Category Archives: Hockey History

In the Good Old Summer Time

It’s July 28. There’s plenty of other sports going on. The Olympics. Baseball. Football training camps. And the NBA draft is approaching. But even in the middle of summer, hockey manages to make headlines. There was the expansion draft a week ago, the regular NHL draft a few days later, and all the transactions around those. Now, free agency opens today.

Sure, COVID concerns pushed back these dates this year, but – in Canada, especially – it’s not uncommon to be talking hockey in summer time. It hasn’t been for a long time.

How long?

How about 118 years!

On July 28, 1903, (a Tuesday all those years ago), on a sports page in the Winnipeg Tribune filled with stories about baseball, boxing, tennis, soccer, and rowing, there was a small headline reading: RAT PORTAGE HOCKEY CLUB.

Rat Portage, for those who don’t know, is the original name of the northwestern Ontario town of Kenora. It came from a quick English translation of an Ojibwe phrase meaning “the Road to the Country of the Muskrat.” And the hockey club – the Thistles – (as some of you may remember), is the subject of a new book of mine — Engraved in History: Kenora Thistles and the Stanley Cup — that will be published in November. You’ll hear more about that, as well as a second new book for the fall (Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories), in these pages in the coming months.

The Kenora Thistles would win the Stanley Cup in 1907, but the team dates back to the early 1890s, and first played for hockey’s top prize in March of 1903. That was four months before this article in the Tribune, which ran five months before the next hockey season would even start. But several Thistles hockey players were rowers in the summer, and some had recently been to Winnipeg for that city’s annual regatta. A Tribune reporter took the time to talk with Nelson Schnarr (a Rat Portage dentist and president of the Thistles hockey team who had attended the regatta) about his thoughts on his team’s chances of repeating as champions of the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association. Schnarr spoke of his high hopes; hence the sub-headline noting that he was “Sanguine” (optimistic, or bullish) “Over Prospects.”

[Photo licensed from the collection of the Glenbow Archives. Not to be reused.]
Future Hockey Hall of Famers Tommy Phillips (first from the left) and Si Griffis (second) played for the Thistles in winter and were with the Rat Portage Rowing Club in summer. They are joined here by Bob Rose (a goalie) and Norman MacDonald.

I came across the Tribune story about a year ago when I was in the early stages of writing the first draft. I delivered the revised manuscript two weeks ago. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to the book:

If you know the story of the Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles you probably know it as one of the greatest underdog stories in Canadian sports.

And it is.

Sort of.

In January of 1907, the Thistles, from a town of approximately 6,000 people, travelled to Canada’s largest city, with a population of close to half-a-million (the entire country had only about 6.5 million people then), and defeated the defending champion Montreal Wanderers right there on their home ice.

But it wasn’t as if a semi-pro baseball team from Pierre, South Dakota, suddenly showed up in New York City and beat the Yankees in the World Series. No. The Kenora Thistles, in their heyday, were known right across North America as a hockey powerhouse. Yes, they were the smallest of small-market teams, even in 1907, but they reached their great success mainly with a group of home-grown superstars that was supported by their entire community.

The full article from July 28, 1903, plus a photograph of Dr. Nelson Schnarr
during World War I. According to the Kenora Great War Project web site,
Schnarr had been a member of a local militia since 1896.

In many ways, the Kenora Thistles were like another small-market team of more recent vintage: the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Although Kenora was much smaller than Edmonton was, there are a great many similarities. Like the Oilers, the Thistles were a supremely talented team with a roster full of future Hall of Famers. They played an up-tempo, offensive game that may have put off traditionalists even in their day, but delighted most fans and impressed their rivals. But for both teams, success soon made it impossible to afford to keep their best players.

For much of Kenora’s Stanley Cup climb, hockey was still an amateur sport, so there wasn’t an issue with salaries. Still, the competition for players could be fierce. And then, the 1906–07 season marked the first year that Canadian hockey teams were openly allowed to pay their players. Contracts in this era were for no more than $2,000 which is certainly a far cry from the multi-million dollars of today, but the payroll very quickly became too much.

It wasn’t just the salary structure that made hockey in the early 20th so much different from the game we know today. The players were smaller and lighter, and they played much shorter seasons on natural ice that could melt into slush in warm weather. There was little protective equipment, yet the game was plenty rough.

Tommy Phillips, the team’s top star, played in Montreal during the winter of 1902-03.
Roxy Beaudro and Tom Hooper rowed in Winnipeg during the summer of 1903.

Along with the addition of a rover, the other positions we know today still existed in the early days of hockey, but defensemen were called “point” and “cover point.” Rules and customs were different too. Without forward passing, skating and stickhandling were the main ways to advance the puck. Goalies had to remain standing at all times. And despite the extra man in the lineup, rosters were small. The seven starters were expected to play the entire 60 minutes, with substitutions generally made only in cases of severe injury. Obviously, the game would appear much slower to fans today, but to those in the stands back then, hockey was already considered the fastest and most exciting game there was.

Hockey fans circa 1907 didn’t have dedicated cable TV channels. They didn’t have 24-hour talk radio, twitter accounts, or apps for their smartphones to keep them up-to-the-minute with their favourite players and teams. They did have a lot of newspapers to read, and although there was usually only a page or two of sports news, the amount of hockey coverage was staggering. The hockey season lasted only the three calendar months of winter from late December until late March, but the gossip already ran all year long! It’s amazing how many rumours hockey fans could read about, and how much in-fighting and back-stage drama was going on between the teams, the leagues, and the players.

If you read the book – and I hope you will! – I think you’ll see that, the more some things change, the more they stay the same.

Canadien Cup History

I grew up a Leafs fan and still consider them to be my favourite team — although that means a lot less to me at age 57 than it did when I was 17 … or 7! It’s been a long time since I would say I’ve bled blue and white. It was probably in 1989 (I’d have been 25 at the time) when I made my peace with the fact that the Montreal Canadiens were actually the greatest franchise in hockey history. (Though I’ve yet to make similar peace with baseball and the New York Yankees, whom I still despise!)

So, it’s only with a sense of history — not jealousy — that I consider the Canadiens’ amazing run through the playoffs so far this summer. What’s going to happen next, starting tonight against Tampa Bay? I don’t really like the idea of watching hockey in June, never mind July, but I’m too curious to turn away now!

Montreal Gazette, June 10, 1993. The Canadiens (and Canada’s) last Stanley Cup.

Who are the most unlikely Stanley Cup champions in NHL history? Probably the 1937–38 Chicago Black Hawks. With a regular-season record of only 14-25-9 in a 48-game season, Chicago barely squeaked into the playoff but then upset the Canadiens, the New York Americans, and the Maple Leafs to win the Cup that spring. While 14 other sub-.500 teams have reached the Final (none since 1991), the only one to win the Stanley Cup was Toronto in 1948-49. The Leafs’ record was 22-25-13 that year, but they had won the Cup in each of the two previous springs, and almost seemed bored by the regular-season before coming to life in the playoffs.

“Anybody who knew us, knew the Leafs were much better than we showed.…” said Howie Meeker in his 1994 autobiography Golly Gee It’s Me. “We weren’t a below .500 club really. Anybody who considered us that was way out of their minds.”

Although the NHL likes to present Montreal’s record of 24-21-11 as if it’s actually over .500, overtime and shootout losses can distort what’s really a loss these days. Still, the Canadiens finished 18th in the league’s overall standings! Given that only 16 of the NHL’s 31 teams (soon to be 32) make the playoffs, there were two teams this year that didn’t qualify in their own divisions despite having better records than Montreal did. It’s kind of crazy that they’ve reach the Stanley Cup Final! There are not a lot of underdog stories in the history of this great franchise, but if Montreal pulls it off against the Lightning now, it’ll rank pretty highly among the NHL’s all-time unlikely winners. And pretty much be the most unlikely winner in Canadiens history.

Montreal Gazette, April 19, 1971. Beating Boston early set up a Stanley Cup victory.

