Lafleur vs. Dionne: What Might Have Been?

Most of the posts I write for this web site — and much of the work I’m known for — is about finding the true story behind old sports tales. This story isn’t as old as many of those. Still, it dates back 53 years now, to the very beginning of my personal hockey memory. But this one is very different from what I usually write. Instead of searching for the facts, this story is sort of speculative hockey fiction.

I attended my very first NHL game (my very first hockey game of any kind) on December 30, 1970. California Golden Seals versus Toronto Maple Leafs. I have no hockey memories from before that date. That spring, the 1971 Stanley Cup Final between the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks was the first one I ever watched. So, I was at least slightly aware of some of what was going on as the NHL Draft approached on June 10, 1971. For example, I knew who Jean Béliveau was. And many of his Montreal teammates. Béliveau retired after a brilliant 20-year career the day before the 1971 Draft. I may have known that, but I didn’t know anything about the drama behind who the Canadiens would find to replace him.

Montreal had the first pick in the 1971 NHL Draft. This is usually attributed to the brilliance of Canadiens GM Sam Pollock. Pollock was most certainly a hockey genius, but in this case there was plenty of good luck along with his good management. Yes, Pollock may have fleeced the Golden Seals at the end of the 1969–70 season, when he sent them Montreal’s first-round pick in 1970 (California used that 10th choice to select Chris Oddleifson) along with farmhand Ernie Hicke. In return, Montreal received former Canadiens prospect François Lacombe (who they had dealt to the Seals in 1968, and who they then exposed in the 1970 Expansion Draft to be chosen by Buffalo). They also got cash and California’s first pick in 1971.

Pollock would have been well aware that two French Canadian junior superstars — Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur — were going to be available in the 1971 NHL Draft … but he couldn’t have known the Seals pick he acquired would wind up being number one. California was a playoff team in 1968–69 and 1969–70 and wasn’t expected to be last overall in 1970–71. But they were, which gave Montreal the first pick.

As another example of Pollock’s genius, it’s been said that when it looked like the Los Angeles Kings might actually fall behind the Golden Seals in the 1970–71 standings, the Canadiens GM sent Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles to bolster the Kings’ roster. In point of fact, Pollock had only dealt Backstrom because the veteran player had requested a trade to a warmer climate … and the Kings were the only team to make him an offer.

So, shrewd moves for sure, but a bit of luck too.

Having acquired the top pick, newspapers in the days leading up to the draft were fairly certain the Canadiens would select Guy Lafleur. In truth, the Canadiens were undecided between Lafleur — who’d scored 103 and then 130 goals in his last two seasons with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Junior Hockey League — and Marcel Dionne, who had won two straight scoring titles in the tougher Ontario Hockey Association. Dionne had plenty of supporters in the Canadiens’ front office, but ex-coach-turned-scout Claude Ruel championed Lafleur as the heir apparent to Béliveau. In the end, Ruel’s enthusiasm carried the day and Pollock selected the Quebec league star with the Seals’ pick.

But what might have happened if the Canadiens chose Marcel Dionne? Does Dionne go on to become the beloved star of a Canadiens dynasty? Is Lafleur destined to become a high-scoring phenom playing mainly in obscurity and the greatest player never to win the Stanley Cup?

Newspaper coverage in The Montreal Star (left) and The St. Catharines Standard.

Both Dionne and Lafleur became superstars who went on to Hall of Fame careers, so this isn’t like the Canadiens choosing Doug Wickenheiser with the first pick in 1980 when they could have had future Hall of Famer Denis Savard. Still, how might hockey history have changed if the Canadiens picked Marcel Dionne and left Guy Lafleur for the then-dreadful Detroit Red Wings, who later traded him to the Los Angeles Kings?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but I hoped this would be an interesting thought exercise for those who had some experience with the two men. So, I reached out to several hockey people I know, and got some further help when some of those people (most notably Bob Borgen, former L.A. Kings TV producer) reached out to others on my behalf.

First on my list was Scotty Bowman, who, of course, coached Guy Lafleur on the great Montreal teams of the 1970s. He wasn’t really willing to play along, but he did share an important fact with me. Scotty was officially hired as the new Montreal coach on the morning of the 1971 NHL Draft, but he’d known Sam Pollock (and worked for him in the Canadiens system) since the 1950s. Scotty confirmed that the Montreal brass really was undecided as to who to pick between Lafleur and Dionne, but told me the Canadiens actually hoped to draft them both! “Pollock tried to acquire the #2 choice from Detroit,” Scotty said in a email, “and came so close to pulling off a huge trade the night prior to the 1971 Draft.”

I had only just heard the possibility of this when I first started reaching out to people. Turns out, the Montreal Gazette, on the day of the draft, reported the Canadiens had offered either goalie Rogatien Vachon or Phil Myre plus a defenceman to Detroit, so it wasn’t a secret. And I obviously wasn’t the first person Scotty had shared this with. Former L.A. Kings TV analyst and longtime Nashville Predators play-by-play man Pete Weber told me that Scotty had told him the story at the start of this season. “Think about how that might have gone,” said Pete, “and what that would’ve been like in Canadiens land!”

As to Montreal’s ultimate decision to go with Lafleur over Dionne, “All in all it was a good choice,” says Scotty, “but not an easy one.” When it came to my question about how their careers might have flip-flopped if Montreal chose Dionne instead, Scotty would only say: “A lot of hypothetical views for sure…. There was never a question as to the strength of the Canadiens roster compared to Detroit or Los Angeles, so my answer will always be IF IF IF.”

Rookie Cards for Lafleur and Dionne.

Another name high on my list was Dick Irvin, who covered those great 1970s Montreal teams on television. Dick also thought the strength of the rosters was the key. “My not-so-deep-thinking opinion,” he told me, “is that the Canadiens would still have won Stanley Cups and the Red Wings not. Dionne would have had better help such as good wingers (like Steve Shutt) and power-play help (like Jacques Lemaire) plus better offensive help from the Big Three on defence [Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe]. Lafleur would not have had the same calibre of support in Detroit. He would have been their best player, but the team didn’t have nearly as many ‘best players’ as the Canadiens did.”

Most people I spoke to also assumed Dionne would have thrived in Montreal. Ron McLean said, “I think Marcel was a playmaker a la Wayne [Gretzky] and would have fed [Steve] Shutt the way he fed [Mickey] Redmond in Detroit and [Charlie] Simmer/[Dave] Taylor in L.A.”

Dionne was a star from the start of his career, but had a breakout year with the Red Wings in his fourth season of 1974–75. He had 121 points (47 goals, 74 assists) to finish third in the NHL in scoring race before moving on to Los Angeles. Conversely, Lafleur struggled in his first three seasons in Montreal to the point where people thought he was a bust. His breakout came that same 1974–75 season when he had 53 goals and 66 assists for 119 points. (Bobby Orr led the NHL that season with 135 points, ahead of teammate Phil Esposito who had 127).

