Happy Holidays … And a Better New Year!

I don’t know how many really do or don’t, but I was never a Jewish child that wished he could celebrate Christmas. Wasn’t jealous, or envious, or whatever. (I’m not as an adult either.) I’ve always understood that I live in a country where Christian is the dominant culture. Personally, I like all the Christmas music in stores at this time of year! And I certainly don’t mind if people wish me a Merry Christmas. But I’m Jewish. Given how multi-cultural our continent has become, I generally go with Happy Holidays myself. (Or Happy Birthday, since December 25 is when my brother David was born.)

Hanukkah is a fine little holiday. I certainly enjoyed the presents I got when I was a kid. I still enjoy the gifts I get now. But Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas.” It’s a minor holiday in the Jewish year that just happens to be at the same time as Christmas so it gets the attention. (I do believe that  gift-giving has long been a part of Hanukkah, but I’m sure that it’s gone over-the-top in modern times in an effort to keep up with Christmas. Not that I’m really complaining.)

Hanukkah
Presents for the family Hanukkah party at my mother’s house, 1998.

All this being said, I’ve always enjoyed the many Jewish traditions at Christmas. Movies on Christmas Eve! Chinese food! And, for our family during most of my growing-up years, skiing on Christmas Day on slopes that were practically empty and without lift lines!

When Barbara and I very quickly reached the point where we knew that marriage was in our future, she told me she would like to convert. There was never any pressure from me or my family; it was something she wanted to do. The only thing my parents would have asked was that she respect our family traditions. Apparently there’s a relative in my extended family whose non-Jewish wife once shouted, “three cheers for the Baby Jesus!” at a family Hanukkah party. It didn’t go over well! (One added bonus of Barbara becoming Jewish was that there were few decisions for Josh and Amanda about the holidays: Christmas with their father and his family, Hanukkah with their mother and me and my family. The same with Easter and Passover.)

The first Christmas Barbara and I spent together was in 1992. I cooked steaks, peas and mashed potatoes on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we watched Gone With the Wind on television. Not really anyone’s idea of tradition, but certainly something I’ll always remember. The next year, we saw Schindler’s List on December 24 … but it turned out to be the only year we ever saw a movie together on Christmas Eve.

Barbara’s mother very quickly came to love the Jewish traditions of my family. Like Barbara, her mother was an only child and they both enjoyed being part of a large, warm family. Alice would join us for Seders, High Holidays and Hanukkah parties, but she never gave up her Christmases. Why should she?

In 1994, Alice invited Barbara and me to her apartment for Christmas Eve and then back for dinner on Christmas Day. (My parents came too.) Barbara’s father died in November of 1995, and there was no way we’d leave Alice alone for Christmas after that. Christmas Eve at her apartment followed by dinner on Christmas Day in one of Toronto’s finer hotels became our new tradition. After my father died, my mother sometimes joined us. It was always very nice … but Barbara and I did miss the movies!

Xmas
Christmas dinner at the Royal York Hotel, 1999.

After moving to Owen Sound in 2006 (Alice moved up here about 18 months later), we were all invited to Christmas with friends a time or two, but as Alice’s health declined, Barbara and I began making Christmas dinner for her at our house. Even after she passed away in 2012, we continued to make a small Christmas dinner for ourselves. We didn’t exchange gifts, but I always made Barbara a Christmas stocking. It usually consisted of some chocolates, an orange, and a special-edition magazine. Not much, but she looked forward to it each year. I did too. It’s definitely going to be strange this year without that.

So, Happy Holidays everyone and may 2019 be a better year for us all. I’ve been very touched over the last little while by the reception these personal stories have received. I don’t know how often I’ll keep it up going forward. My feeling is, I won’t write much about sports – unless someone is paying me to do it! – but I will continue to write, so you never know what you might see in these pages.

Us in the Early Days

Today – December 12, 2018 – marks four months since Barbara died. It’s nine months to the day she was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s hard to believe. (An expression Barbara always liked was: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana!”) But, I guess, if I’m really being honest, the hours mostly seem to drag, even as the days race by.