I’m not analytical enough in my watching of hockey to offer any insight into how the Canadiens have done what they’ve done. So, instead, I’m just going to look back at the Montreal teams that have reached the Stanley Cup Finals 36 times now (twice before the NHL was even founded) and won it 24 times (once prior to 1917–18) to see how this year’s team stacks up.

Many people, it seems, are comparing this year’s Montreal team to 1993, which is the last time the Canadiens (or any Canadian team) won the Stanley Cup. But the comparison is only valid in the styles of those two teams. Montreal had 102 points in 1992-93. They were the fifth-best team in the NHL, although only the third best in their own division. Like this year, they fell behind in their first-round matchup (2-0 behind Quebec), but rallied to win. The fact that the fourth-place Buffalo Sabres (86 points) stunningly swept first-place Boston (109 points) certainly helped clear the path to a division title, and the New York Islanders’ shocking upset of the powerful two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins cleared the way to a Conference championship. But once they reached the Stanley Cup Final, Montreal was hardly an underdog against Los Angeles and beat Wayne Gretzky’s Kings pretty easily.

The Canadiens won a record 10 games in overtime during the playoffs that year. It was a pretty remarkable run. As the team’s star goalie Patrick Roy told NHl.com in 2018 on the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Cup win: “The Canadiens didn’t always have the best team but they always had a team that was willing to work hard and put in the effort to win.”

The Brooklyn Citizen, April 4, 1930. (No Gazette headline was nearly as good!)

Seven years earlier, in 1986, the Canadiens had also won an unlikely Stanley Cup title. That year’s team still had future Hall of Famers Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson from the 1970s dynasty, but the key playoff performer (as he would be in 1993) was goalie Patrick Roy, then in his rookie season.

The Canadiens were eighth overall in the NHL standings with 87 points (40-33-7) but a long way back of top teams Edmonton (119 points), Philadelphia (110), and Washington (107). A slew of upsets cleared the way for Montreal and Calgary to reach the Finals that year, and though Calgary had 88 points to and finished seventh overall that season, the only thing really surprising about the fact that the Canadiens beat the Flames to win the Cup was that it only took them five games. An unlikely win for sure, but not really an upset by the end. Still, the 1985-86 Canadiens are probably the weakest team in franchise history to win the Stanley Cup, so certainly an underdog story.

When Calgary and Montreal met again three years later in 1989, the Flames were the NHL’s top team with 117 points and the Canadiens were second with 115. Calgary won the Cup that year, winning the finale at the Forum. It marks the only time the Canadiens lost the Stanley Cup on home ice, which was no doubt upsetting … but the series wasn’t an upset.

The Montreal Daily Mail, March 31, 1916. The Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup.

In terms of Montreal Stanley Cup surprises, 1971 was certainly unexpected. But, really, the biggest shock came in the first round. The Boston Bruins set all sorts of single-season records that year, leading the NHL with 121 points on a record of 57-14-7. Phil Esposito had 76 goals and 152 points. Bobby Orr had 102 assists. The Bruins had won the Stanley Cup the previous year, and they were ever better now. The Canadiens were actually the NHL’s fourth-best team that season with 97 points, but were decidedly the underdog in their quarterfinal series with Boston. Rookie goalie Ken Dryden, and veteran captain Jean Beliveau in his final season, spearheaded a stunning upset. Beating the 28-34-16 Minnesota North Stars in the semifinals was as it should have been. Defeating a star-studded Chicago team that had 107 points in the regular season to win the Stanley Cup was certainly an upset, although not on the scale of beating Boston. But that year’s Montreal roster was loaded with future Hall of Famers who’d mostly won several Stanley Cup titles already. They were, in actual fact, a very good team.

Interestingly, an earlier Montreal Stanley Cup surprise had also come at the expense of a powerhouse Boston team under remarkably similar circumstances. The Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 1928–29, and followed up with a record-setting season. Boston went 38-5-1 during the 44-game schedule in 1929-30 for an .875 winning percentage that is still the best in NHL history. (In a modern 82-game season, the mark would translate into 70 wins and 144 points!) Eddie Shore was that team’s Bobby Orr, and Cooney Weiland smashed scoring records just as Phil Esposito would later. Boston had not lost two games in a row all season, yet when the Bruins met the underdog Canadiens in the best-of-three Stanley Cup Final, Montreal swept the series. Having Howie Morenz — probably the greatest player of his era — certainly helped. Montreal also had a few other future Hall of Famers and previous Cup winners that time too.

Mostly, though, throughout their history, the Canadiens have been hockey’s most dominant team and their many championships don’t hold a lot of surprises. Nor do their few losses. Read on, if you care to…

Montreal Gazette, April 21, 1947. A rare upset of the Canadiens for the Cup.

The Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in 1916. Back then, the champions of the National Hockey Association (forerunner to the NHL) played the champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Because it could take six days to travel across the continent by train, the entire series was played in the East one year and the West the next. Vancouver had so dominated Ottawa in winning the Cup in 1915 that many thought the calibre of play in the PCHA was above that in the NHA. So, perhaps Montreal was considered an underdog against the Portland Rosebuds in 1916. But they did get to play the entire series at home, and the Canadiens won the best-of-five series in five games. If this was an upset, it was only a minor one.

A year later, Montreal visited Seattle for the 1917 Stanley Cup Final. The Metropolitans beat the Canadiens in four games. Seattle’s win may have been a little easier than experts expected, but Montreal’s loss was hardly a shock. Then again, the Canadiens beat the Mets two games to one in an exhibition series in San Francisco a week later, and team owner George Kennedy felt it proved that his Canadiens were better. When the two teams met again in Seattle in 1919, the series was even with two wins and a tie for each team when the final game was cancelled because of The Spanish Flu.

By 1924, it was pretty clear the calibre of play in the NHL was better than that in the western pro leagues. It was also clear that the home team had a pretty strong advantage in these East-West matchups. So the fact that the Canadiens took two straight games from both the Vancouver Maroons and the Calgary Tigers meant the Stanley Cup probably went to the team that deserved it. By the same token, Montreal’s loss to the Victoria Cougars in British Columbia in 1925 can hardly be considered an upset.

Montreal Gazette, April 15, 1960. The fifth straight Stanley Cup championship.

After beating Boston in 1930, the Canadiens eliminated the Bruins again in perhaps a minor upset in their semifinal series in 1931. Chicago battled Montreal harder than expected in the Stanley Cup Final, but the Canadiens won the series as expected.

The 13-year gap between Canadiens Cups in 1931 and 1944 was the longest drought in team history prior to the 28 years Montreal has now gone since winning in 1993. The 1943–44 Canadiens had lost fewer players to military service in World War II than other NHL teams. (The number of military deferments due to essential service jobs away from the rink angered other NHL owners, particularly Conn Smythe in Toronto.) Montreal was a dominating 38-7-5 during the 50-game season. They beat Toronto in five games in the semifinals before sweeping Chicago in the Final. No surprises there. The Canadiens were nearly as dominant again in 1944-45, but were stunned by the Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. An upset, for sure … but not in the Stanley Cup Final.

Montreal Gazette, May 3, 1967. Losing to the Leafs in Canada’s Centennial year.

The War was over by the 1945–46 season. Montreal slipped some, but still finished first overall. No playoff upsets this year, as the Canadiens once again needed only nine games to win the Stanley Cup. A year later, Montreal finished on top of the standings again, but a rebuilt, post-War Maple Leafs team beat the Canadiens in a six-game Final for one of the few times in franchise history that an underdog team beat Montreal for a Stanley Cup upset.

Amazingly, the Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup Final for 10 straight years from 1951 through 1960. Montreal’s loss to Toronto in 1951 was as it should be; the Leafs were much stronger that year. Detroit was clearly the better team too when the Red Wings beat the Canadiens in 1952, 1954 and 1955. The biggest shock in Montreal defeating Boston in 1953 was that the Bruins had eliminated Detroit, while the Canadiens were definitely favourites during their record streak of five straight Cup victories when they beat Detroit (1956), Boston (1957, 1958) and Toronto (1959, 1960).

