Gilmours’ Getaway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three of a Kind with the Silver Seven

The new NHL season gets started tonight. COVID concerns have already begun to play havoc with a few rosters, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m sure, as in other sports, there will continue to be cases. Hopefully there won’t be anything worse.

But this story has nothing to do with the current season, COVID, the Spanish Flu, or any of that. There’s no real reason, or timing tie-in, for this one except that (as is often the case) I came across a few articles in old newspapers that got me interested, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to write about it. This story is a little bit all-over-the-board, but here goes…

According to Wikipedia (if I counted them up correctly!), there have been 299 sets of brothers who’ve played in the NHL from the league’s beginning in 1917 through 2019–20. Of that group, 47 sets of brothers have played together on the same team, but only 10 have won the Stanley Cup together. The numbers are slightly larger if we expand the time frame beyond the birth of the NHL and back to the start of the Stanley Cup in 1893.

Still, in all that time, there are only two instances when a group of three brothers have played together on a Stanley Cup team. (I’m one of three brothers myself, so this interests me.) Both sets are from Ottawa, and played with the famed “Silver Seven.” Alf, Harry, and Tommy Smith played together in 1906, although it seems that no more than two of those three ever suited up together in a Stanley Cup game that year. (I’ll likely write more about the Smith family in a future post). However, in the spring of 1903, brothers Dave, Suddie — short for Sutherland — and Billy Gilmour all starred together for Ottawa when the Silver Seven launched one of hockey’s most legendary dynasties.

Team picture commemorating Ottawa’s 1903 Stanley Cup title.

The Gilmour family was a prominent one in Ottawa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m not certain if the hockey family is related to the same lumber family of Gilmours for whom Gilmour Street in Ottawa was named, but the father and grandfather of our hockey Gilmours were both prominent in the lumber industry in the Gatineau region. So, the Gilmour boys, along with three other brothers (including one more who later played hockey) and a sister, likely grew up among plenty of privilege. This wasn’t always the case, but was not uncommon either for Canadian athletes in this era of amateurism.

All three Gilmour brothers played junior and intermediate hockey with the Ottawa Aberdeens, who were what might now be considered a top farm team for the Ottawa Hockey Club that would become known as the Silver Seven. The Gilmours, along with the great Frank McGee and a couple of other teammates, rose through the ranks more or less together.

Dave Gilmour on the left, and Suddie on the right from the 1903 team picture.

By the 1902–03 season, McGee and the Gilmours were all together on the top Ottawa club. Billy was still only 17 years old. Suddie was 20 (so was Frank McGee) and Dave was 21. They were all key in leading Ottawa to the Stanley Cup for the first time that season, first by defeating the Montreal Victorias in a two-game playoff to decide their league title, and then by successfully defending the Cup against the Rat Portage Thistles in a two-game challenge. Ottawa outscored its opponents by a combined score of 19–5 in those four Stanley Cup games. Though sources do differ, Frank McGee is generally credited with scoring seven of Ottawa’s 19 goals. Dave and Billy Gilmour scored four apiece, while Suddie added three more.

The 1902–03 season marks the only year that all three of the Gilmour brothers starred together with the Silver Seven (who were named — so the story goes — when team executive and mine owner Bob Shillington presented each member of the seven-man starting lineup with a silver nugget to commemorate their Stanley Cup victory). Suddie and Billy were both there in 1903–04 when Ottawa retained its title, but only Billy was still playing in 1904–05 when Ottawa continued its winning ways.

Billy Gilmour was probably only 17 years old when the picture on the right was taken.
The picture on the left would likely have been taken near his 20th birthday in 1905.

Billy Gilmour played just a single game in 1905–06, and did not take part in either challenge series when Ottawa successfully defended the Cup that year against teams from Queen’s University and Smith’s Falls, Ontario. That makes it debatable as to whether he should be considered a Stanley Cup champion for that season or not. However, he did play a full season with Ottawa (by then, officially, known as the Senators) when they won the Stanley Cup again in 1908–09. He was the only member of the “Silver Seven” dynasty that was with the team by that season.

Hamilton Livingston “Billy” Gilmour was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962, along with a host of other notables who had played before 1927, and inducted the following summer. Even so, he appears today as one of the more questionable of the Hall’s honoured members. Gilmour only ever played a handful of games at hockey’s highest level (he also played four seasons at McGill University while he was playing for the Silver Seven) and though he returned to play two more games for Ottawa during the 1915–16 season, he was basically done by the time he turned 24 right after the Cup-winning season of 1908–09.

Ottawa’s 1905 Stanley Cup team. The players identified are all members of the
Hockey Hall of Fame. Goalie Dave Finnie on the left replaced another future Hall
of Famer that season in Bouse Hutton. The player seated on the right is Art Moore.

Still, in his prime, Billy Gilmour was a talented and popular player on the top team in hockey, and was well-regarded by fans, sportswriters, his teammates, and his opponents. He was still a recognizable enough name in Ottawa and Montreal to warrant impressive obituaries in those cities when he passed away in March of 1959. He’d lived in Montreal for many years, but was buried in a family plot at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa. Just shy of his 74th birthday when he died, Billy was the longest-lived by far of the six Gilmour brothers, with the others all passing away by the age of 50.

Cyclone Taylor and Marty Walsh were the biggest stars in Ottawa
by 1909, but Billy Gilmour was still a key contributor.

Oldest brother Allan Gilmour, born in 1878, was the first to die when he was killed in action in World War I on June 3, 1916. (Billy Gilmour had enlisted himself just a few days prior to his brother’s death.) Allan Gilmour was 38 years old. The second-oldest brother, John Gilmour, died in 1925 when he was 44 years old. Youngest brother Ward, the fourth hockey brother, was 47 when he died in 1940. Suddie and David Gilmour passed away within a few months of each other in 1932. David was 50 when he died on September 27. Suddie was 48 when he passed away on February 14.

