As with many writers, I haven’t gotten rich doing what I do. But, I have (mostly) been able to earn a living doing something I enjoy. There’s a lot to be said for that. And even if I haven’t exactly made a fortune during all these years, I’ve met a lot of interesting people. Not surprisingly, most of the famous people I’ve met through my work have been athletes and media personalities. But it’s not just the famous people who are memorable.
Far from it.
As many of you known, I worked for 10 years on my biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins. Now, 10 years of working on a book is not exactly like 10 years of working in a coal mine! And it’s not as if I worked on it every day during those 10 years. But it was never very far from my mind. By publishing standards, the book was decidedly not a success … but I would never trade the friendships I made with the family of Art Ross.
Art Ross III — grandson of the hockey legend, and my good friend — died last week.
(Because of the times we’re living in, I guess I need to say that COVID-19 was not a factor.)
My father died several years before I met Art, and though he was never very comfortable with the idea the few times I’d mentioned it, he became a sort of father-figure to me. Especially after leaving Toronto for Owen Sound. In addition to sharing our research discoveries, I would often get in touch with Art just to say hello, or to moan about flooded basements, or roof repairs — the things about home ownership that always terrified me!
Not that I expected him to do anything about it, but his calming manner always helped.
I was never sure if Art’s discomfort with the father-figure idea was simply because he looked at us more as contemporaries, trying to figure out the stories in his family on the ice and off. Or if it was because of his strained relationship he’d had with his father, and his estrangement from his own son, which only ended a couple of years ago. (It’s a very odd thing that there have been at least five generations of father-son fallouts in the Ross family, going all the way back to the father of the “hockey” Art Ross; and probably extending to a sixth generation with “hockey” Art’s own father and grandfather.)
“My” Art Ross is how I often refer to Art when speaking about him with others. That was to differentiate him from his grandfather, Arthur Howey Ross, the hockey legend I wrote about, and from “My” Art’s own father, Arthur Stuart Ross. (“My” Art is, technically, Arthur Stuart Ross Jr.) He was actually the second family member I was in touch with when I first thought about writing my book back in 2005.
Among the very first people I had mentioned my idea to was Phil Pritchard from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Though he never acts like it, I’ve often heard that Phil knows EVERYONE. He told me that one of Art Ross’s granddaughters had introduced herself when she had been to the Hall a few years before, and that he had an email address for her. I wrote to Victoria Ross on September 28, 2005. When she wrote back a few days later, she said that she would love to talk … and that she would also forward my email on to her brother.
When Victoria and I spoke on the phone for the first time on October 20, 2005, she mentioned that her brother was the family genealogist and the one I should really be talking to. Art and I were in touch by email a few days later. And after that … boy, did we talk!
Art and I were probably in contact every few days, often many times a day, until the book was published 10 years later. That was more than five years ago now, and really, it was only the confusion and memory issues brought on by his increasing struggles with Parkinson’s Disease the last two years that finally slowed us down.
In the beginning, I suppose we both wanted something from this relationship. I wanted the stories he was willing to share; he wanted those stories to be told. But we bonded almost immediately over, I suppose, a love of history, telling stories … and getting those stories right! (I’ve written before about the Art Ross birthday battles, and the old divorce hiding in the family tree.) Both Art and his wife, Kathy, and me and my late wife Barbara, love(d) history and books and movies. (Barbara and I may or may not have had more movies in our old collection, but Art and Kathy probably had even more books than we did!)
Over all those years, Art and I mainly “spoke” to each other via email; sometimes on the phone; and occasionally by text. (Texts especially when the Blue Jays were playing the Red Sox, or the Leafs and Bruins were hooked up in the playoffs.) Barbara and I also visited Art and Kathy a few times at their homes in Tennessee and Maine. They hosted a lovely party for us, along with several other Ross relatives, in Maine when the book came out in 2015.
It’s strange for me to realize as I write this that in the 15+ years Art and I knew each other, we probably spent less than 15 days of that time together in person. I’ve only met Victoria Ross in person once, younger sister Valerie twice, and youngest sister MacKenzie only via Facebook and Messenger. Yet, I feel a closeness to all of them. Kathy too, of course.
My friendship with Art, unusual though it may seem, was very special to both of us.