“Guy emerged, it is, said when he ditched the helmet,” wrote Ron of the Lafleur legend that says the added element of danger in playing bareheaded brought out the best in him. If their careers had been flipped, “Hollywood would have nudged that,” thought Ron, “but in Detroit who knows?”

Stan Fischler was a big part of the hockey scene during the careers of Dionne and Lafleur. Though he never covered them directly, he believes Dionne would have thrived in Montreal and been welcomed by the fans there both for his francophone heritage and for his talent. He also feels Lafleur would have succeeded in L.A. because the Hollywood crowd would have welcomed him as as they later did Gretzky. “Genius will out,” says Stan.

But I wasn’t sure. “I definitely think Dionne is a star in Montreal. Less sure how Lafleur makes out. Yours is a good theory, but Gretzky brought his star to L.A. Would ‘The Flower’ have blossomed in Detroit first?”

The back of Lafleur’s Rookie Card.

“Good question,” said Stan. “So much also depends on linemates; media treatment. As my Dad would say, ‘You can guess til the cows come home.’”

And really, guessing is all anyone can do. Still, a few people were unsure how Lafleur might have fared if he’d started in Detroit.

Roy MacGregor has covered plenty of hockey in his long career as a journalist and author. (The Washington Post once declared him to be “the closest thing there is to a poet laureate of Canadian hockey.”) He’s written features on both Lafleur and Dionne, and mentioned on the phone how insecure Lafleur was as a young player. He needed the intensive coaching he got in Montreal — and the star talent around him — to bring out his best. Feeling there was no way he would have gotten that if he’d begun his career in Detroit, Roy wondered if Lafleur may have withered as a Red Wing.

Ted Mahovlich doesn’t think so. The son of Frank Mahovlich (and author of a book about him), knew Lafleur mostly as a young fan when his father played in Montreal and later got to know Dionne (and write a book about him) while travelling with the NHL Oldtimers. Like the others, he feels the big difference between the two players was the talent they played with.

“In Guy’s first eight seasons with the Habs, how many Hall of Famers did he play with? In Marcel’s first eight years in L.A., how many Hall of Famers did he play with?”

Even so, Ted believes Lafleur’s talent would have made him a star in Los Angeles. He also believes that, even if they might not have worshipped Dionne and his more workmanlike superstardom in the same way they lavished their acclaim on Lafleur’s showmanship, Montreal fans would have loved Dionne differently. “Think about the people you’ve loved in your life. Did you love them all the same way?”

Stu Hackel offered a more critical voice than anyone I spoke to. Stu is a former NHL executive — Director of Broadcasting, Publishing and Video — a lifelong hockey fan and a longtime hockey (and music) writer who I got to know during my years working for the NHL in my publishing role with Dan Diamond and Associates. “I think both careers would have been different,” wrote Stu, “and history might have been somewhat different too.”

The back of Dionne’s Rookie Card.

Like Roy MacGregor, Stu wondered what would have become of Lafleur if he’d been drafted anywhere but Montreal. “As you know, he wasn’t GUY LAFLEUR during his first three seasons in Montreal and there [were] even rumours they’d trade him. There’s been lots suggested about how and why he came into his own, from taking off his helmet to personal maturity, his marriage to Lise and birth of his first son Martin, on and on. But I think the reason has more to do with the Canadiens commitment to developing him, making him better, working him tirelessly during and after practice, and his own desire to improve.”

Especially important were the long hours put in by Claude Ruel in helping Lafleur reach his full potential and greatness. “The question,” said Stu, “is would the Red Wings or Kings have done that, or even been able to do that, considering the relatively ramshackle nature of those franchises compared to the Canadiens? There’s only one answer. No.”

Stu believes Ruel is “the secret ingredient” and a necessary one in Lafleur’s rise to greatness. “Plus,” he adds, “Lafleur had the greatest head coach of all time behind the bench and Scotty knew exactly how to handle Lafleur. (He didn’t pressure him.) I can’t imagine that happening in Detroit, where they seemed to change coaches every few months…. I don’t think whatever other club he theoretically might have played for as a young man other than Canadiens would have had the benefit of his superstardom.”

As for Dionne in Montreal, “[He] would have made them a different team,” Stu believes. “Think about their top centers in Lafleur’s first few seasons and his prime: Jacques Lemaire and Pete Mahovlich. One of those top centers would have to go in favour of Dionne. I don’t know how they’d decide which one. Lemaire was such a smart and complete player and Pete had size that Dionne did not. Going head-to-head with the other top teams of the time, the Flyers, the Sabres, the Bruins, I don’t think the matchups are as favourable to Canadiens without one of Lemaire and Mahovlich, despite Dionne’s motor and excessive skill. Those are all big and physical clubs. I don’t think Dionne fares as well as either Lemaire or Mahovlich against them. He’s no slouch, of course, so maybe the Habs still win a few Cups. But five? And four in a row? Seems to me unlikely.”

My old boss, Dan Diamond, who’d spent some time in Montreal during the Canadiens ’70s dynasty, disagreed with Stu. “Lafleur would have found a way to be a top star,” Dan believes, “and Dionne would have played a different but powerful role with a differently configured Habs team on which the top forwards would assume slightly different roles. [Ken] Dryden, Scotty and the superior defence unchanged.”

Most of the opinions so far have been somewhat Montreal-centric.

So, what about the view from Los Angeles?

Bob Miller spent 44 years as a play-by-play announcer on radio and TV with the Kings from 1973 until his retirement in 2017. Like the others, he believes the key difference was the supporting cast Lafleur had in Montreal that Dionne lacked in Los Angeles. “Lafleur was surrounded by numerous Hall of Fame candidates as his teammates,” says Bob. “When Dionne joined the Kings, he and Rogie Vachon were the only true superstars.” But Dionne “had unlimited passion, drive, and desire,” and Bob believes that would have served him well if he’d landed in Montreal.

“In my opinion,” writes Bob, “Marcel would have been equally as revered as Lafleur because Dionne was also a native of Quebec and was a TRUE goal scorer and superstar. He may not have had the speed of Lafleur, nor the ‘flowing locks,’ but with the popularity and publicity the Canadians received in Montreal and Quebec he would have benefited from that publicity blitz and from the success the team enjoyed.”

As for how Lafleur would have fared in Los Angeles, “I believe Kings fans would have been thrilled with his talent and especially his goal scoring ability,” says Bob, “but, off the ice, since I didn’t really know him that well, I wonder how he would adapt to the overall reception in L.A.?  With 12 pro teams and two major college teams, the widespread notoriety he received in Montreal might not be the same as in that hockey-crazed market.”

Bob further wondered about Lafleur’s relationship with the fans in Montreal and how that might have translated to Los Angeles. “Was he involved, approachable, friendly and down to earth? Or was he aloof? At that time, it was very important that he join the efforts to try and promote the game in the L.A. market.”

Would Marcel Dionne have been the heir had the Canadiens picked him?

I didn’t know the answer to that, but I knew who would.