The death of Suddie Gilmour came nearly 30 years after his hockey heyday, but it seemed to revive a nostalgia for the days of the Silver Seven. Frank McGee had also died in the War back in 1916, and his brother John, who’d been a bit player during the 1903–04 season, died in a horse-riding accident back in 1904. This meant that Suddie’s funeral was the first in the city to truly mark the passing of one of Ottawa’s old Stanley Cup heroes. Among the many mourners who attended Suddie’s funeral two days later were former Silver Seven stars Harvey Pulford, Alf Smith, Harry Smith, Bouse Hutton, Art Moore, and Harry Westwick. Brother David was there as well, and many of the same mourners would turn out at his funeral soon enough.

The notice of Suddie Gilmour’s death appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on
February 15, 1932. The story about his funeral appeared on February 17.

Ironically, the one notable teammate who wasn’t there for Suddie Gilmour’s funeral was brother Billy, who was living in France. Apparently, Billy spent a lot of time in France after the end of World War I. He’d lost his wife back in 1925, when she had died at just 38 years old, and he and his daughter were living either in Paris, or the south of France in Bayonne or Saint-Jean-de Luz.

Billy Gilmour was in Ottawa for Dave’s funeral in September of 1932, but he continued to live in Paris until the Nazi’s marched into the city in June of 1940. I’ve come across a couple of articles mentioning a “narrow escape” to London before the occupation. If I’m ever able to learn anything more about it, you’ll be reading that story here one of these days!

Wayne Gretzky and the Zweig Brothers…

Last week, a Wayne Gretzky hockey card sold at auction for $1.29 million. It was a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card and it set a new record as the first hockey card to sell for over $1 million. (O-Pee-Chee produced hockey cards in Canada, and the Canadian cards are more valuable than the identical American hockey cards of the time produced by Topps.)

Apparently, this Gretzky card is one of only two from his 1979–80 NHL rookie season to have earned a “Gem Mint” rating from PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) out of the 5,700 or so that have been certified. In a story by Kevin McGran in the Toronto Star last week, Chris Ivy of Heritage Auctions in Dallas (who sold the card) said even brand new O-Pee-Chee cards in 1979 would have had difficulty earning a top rating due to the poor paper quality used, the wires used to cut the cards, and the issues they often had with poor centering.

The record-setting Gretzky card certainly looks to be well-centered, with no folds or chips in the paper. And, apparently the slightly jagged edge on the right side only adds to its authenticity in an age where it’s easier than ever to fake these cards.

So, hey, collectors! If you like jagged edges, check out this Gretzky rookie card that belongs to my brothers and me. (David was the biggest Gretzky fan in the family, so he has it at his house.)

The edges are definitely rough! There are some issues with the corners, and some of the blue edge has worn away, probably where somebody’s thumb handled it too often. The centering looks good, but the biggest issue to a collector would be the hole from the push-pin near the bottom.

And therein lies, (as Paul Harvey used to say), “the rest of the story.”

My brothers and I were, essentially, children of the 1970s. Children of the 1970s — like the generations before them — may have enjoyed collecting sports cards, but we didn’t preserve them for their future value. We played with them!

Farsies. Topsies. Knock-Downs. Scrambles. (Some times for fun, sometimes for Keepsies!)

The damage to the back of our card is even worse!

I don’t think any of the Zweig brothers ever put their cards in the spokes of their bikes, but David and I definitely had our own, special game for them. We would take the plastic nets off of our table-top hockey game and put them on the floor. We’d put a goalie card leaning up in front of each net, then we’d grab a card in each hand, get down on our hands and knees, and whack a marble (and each other!) around while trying to score on the other one’s goalie. Most of the hockey cards we have to this day still have creases that bend perfectly between four fingers and a thumb.

Our Gretzky card didn’t get that kind of treatment. Not because we were thinking of its future value, but because David and I were now 15 and 17 years old and less likely to crawl around on the floor body-checking each other.

David and I were both big Gretzky fans. As I wrote back in February, we’d been so since February of 1978 when our father took all three of us to see Gretzky play for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds against the Toronto Marlboros at Maple Leaf Gardens. We followed him in the newspapers in the WHA in 1978–79 and, I saw Gretzky play for the Edmonton Oilers against the Maple Leafs at the Gardens the first two times they played there in 1979-80; once in November and once in March. Gretzky had two goals and four assists in the March 29 game (the Oilers beat the Leafs 8-5) to close in on Marcel Dionne for the NHL scoring lead, and it was amazing!

I’ve never been much of a collector, though I’ve held on to plenty of things!
When card collecting was huge in the 1990s, I bought these two 1910 hockey cards because of their connection to my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.
If I’m remembering correctly, I paid $250 for Lester Patrick and $225 for Cyclone Taylor.

I saw the first Grezky game on November 21 with my friend Mike Baum, who we called “Guy” because he loved the Canadiens. (Gretzky had two goals and two assists in a 4-4 tie that night.) I saw the March game with Steve Rapp, and afterwards we waited around to get autographs. I got Gretzky’s on a scrap from a popcorn box. (I believe I got his linemates Brett Callighen and B.J MacDonald too.) Since David was the bigger fan, I gave him the autograph … and he pinned it to the bulletin board in his bedroom, along with the Gretzky card — because Gretzky was his favourite player.

So, there you go. The autograph hasn’t survived, but because of the pinhole damage (not to mention the damage from the tape on the back!) the value of our Gretzky rookie card drops from a potential $1.29 million to maybe $1.29 hundred.

If we’re lucky!

And, hey, if I don’t get around to posting anything again over the next 10 days or so, Happy Holidays to everyone and best wishes for 20201. (How could it not be a better year?!?)

NOTE: The autograph still exists too! David has kept it all these years. Says I promised I’d get it for him if he let me wear his Gretzky jersey to the game that night. (I remember that I wore it, but don’t remember the promise! He says “I couldn’t believe you came thru.”

Who Was That (First) Masked Man?

You’d think something as simple as who was the first goalie in hockey history to wear a mask would be an easy question to answer. It’s not. In fact, it’s been surprisingly difficult to nail down.

