Good Godfrey!

The NHL Official Guide & Record Book for the upcoming season was sent to the printer’s earlier this week. More on that in an upcoming post. For now, a story about my quirkiest contribution to this year’s Guide…

Godfrey Matheson is a name known only to hardcore fans of hockey obscurities. He was, very briefly, one of many coaches in the early history of the Chicago Blackhawks (then spelled Black Hawks). If you know the stories about him (and some of you will), you’re likely to know some variation of these:

  • Matheson was from Winnipeg, home of Chicago’s star goaltender Charlie Gardiner.
  • Matheson had little or no coaching experience when he was hired by Blackhawks owner Frederic McLaughlin after a chance meeting on a train.
  • Matheson’s main claim to coaching fame was leading a Winnipeg high school team to a juvenile championship.
  • Matheson devised a system of coaching the Blackhawks by whistle, which he would use to signal his players from behind the bench. One blast instructed the puck-carrier to pass; two toots meant shoot; three signalled a switch in defensive formation.

Strange as it sounds, most of these stories appear to be be true … except that Matheson never actually coached a regular-season game in his NHL career!

Train
This picture appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 15, 1931 with the story announcing the hiring of Godfrey Matheson. He appears at the far left, with the hat low over his eyes.

For decades, NHL records have shown Godfrey Matheson coaching the Blackhawks midway through the 1932-33 season. He was thought to have held down the job for just two games between the brief tenures of Emil Iverson and Tommy Gorman. In fact, Matheson was actually hired in October of 1931, but by the time the season started on November 12, 1931 – with Chicago visiting Toronto for the opening of the brand new Maple Leaf Gardens – he was no longer with the team.

Frederic McLaughlin had a penchant for firing his hockey coaches in a way that makes the late George Steinbrenner’s treatment of his baseball managers seem almost tame by comparison. McLaughlin was married to Irene Castle, a jazz-era dance, film and fashion icon who was played by Ginger Rogers opposite Fred Astaire in the 1939 film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Irene wrote a serialized newspaper biography that appeared in the Chicago Tribune late in 1958. She paints a rather unflattering picture of McLaughlin.

“The early 1930s were not good years for me,” writes Castle, “but not for the same reason they were bad for the country. My trouble was not money. Instead, it was the slow decline of a marriage which had not been too satisfactory even in its early stages. Frederic became interested in a hockey team, which kept him in a temper much of the time.”

Castle describes McLaughlin as running his team “with the zeal of an amateur who doesn’t know what it’s all about.”

“I often wished he had never seen a hockey stick,” she says. “He was always getting mad at somebody.… His favorite sport was quarrelling with [coaches].”

Irvin
Stories from the Chicago Tribune on September 6, 1931,
and the Globe in Toronto on September 7.

Dick Irvin, for example, had been the first star player in Chicago, and coached the team after a fractured skull ended his playing career. Irvin coached Chicago to the Stanley Cup Final in the spring of 1931, but that wasn’t enough to keep him employed and he became the seventh coach to lose his job in the five-year history of the team.

Some records show Irvin beginning the 1931-32 season as the coach in Chicago before moving on to join the Maple Leafs in Toronto five games into the schedule. The truth is he was fired or quit on September 5, 1931, six weeks before the Blackhawks began training camp. Irvin offered little about the reason for his departure in newspapers over the next couple of days, but it was later reported by Globe sports editor Michael J. Rodden that Irvin had not been in agreement with training methods favoured by Chicago management. Enter Godfrey Matheson, who was hired by the Blackhawks on October 14, 1931.

Stories at the time make no direct mention of McLaughlin and Matheson meeting on a train, but do state his brief success as a coach at St. John’s College in Winnipeg. Stories in the Winnipeg Tribune on October 24 and 28 discuss his having played earlier at the same school, and later with the Winnipeg Victorias team in the Winnipeg city league and with a local Bank of Commerce hockey team.

Workout
This photo appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 23, 1931.

The Blackhawks and their new coach left Chicago for training camp in Pittsburgh on the evening of October 14. They would work out on the ice at Duquesne Garden, in the gymnasium at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and engage in outdoor runs when the weather permitted. It would be years before stories of Matheson’s whistle system appeared in newspapers, along with tales of him training his goaltenders by have as many as three or four pucks at a time thrown at them (not shot) from all angles. Even so, Toronto Star sports editor Lou Marsh, writing on the eve of the new season on November 11, 1931, hinted at the unusual tactics and described Matheson’s odd attire at training camp: “He wore skates and knee pads – and had his garters on the outside of his knee pants… He looked like he was going to lay a cement sidewalk.”