One year to the day of the declaration of a global pandemic, I’m using the somewhat flimsy pretext of an overlooked anniversary (of sorts) from last week as an excuse for running this story today. Really, it’s just another old incident I may have figured out something new about…
This past Sunday, March 7, marked the 115th anniversary of Fred Brophy of the Montreal AAA hockey team scoring a goal on Nathan Frye of the Montreal Victorias. What makes this goal noteworthy is that Brophy himself was a goalie! What makes the pretext somewhat flimsy is that this was actually the second time Brophy the goalie had scored a goal … and it’s his first goal — a little more than a year earlier, on February 18, 1905 — that I’m actually writing about.
That Fred Brophy scored a goal more than 80 years before Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall shot a puck the length of the ice into an open net on December 8, 1987, is not unknown to hockey historians. It’s more than likely it first game to light in Volume 1 of Charles L. Coleman’s seminal work The Trail of the Stanley Cup, published around 1966.
In writing about the 1905 hockey season, Coleman (who had poured over old newspapers for years to compile his three-volume set) stated: “Another unusual record was established by Brophy, the Westmount goaler, who on February 18th rushed the length of the ice and scored a goal against Paddy Moran of Quebec.”
Of his goal the next year, Coleman writes: “Brophy, the Montreal goaler, duplicated his performance of the previous year by scoring a goal against Victorias in the game on March 7th. In doing so, he stickhandled his way past the stars Bowie, Eveleigh and Bellingham.”
Brophy’s scoring ability got more play on December 24, 1969, in a Canadian Press story that appeared in numerous Canadian newspapers.
The CP story gives basically the same scant details that Coleman had provided. But somewhere along the line, more information about Brophy’s first goal surfaced. Wikipedia has this to say:
“The first recorded goal in competitive play, scored by a goaltender, was in 1905. According to a Montreal Star report, poor officiating resulted in only the goaltenders left on the ice in a February 18 game between the Montreal Westmounts and Quebec Bulldogs of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL). Fred Brophy (Montreal) and Hall of Famer Paddy Moran (Quebec) exchanged scoring attempts, before Brophy beat Moran, while the latter and most of the spectators “convulsed in laughter.”
Now, I know that in the early days of the NHL, there was no rule limiting the number of players serving a penalty at one time. Still, I’ve had difficulty envisioning a situation in which the referees would call so many penalties that only the goalies were left on the ice.
Wikipedia credits the book Without Fear: Hockey’s 50 Greatest Goaltenders by Kevin Allen, Bob Duff, and Johnny Bower as the source of its information. So, I asked Bob Duff if he had that Montreal Star report. Bob said he’d only read about it, and thought it might have been in a book by Brian McFarlane.
So, I got in touch with Brian McFarlane … who could only recall the story from what he’d read in Charles Coleman. Who (if anyone) found that Montreal Star story? At this point, who knows!
Unfortunately, the Montreal Star has never been digitized and is not easily accessible (especially these days) via microfilm. But plenty of other newspapers are online. So, I got busy. And if there was a story in the Star, it was either inaccurate at the time … or was transcribed inaccurately later.
English accounts of the game from Montreal are scarce. The Gazette has very little to say about it. Westmount had its own paper (as I discovered when doing my research on Art Ross — both Ross and Lester Patrick played with Brophy on the Westmount team this year, and in this game) but the Westmount News either doesn’t exist before 1907, or no copies have survived.
The 1905 game was played in Quebec City, and perhaps that’s the reason the best accounts I could find were in French. So, I sent a copy of the story in Montreal’s La Presse to Society for International Hockey Research colleagues Jean-Patrice Martel and Marc Durand. Marc has a special interest in the history of the Quebec Bulldogs, and was readily available to read the story … and provide me with translations.
The English-language accounts I’d seen had made it pretty clear that Paddy Moran had tried to score before Brophy did, and that there were a lot of penalties called in a very one-sided game that Quebec won 17–5. As Marc explained, the score was already 12–4 Quebec at the time, and it was getting to be late in the game. According to his translation:
“Paddy Moran played his typical game. He went the extra mile by taking advantage of the moment when Quebec had just one forward on the ice to try and score himself. The situation amused the public. Brophy, to not be left behind, returned the compliment by scoring, after a superb race, helped by a lot of goodwill on the part of the Quebec defense.”
No explanation as to what that “goodwill” entailed, but it was clear that Brophy and Moran were not the only players on the ice. Quebec only had one forward who wasn’t in the penalty box at the time, but Moran had him and his two defensemen with him. Westmount had only one player in the box.
