team 11-2 in the season opener on local ice here, the Owen Sound Times of January 12, 1911, reported: “Had there been two or three more in the Paisley bunch of the calibre of Barney Stanley, there would have been a different tale to tell in the final tally…. With a teammate as fast as he himself is, Barney would be a dangerous shooting proposition for any ordinary team to go up against.”

MacKay (whose name was often spelled, incorrectly, as McKay) helped Chesley win the District 2 title that winter, though they would lose the league championship to the District 1 winners from Mt. Forest. But, other than having his name appear (as McKay) in the lineup in a summary in the Owen Sound Sun on March 3, 1911 after a game the night before, there appear to be no other mentions of him in the local paper. However, his hometown weekly, The Chesley Enterprise, noted him prominently throughout the season … despite also spelling his name wrong.

The Vancouver Millionaires’ Stanley Cup team photo. Interestingly, the trophy shown
is Patterson Cup – the championship trophy of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.

“McKay [was] always in the right place,” noted the Enterprise on March 2, 1911, reporting on the team’s final home game (played two nights earlier). He scored at least 8 goals in a 25-0 win over Walkerton. When Chesley clinched the District 2 title with a 7-3 win over Durham in Walkerton on March 7, the local paper, reporting two days later, said: “Every man on the Chesley team played the game of his life; Beatty, Rocker and McKay apparently being the favorites of the crowd…. McKay, as in Owen Sound, was conceded to be a marvel.”

Mickey MacKay was still in Chesley for the winter of 1911-12, playing again for the local team in the NHL and moving up to the intermediate division in the OHA. Barney Stanley had moved out west that year to Edmonton. Hockey would take him to many more places after that, but Edmonton would remain home for the rest of his life.

Stanley began the winter of 1911-12 in Edmonton playing hockey for the Eurekas, a team affiliated with the Westminster Church, in a local Sunday School league. He quickly attracted the attention of an Edmonton team called the Maritimers, who played senior hockey with the Eskimos, Edmonton YMCA and the University of Alberta in a northern provincial league, and finished the year with them.

Cheshley team photo from the Society for International Hockey Research.
Mickey MacKay is the very young looking kid standing at the top right.

According to a story from the Edmonton Journal, picked up in the Ottawa Citizen on April 5, 1918, it was in the fall of 1912 that one Bruce County boy helped another begin his journey to the west.

“It was in the autumn of 1912 that Barney Stanley, himself just graduated from a local junior league, approached Deacon White and Anse Young, telling of a boy down in Chesley, Ontario, who had been burning up the Junior OHA and was anxious to come west.” The only thing holding him up was the cost of the journey, “and the Deacon, always ready to gamble a few dollars in the cause of sport, produced the wherewithal…. It did not take the fans long to reach the conclusion that MacKay was one player from the east who would live up to advance notices, and before the winter was over he was a universal favorite.”

The Chesley Enterprise of October 17, 1912, notes only that “Duncan McKay has gone to Edmonton… ” with no mention of Barney Stanley’s role, but Stanley and MacKay would play together that season of 1912-13 on a new team in Edmonton called the Dominions. Stanley would remain with that team for a couple seasons more, but MacKay moved further west the next winter, to Grand Forks, a mining town in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. According to stats from the Society for International Hockey Research, MacKay led the Boundary Hockey League with 15 goals during the 10-game 1913-14 season before moving further west, to Vancouver, the following year.

Paisley and Chesley are just a short distance apart not too far from Owen Sound.
Walkerton, Hanover and Durham, indicated with arrows, also played in the “NHL.”

Grand Forks would remain home to Mickey MacKay for the rest of his life, but it seems he returned to Chesley following that first B.C. winter. As Frank Patrick — owner, coach, manager, and a star player, with the Vancouver Millionaires — would recall in newspaper stories in 1940 and again in 1950, he received a letter from MacKay from Chesley in the summer of 1914.