But by then, Matheson was no longer with the Blackhawks. The Chicago Tribune reported on November 10, 1931, that the coach had entered a Pittsburgh hospital the day before with a stomach ailment. The Toronto Telegram had a very different story when the Blackhawks arrived to face the Maple Leafs without their coach: “Godfrey Matheson … has departed to Florida, a victim of a nervous breakdown.”

The Telegram believed that Matheson may have jumped the team before he was pushed, but a story in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 3, 1931, would note that Matheson was spending the winter in Daytona Beach after being ordered by doctors “to take a long rest.” His health was reported as improving, “but he will be unable to rejoin the team this season.”

And he never did. So, in consultation with the Blackhawks (they had a few other things wrong; so did we) and the NHL’s long-time statistician Benny Ercolani, here is the new Chicago Coaching History that will appear in the NHL Guide beginning this season:

History

There are also a few corresponding changes to coach’s Win-Loss records in the early years.

Fit For a King…

I haven’t posted anything since June 27. Have you missed me?

I hadn’t meant to take all this time off. I’ve just been very busy. Since May, we’ve been back at work on the NHL Official Guide & Record Book, which is scheduled to head to the printer around the middle of next week. In addition, since about this time last summer, I’ve been working on 11 different book projects for five different publishers. Only one has come out so far. The others have, in some form or another, kept me busy all summer. A couple of them still aren’t done. (One of my brothers is always commenting that “I must be rich.” Sadly, all I am is busy!)

It seems the combination of too much work and too little fun following the Blue Jays has meant not enough time for stories on my web site. Tonight (although in reality two nights ago by the time I post this) has actually been the first time all summer that I’ve had a story pop into my mind that I couldn’t shake. So I wrote it down.

This has been a story I’ve been thinking about since June 20 … 2005! At that point, we were nearing the end of the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. It was really becoming possible to search newspaper archives on line, and I had been collecting stories on the early history of the Stanley Cup, which would eventually lead to a 2012 book. While doing that, I came across this story in the Edmonton Bulletin from August 18, 1908:

The story goes on to mention that Charles King carried with him a letter from Thomas Shaughnessy, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, allowing him to walk across the country along the CPR tracks. He carried another letter from the Royal North West Mounted Police stating that he was “not to be molested.”

Something about this really spoke to me. I thought there might be a book in it too. So, within days of coming across the story, I had written to the Canadian Pacific archives in Montreal asking if they had any information on the Shaughnessy letter. They did not. (It’s been a few years since I last followed up, but archivist Jo-anne Colby promised to keep an eye out for anything for me.) An email to the RCMP Heritage Center in Regina also turned up nothing. I later searched through six months of issues of the Montreal Standard on microfilm, figuring that if the newspaper had a stake in this story they would be hyping it all summer long to try and boost their circulation. I found not one word…

Over the next year, I did come across a handful more stories of Charles King, mostly in newspapers in Western Canada, tracking his progress across the country. Some mentioned that King had developed his theories of nutrition and exercise at the Stymana club in Montreal … but I could never find any record of such an establishment existing.

Manchuria
Japanese print displaying the destruction of a Russian ship at Port Arthur,
Manchuria. This image will make more sense if you keep on reading!

Several newspaper all across North America reported that King reached Vancouver on September 14, 1908 —  day 137 of his 150-day trek. According to some, he had only earned $120 of the $150 he needed, but he still had 13 days to earn the additional $30. Over the years, I’ve collected stories of his arrival in Vancouver  from 11 different newspapers … but I’ve yet to find a single one that followed up to report on whether or not he ever made the money he needed to win the bet. (Eventually, a story in the Vancouver World from Bellingham, Washington, on October 21, 1908, noted that “Charles King, who has just completed a walking trip from Montreal to Vancouver, B.C., winning a wager of $1000, arrived in the town of Nooksack yesterday and has proceeded on his way to Seattle…” so I guess he did earn those extra $30.)

