All Time Over Time

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

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

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

Vancouver

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

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

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

All Time Ottawa

The Morenz Memorial

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

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

Morenz 1
Montreal Gazette stories from January 29, 1937.

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

Morenz 3
Howie Morenz in hospital. (Wikipedia states this photo is in the Public Domain.)

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

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

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

Morenz 5

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

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

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

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

Benedict Was Better

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

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

Both

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

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

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

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

VezinaPaintings by Darrin Egan. Visit him on Facebook.

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

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

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

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

BenedictContact Darrin at: inthebluepaint@gmail.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock and a Hard Place…

Right up front, let me say that I hope Tim Raines makes it on Wednesday when this year’s election results for the Baseball Hall of Fame are announced. All the early indications are that in his tenth and final year on the ballot (players used to get 15 years, but that’s no longer the case), Raines will finally top the 75 percent of votes needed for induction.

It’s a strange thing. After waiting the required five years to qualify for the Hall of Fame ballot, what suddenly makes a player worthy after being forced to wait another 10 years? Many are saying it’s a triumph of the new voting rules that have phased out older sportswriters who are no longer actively covering the game. The younger writers are more open to modern statistical interpretations.

Expos
Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines and Al Oliver at the 1982
All-Star Game in Montreal. Raines was only 5’8″ and 160 pounds, but his
solid physique earned him the nickname “Rock” at an Expos rookie camp.

For a player like Tim Raines, who didn’t reach the big milestones such as 3,000 hits, younger voters are more likely to be impressed by the fact that when Raines’ hit total of 2,605 is combined with his 1,330 walks, he actually reached base more often (3,935 to 3,931) than eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. (Gwynn’s lifetime batting average was .338 to Raines’ .294, but his on-base percentage is .388 to Raines’ .385) . And though Raines’ career total of 808 steals is well behind all-time leader Rickey Henderson’s 1,406, the fact that Raines was caught only 146 times to Henderson’s 335 means Raines’ success rate of 84.7 percent is better than Henderson’s (80.8). It’s also better than the only other players from the 20th Century who had more steals than Raines: Lou Brock (938 / 75.3%) and Ty Cobb (897 / incomplete data).

In the New York Post recently, baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter Ken Davidoff said, “Raines’ admittance, if it happens, would serve as a triumph of facts and statistics over emotions and memories.” But, as Richard Griffin in the Toronto Star has written (and I’m paraphrasing), “if all you did was feed the numbers into a computer, it would be easy to decide who makes it in.” Obviously, statistics play a huge part in this, but I, for one, would hate to see memory discounted entirely.

1981

For example, I know that Jack Morris didn’t put up the career numbers of recent Hall of Fame pitching inductees like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But I watched him pitch his whole career; hating him as a Tiger, impressed by his one year as a Twin, and then amazed by his 1992 season in Toronto. Yes, he had a 4.04 ERA that year, but he was every bit as good as his 21-6 record indicates. When he needed to shut you down, he did. His complete-game, four-hitter 4-0 win over Boston on June 11, 1992, when he outpitched Roger Clemens (and yes, I remember it well … but I had to look up the date!) was a masterpiece. Though he never received more than 67 percent of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot between 2000 and 2014, for me, Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer.

As for Tim Raines, my thoughts are this… In the first 13 years of his career (basically 11 full seasons) with the Expos, he was definitely a Hall of Fame-calibre player. He was the kind of guy, like Roberto Alomar, that when he was at the plate, you expected something good to happen. But I’m not sure fans of the teams he spent his final 10 years with (mainly the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees) felt the same way. Sure, he was a good teammate and a good role player, but as a Blue Jays fan in those years, I don’t recall having any fear of him coming to the plate like the excitement I’d felt when he was batting for the Expos … although he did put up some pretty good numbers against Toronto in the 1993 American League Championship Series.

1982

All in all, I’d say for Tim Raines the good years outweigh the mediocre ones, but this has to be a big reason why his candidacy has gone right down to the wire. Another reason, so I’ve read, is that some writers have refused to vote for him because of his cocaine suspension. To me, that’s ridiculous. How can you hold it against someone who served his time, kicked the habit, and never relapsed?