“Guy Lafleur, early on in his career, had a very shy personality,” said Scotty Bowman, “but he was always the most pleasant guy you could ever imagine.”

Dick Irvin elaborated. “Lafleur was terrific with the fans. In my experience, I never heard of him refusing to sign an autograph or not showing up at a charity event. I was involved in organizing a few of those over the years and whenever Guy was asked he showed up right on time. And not only in Montreal. I recall the first time the Canadiens played in Calgary when, after the game, security finally had to get him out of the mob of autograph-seekers so the team bus could leave for the airport to get on their charter. He was signing everything for everybody.

“I am sure he would have worked very hard to help sell the game in L.A.,” said Dick.

There’s no real way to know how their careers — and hockey history — might have been different, but Bob Miller sums it up nicely when he says: “Montreal could not go wrong whether they picked Lafleur or Dionne. Both are all-time great players.”

Deke/Deek/Deak and Duck!

I received another email from Don Weekes recently. He’s the guy who got me going on the Fred Waghorne story two months ago. This time, Don was asking about the derivation of the hockey term ‘deke’ … which isn’t used as much as it used to be since the cool kids decided they prefer the term ‘dangle’ (which I don’t like!).

For those who don’t know, the word deke (or dangle) refers to when the puck-carrier makes moves to fake out the goalie or another opposing player. The easy answer to where the word comes from is that it’s a short form of the word decoy.

The longer answer is a little more interesting.

What do Turk Broda and Ernest Hemingway have in common? The word deke.

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

Deke originated as a shortened form of decoy. American writer Ernest Hemingway used deke as a noun referring to hunting decoys in a number of his works, including his 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees (“I offered to put the dekes out with him”). In the 1940s, deke began appearing in ice-hockey contexts in Canadian print sources in reference to the act of faking an opponent out of position—much like how decoy is used for luring one into a trap.

The Oxford English Dictionary has things happening later, noting a Time magazine story about Dickie Moore in 1960 as the source:

On the ice, Moore is one of the league’s best players in the split-second art of faking a goalie out of position. ‘I’ve developed a little play of my own,’ he says. ‘It’s a kind of fake shot—we call them “deeks” for decoys’.

Apparently, The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online says it took a few more years for the word to be spelled as deke.

But that certainly isn’t the case.

The Toronto Star, February 9, 1937. Page

The story about Dickie Moore and deek/deke made the rounds again after his death on December 19, 2015. His obituary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper resulted in four straight days of letters to the editor that attracted the attention of writer Gregory Bryce, who commented on it in his WordWatching column for the Whitehorse Star on January 8, 2016.

Bryce reports that the first letter quoted the Oxford English Dictionary and the 1960 Time story. The second letter writer argues that “Dickie Moore may have invented the term ‘deek,’ but he most certainly did not invent” the move. The third letter was from a woman who said that, as a young girl in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, she played tackle football with the boys and “was always picked for a team because of my speed and ‘deaking’ ability.”

The fourth letter states: “While several dictionaries do indeed date the term’s first appearance in print to the Nov. 21, 1960 edition of Time, it was feinting its way through hockey’s lexicon long before that. Writing in the Toronto Daily Star on March 3, 1937, for instance, Andy Lytle described Toronto Maple Leafs owner and manager Conn Smythe watching his team practise, ‘squirming in sympathy as Apps or Conacher would burst through and “deke” [Leafs goalie Turk] Broda.”

Turns out that letter, which appeared in The Globe on January 1, 2016, was written by my friend and colleague Stephen Smith, and when I went looking for the term in newspapers after receiving Don’s email some eight years later, I also came across that 1937 story. So, it certainly seems that “deke” is older than the 1960s, the 1950s, and even the 1940s.

But how old?

Using the terms “deke” and “hockey” together, I found hits in Canadian newspapers going back to the 1890s, American papers to the 1880s, and British newspapers to the 1830s. And yet, in most of those early hits, the article was as likely as not to be about someone whose last name was Hockey … or Rockey … and instead of “deke” it was often Duke.

Even into the 1900s, when the search term “hockey” almost always hit on the ice sport, you’d get Duke, or desk, or disk, or duck for “deke”. And when you did actually get the word deke, it was almost always someone whose name, or nickname was Deke, or a reference to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, whose sports teams — and even whose general members — were often referred to as the Dekes.

The Toronto Star, February 10, 1937. Page 1

But when all was said and done, the earliest usage of deke as a hockey term really does seem to come in 1937 … although a month before that March 3 Toronto Star article.

In an earlier column for The Star on February 9, 1937, Andy Lytle quotes a conversation he’d had with Turk Broda in which the Leafs rookie goalie rated Neil Colville and Cecil Dillon of the New York Rangers near the top of his list of troublesome opponents.

“That Colville,” says Broda, “he dekes me.”

“He what?” responds Lytle.

“Dekes me,” Broda explains. “D-e-k-e-s. You know. Makes me take the first move then makes a sucker of me.”

Now, Lytle had been a newspaper man in Vancouver since about 1914. He wrote for the Vancouver Sun starting around 1921 and was their sports editor for years before moving to Toronto in 1934. So, he knew hockey … but he doesn’t appear to be familiar with the term “deke.”

Lytle was obviously enamoured of the new word, and used it in his lede the next day after the Rangers’ 5–1 victory over Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. “Five times last night,” writes Lytle, “Lester Patrick’s Rangers ‘deked’ our Mr. Broda and all we got back in return was a third period goal by Gordon Drillon.”

Dickie Moore would deek. Paul Thompson deked.

So, clearly, NHL players were using the word deke as early as 1937. It’s hard to believe Broda was the only one … unless he’s the one who actually coined the phrase. (No proof of that yet.) Still, it doesn’t really seem to become prevalent in hockey writing until the 1940s.

The earliest reference to deke in a Montreal paper appears to come in a Dink Carroll column in The Gazette on December 31, 1941. In that column, Paul Thompson (who was then coaching the Black Hawks) speaks of his improvement as an NHL player in Chicago from 1931 to 1939 after struggling in New York from 1926 through 1931:

“You get smarter as you go along,” said Thompson. “Instead of freezing when you get inside a defence and find you’ve got only the goalie to beat, you start using your noodle…. You take a good look first and see if there’s an opening. If there isn’t, you try to make one by faking the goalie out of position. ‘Making a deke,’ we call it. If you can get him to make the first move, you’ve got him beat…”

Interestingly, the first use of the word deke I found as an actual short form for decoy in a story about ducks comes in The Modesto Bee (of Modesto, California) in 1940. So, perhaps the hockey players actually beat the hunters — and Hemingway! — to this one.

But probably not… Deke as a short form of decoy just seems to make too much sense.

Owen Sound and the Memorial Cup – Part II

The city of Owen Sound officially celebrated the 1924 Memorial Cup victory of the Owen Sound Greys 100 years ago today, on April 2, 1924. The Greys had won Canada’s national junior hockey championship on Friday, March 28, 1924. Following a 5–3 victory over the Calgary Canadians in the opener of the two-game, total-goals series in Winnipeg two nights before, the Greys claimed the title with a 2–2 tie that gave them the series by a score of 7–5.