Based on the stories I’d collected, I assumed Charles King must be from Montreal (I’d later find other stories indicating he was actually from Detroit) and that this was a Canadian saga.  But more recently, I’ve learned that King’s was a much bigger story. In April of 2015, I found stories in four different newspapers saying that he had left Seattle in March of 1909 to walk to New York … and that this dual crossing of North America was actually part of a bet that began on May 1, 1905 in Port Arthur, Manchuria, in which King had wagered that he could walk around the world within seven years.

I would later come across stories claiming that Charles Addington King was a former war correspondent who had covered the Spanish-American War (1898), the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Some stories claim that the bet he apparently made with publishing interests in London, England, was for $12,000 in gold.

In stories from the summer of 1909, as King was leaving St. Paul, Minnesota for Chicago en route to New York, he told reporters: “I am now seven months ahead of my schedule, or in other words, I am 5,000 miles to the good.” But I have yet to discover if Charles King made it back to Port Arthur by May 1, 1912. I’ve never even found any stories about him beyond that summer of 1909.

Hockey Awards Season

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2017 yesterday. Five players and two builders. I don’t know a lot about University of Alberta legend Clare Drake, but someone who dedicated his life to teaching and coaching seems to me to be the type of person the category of builder was created for. Jeremy Jacobs has certainly done his share for the game, but rich guys who own teams are a little bit harder for me to get behind.

As for the players, it’s a pretty media-friendly group this year. And you can’t really argue with the numbers for guys like Dave Andreychuk, Mark Recchi, and Teemu Selanne – although of those three, only Selanne ever achieved real superstar status. Danielle Goyette is definitely a worthy recipient from women’s hockey. Paul Kariya? Well, who doesn’t like Paul Kariya? His totals of 402 goals and 587 assists for 989 points in 989 games are pretty impressive, and at his best, he was also a superstar. Still, he’s a lot like Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Peter Forsberg in that he’s yet another inductee of whom it could be argued that he’s being honoured for the potential of what might have been if not for the injuries …. But I’m not really going to complain.

HHOF

The Hockey Hall of Fame doesn’t release voting results the way the Baseball Hall of Fame does. (Hockey has a fairly small selection committee of industry insiders, while Baseball relies on a large pool of veteran sportswriters.) The NHL does reveal the details of the voting for its awards, but since I’m not aware of a lot of media outlets that ever bother to release them, I thought people might find it interesting to see the results. So, here they are…

HartSelected from 167 votes cast by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Norris
Selected from 167 votes cast by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

3
Selected from 167 votes cast by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Vezina
Selected from 30 votes cast by NHL general managers.

Byng
Selected from 167 votes cast by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Selke
Selected from 167 votes cast by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.


Selected from 105 votes cast by the NHL Broadcasters Association.

GM
Voting conducted among NHL general managers and a panel of NHL executives, print and broadcast media at the conclusion of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Back-to-Back Wins for The Penguins

I’ve been trying over the last couple of days to come up with a unique historical angle on this year’s Stanley Cup Final. Yes, it’s certainly impressive that the Pittsburgh Penguins have become the first team since 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back titles, which makes them the first to do so during the current Salary Cap Era. Still, I’m not sure if “the first since…” truly constitutes making history.

I haven’t really come up with anything, but here are some quick items of interest I’ve read or heard since the Finals wrapped up with Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win over Nashville on Sunday night (with a few more historical insights added):

– Not only do the Penguins join the Edmonton Oilers as the only non-“Original Six” NHL team to have won the Cup as many as five times, they’re the first team ever to win their first five Cup titles against five different teams.

Penguins
Pittsburgh Stanley Cup heroes Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Murray.

– No team in NHL history has played more games in two consecutive playoff years than the 49 the Penguins have played the last two years (24 last year, 25 this year). As an interesting comparison, the first team ever to play 25 games in one year (regular season AND playoffs combined) en route to winning the Stanley Cup was the Toronto Blueshirts of 1913-14. Toronto went 13-7-0 during the regular season in the National Hockey Association, won a two-game playoff with the Montreal Canadiens and then swept a best-of-three Stanley Cup series from the Victoria Aristocrats. When the Ottawa “Silver Seven” held the Stanley Cup for nearly four straight seasons from 1903 to 1906, they barely topped 49 games in total that entire time, playing just 30 regular-season games plus another 23 in Stanley Cup challenge matches. The Ottawa Senators of 1926–27 were the first team in history to play as many as 50 games in one season en route to winning the Stanley Cup, going 30-10-4 during the 44-game regular season and then playing six more games in the two rounds they needed to get through the playoffs.