So, how’m I doing, you may wonder? Fine, I’ll tell you … because, in the big picture, I believe that’s true. But it’s been hard. It’s not so much about being sad or lonely (which, of course, I am). It’s that it’s all so strange. And so permanent. Some days are worse than others, and there’s no real rhyme or reason. (Riding alone in the car is often hard.) I’d been attributing my recent melancholy to the darker days, colder weather and the holidays, but a friend who lost his wife to cancer several years ago mentioned that after three months, the “have to” tasks have mainly been done, and you really begin to realize what’s changed. I suppose it’s all of those things.

But the point of this isn’t  to be maudlin. It is, in fact, to make a point…

Many of you have been a tremendous help to me in ways large and small. And, of course, I can’t speak for everyone who’s experienced a loss. Still, I have noticed some things. My advice to those who may feel awkward around the bereaved would be this: don’t be afraid to talk to them. Yes, it can be hard to know what to say, but even something as simple as “we’re thinking about you,” has been nice. If that seems too general, try asking a specific question. For me, you can ask me anything. Talking about it all has been very helpful. For others, a simple question like, “What’s your favorite memory?” (although, for me, it’s hard to pick just one!) or “How did you two meet?” (or an appropriate equivalent) might be better.

And that’s my long-winded way of getting around to the story of how Barbara and I met.

 Launch
This is the first picture we have of the two of us together,
at the launch for my first book on November 1, 1992.

Many of you know the story already, but a lot don’t. I won’t go into too much detail, but we met when Barbara was hired to edit my first book, the novel “Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.” She was a strange choice, as to that point Barbara had only worked on non-fiction. But Barbara and Malcolm Lester, who would publish the book, had become friends over a mutual love of classic American Westerns. Something about the “men in a men’s world” aspect of my story (I would come to refer to it as an “Eastern”) made Malcolm think Barbara would be good for it. I certainly think she made the book better, yet I know she had her doubts. But we had so much fun working together! And talking together. We just clicked. Despite the many differences in our backgrounds (not to mention the 16-year age gap), we saw things the same way. Right from the beginning, we were finishing each other’s sentences. So often we seemed to know exactly what the other person was going to say even before they said it.

That never stopped. It’s what I miss the most.

I still talk to her. Sometimes. She’s yet to answer.

Anyway… as I’ve written before, it was Malcolm Lester and Lester Patrick who brought us together. Lester Patrick was the star of my story, along with other real-life hockey pioneers Frank Patrick (Lester’s brother),  Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor. Barbara’s knowledge of hockey was pretty limited at the time. She was raised by two parents from Montreal, and her understanding of hockey was, “Canadiens, good. Maple Leafs, bad.” But Barbara loved history, and historic photographs, and soon she could pick out Lester Patrick in a picture from just about any period of his life.

Three
That’s me, Lester Patrick, and Doug Gilmour … all about 29 years old in these photos.

Barbara was even less of a baseball fan before I took her to her first game, but in the first two years that we were together the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series and the Leafs reached the Conference finals in two straight seasons. She thought being a sports fan was easy. You just cheered for winning teams! So, in addition to Lester Patrick, she quickly became a big fan of Doug Gilmour. Tom Henke and Paul Molitor too.

When we were working on Hockey Night, I often brought her pictures of the players and other things I’d found in my research. Shortly after the book was launched, we went together to Ottawa and Renfrew, where most of the story takes place. The pictures that follow are among the very first ones in our first photo album together…

Parliament
Barbara’s father was in the army and she moved A LOT in her early years.
She lived in Ottawa from ages 10 to 22 and met her first husband there.
So she’d been in the Canadian Capital many, many times…

Ottawa
… but she hadn’t seen the places I would take her! This is the O’Connor House at Nepean
and O’Connor in downtown Ottawa. (Not sure if it’s still standing.) I was pretty certain this had originally been the boarding house where Cyclone Taylor lived when he first came to Ottawa in 1907. I stayed there when I was doing research, so we went to see it.

OBrien1
The O’Brien Apartments on the main street in Renfrew had once been the
O’Brien Opera House. (M.J. O’Brien, who financed the team with his son Ambrose,
was the true millionaire of the Renfrew Millionaires hockey team.) That’s Barbara
you can barely make out standing in front.

OBrien2
The tiles on which Barbara was standing date back to the year the Opera House opened.