As the Owen Sound Sun-Times reported on the morning of Saturday, March 29, the Greys “will lose no time leaving Winnipeg on their way to the old home town.” They were booked to leave the Manitoba capital via a Canadian National Railway train on Sunday morning, March 30. According to the Sun-Times, if the Greys’ train was on time, it would arrive in Toronto by 7:20 a.m. on April 1, giving the team “an hour to catch a train for Owen Sound arriving here on Tuesday at noon.”

The official Greys championship photo from 100 years ago.

Perhaps the train out of Winnipeg was delayed because, while the Greys did arrive in Toronto on the morning of April 1, they spent the rest of the day there and stayed overnight at the Windermere Hotel. Located at 232 Jarvis Street, just around the corner from the Mutual Street Arena, the Windermere had been the Greys’ home-away-from home in Toronto throughout the 1923–24 season. (The hotel had also been home to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds while they were in Toronto en route to winning the Allan Cup — Canada’s national senior championship — and was “patting itself on the back” for having hosted both teams, reported the Sault Star.)

According to the Toronto Star, “[tomorrow the Greys] will land in Owen Sound at noon, and they will get a welcome that will make the natives think Victoria Day, Dominion Day, and Christmas Day all fall on April 2 this year.”

The party started even before the Greys’ train from Toronto arrived in Owen Sound at 1 pm (not noon). As the Sun-Times reported, during stops in Hanover, Dobbinton, Tara, and Shallow Lake, there were brief receptions for the team at each station. In Owen Sound, businesses had been encouraged to shutdown from noon to 3:30, and shop fronts and store windows were decorated to mark the occasion. Every car owner in the city was encouraged to be at the train station about 20 minutes head of the scheduled arrival to form a parade to city hall.

The Canadian National Railway station in Owen Sound on April 2, 1924.

In a city of just 12,000 people, 8,000 citizens lined the parade route. As the train pulled into the station, “all the whistles in the city let loose, and the train came to a stop in the middle of a wildly cheering mob of fans.” Each player was cheered individually as they got off the train and made their way to bench seats mounted on a huge truck. “[Team manager] Jimmy Jamieson was in charge of the OHA trophy, while [coach] Earl Hicks held the Memorial Cup where all might see it.”

As the truck left for City Hall, it was accompanied by others from the city fire department “with sirens shrieking and bells ringing.” These trucks were followed by The City Band, a parade of Alderman, the Grey Regiment Highland Pipe Band, and members of the city trades and labour councils. Students from the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute surrounded the team truck and marched in the parade. The Orangeman’s Fife and Drum band headed a procession of cars bearing the parents and relatives of the players, while another Highland Pipe Band led the rest of the cars.

The bulk of the large crowd was already waiting in the Market Square behind City Hall. “All pent up enthusiasm which has been welling in the hearts of people was let loose when the truck came to a stop and led by Mayor Christie cheer after cheer rent the air, and when they were through cheering someone started it again, and another series was given and by the time the crowd became quiet the truck was completely surrounded, and jammed in so thick that it was impossible to make a move.”

Market Square at City Hall, from the Owen Sound Sun-Times, April 4, 1924.

Mayor W.J. (William James) Christie made a short speech, which was followed by another from the president of the Board of Trade, former mayor William T. Harris. “Everybody is happy, and why not?” Harris shouted. “Everybody is glad they are Owen Sounders, and why not? We are proud of the Greys, and why not?”

Then, manager Jimmy Jamieson was called on to speak on behalf of the team. Before he could, the fans shouted for Hedley Smith, the 16-year-old goalie who was recognized as the star of the final game. Smith was “forced to stand up on top of the hood of the truck, where everyone could get a good view of him, and he was cheered to the echo by the enthusiastic crowd.” When Jamieson’s speech ended, and the event broke up, “Smith was carried to a waiting auto on the shoulders of a number of his admirers, and was soon on his way home, as were the other members of the team.” The reception was then brought to a close by the singing of the National Anthem.

That evening, city council hosted the team and local family members for a dinner at the Paterson House hotel beginning at 6 o’clock. At 8 p.m., a series of events were staged at three local theaters — the Opera House (now the Roxy Theatre), the Classic Theatre, and the Savoy Theatre — with songs and speeches. The players put in an appearance at each show, and apparently were presented with commemorative pocket watches from the city at each of the first two stops. It was all a fitting conclusion to a season that had seen Owen Sound give its team tremendous support all the way to the Memorial Cup.

The Greys’ 1923-24 schedule.

It’s not clear what the capacity was at the Riverside Arena, where the Greys played their home games. Built between September and January of 1912–13 (and destroyed by a fire in 1944), the Riverside Arena — located near the current site of the downtown Shoppers Drug Mart at 10th Street and 1st Avenue West — was the city’s main hockey rink until the Owen Sound Arena was built in 1938. Even so, pictures and information are hard to come by. A story from 1921 notes a capacity crowd of “about 2,000 people” at a game that season, so we can assume the Riverside Arena held about that many fans. Perhaps a few more than that had been sneaking in to some of the Greys’ 11 home games in 1923–24.

“Owners of ladders in the vicinity of Riverside Arena have been wondering lately where their property has been vanishing to,” reported the Sun-Times on February 5, 1924. “They found out today when a collection was rounded up around the rink. The youngsters have been borrowing the ladders for the purpose of watching the hockey matches free of charge. They set the ladders to the windows just back of the balcony and manage somehow to clamber in. The rink management figure if they can keep tab of the ladders they can solve the problem of non-paying spectators.”

With the majority of their games on the road during the 1923–24 seasons, Greys fans were known to ride the rails to Toronto in large numbers to take in the games there. In fact, after winning the OHA championship against Kitchener in Toronto, Mayor Christie declared a half-holiday in Owen Sound three days later (March 17, 1924), so those who wished to could leave work early to catch a train to Toronto for the Greys one-game playoff that night with the champions of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association, the North Bay Trappers. The Sun-Times on game day noted that 200 fans had left for Toronto on the early train, and with the half-day holiday, it’s not unlikely that more made their way there on a later train. “Tonight will look like Grey Country night in Toronto,” the paper said, “and if the Greys win it will sound like it too.”

An older postcard showing the Paterson House hotel;
An ad for the Greys home game on February 4, 1924.

The Toronto Star noted that attendance for the Greys–Trappers game was the largest of the season in Toronto, “amateur or professional,” although no numbers were reported. (The Mutual Street Arena held about 7,500 for hockey.) North Bay led 1–0 early and 2–1 until midway through the second, but third-period goals from Owen Sound stars Cooney Weiland and Butch Keeling (his second of the game) proved the difference. As the Greys held on for a 4–2 victory in their toughest game of the season to that point, The Globe reported that “Owen Sound supporters kept up a continuous din and noise during the last seven minutes. They knew that their favorites were ‘in’ and that North Bay was fighting a losing cause.”