Which brings us to Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and others of the steroid era. If I had a vote, I’d vote for them.

Do I wish there was no such thing as drugs in sports? Yes. Still, I think the world has been pretty hypocritical about performance enhancing drugs. Athletes have been using whatever they could to get an advantage for a very long time. Caffeine to get up; nicotine to calm down; oxygen; cold medications; amphetamines. What is it that makes a guy a hero for taking a shot of cortisone and playing through the pain versus a guy taking a shot of something else?

1983

Yes, I know it’s illegal to use one without a prescription. So, that’s where we draw the line? But what makes something a medical miracle and something else an abomination? Why isn’t it cheating to take a tendon from a cadaver, or another part of your own body, and sew it into a pitcher’s elbow? What if doctors could figure out a way to do the same thing with muscles? Would THAT be cheating? We certainly don’t say pitchers can’t have Tommy John surgery because is wasn’t available in the old days. We don’t say today’s hockey players can’t have their knees scoped because they didn’t have that medical advancement in Bobby Orr’s day.

We’re pretty quick to jump on professional athletes who we perceive as not trying hard enough. But we seem to be even harder on the athletes who felt they had to take drugs to be the best they could be. What if Bobby Orr could have taken a shot of something and it saved his career? Would we look back on it as cheating … or would we see it as one of the greatest athletes of all time doing whatever it took to stay at the top of his game?

The Oldest NHL Player

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

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

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

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

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

Bruins
Globe and Mail, October 28, 1940.

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

Army
Globe and Mail, March 9, 1942.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a treat to speak with him.

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

Puckstruck 2017

North York Mirror 2016

North York Mirror 2017

The Hockey News 2017

Dennis Kane 2014

Print the Legend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Toronto Rookies…

The Toronto Maple Leafs have certainly been a much more entertaining team to watch this season. Still, with two games to go before a four-day break over Christmas, they currently sit in last place in the Atlantic Division – although only six points out of third place, which would net them a playoff spot.

While it wouldn’t be impossible, I don’t believe they’ll make the playoffs this year. Even so, with rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, plus William Nylander and several others, Leafs fans seem satisfied that the plan in place of building patiently through the NHL Draft is already showing positive results.

Selby
Brit Selby was the last Maple Leaf to be named rookie of the year back in 1965-66.

With Matthews turning 19 just a month before the start of the season, and Marner not turning 20 until May, these two may well be the most promising pair of teenagers to join the team together since 19-year-old Charlie Conacher and 18-year-old Busher Jackson way back in 1929-30. Matthews is on pace to break the Maple Leafs rookie record of 34 goals, set by Wendel Clark as a 19-year-old (and #1 overall draft pick, like Matthews this year) back in 1985-86. Yet like Wendel, who finished second in Calder Trophy voting behind Gary Suter that season, Matthews is certainly no shoo-in as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Patrick Laine is currently outscoring him in Winnipeg, and rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has been impressive as well for the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets.

There was not yet a Calder Trophy for rookie of the year when Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson broke into the NHL. Conacher led all NHL newcomers with 20 goals in just 38 games played that season. That may have won for him, if there’d been a reward, but the best newcomer during that season was probably Detroit’s future Hall of Famer Ebbie Goodfellow. He played the full 44-game schedule and had 17 goals and 17 assists to top all rookies with 34 points.

Meeker
Howie Meeker was top rookie in 1946-47, but didn’t get all that he should have for it.

Though it’s not talked about nearly as much (for obvious reasons!), Toronto’s Calder Trophy drought is even longer than its Stanley Cup drought. This season marks 50 years since Toronto’s last championship in 1967, but 51 years since Brit Selby was named rookie of the year in 1965-66.

Selby had just 14 goals and 13 assists in 61 games as a Leafs rookie in 1965-66, but comfortably outpointed Bert Marshall and Gilles Marotte (98-90-68) in Calder Trophy voting that year. Clearly, though, the best rookie in the long run from that season would turn out to be goalie Bernie Parent, who finished fourth in the voting with 69 points.