– Although the Cup has been decided in overtime 17 times in NHL history (18 all-time if you count Dan Bain’s overtime winner for the Winnipeg Victorias in 1901), Patric Hornqvist became just the third player in NHL history to score the Cup-winning goal in the final two minutes of regulation time. The others: Boston’s Bill Carson in 1929 (18:02 of Game 2 at NYR) and Chicago’s Dave Bolland in 2013 (19:01 of Game 6 at BOS). Ernie McLea scored the Stanley-Cup winning goal with about two minutes remaining when the Montreal Victorias beat the Winnipeg Victorias 6-5 to win their one-game, winner-take-all Stanley Cup rematch all the way back in 1896.

– Matt Murray is the first goalie in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup-clinching game in each of his first two seasons in the league. (Rollie Melanson won the Cup his first three years in the NHL with the New York Islanders in 1981, 1982 and 1983, but saw almost no action during the playoffs as the back-up to Billy Smith.)

– Murray is also just the fourth goalie in NHL history to post two consecutive shutouts in the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final. The first three all played for Detroit: Earl Robertson in 1937, Johnny Mowers in 1943, and Terry Sawchuk in 1952. Incidentally, I had a quirky little story including Earl Robertson that I posted during those weeks when I seemed to be having email issues. If you never saw it, please click here.

Pittsburgh’s First Stanley Cup Story

When people ask my opinions about hockey, I often say to them, “I can tell you a lot more about why the Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup in 1907 than I can tell you about who’s going to win it this year.” Well, with two teams remaining, I think the Penguins are going to win it this year … AND I can tell you how Pittsburgh might have won it back in 1907.

Pitt 1
The Pittsburgh Press, January 19, 1907.

It will now be at least 25 years until a Canadian team follows up on Montreal’s Stanley Cup victory of 1993, but as I’ve said before in these pages, Canadian teams won the trophy all the time in the earliest days. That’s because when Lord Stanley donated his Cup in 1893, he intended it to be awarded to the championship team in the Dominion of Canada. Lord Stanley made no stipulation about amateur teams – although it’s unlikely he ever gave much thought to professionalism, which had became a pretty hot topic in Canada by the 1906-07 hockey season.

Many Canadians felt sports should only be played for the glory of the competition and were against paying the players. In the late fall of 1906, when some of the top teams and leagues in Canada announced they would allow professionals to participate – including the Stanley Cup-champion Montreal Wanderers – there were those who expected the trustees in charge of the Stanley Cup to take back the trophy. They didn’t, and since the winter of 1906-07, the Stanley Cup has been a professional trophy.

Pitt 2
The Pittsburgh Press, January 20, 1907.

Pittsburgh is where professional hockey began. In the early years of the 1900s, Canadian players were lured to the Pennsylvania city with the promise of paychecks. It was often reported that they were actually over-paid for off-ice employment rather than receiving a salary for playing hockey. This was so the players could make a case for retaining their amateur status back home. (The Ontario Hockey Association often banned these players anyway, although most other leagues in Canada were willing to play along.)

Beginning in 1904-05, the Pittsburgh Professional Hockey Club  played in the International Hockey League. Usually known as the Pittsburgh Professionals or the Pittsburgh Pros (and often Pittsburg without the ‘h’ as the city name was actually spelled from 1816 to 1916), they played against the Portage Lake team from Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Calumet, Michigan, and teams from both Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Pitt 3
The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Daily Post, February 3, 1907.

With the Stanley Cup going pro in the winter of 1906-07, word came from Pittsburgh as early as January 19, 1907, that manager A.S. McSwigan of the local team intended to challenge the Canadian champions for the trophy if Pittsburgh won the International league title. “This would cause more interest in hockey than anything that has ever happened in the States,” noted the Pittsburgh Press that day. “There never has been a game for this celebrated cup played in which an American team participated … [but] as the cup represents the premiership of the world, the Canadian officials cannot bar a team from America from playing for it.”

But bar them they did.

Pitt 4
The Pittsburgh Press, February 17, 1907.