Ritzas
Barbara is sitting with Margaret Ritza and her husband Larry. Margaret was the granddaughter of M.J. O’Brien. Larry’s father ran a pharmacy in town and was involved with local hockey right back to the days of the Millionaires. He was pleased to see that his father had a small part in my book. The Ritzas ran a B&B in their home and they were very helpful in introducing me around Renfrew when I stayed with them on my research trips.

Barbara’s First Story

The honest truth is (even though I was just looking at this comic in Barbara’s collection a few weeks ago), when I got the idea last week to do this as a story, I actually thought the issue was from November of 1958. Turns out, it’s from May. So, the anniversary isn’t quite as timely as I originally believed. But, hey, 60 years ago is still 60 years ago. (And if you want your money back, sue me!)

KK Cover

As a girl, Barbara loved comic books and paper dolls. (As an adult, she still loved comic books and paper dolls!) Katy Keene supplied both, as the comics usually came with a paper doll you could cut out. Katy is a young woman who is both a model and an aspiring actress. She has an agent,  a Ken doll-looking boy friend, and a little sister named Sis. The great gimmick about these comics was, the creator, Bill Woggon, invited readers to send in stories and illustrations. If he liked them, he used them for the comic book.

A 10-year-old Barbara – Barbara Embury at the time – sent in a story while she was living on the army base where her father served in Ft. Churchill, Manitoba. It became the first thing she ever had published! (Plenty more would follow, but not for another 30 years or so!) These were the days of Sputnik and the Space Race … and Barbara assured me that she knew the moon was NOT made of green cheese! I thought I’d share the story with you today. I’ve indicated near the top of Page 1 where she gets her credit, and although her father had been transferred and she was living in Ottawa by the time this issue came out, the Canadian Army forwarded her letters from kids all over North America!

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Me and the Movies

Well, back to it. For today, anyway…

Because it’s been a while (and because I’ve added some new names to the mailing list), perhaps a reminder. This web site was set up four years ago. For most of that time, I wrote a story nearly every week; usually about some aspect of hockey history, or baseball history. Sometimes the stories had a personal angle, but often they were just quirky things I’d come across in my work. Since Barbara got sick, I’ve only posted four stories. None since things took their turn for the worst in late July.

Recently, I’ve gotten back to some hockey writing for jobs I’d already contracted to do. Everyone was wonderful about telling me to take all the time I needed, but I didn’t want these things out there looming, so I’ve started them. It’s been harder than I expected. (Don’t worry, Scholastic, I’ll be delivering it close to on time and up to the usual standards!) The truth is, quirky hasn’t been as much fun lately, and I’m pretty burned out on hockey. Still, I guess it’s good that the urge to write is strong some days. And I do want to get to certain things that are more personally meaningful to me. Not sure if this qualifies, exactly, but I was thinking about all this while I was out for a walk this morning (yesterday as you read this), and I wanted to get it down.

DVDs
Our DVD collection. Until recently, we had nearly as many VHS tapes too.

Movies have always been a big part of my life. They were for Barbara too. In our early days together, we saw everything! People who knew us would often ask if something new was worth seeing because they knew we’d have seen it already. But over the years, we started cutting back. Movies got too expensive, and, too often, not good enough. (I’m not a fan of comic books and superheroes or big-action-blow’em-ups.) And, really, it may have been more of an early warning sign than either of us realized a year or two ago when Barbara started to lose interest in movies even after expressing a desire to see them. But I don’t like to think too much about that.

I’ve been going to the movies for longer than I can even remember. I know (at least I think I’ve been told) that the first movie I saw was Mary Poppins. My parents loved movies, but given that Mary Poppins came out in 1964, I have a hard time believing they took me to see it when I was only 1 year old. Perhaps it was still playing somewhere in Toronto a few years later. I do remember seeing Oliver! in a giant downtown theater. It came out in 1968, a little before I turned 5, but I’m guessing I saw it some time in the spring of 1969. I still watch at least some of it whenever I notice it’s on TV. I must have seen The Love Bug around the same time, and I also retain a warm spot in my heart for Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle.

Posters
Jaws was my first grown-up movie. Ben Hur was Barbara’s. For Amanda, it was Titanic.

I saw a lot of Disney live-action films in the early 1970s, and others like them. Some have been remade in recent years, but I’m not sure that too many critics were impressed at the time. Still, they were fun for a young kid.