Montreal Gazette, May 11, 1979. After beating the Bruins in the semifinals,
defeating the Rangers for the Stanley Cup was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Montreal might have won five in a row again in the late 1960s, winning as they should have against Chicago (1965) and Detroit (1966) and then defeating St. Louis twice after expansion in 1968 and 1969. Only that pesky loss to Toronto in 1967 — which joins 1947 as the only two years the Canadiens reached the Final and then lost when they were definitely the favourite — upset that dynasty. And if 1971 marks one of the rare occasions when Montreal won the Stanley Cup in an underdog role, wins by the Canadiens in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979 stand as one of the most dominating stretches in hockey history.

All in all in Montreal, it’s a pretty remarkable history.

From New York City to Vancouver Island

Just because this is a Stanley Cup story about teams from New York and Montreal, don’t go reading into it that I’m predicting the Islanders and Canadiens to reach the Final. (Then again, if it happens to be the two of them facing off against each other two weeks or so from now, remember where you read it!)

No, this is really just an excuse by me to spin a story out of a recent query about Lester Patrick’s sons, Lynn Patrick and Murray (Muzz) Patrick, scratching their names onto the Stanley Cup as kids when they found the trophy in the basement of their family home in Victoria, British Columbia. The questions was, had it happened in 1925 — when Lester’s Victoria Cougars had won it — or in 1928 — after Lester’s New York Rangers won it.

The most famous incident from the 1928 Stanley Cup was when Rangers coach Lester Patrick was forced to take over in goal in Game 2 after an injury to Lorne Chabot .

I’d always heard the story as 1925, and though some stories say 1928, the evidence turned out to be highly in favour of the earlier year, when Lester Patrick was the owner, coach, and general manager of the Cougars. Still, that didn’t stop me from doing plenty of poking around into 1928, when it seems extremely unlikely that as the coach and GM of the Rangers, he’d had the chance to bring the Stanley Cup home to Victoria.

Muzz Patrick told the story of scratching his name into the Stanley Cup
as a boy after winning it himself with the New York Rangers in 1940.

Many of you know that Lester Patrick was a main character in the first book I ever wrote, an historical novel called Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada. So, for me, any chance to read up on old stories about Lester is like reading letters from an old friend. Lester was quite a bit in the news when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1928, so there was no shortage of stories.

The 1928 Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Maroons was played entirely at the Forum in Montreal. (The Rangers, as would often be the case when the NHL playoffs rolled around, had to evacuate Madison Square Garden for the annual appearance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). After the Rangers won the best-of-five series with a 2–1 victory in the final game on Saturday, April 14, 1928, they brought the Cup back to New York with them. On April 16, the team was paraded “in motor cars, preceded and followed by a special corps of motorcycle cops,” from Madison Square Garden to City Hall, where they met with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker.

The Rangers with Mayor Jimmy Walker (and a story from the Montreal Gazette).

“There we sat,” Lester recalled with a laugh in a story in the Vancouver Sun on May 5, 1928, while visiting from Victoria, “with banners strung along the sides, roaring through the traffic jams, lords of the universe for the time, at least. They paraded us to the city hall and back again in one quarter the time ordinary traffic could have done. The boys got a great kick out of that.”

Lester hadn’t had nearly as much fun getting out of the Forum after the Rangers’ victory over the Maroons.

A different photograph, as shown in the New York Daily News on April 17, 1928.

“I had to fight my way through a yelling mob to the bus, 40 minutes after the game had concluded,” Lester said. “It was a very partisan crowd, naturally. They had figured the Maroons were a cinch, and they couldn’t take the defeat gracefully for the moment.”

Indeed, the crowd in Montreal had not been happy.

Heavy favourites over the Rangers, especially with all the games at home, Montrealers had not expected the series to go the limit, and when it did, the Maroons dominated play in game five, outshooting the Rangers 38-14. Still, they were beaten 2-1. The referees certainly didn’t put their whistles away in this one, with plenty of penalties called. But that wasn’t what upset the fans.

Headlines from the Montreal Gazette after the Rangers’ victory.

Early in the third period, with the Rangers up 1–0 thanks to a Frank Boucher goal late in the first period, the Maroons appeared to tie the score. Their goal was called back, however, because referee Mike Rodden ruled the play was offside. Montreal fans, according to the Gazette in its Monday recap of the game, “vented their ill-feelings against the arbiter by heaving everything that they could pry loose. The ice was littered as it has never been before.”

The Gazette detailed an “odd assortment of articles that was heaved on the ice.” There were pennies according to some sources, and bottles, one of which hit a player, but didn’t hurt him. “Winter hats were mingled with new spring felts,” said the Gazette, and “one young lady hobbled out after the game with only one silver slipper on, the other having been hurled out to the ice.”

Headlines from the New York Daily News.

It took a cleaning crew seven minutes to clear the mess, and they had “no sooner made the surface playable when a spectator hurled a chair from a box seat, narrowly missing those in front of the promenade.” The game was further delayed while the chair-tosser was removed from the rink.

The delay apparently took some wind out of the sails of the Maroons, and gave the Rangers a chance to catch their breath. With just under five minutes to go, Boucher scored again to up the lead to 2-0, and, despite a late Montreal goal, New York held on for the victory. But the fans weren’t finished being angry. When referee Rodden failed to pass through the lobby of the Forum on his way out (he apparently left quickly, through a side exit), a small mob turned its attention to NHL president Frank Calder instead. Calder was hustled safely into the Forum business office while a group of ushers “quickly terminated the display of rowdyism.” Lester Patrick had either fought his way through that same rowdy crowd in the lobby on his way to the team bus; or else they had taken their anger outside.

The Cartier Building in New York City, circa 1920.

Later that evening, the Rangers and the Maroons shared a peaceful meal together at the Windsor Hotel, where the Stanley Cup was presented to the visitors.

Back in New York two days later, after being received by Mayor Walker at City Hall in the afternoon, the Rangers were dined at the apartment of William F. Carey, vice president of Madison Square Garden in the evening. Between engagements, wherever the players went, they were said to have been greeted by admirers all anxious to see the Stanley Cup.

The Cartier Building in New York City, circa 2020.

A few days later, Lester Patrick left New York to return home to Victoria. The Stanley Cup stayed behind, being displayed for a few days in the window of the Fifth Avenue jewellers Cartier & Co., who would create a new silver band to add to the trophy to commemorate the Rangers’ first hockey championship.

Drought and Droughter

Well, the Maple Leafs lost. Again. There was still a long way to go, but there will be no Stanley Cup win in Toronto this year. Again. Just like there hasn’t been since 1967. Haven’t even reached the Finals since then. The Leafs haven’t even won a playoff series since 2004. So, Toronto goes on to Year #55 without a Stanley Cup title, which is the longest drought in NHL history, surpassing the 54 years from 1940 to 1994 that the New York Rangers went without.

Still, when it comes to Stanley Cup droughts, the Leafs are a long way from the longest in hockey history. There’s another city that dwarfs even the drought of 71 years (1945 to 2016) the Chicago Cubs had between World Series appearances, and even the 106 years (dating back to 1908) between Cubs victories. That record drought belongs to … Winnipeg.

Sure, the city didn’t even have an NHL team for long stretches of time, but no team from the Manitoba capital has even played for the Stanley Cup since March of 1908, when (coincidentally) the Winnipeg Maple Leafs were crushed 11-5 and 9-3 by the Montreal Wanderers in a best-of-three-series. The Winnipeg Victorias were Stanley Cup champions in 1896 and 1901, and in that early challenge era when the prized trophy was open to leagues all across the country, they last won it in a successful title defense in late January of 1902. The Victorias defeated the Toronto Wellingtons. That 1902 series marks the first time a Toronto team ever played for the Stanley Cup and the last time a Winnipeg team ever won it. And with the Leafs loss to the Canadiens, it continues to mark the only time that teams representing Toronto and Winnipeg have met in a playoff at hockey’s highest level.

Back at the turn-of-the-20th-century, Winnipeg was a major hockey hotbed. Second only to Montreal. Toronto had plenty of teams then, but the caliber of play in the Ontario Hockey Association was considered weaker than that of Manitoba and Quebec. (Ottawa played in the otherwise Quebec-based Canadian Amateur Hockey League.) Still, the Toronto Wellingtons were senior champions of the OHA in 1900 and 1901, and local backers of the team liked their chances against the Victorias.