“P.D. Ross, one of the Stanley Cup trustees,” said the Pittsburgh Press on February 17, 1907, “… is reported as having stated that it is not possible for any championship hockey team outside the Canadian boundary to challenge for the trophy…

“Mr. Ross certainly looks at the matter in a strange light. If the trophy is the emblem of the championship of the world, then it is indeed queer that contests for it must be confined to teams in Canada… Mr. Ross’ opinion is likely fathered by his wish, for, of course, no true Canadian wishes to see the Stanley Cup leave the Northern boundary.”

That still seems to be true for a lot of Canadians today, and yet there’s something odd about Ross’s refusal in 1907. It had been reported in a much shorter story in the Globe in Toronto two days before the Pittsburgh report – but I haven’t been able to find it in any other Canadian paper. That includes the Ottawa Journal, which was owned and published by Philip Dansken Ross himself.

Pitt 5
The Globe, Toronto. February 15, 1907.

In addition, both stories say that the American teams would be barred from challenging, but that the Canadian Soo would be eligible if they won the International league title. While they were obviously a Canadian-based team, P.D. Ross would have known better than anyone that if the Canadian Soo won the Cup, that would have automatically made the other American teams in the International league eligible for it. That’s because in addition to challenge matches, the Stanley Cup would also change hands if a new team won the league title in the same league as the defending champions.

In the end, Pittsburgh lost the IHL title to Portage Lake in 1906-07, so couldn’t have challenged anyway. Still, it’s fair to wonder if the Stanley Cup trustees really issued the ruling credited to them at the time … even though it took them until early in the 1915-16 season to finally declare that U.S.-based teams could compete for the Stanley Cup. Despite the nearly quarter-century drought these days, it was probably the right decision!

Stanley Cup Trivia

On Monday night, the Nashville Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. Tonight, we’ll find out if they’ll be playing against Ottawa or Pittsburgh. If the Penguins make it, they’ll have a chance to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back championships. If it’s the Senators, it’ll be the first time since 2007 (when Ottawa faced Anaheim) that we’ll be guaranteed of a first-time Stanley Cup winner. That’s something rarer than you might think.

In 100 seasons of NHL history, there have only been four other times before 2007 when neither team in the Stanley Cup Final had won the Cup before. Three of those times were:

  • 1934 – Chicago over Detroit
  • 1991 – Pittsburgh over Minnesota
  • 1999 – Dallas over Buffalo

I’ve left out the fourth because it makes for an interesting trivia question since it marks the ONLY time in NHL history where both teams that reached the Final had never even played for the Stanley Cup before. If I was more clever with computers, maybe I could figure out a way to hide the answer better. As it is, I’ve tucked it in beneath the logos below to give you a chance to figure it out if you want to before you see it…

Preds
Sens
Pens

  • 1996 – Colorado Avalanche over Florida Panthers

Unless there’s more expansion or realignment, this will only happen again if the Columbus Blue Jackets advance in the Eastern Conference and face the Arizona Coyotes, the Minnesota Wild, the Winnipeg Jets or the Vegas Golden Knights, who join the NHL next season.

Stanley Cup Anniversaries: 2017

For the last couple of years, around the start of the playoffs, I’ve done a “Stanley Cup Anniversaries” story. (If you’re curious, you can check out the links to 2015 and 2016.) I’m a little late this year, and this time I’m choosing to focus on just a single quirky anniversary story. This one is from 80 years ago in 1937.

The story begins in the spring of 1936, when the Detroit Red Wings became the last of the so-called “Original Six” teams to win the Stanley Cup. Goalie Normie Smith (who I mentioned a few weeks back in Marathon Men … And Kids Too) was a Red Wings hero that season. According to a report in the Detroit Free Press (which was picked up by a few other papers) on April 17, 1937, Smith was friendly with an ex-Canadian couple living in Detroit, a Mrs. Ida Lefleur and her husband, who were expecting a baby shortly after the Red Wings’ 1936 championship.

Smith
After two stellar seasons with the Red Wings, Normie Smith
was never the same after his shoulder injury in the 1937 playoffs.

“If we have a boy,” Ida told Normie, “we’ll name him Stanley after the Cup and next year the Red Wings will win the Stanley Cup again on his birthday.”

As the story goes, the boy was born on April 15, 1936 and was named Stanley Lefleur. And as it turned out, the baby’s first birthday in 1937 really did coincide with Game 5 of that year’s best-of-five Stanley Cup Final … between the Rangers and Normie Smith’s Red Wings.