Marc and I both agree that, from what we know of Paddy Moran, he doesn’t seem like the type who would just let Brophy score on him, no matter what the score. (Especially after Brophy had just stopped him!) Goalies in this era didn’t have all the equipment they wear today. Their gloves weren’t all that different from other players; the pads on their legs were flimsy; and their sticks were only marginally wider than other players. Still, there’s no record of any other goalies doing what Brophy did at the game’s highest level in this era.
The fact that he did it again the next season shows it couldn’t have been a complete fluke.
And for people who haven’t see it already, I was one of those who Ken Dryden reached out to yesterday to share his message that we still need to be careful. Even with the vaccine rollout picking up the pace, Ken’s is a reminder that we still need to wear a mask…
On February 24, 1952, the Edmonton Mercurys completed an undefeated run through the Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, to win the gold medal in hockey. Canada had previously won Olympic hockey gold in 1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932, and after settling for a surprising silver behind a Great Britain team loaded with Canadian-born players in 1936, won gold again in 1948 when the Olympics resumed after World War II. With the Soviet Union entering the Olympic scene in 1956, Canadian men wouldn’t win Olympic hockey gold again after 1952 for another 50 years until the star-studded NHL team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Though Canada no doubt deserved its gold medal in 1952, the win wasn’t without controversy. After scoring victories of 15-1 over Germany, 13-3 over Finland, 11-0 over Poland, 4-1 over Czechoslovakia, 11-2 over Switzerland, 3-2 over Sweden, and 11-2 over Norway in its first seven games, Canada managed only a 3-3 tie with the Americans in the finale for both clubs. Had Canada won the game, the United States would have finished fourth. With the tie, the U.S. claimed silver and a newspaper in Moscow accused the two North American countries of colluding to deny the Czechs (who would finish fourth) a medal.
Canadian fans, of course, have long accused Soviet and Russian teams, and European authorities, of similar shenanigans in international competition. But while there likely hadn’t been a fix in Oslo, European teams — as they often would — sharply criticized the Canadian and American hockey teams for their rough tactics. This would have a surprising result on Olympic and sports history.
At the Summer Games in London in 1948, Czechoslovakian long distance runner Emil Zatopek won a silver medal in the 5,000 meters and gold in the 10,000. He improved on that performance in Helsinki in 1952 and shortly after those Summer Olympics concluded, Zatopek claimed that the rough play in hockey (and perhaps the way his countrymen had been denied their medal) earlier that year was indirectly responsible for his record-breaking feats in Finland.
“It was the brutal and harsh play of the United States ice hockey team which drove me to my most recent performances,” said Zatopek in a story widely reported in North American newspapers on August 16, 1952. “I made a pledge to win at least two gold medals for my country.”
Not only did Zatopek win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in Helsinki, he made a last-minute decision to enter the marathon for the first time in his life … and won the gold medal in that race too! He is the only man ever to win all three races in the same Olympic Games.
Zatopek fell out of favour with the Communist party in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, but was finally “rehabilitated” in 1990. He died in Prague on November 22, 2000 at the age of 78 and became one of the first twelve athletes named to the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012. Zatopek was selected as the Greatest Runner of All Time by Runners World Magazine in 2013.
But if it hadn’t been for some chippy hockey back in February of 1952, who knows what might have happened…
On a late Friday morning, right around noon, on April 17, 1931, Henry Smith was going down the stairs to the cellar in his home at 47 Empress Avenue in Ottawa. A widower living alone for the past six months after 60 years of marriage to Anne McLaughlin, Mr. Smith was suddenly overcome by a dizzy spell and fell. He suffered seven cracked ribs and was taken to the Walter Street hospital.
Once a contractor of great renown, Henry Smith and partner John Henney had built many bridges in Ottawa, and public structures across much of Canada. He was a man who had always enjoyed robust health, and was said to have been in full possession of all his faculties at the time of his accident. Hopes were held out for a complete recovery, but the shock to his system was too much. Complications set in, and Henry Smith died shortly after 9 am on the morning of Tuesday, April 21. He was a month shy of his 88th birthday.
So, why do we care about this?
(I guess the better question is, why do I care about it?)
Because of the seven sons of Henry and Anne Smith, all seven became prominent hockey players in their hometown of Ottawa. Alf Smith, the oldest son, and his brother, Tommy, 12 years his junior, are both members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Another brother, Harry, probably had the talent to join them there, although perhaps he had even more of Alf’s belligerent nature than he had of Tommy’s scoring skill.
