Category Archives: Hockey History

Long Live(d) The King!

This Saturday, the Maple Leafs will be wearing Toronto St. Pats uniforms for their home game against Chicago. It’s a nod to the team’s heritage during its 100th season and, of course, to the fact that Friday will be St. Patrick’s Day.

StPats

Way back on March 17, 1934, the Maple Leafs celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by declaring it “Clancy Night” in honour of King Clancy, their own Irish leprechaun whom Conn Smythe had acquired as the key piece he felt he needed to build the team into the powerhouse he envisioned. (Clancy did exactly what Smythe hoped he would and, basically – except for few years – remained with the Maple Leafs for the rest of his life.)

Green
King Clancy wore this green shirt – sold a few years ago by Classic Auctions –
on Clancy Night in 1934 … until Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers
demanded he put on his regular Leafs uniform.

Over the past few years, a man I have never met named Daniel Doyon has been emailing me notes about the books I write and corrections to errors he’s come across in the NHL Official Guide & Record Book. (And, honestly, he’s never sent me anything where it hasn’t turned out that he was right!) A few weeks ago, on February 25, he sent me a note saying that it was King Clancy’s birthday and did our records show he was turning 114 or 115, because although hockey sources have long listed 1903 as Clancy’s birth year, he’d come across a document indicating it really should be 1902.

72Birth

Even with web sites such as Ancestry.com and others like it, this type of research is far from perfect. Despite the fact that King Clancy himself signed this document stating that “I certify the foregoing to be true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief,” it was still 70 years after the fact. He could have been wrong.

Even with Daniel’s track record, I needed more than this to go on. So, I checked the Census of Canada records. In 1911, Francis Clancy (he inherited his famous nickname from his father, Thomas, who was a rugby star known as “The King of the Heelers,” but he wasn’t born King Clancy!) appears to have had 1902 written overtop of 1901 (yes, it looks a lot like 1907!) and had his age of 10 crossed out and changed to a 9. In 1921, where no birth years are recorded, he’s listed as being 19 years old.

Census

These were two more bits of evidence for a birth year of 1902 … but I know from past experience that Census information from these days can’t always be trusted. What is much more reliable, however is the statement of baptism. Clancy’s is hard to read, but it says: “On this the first day of March one thousand nine hundred and two we the undersigned parish priests of St. Joseph’s Church have baptized Michael Francis, born on the 25th inst. of the legal marriage of Thomas F. Clancy and Catherine J. O’Leary…”

Baptism

Bingo!

But maybe not. Clancy’s name is supposed to be Francis Michael, not Michael Francis. Still, with everything else a perfect match, it must be him, right? Fortunately, as it turns out, Clancy’s wedding record from 1933 also lists his name as Michael Francis (and shows his age as 31, which would again indicate a birth year of 1902).

Marriage

And to erase any lingering doubt about that record possibly being the wrong Clancy, newspaper coverage in both Toronto and Ottawa shortly after the wedding match the names and dates too perfectly for this to be anyone else.

Wedding
Ottawa Journal, October 14, 1933.

Yet the hockey records showing his birth year as 1903 are so prevalent that you will find plenty of stories today claiming that Clancy was 18 years old in 1921 when he broke into the NHL (reputedly as the first teenager in league history – I haven’t looked into that!). But in his hometown of Ottawa at the time, people knew better. The Ottawa Journal in reporting on his signing on December 15, 1921, noted that Clancy was 19:

Journal19

And two years later, on February 24, 1923, there was this story in the Journal noting his 21st birthday:

Journal21

As well as this one that same day in the Ottawa Citizen:

Citizen21

All this evidence has pretty much convinced me that Clancy really was born in 1902, but then, clearly, some time after he got to Toronto, Clancy lost a year, as this short item in The Globe notes on February 25, 1936:

Globe

So, I began to wonder two things. First, when did the NHL start to “officially” record birth dates? I sent an email to Benny Ercolani, who’s been with the NHL since 1976 and its head statistician since the 1980s. He didn’t know the answer. Neither has anyone else I’ve spoken to.

It seems reasonable to me that recording birth dates may have begun in 1932 when Jim Hendy published his first NHL Guide, which was the forerunner of the publication I’ve been working on with Dan Diamond and Associates since 1996. Hendy was publishing newspaper stories that included player birth dates at least as early as 1931 … but I’ve never seen a copy of his 1932-33 Guide. The earliest edition in the archives at the Hockey Hall of Fame is from 1936-37 … and Phil Pritchard informs me that Clancy is listed in that one as being born in 1903. (No surprise there!)

Did Hendy solicit birth dates from players? And if he did, did Clancy decide around 1932 that he’d be better off as an aging NHLer who was 29-years-old rather than 30? Maybe. But that’s nothing more than a guess.

To see if the Clancy family could shed any light on this, I contacted his son, Terry Clancy. When I asked Terry what he knew about his father’s age, he told me: “I know that he was 83 when he died (in 1986).” I told him that he may actually have been a year older than that, and then I asked him the second thing I’d been wondering about. Did he have any idea why his father filled out that form in 1972?

I wondered if Clancy had needed a passport to go to Russia for the 1972 Series in September … but Terry said his father hadn’t gone. I also wondered, with Harold Ballard soon to serve a jail sentence for fraud, if maybe Clancy was suddenly worried about his job with the Maple Leafs and decided it might be a good idea to apply for his pension.

Terry had his doubts about that … although it’s hardly the kind of thing a father would have discussed with his children. Still, he got in touch with his older sister to ask her if she’d ever heard anything. “She told me she knew something about the two [birth dates],” he wrote, “but she always went on the assumption that he was born in 1903.”