Jacques Plante — though he popularized the concept for modern goalies — was certainly not the first to wear one. Clint Benedict (who I’ve argued in the past was a better goalie than Georges Vezina, the NHL’s goaltending trophy namesake) was probably the first NHL goaltender to wear a mask when he put one on for a few games late in the 1929–30 season to protect a frequently broken nose. My friend and colleague Stephen Smith, on his Puckstruck web site several years ago, wondered if George Hainsworth (another early era great) might have actually preceded Benedict by a year. He may have, although Stephen concludes that Hainsworth was more likely to have been wearing an elaborate bandage to protect his own broken nose.

For a while, the trendy answer to who was the first goalie to wear a mask was Elizabeth Graham, who is known to have worn a fencing mask while playing goal for the Queen’s University women’s hockey team in 1927. However, others (including another woman, Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club in 1916) had been known to wear masks before that.

I wrote about the early history of goalie masks several years ago, although Corinne Hardman was new on me thanks to another Stephen Smith story from last year. Stephen’s story also pushed back my earliest knowledge (which had previously been of Eddie Giroux wearing a baseball catcher’s mask in practice with the Toronto Marlboros in December of 1903 to protect a cut on his face) to 1899. But that’s where the story gets murky once again.

The Ottawa Citizen of January 23, 1899, picked up a story from the Kingston Times claiming that goalie Edgar Hiscock of the Frontenacs had recently broken his nose and would be forced to wear a baseball mask in his coming games.

Photo of Edgar Hiscock with the Kingston 14th Regiment team
courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.

IF Hiscock did wear a mask in a game, he would appear to be the first … or, at least, the earliest discovery made so far. However, nobody that I’m aware of has found an account of any subsequent Kingston games that actually confirms Hiscock wore one! His name certainly appears in several game summaries during the rest of the hockey season, but there’s no mention of wearing a mask. (Admittedly, I’ve only been able to check myself in online sources. Perhaps Kingston newspapers on microfilm have something, but it doesn’t appear that anyone has found anything yet.)

If Hiscock didn’t wear a mask in any of the games before the Kingston Frontenacs wrapped up their season by defeating Guelph 5–2 for the OHA Intermediate championship on March 6, 1899, then another name moves to the top of the “first” list. Another Intermediate champion (probably of the city of Calgary): Ev Marshall.

Marshall’s case is clearly confirmed by the Calgary Herald of March 17, 1899, which reported that he wore a baseball mask while playing goal for the local Press hockey club in the championship game against a team of picked stars from other Calgary clubs the night before.

Turns out that Ev Marshall (Everett Douglas Marshall to be exact) is a pretty interesting guy!

Marshall (all this information comes from his obituary in the Calgary Herald from August 25, 1949 after his death the night before) was born in Megantic County, Quebec, on December 19, 1875*. Although there seems to be some conflicting information as to when his father died, it appears to have been before Everett’s mother brought her only child with her to settle in the Calgary area in 1885, just one year after Calgary had been officially incorporated as a town.

[* Daniel Doyon found birth records showing that Everett Marshall was actually born three years earlier, on December 19, 1872, in Inverness, Quebec, which is part of Megantic County.]

By 1888, young Everett was one of three delivery boys working for the Calgary Herald. He soon apprenticed as a printer’s devil and later he and M.C. “Mike” Costello (a future mayor of Calgary) became the first printers in Calgary to operate a linotype machine, which eliminated the need for printers to lay out a newspaper by hand. After 1894, Ev took on editorial duties as well, and would briefly serve as the Herald’s editor. He later set up his own paper, The Market Examiner, in 1917, in partnership with the Herald’s first women’s and society page editor, Jean A. Grant, whom he married in 1928 – two years after he had established The Western Oil Examiner, Calgary’s first oil industry newspaper.

In addition to his newspaper interests, Ev Marshall was also one of the first secretaries of the Calgary Volunteer Fire Brigade, and in the late 1890s, he played hockey for both Calgary’s Press hockey club and the Brigade hockey team. At this point, Marshall was not a goalie but a defenceman. It appears that he was the captain of the both teams in 1898, but while playing for the Brigade team on January 28, 1898, Marshall took a stick in the face while trying to check an opponent and lost his left eye.

Despite the injury, Marshall continued to referee hockey games during the winter of 1899. (Insert your own referee joke here!) There’s no story as to why he chose to make his first appearance as a player as the goalie for the Press team on March 16, 1899, but clearly the reason he chose to wear a catcher’s mask must have been to protect his right eye (and his glass left eye too).

Everett D. Marshall played what appears to be the last game of his hockey career for a team called the Nonpareils against a C.P. Railway team on April 3, 1899. No mention of a mask in this one (although I suspect he wore one), but his work in goal was said to be “very fine.”

Family Secrets…

It is truly amazing the things that can be discovered online these days. Some times, maybe, it’s too much. I admit, this story almost feels like an invasion of privacy. Or even exploitive. But, it’s been going around in my head for days so I’ve written it all down.

I remember, years ago, when Barbara sent away for the complete military records of her grandfathers, who both served in World War I. Both survived, and Barbara knew them well when she was young. She adored her mother’s father, but the family had a more difficult relationship with her father’s father. She knew that her mother’s father had been wounded badly enough some time in 1918 that he spent the rest of the War in a hospital in England. He had difficulties because of his injuries until he died in 1964. After seeing his War records, we began to refer to him as “World War I’s most wounded soldier.” It seemed he just kept getting wounded, getting patched up, and getting sent back out there … until it almost killed him. The most notable thing about her father’s father was how often he was treated for venereal disease! I remember both Barbara and her mother saying how appalled he would be that they knew this about him.