As I mentioned in my recent story about the Gilmour brothers, Alf, Tommy, and Harry were all members of the Silver Seven in their final dynasty season of 1905–06. Smith brothers Dan (known as Moxie) and Jack both played briefly with Alf on the Ottawa hockey club before it earned the Silver Seven moniker, while Billy, or Will Smith, played with several other top Ottawa clubs after the Silver Seven era. Youngest brother George Smith played alongside Billy briefly with the Ottawa Emmetts in 1909–10, but appears to have had less talent for the game than his six elder siblings.
Alf Smith was 17 1/2 years older than his youngest brother George, but it is mentioned in the obituaries for both Henry and Anne that Henry had once issued a challenge to any other “seven sons” hockey team to face-off against his talented Smith tribe. The challenge, it’s said, was never accepted.
That appears to be true.
But it certainly doesn’t appear to have been due to any lack of trying on the part of proud papa Henry!
I recall coming across stories of the Smith family challenge years ago, but had mostly forgotten about it until a recent post about the Smiths on the Society for International Hockey Research web site by a Swedish member named Oskar Tallqvist. After reading it, I went hunting through old newspapers for stories about the challenge … and found quite a lot.
The first time that a family challenge from the Smiths appeared in the newspaper is in the Ottawa Citizen on March 10, 1899:
Alf Smith was two months shy of his 26th birthday. He had played with Ottawa in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (the NHL of its day) from 1894 through 1898 (and would star for the team later, from 1903 through 1908) but appears not to have been playing anywhere in 1898–99. Dan was two years past his stint with Alf on Ottawa’s top team, and Jack was still two years away from his. Harry and Tommy were only teenagers, and their official hockey records don’t date back that far. And, despite what the paper says, Will (Bill) was actually the nine-year-old (though his next birthday was coming soon, on April 20), while George had only turned eight in January.
Still, the big question for me now was, “who were the Sime, or Sims brothers?”
Well, though Ancestry has some records showing the name spelled as Symms and Simms, this was the family of Henry Francis Sims, another pioneering Ottawa citizen who was even older than Henry Smith. Henry Sims and his wife Rachel had seven sons, who in 1899 would have ranged in age from about 34 to 16. (They also had three daughters.) The sons were all hockey players, and a year later, in 1900, at least five of them would play together for the same team in Ottawa’s Merchant’s Hockey League: the Henry J. Sims & Co. hockey team. Henry Francis Joseph Sims, the third son and fourth child in the family, was a furrier and a hatter operating on Sparks Street.
The Society for International Hockey Research has records for only two of the hockey playing Sims brothers. Youngest son Herbert (1883-1947) was better known as Bert. He played at McGill University in the early 1900s along with future Hall of Famers Tommy Phillips in 1902–03 and with Billy Gilmour in 1904–05. Bert Sims went on to become a noted North American medical specialist as an ear, nose and throat doctor and was president of the Ottawa Rough Riders football club (known as the Senators at the time) when they won the Grey Cup in 1926. The second youngest Sims boy, Percy, played with the Ottawa Silver Seven in 1902–03 and helped them win the Stanley Cup that year.
But in 1899, the Sims brothers were mostly playing hockey for fun when a challenge to any hockey-playing family was issued by another Ottawa merchant family, the McCrackens, in local newspapers on February 21. A day later, it was reported that the McCracken crew (they were tailors on Bank Street) had agreed to face-off with the Sims boys:
The game was played at Dey’s rink in Ottawa on March 3, 1899. Hockey in these days was played with seven players a side, the extra player being the rover who lined up between the forwards and the defencemen, who were known in those days as point and cover point. But because the oldest Sims brother, William, was out of town, the families agreed to drop the rover and play with six men aside. They only played 40 minutes, but the Sims ran up a one-sided 12–0 victory.
Percy and Bert were the stars of the game, according to the Ottawa Citizen. There was a longer report in the Ottawa Journal, showing the following lineups:
R. G. Sims - Goal - Sam McCracken
Edgar Sims - Point - Alex McCracken
Percy Sims - Cover - Joe McCracken
Henry Sims - Forward - George McCracken
Herbert Sims - - David McCracken
Fred Sims - - Robert McCracken
Little wonder, then, that Henry Smith issued the challenge on behalf of his hockey-playing offspring just a week later. And it’s no surprise why the Smiths wanted to face the Sims.
There is no report as to why the game was never played.
Perhaps the fact that two of the Smith children were under the age of 10 had something to do with it.