1983
Toronto Star, February 22, 1983.

Despite having filled out that form in 1972, King Clancy certainly appears to have carried on as if he’d been born in 1903. He happily took part in 80th birthday festivities in 1983 – when he was probably turning 81.

“My father never really cared about his age,” Terry Clancy told me.

I wonder what he’d make of all this effort today!

Other Stories of the Spanish Flu

For the second time in just over two years, an outbreak of mumps has hit the NHL. This one, which began in late February, doesn’t seem to be as widespread as the outbreak in November and December of 2014, which hit five teams. So far, only a few players in Vancouver and Minnesota have been infected, and with no new reports so far this month, perhaps it’s been contained.

I had the mumps as a child. This would have been around 1971, although I have read that the mumps declined by 99 percent after a vaccine was introduced in the 1960s. (Was I just unlucky?) Booster shots since then are apparently effective only 88 percent of the time.

Crosby
Sidney Crosby with the mumps in 2014.

The NHL outbreaks might make a good story for anti-vax conspiracy theorists, but the truth is that the mumps remains most prevalent where people congregate in close settings and it spreads through mucus and saliva. Sounds an awful lot like every hockey dressing room I’ve ever been in!

The truth is, flu bugs and other germs hit teams in every sport often enough. It’s usually nothing serious – but it can be.

The most famous incident of hockey and disease involves one of the most deadly pandemics in world history. The so-called Spanish Influenza of 1918 to 1920 infected as many as 500 million people around the world and killed as many as 50 to 100 million. The Spanish Flu resulted in the final game of the Stanley Cup series of 1919 being cancelled after several members of both the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans came down with the disease.

Many people who read this will know that Joe Hall of the Montreal Canadiens died of the Spanish Flu. (Technically, he died of pneumonia, as did most of the flu’s victims, when he passed away in Seattle’s Columbus Sanatorium on April 5, 1919.) Some will know that Canadiens owner George Kennedy never truly recovered from his bout before passing away on October 19, 1921.

Hall
Report of Joe Hall’s death in the Seattle Times Sunday edition on April 6, 1919.
Photo courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.

Hall and Kennedy are the most famous members of the professional hockey fraternity to die of the Spanish Flu, but they aren’t the only ones.

Hamby Shore isn’t a name many people know anymore, but 100 seasons ago when the NHL was just starting out, he was an important member of the Ottawa Senators. Shore had first played with his home town team back in 1905, and although injuries slowed him down during the NHL’s first season of 1917-18, he was still a fan favourite and was expected to be an important veteran presence on Ottawa’s 1918-19 team.

Shore
Ottawa Journal, October 15, 1918. Photo courtesy
of the Society for International Hockey Research.

But around the beginning of October in 1918, Shore’s wife took ill with the Spanish Flu. He contracted the disease while nursing her at home. Ruby Shore recovered, but Hamby would spend a week at Ottawa’s Walter Street hospital before succumbing to pneumonia on October 13, 1918.

On the day of Shore’s funeral in Ottawa, October 16, 1918, the hockey world suffered another tragedy when the son of future Hall of Famer Jack Marshall died of pneumonia brought on by the Spanish Flu. Bobby Marshall was just 12 years old.

Marshall
The Montreal Gazette on October 16, 1918 reports on the
death of Bobby Marshall and the funeral of Hamby Shore.

By the time the NHL opened its second season in December of 1918, the Spanish Flu had seemed to vanish from the eastern part of North America, but it was still raging in the west. Captain Eddie Oatman of the Victoria Aristocrats was too sick to play when the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association began its season. Oatman was better within a few weeks, but other Victoria players got sick too.

Lester Patrick caught the flu right after Oatman. Patrick wasn’t just a player in Victoria. He was also the team’s owner, coach and general manager. Having been sick himself, Patrick took no chances when other players showed symptoms. According to a February 21, 1919 story in the Victoria Times, if anyone had even a hint of a fever, he was sent home to bed, and the team doctor made a visit. Despite the precautions, seven Victoria players in all caught the flu during the 1918-19 season, but with prompt care, and some very good luck, not a single one of them died.

Victoria
Various stories from the Victoria Colonist from January and February of 1919.

It’s long been said that Joe Hall, George Kennedy and the other members of the Montreal Canadiens caught the Spanish Flu in Victoria while awaiting the winner of the PCHA playoffs prior to the Stanley Cup Finals. This was even reported in newspapers at the time, but Seattle defeated Vancouver for the PCHA title while the Canadiens were still on the train heading to the West Coast from Montreal. They arrived in Vancouver on March 16, 1919 and played an exhibition game there on March 17 before immediately catching an overnight ferry directly to Seattle. They arrived there on the morning of March 18.

There was no opportunity for anyone with the Canadiens to be biding their time in Victoria, and even if there had been, virtually everything ever written about the Spanish Flu mentions how remarkably short its incubation period was. There’s no way someone could have been exposed to the flu even if the ferry stopped briefly in Victoria on March 17-18 and then not show any signs of illness for two weeks until March 31.

Ferry
Ferry schedule from 1919 sent to me by Canadian Pacific archivist
Jo-Anne Colby during research for my Y/A novel Fever Season.

Given that there were two days off between some of the games in Seattle during the series, it’s not impossible (though highly unlikely!) that a player or two may have gone to Victoria for a visit during their time off. But no newspaper I’ve come across reports on that happening during a hard-fought series where rest would have been the top priority between games.