My first truly grown up movie was Jaws, which I saw very shortly after its release in June of 1975. I went with a few friends from school to see it at a matinee a day or two after the end of Grade 6. I was 11, although some in the group were probably 12. It was terrifying, but thrilling too! I know I didn’t sleep very well that night and I distinctly remember keeping my arms and legs underneath the covers. (Everyone knows covers can save you from ghosts and bogeymen and things, so it felt a lot safer to keep my limbs tucked under the sheets and blanket rather than dangling off the side of the bed.) Still, seeing Jaws did NOT keep me out of the water at the cottage that summer … so take that!

Bayfield
Bayfield Mall only had two cinemas back in my father’s day. It’s closed down now.

Around that same time, my father and a friend opened the Bayfield Mall Cinema in Barrie. (Until then, Barrie only had two old downtown theaters: the Roxy and the Imperial.) For a movie-lover, having a father who owned a theater was like being a kid in a candy store! In point of fact, we had to pay for any popcorn and candy we wanted – Dad and Mr. Hamat didn’t own the concession rights – but I got to see a lot of free movies over the next few years. They never got a lot of first-run films, so I saw some strange things, and some older stuff too, including What’s Up Doc from 1972 which is still one of my favorite comedies. I also saw Gone With the Wind with my mother on one of its re-releases circa 1976. And the big hits of the day did eventually play there. I definitely saw Rocky more than once at my Dad’s theater during the summer of 1977.

Barbara and I passed on our love of movies to Amanda. Her childhood coincided with the rebirth of classic Disney cartoons such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, but one of my best Amanda movie memories is introducing her to Buster Keaton on television. My mother had taken my brothers and me to see Charlie Chaplin movies as young kids, and I was sure Amanda would enjoy Keaton. Barbara was less sure, but I was right! Amanda was so young (only about 5 years old) that we had to read her the title cards, but she loved “Busty”. Didn’t matter that the movies were black-and-white and silent; they’re great and Keaton’s comedy is classic.

Comedians
Charlie Chaplin (left) was my introduction to silent films, though I’ve come
to enjoy the movies of Buster Keaton (center) and Harold Lloyd (right) more.

This past month or so, I’ve found myself going to the movies again. Sometimes with friends; sometimes alone. And I’ve been enjoying it. I’m sure Barbara would be happy to know that.

Babe Siebert’s Sad Story

The death of former NHL goalie Ray Emery, who drowned in Lake Ontario at Hamilton this weekend at the age of 35, brought to mind the deaths of two other old-time hockey players. I’ve written before about the accident that killed hockey star Hod Stuart in the summer of 1907. Like Stuart, Babe Siebert left a young family behind when he also drowned at the age of 35. Siebert was swimming in Lake Huron near the town of St. Joseph, Ontario, on August 25, 1939.

Babe Siebert (whose given names are usually listed in hockey records as Albert Charles, but whose birth certificate and marriage documents record his name as Charles Albert) is not a well-known name today. He was a big star in the 1920s and ’30s and would later be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But that was all a long time ago…

Gazette

Briefly, Babe Siebert was a star forward with the Montreal Maroons from 1925 to 1932, helping the second-year team win the Stanley Cup in his rookie season of 1925–26. He later played right wing on The S-Line (or Triple-S Line) with fellow future Hall of Famers Nels Stewart and Hooley Smith. Though lacking the size of a modern power forward (Siebert was pretty big for his era at 5’10” and 182 pounds) he was as tough as he was talented. A game against the Maroons was usually a rough one.

Playing with Boston in 1933–34, Siebert was moved to defense by Art Ross when Eddie Shore was suspended following the Ace Bailey Incident. Siebert soon became an All-Star at his new position, but even so, the Bruins traded him to the Canadiens before the 1936-37 season. He won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP that year.

Journal

“On the ice he’s a tough hombre,” wrote Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on January 19, 1937, “and Lionel Conacher of the Maroons says, he can’t be trusted with a stick in his hands. Off the ice he’s as gentle as a lamb, caring for his crippled wife. At home games at the Forum the Babe is always first dressed after the battle, and he hurries to carry his wife to their automobile. He always installs her, long before game time, in a comfortable seat behind the goal that the Canadiens will defend in two of the three periods – so that she can watch his play more closely.”