Whatever the reason, it seems that nearly five years passed before more talk of the Smith family playing together versus another family of seven appeared in newspapers. A story out of Perth, Ontario (not too far from Ottawa) on January 13, 1904, was picked up in capital city newspapers the following day:
I knew the name Frank McLaren from writing in the past about the Stanley Cup challenges of the Toronto Wellingtons and the Toronto Marlboros, but not the fact that he was also one of seven hockey-playing brothers. On January 16, 1904, the Montreal Gazette noted that the Smiths “are out to accept the challenge of the McLaren Freres of Perth” — although the paper got several of the Smith brothers’ names wrong. The Ottawa Journal that day only noted that the Smiths “should accept the defi,” and introduced me to another set of seven hockey playing brothers, when it noted that, if not the Smiths then the Christmas brothers of Montreal should accept the challenge. (This clarified the “Christmas” reference in that paper’s January 14 headline above.)
The Christmases seem to be a family of seven sons and no daughters born to Thomas Henry Christmas and his wife Jennie. Brothers Ernest, William, Archie, Howard, Alex, Percy and Walter ranged in ages from 27 to 16 in 1905.
The Ottawa Citizen had more about the McLaren challenge in its paper on January 18. Among other things, it introduced yet another hockey-playing family of seven with a story out of Newmarket, Ontario, indicated that Doyle family — Larry (goal), Fred (point), Frank (cover point), and forwards Ern, Harry, Ed and Tom — would be happy to hear from the McLarens. The Citizen noted that Henry Smith was also up for the challenge, and reminded readers what the seven Smiths were currently up to.
“Alf is now putting up superb hockey on the Stanley Cup holders and both Dan and Jack have figured on the Ottawas previously.” (Neither appear to have been playing anymore by 1904). “Harry was captain of the Aberdeens last season and now plays center for the Arnprior aggregation of puck-chasers. Tommy Smith was one of the Emmetts’ best forward last year… Willie tips the scales at about 105 pounds but is rapidly learning the fine points of the game…. The youngest of the family is George, age 12.” (He actually turned 13 the day this story appeared in the paper.) “George has been taught hockey from the cradle and is plucky to the core.”
On February 14, 1904, the Citizen reports that the Beavers of the Ottawa City league (who featured future Ottawa star Hamby Shore) had agreed to play a couple of games against the Smiths to get them prepared for their clash with the McLarens. However, there doesn’t appear to be any record of the Smiths ever facing the Beavers … nor of a challenge match against the Perth family ever being played.
But Henry Smith wasn’t giving up on the dream of seeing his seven sons face-off together against other teams, be they family squads like his or not. First, in January of 1907, there were stories about Henry having been in Winnipeg arranging for his boys to face teams from that city. Then, in the late fall of 1908, there was talk of a lengthy trip through the United States and western Canada. Finally, in November of 1910, there were stories about the Smiths going west to Edmonton to take on the Banford boys, another hockey-playing family said to have seven sons who were originally from the Ottawa Valley, but had relocated to Alberta around 1903. In all cases, no games were ever played.
Talk of the Smith family playing together as a team of seven ended, sadly, on June 9, 1911, with the unexpected death of Jack Smith. He’d been ill for about two weeks with inflammation of the stomach when, suddenly, his heart gave out.
“Hockeyists and sportsmen in all parts of the country will, with deep regret, learn of his untimely demise,” said an obituary in the Ottawa Citizen on June 10. “He was the third member of a hockey family which could hold its own with anything in the country….
“The Smith Brothers Seven was known from coast to coast and one of Mr. Smith’s fondest dreams had been to get the boys together again.”
As for the rest of the Smith boys, Dan passed away in 1926 at the age of 50. Alf, who had finished playing by 1909, but would coach in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators (1918–19) and New York Americans (1925–26), died in August of 1953 at the age of 80. Harry had died that May at 69, while youngest brother George died in 1954 at age 62. Tommy, whose last season as a player was in the NHL with the Quebec Bulldogs (sometimes called the Athletics) in 1919–20, died in 1966 at the age of 80.
Bill Smith was the last and the longest-lived of the seven brothers. He passed away on October 30, 1977 at the age of 88.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!)
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 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”)
Bobby Hull (or Bobby Orr) might have been a worthy recipient of the nickname too, but only Gordie Howe had it…
And as Howe eventually put up numbers that were, well, Ruthian, the name stuck — although not like Mr. Hockey would!
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.
Not surprisingly with the numbers he would put up, Wayne Gretzky would also draw comparisons with Babe Ruth.
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.