I think the simple fact that so many players in Victoria had been sick during the 1918-19 season meant that it was easy (and lazy) speculation on the part of reporters at the time to say that the Montreal players got sick in Victoria. Unfortunately, nearly 100 years later, the story still persists.

Little Jeff

Last week, I caught some of The Prizefighter and the Lady on Turner Classic Movies. It stars Max Baer, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, in his first movie role as the Prizefighter, and Myrna Loy as the Lady. It was made in 1933 and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Original Story. Generally speaking, it still gets good reviews. Admittedly, I didn’t see that much of it, but from what I did see, it seemed much more interesting now as a piece of history than it did as a movie.

I won’t go into the plot, but it builds towards a big fight scene at the end where Baer’s character (Steve Morgan) fights the real heavyweight champion of the time, Primo Carnera. (In real life, Baer would beat Carnera for the title a year later.) In the film, the fight is promoted and also refereed by Jack Dempsey playing himself, and before the bout begins Dempsey is joined in the ring by other legendary heavyweight champions of the past, Jess Willard and James J. “Jim” Jeffries. I recognized Jeffries right away from his strong resemblance to hockey legend Cyclone Taylor!

Movie
Movie poster plus the hand and footprints of William Powell and Myrna Loy at the
Chinese Theater in Hollywood. W.S. Van Dyke, who directed The Prizefighter and the Lady, would later direct Powell and Loy in the first of “The Thin Man” movies.

I first learned of Cyclone Taylor’s resemblance to Jim Jeffries in Eric Whitehead’s 1977 biography Cyclone Taylor: A Hockey Legend. (Reading that book, and then Whitehead’s biography of Frank and Lester Patrick, inspired me to write my first book, the historical fiction novel Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.) Whitehead writes of hockey fans in New York City taking to Taylor because of his skill and because of his resemblance to the former heavyweight champ. He says they called him “Little Jeff.”

While I couldn’t find any newspaper references to that specifically, Jeffries was actually in New York at the same time as Taylor and the Ottawa Senators were there to face Art Ross and the Montreal Wanderers in a postseason series in March of 1909. Jeffries was very much in the news, with fight promoters offering him huge money for the time – $50,000 and up – to come out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson. (Jeffries would be the first “Great White Hope” to fight the controversial Black heavyweight champion when he lost to him on July 4, 1910.)

The clipping below doesn’t use the nickname “Little Jeff” but does come pretty close to confirming Whitehead’s account by referring to Cyclone as “Jeffries” Taylor…

TribArticle in The New York Daily Tribune on March 18, 1910, when Taylor
returned to New York as a member of the Renfrew Millionaires.

And while you wouldn’t exactly confuse one for the other (especially considering that Jeffries was about 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds in his prime while Taylor was 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds), there definitely is a resemblance…

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1,000 Points and Other Milestones

It was big news last week when Sidney Crosby collected his 1,000th career point. He reached the milestone on February 16 with an assist on a Chris Kunitz goal early in the first period, and then picked up another assist on the tying goal in the third period before scoring himself in overtime to give his Pittsburgh Penguins a 4-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. It was truly a feel-good moment for a player who has clearly re-established himself as the best in the game after the concussions of a few years back that threatened to cut short his career.

Crosby is the 86th player in NHL history to record 1,000 points. (Henrik Sedin and Alex Ovechkin hit the mark earlier this year, and Daniel Sedin and Shane Doan are closing in too.) The first was Gordie Howe, who reached the milestone more than 56 years ago on November 27, 1960. Coverage of that moment was widespread too – although the focus of those stories may surprise you.

Howe

Howe reached the milestone with the first of two assists that night in Detroit’s 2-0 home victory over Toronto. It was a Sunday, and Howe had also picked up an assist in the Red Wings’ 3-3 tie at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday night. With so few Sunday newspapers in this era, Monday papers had to cover the full weekend’s worth of games, and in Canada, most of the sports pages were filled with Ottawa’s 16-6 Grey Cup victory over Edmonton in Vancouver that Saturday. (The Grey Cup didn’t move to Sunday until 1969.)

The Montreal Gazette devoted the first four pages of its sports section to Grey Cup coverage on November 28, 1960:

Gazette 1

And when it finally got around to Sunday’s hockey games outside of Montreal, it made no mention at all of Howe’s 1,000th point. Instead, it focused on his tying for the all-time scoring lead with Maurice Richard, who’d recently retired with 965 regular-season points and 126 more in the playoffs for a total of 1,091.

Gazette 2

A Montreal bias, perhaps? After all, fans of the Canadiens and Red Wings had been arguing the merits of Howe versus Richard for years. But the coverage in Toronto wasn’t much different. The Star and the Globe at least mentioned that Howe now had 1,001 points in regular season play – although neither said anything about him being the first to reach 1,000 and both mentioned his tie with Richard.

Even in Detroit, the headline in the Free Press said “Howe Ties Record” as did the story picked up from the Canadian Press in the Star-Phoenix in Gordie’s home town of Saskatoon.

Sask

Only the United Press International, it seems, played up the fact that Howe’s first assist in the 2-0 win over Toronto made him the first player to reach the 1,000-point plateau. But even they gave pretty much equal billing to his tying Richard at 1,091.

UPI

Howe, himself, seemed to play down the milestone. As noted in the UPI story, what he really wanted was to be able to play another five seasons to reach 20 for his career. Numerous stories pointed out that he didn’t even take the puck from his 1,000th point as a souvenir, although someone must have because the colourized photo above is all over the Internet, and Detroit GM Jack Adams stated that the Red Wings planned to put the puck on display.