But, at least those stories were all in the family. This one certainly isn’t. But here goes…

Recently, I wrote about Babe Dye being perhaps the first Babe Ruth of Hockey. I already knew a lot about his story, and have written about him here before, back in 2015 and 2016. Dye was a multi-sport star who became a top scorer in the NHL with the Toronto St. Pats in the 1920s while also playing high-level minor league baseball, mostly with the Buffalo Bisons and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Like Babe Ruth, Babe Dye was a left hander who pitched and played the outfield. Dye was also a fine football player, but was never a halfback with the Toronto Argonauts, as old hockey biographies used to say. He actually starred with a Toronto team called the Capitals from 1917 to 1920.

In baseball, Babe Dye threw and batted left. In hockey, he shot right.

As a baseball player, Dye was good enough that the legendary Connie Mack wanted him for his Philadelphia Athletics. Hockey records long claimed that Mack offered $25,000 to Dye in 1921, which is what was reported in the Toronto Star along with an obituary for Dye on January 4, 1962, a day after he died. In truth, the offer came in 1923, and it appears to have been for $30,000. Hockey stories say Dye turned down Mack in order to concentrate on his NHL career, but the Buffalo Enquirer of August 29, 1923, makes it pretty clear that it was the Bisons who were actually offered the money to buy Dye’s rights. It was also the Buffalo team that turned down Mack because the Bisons wanted players in return, not money, if they were going to give up a perennial .300 hitter.

Babe Dye with the Stanley Cup champion Toronto St. Pats of 1921-22.
The Buffalo Bisons gave Dye permission to report late to spring training as
the St. Pats faced the Vancouver Millionaires in the Cup Final late in March.

And by the way, what an amazing coincidence that the day after Connie Mack was in Buffalo, the New York Yankees were in town to play an exhibition game against the Bisons … and that Babe Dye and Babe Ruth both hit home runs in the same game! (The Yankees beat the Bisons 13–7.)

The Buffalo Enquirer from August 29 and August 30, 1923.

So, by now you’re wondering, “what’s so personal about all this?” Well, bear with me a little longer…

While poking around old newspaper stories about Babe Dye last week, I discovered that in May of 1918, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force for service in World War I. Dye joined the 69th Battery of Toronto and was sent to Camp Petawawa (near Ottawa) to train as a gunner. (I had no idea of this, but others did. Alan Livingstone MacLeod writes about it in his book From Rinks to Regiments, and tells me that Dye’s name was on a list of hockey playing soldiers produced by the Department of Veterans Affairs.)

With the War ending on November 11, 1918, Dye was never sent overseas before being discharged on December 20. He seems to have spent an awful lot of his army time playing sports; often back home in Toronto. Dye played for the 69th Battery baseball team, and also pitched for his old Toronto baseball team, the Hillcrests, while home on leave a couple of times during the summer. He also played a few football games in Toronto with the Capitals on leave in the fall.

The 69th Battery won the military baseball championship at Camp Petawawa and actually played against the Hillcrests in the Ontario semifinals. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday, October 5, 1918, but wet grounds forced a postponement and the game was played the following weekend, on October 12. Though he had pitched for the Hillcrests during the season, Dye was given permission to pitch against them. Through five innings, he kept things close … until he hurt is ankle sliding into third in the top of the sixth. Dye attempted to continue pitching, but he couldn’t, and the Hillcrests (who were leading 2-1) scored six late runs for an 8-3 victory.

Later in life, Babe Dye would credit his athletic prowess to his mother, who apparently taught him to skate and play hockey and to pitch and play baseball. “My mother knew more about hockey than I ever did,” Dye once recalled, “and she could throw a baseball right out of the park.”

Dye, it was said, never knew his father, who died when he was only one year old. The family was living in Hamilton then, but his mother Esther brought young Cecil (Babe’s given name) and a brother back to Toronto, where she and her late husband were both from.

OK. Here’s where we get to the personal/privacy stuff!

There’s not much military information in Babe Dye’s military records, but there’s some fascinating family information.

In July of 1918, Esther Dye filled out an application for financial assistance, claiming that her son who was now in the military, was her main source of support. But she was not a widow. Her application states that her husband, Sydney Dye, (John Sydney Alexander Dye, I would later discover) had deserted her on January 13, 1898. She had received no support from him since then, and his whereabouts were unknown.

But what about the other son? Babe’s brother of the hockey stories, who Esther had apparently brought to Toronto after her husband died? Couldn’t he support his mother?

Apparently not.

Sydney Earle Dye “lives with an aunt,” Esther wrote. “Has never contributed to my support.”

It wasn’t so much that he never had, but that he never could.

“From the physical viewpoint, he is neither an invalid nor is he incapacitated,” wrote Dr. George B. Smith on Esther’s form in August of 1918. “From the mental viewpoint, he is totally neurotic and if not carefully handled his brainstorms would be unbearable…. He is unsuited to meet the public at large. He shuns publicity and society.” How long had he been like this? “From childhood.”

Not in the military records, but available if one searches hard enough on Ancestry, is the rest of the story…

John Sydney Alexander Dye married the former Esther Swinbourne on May 22, 1891 (above, left). Sydney Earle Dye was born on September 6, 1891 (above, right). Do the math. That’s barely four months after the wedding. Esther must have been five months pregnant at the time. And, by coincidence (or maybe not?) Esther also seems to have been about five months pregnant when her husband left her in January of 1898, as baby Cecil would be born on May 13, 1898 (below).

Esther raised Cecil on her own. She had two sisters who never married, but older brother Sydney (who went by Earl) was actually brought up by one of his father’s brothers and his wife. So the Dye family didn’t abandon Esther completely. And it further turns out that Babe Dye was one of three sons, not two. He had a second older brother, William Vernon Dye, who was born on August 20, 1896, but died of meningitis on January 20, 1911. Life was more difficult in those days, but it still must have been a difficult childhood. Sports must have been a comforting refuge.

William Dye’s birth record on the left, and death certificate on the right.

These were definitely family stories you wouldn’t have read in an old-time biography of Babe Dye. I imagine it was stuff the family rarely spoke of. If ever.

But all the facts are out there now.

If you dig deep enough.

So, now we know.