Those who stayed behind in Owen Sound followed the game through a bulletin service provided by the Sun-Times and celebrated the victory with bonfires and fireworks. When the team returned home the next day, the town was decked out in flags and bunting and 5,000 fans were on hand to greet them. A day later (March 19), it was back to Toronto to face the Quebec champions from Westmount High School. Junior hockey in Quebec was believed to be weak, and no one expected much of a contest, so the crowd in Toronto was small that night. Still, the 18–3 romp for the Greys — behind eight goals from Keeling — must have been a surprise.

After the game, the Greys went directly from the arena to Union Station, where a train due to leave at 10:45 was delayed about 15 minutes to wait for them. The team was heading directly to Winnipeg, where they would arrive nine hours behind schedule around 11 p.m. on Friday night, March 21. Before playing for the Memorial Cup, the Greys had to catch another train at 9 a.m. the next morning to make a short trip back to Ontario to face the Kenora Thistles, who were champions of the Thunder Bay District. Game one in that series was on Saturday night, March 22, at 8:30 Central Time.

Online image of the pocket watch presented to Greys captain Larry Cain.

Despite reminders in the Sun-Times, not everyone at home in Owen Sound was aware of the time difference. Thousands of people began showing up outside the Sun-Times office at 8 p.m. Eastern. They had to wait more than two hours before reports began to show up around 10:30 local time. Soon, updates were arriving fast and furious. And as they had been thought the season, local telephone operators were kept busy with calls requesting updates.

The final score in an 11–7 Greys victory didn’t come in until well after midnight, but there were still some 3,000 fans waiting in the street to cheer the news. Two nights later, the Greys would suffer just their second loss of the season (and first since December) in a 5–4 Kenora victory. Both captain Larry Cain and manager Jimmy Jamieson claimed Owen Sound was cheated out of the tying goal by the goal judge, but the Greys still took the two-game series by a total score of 15–12.

For the Memorial Cup games, crowds of 4,500 and 5,000 stood in the streets of Owen Sound awaiting what would be quite detailed reports from Winnipeg which the Sun-Times displayed with bulletins and lantern slides. Goals from Keeling in the first and second periods, two from Weiland in the third, plus 34 saves on the night from Hedley Smith (who was knocked cold in the third period, but stayed in the game), led the Greys to a 5–3 victory.

Newspaper images of the songs sung at the receptions for the Greys,
and an ad for the commemorative chocolate bar with hockey cards.

Winnipeg papers claimed Calgary outplayed Owen Sound in the second game, but everyone hailed Hedley Smith as the hero after he stopped nine shots in the first period, 16 in the second, and 24 in the third to preserve a 2–2 tie. Still, Jimmy Jamieson claimed the Greys played exactly as ordered, and that after Cooney Weiland scored early in the first period (he would score again late in the third) the team went into a defensive shell. Yes, Smith was called on to make 49 saves, but most of the shots, Jamieson said, came from long range and few were really dangerous.

Still, in Calgary, a headline in the Herald said “Superior Goal Tending of Smith Deciding Factor” and the game story claimed the 16-year-old Owen Sound goalie (he would turn 17 on April 23) “showed form that rivalled the best in paid company.” Sports editor W.J. Finlay of the Manitoba Free Press thought Smith “stood out last night like a brilliant gem amid clear darkness,” using his “magic stick [and] lithe and flashing body [to] turn aside bullet drives and barrage-like attacks.” A story from Winnipeg to The Globe in Toronto said, “Owen Sound citizens, who are proud of their valiant young athletes, should erect a monument in memory of the performance of Hedley Smith.”

Smith himself credited the entire team. In reflecting on the 1924 victory in a 1962 story in the Sun-Times, Smith said: “Although we had nine players on the roster, most of the time six played the whole game. Teams change players at a fast rate today and this makes for a faster brand of hockey, but don’t ever think that Weiland, Keeling, Cain, [Teddy] Graham, and [Fred] Elliott couldn’t go if they had to. We had a terrific defense that year, and the opposition had few chances to work in for close shots. They were mostly long ones as Graham and Cain kept the players away from the net.”

In putting up their 22-2-2 record en route to the Memorial Cup a century ago, the Greys outscored their opponents 204-69

.

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

Part III – By George, It’s Fred!

One hundred years later, there’s reason to doubt Owen Sound’s success during the 1923–24 season. Not that they weren’t a dominant team. Judging by their record — and newspaper reports from all across the country — they certainly were. But, they may have cheated! Perhaps they didn’t know it … but somebody must have!

After defeating Kitchener to win the OHA championship on March 14, 1924, the Greenshirts announced they would protest the Greys’ victory. Kitchener team secretary Eddie Hearn notified the Ontario Hockey Association they believed Owen Sound’s George Elliott was really Fred Elliott playing under the birth certificate of his younger brother. A formal protest was made the following day.

Elliott had come to Owen Sound in the fall of 1923 from his hometown of Clinton, Ontario. He even seems to have attended high school in Owen Sound, as an 18-year-old should have. But, strangely, throughout the 1923–24 season, newspapers seemed to flip-flop in referring to him as both George and Fred — although mostly Fred. It appears he was registered with the OHA that season as George Fred Elliott, and the Greys’ official championship photo after that season identifies him as G.F. Elliott … but it ain’t necessarily so.

G.F. Elliott was actually Fred H. Elliott.

Kitchener’s protest was formally made on Saturday, March 15 and presented to Greys manager Jimmy Jamieson in Toronto that evening. “Word through Manager Jamieson to local executive men and from officials discount the protest,” reported the Owen Sound Sun-Times on Monday, March 17. “It is pointed out that Elliott was given a certificate by the OHA and that he played against Milverton, near which town he lives without any remarks from the Milverton management. As Elliott played for Clinton it is certain that Milverton knew that his playing was in order.”

Indeed, both Fred Elliott (a defenseman and forward) and his brother George (a goalie) had played for Clinton against Milverton during the 1922–23 season. George Elliott was still playing goal for the Clinton junior team when Milverton defeated them for the OHA Group 14 title in 1923–24. So, certainly, Milverton knew who the two brothers were. Still, they didn’t necessarily know their birth dates, and that would seem to be the issue more so than their names.

As Jamieson had confidently predicted, the OHA dismissed the Greenshirts’ protest at a noon meeting on March 19. (If it had been upheld, the Greys would have been disqualified, their wins against Kitchener and North Bay wiped out, and those two teams would have played off to continue their Memorial Cup hunt.) As it was, a lawyer representing the Kitchener team “had practically no evidence of any nature,” the Sun-Times said. “On the other hand, the Owen Sound club had Elliott’s birth certificate, his hockey registration certificate, an affidavit from himself, and affidavits from his parents to the effect that he was George Fred Elliott, mentioned in his certificate, which gives his date of birth as 1905.”

But he wasn’t George Fred Elliott! And he wasn’t born in 1905.

Clinton newspaper records on the left; Ontario birth registry on the right.