Meantime, Howe quickly moved himself into the undisputed spot as hockey’s all-time scoring leader. Despite a 3-2 loss to Boston at home in Detroit’s next game on December 1, he picked up assists on both Red Wings goals to move two points clear of Maurice Richard with 1,093.

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Howe, by the way had reached 1,000 points in 938 games over 15 seasons and had needed 1,033 in all to achieve 1,091. Richard hit that total in 1,111 games over 18 years – 978 in the regular season and 133 in the playoffs.

1093 1

But Maurice Richard continued to loom large in NHL milestones. Even after Gordie Howe became the second player to score 500 goals in 1962 and went on to surpass Richard with 545, sportswriters well into the 1970s would note not just when players reached 500  but when they reached 544 as well. And, of course, 50 goals in 50 games in a single season (which Richard accomplished in 1944-45) would remain a magic mark until Mike Bossy matched it in 1980-81 and Gretzky obliterated it with 50 in 39 the following year.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ace Bailey

Today is Valentine’s Day, but it also marks two important Toronto hockey anniversaries. Ninety years ago, on February 14, 1927, the group assembled by Conn Smythe made its first $75,000 payment (they’d already put down a $10,000 deposit and would pay the final $75,000 over the next 30 days) to purchase the Toronto St. Pats. The deal was ratified that day at a meeting of NHL officials at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. The team played its final game under its old name at Detroit the following evening before making its debut as the Maple Leafs at home against the New York Americans on February 17, 1927.

Today also marks the anniversary of the Ace Bailey benefit game; the first All-Star Game in NHL history, played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto 83 years ago on February 14, 1934. Recently, I wrote about some of the back story behind the Howie Morenz Memorial in 1937. Today, here are some of the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the Ace Bailey Game.

I’m sure that many of you reading this will be familiar with the basic story of the Ace Bailey Incident. If not, my friend and colleague Kevin Shea wrote about it recently in the Toronto Star. There’s also an entire chapter devoted to it in my book Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins.

Briefly, Bailey was a star for the Toronto Maple Leafs who had his career (and almost his life) ended in a dirty hit from behind by Bruins legend Eddie Shore at the Boston Garden on December 12, 1933. Bailey fell and his head struck the ice. His skull was fractured, and over the next few days there was a blood clot discovered on the left side, and extensive hemorrhaging on the right side, of his brain. His chances of survival were poor, but a series of operations performed by a Boston specialist saved his life.

Art
The scene on the ice at the Boston Garden, with Ace Bailey down on the left and Eddie Shore, after being punched by Red Horner, at the right. Photo courtesy of Art Ross III.

For his hit on Bailey, Eddie Shore was suspended for 16 games, which was one-third of the NHL’s 48-game season. Toronto’s Red Horner was suspended for six games for attacking Shore. Today, Shore is considered one of the dirtiest players in hockey history. His reputation as a dictatorial minor league owner – which I touched on in my recent story about Chick Webster – certainly hasn’t helped! But Shore was no goon. In his day, he was considered rough and tough but not violent. As such, Art Ross of the Bruins felt his suspension was too severe. (Boston fell apart without Shore, and Ross claimed his loss cost the team $50,000 in gate receipts, which was a steep price during The Great Depression.)

Conn Smythe – who had stayed at Bailey’s bedside in Boston for several days –  was incensed at losing Horner for any time at all, given that they had already lost the services of Bailey. He also didn’t feel that his Maple Leafs – who’d paid out about $2,500 by early January – should be on the hook for all of Bailey’s medical expenses. The Bruins had already donated the gate receipts from their next home game on December 19 (reported first as $6,642.22 and later as $6741.21) directly to Mrs. Bailey, but the Toronto owner wanted more.

As early as January 4, 1934, Smythe announced that he would ask for a special meeting of the NHL board of governors to discuss the financial angle. “The Toronto Maple Leafs have been penalized enough already,” he declared, “without incurring a further loss of what I figure will amount to $8,000. Who is going to pay the hospital bill, physicians’ fees and all the expenses resulting from Bailey’s injury. We will have to pay the salary of a hockey player who won’t be on the ice for a single minute during the rest of the season. Boston will have Shore back January 28 and besides that we lost Horner for six games. Is there any justice in that?”

Life
Photos from the pages of Life Magazine in a story about Conn Smythe from 1955.

On January 9, 1934, Smythe, backed by the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons, requested that NHL President Frank Calder call the meeting. It took place at the Lincoln Hotel in New York on January 24. Despite reports that there would be some discussion of extending Shore’s suspension, compensation for Bailey was the only issue. The Boston Globe reported that the meeting lasted three hours. The Toronto Star said five hours. The governors clearly believed Bailey was entitled to something, but seemed worried about setting a precedent that would make teams financially liable for injuries to an opponent.

“The league,” wrote Toronto Star Sports Editor Lou Marsh, “certainly took no chances on establishing a dangerous precedent by making any allowance of league funds to Bailey or accepting any responsibility for injuries to individual players, no matter how they were incurred.”

In the end, it was James Strachan of the Maroons who suggested a benefit All-Star Game, although Ottawa Journal sports editor Walter Gilhooly had already written a similar proposal. The NHL’s announcement was made when the governors broke for lunch at 2 pm. Smythe declared himself satisfied with the action.

AceBailey_OttawaClick the photo above to read Walter Gilhooly’s open letter to the NHL
Governors as it appeared in the Ottawa Journal on January 8, 1934.