According to the 1940 story, Patrick, who frequently received letters from players who thought they were good enough to turn pro, wrote back to MacKay and recommended he try to catch on with a Toronto team. “I don’t know what made me change my mind,” said Patrick, “but I sent a following letter with transportation and told him to report to Vancouver. It was one of those sixth sense hunches. MacKay wasn’t practicing five minutes before he attracted the attention of all watching him…. He was perhaps the greatest centre we ever had on the coast; an equal favorite with Cyclone Taylor in the minds of the masses.”

Frank Patrick provided more details to the story in 1950, telling Alf Cottrell of the Vancouver Province, that he’d never forgotten MacKay’s letter and could almost quote it from memory.

Various clippings from Owen Sound papers during the winter of 1910-11.
References to Stanley and McKay/McKay are in the red rectangles.

“The writer,” recorded Cottrell, “said he had played for an amateur club out in Grand Forks, B.C. the previous winter. No doubt Mr. Patrick had heard of him, as he had done very well. And he would like to play for Patrick’s Vancouver club for special reasons. There was, the young follow said, a young lady out in B.C. whom he would like to marry. Would Mr. Patrick forward money for transportation, so he could come out when the season started and lay his wares on the ice, so to speak?”

Patrick again told the story about recommending this young player try out for a Toronto team, but this time he said he decided he liked the sound of the name Mickey MacKay. So, he changed his mind and sent a second letter enclosing transportation.

Is either version of the story true?

Mickey Mackay with the Vancouver Millionaires and in a
grainy newspaper photo with the Dominions in Edmonton

Well, Mickey MacKay did marry Miss Anne May Reburn of Grand Forks on June 13, 1916. But in his own version of how he wound up in Vancouver, it was Frank Patrick who sought him out. MacKay told his tale in the Owen Sound Sun-Times on January 23, 1932, while visiting his mother and a sister in Chesley.

“It is interesting to hear Mickey tell about his jump into the pro game,” wrote the Sun-Times correspondent. “He was playing amateur with Grand Forks and in the mining towns of British Columbia the going was tough. Frank Patrick heard how he was burning up the league so he telegraphed him transportation and instructions to report at Vancouver.”

The Chesley Enterprise of November 19, 1914, reports on MacKay (still spelled McKay) leaving for Vancouver “on Tuesday last week,” seemingly from Chesley, though with references to his success in Grand Forks. “Still in his teens,” says the 1932 Owen Sound story – though he would actually have been 20 at the time – “Mickey kept thinking things over on his trip to the coast and the more he thought of it, the less he figured he could make good, so when he arrived at Vancouver and was met by Patrick, the first question he asked was, ‘Say, if I don’t catch on with your team, do I get my transportation back home?’”

Barney Stanley early his his career with the Dominions and later with the Edmonton Eskimos.

Patrick wanted a look at him first, and brought MacKay down to the rink. Mickey told of “being taken to the dressing room and introduced to such seasoned performers as Cyclone Taylor, Si Griffis, Frank Nighbor … and Hughie Leman [all future Hall of Famers]. The boys were dressing for a work out and as he was introduced to each one in turn, they merely stuck out a hand, pulled it hastily away, but never said a word or looked up from the lacing of their boots.

“‘A swell reception,’ Mickey thought!”

When he got out on the ice and saw Taylor in action, MacKay figured he’d be sent back to Grand Forks for sure. But then, he decided to take a run at the game’s biggest star. “Before I knew it, I was headed full speed for Taylor. I checked him and sent him sprawling into the boards and sailed clean through the whole outfit and never stopped…”

MacKay made the team. And carried with him the good wishes of his old friend Barney Stanley, who predicted great things for him that winter. “Mark my words,” Stanley was quoted in the Edmonton Journal of December 8, 1914, “Mickey will be a sensation this winter.”

And he was.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but these are the all-time scoring stats for the PCHA.
Barney Stanley ranked 18th with 62 goals and 37 assists in 80 games played.