According to Siebert’s biography on the Hockey Hall of Fame web site, his wife (Bernice) had been paralyzed from the waist down after complications during the birth of their second child.

“‘A tough guy,’ they called the Babe,” said a piece in the Montreal Gazette by Harold McNamara the day after Siebert died, “but they didn’t see him working around the house, an apron draped over his suit, doing work that his wife was unable to do. They didn’t see him playing with his two children, showing pictures of them around the dressing room.”

Marriage

What makes Siebert’s death so tragic was that – having been named the Canadiens new head coach in June of 1939 – he was on a short vacation with his two girls, aged 10 and 11, at the time. He’d brought them to his parents home in Zurich, Ontario, towards the end of August a few days before an 80th birthday party for his father.

On the afternoon of August 25, 1939, Siebert, his two daughters, two nieces and a local friend, Clayton Hoffman, were enjoying a day at the beach. When it was time to go, and Siebert called in the children, one of them left an inflated inner tube floating in the lake. “Babe then went to get the tube,” Hoffman explained. “But the wind was carrying it along parallel to the shoreline and it was soon apparent he was in difficulty. I was standing on the shore fully dressed when I heard his cries for help.”

Hoffman went in after Siebert. He got within about 35 feet. “Before I could reach him, Babe had gone down for the last time.”

Efforts to recover Siebert’s body took three days. He was eventually found by his brother Frank and another local man in 150 feet of water about 40 feet from the spot where he’d disappeared. A funeral and burial took place in Kitchener, Ontario, on August 30.

“He was not only a fine man from a point of view of hockey but he was a model father and a fine husband to his sick wife,” NHL president Frank Calder had said upon learning of Siebert’s death. “He was a model of self-sacrifice. He was not the kind of player who made money in the winter and spent it in the summer. Siebert was a conscientious man who worked all year round. There is nothing too fine that can be said about him.”

A day before the funeral, the Montreal Canadiens announced that Art Ross had proposed a benefit game with the Bruins for before the season to raise money for Siebert’s family. It would expand into a game between the NHL All-Stars and the Canadiens played on October 29, 1939. The All-Stars scored a 5-2 victory in front of only 6,000 people. Still, it was said that the goal of raising $15,000 would be met.

I haven’t been able to learn much about Bernice Siebert’s life after her husband’s death, but she did live to see the Babe voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in June of 1964 and officially inducted that August. She passed away in Kitchener on November 24, 1964 at age 58. In addition to a brother and three sisters, she was survived by her two daughters and six grandchildren.

Obit

Fun With Another’s Family Tree

The very first thing I wrote in my first post to this web site four years ago said: “My favorite part of writing is doing the research. I love to look things up.” That was true back in 1990 when I began working on my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada. It remains true to this day. It was never more true than when I was working on Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins. It was never more fun either!

When I set out to write a biography of Art Ross, I had no idea where it would lead. I certainly had no inkling of the family saga I would get caught up in. The Ross genealogy – even without any connection to hockey – was simply fascinating! I have already written about my efforts to track down a correct birth date for Art Ross, but that’s hardly all…

When I first connected with Art Ross III in the fall of 2005, I had already stumbled onto the fact (via the 1901 Canadian census, which had only recently come on line) that when Art Ross was growing up in Montreal in the late 1890s and early 1900s, his mother was married to a man who was not his father. This other man was Peter McKenzie.

Maggie Peter
When she was young, the future Margaret Ross/Maggie McKenzie was said to be
the most beautiful woman in the Saguenay region. The young Peter McKenzie
was a handsome man of his era.

The story, as Art III heard it from his Uncle John, was that Thomas Barnston Ross had left his family “early and penniless.” While admitting that his father had not welcomed questions about what happened, John Ross had formed his own opinions. Barney – as those of us who have researched the heck out of this family call him – “might have (probably) taken his own life.”

Art and I soon discovered that wasn’t true. Records from the Hudson’s Bay Company (Thomas B. Ross was a fur factor) note that he died in 1930. Yet those same records said that Barney’s widow, Marguerite (Margaret) McLeod Ross – we call her Maggie – had married Peter McKenzie (who was himself a high-ranking HBC official). But given that they were married in December of 1895, Maggie was obviously not a widow!