“My only idea was to get something for Bailey,” the Leafs boss said. “Yes, he’s all through playing hockey. I decided he ought to get $15,000 and I don’t care much how he gets it…. If we don’t draw enough to make up that amount with the exhibition game the Toronto club will put up the rest. If we have something over we may apply the surplus on his hospital and doctors bills.”

In the end, a capacity crowd of 14,074 saw the Maple Leafs beat the All-Stars 7-3. They paid a total of $20,909.40 for their tickets, all of which was turned over to Bailey and his family.

All Time Over Time

As I said in these “pages” two weeks ago, selecting an all-time list of greats is a bit of a mug’s game. You can’t ever win. While there are certainly a few guys on the NHL’s recent 100 Greatest Players list that I wouldn’t have selected – and not nearly enough names from the game’s early days for my liking! – most people want to see names they remember.

People have been debating the game’s all-time greats pretty much from the time organized hockey began. Newspapers were selected all-star teams as long ago as the 1890s, and there was no more censuses then than there is today. Then as now, it seems, a big part of the debate was shaped by where you came from and who you grew up watching.

On January 20, 1912, the Vancouver World ran a story debating “Who Was The Best of Big Hockey Players?” Though I think it’s meant as a straight account, it reads almost like a parody. None of the people proposing possible players (all of those I list below are future Hall of Famers) is identified by name and yet they seem to come from all across the country.

Vancouver

No sooner is someone naming Russell Bowie as the greatest player they’ve ever seen, then “a former backer of the Ottawa club” is saying that Frank McGee was better. Then a former Winnipeg resident currently living in Calgary is making the case for Kenora’s Tommy Phillips, where upon a Montreal man states his claim to Hod Stuart. There are also voices speaking in favour of Cyclone Taylor, Alf Smith, Rat Westwick, Lester Patrick, Percy Lesueur and Harvey Pulford. (Alas, no one speaks up for Art Ross!)

Except for Lester Patrick, none of these old-time greats ever played in the NHL and wouldn’t have been considered for the Centennial list. But this was not the case 30 years later, when Cooper Smeaton listed the greatest players he’d ever seen. Smeaton was a fine hockey player in his youth, but made his mark in the game as a referee, first in the National Hockey Association and then the National Hockey League, earning his own spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In the Ottawa Journal on November 14, 1942, Smeaton made two lists of all-time greats from the earlier and later stages of his career. Of the 12 players he named, 11 would make it to the Hall of Fame, but only Georges Vezina made it to the NHL’s current list of 100 Greatest Players. Interestingly, Smeaton snubs Eddie Shore (who did – very deservedly! – make it) in favour of his Boston teammate Lionel Hitchman, who has never made it to the Hall of Fame, having been overlooked pretty much forever as have so many other defensive defensemen throughout the years. Give the image below a click to see Smeaton’s list and read his reasons.

All Time Ottawa

The Morenz Memorial

The NHL All-Stars skills competition this past Saturday took place 80 years to the day that Howie Morenz – arguably the first true NHL superstar – suffered the broken leg that would not just end his career but his life.

Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadiens was the biggest star in hockey from the mid 1920s until the early 1930s. After an offseason in 1933-34 (and fears that his all-out approach to the game had seen him burn out early), the Canadiens decided to trade him. He spent the 1934-35 and 1935-36 seasons playing in Chicago and New York, doing little to convince anyone that he had much left. But after being sold back to Montreal in the fall of 1936, Morenz seemed rejuvenated. He wasn’t quite putting up the points that he had in his heyday, but the old speed seemed to be back and the Canadiens were once again playing first-place hockey.

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Montreal Gazette stories from January 29, 1937.

In a game against the Black Hawks on January 28, 1937, Morenz sped into the right corner behind the Chicago net to chase a loose puck. He fell just as defenseman Earl Seibert was catching up to him. Morenz slid into the corner and his left skate caught in the boards. Seibert fell on top of him. Morenz’ leg snapped. It was broken in at least four places. According to some reports, the sound could be heard throughout the Montreal Forum.

There was some brave talk that Morenz might be back in time for the playoffs, but it was widely believed he was done for the season. Charlie Conacher of the Toronto Maple Leafs (who missed most of the 1936-37 season with a wrist injury) was writing a column for the Globe and Mail at the time. Two days after the accident, on January 30, he wrote: “It is too much to hope that [Morenz] will be ready to play again, even by the time the finals arrive.”

Morenz 2
Introduction and photo in the Globe on November 11, 1936, when Charlie Conacher’s
column launched. (The paper would formally become the Globe and Mail on November 23).
Conacher’s column ran until April 4, 1937. Editor Tommy Munns may well have ghosted it.

At age 34 in 1937, Morenz was considered old for an athlete. For that reason any comeback was soon seen as a long shot. “[W]hile I admire Howie’s courage and hand him the palm as the greatest centre player in the league (in my time, at least),” wrote Conacher in his February 15 column, “it is my opinion that he is through. His great heart makes him say that he hopes to play next season, but the courage that has taken him past so many opposing players can’t beat nature.

Comment

“The opinion that Morenz is through is based on the fact that athletes in all lines of sport who have been seriously injured at Morenz’ present age, or even younger, have been unable to return to competition and stay there. Examples of this are too numerous to mention.”

For this reason, Conacher urged ownership of the Canadiens and the Montreal Maroons to arrange a benefit game for Morenz right away. “Now, with the fans still talking about [him], is the time for the Montreal clubs and fans to rally to his support and show him what they think of what he has done for hockey in their city. Next fall, if he finds he is through, it will be too late, for they soon forget in sport….