Fans elsewhere felt otherwise.

“The Toronto press is still heaping honors on the Wellingtons at the rate of several columns per day and the Stanley Cup is all but on exhibition in the Queen City,” mocked the Ottawa Citizen on January 18, 1902. “There is going to be an unhappy period for those (Toronto) boosters when the Tin Dukes get up against real hockey players in Winnipeg.” (The “Tin Dukes” crack was a shot at the team’s nickname — the Iron Dukes — from the Duke of Wellington for whom they were named.)

The Toronto Wellingtons, circa 1902. The large cup in the center is
the Harold A. Wilson Trophy signifying the championship of Toronto.

Many hockey players — indeed, many athletes in all sports — in this era of amateurism came from well-off families. The Victorias were mainly the sons of Winnipeg’s business elite, with many prominent citizens among their backers. In Toronto, most of the Wellingtons worked in banks or for insurance companies. The OHA was the largest hockey league in the country and rigidly enforced the amateur code, so having money certainly helped! The OHA also seemed more determined than other provincial leagues to maintain a gentlemanly style of play, which, sadly, didn’t help from a competitive standpoint.

The Winnipeg Victorias’ Stanley Cup portrait from 1901.

In these early days, the need for natural ice meant hockey seasons only stretched from late December to mid March. Train travel meant leagues had to be fairly local, so in order to make the Stanley Cup available to teams all across Canada, the senior champions of any recognized provincial association were able to challenge the current Cup champion. Games could take place before the season, after the season, and even right in the middle of a season. Hence the scheduling of the games in Winnipeg between the Victorias and the Wellingtons for January 21 and 23, with a third game, if necessary, on the 25th. When the Victorias requested that the Stanley Cup series be played later in January, the Wellingtons objected because the bankers on their team had to get back to Toronto in time to balance their books for the first of February.

From the March 1902 edition of The Canadian Magazine.

Obviously, this was a different time … but hockey and the Stanley Cup were hugely popular!

There was, of course, no television or radio in those days, but it was already common for people to meet in public places to listen to someone read out play-by-play reports sent from rinkside by telegraph to newspapers, or for fans to make telephone calls to those newspapers’ offices for score updates. When the Wellingtons traveled to Winnipeg, the OHA’s Toronto-based president John Ross Robertson arranged a novel new way for the fans at home to know what happened.

With the time difference from the West, it was thought that final scores from the Stanley Cup games would be received by telegraph around 11 o’clock or 11:30 at night. When they were, the Toronto Railway Company would blow its big whistle to signal the results: two blasts for a win by the Wellingtons; three would mean victory for the Victorias.

Stories from the Toronto Star and Globe about the whistle used to deliver the results.

Though few people outside of Toronto gave the Wellingtons a chance in Winnipeg, they surprised their critics by keeping the games close and playing pretty good hockey. Still, the Victorias took the January 21 game 5-3 and won the second game by the same score two nights later, giving Winnipeg a sweep of the series. “We played as hard as we ever played in our lives,” said Wellingtons captain George McKay, “but the checking … was much harder than we were accustomed to. It was fierce.” The players on the Victorias were also said to be faster skaters.

The Toronto Star, January 25, 1902.

Despite losing their Stanley Cup series, the Wellingtons returned to Toronto and would end the 1901–02 season with their third straight OHA championship. They would win the title again the next year, but passed on another Stanley Cup challenge and withdrew from hockey suddenly and surprisingly just prior to the 1903-04 season.

As for the Victorias, playing a short four-game season in Manitoba against their only senior rival, the Winnipeg Hockey Club, the team went 4-and-0 to win its its tenth consecutive provincial championship in 1902. But after defeating Toronto in January, the Victorias lost the Stanley Cup to the Montreal Hockey Club from the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association that March.

So, while the Maple Leafs are going on to 55 years without the Stanley Cup, the Jets are looking to win Winnipeg’s first in 119 years.

Toronto-Montreal Playoff History

I was 3 1/2 years old when Toronto beat Montreal to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. I don’t remember it. (My hockey memories don’t kick in until after I saw my first game, at Maple Leaf Gardens in December of 1970.) But I remember well when the two teams met in 1978 and 1979. The Leafs of Sittler, McDonald, and Williams, Salming, Turnbull, and Palmateer are the true teams of my youth — and they were good teams too. Still, there was no way they were going to beat the Canadiens back then. Hard to believe its been 42 years!

Plenty of people have been waxing nostalgic recently with this renewal of the Leafs-Canadiens rivalry. So, I figured, why not me? But I’m going back a lot further than I can remember. Further, probably, than anyone can remember even if they were alive at the time. The two oldest franchises in the NHL have met in the playoffs 15 times (the Canadiens lead 8-7) going all the way back to the first Toronto-Montreal NHL series at the end of the first season in league history.

Toronto’s NHL team – depicted here in the Vancouver Daily World on January 17, 1918, – wore the same blue sweaters with a white T as the Toronto team in the old NHA.

The NHL had four teams when the 1917–18 season started, but just three when it ended. (The Montreal Wanderers withdrew from the league in January of 1918 after fire destroyed the Montreal Arena.) The season was played into two halves, with the Canadiens coming out best in the first half with a 10–4 record. Toronto topped the second-half standings with a record of 5–3. The playoff meeting between the two half-champions was a two-game, total-goals series played on March 11 and March 13, 1918.

Back in those days, the Canadiens were already known as the Canadiens, as they had been since the team was formed for the inaugural season of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) in 1909-10. You can pick a pretty good fight with a hockey historian as to what the Toronto team was called. They’ve gone down in history as the Toronto Arenas, and they were operated that season by the Toronto Arena Company, but probably didn’t take that name officially until the 1918–19 season. The team had been known as the Blue Shirts (two words) or Blueshirts (one word) during its time in the NHA, and most journalists were still using one of those spellings — or referring to them as the Blues, or Torontos — during the 1917–18 NHL season.

The Toronto Star of March 14, 1918 refers to the team
as the Torontos and the Blue Shirts (two words).

“The hockey week here opens to-night with the first of the NHL play-off series between Torontos and Canadiens,” reported the Toronto Star on March 11, 1918. “The Blue Shirts, with the exception of Reg Noble, are in excellent shape for the final struggle, and are confident that they will take a three or four-goal lead to Montreal with them for the final game on Wednesday night.”

Another unnamed Star sports writer wasn’t so sure.

“When it comes to a real showdown,” read the column known as Random Notes on Current Sports, “Canadiens are the logical favorites for the NHL championship. They have shown themselves to be a real team – fast, brainy, and game – and many Toronto fans will be back them to win right here to-night.”

The Ottawa Journal calls Toronto the Blues and the Blueshirts (one word).

But the Toronto players were right. The Blue Shirts/Blueshirts/Arenas won game one by a score of 7–3.

“It is a fortunate thing, indeed, for Les Bons Canadiens that both matches of the NHL play-off series do not take place in Toronto,” said Elmer Ferguson of the Montreal Herald on March 12, 1918. “You’d never know the old club from its play on Toronto ice last night, compared with its dash and brilliance in games played before the friendly faces at Jubilee Rink. And, by the same token, you’d never recognize the meek and inoffensive team wearing the blue shirts which we’ve been accustomed to seeing in the rampaging, aggressive and chip-on-the-shoulder gang which rode roughshod over our habitants last night.”

In the Ottawa Citizen, it’s Blue Shirts (two words) as well
as the team’s official name: the Toronto Hockey Club.

But even with a four-goal lead, hanging on to win the series in Montreal was no sure thing. As it turned out, the Canadiens won game two, but with only a 4–3 victory, so Toronto took the series 10–7 in total.

“The Canadiens chances faded away when they undertook to make the visitors quit by roughing it on every possible occasion” reported the Montreal Gazette on March 14. “Canadiens suffered through penalties… Toronto played the puck more than the man, and took the bumps handed out to them without retaliating to any great extent. This counted greatly in their favor.”