McCool
Frank McCool was a wartime replacement who battled debilitating ulcers.
After helping Toronto win the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 1944-45,
he was out of hockey by the end of 1945-46.

Selby, and Kent Douglas, who won the Calder for Toronto in 1963, hardly went on to superstars careers – although Dave Keon, who won it in 1961, certainly did. All in all, through the years, most of the NHL’s rookies of the year have gone on to be fine players. Many have gone on to Hall of Fame careers. But there are some quirks. Frank Mahovlich beat out Bobby Hull for the Calder in 1958, and though both went on to stellar careers, it’s hard to argue that Hull wasn’t the better player in the long run. Back in 1946-47 (when the Leafs underwent a similar youth movement to what we’re seeing this year,) Howie Meeker was clearly the NHL’s best rookie and was deservedly rewarded with the Calder Trophy – as he should have been. Yet who could disagree that a kid in Detroit by the name of Gordie Howe went on to become the better player!

According to Meeker, who tells the story in his own book, Golly Gee, It’s Me and told it to author Greg Oliver for his book, Written in Blue and White, Leafs owner Conn Smythe had promised him a $1,000 bonus if he won a league trophy in his rookie season. Oliver points out that there is no such clause in the contract, but Meeker tells him that “[Smythe] told me verbally twice, and we shook hands on the deal.”

Bodnar
Gus Bodnar’s goal 15 seconds into his first game on October 30, 1943, is still an
NHL record for the fastest goal by a player in his NHL debut. He had a
career high 22 goals and 40 assists as a rookie, but was still a surprise winner
of the Calder Trophy over Montreal goalie Bill Durnan.

When he won the Calder Trophy, the Globe and Mail noted: “Meeker also collected a $1,000 bonus, given by the NHL for the first time this year. The bonus will be matched by another $1,000 from Maple Leaf Gardens.” So, clearly, more than just Meeker and Smythe were aware of the promise, and yet Meeker never got his money. As he told Oliver: “When the time came around, [Smythe’s] excuse was ‘You got $1,000, but it was from the NHL.’” Meeker wasn’t happy! “I was pissed off for a long time,” he told Oliver.

At the time, Meeker was the fourth Toronto Maple Leafs player to win the Calder Trophy in five seasons, following up on three straight wins by Gaye Stewart (1943), Gus Bodnar (1944) and Frank McCool (1945).

Apps
Syl Apps was recently named #2 all-time among the Leafs’ top 100 players,
behind 1961 Calder Trophy winner Dave Keon.

Still the strongest season in history for Leafs freshmen was likely 1936-37. This was the first year in which NHL president Frank Calder provided a trophy for the league’s best rookie and Toronto players finished 1-2 in the voting. Syl Apps, having finished just one point back of Sweeney Schriner for the NHL scoring title, won the Calder Trophy. Gordie Drillon (who would win the scoring title the following year – the last Leaf ever to do so!) finished second. And if you don’t recognize the name of that guy who finished sixth in the Calder voting that year, it might be because you know him better as Turk Broda.

The Montreal Wanderers

This past weekend, various “this day in history” sources noted that December 10, 1924, marked the first “All-Montreal” game in NHL history. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the NHL’s new Montreal expansion team (who, as I mentioned two weeks ago, had no nickname at this point) 5-0 that day at the Mount Royal Arena. But, as my Society for International Hockey Research colleagues Todd Denault and Lloyd Davis noted on Facebook, this was actually the second “All-Montreal” game in NHL history. The first came on December 22, 1917.

Dec 22
Banner atop the sports page in The Toronto World, December 22, 1917.

On that date 99 years ago, on just the second night of action in NHL history, the Canadiens crushed the Montreal Wanderers 11-2. The Canadiens featured six future Hall of Famers in their nine-man lineup that night: Georges Vezina, Joe Hall, Joe Malone, Newsy Lalonde, Didier Pitre and Jack Laviolette. The Wanderers had two, both playing in their final season: Art Ross and Harry Hyland.

Dec 24
Accounts from the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto World, December 24, 1917.