Genealogical records confirm that George Franklin Elliott of Clinton, Ontario, really was born in 1905, but our friend “Frecky” as Fred was known, was actually Frederick H. (Henry) Elliott … and he was born in 1903. Given OHA rules required that a player had not yet reached his 20th birthday on the first day of January in the season in which he intended competing — and that Elliott would have been almost 21 by January 1, 1924 — he was most certainly overage. Someone in the family must have forged the records somehow.

The Greys might not have known this, but certainly Fred and his parents did!

The 1911 Canadian Census has the spelling of the family name as Elliot, but it clearly shows eldest child Frederick as the 8-year-old son of William and his wife Ada with his birth noted as February 1903. George is 6 with his birth listed as February 1905. The 1921 Census has no dates, but Frederick is now 18 and George 16. (There are also younger siblings Reta and John who have similarly aged 10 years.) Furthermore, the Clinton News-Record of February 19, 1903, has a birth notice for twin boys born to Mr. and Mrs W.J. Elliott the previous day; February 18. Interestingly, Ontario birth records available through Ancestry (thank you Jonathon Jackson!) list William John Elliott (who, according to the Clinton newspaper, died just two weeks later on March 3) and Frederick H. Elliott being born on February 17, 1903…

But this is most certainly the same person.

And he was NOT born in 1905.

So, somebody got away with something!

Owen Sound and the Memorial Cup – Part I

I’ve lived in Owen Sound since the fall of 2006. Admittedly, I haven’t been a very good fan of the Owen Sound Attack. Still, the history of hockey here has a hold on me. With a population of just over 20,000 people, Owen Sound is by far the smallest market in the Ontario Hockey League, and is third-smallest in the Canadian Hockey League behind Swift Current in the Western Hockey League (circa 18,000) and Acadia-Bathurst (circa 13,000) in the Quebec Maritime Junior Hockey League. One hundred years ago this month, in March of 1924, the Owen Sound Greys became the first small-town team to win the Memorial Cup. In 1927, the Greys became the first team from a city of any size to win the Memorial Cup twice.

Emblematic of the junior championship of Canada, the Memorial Cup was established in 1919 to honour those who died in service to Canada during World War I. First won by the University of Toronto Schools team, it was won by three different Winnipeg teams in three of the next four years. Fort William won the Memorial Cup in 1922, but with a population of about 36,000 (that may actually include Port Arthur too), the city was roughly three times as large as Owen Sound, which had a population of only 12,000 people in 1924.

The Owen Sound Greys of 1923-24. Standing: Harvey Silverthorne, William C. “Bill” Young (executive), Percy Ryan (trainer), Butch Keeling, Earl Pratt (treasurer),
E.N. “Jimmie” Jameson (manager) Fred Elliott. Middle: Teddy Graham, Larry Cain,
Elgin Wright. Seated: Cooney Weiland, Hedley Smith, Bev Flarity.
(Photograph courtesy of Ron Burrell.)

Hockey in Owen Sound is thought to date back to the 1880s. According to research by Paul White, the first formal game here was played by a team of local bankers circa 1888. An indoor skating rink opened in Owen Sound in January of 1893, which proved to been a big boon to hockey in the city, but there had already been a “town” team to take on the bankers by 1892. On December 6, 1897, The Globe newspaper in Toronto wrote of a league being formed with Owen Sound, Shelburne, Markdale, and Dundalk. On December 12, 1898, The Globe reported that the Owen Sound Collegiate (high school) hockey team had been reorganized, indicating that there had already been a high school team previously. On February 8, 1900, The Globe reported on a game to be played that night between the Owen Sound and Orangeville Ladies Hockey clubs.

The Owen Sound Greys (or Grays as they were known in early days) was a name given to the town’s junior hockey team around 1912 or 1913. It seems the name had less to do with the fact that Owen Sound is the county seat of Grey County and more with the fact that Bill Hancock — a referee and tailor working in town — was asked to coach the team and outfitted them in grey sweaters and socks with a red band.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 slowed down the advancement of junior hockey in Owen Sound, but the Greys were back and ready to flourish in the 1920s. By the 1923–24 season, the Greys featured homegrown stars and future NHLers Melvin “Butch” Keeling (his father was a butcher) and Teddy Graham. Though they were only 18 and 19 years old that season, they were both said to be in their fourth year with the team.

The 2023–24 Owen Sound Attack have used these uniforms to pay tribute to the 1923–24 Greys. The orange and black colours are correct, but you can see from the team picture above that the Greys didn’t feature this crest yet…

Another local star was goalie Hedley Smith, who moved from Toronto to Owen Sound around 1917. He was just 16 years old in 1923–24, and in his first full year with the Greys after having played for them briefly the year before while starring for the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute high school team. Keeling, Smith, and Graham (who were all still attending OSCI) grew up within a few blocks of each other on 4th Avenue West in Owen Sound, and had attended the Victoria School (which was also on the same street). All were coached by Henry Kelso, for whom Kelso beach in Owen Sound is named, and who also lived on 4th Avenue West! Victoria School was a local powerhouse, and Smith was said to have won four straight hockey championships there before moving on to high school.

For the 1923–24 season, the Greys added Larry Cain from Newmarket, Ontario and Fred “Frecky” Elliott (AKA George) of Clinton, Ontario. Still, the key out-of-town recruit had come the year before when Ralph “Cooney” Weiland of Egmondville joined the team in 1922–23 after four seasons playing near home in Seaforth, Ontario. Weiland was only 17 that season, but came to Owen Sound to finish high school and apprentice as a drug clerk in a local pharmacy. A star center who addition to the team caused Butch Keeling to move to left wing, Weiland has traditionally been credited with 68 goals in 25 games for the Greys in 1923–24 (the Society for International Hockey Research has him with 70 goals in just 24 games) while Keeling had 62 in all 26 games. (SIHR shows him with “only” 61 goals in those 26 games.)

Cooney Weiland would go on to a Hall-of-Fame career with the Boston Bruins.

The story of the 1924 Memorial Cup championship begins on October 29, 1923, at the Arcadia Dance Hall — “over Owen Sound Garage” — and to the music of the Bon Ton Orchestra. A story in the Owen Sound Sun-Times on October 23 reports it was hoped that 500 tickets would be sold for the benefit dance. An account of the evening in the October 30 paper notes only 200 attendees but says “the hall was filled with a merry throng of dancers who tripped the light fantastic…” The evening was called “a splendid success,” and it was said that “[t]he net proceeds of the Dance will considerably augment the funds of the Hockey Club.”

Hockey training got started a little over two weeks later on November 15, when most of the team was present for a workout at the local YMCA. Road work (jogging?) commenced on November 19. It was already known that the Greys would kick off the season in Toronto in early December as part of the annual Sportsman’s Patriotic Association (SPA) tournament at the Mutual Street Arena, but there would be no ice available in Owen Sound’s Riverside Arena (a natural ice facility that required cold weather) until later in December.