1891
The Ross family circa 1891. The bearded man in the middle is Thomas Barnston Ross.
A young Art Ross leans against his shoulder.

As Art and I puzzled about this and other family mysteries (we communicated mostly by email – but often!), we were soon joined in our online endeavours by Serge Harvey. Serge is a distant relative of Art’s through Barney’s father’s family. Serge later connected us with Helen Webster, granddaughter of Thomas R. Ross, who was an older brother of the hockey Art Ross. (I’ve yet to mention here that Barney and Maggie had 10 children!)

Both the Ross and McLeod families had been prominent in the history of Quebec’s Saguenay district. Serge had found all sorts of fascinating family history in the Quebec archives. Helen had access to letters written by Maggie herself. So, eventually, we were able to put together bits and pieces of the story of a marriage that fell apart.

1901
The Ross family circa 1900. Barney is out of the picture. The bearded man
in the middle this time is Peter McKenzie. Art Ross sits in front of him.

Still, there was one thing we could never determine. Though Maggie and Barney both remarried, had they ever actually been legally divorced? Art and I both came to believe that Maggie had to be a bigamist – though it always seemed odd to me that she and Peter McKenzie moved so well through Montreal society if that was the case.

Serge searched even more diligently through Canadian divorce records than I did. (It was very difficult to get a divorce in Canada right up until 1968.) He wrote to church officials and searched through provincial records in Quebec. Nothing! He also concluded that Barney and Maggie must have been bigamists. While I don’t believe I have any emails from Helen stating it so bluntly, I think she felt the same way too.

Marriage
Peter McKenzie married Maggie on December 26, 1895, in Naughton, ON near Sudbury.
This is a segment of the record of their marriage from the Ontario Provincial Archives.

But enter a new character in our modern Ross family adventure. Darlene Ackerland is a descendant of Charles Ross, another of Maggie and Barney’s 10 children. In October of 2017, she connected with Art III as a DNA match through the Ancestry.com web site. Darlene has been a dynamo in chasing down her family story!

Now, admittedly, I am not actually a member of the Ross family. My interest is a lot more narrow than the others and when it all became a little overwhelming for me, I asked kindly to be removed from the flurry of new email activity. Still, I did say that if Darlene ever came across a divorce record for Maggie and Barney, I wanted to know about it…

Well, last Thursday, Darlene wrote the gang (me included) saying she thought she had found it. The names – as indicated in a hint through Ancestry – were a perfect match … but the location was odd. North Dakota?

Divorce 1
From the records of the Ross divorce, housed in
the archives at North Dakota State University.

“What do you all think?” Darlene asked.

It so clearly seemed that it must be them, and yet I wondered to the group: “Do we think they were divorced in North Dakota? Like the way people used to go to Reno?”

Now it was time for my research skills, although it turned out to be pretty simple. A few key terms on a Google search, and I discovered that North Dakota in general, and Fargo in particular, was the Divorce Capital from 1866 to 1899. People from all over the world flocked to Fargo for divorces. An entire industry sprung up around it. It wasn’t cheap, but it was fairly easy – and there was even a clever way to get around the three-month residency requirement. People would apparently take a train to Fargo, leave their luggage in a hotel for 90 days, and then return to pay the bill and collect their divorce.

Divorce 2
More from the records of the Ross divorce.

Serge wrote to North Dakota State University for copies of the divorce proceedings, which arrived as pdfs by email on Monday. It really is “our” Maggie and Barney, with Maggie initiating the proceedings against a reluctant husband. And so it was that in January of 1895, they really were legally divorced. No bigamy. Instead, confirmed drunkenness, cruelty and possibly even adultery. Wow!

Mr. Boucher & Mrs. Byng

The NHL Awards were handed out last night, as they have been, in some form or another, since the end of the 1923-24 season. That’s when the Hart Trophy for MVP was presented for the first time. The Lady Byng Trophy, which was first awarded for the 1924-25 season, is the NHL’s second-oldest individual honour. That means there has been an award for “sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” (as the league describes it) for longer than there’s been one for the best goalie, best rookie, best defenseman or leading scorer. Still, the NHL has had an odd relationship with this award.