Like its two star players, the Wanderers team was nearing the end of its time too. Art Ross (who was both player and manager) and owner Sam Lichtenhein had not been quiet about the fact that their team was undermanned heading into the inaugural NHL season. After winning just one of their first four games, the Wanderers were only too happy to bow out after fire destroyed the Montreal Arena on January 2, 1918.

Fiery times were nothing new to this franchise, which was born of trouble and died of trouble. They were often in the centre of any hockey storm.

The Wanderers were officially formed on December 1, 1903, when several key players from the Montreal Hockey Club broke ranks with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association over the running of the team. These players enticed a few members of the Montreal Victorias to join them, and not only set up their own new team, but also formed a rival league to play in, breaking away from the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (the NHL of its day) to establish the Federal Amateur Hockey League.

Dec 1
Accounts of the formation of the FAHL and the Wanderers in the
Winnipeg Tribune
on December 1, 1903 and the Montreal Gazette on December 2.

In reading about the early history of the Wanderers, you’re likely to come across stories about how they chose their name because they intended to wanderer across Canada, playing challenges for the Stanley Cup. I have my doubts about that!

For one thing – and all their players would have known this! – once the Wanderers became Stanley Cup champions (which they soon would), they would be entitled to host those challenges at home. For another, there was plenty of newspaper coverage of their story all across the country and none of the players were even willing to discuss what had led to their break with the Montreal AAA. Even if they felt their new team was championship material, they don’t seem like the types to have bragged about it so openly. Also, “Wanderers” was already a popular team name in English soccer. It’s thought to have started with teams that had no clear home base and played mainly as travelling clubs. The hockey Wanderers always intended to call Montreal home, but perhaps the name appealed to the players for the somewhat renegade status it would give to their breakaway club.

It certainly seems that no matter who owned the Wanderers, or who played for them, the team was always a maverick. In their not quite 15 seasons of existence, the Wanderers were involved in the formation of at least four new hockey leagues, and as many as six depending on how you choose to count a couple of name changes. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1905-06, they became the first team in Canada to openly pay for players in a sport that was supposed to be strictly amateur. Their part in the formation of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) is explained in great detail in my biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend who Built the Bruins and in my novel Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada so I won’t go into it here. (If you haven’t read them, why not?!?)

Team
The Montreal Wanderers of 1911-12 from Art Ross: The Hockey Legend
Who Built the Bruin (photograph courtesy of the Ross family).

After Stanley Cup championships in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910, the Wanderers began to fall on hard times during World War I, as did several other professional hockey teams. The team was losing money, and clearly, re-forming the NHA as the NHL was not going to help the Wanderers any. The fire that destroyed the Montreal Arena came at a pretty convenient time for them.

Was it too convenient?

In Volume One of The Trail of the Stanley Cup, Charles Coleman notes: “The fire started from an unknown source in the Wanderer dressing room.” Coleman’s book is compiled mainly from items he found in newspapers, so I have to think someone in Montreal wrote that at the time.

I honestly can’t recall whether or not Coleman’s book is the first place I read that about the fire, but it always sounded suspicious to me. Was it some sort of anti-Semitic shot at Sam Lichtenhein hinting that he’d had  the Arena burned down on purpose? A twist on the racist phrase “Jewish Lightning,” in which arson is committed to collect the insurance money?

Lichten
From the Montreal Gazette, June 22, 1936.

The truth is, fires destroyed an awful lot of sports venues back in the day, and Lichtenhein had carried on with the Montreal Royals baseball team despite fires burning down the grandstand in ballparks they played at in 1914 and 1916. Fires, it seems, followed Lichtenhein around. According to an obituary by D.A.L MacDonald in the sports section of the Montreal Gazette shown above, Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed his father’s business and was the reason the family had moved to Montreal in the first place. And yet something about that sentence still bothers me…

The NHL’s First Game?

Ninety-nine years ago today, on December 6, 1917, at 9:04 Atlantic Time (just about the time I’ve set this story to be published), the French ship Mont-Blanc, with a cargo of military explosives intended for the First World War, blew up in the harbour at Halifax shortly after colliding with the Norwegian vessel Imo. The explosion – often said to be the largest man-made blast until the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima – destroyed the community of Richmond in the north end of Halifx, leveling buildings, snapping trees, bending iron rails and shattering windows throughout the entire city of 50,000. In fact, the blast shattered windows 100 kilometers away in Truro, Nova Scotia, and could be heard in Prince Edward Island.