The Greys wouldn’t actually hold their first practice until they arrived in Toronto and got onto the artificial ice surface there two days ahead of their opening game on December 7, 1923. Even so, they scored a 3–2 win over Conn Smythe’s University of Toronto Varsity juniors that night and Canadian Press reports noted their already being a favourite to win the Ontario Hockey Association title. But after a 4–3 win over the Parkdale Canoe Club a week later, the Greys lost the SPA championship to St. Mary’s in a 3–1 defeat on December 19. That same Toronto team had knocked out the Greys in the OHA playoffs the previous season, but this loss would prove only a minor setback.

The Greys went 22–2–2 in 26 games in 1923-24. Both ties and one
of the losses came in the second game of total-goals series
where the team had already put up a victory in the first game

The OHA had 64 junior teams playing in 18 regional groups for the 1923–24 season. (Some records show 20 groups, but a few were combined from two groups to one.) Owen Sound was in Group 16 with Collingwood, Meaford, and Stayner. However, while those three cities play the others two times each at home and two on the road for a four-game Section A “regular season,” the Greys (who were much further west) were placed alone in Section B. Throughout the month of January, while Collingwood, Meaford, and Stayner played each other, Owen Sound stayed home. The Greys hosted four Toronto junior teams and an intermediate squad from Listowel in five games they won in mostly lopsided romps. After Collingwood won all four OHA games they played, the Greys met the Shipbuilders in a two-game, total-goals Group 16 final to decide which team would advance to the provincial playoffs.

Game one of the Group 16 final took place in Collingwood on January 31, 1924. It was the first time the Greys had played on the road since the SPA final in mid December. The Shipbuilders got off to a fast start, firing several shots at Hedley Smith, who stopped them all. Cooney Weiland put the Greys on top midway through the period, and it was all Owen Sound after that. Weiland with three, Fred Elliott with three, and Butch Keeling with two led the way to a 9–3 victory. Collingwood was unable to field a full team for the return match in Owen Sound on February 4, so the Shipbuilders added a few intermediate players. This forced them to default, although the game was played anyway … and the Greys scored a crushing 14–1 victory with Weiland scoring four this time, Elliott three, and Keeling two.

It was the next year, 1924–25, when the Greys displayed the crest the
Attack are featuring this season. (Photograph Courtesy of Ron Burrell.)

Two more lopsided exhibition wins followed, before the Greys met Milverton in the first round of the OHA provincial playoffs. When Milverton led 2–1 after the first period of the series opener on February 14, it was the first time Owen Sound had trailed anyone after one period but the hometown Greys recovered for a 6–2 win. Four nights later in Milverton, it was a 9–2 victory to take the series by a combined score of 15–4. Next came two more one-sided playoff wins against the Varsity Juniors, followed by a bye through the quarterfinals and a direct spot in the OHA semifinals.

With no games on their schedule for two weeks after defeating Varsity, an exhibition was arranged at the Riverside Arena against a picked team of Toronto All-Stars on February 29. A 12–4 victory that night marked the Greys last game on home ice this season, but there was still plenty more hockey to play.

Teddy Graham and Butch Keeling also went on to NHL careers.
(Photos from the Society for International Hockey Research.)

The team traveled to Toronto for a sudden death OHA semifinal against the Kingston Circle Six on March 7 and won it 11–0. The Circle Six were said to be one of the hardest checking teams in junior hockey, but Owen Sound’s speed and clever “combination play” (passing game) carried the day. Keeling scored six times, including three in the third period when Weiland added two to the goal he’d scored earlier for yet another hat trick.

Next up was the OHA Final against the Kitchener Greenshirts, with Kitchener playing their home game 100 years ago tonight, on March 12, 1924, in London on the new artificial ice rink there because of warm weather at home. For the same reason, Owen Sound arranged for their “home” game two nights later to be played in Toronto.

After a 7–2 win in game one, the London Free Press said: “The Owen Sound Greys proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that 1924 is their championship year…. A big crowd of fans witnessed what was a revelation to many. Speed and plenty of it carried the Greys from the North all over their opponents.” The London paper praised the forward line of Weiland, Keeling, and Elliott, calling them “a wonderful scoring machine.” The Toronto Mail and Empire was particularly impressed by the work of the two wingers. “Keeling was undoubtably the star of the game … [while] Elliott also shot wonderfully well.” Still, it was Weiland who led all scorers with another hat trick. He “played his position perfectly, but that also goes for the rest of the players…. Larry Cain and [Teddy] Graham played very steady hockey on the defense and their speed on the attack dazzled the Kitchener kids.”

Goalie Hedley Smith apparently had plenty of offers to continue his career after
helping the Greys win the Memorial Cup again in 1927. He chose to pursue his
education instead. Fred Elliott played in the NHL with Ottawa in 1928–29 as
part of a four year pro career. (Photos courtesy of Ron Burrell.)

Game two in Toronto on March 14, 1924 was something of a shock. Kitchener led Owen Sound 5–2 after two periods to pull within two goals in the total-goal series. “There was real anxiety in the Owen Sound camp,” reported the Sun-Times, “… [but] it was in the last frame that the class, the condition, and the machine-like training of the Owen Sound boys shone out again.”

Goals from Weiland, Graham and Weiland again (along with Elliott’s first-period marker, and Keeling’s in the second) salvaged a 5–5 tie and gave the Greys a 12–7 win overall. There was some disappointment that after running up 16 wins in a row, the tie apparently left the team one win short of the OHA record of 17 consecutive wins held by the New Hamburg intermediates. Still, the Greys had earned the first OHA championship in Owen Sound history.

Next time, we’ll follow the OHA champion Greys through the Memorial Cup playoffs of 100 years ago and see how Owen Sound celebrated the national title.

Fred Waghorne: Facing Off With History

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

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

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

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

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

From The Toronto Star Weekly, March 24, 1928.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, there it was from the man himself.

But there were still plenty of problems.

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

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

It proved easy enough to find!

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

The referee that night?

Fred Waghorne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Levinsky: What’s “Mine” is My…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready, Willing, and Abel

One hundred years ago today, on January 25, 1924, the first Winter Olympics opened in Chamonix, France. Although the International Olympic Committee had decided to hold a winter sports week when Paris was awarded the Summer Games at its meetings in Lausanne, Switzerland, in June of 1921, and the French Olympic Committee confirmed the events in June of 1922, the competition was originally known as the “International Winter Sports Week” — even though it actually stretched for 12 days until February 5, 1924. It was retroactively confirmed as the first Olympic Winter Games at the IOC congress in Prague in May of 1925.

I’ve written several stories over the years about hockey at the Olympics, including the 1924 gold medal victory of the Toronto Granites, the 1920 victory by the Winnipeg Falcons, and the 1928 win by the Toronto Varsity Grads. But this is a story about the 1924 U.S. Olympic hockey team — the silver medalists behind Canada — and one member of the team in particular: Clarence John “Taffy” Abel. The nickname, apparently, comes from his childhood love of the sticky candy.