The Babe Ruth of Hockey

Well, in what’s been a pretty tricky year for most of us, there was something of a treat for sports fans this week courtesy of Covid-19. Less than 24 hours after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup on Monday night, the Major League Baseball playoffs started Tuesday afternoon. (The Blue Jays lost, but at least there’s another chance among the eight games today!) It’s a doubleheader you’re just not going to see in a normal year, so what better time for a bit of historical fun involving my two favourite sports…

Ask most hockey historians if they know who “the Babe Ruth of Hockey” was and they’re likely to tell you, “Howie Morenz.”

Morenz was a star, mainly with the Montreal Canadiens, from 1923 until 1937. A three-time winner of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, Morenz was considered the game’s best scorer and its fastest skater. Speed was what led to most of his nicknames. He was known as “the Mitchell Meteor” (for his home town of Mitchell, Ontario), “the Hurtling Habitant,” “the Canadien Comet,” and, most famously, “the Stratford Streak” (for the Ontario town he grew up in).

Howie Morenz was a flashy personality who put fans in the stands at a time when the NHL was first expanding into the United States. Hence, the comparisons to Babe Ruth. Still, years ago, when searching newspapers online was just starting out, I tried to find stories about this and couldn’t really find anything definitive from the height of Howie’s career. With so many more papers to search, it was easy enough this time. But the moniker wasn’t exactly exclusive…

Howie Morenz, Babe Dye, Eddie Shore, Charlie Conacher, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Alain Caron would all be tagged “the Babe Ruth of Hockey.”

This wasn’t really an exhaustive research project, but it certainly looks like Howie Morenz wasn’t the first player to be known as “the Babe Ruth of Hockey.” Nor would he be the last. The first references are to Cecil Dye of the Toronto St. Pats … better known to hockey fans as Babe Dye.

Dye was nowhere near the explosive skater Morenz was, but he was hockey’s best scorer at the time Morenz was just coming into the NHL. In the offseason, Dye played minor league baseball, and was good enough to attract Major League interest. It’s said that his hockey teammates in Toronto called him “Babe” because of his baseball prowess (he was known as “Babe” by at least 1917, when Ruth was still mainly a pitcher) … but it seems it was the New York press that first called Dye “the Babe Ruth of Hockey.” (Or perhaps the Ottawa Journal was just taking exception to the New York papers referring to Billy Burch this way. See the bottom of this post.)

The Ottawa Journal, December 21, 1925.
The Miami Herald, February 16, 1926.

A broken leg in 1927 ended Dye’s baseball career, and marked a sharp decline in his hockey career too. That appears to be when the title “the Babe Ruth of Hockey” passed to Morenz.

The Windsor Star, November 30, 1927. (There would be other rumours of other
trades or sales of Morenz by the Canadiens at the end of the 1928-29 season.)
This image appeared in various newspapers. This one is
from The Times of Munster, Indiana, on March 9, 1928.

But there would be challengers. In Boston in particular, but in other cities too, Eddie Shore was soon being called “the Babe Ruth of Hockey.” Shore was a defenseman who didn’t put up the big scoring numbers of Morenz, but he was also a very colourful character and a big box-office draw. A huge star himself, Shore was the first four-time winner of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.

The Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 1931.

Charlie Conacher of the Toronto Maple Leaf was (like Shore) a larger-than-life personality and (like Morenz) a great scorer. He had already won two goal-scoring titles by the 1932-33 season (he’d become the first to league the league in goals five times) when he was considered an heir apparent to the “Babe Ruth” moniker.

The Brooklyn Times Union, December 28, 1932

Still, at the time of his death on March 8, 1937 (two months after the broken leg that ended his career), it seems that Morenz had taken back the title from Shore and Conacher and truly was “the Babe Ruth of Hockey.”

The Brooklyn Times Union, March 9, 1937

The nickname doesn’t seem to appear again until another flashy Montreal Canadiens superstar was tagged with it. Maurice Richard was already well known as “the Rocket” when New York writers began referring to him as “the Babe Ruth of Hockey” in 1950.

New York Daily News, October 29, 1950.

The nickname stuck as Richard surpassed Nels Stewart (who had topped Howie Morenz) as the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring leader in 1952 and went on to become hockey’s first 500-goal scorer. Gordie Howe would, of course, break all of Rocket’s scoring records, and the Babe Ruth tag would attach itself to him too.

The Decatur Daily Review, October 22, 1957.
The Bismarck Tribune, March 3, 1967.

Skilled as he was, though, Howe never had Richard’s flair, which is why Conn Smythe back in 1951 had thought the Babe Ruth tag rightfully belonged to the Rocket. (Howe was maybe more like the “the Lou Gehrig of Hockey.”)

The Boston Globe, April 16, 1951.

Bobby Hull (or Bobby Orr) might have been a worthy recipient of the nickname too, but only Gordie Howe had it…

The Kingsport News, March 29, 1967.

And as Howe eventually put up numbers that were, well, Ruthian, the name stuck — although not like Mr. Hockey would!

Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 5, 1968.

The most unlikely “Babe Ruth of Hockey” is undoubtedly Alain Caron. Caron was a huge scorer in minor league hockey who had 77 goals and 48 assists for 125 points for the St. Louis Braves of the Central Professional Hockey League in 1963-64 when his article appeared. He played just 60 games in the NHL over two seasons, but was a decent scorer later during two years in the World Hockey Association.

The Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1964.

Not surprisingly with the numbers he would put up, Wayne Gretzky would also draw comparisons with Babe Ruth.

The Boston Globe, February 25, 1982.

Although when it comes to nicknames, it’s tough to top “The Great One.”

NOTE: a couple of late additions. I knew that the New York Americans promoted Billy Burch as “the Babe Ruth of Hockey,” though forgot to include him. Not sure if I’d ever come across Ching Johnson.

Billy Burch clipping from the Yonkers Statesman, December 8, 1925.
Ching Johnson cartoon from the Cushing Daily Citizen, March 10, 1928.