Close to 2,000 people were killed and another 9,000 injured. Some 25,000 people were left without adequate shelter. The Halifax Explosion resulted in $35 million in damages, which would be close to $600 million today. Rescue efforts began almost immediately – although they would be hampered by a blizzard that struck the next day. Supplies and money soon arrived from across Canada and the northeastern United States.

Papers
Newspaper accounts of the Halifax Explosion, December 6 & 7, 1917.

The hockey community did its part too. In Montreal the new season opened on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with a pair of fundraising games for the Halifax relief effort. The second of those games was little more than a glorified scrimmage, but was, in fact, the first game played in the history of the NHL – or, at least, the first game contested by players belonging to NHL teams.

I’m not the first to write about this – although I only know of two other sources. (One is the excellent 2002 book Deceptions and Doublecross by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth about the formation of the NHL and the other is the web site Third String Goalie.) Neither says much about the game … but that’s likely because there was so little written about it at the time, and what there was is rather conflicting.

The NHL had been formed from the ashes of the recently defunct National Hockey Association in late November of 1917 and would officially open its schedule on December 19. This exhibition game on December 15  – despite what the Montreal Gazette says in the clip below – was played by mixed teams made up of players from the Montreal Wanderers and the Montreal Canadiens. The lineups in both the Gazette and the Montreal Star show the teams as follows:

                  Team 1                                                     Team 2

  • Bert Lindsay (W)              G             Georges Vezina (C)
  • Jack Laviolette (C)          D             Joe Hall (C)
  • Dave Ritchie (W)              D              Bert Corbeau (C)
  • Joe Malone (C)                 F               Harry Hyland (W)
  • Newsy Lalonde (C)         F               Jack McDonald (W)
  • Didier Pitre (C)                 F               Billy Bell (W)
  • Louis Berlinguette (C)  Sub          Billy Coutu (C)
  • Phil Stephens (W)          Sub          George O’Grady (W)

Montreal
Brief coverage of the game in the Ottawa Journal
(December 18) and Montreal Gazette (December 17).

Team 1 was the winner, but different sources list the score as 11-3, 10-3, and 10-2. The Montreal Star has it as 10-3 and reports the scorers as Lalonde (4), Pitre (3), Malone (2) and Berlinguette for the winners with Hyland scoring all three for the losers.

One night before the games in Montreal, the senior amateur season of the Ontario Hockey Association kicked off in Toronto on Friday, December 14 with its own exhibition for the Halifax Relief Fund. The defending Allan Cup champion Dentals Hockey Club of Toronto (and, yes, they were all either dental students or recent graduates of the dental program affiliated with the University of Toronto) defeated the Hamilton Tigers 5-4.

Toronto
Toronto’s Globe newspaper ran an ad for the local benefit game on December 14
and had a brief summary of the game in Montreal on December 17.

Though it was advertised as a fundraiser (and said afterwards to have been a very entertaining game), only 1,200 fans showed up. No account seems to give the attendance for the games in Montreal, and nothing I’ve come across indicates how much money was actually raised in either city for the victims in Halifax.

Expansion Now and Then

The NHL’s newest team officially got a name last week when it was announced that the expansion franchise in Las Vegas for 2017-18 will be known as the Vegas Golden Knights. The official colours will be steel grey (for strength and durability), gold (because Nevada is the largest producer of gold in the USA), red (for the Vegas skyline and the Red Rock canyons of the nearby desert), and black (for power and intensity.) Grey, Black and Gold are also the colours of the United States Military Academy at West Point, whose sports teams are known as the Black Knights, and where the new hockey team’s majority owner Bill Foley graduated in 1967.