In the Vancouver Daily World, it’s Blueshirts (one word) and Torontos.

NHL summaries show that far more penalties were called in game one at Toronto. Even so, game two in Montreal must have been rougher.

“Bullfighting is prohibited in Canada for the reason that it is considered brutal,” wrote Harvey Sproule (a future Toronto NHL head coach, briefly, in 1919–20) in the Toronto Star, “but it is a regular ‘pink tea’ in comparison with the Donnybrook served up to the fans at the Jubilee Ice Palace last night…”

The official team portrait refers to Toronto as the Arena Hockey Club …
but it’s clearly been dated for the 1918–19 NHL season.

With the win Toronto took the NHL championship, but not yet the Stanley Cup. Winning the NHL title that season only entitled the Blue Shirts/Blueshirts/Arenas to host the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion Vancouver Maroons (who wore maroon-coloured shirts) in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Final. Toronto won that series 3-games-to-2 with a 2-1 victory in the finalé on March 30, 1918 to claim what was already a prized trophy.

And this year?

I think Toronto is good enough to win in four games, but probably five. Then again, if Leafs goalie Jack Campbell can’t carry the playoff weight, and the Canadiens’ Carey Price can turn back the clock … well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to trust Freddie Andersen in another seventh game!

Famous Jewish Sports Legends…

I haven’t posted anything since March. I’d been pretty busy until recently. In February, I started conversations with Firefly Books (for whom I’ve written several) about something new for their Hockey Hall of Fame series. They wanted something less stats-driven than most of their recent books … and they wanted it fast! So, in early March, I started writing and I delivered a lengthy manuscript at the end of April. It was quite the crunch.

The new book is called Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories. It’ll be out in November. And it’ll be a lot like the stories I post here. Some are actually re-writes of stories I’ve already posted. Many of the new ones would make great posts too … except it seems silly to “scoop” the book at this point. I’m sure you’ll hear more about this from me in the fall.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing about this story that’s so compelling I had to write it now, but I don’t like to stay away too long, and I thought it was sort of interesting since it demonstrates the twists and turns my research (I’m sure lots of people’s research!) often take. Also, I recently discovered that May is Canadian Jewish Heritage Month in Canada. So, there’s that too.

Martin Rosenthal as he appeared in the “Silver Seven” Stanley Cup photo circa 1904.

I rarely write about anything Jewish — although the very first thing I ever had published was a story about shtetl life that I wrote in my grade six religious school class and was printed in the Temple Har Zion bulletin. And just last week, I said to a few different people that I think I care less about Jews in sports than many other Jewish sports fans. But, I do like history, so I’ve long been aware of Martin Rosenthal and his role as an executive with the Ottawa Hockey Club from about 1901 until 1918.

The Rosenthal family, I’m told by my colleague Irv Osterer of Ottawa, was a pioneering Ottawa Jewish family. Aaron Rosenthal, Martin’s father, was born in Germany circa 1835. Aaron’s wife, the former Bertha Lehman, was also German, born in 1850. According to Aaron’s obituary in 1909, he spent much of his young life in Australia, India, and other countries. Martin was born in 1873 in Kent, England. Genealogical records show the family arrived in Quebec City on June 21, 1874. After settling in Montreal, the Rosenthals came to Ottawa around 1878.

Aaron Rosenthal was a jeweller, and several of his sons followed him into the business. In addition to the Jewish causes Aaron and Bertha supported (or created) in Ottawa, the family was very sports-minded too. Martin and his older brothers, Harry and Samuel, all played hockey at a fairly high level. And the family business supplied club pins to many Ottawa sports organizations too. After Martin got involved in management with the hockey team soon to be known as the “Silver Seven,” tickets to games were often sold through the Rosenthal business, and the Stanley Cup was sometimes displayed in the store window. (The building still exists, as the Birks Building, in Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street Mall.)

From the Ottawa Citizen on August 3, 1900.

In doing my brief research on Rosenthal, I discovered that Martin didn’t seem to be very Jewish by the end of his life. His children had married outside the faith, his funeral was handled by a non-Jewish funeral home, he was buried in the Beechwood cemetery … and the service was officiated by a reverend. His obviously non-Jewish funeral, in fact, caused me to wonder if maybe the Rosenthal family wasn’t Jewish, but only German, and launched me into my brief genealogical search.

Clearly, the Rosenthal family WAS Jewish. Aaron and Berth had very strong ties to Jewish life in Ottawa. But Martin definitely shared fewer and fewer of those ties over the years.

Martin Rosenthal’s parents from newspaper stories at the times of their deaths.

In the the Canadian censuses in 1881, 1891, and 1901, when Martin Rosenthal still lived with his parents, the family is recorded as “Hebrew” or “Jewish.” By 1911, he’s married and has started a family of his own. The listing is tricky to find because the name has been transcribed incorrectly, but Martin, his wife, Mary, and son, Lionel, are all listed as Jewish. In 1921, Martin, Mary, Lionel, a daughter named Phyllis, and another son named Malcolm, all have “Jewish” listed as their religion … but for everyone except Martin, it’s been crossed out.

Sections of the Rosenthal entry from the 1921 Canadian census.

When Mary died two years later in 1923 (at about 52 years of age), her funeral service was conducted by Reverend T.E. Holling of St. Paul’s Methodist church. So, were Mary Belle Rosenthal (nee Adams) and her children every really Jewish?

Maybe.

Probably.

But I don’t know.

The Marriage record of Martin Rosenthal and Mary Adams. Perhaps she took Ruth as her Hebrew name if she did actually convert? (Religious denominations for the bride aren’t filled out for any of the three women married by Solomon Jacobs on this page.)

As you can see above, Mary Adams married Martin Rosenthal on October 10, 1905. They were wed in Toronto, and the record shows the marriage was performed by Solomon Jacobs. Though that name meant nothing to me, I do know that even now, it’s hard to find a rabbi to perform the ceremony for a “mixed marriage.” Solomon Jacobs certainly sounded like a Jewish name. But was he a rabbi?

He most certainly was!

British-born, and a rabbi to the once-flourishing Jewish community in Jamaica for 15 years, Solomon Jacobs became the rabbi at Holy Blossom synagogue in Toronto in 1901 and served until his death in 1920.

Because Rabbi Jacobs spoke English so well (I suppose most other Toronto rabbis at the time were from Eastern Europe and probably spoke Yiddish as their first language), he was often called on when newspapers were looking for the Jewish perspective on issues in Toronto. He seems to have been quite liberal in his views, but was able to keep the peace between older, Orthodox members of Holy Blossom and the younger Toronto Jews who would later push the synagogue toward the Reform movement.

Rabbi Solomon Jacobs.

Rabbi Jacobs seems like a fascinating guy. (Google him if you care to!) Still, he doesn’t strike me as someone who would have performed the marriage of Martin Rosenthal and Mary Adams unless she had converted to Judaism. But I don’t know that.

Still, for me, the connection (albeit brief) of Martin Rosenthal to Holy Blossom was particularly interesting. My family has a very long affiliation with that synagogue. On my father’s side, my Zweig grandparents were deeply involved there for years and years, and on my mother’s side, several of my Freedman and Rosen aunts, uncles, and cousins, are still members to this day. My earliest Jewish life began at Holy Blossom with Rabbi Gunther Plaut and then Rabbi Michael Stroh, a friend of my parents who presided over some of my first “lifecycle” events at Holy Blossom before moving to Har Zion, where he later performed the ceremonies at my bar mitzvah, my wedding, my father’s funeral, and many other family events as well.

So, in a strange way (and even though he seems to have fallen much further from the faith than I ever have or likely will), all of this feels like it has given my a bit of a “six degrees of separation” connection to Martin Rosenthal, and therefore to the Ottawa Silver Seven … which is kind of neat for someone like me.

This is the new book that will be out in November. One of three I’ve got due in the fall!