Taffy Abel carries the U.S. flag through the streets of Chamonix
ahead of the small delegation of American athletes. (All photos
are courtesy of George Jones and used with his permission.)

Some of you reading this will recognize Abel’s name.

Some will even know the story.

But many won’t.

So, here we go.

I believe the first time I ever heard the name Taffy Abel was from Alex Levinsky. Levinsky was one of the first Jewish players in the NHL during the 1930s and a relative by marriage of the former wife of a cousin of mine. I met him at a handful of large family gatherings in the late 1980s. Back then, I didn’t know nearly as much about hockey history as I do now (and I’d never heard of Levinsky) but it was always fascinating to talk with him. He was a defenseman — as was Abel — and I remember him telling me once how difficult it was for any NHL forwards to get past Abel and his New York Rangers defense partner Ching Johnson … particularly in the days before forward passing was allowed in the offensive zone. Howie Morenz, the top NHL forward of this era, stood only 5’9″ and weighed just 165 pounds, and even other forwards who were as tall as 5’11” rarely weighed more than 180. Ching Johnson was 5’11” and 210 pounds, while Taffy Abel stood 6’1″ and weighed 225 pounds. Together, they formed a formidable barrier!

Taffy Abel with the Chicago Blackhawks circa 1930.

Levinsky faced his share of prejudice as a Jewish player in the NHL in the 1930s. Much of what’s reported is just the sort of casual racism that was typical of the time. I’m sure he encountered plenty of worse things that didn’t make the newspapers given that his Jewish background was well known. But nobody knew Taffy Abel’s true story. Born on May 28, 1900, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Abel was actually Native American — a Chippewa — who spent most of his life passing for white, which he began to do as a young boy in order to avoid being sent to an Indian boarding school.

Taffy Abel died in 1964, but in recent years, George Jones, a nephew, has been trying to get the NHL to officially recognize Abel’s role in breaking the NHL colour barrier when he first joined the Rangers in 1926. It has proven to be an uphill battle. Other, later, players of colour — Larry Kwong, who was Chinese, Fred Sasakamoose, who was Indigenous, and Willie O’Ree, who was Black — had no way to hide their racial features. But Abel — though apparently listed as Chippewa, along with his mother and sister, in the 1908 “Durant Roll” (a basic census count of Native Americans named for an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) — was able to pass for white. So, nobody knew the truth at the time.

NHL head shots of Taffy Abel with the New York Rangers and with the Blackhawks.
(To me, his features look somewhat more Indigenous in the Chicago picture, but it’s easy to see how he could pass for White.)

According to Jones, Abel didn’t announce his Native heritage until the death of his mother in 1939, which was five years after his NHL career ended. With support from the Sault Ste. Marie Band of Chippewa Indians, Abel was inducted posthumously into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. He was later among those the National Museum of the American Indian honoured in a roster featured in its 2012 “Native Olympians” exhibition. Several Native Americans — including Jim Thorpe — had competed at the Stockholm Olympics in the summer of 1912, and Taffy Abel is now considered the first Native American Winter Olympic athlete … although — as with his NHL career — nobody knew that in 1924, when he was a late addition to the U.S. team.

A charter member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, Abel’s biography on their website says he began to play hockey in 1918. He likely started earlier than that. The website of the Society for International Hockey Research begins tracking him with a Michigan Soo team during the winter of 1917–18. After four more seasons in his hometown, Abel moved on to the powerhouse St. Paul Saints of the United States Amateur Hockey Association in 1922–23. He was with that team again to start the 1923–24 season before being added to the U.S. Olympic team.

Taffy Abel is in the middle among U.S. athletes bound for France aboard the Garfield.

The American team departed for Europe from New York on January 9, 1924, and Abel wrote about the voyage in a letter to Charles Bye of Sault Ste. Marie. The letter was dated January 19, after arrival in Cherbourg, France, and appeared in the local Evening News on February 2. Abel writes of a rough passage after hitting a storm four days out from New York. “[W]e managed to come out of it all right except for missing a few meals,” he said. “It was five days before we finally came out of the gale. I was sure glad when we landed.”

By the time the story was printed, the U.S. hockey team had already scored a 19–0 win over Belgium, a 22–0 win over France, an 11–0 win over Great Britain, and then defeated Sweden 20–0 on February 1 to advance to the gold medal game on February 3. Abel had written before the competition started that it looked like a certainty that the United States would meet Canada in the final (Canada put up even more lopsided wins en route to the big game), but that the Americans would need to improve their teamwork from the few games they had played together in Boston before leaving for France. “If we play that way against Canada,” Abel worried, “they will need an adding machine to keep track of their scores.”

Still, Abel promised better things. “If the forward line will give [goalie Al “Frenchy”] LaCroix, [defense partner Irv] Small and myself just one goal to work on, we swear we will eat the puck before we let them score.”

The Americans did get one goal … but Canada scored six to win the gold medal. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times on February 22, 1924, Abel believe the best team won that day, although he was convinced the Americans could have been better. “The Granites beat us on the merits of the teams as they lined up,” said Abel, “but I’ll never be satisfied that they could not be beaten if America had sent over its best available hockey team. They were too strong for us as things were in France, but if the best possible team had been picked and the best possible men had gone over, after having had plenty of practice, America would have won.”

Taffy Abel would never have another chance to win Olympic gold. He later won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1928 and again with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1934. Metis players Tony Gingras and brothers Magnus and Rod Flett won the Stanley Cup with the Winnipeg Victorias in 1901 and 1902. Abel is the first Native American to have won the Cup, and the first to do so with an NHL team … but the complicated legacy of early Indigenous players has made such feats difficult to track.

As George Jones told Stephen Whyno of the Associate Press for a story about Abel in December of 2022: “The reason he had to pass was not one of choice — it was one of survival. I’m proud of him, what he did — very proud. I know what he had to go through and the internal torment that he had to go through as part of this ‘passing’ thing. He had depression, he had drinking problems, but he survived.”

Happy (Hockey / History) Holidays for 2023

After an exhibition game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Montreal Wanderers four nights earlier, the first regular-season hockey game was held at Toronto’s new Arena Gardens on Mutual Street on Christmas night, December 25, 1912. (That’s coming up on a somewhat stylistically interesting – but not really significant – 111 years ago.)

In that season opener of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the National Hockey League), the Canadiens beat the brand new Toronto Hockey Club (aka the Torontos, the Blueshirts, or the Blue Shirts), 9-5.

No matter what you celebrate at this time of year, I hope you have/had a happy one. And all the best to everybody for a happy and healthy — and peaceful — new year in 2024.

A Stitch in Time…

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

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

Calgary Herald from February 27, 1932.

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

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

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

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

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

Helge Bostrom photo courtesy of Stephen Smith, Puckstruck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he was.

Maybe.

From the Minneapolis Star, December 11, 1931.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Smaill of a Tale…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vancouver Province, January 22, 1918.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Montreal Star, March 2, 1918.


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

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

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

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

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

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