MacKay scored three times in his pro debut for Vancouver against Portland that same night, leading the Millionaires to a 6-3 victory. “Our own speedy hockey player was the sensation of the first game,” The Chesley Enterprise reported with pride on December 17, 1914. He would go on to lead the Pacific Coast Hockey Association with 33 goals in just 17 games played in 1914-15, and his 44 points were just one back of Cyclone Taylor who led all scorers with 45 points on 24 goals and a league-leading 21 assists.

Late that season, Barney Stanley joined Mickey MacKay in Vancouver, signing with the Millionaires on February 13, 1915. In his debut three nights later, Stanley scored the opening goal on a setup from Taylor. MacKay collected a goal and an assist in a 5-0 victory over Portland. Stanley would score seven goals in the five games he played with Vancouver through the end of the schedule.

After the season, in a best-of-five Stanley Cup series with the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL), Stanley added six more goals in three games. MacKay had four goals and two assist, while Cyclone Taylor had seven goals and two assists as Vancouver scored a stunning sweep by scores of 6-2, 8-3 and 12-3.

The two new Bruce County boys, along with the old one, had definitely made their mark.

            *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Hockey Writers in Canada

In conjunction with Hockey Day in Canada,  the Owen Sound library will be hosting a series of author events from January 17 to 21 they’re calling Hockey Writing in Canada. For information on the whole program, and all the writers involved, you can contact the library at   info@library.osngupl.ca. If you’d like a direct link to the zoom event featuring me and Owen Sound-born author and historian Paul White at 3pm on the afternoon of Friday, January 20, email me at eric@ericzweig.com and ask me for it. 

Season’s Greeting! (2022)

Christmas/New Years greetings from an ad in the Owen Sound Times on December 8, 1871. And a Hanukkah story from a few years later, on December 7, 1915.

And, in keeping with the usual theme, Owen Sound opened a new indoor ice rink just after New Year’s in 1893, which was a big boon to local hockey. Clippings from the Times of January 5 and 12, 1893:

And, finally, thank you to everyone who had anything to do with the success of this book; those at Firefly Books who helped me get the job done … and to those of you who bought a copy!

From the Toronto Star, December 17, 2022. Slipped a bit this week, which will
be reflected in Saturday’s newspaper. But it’s been fun while it’s lasted!

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, have a happy and safe one!

Early Era Hockey Heroes Played in Owen Sound

After COVID cancellations the last two years, Owen Sound is hoping the third time’s the charm for Hockey Day in Canada. Scheduled for next month, events in the city where I’ve lived since 2006 begin on Wednesday, January 18, 2023. They culminate in a day-long broadcast of NHL games, plus three local games, on Saturday, January 21.

It’s more good luck than good management at this point, but the timing is fairly auspicious, since the 2022-23 season marks the centennial of a breakthrough time for Owen Sound hockey. That’s a bit of a stretch, since the local Greys had done better in previous years, and wouldn’t truly have their big breakthrough until 1923-24, when the Greys won the Memorial Cup as Canada’s national junior champions. Still, the 1922-23 season was an important one in Owen Sound hockey history because it brought Ralph “Cooney” Weiland to town.

Hockey cards depicting Howie Morenz and Cyclone Taylor.

Cooney Weiland was born in Egmondville, Ontario, just outside of Seaforth (about 140 kilometres from Owen Sound) on November 5, 1904. After playing his early hockey in Seaforth, Weiland came to Owen Sound in the late fall of 1922. Playing with Butch Keeling and Teddy Graham — two other future NHLers who’d grown up here — Weiland would lead the Greys to that first Memorial Cup title in 1924. Though he left town to begin a pro career the following season (and probably never lived here again, despite what many old-time hockey stories would later say), Weiland was long-associated with Owen Sound and the ’24 Greys, and well-remembered in town for the next 40 years or more.

In a story in the Owen Sound Sun-Times on March 13 1968, when Weiland was nearing the end of what would be a 21-year tenure as the hockey coach at Harvard University, he reminisced about his early days and the greatest player of his era; a player who’d grown up in Mitchell, Ontario, about 20 kilometres from where Weiland had lived as a boy.

Cooney Weiland played 11 seasons in the NHL, mostly with Boston. He won
the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 1928-29 and in his last season of 1938-39.