AND a further eight more from 1920 to 1926…

Newsy Lalonde, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 1920.
Frank Fredrickson (misspelled) from the Vancouver Province, January 7, 1921.
Raymie Skilton, Boston Post. January 29, 1921.
Vernon “Jake” Forbes from the Ottawa Journal, December 5, 1921.
Herb Drury (misspelled) in Collyer’s Eye from January 7, 1922.
Art Duncan from the Calgary Herald, March 3, 1924.
Either Red Green (Redvers, not Redford) or his brother
Shorty (Wilfred), Brooklyn Daily Eagle on November 29, 1925.
Bullet Joe Simpson, the Ottawa Journal. February 5, 1926.

… But Who’s Counting?

Turns out, the historic 85-save effort by Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo in the 5 overtime, 150 minutes, 27 seconds, 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay the other night wasn’t quite as historic as the NHL says.

Back on April 3–4, 1933, the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins 1-0 in a 6 OT, 164:46 OT game in which Toronto outshot Boston 114–93 … meaning Leafs goalie Lorne Chabot made 93 saves and the Bruins’ Tiny Thompson made 113.

That game was the longest in NHL history at the time, and still ranks second to the 1936 6 OT game in which the Detroit Red Wings beat the Montreal Maroons 1-0 in 176:30. Lorne Chabot was the losing goalie on that night, but faced “only” 67 shots. Winning goalie Normie Smith of Detroit stopped all 90 shots he faced (some newspapers show 91) … but that’s still not what Thompson did!

So, why doesn’t the NHL recognize Thompson’s record? I haven’t seen the game sheets for that one, but my guess is, the NHL wasn’t officially tracking shots that night. (Shots on goal didn’t become an official statistic until 1955-56.) Obviously, some one at Maple Leaf Gardens was tracking them, though. Still, from what I’ve seen of the old game sheets, I’d say that in the early games where the NHL (unofficially?) did track shots, it’s more likely they were counting shots AT goal than shots ON goal … meaning a defencemen might have blocked some, and that possibly even some of the shots went wide. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know that for that historic Toronto–Boston game.

And as for Seth Jones’ record time on ice of 65:06 the other night? Well, I’d bet a lot of money that Eddie Shore was on the ice for a lot more time than that back on April 3–4 of 1933! As likely were Boston’s Lionel Hitchman, George Owen, and Alex Smith, and perhaps all four of Toronto’s King Clancy, Hap Day, Red Horner and Alex Levinsky as well. Some early NHL game sheets did track time … but I don’t think we’re ever going to know this one for certain.

Toronto Star, April 4, 1933.
Boston Globe, April 4, 1933.
The Windsor Star of April 4, 1933, shows Tiny Thompson
with 114 saves … but that’s probably the total shots fired at him.
Shots on goal from the longest overtime game in NHL history.

Sports Musings from Now and Then…

Normally — when it happens in April! — I always say of the start of the baseball season and the hockey playoffs, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I know there are lots of sports fans out there who are thrilled to be watching again … but this year, I’m not so sure.

(If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this Toronto Life story about my Mom and baseball.)

Yes, I imagine I’ll be watching too (at least some of the Maple Leafs games and I’m already watching the Blue Jays — the Buffalo Wings?), but I’m still not convinced it’s a very good idea. Hockey and basketball at least seem theoretically safer in their “bubbles,” but all that travelling in baseball seems to be courting disaster. I hope not, and I hope everyone gets through this safely, but look at what’s already happening to the Miami Marlins.

But, thus endeth the sermon. Really, I’m just posting this today to have a little fun.

As some of you know (some of you who are my friends on Facebook), I’m working on a new book. It’s a history of the 1907 Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles for a writer/publisher friend in Kenora. Yes, it’s pretty old time hockey, but if you read it when it comes out in 2021 — and I hope you will — I think it’ll make a pretty compelling case that hockey was always as popular (and obsessive!) with its fans in its earliest days as it still is today.

But, not everything from the old days was the same!

Sportscasters these days seem to consider themselves pretty funny (or punny, anyway), but you don’t see a lot of satire like this anymore.

What follows below was written by someone named C.M. Kyle of Winnipeg on March 17, 1905 and printed in the Winnipeg Telegram three days later. For context, the Ottawa “Silver Seven” had just defeated the Rat Portage Thistles (Rat Portage would officially be renamed Kenora on May 11, 1905) in a rough, best-of-three challenge series. It was the third straight season that Ottawa was the Stanley Cup champion, but fans outside the Canadian capital were become increasingly unhappy with the team’s tough tactics.

The Silver Seven were the Broad Street Bullies (the Bank Street Bullies?) of their time. Their style of play could be downright scary. So, as one who’s not so much a fan of violence in hockey, I hereby present…

THE RAVEN (REVISED)
Once upon a midnight dreary,
as the Ottawas, weak and weary
Pondered over three great cup games
and from which they still felt sore;
Suddenly there came a tapping,
as of some one gently rapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping on their club-room door.
Merely this and nothing more.
Seeing that it was not heeded,
once again it was repeated,
Till at least it drew attention,
some one opened wide the door.
Entered then a stately raven,
plumage heavily snow-laden,
Who flapped his wings then took a perch
above their club-room door,
Saying sadly, “Never more.”
“What meanest thou” immediately
   arose the natural query,
“What brings thee here on this strange visit;
   ne’er heard of before?
With a sigh the raven turned,
   and pointing to their hockey colors,
Put his head beneath his wing,
   and whispered as he had before,
      Sadly, softly, “Never more.”
Dumb, astonished, scarcely breathing,
   wondering what could be the meaning,
Of those words so sadly uttered
   by the bird above the door;
Once again an explanation
   was demanded in vexation,
But the raven once again for
   loss of words, did as before,
      Mournfully saying “Never more.”
Losing patience, and at random
these mysterious words to fathom,
For the last time asked the question
of the bird above the door:
“Speak though coal-black imp of Satan,
or by he who sent the chasing,
’Round the country with the message
that shalt see the sun no more,
What mean these words, ‘Never more?’”
Seeing there was no evading
expectations now, the raven
Gazed bitingly upon the players
crowded ‘round the door,
And with grace and style enthralling,
but vehemence most appalling,
Said, “If you guys would play hockey
you’d be champions no more.”
Merely this, and nothing more.
Smarting from the raven’s satire,
but determined yet to know more,
From their strange yet noble visitor
who spoke in terms so sure,
Said “Pray tell us noble raven,
ere departing for they haven,
What makes thee think our Ottawas
will ne’er be champions more?
Why use these words, ‘Never more?’”
As if answering their query
that strange raven from his eyrie,
Said in tones so deep and solemn,
they cut right to the core,
“If you people would play hockey,
you would not now be so cocky,
For the first team you ran up against
would bang in twice the score.
Then you’d ne’er by champions more.”
(MORAL)
Ottawa has got some players,
but they’ve got a few man-slayers
On their team who think it noble,
their check’s face to cut and scar.
And until they are removed,
or until Father Time removes them,
Ottawa will hold the Stanley Cup
as they have done before,
But by hockey? — NEVER MORE!