There have actually been professional hockey teams in Las Vegas since 1970, and serious interest in an NHL team since 2007. The current ownership group has been involved in the discussion since the spring of 2014. The NHL authorized a formal expansion process on June 24, 2015 and made applications available to interested parties that July. It was then announced on July 21, 2015, that Las Vegas and Quebec City had applied. Nearly a year later, on June 22, 2016, it was announced that Las Vegas would become the NHL’s 31st team. Five months later, the team got its name. In about 11 more months, they’ll play their first game.

Vegas

Things moved a lot faster when the NHL first expanded back in 1924! Yes, teams had been added – and subtracted and relocated – prior to this, but the admission of a second Montreal team and the first U.S. club for the 1924-25 season (which saw the league grow to six teams – although not the so-called “Original Six”) was the first true expansion.

There had been internal talks for a few years already, but the first public indication that the NHL was considering the addition of American teams came in March of 1924 when Colonel John Hammond, representing Madison Square Garden of New York, and Charles Adams of Boston were invited to Montreal during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Reports on March 20, 1924, had Adams confirming that he’d purchased an option on a franchise for Boston. Little more is heard again until September 26, but by September 30, the Boston Arena had agreed to give ice to Adams for his new team, and Art Ross had agreed to serve as the coach, manager and vice president.

Admitted

The NHL wouldn’t actually confirm the new entries in Boston and Montreal until October 12, 1924; the Boston Professional Hockey Association, Inc. wasn’t officially formed until October 23; and formal approval of the franchises didn’t actually come until the NHL’s annual meeting in Montreal, on November 1, 1924. Even so, the two teams would play their first games against each other in Boston just one month later– meaning there was no time to waste!

On September 30, 1924, it had been reported that Boston would take over the now-defunct Seattle franchise of the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association, but that story quickly proved false. Ross would sign a few over-the-hill PCHA veterans for the new Boston team, but mainly he was on the road for the next few weeks trying to recruit promising amateurs. Most of the players he assembled met up in Ross’s hometown of Montreal on November 14, 1924, and proceeded to Boston together by train. The team also got its name that day, and its colours too. Brown and yellow, same as Adams’ chain of grocery stores. (Black would replace the brown in the Bruins uniform in 1934–35.)

Name

“An interesting item is connected with Pres. Adams’ partiality towards brown as the team color,” noted that day’s Boston Globe. “The pro magnate’s four thoroughbred [horses] are brown … his Guernsey cows are of the same color; brown is the predominating color among his Durco pigs on his Framingham estate, and the Rhode Island hens are brown, although Pres. Adams wouldn’t say whether or not the eggs they lay are of a brown color.” Browns was even considered as the team nickname, but Adams was concerned that people would call them the Brownies, which struck him as childish. The team name, of course, would be the Bruins.

Bruins

The stories surrounding the Bruins name are all pretty much the same. Charles Adams held a contest, but had very definite ideas about what kind of name he wanted. He wanted the name to relate to “an untamed animal.” He wanted the animal to be big, strong, ferocious and smart. (Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if that animal happened to be brown!) A secretary in the team office is usually given credit for coming up with Bruins – which comes from an old English term for a Brown bear first used in a medieval children’s fable. In his book “The Bruins” famed hockey writer Brian McFarlane specifically names Bessie Moss, whom he says was a transplanted Canadian working for Art Ross in Boston. When I was working on my Art Ross biography, I asked McFarlane about the story – which had proven impossible for me to confirm. He was pretty sure he’d come across it in either an old book or newspaper story some time during his hockey travels in the 1970s, but no longer had the source among his collection.

Game

Whoever and however they got the name, the Bruins hit the ice for their first practice on November 15, 1924, and played their first game on Thanksgiving night, Thursday, November 27. It was an exhibition game against the Sasktoon Sheiks of the Western Canada Hockey League. Boston lost 2-1. They would beat their expansion cousins from Montreal (who were not officially named the Maroons until the following season) by the same 2-1 score in their first NHL game on December 1, 1924. Still, it would be a long, trying, season for the Bruins, who finished that first year with a record of 6-24-0. Montreal was only slightly better at 9-19-2.

The NHL will be counting on a better showing by Vegas – but they’ll be hard pressed to match the Maroons, who improved so quickly they won the Stanley Cup in their second season, or the Bruins, who were champions by year five.