“It was common knowledge in our part of the country that Howie [Morenz] was the greatest thing that ever happened in hockey. No other player I saw could skate as fast as Morenz could. In three strides, he would be at full sail. He attacked defences so fiercely and at such reckless speed…. Morenz was absolutely fearless.”

Weiland talked about his early days facing Morenz when Cooney was still in Seaforth and Howie had moved to Stratford. Still, it got me wondering if Morenz himself had ever played in Owen Sound.

Headlines in the Owen Sound Sun-Times from February 8-10-12, 1921.

Turns out, he did.

Probably just once, when the Stratford Midgets faced the Owen Sound Greys in a Junior playoff game in the Ontario Hockey Association on February 9, 1921. The next day’s Sun-Times called the game “very exciting” and said it “kept the large crowd in an uproar from start to finish.”

Howie Morenz wears #4 for the Stratford Indians of 1922-23.

The ice was soft, due to mild weather, “but nevertheless there was some fast playing.” The Sun-Times felt the Greys had six chances to every one for Stratford, “and it was only the good work of the Midget goaltender and the luck he had that saved the famous Midgets from a loss.”

Owen Sound scored the only goal of the first period, but Stratford got two in the second, “one from Morenz the speedy centre,” and went on to a 3-1 victory. Two nights later, in the return game at Stratford, Morenz scored five times to lead the Midgets to a 7-2 win and a 10-3 triumph in the total-goals series. Morenz would lead Stratford to the Memorial Cup final in 1921 (crushing Seaforth and Cooney Weiland three times en route), but they would lose to the Winnipeg Falcons.

Accounts of the two-game series from the Sun-Times of February 10 and 12, 1921.

A few years later, Howie Morenz launched his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens during the 1923-24 season. He went on to be named Canada’s Hockey Player of the Half-Century in a Canadian Press poll in 1950. But a generation before Morenz, the player most often thought of as the greatest in Canada, and often considered the game’s first superstar, was Cyclone Taylor.

Born Frederick Wellington Taylor in Tara, Ontario — about 20 kilometres from Owen Sound — on June 23, 1884 (many sources say 1885 … or 1883), his family moved some 90 kilometres south to Listowel around 1891. Though Taylor had learned to skate in Tara, it was in Listowel where he began his hockey career. He would go on to star, mainly with the Ottawa Senators, the Renfrew Millionaires, and the Vancouver Millionaires, in a pro career from 1905 to 1923.

The Listowel Juniors of 1903-04. Fred Taylor is the second player in on the right side.

Like Morenz, Cyclone Taylor appears to have played just one game in Owen Sound. It was also a Junior playoff game; this one on February 10, 1904. The final score was 10-6, but the Owen Sound Times (this was before the 1918 merger with the Sun) thought it was “a somewhat listless affair” before a small crowd. “The visitors are a gentlemanly bunch,” said the Owen Sound paper, “and they have a strong, well-balanced team. Taylor is the star of the septette, but they are all fast enough to excuse the pride that the Listowel people take in the team.”

Game two in the series was scheduled for Listowel on February 12, but the Owen Sound Juniors didn’t make it. No reason for the postponement is given. The town’s Intermediate team went instead and faced the Listowel Juniors in an exhibition match. According to the Globe newspaper in Toronto, the home team scored a 19-7 victory.

Taylor’s one game in Owen Sound, from the local Times and the Globe in Toronto.

Team captain Fred Taylor led Listowel to a win over Barrie in the next playoff round, and on to the one-game provincial final in Toronto against the Beechgrove team from Kingston. Listowel lost 9-5, but even getting that far was a big accomplishment for a small-town team. Taylor was now one of the most famous hockey players in the province and would soon be on to bigger and better things.

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.

It was 30 Years Ago Today…

It was 30 years ago, almost exactly to the day, that a box arrived at our house containing author’s copies of my first book. A few days later, on November 1, 1992, my parents hosted a launch party. I was 29 years old. Still living at home. Wouldn’t be married for another four years. Definitely the greatest day of my life to that point. And it still ranks pretty high!