Smith had won the Vezina Trophy during the 1936-37 season, but was injured in the playoffs and replaced by minor-leaguer Earl Robertson. On the day of Game 5, Smith sought his replacement. “Out near where we live is a Stanley Cup baby,” he told Robertson. “Now what you should do is go out there and take a few lucky pats on that baby’s head.”

Robertson
Figuring that Earl Robertson had earned a shot at the NHL,
and that Normie Smith would return healthy, the Red Wings dealt
Robertson to the New York Americans shortly after the 1937 Stanley Cup.

As the Free Press story explains, Normie Smith “will do anything for good luck.” Earl Robertson wasn’t nearly as superstitious, “but he doesn’t pass up any good luck charms.” So, “out they went to a little birthday party for Stanley and following Normie’s instructions Earl stole those few pats on the head.”

That night, Robertson recorded his second straight shutout in a 3-0 win over the Rangers as the Red Wings rallied to win the Stanley Cup. Afterwards, the injured Smith happily told of the role that he and baby Stanley had played in the comeback. “I got into the final playoffs after all,” said Smith, grinning broadly, “by getting Robbie to go out there with me.”

Headline
This version of the story appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune on April 17, 1937.

It’s a silly story, really, but one told with such detail that I certainly hoped it was true. So, imagine my disappointment when I went to Ancestry.com and searched for “Stanley Lefleur” born in “1936” with the mother’s name “Ida” … and found nothing.

But fear not! Expanding the search a little bit, I discovered that a Gilbert Stanley Lafleur, son of Lenard or Leo Lafleur and his wife, the former Ida Bergeron (both French Canadians living in Detroit), really was born on April 15, 1936. I didn’t come across a birth certificate or baptismal record, but I did come across a record of the Lafleur family in Detroit in the 1940 U.S. Census:

Census

And enough Social Security records to confirm the names and dates match up.

Docs

As for the rest, I know that many old-time sportswriters never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but I’m choosing to believe this one is true!

50 Years Ago Tonight

On May 2, 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. It was the 13th time a Toronto team had won the Cup during the first 50 seasons in NHL history. No one needs reminding that they haven’t won it since.

There have already been many commemorative stories about the 1967 Leafs, and I’m sure there will be plenty more today. I was looking to find something a little bit offbeat; a story of the 1967 Leafs that hadn’t been told before. Well, this one at least is new on me.

In the Thumbnail Tales notes at the bottom of his column on the day of the game, Toronto Star sports editor Milt Dunnell wrote about Leafs captain George Armstrong lingering in front of his locker after practice “long after most other players had showered and departed.” Armstrong, who would score the clinching goal into an empty net in the team’s 3–1 victory over Montreal that night to win the Stanley Cup in six games, explained that “this could be my last hockey practice. I hate to leave it.” (Armstrong would indeed retire briefly a few weeks later, as he would several times over the next few years before officially calling it a career in 1971).

Red Burnett of the Star noted that as Armstrong sat in the dressing room, he looked across the way to where rookie Mike Walton was shaving the shaft and blade of his hockey stick.

Players
Longtime Leafs captain George Armstrong (left) and 1967 rookie Mike Walton (right).

“I wonder how [Conn] Smythe and Hap Day would have acted if we’d tried those curved blade sticks in the days when I was a rookie,” mused Armstrong, although he knew that Walton was actually shaving his stick because he thought it was too heavy, not to try and deepen the curve.

“When Hap and Mr. Smythe were in charge, they insisted that every stick on the club weigh 23 ounces or better.” Armstrong explained that he didn’t like a heavy stick and would try to get by with a lighter one. However, “from time to time, Hap would take all the sticks out of the racks and weigh them. If you had a stick under 23 ounces, it was an automatic $25 fine. I paid a few fines before I got wise to the fact that you couldn’t fool the scales.”

Burnett relates that Smythe and Day had issued the order after Garth Boesch and Bill Barilko broke their sticks on the same sequence of plays, leaving the Leafs defence … well, defenceless.

That would have been between 1947 and 1950. “Times have changed,” Armstrong said. “Nowadays, the players have more say – and rightly so – in the type of equipment they use.”

Today, the average NHL sticks weighs about 400 to 515 grams. Converting 23 ounces into grams comes out to just a shade over 652. So, the sticks that Day and Smythe insisted on in the 1950s weighed as much as 50 percent more than the sticks of today. I’m sure that even with the shaving, Walton’s wooden stick was a lot closer to 23 ounces than it would be to the 400-gram composite sticks of today.