“We want a hard, aggressive team with no Lady Byngers,” Conn Smythe is reputed to have said. (And if he didn’t say that exactly, he said many things very close to that while he was rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs before the 1946-47 season.) Don Cherry felt the same way when he was coaching the Boston Bruins. It’s said that Jean Ratelle apologized to Cherry after winning the award for the 1975-76 season, although Cherry really did appreciate that Ratelle – who had joined the Bruins from the New York Rangers earlier that season – played a tough game while keeping it clean.

Lady Byng
Portrait of Lady Byng, 1917.

“Sure, it’s nice to win it,” said Alex Delvecchio when he won the Lady Byng Trophy for the third time in 1969. Then he added a comment that just wouldn’t fly today. “But the name takes a lot away from it and what it’s meant to be.”

Though the game was certainly as rough in Frank Boucher’s era as it was at any time it’s been played, we’ll assume that this New York Rangers star of the 1920s and ’30s felt differently when he was given the original Lady Byng Trophy to keep in 1935 after winning it seven times in eight seasons.

Regardless of the mocking her trophy has taken, there is little doubt that Lady Byng was a hockey fan. She and Lord Byng attended many Ottawa Senators games when they were living in the Canadian capital while he was Governor-General from 1921 to 1926. Even when they were back in England, the couple continued to follow the Senators on their way to the 1927 Stanley Cup. Lady Byng sent a telegram of congratulations after Ottawa’s victory that year.

1927 CupThe Ottawa Journal, April 14, 1927.

It’s often been written that Lady Byng was so impressed by Frank Boucher that she decided to give him the trophy. Boucher led the NHL in assists three times and was top-10 in points seven times in nine seasons from 1926-27 to 1934-35 while never accumulating more than 18 penalty minutes. However, it’s pretty hard to believe that Lady Byng continued to follow the NHL closely enough from England for the next eight years to have been aware of Boucher’s exploits. That being said, it really is true that she agreed to let Boucher keep the original trophy and donate another. Here’s how it actually happened.

Despite having already won the award six times, it was claimed that Frank Boucher had never actually seen the Lady Byng Trophy before winning it for the seventh time in 1935. Shortly after the NHL season ended, Boucher was back in his hometown of Ottawa for a charity game involving local pros from the NHL and the minors. (The original Senators had moved to St. Louis that year.) The game was played on April 16, 1935. NHL president Frank Calder was there that night and he presented the trophy to Boucher as part of the evening’s festivities. It wasn’t Boucher’s to keep just yet, but the wheels were in motion.

ComicThe Ottawa Journal, March 16, 1935.

In the Ottawa Journal that same April 16, 1935, Sports Editor Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to Lady Byng. In what was really just his column for the day, Gilhooly recaps the history of the trophy since its donation. “Between 1925 and 1935 lie 11 full hockey seasons,” he writes, “and as I have mentioned, three players [Frank Nighbor twice, Billy Burch and Joe Primeau] held it through four of them. What disposition of the trophy was made through the other seven? Well, Lady Byng, it may be difficult for you to believe since you are so far away from the centre of things – I mean the hockey centre, of course – but one single player claimed it in those seven years, and that player is Frankie Boucher.…”

Gilhooly
Segments of Walter Gilhooly’s column. The Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1935.

Gilhooly  adds that, “the suggestion so often made, and that I would like to convey to you is this – that the cup be withdrawn from competition and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession.”

It’s not clear if Gilhooly was aware of it or not, but Lady Byng was visiting Washington when his letter appeared in the Ottawa Journal. Upon the contents being communicated to her, she got in touch with officials at Rideau Hall and wrote that she would be pleased to see the trophy given to Boucher. Colonel O’Connor of Government House then contacted Frank Ahearn, the former owner of the Senators who was serving as a Member of Parliament in Ottawa. Ahearn got in touch with Frank Calder, who made it happen.

New x 2
Articles announcing the arrival of the new Lady Byng Trophy in the
Winnipeg Tribune and the Ottawa Journal, August 13, 1935.

Although Calder couldn’t be there himself, Frank Boucher was given the Lady Byng Trophy for his permanent possession on April 25, 1935, at a civic banquet honouring four Ottawa-born players who had just won the Stanley Cup as members of the Montreal Maroons. By August 12, 1935, a new Lady Byng Trophy sent from England had arrived at Frank Calder’s office in Montreal. Frank Boucher may well have won that one too during the 1935-36 season, except that in June of 1935, he wrote to Calder to say that he would like to withdraw from further competition for the trophy.