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Howie Morenz in hospital. (Wikipedia states this photo is in the Public Domain.)

“Such a tribute is due Morenz, quite apart from the money that would be raised for him. He would appreciate the gesture from the officials and fans of the city that has been his hometown as far as professional hockey is concerned.

“In Montreal they may say they prefer to wait and see if Howie can come back but I repeat it will be too late… Now is the time for a testimonial to one of the greatest hockey players of them all. Howie has done plenty for you, Mr. Gorman and Mr. Hart. WHAT IS YOUR ANSWER TO THIS CHALLENGE?”

Conacher would continue to bring up the idea in his column over the next few days, and by February 23 he could report that the Canadiens had agreed to stage a benefit before the end of the season. But then, on March 8, 1937, Howie Morenz died while still in hospital.

Morenz 5

It’s often been written over the years that when he realized he could never play again, Morenz died of a broken heart. There have also been those who contend that he took his own life. Newspapers at the time said a heart attack. In truth, it’s most likely that Morenz died of an embolism brought on by blood clots, which his doctor had apparently detected the night before. “It’s our understanding,” wrote grandson Howard Morenz III back in 2005, “that, even in 1937, they had the means to dissolve blood clots. But the doctor decided the problem could wait until morning. The morning was too late.”

“Readers of this column,” wrote Charlie Conacher on March 10, 1937, “will realize that I feel this loss personally, as will any other former opponents of Howie. It was in this space that I advocated a testimonial game for Morenz. As Tommy Gorman is quoted as saying in a despatch from Montreal, it will become a memorial game now.”

Morenz 4
Globe and Mail headline on March 18, 1937; ten days after Morenz’ death.

The NHL fully committed to the Howie Morenz Memorial Game at a meeting in New York on March 17, 1937. The game was originally to be played in mid April, after the Stanley Cup Finals, but was later rescheduled to the fall and was played on November 2, 1937. The stories in March claimed that the Morenz Memorial was supposed to be the beginning of an annual All-Star Game to create a future fund for injured players. There had been talk of such a thing since the first NHL benefit game for Ace Bailey in 1934, but an annual All-Star Game (originally created to aid player pensions) would not begin until 1947.

Benedict Was Better

A few weeks ago, in conjunction with the Centennial Classic outdoor game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, the NHL announced the first 33 of the 100 Greatest Players to be named in honour of the NHL’s 100th season. These players played predominantly during the first 50 years of the NHL, from the first season in 1917-18 through 1966-67; the last season before the big expansion. This weekend, prior to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the 67 remaining members who have played mainly since 1967 will be announced.

One of the problems with lists such as these is that they always skew modern. I don’t know which current players will make the final cut. I would suspect that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have to be there. But I also imagine there will be several guys who don’t truly deserve it yet because of the desire to appeal to current fans. Let’s face it, this is a celebration not a history lesson.

Both

Making lists like these is a bit of a mug’s game. It’s impossible to please everybody. Some worthy players have already been left out, and others likely will be. While it’s hard to say that too many of the 33 choices so far don’t deserve the recognition, there are a few I probably wouldn’t have named. But my replacements might not be yours…

Undoubtedly, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull (who were already stars pre-1967 but were not included in the early list), will make the final cut. I’m less confident that an early superstar like Newsy Lalonde will make it if he wasn’t named already. Same with Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny,  Joe Malone or Sprague Cleghorn. Time is cruel, and the fact that some of them had their best seasons before the NHL was formed probably doesn’t help their case either.

Still, one early era omission strikes me as the most glaring. And that’s Clint Benedict.

Everyone in the early days of the NHL knew that Clint Benedict and Georges Vezina were the best goalies in the young league. Along with Hugh Lehman and Hap Holmes, who spent most of their careers playing in rival leagues, these men were probably the best goalies in hockey history to that point. But of them, only Georges Vezina is a name most people recognize today. That is, of course, because since 1927, the NHL has presented the Vezina Trophy to the league’s top goaltender.

VezinaPaintings by Darrin Egan. Visit him on Facebook.

My friend and colleague Stu Hackel wrote a wonderful biography of Georges Vezina for the NHL Centennial web site. And I certainly don’t mean to disparage a legend. But if Vezina hadn’t collapsed of tuberculosis during a game and died about a year later (leading to the decision of Canadiens’ ownership to donate a trophy in his honour), the contemporaries he left behind likely wouldn’t have spoken quite so glowingly of him, and he’d have faded from memory with the rest of them.

For me, Clint Benedict was the best goalie of his era. Better than Vezina. Benedict led the NHL in wins in six of the league’s first seven seasons. He led or shared the lead in shutouts (not that there were many in his day) in each of the first seven seasons. He led in average six times between 1918-19 and 1926-27. He also won the Stanley Cup with Ottawa in 1920, 1921, and 1923 and added another with the Montreal Maroons in 1926.

According to all accounts, Vezina was stoic and played a standup style. Benedict was a flamboyant flopper whose habit of falling to the ice to stop the puck was a big reason why the NHL changes its rules early in its first season to allow goaltenders to leave their feet. Benedict was the Dominik Hasek of his day … but he was the Martin Brodeur too, playing behind a team in Ottawa that was really the first in hockey history to emphasize defense over offense. After all these years, it’s impossible to know if Benedict was really better than Vezina or just played behind a better defensive team … but we do know a few things.

In the Vezina feature in Turning Back Hockey’s Pages which ran in the Montreal Gazette on January 8, 1934, D.A.L. MacDonald writes of a story told by Leo Dandurand (the Canadiens owner in Vezina’s time who donated the trophy in Vezina’s name) about a game between Vezina’s Canadiens and Benedict’s Montreal Maroons.