And, hey, it that doesn’t do it for you, you can always check out The Simpsons version

Sports and Protests…

I’ve never been much for taking a stand. You know that story, “and when they came for me, there was no one left…” I’ve always thought that would be me. I’m not proud of it … but I know myself. These days, though, “Silence is Violence,” so here’s what I’d like to see in terms of sports protests.

First of all, despite all the plans now in place, I’m not convinced that any sports will (or should) start up right now. And if they do, it’s one thing for the Canadian government to say we’ll allow NHL players into Toronto (or Edmonton or Vancouver) because at least they’ll be sort of self-isolating. But, despite writing and commenting mostly about hockey, I’m a baseball fan above all else. A Blue Jays fan above all else. Still, I sure as hell hope the Canadian government won’t let the Blue Jays play at home, coming and going from the United States every three days to a week, and bringing in players from visiting American teams equally as often. That seems like madness to me. If Dunedin is unsafe (and I sure wouldn’t want to be in Florida right now), let the Blue Jays play out of Buffalo.

IF sports do resume, I hope that athletes will continue to protest. But if they do, here’s what I’d like to see. Please do not protest during the National Anthem. Not that I disagree with doing that, but by removing the National Anthem from the protests, you’d remove all the wrong-headed “they’re disrespecting the flag” nonsense. Don’t give them the chance.

Instead, when the referee or umpire brings the teams together for the opening kick-off, face-off, tip-off, or pitch, please take a knee then. On opening day, in each sport, perhaps take a knee for the 8-and-a-half minutes it took to murder George Floyd. The rest of the time, maybe a symbolic 30-seconds will do.

Stadiums will mostly be empty, but, if not, I bet there’d be a fair share of people booing and expressing “shut up and play” sentiments. Even if many people wouldn’t feel emboldened to speak out these days, I suspect plenty still feel that way. Even without the ability to say it, I’m sure there are too many who would like to see Black people kept in their place. I hope I’m wrong.

You may disagree with me if you’d like. Maybe my thoughts are naive. I won’t respond to comments on this story regardless of whether they’re positive or negative. If you agree with my thoughts on protesting, feel free to share this post. I’m not on Twitter, but if you are, and you agree, I’d be happy to have you Tweet this. But that’s up to you.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking…

I Don’t Know Medicine … but I Do Know History

I don’t have a medical opinion. And I don’t usually weigh on on things I don’t know about. Still, I don’t really understand why the NHL seems so gung-ho to get back to business. Intellectually, I understand it. Hockey is big business … and, specifically, they’re not looking to extend any of their current television contracts any further than they have to, which they might be forced to do if they are no playoffs this year. Personally, I couldn’t possibly care less about that reason.

Emotionally, I understand it too. Fans say they want to see hockey back. I care a little bit more about that. Still, I have a hard time taking Gary Bettman at his word when he says “our fans are telling us” they want it. I certainly believe that most fans do want it… I just don’t believe that sways Mr. Bettman as much as he wants us to think. Yes, I seem to recall Bettman saying something along the lines of, “our fans are telling us they want us to get our economic house in order,” during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season. But my guess is, most of those fans would also have said they didn’t want to see the entire season cancelled. (And they DO want NHL players at the Olympics.) So, I basically believe Gary Bettman says and does what’s good for Gary Bettman and the NHL … which is his job, after all.

Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s plans in a video on Tuesday.

We have to trust that Bettman is being sincere when he says the NHL won’t come back if it isn’t safe to play … but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it! I’m not a doctor. I don’t know where we’re headed any better than most of you do. Still, I don’t believe it’s right for thousands upon thousands of tests (or personal safety equipment) to be made available to professional athletes when so many people who truly need them are still going without. It also seems to me that the athletes themselves are being treated by the owners as little more than chattel – well-paid chattel, admittedly – when they’re being told they might have to isolate for months and months to get the season done. But if they agree, then it’s not for me to decide.

Personally, I’d have no problem if the NHL just called off the season and concentrated on restarting anew in the fall if it proves safe to do so. I’ve yet to watch any of the German soccer games without crowds, and I don’t really know what NHL hockey in empty arenas will be like. I’m also not sure I care to be inside watching hockey games in July and August … unless we’re all forced to be inside again by then. And if we are, how safe will it be to play these games?

The one thing on which I do agree with Gary Bettman is that IF conditions prove safe enough for the return of hockey, the proposal the NHL has made to crown a champion seems like an interesting one that should determine a worthy champion.

The Stanley Cup has undergone many “format” changes
during its long history. So have the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the NHL has called an end to the regular season. Because no one had completed the schedule yet, and not all teams have played the same number of games, the playoffs that will (might!) commence will be expanded from 16 teams to 24. There will be 12 playoff teams in each of the two conferences. The teams will be housed in two yet-to-be-determined “hub” cities where all the games will take place. The top four teams in each conference based on points percentage from the standings when play was halted will be given a bye through the opening “qualifying round.” While the lower 16 teams are playing in best-of-five series to determine which eight teams will continue in the playoffs, the top teams will play round-robin tournaments to determine their seedings as the top teams in each conference. The playoffs will then proceed with 16 teams playing four rounds to decide the Stanley Cup champion. It isn’t known yet if all the playoff rounds will be best-of-sevens as we’ve become used to, or if the first two rounds might be something shorter.