(Oh, and the title of this story… It’s a bit of a joke based on the leaflet handed out to the old woman in the movie Airplane! when she asked if there was something light to read…)

Goalies Scoring Goals

One year to the day of the declaration of a global pandemic, I’m using the somewhat flimsy pretext of an overlooked anniversary (of sorts) from last week as an excuse for running this story today. Really, it’s just another old incident I may have figured out something new about…

This past Sunday, March 7, marked the 115th anniversary of Fred Brophy of the Montreal AAA hockey team scoring a goal on Nathan Frye of the Montreal Victorias. What makes this goal noteworthy is that Brophy himself was a goalie! What makes the pretext somewhat flimsy is that this was actually the second time Brophy the goalie had scored a goal … and it’s his first goal — a little more than a year earlier, on February 18, 1905 — that I’m actually writing about.

That Fred Brophy scored a goal more than 80 years before Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall shot a puck the length of the ice into an open net on December 8, 1987, is not unknown to hockey historians. It’s more than likely it first game to light in Volume 1 of Charles L. Coleman’s seminal work The Trail of the Stanley Cup, published around 1966.

Wikipedia’s account of Fred Brophy’s goal seems like this early table hockey game.

In writing about the 1905 hockey season, Coleman (who had poured over old newspapers for years to compile his three-volume set) stated: “Another unusual record was established by Brophy, the Westmount goaler, who on February 18th rushed the length of the ice and scored a goal against Paddy Moran of Quebec.”

Of his goal the next year, Coleman writes: “Brophy, the Montreal goaler, duplicated his performance of the previous year by scoring a goal against Victorias in the game on March 7th. In doing so, he stickhandled his way past the stars Bowie, Eveleigh and Bellingham.”

Brophy’s scoring ability got more play on December 24, 1969, in a Canadian Press story that appeared in numerous Canadian newspapers.

The CP story gives basically the same scant details that Coleman had provided. But somewhere along the line, more information about Brophy’s first goal surfaced. Wikipedia has this to say:

“The first recorded goal in competitive play, scored by a goaltender, was in 1905. According to a Montreal Star report, poor officiating resulted in only the goaltenders left on the ice in a February 18 game between the Montreal Westmounts and Quebec Bulldogs of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL). Fred Brophy (Montreal) and Hall of Famer Paddy Moran (Quebec) exchanged scoring attempts, before Brophy beat Moran, while the latter and most of the spectators “convulsed in laughter.”

Fred Brophy’s data panel from the Society for International Hockey Research.

Now, I know that in the early days of the NHL, there was no rule limiting the number of players serving a penalty at one time. Still, I’ve had difficulty envisioning a situation in which the referees would call so many penalties that only the goalies were left on the ice.

Wikipedia credits the book Without Fear: Hockey’s 50 Greatest Goaltenders by Kevin Allen, Bob Duff, and Johnny Bower as the source of its information. So, I asked Bob Duff if he had that Montreal Star report. Bob said he’d only read about it, and thought it might have been in a book by Brian McFarlane.

So, I got in touch with Brian McFarlane … who could only recall the story from what he’d read in Charles Coleman. Who (if anyone) found that Montreal Star story? At this point, who knows!

A short report from the Montreal Gazette.

Unfortunately, the Montreal Star has never been digitized and is not easily accessible (especially these days) via microfilm. But plenty of other newspapers are online. So, I got busy. And if there was a story in the Star, it was either inaccurate at the time … or was transcribed inaccurately later.

English accounts of the game from Montreal are scarce. The Gazette has very little to say about it. Westmount had its own paper (as I discovered when doing my research on Art Ross — both Ross and Lester Patrick played with Brophy on the Westmount team this year, and in this game) but the Westmount News either doesn’t exist before 1907, or no copies have survived.

The 1905 game was played in Quebec City, and perhaps that’s the reason the best accounts I could find were in French. So, I sent a copy of the story in Montreal’s La Presse to Society for International Hockey Research colleagues Jean-Patrice Martel and Marc Durand. Marc has a special interest in the history of the Quebec Bulldogs, and was readily available to read the story … and provide me with translations.

The Quebec Chronicle (courtesy of Marc Durand) has a pretty thorough account.

The English-language accounts I’d seen had made it pretty clear that Paddy Moran had tried to score before Brophy did, and that there were a lot of penalties called in a very one-sided game that Quebec won 17–5. As Marc explained, the score was already 12–4 Quebec at the time, and it was getting to be late in the game. According to his translation:

“Paddy Moran played his typical game. He went the extra mile by taking advantage of the moment when Quebec had just one forward on the ice to try and score himself. The situation amused the public. Brophy, to not be left behind, returned the compliment by scoring, after a superb race, helped by a lot of goodwill on the part of the Quebec defense.”

La Presse had the best report from the Saturday night game in its paper on Monday. (Note that Art Ross got goal 10; Lester Patrick goal 16 and Fred Brophy goal 17.)

No explanation as to what that “goodwill” entailed, but it was clear that Brophy and Moran were not the only players on the ice. Quebec only had one forward who wasn’t in the penalty box at the time, but Moran had him and his two defensemen with him. Westmount had only one player in the box.

Marc and I both agree that, from what we know of Paddy Moran, he doesn’t seem like the type who would just let Brophy score on him, no matter what the score. (Especially after Brophy had just stopped him!) Goalies in this era didn’t have all the equipment they wear today. Their gloves weren’t all that different from other players; the pads on their legs were flimsy; and their sticks were only marginally wider than other players. Still, there’s no record of any other goalies doing what Brophy did at the game’s highest level in this era.

The fact that he did it again the next season shows it couldn’t have been a complete fluke.

And for people who haven’t see it already, I was one of those who Ken Dryden reached out to yesterday to share his message that we still need to be careful. Even with the vaccine rollout picking up the pace, Ken’s is a reminder that we still need to wear a mask…

Mercurys Rising…

On February 24, 1952, the Edmonton Mercurys completed an undefeated run through the Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, to win the gold medal in hockey. Canada had previously won Olympic hockey gold in 1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932, and after settling for a surprising silver behind a Great Britain team loaded with Canadian-born players in 1936, won gold again in 1948 when the Olympics resumed after World War II. With the Soviet Union entering the Olympic scene in 1956, Canadian men wouldn’t win Olympic hockey gold again after 1952 for another 50 years until the star-studded NHL team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Though Canada no doubt deserved its gold medal in 1952, the win wasn’t without controversy. After scoring victories of 15-1 over Germany, 13-3 over Finland, 11-0 over Poland, 4-1 over Czechoslovakia, 11-2 over Switzerland, 3-2 over Sweden, and 11-2 over Norway in its first seven games, Canada managed only a 3-3 tie with the Americans in the finale for both clubs. Had Canada won the game, the United States would have finished fourth. With the tie, the U.S. claimed silver and a newspaper in Moscow accused the two North American countries of colluding to deny the Czechs (who would finish fourth) a medal.

Canadian fans, of course, have long accused Soviet and Russian teams, and European authorities, of similar shenanigans in international competition. But while there likely hadn’t been a fix in Oslo, European teams — as they often would — sharply criticized the Canadian and American hockey teams for their rough tactics. This would have a surprising result on Olympic and sports history.

At the Summer Games in London in 1948, Czechoslovakian long distance runner Emil Zatopek won a silver medal in the 5,000 meters and gold in the 10,000. He improved on that performance in Helsinki in 1952 and shortly after those Summer Olympics concluded, Zatopek claimed that the rough play in hockey (and perhaps the way his countrymen had been denied their medal) earlier that year was indirectly responsible for his record-breaking feats in Finland.

“It was the brutal and harsh play of the United States ice hockey team which drove me to my most recent performances,” said Zatopek in a story widely reported in North American newspapers on August 16, 1952. “I made a pledge to win at least two gold medals for my country.”

Not only did Zatopek win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in Helsinki, he made a last-minute decision to enter the marathon for the first time in his life … and won the gold medal in that race too! He is the only man ever to win all three races in the same Olympic Games.

Zatopek fell out of favour with the Communist party in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, but was finally “rehabilitated” in 1990. He died in Prague on November 22, 2000 at the age of 78 and became one of the first twelve athletes named to the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012. Zatopek was selected as the Greatest Runner of All Time by Runners World Magazine in 2013.