Personally, I have no comprehension of how the difference in weight and material effects shooting, but you only have to have watched a game in recent years to see how much faster players can fire the puck. Still, given the way even modern observers complain, you have to wonder what men like Conn Smythe and Hap Day would make of the fact that these $300-plus rocket-launchers seem to snap if you even look at them too hard!

A Coach’s Lament

“Overtime goals in the Stanley Cup [playoffs] are very nice to get, but very bitter to take. It never seems so bad to be beaten in a straight hour’s playing time.”

With a record 18 overtime games in the first round of the playoffs this year, and three of eight series decided during an extra period, there are a lot of coaches – and fans – who might be feeling this way right now. It was a Toronto coach who expressed the opinion above, but it came long before Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs had their surprisingly satisfying season end abruptly with an overtime loss to Washington on Sunday. It was Dick Irvin who said this; recalling a series of disappointing moments during his tenure in Toronto for Bill Roche of the Globe and Mail back in 1938.

Irvin, who for years was the winningest coach in NHL history, had guided Toronto to the Stanley Cup in 1932 and would lead the team to the Final six more times without success before moving on to Montreal in 1940. His overtime disappointments dated back to his amateur playing days in Winnipeg in 1916, but reached new levels with the Maple Leafs.

Irvin 1
Syl Apps, Conn Smythe, Dick Irvin and Gordie Drillon, circa 1938.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library/
Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections Online.

“[There] was a goal that Bill Cook scored in Maple Leaf Gardens in the spring of 1933 when the Rangers beat the Leafs by 1-0 in overtime to take the game and the Stanley Cup. We had both [Bill] Thoms and [Alex] Levinsky in the penalty box when Cook scored the heart-breaker. And the next one came when Maroons beat the Leafs three straight in the Stanley Cup Final in 1935. Our woes began in the first game when [Dave] Trottier scored to beat us 3-2 after more than 33 minutes of overtime.” Trottier actually scored at just 5:28 of OT, but it did spark a surprising Maroons sweep.

“Then, in the Cup playdowns of 1937, I still can see Babe Pratt of the Rangers scoring that goal in New York to beat us 2-1 in overtime to decide the series.” The Leafs would also lose the Stanley Cup to the Rangers in overtime again in 1940, but that was still in the future at this point.

Irvin’s recollections are timely … but what I found most interesting about his conversation with Bill Roche was his take on something that people have obviously been complaining about for a lot longer than I’d ever realized.

When asked, basically, why there wasn’t as much creativity in the game as there used to be, Irvin answered that, “in one sense I blame it on my own fraternity, the coaches. The youngsters are being over-coached. I don’t think young fellows who are getting into pro hockey these days are developing their own natural ability….

“These days, the kids are coached, coached, coached from pee-wee right up through to the pros. Six or seven coaches may handle a youngster before he reaches an NHL coach. And so much stress has been placed on team play, systems and methods along this coached route that few lads ever really develop those individualistic arts which are gifts of natural ability, such as stickhandling and fine shooting to finish off a play properly.”

Irvin 2
Dick Irvin was declared ineligible to play with the Winnipeg Monarchs
during the 1914 Allan Cup playoffs. They lost that year, but regained
the Canadian amateur championship with Irvin on board in 1915.

Irvin reminisced about growing up in Winnipeg, playing with gangs of kids on corner lots and frozen rivers. “The kids who had the skill and stamina became individual stars. They stood out far above the rest. And much later in their careers they learned team play….

“Many of the kids these days have never played on a frozen river or pond where they could practice all day. Instead, they have only short practice hours in an artificial ice arena, and they’ve never got the real groundwork or background…

“Why, we could shoot like young fools from all distances and angles long before we ever got near an organized team. If you couldn’t shoot, and if you couldn’t stickhandle from one end of the rink to the other through the mob of players, well, you had no chance to get any kind of hockey job. These days, it seems to me, they are teaching the kids too much system without first having them get the real fundamentals of skating, stickhandling, shooting and checking.”

Irvin admits it was “dog-eat-dog” in his childhood hockey days – and his head might explode if he saw how fast and how physical the game has become – but if he thought kids were being over-coached in the 1930s, what would he think of the way they play today?