A while back, I heard several NHL players on TV saying how the only true and fair way to determine the Stanley Cup champion is through four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs. I’ve read writers who’ve commented that with anything less, “historians will call the championship into question.” Well, this is one historian who will never call it into question!

The NHL likes to boast that the Stanley Cup is the hardest championship of all to win. That may be true, but the NHL playoff format has hardly been carved in stone! Yes, the NHL has been playing four rounds of playoffs since 1980, and all four rounds have been best of sevens since 1987. Yet even within that setup, the NHL has tinkered plenty. And before that? Does anyone question the greatness of the 1970s Montreal dynasty because they didn’t have to win 16 playoff games? (Only 12.) Or any of the great teams of the so-called “Original Six” era because they had to win just two rounds of playoffs? Hell, even the great Islanders teams of the early 1980s, who won an astounding 19 straight playoffs series, only had to win 15 games, not 16.

The 1987 Edmonton Oilers were the first champions that had to win 16 games.

And even if it’s true that the NHL is mainly trying to salvage the playoffs for financial reasons, it’s also true that the playoffs in professional hockey have almost always been about the money!

In the early days of hockey, there were no playoffs at all. League champions were simply the team that finished the schedule with the best record. Postseason games were only played to break ties if two teams topped the standings with identical records. Once the Stanley Cup came along in 1893, championship teams from rival leagues were allowed to challenge the reigning champion for the trophy. There were still no league playoffs, and some of these teams played as few as four regular-season games. None in these early years played more than 20. Before 1914, the Stanley Cup challenges these teams took part in were either a one-game, winner-take-all match, a two-game, total-goals series, or a best-of-three playoff.

Ottawa dropped out of its league after playing just four games in 1904. The defending Stanley Cup champions were still allowed to accept challenges for the trophy.

These limited Stanley Cup formats were first called into question before the start of the 1912-13 season. Lester Patrick and his brother Frank had created the Pacific Coast Hockey Association the year before. In October of 1912 (likely influenced by the Boston Red Sox thrilling World Series win over the New York Giants), Lester Patrick spoke of his desire to see the Stanley Cup playoffs enlarged to a best-of-seven series, or even a best-five-of-nine. When Lester’s 1912–13 Victoria Aristocrats won the PCHA championship, he would have liked to challenge the National Hockey Association’s Quebec Bulldogs for the Stanley Cup. However, he realized that he wouldn’t even be able to cover his expenses if he took his team some 3,000 miles across Canada by train to play a two-game series in Quebec’s tiny home arena. The following season, the PCHA and the NHA agreed that their two champions would meet in an annual best-of-five Stanley Cup series. The NHL would continue that agreement, and a best-of-five mostly remained the Stanley Cup standard (with a couple of best-of-threes on occasion) until the first best-of-seven Final in 1939.

As for league playoffs en route to the Stanley Cup, the first time a top hockey league created its own independent playoff was in 1916-17 when the NHA split its regular season into two parts. The champions from the first half of the schedule met the champions from the second in a postseason playoff for the right to take on the PCHA champions for the Stanley Cup. (The NHL continued that set up through 1921.) What we think of as the modern playoff format was introduced by the Patricks in the PCHA in 1917-18. Their system pitted the top two teams against each other at the end of a full slate of regular season games.

Lester Patrick (left) and his brother Frank weren’t much older
than this when they created sports first modern playoff format.

The reason the Patricks gave for introducing their new format was that a second-place team might be coming on strong at the end of a season while a first-place team was struggling to hang on after a fast start. Perhaps the second-place team was truly the better team by the end of the season, and didn’t they deserve a chance to go after the Stanley Cup? But if even it hadn’t dawned on them right away (which it probably did!), the Patricks quickly realized that the playoffs kept up fan interest in cities that might otherwise be out of contention … and that these new postseason games were a pretty good way to make a buck!

This reality was hammered home to the NHL in 1924 after Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Maroons finished in second place in the PCHA standings, and then eliminated the first-place Seattle Metropolitans. A new league – the Western Canada Hockey League – had emerged onto the Stanley Cup scene in 1922, but there was no real consensus yet on how to work out a three-team playoff. Frank Patrick decided that his team should play a best-of-three series against the WCHL champion Calgary Tigers en route to Montreal … even though both Western teams would still have a chance to face the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. This angered NHL executives.

“When we arrived in Montreal,” Frank recalled, “[Canadiens owner] Leo Dandurand wouldn’t even speak to me. He staged a party for the Western clubs and invited everybody but me. Finally, after a couple of days, Leo weakened and ask me what we had played the bye series for. ‘For $20,000,’ I calmly replied. Then he laughed. He knew what I meant.”

What Patrick meant, of course, was the Western teams’ profits from the gate receipts of those three extra playoff games!

Both the PCHA and the WHL were gone from hockey by 1927, leaving the NHL as the only top pro league remaining. Their playoff formats got more and more elaborate after that. And when the Great Depression was turning baseball into a money loser during the 1930s, Lester Patrick – then running the New York Rangers – suggested that baseball should expand its playoff format as hockey had done. Americans mostly laughed at the idea. Right up until 1968, the teams that finished the season in first place in the American League and the National League advanced directly to the World Series. Additional playoff rounds weren’t introduced in Major League Baseball until 1969.

If baseball manages to get going this summer, they’re talking about expanding their playoff format from 10 teams to 14. So it’s not just the NHL that’s experimenting. Back in 1919, people thought the Spanish Flu was all but over when they started the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that turned out to be fatal. Let’s hope they won’t be experimenting with people’s lives this time.