But if it hadn’t been for some chippy hockey back in February of 1952, who knows what might have happened…

Keeping Up With the … Smiths!

On a late Friday morning, right around noon, on April 17, 1931, Henry Smith was going down the stairs to the cellar in his home at 47 Empress Avenue in Ottawa. A widower living alone for the past six months after 60 years of marriage to Anne McLaughlin, Mr. Smith was suddenly overcome by a dizzy spell and fell. He suffered seven cracked ribs and was taken to the Walter Street hospital.

Once a contractor of great renown, Henry Smith and partner John Henney had built many bridges in Ottawa, and public structures across much of Canada. He was a man who had always enjoyed robust health, and was said to have been in full possession of all his faculties at the time of his accident. Hopes were held out for a complete recovery, but the shock to his system was too much. Complications set in, and Henry Smith died shortly after 9 am on the morning of Tuesday, April 21. He was a month shy of his 88th birthday.

The family of Henry Smith and Anne McLaughlin, circa 1891. Though stories say they had 15 children, genealogical records show “only” 14. The eleven seen here survived into adulthood. (Photo courtesy of Francie Heagney, granddaughter of Bill Smith.)

So, why do we care about this?

(I guess the better question is, why do I care about it?)

Because of the seven sons of Henry and Anne Smith, all seven became prominent hockey players in their hometown of Ottawa. Alf Smith, the oldest son, and his brother, Tommy, 12 years his junior, are both members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Another brother, Harry, probably had the talent to join them there, although perhaps he had even more of Alf’s belligerent nature than he had of Tommy’s scoring skill.

Smith brothers Alf, Jack, Dan, (top) Harry, Tommy and Bill (bottom).
(Courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.)

As I mentioned in my recent story about the Gilmour brothers, Alf, Tommy, and Harry were all members of the Silver Seven in their final dynasty season of 1905–06. Smith brothers Dan (known as Moxie) and Jack both played briefly with Alf on the Ottawa hockey club before it earned the Silver Seven moniker, while Billy, or Will Smith, played with several other top Ottawa clubs after the Silver Seven era. Youngest brother George Smith played alongside Billy briefly with the Ottawa Emmetts in 1909–10, but appears to have had less talent for the game than his six elder siblings.

There are no hockey pictures of George Smith, but he may be wearing a sweater from his 1913-14 Nipissing team. Photo is courtesy of his granddaughter, Marian Scollan.

Alf Smith was 17 1/2 years older than his youngest brother George, but it is mentioned in the obituaries for both Henry and Anne that Henry had once issued a challenge to any other “seven sons” hockey team to face-off against his talented Smith tribe. The challenge, it’s said, was never accepted.

That appears to be true.

But it certainly doesn’t appear to have been due to any lack of trying on the part of proud papa Henry!

I recall coming across stories of the Smith family challenge years ago, but had mostly forgotten about it until a recent post about the Smiths on the Society for International Hockey Research web site by a Swedish member named Oskar Tallqvist. After reading it, I went hunting through old newspapers for stories about the challenge … and found quite a lot.

The first time that a family challenge from the Smiths appeared in the newspaper is in the Ottawa Citizen on March 10, 1899:

“Defi” is apparently a French word for challenge.

Alf Smith was two months shy of his 26th birthday. He had played with Ottawa in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (the NHL of its day) from 1894 through 1898 (and would star for the team later, from 1903 through 1908) but appears not to have been playing anywhere in 1898–99. Dan was two years past his stint with Alf on Ottawa’s top team, and Jack was still two years away from his. Harry and Tommy were only teenagers, and their official hockey records don’t date back that far. And, despite what the paper says, Will (Bill) was actually the nine-year-old (though his next birthday was coming soon, on April 20), while George had only turned eight in January.

Still, the big question for me now was, “who were the Sime, or Sims brothers?”

Well, though Ancestry has some records showing the name spelled as Symms and Simms, this was the family of Henry Francis Sims, another pioneering Ottawa citizen who was even older than Henry Smith. Henry Sims and his wife Rachel had seven sons, who in 1899 would have ranged in age from about 34 to 16. (They also had three daughters.) The sons were all hockey players, and a year later, in 1900, at least five of them would play together for the same team in Ottawa’s Merchant’s Hockey League: the Henry J. Sims & Co. hockey team. Henry Francis Joseph Sims, the third son and fourth child in the family, was a furrier and a hatter operating on Sparks Street.

Bert Sims in on the left in a McGill uniform. Percy is with Ottawa on the right.
(Courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.)

The Society for International Hockey Research has records for only two of the hockey playing Sims brothers. Youngest son Herbert (1883-1947) was better known as Bert. He played at McGill University in the early 1900s along with future Hall of Famers Tommy Phillips in 1902–03 and with Billy Gilmour in 1904–05. Bert Sims went on to become a noted North American medical specialist as an ear, nose and throat doctor and was president of the Ottawa Rough Riders football club (known as the Senators at the time) when they won the Grey Cup in 1926. The second youngest Sims boy, Percy, played with the Ottawa Silver Seven in 1902–03 and helped them win the Stanley Cup that year.

But in 1899, the Sims brothers were mostly playing hockey for fun when a challenge to any hockey-playing family was issued by another Ottawa merchant family, the McCrackens, in local newspapers on February 21. A day later, it was reported that the McCracken crew (they were tailors on Bank Street) had agreed to face-off with the Sims boys:

From the Ottawa Citizen on February 21, 1899 and the Ottawa Journal the next day.

The game was played at Dey’s rink in Ottawa on March 3, 1899. Hockey in these days was played with seven players a side, the extra player being the rover who lined up between the forwards and the defencemen, who were known in those days as point and cover point. But because the oldest Sims brother, William, was out of town, the families agreed to drop the rover and play with six men aside. They only played 40 minutes, but the Sims ran up a one-sided 12–0 victory.

Percy and Bert were the stars of the game, according to the Ottawa Citizen. There was a longer report in the Ottawa Journal, showing the following lineups:

R. G. Sims   -  Goal   -  Sam McCracken
Edgar Sims   -  Point  -  Alex McCracken
Percy Sims   -  Cover  -  Joe McCracken
Henry Sims   - Forward -  George McCracken
Herbert Sims -         -  David McCracken
Fred Sims    -         -  Robert McCracken

Little wonder, then, that Henry Smith issued the challenge on behalf of his hockey-playing offspring just a week later. And it’s no surprise why the Smiths wanted to face the Sims.

There is no report as to why the game was never played.

Perhaps the fact that two of the Smith children were under the age of 10 had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, it seems that nearly five years passed before more talk of the Smith family playing together versus another family of seven appeared in newspapers. A story out of Perth, Ontario (not too far from Ottawa) on January 13, 1904, was picked up in capital city newspapers the following day:

Ottawa Citizen on the left, and the Ottawa Journal on the right; January 14, 1904.

I knew the name Frank McLaren from writing in the past about the Stanley Cup challenges of the Toronto Wellingtons and the Toronto Marlboros, but not the fact that he was also one of seven hockey-playing brothers. On January 16, 1904, the Montreal Gazette noted that the Smiths “are out to accept the challenge of the McLaren Freres of Perth” — although the paper got several of the Smith brothers’ names wrong. The Ottawa Journal that day only noted that the Smiths “should accept the defi,” and introduced me to another set of seven hockey playing brothers, when it noted that, if not the Smiths then the Christmas brothers of Montreal should accept the challenge. (This clarified the “Christmas” reference in that paper’s January 14 headline above.)

The Christmases seem to be a family of seven sons and no daughters born to Thomas Henry Christmas and his wife Jennie. Brothers Ernest, William, Archie, Howard, Alex, Percy and Walter ranged in ages from 27 to 16 in 1905.

Ernie Christmas is on the left. That’s Billy Christmas on the right. (Courtesy of SIHR.)