BenedictContact Darrin at: inthebluepaint@gmail.com

“It will be a close battle,” Vezina said. “I can hold them out at my end, Leo, but it will be tough to score against them. The best man is in the other goal, you know.”

Modesty was apparently a Vezina quality, but Benedict’s own teammates certainly backed their guy.

“Georges Vezina, of the Canadiens was a great goalie then,” said former Senators and Maroons star Punch Broadbent in the Ottawa Journal on May 11, 1965. “He’s honoured with a trophy; practically legend in hockey. But we all thought there was no goalie ever better than Clint Benedict.”

Writing in that same paper on June 8, 1965 (the day after Benedict was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame), Journal sports editor Bill Westwick told this story:

“Vezina was the idol of many fans, especially the Montreal faction, but his own manager, the late Leo Dandurand, was a tremendous admirer of Benedict. There was a time when Dandurand told this reporter that he would have been very much tempted to have obtained Benedict in place of Vezina. That sounds like heresy in view of the legendary feats of Vezina, but Leo was the one to say it.”

You can’t always take these old sportswriters at their word, but if this story is true, that’s a pretty good mark in Benedict’s favour.

The Oldest NHL Player

With the death of 98-year-old Milt Schmidt on January 4, 2017, the distinction of being the oldest living NHL player falls upon John (Chick) Webster. It was a possibility he had already discussed with his son, Rob. “He told me, ‘This is probably my best record,’” said Rob with a chuckle when we spoke on the phone last week.

Webster, who recently turned 96, was just being modest. Though he only played 14 games in the NHL back in 1949-50, and never scored a point, Webster (who earned the nickname Chick because of his fondness for Chiclets gum) had a remarkable, and long, career.

RamblersChick Webster with the New Haven Ramblers, courtesy of Rob Webster.

John Webster was born in Toronto on November 3, 1920. “I don’t even think his parents knew that he and his brother [Don, who would play for the Maple Leafs in 1943-44] were serious about hockey until they reached juniors,” said Rob. After three years in the OHA with the Toronto Native Sons, Chick attended his first NHL training camp with the Boston Bruins in the fall of 1940. Not only did he meet Milt Schmidt at the camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he briefly replaced him during practice centering Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer when Schmidt hurt his ankle.

Writing in the Globe and Mail on October 28, 1940, Sports Editor Vern DeGeer notes that Webster, “made a fine impression on Art Ross.” Still, Webster expected to be sent back to Toronto to return to the Native Sons. However, having signed the C-Form that would bind him to Boston until they decided otherwise, Webster was sent by the Bruins to Baltimore of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League for the 1940-41 season.

Bruins
Globe and Mail, October 28, 1940.

By the following year, regulations established during War time made it difficult for many Canadian men to cross the border. Webster remained in the Toronto area for the 1941-42 season, and soon enlisted with the Canadian army. He encountered Schmidt again in March of 1942 when Webster’s Camp Borden team lost an 11-2 decision to the Kraut Line’s Ottawa RCAF Flyers. “I don’t remember that,” Chick admitted to me, but he does recall hooking up with them all again for a game in England. “I had to borrow skates from the rink for that one,” he says.

Army
Globe and Mail, March 9, 1942.

Before he was sent overseas, Webster spent the 1942-43 and 1943-44 seasons playing hockey for the Army with the Petawawa Grenades. “Turk Broda was our goalie,” he remembers. (The once and future Leafs great played with Petawawa in 1943-44.)

Petawawa
Army team at Camp Petawawa. Chick Webster is in the front row, third from the right.
Turk Broda is not present, so this is likely 1942-43. Courtesy of Rob Webster.

When he got back to Toronto after the end of World War II, Webster was 25 and thought he was too old for a hockey career. His friend Jack Riley (who passed away last summer at the age of 97) convinced him otherwise. After playing briefly with the Uptown Tires team in the Toronto Mercantile League during the early winter of 1945-46, Webster returned to Baltimore to join Jack Riley with the Clippers in the EAHL. His play was impressive enough to attract the attention of the New York Rangers, and he was one of 37 players invited to a Rangers tryout camp in Winnipeg before the next season. On September 23, 1946, Rangers GM Frank Boucher announced that 17 players from the camp had been signed by the club – including Chick Webster.

Webster was assigned to the New York Rovers of the EAHL. “Most of the guys there were just out of juniors, so I think I was a big help to the coach.” But after just a few games, he was promoted to the New Haven Ramblers of the American Hockey League, where he played for nearly three full seasons.

RangersGlobe and Mail, September 24, 1946. Photo courtesy of Rob Webster.

“I was 30 when the Rangers finally brought me up,” Chick said. “Some guy got hurt.” Actually, it was December of 1949 and he had just recently turned 29. But on January 15, 1950, it was Webster who got hurt. He remembers it as a broken wrist, though other sources say a broken hand. After sitting out a bit, he finished the season in New Haven wearing a leather cast on his arm. His NHL career was over, but he was far from through with hockey.

“The best team I ever played on,” says Webster, “was the Cincinnati Mohawks.” This was in the AHL in 1951-52. “We had Buddy O’Connor and Pat Egan. Emile Francis was our goalie.” He still keeps in touch with Francis, and is occasionally in contact with another Mohawks player who went on to the NHL, Ivan Irwin.

CinciChick Webster enters the Cincinnati Mohawks dressing room and
shakes hands with a young boy. Film provided by Paul Patskou.