I’m 59 years old now, and pushing 50 books to my credit … which doesn’t even count all the books to which I contributed during 20+ years with Dan Diamond & Associates, helping to produce publications for the NHL. Many of my titles over the years have been non-fiction books for children. I’d never envisioned myself as a children’s author, but, I have to admit, it’s been a pretty good gig! To be honest, I’m not sure I ever envisioned myself as a hockey writer either. My first book — although strongly hockey-themed — was a novel, and, I suppose, I imagined I’d become a sports novelist.

By Canadian standards, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada, was a modest success. I was paid an advance of $3,000. (I remember my father saying, “write 20 of them a year and you’re doing OK.” I also remember seeing a Harold Lloyd silent movie from the 1920s where his character was paid an advance of $3,000 for a book he had written, so that gives you a pretty good idea about the publishing industry!)

Hockey Night “earned out,” as they say in the book business, and I received another $300 in royalties on sales. That’s $3,300 … for just over two years work. Since then, some of those nearly 50 books didn’t even earn that much, although at least one has earned more than 20 times that amount. So, writing hasn’t exactly been a road to riches, but I’ve certainly enjoyed it most of the time.

Following up on Hockey Night, I had an idea for a second hockey-related novel. I did a ton of research, and even wrote a few chapters, but it never happened. Years, later, I was at least able to use the research for one of my non-fiction children’s books. But I also remember thinking, “if a novel about hockey made $3,300 in Canada, a similar novel with a baseball theme for the United States should earn $33,000 just because the potential audience would be 10 times larger!”

I started writing that novel in 1995. Baseball plays a part in it, but not nearly to the extent that hockey did in Hockey Night. It’s essentially an historical fiction/time travel story. I wrote about 16 chapters at the time, but put it aside a couple of years later. I often said I stopped working on it when my father died, and while that was true, it was more because I was married by then, was a step-father to a school-aged daughter, and needed to find a full-time job.

Within a few years, I was able to combine my NHL work with writing books about hockey for kids, and have since written several adult hockey books too. (It certainly helped to be “Eric Zweig, of Total Hockey!”) All but one of those books was non-fiction. Still, I never gave up on that other novel. It was often in my head, and sometimes I would even get back to it, mostly re-writing the chapters I’d already written while trying to figure out how to advance the story.

When my association with the NHL ended in 2018, I sort of figured I was done with hockey. It was time to get back to the novel. But offers to do more hockey books, and kids books, kept coming in! I’m certainly not complaining. Turns out, I still mostly enjoy the work, and some of the projects even paid decent money. Others covered subjects I really wanted to write about. (Like the Kenora Thistles!)

Finally, this past January, with nothing new on the immediate horizon, I got back to my novel. I’m pretty close to finished it now, and I’m pretty happy with it! Still, it’s the first thing I’ve written since Hockey Night came out 30 years ago that doesn’t have a publisher attached to it already, so it’s a little scary too. I’ve called on a couple of contacts, who are willing to help out when I’m ready (which I will be soon), so it’s also pretty exciting!

In the meantime, there are the four new books I have out currently: the two kids books, Awesome Hockey Trivia for Kids and It’s a Numbers Game! Football, plus Engraved in History (the Kenora Thistles book) and Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories. If you haven’t seen or heard the latest on the Kenora book, you can listen to my CBC interview from earlier this month with Jason D’Souza of Fresh Air, or read the story by Nick Faris of The Score. On November 3, I’ll be taping an interview about the Thistles for a TV station in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Also, I’ll be at the Sports Card Expo at the International Center near Pearson Airport in Toronto on November 10-13 at the Rat Portage Press table with the Thistles book. My publisher, Rick Brignall, will have copies of other hockey books he’s done, and I’ll probably have some of my other new titles there as well. Come on by if you’re in the area.

And, we’re still working on dates for potential events in Kenora and Winnipeg in November … so I’ll keep everyone posted on those when we have them.

Thanks!