The Ottawa Citizen had more about the McLaren challenge in its paper on January 18. Among other things, it introduced yet another hockey-playing family of seven with a story out of Newmarket, Ontario, indicated that Doyle family — Larry (goal), Fred (point), Frank (cover point), and forwards Ern, Harry, Ed and Tom — would be happy to hear from the McLarens. The Citizen noted that Henry Smith was also up for the challenge, and reminded readers what the seven Smiths were currently up to.

“Alf is now putting up superb hockey on the Stanley Cup holders and both Dan and Jack have figured on the Ottawas previously.” (Neither appear to have been playing anymore by 1904). “Harry was captain of the Aberdeens last season and now plays center for the Arnprior aggregation of puck-chasers. Tommy Smith was one of the Emmetts’ best forward last year… Willie tips the scales at about 105 pounds but is rapidly learning the fine points of the game…. The youngest of the family is George, age 12.” (He actually turned 13 the day this story appeared in the paper.) “George has been taught hockey from the cradle and is plucky to the core.”

McLaren brothers Mervyn, Robert and Frank. (Courtesy of SIHR.)

On February 14, 1904, the Citizen reports that the Beavers of the Ottawa City league (who featured future Ottawa star Hamby Shore) had agreed to play a couple of games against the Smiths to get them prepared for their clash with the McLarens. However, there doesn’t appear to be any record of the Smiths ever facing the Beavers … nor of a challenge match against the Perth family ever being played.

But Henry Smith wasn’t giving up on the dream of seeing his seven sons face-off together against other teams, be they family squads like his or not. First, in January of 1907, there were stories about Henry having been in Winnipeg arranging for his boys to face teams from that city. Then, in the late fall of 1908, there was talk of a lengthy trip through the United States and western Canada. Finally, in November of 1910, there were stories about the Smiths going west to Edmonton to take on the Banford boys, another hockey-playing family said to have seven sons who were originally from the Ottawa Valley, but had relocated to Alberta around 1903. In all cases, no games were ever played.

Newspaper clipping is from the Edmonton Journal on November 23, 1910. Photo of Bill Banford is courtesy of SIHR. Other Banford brothers were Charles, Gordon, Howard, Ernie, Chester and Arthur. Father Charles Sr. apparently played with the boys too.

Talk of the Smith family playing together as a team of seven ended, sadly, on June 9, 1911, with the unexpected death of Jack Smith. He’d been ill for about two weeks with inflammation of the stomach when, suddenly, his heart gave out.

“Hockeyists and sportsmen in all parts of the country will, with deep regret, learn of his untimely demise,” said an obituary in the Ottawa Citizen on June 10. “He was the third member of a hockey family which could hold its own with anything in the country….

“The Smith Brothers Seven was known from coast to coast and one of Mr. Smith’s fondest dreams had been to get the boys together again.”

As for the rest of the Smith boys, Dan passed away in 1926 at the age of 50. Alf, who had finished playing by 1909, but would coach in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators (1918–19) and New York Americans (1925–26), died in August of 1953 at the age of 80. Harry had died that May at 69, while youngest brother George died in 1954 at age 62. Tommy, whose last season as a player was in the NHL with the Quebec Bulldogs (sometimes called the Athletics) in 1919–20, died in 1966 at the age of 80.

Bill Smith was the last and the longest-lived of the seven brothers. He passed away on October 30, 1977 at the age of 88.

Gilmours’ Getaway?

Since writing last week about the Gilmour brothers, I’ve been spending some of my lockdown time trying to find the story of how Billy Gilmour and his daughter escaped from Nazi-occupied France. If their account actually appears somewhere in print, perhaps it was told in an Ottawa or Montreal newspaper that isn’t available online. But, I have been able to piece together from other sources quite a bit of what might have happened.

According to stories in Ottawa papers in the 1930s, Billy Gilmour did own a house in Paris. His daughter, Gerna Gilmour, was trained there to play piano by Yves Nat, a French pianist and composer. But Billy and Gerna also spent time in the south of France, in Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the Bay of Biscay, between Bordeaux and the border with Spain.

From the Ottawa Journal on March 14, 1959 — the day after Billy Gilmour died.

In a story about Gerna returning to Canada after the War to live in Montreal that appeared in the Gazette on September 14, 1946, it’s noted that she (and perhaps her father?) had escaped from Bayonne after the Petain armistice. This was the “peace treaty” negotiated with Hitler in June of 1940 by the collaborating Vichy regime in France under World War I hero Marshall Philippe Petain. It was signed on June 22 and went into effect on June 25.

Throughout that month, Britain was actively doing what it could to evacuate troops and civilians, most notably from Dunkirk in the early days of June, but all across the country. Evacuations of British and Polish troops, as well as other foreign civilians, from around Bayonne began on June 19. This was part of Operation Ariel, sometimes called Aerial. (The evacuation of Dunkirk was known as Operation Dynamo. Operation Cycle was the evacuation from Le Havre.)

Many of those fleeing Bayonne went first to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the evacuation concluded at 2 pm on June 25, just after the deadline set by the Germans in the terms of the armistice. Two Canadian warships, the HMCS Fraser and the HMCS Restigouche, took part in the rescue, but later that night, the Fraser was accidentally rammed by a British ship, the Calcutta. Neither had lights or radar, but they were moving at closing speed of 34 knots per hour. The Calcutta tried to swing starboard to avoid a collision. The Fraser went to port, reversing its engines but to no avail. The two ships struck. The Fraser was cut in half and began to sink.

Photo from the Montreal Gazette on September 14, 1946.
The article is from the Gazette on January 6, 1942.

There were 115 crew members rescued by the Restigouche and other ships that night, but 45 men were lost.

It’s unclear if there were civilians on the Fraser, but there were probably some. Newspaper accounts from the time mention the losses to the crew, and the names of those rescued, but there likely hadn’t been time to compile any lists of civilians on board. Even so, Georges Vanier, Canada’s minister to France (and later the first French-Canadian to serve as Govenor-General of Canada) was there.

Frank Millan was an able seaman aboard the Fraser and he told his story in the Victoria Times Colonist on May 5, 1985.

“We were somewhere off Bordeaux,” he remembered. “We’d been down to the fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz to pick up Georges Vanier…. The Germans were on their way in when we took off.”

It was shortly after 10 p.m. when the Fraser was rammed by the Calcutta.

George Garman was an ordinary seaman aboard the HMCS St. Laurent who had friends on the Fraser and the Restigouche. He told the story to the Salmon Arm (British Columbia) Observer on November 5, 1997. Garman says the British Admiral of the Fleet ordered the captain of the Restigouche to “disregard survivors and carry on with her duties.” Despite the threat of a court martial, the captain refused. According to Garman, he said “this is a Canadian ship and there are Canadian sailors in the water and I am picking them up.”

Article from the Guardian (London, England) on June 29, 1940.
There are pictures of the Fraser available from several sources.

A story in the Red Deer (Alberta) Advocate on June 18, 1965, says the Restigouche threw wartime discretion aside and played lights on the water, searching for missing men. “They rescued everyone alive,” said retired Rear-Admiral Wallace B. Creery, the skipper of the Fraser that night.

In the Red Deer account, Georges Vanier is mentioned as being one of 15 diplomats found, along with British Ambassador Sir Ronald Hugh Campbell, “wallowing in a sardine shack in heavy rain off the Bordeaux coast.” He was taken by the Fraser to the British cruiser Galatea. Most of the refugees onboard the Fraser were transported to another ship. It’s noted that Mme. Vanier was also in France and that she was among the refugees who poured into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, but that she got back to England aboard “a slow tramp steamer.”

Was there any chance that Billy and Gerna Gilmour were on the Fraser or the Restigouche? Had they been in Paris when Georges Vanier and his Canadian diplomatic party fled the French capital for the south of France a few days before the Germans occupied the city on June 14?

Even if they were with that Canadian civilian delegation, the chances are greater that the Gilmours left from Saint-Jean-de-Luz in a manner more similar to Mme Vanier than to her husband. Still, it’s possible that they were transported from the Fraser to the Galatea. At this point, I don’t know. But if they were anywhere in the Bay of Biscay that night, as they very well might have been, it would have every bit the “harrowing” experience that the stories I’d found before about Billy Gilmour and his daughter’s escape had told of.