“He seemed to be one of those players who could always be in the play,” says Irwin of his former teammate. “Winning was important to him. It was important to all of us. He was a hustler.”

Webster’s worst experience in hockey came a year later, playing with the Syracuse Warriors in 1952-53. Eddie Shore ran the team. He’d been a huge star in the NHL, but he was a tyrant as a minor league owner and coach. “Shore was a real, real, terrible guy,” Chick says. “If you were sick, or didn’t go on the trips out of town, he’d ask, ‘did you skate?’ I told him I couldn’t get on the ice because the rink was being used. He said, ‘there’s plenty of snow on the ground. You should have gone out on the road and skated.’ Then he fined me.”

NowThen
Chick Webster now and then. Signing a photo that has been mailed to me
and the earliest hockey photo of him, Toronto 1934. Courtesy of Rob Webster.

That 1952-53 season would be Webster’s last as a pro, but he continued to play amateur hockey in the Toronto area in Stouffville and Willowdale until the mid 1960s. In 1970, he moved to Mattawa, Ontario, where he played oldtimers hockey well into his 70s. He remains, as his son Rob says, feisty and independent and still living on his own at age 96.

It was a treat to speak with him.

For more on Chick Webster, please see the following stories:

Puckstruck 2017

North York Mirror 2016

North York Mirror 2017

The Hockey News 2017

Dennis Kane 2014

Print the Legend…

After my first experience on the internet, I remember thinking, “this is all pretty good, but until I can sit at my desk at home and read through old newspapers, what’s the big deal?”

There once was a time (not all that long ago, really) when the only way you could research old papers was to visit a library and scroll through microfilm. I still do that when I have to, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I now spend an awful lot of my time reading old newspapers online.

Cyclone
Cyclone’s story appeared in the Montreal Gazette
on January 2, 1934. Newsy’s appeared on February 1, 1934.

While old newspapers can’t answer every question, it seems to me that too many old-time sportswriters didn’t consider any research beyond their own memory to be worth the effort. When we at Dan Diamond & Associates began working on the first edition of Total Hockey in 1997, it was amazing to me to see how often the statistics (mainly compiled from old newspapers on microfilm by Ernie Fitzsimmons) didn’t match up to the stories that had always been told.

I don’t know why this particular bit has stuck in my mind for nearly 20 years, but it has. Written accounts for legendary Montreal Canadiens goaltender Bill Durnan had always said something along the lines of, “he first came to prominence with the Sudbury juniors in the OHA finals of 1934…” Yet the stats now showed that Durnan had actually played in Sudbury the year before. (The text in the Durnan bio was corrected in the second edition of Total Hockey.)

Today, with a few clicks and some clever search terms, there’s Durnan (apparently already wearing  his ambidextrous gloves!) tending goal for Sudbury against Newmarket during the Ontario junior finals of 1933.

Durnan
Bill Durnan and company appeared in the Toronto Star on March 20, 1933.

In the great scheme of things, does it really matter where and when some old hockey player played? Well, think of it this way. What if we were still this sloppy about political history, or military history … or current sports reporting? That’s why there are plenty of us out there trying to get these old facts right.

There’s a line in a classic movie. (Actually, John Ford used it in two of his classic westerns; email me or comment if you know which two!) It goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For a long time, that was all anyone bothered to do. But that shouldn’t be good enough anymore!

To the best of my knowledge, the first big effort to really tell the stories of old-time hockey began 83 years ago yesterday, on January 2, 1934, when D.A.L. MacDonald printed the first of his series, Turning Back Hockey’s Pages, in the Montreal Gazette. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (occasionally on other days of the week too) during the 1933-34 and 1934-35 seasons, a total of 84 articles appeared. Most were on old-time hockey stars, some were about early teams, and at least one was about the Hod Stuart Memorial Game (which I’ve mentioned in these pages before). The stories cover players from the 1880s through the 1920s. Many of them are still big names in hockey history; others are long-forgotten.

I haven’t yet read them all, but, generally speaking, the stories are fantastic. MacDonald had clearly gone through years of back issues of the Gazette, and yet even his sincere effort to do more than just print the legends is filled with all sorts of little errors. Wrong dates, wrong team names. That sort of thing. In the feature on Cyclone Taylor, for instance, it mentions him playing with “Portland Lakes” when the team was actually Portage Lakes. Not the worst of errors, admittedly, but an error nonetheless. And there are lots of others like them.

Marshall
Gordie Roberts was featured on January 25, 1934; Jack Marshall on February 13.

Of the pieces I’ve read, the only one where it appears that MacDonald actually had input from the player being featured is the story on February 13, 1934, about future Hall of Famer Jack Marshall. His career at the game’s highest level had stretched from 1898 to 1917, and his take on the then current game rings familiar today.

“They talk about the dearth of goals nowadays,” says Marshall. “No wonder. Look at the goaltenders padded up like stuff pigeons. Do you know why goaltenders first wore pads? It was for personal protection. And do you think a ten-inch pad on either leg is absolutely necessary for protection?”

“That,” writes MacDonald, “is his answer to what is the matter with present day hockey.”

Jack Marshall lived until 1965. Long enough to see Bobby Hull and his slap shot; Jacques Plante and his mask. I wonder if he ever changed his mind? Then again, just the other day at the Centennial Classic, when he was named one of the 100 greatest players of all time, Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall said: “Today’s goalkeepers are great, and you get some skinny little fella and he’s got on pants that are 10 times too large.”

But as I’ve pointed out here before, the question of how much protection for goalies is too much is one that people have been asking for a very long time!