“It’s just the sort of sporting thing that Frank would do,” said Calder.

Though there’s no record of it, Lady Byng likely approved of that too.

Sports Dad and Little Girl

Many of you know that our daughter got engaged recently. The wedding will be near the end of the summer. We couldn’t be more thrilled! Amanda is actually my step-daughter. She is Barbara’s daughter from her first marriage, but she’s been a part of my life since she was 3 1/2 … and I couldn’t possibly love her more.

I’d never really seen myself as the father of a little baby. But I had always figured I would get married some day and have children, so jumping in with a child Amanda’s age seemed just about perfect. But, of course, there were challenges. She still had her father, so what would my role be?

4

In truth, I know I was a more lenient parent than Barbara really liked. As I saw it (and as we like to say in my family), I often felt that my job was to “try to keep the clubhouse loose.” Didn’t mean I wouldn’t be firm if I had to be, and when I sometimes got told “You’re not the boss of me!” I knew it wasn’t that Amanda didn’t see me as a legitimate authority or thought I was trying to replace her father. The truth was, even as young as 4 and 5, she had a pretty strong sense of herself as a person and felt that she was entitled to a role in the decisions made about her. She was just as likely to challenge her mother that way. And probably her father too.

I had grown up in a very close family. My brothers and I bonded with our father (and each other) through sports, but there was a lot more to the relationships than that. Same with Amanda and me. In her younger days, she always went to schools that were closer to her father’s neighborhood. That meant when she was staying with us, I always drove her to school in the morning on my way to work and picked her up at daycare on the way home. We had some of our best times talking to each other on those car rides together.

Still, sports would be a special part of my bond with Amanda too. She was fearless playing all sorts of games with my brothers and me at our family cottage. She was never (and still isn’t) much of a hockey fan, but Amanda loved baseball. I took her to her first Blue Jays game when she was about six years old. I have never liked to leave a game before it was over, but I was going to let her make the decisions that day. I didn’t want this to feel like a chore she had to get through.

Cottage

My family has great seats, which certainly helped, but after a few innings, Amanda said she wanted to go up to the small play area they had in the SkyDome for young kids. She played there for a while, and when she was done, I fully expected she’d want to go home. Instead, she said, “can we go back and watch the rest of the game now?”

A proud moment indeed!

Amanda always had fun at the games, and when they were over she liked to leave by climbing over the seats, rather than walking up the stairs. (An early indication, I guess, that climbing would become her favorite sport!) Barbara and I still laugh about the time when an elderly male usher admonished her with, “son, please don’t climb on the seats.”

I loved going to games with Amanda, and she was always excited when the Blue Jays won … but I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sad sometimes thinking back to the Glory Days. Over the years that Amanda and I were going to games together, even the most exciting victory tended only to make the difference between finishing, saying, 14 games behind in the standings instead of 15. She never got to see them as a contender when she was growing up, but it was so much fun for me to see how much she got into it all over again – even though she was (and still is) all the way out in Vancouver – when the Jays were finally back in playoff contention in 2015 and 2016.

Jays

Over the years, Amanda has had a couple of serious boyfriends. Barbara and I have always liked them. The first time we met Brent, it was clear to us that he was crazy about her. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen how much she’s grown as a person with him at her side. He’s a wonderful man, and they’re so clearly great together.

I promised Barbara that this story would be about Amanda, but I don’t think that I can really do it justice without saying that when we told them about Barbara’s cancer diagnosis in March, the way Amanda and Brent initially dealt with it was to grab their gloves and a ball and go outside to play catch and talk about it.

How could he not be the one for her!

Update on Inactivity

The reason I haven’t been active on this site over the past two months is that in March, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, my main job has been to help take care of her. I’m lucky that cancer has never really touched me before. I had no idea how all-encompasing the battle is.

I have had a few writing assignments during that time, and they have proven to be a welcome distraction. I was glad when the New York Times took an interest in this one. It’s something regular readers of the stories on my web site may recognize, as it combines information from a couple of stories I’ve posted before. The link is immediately below.

Making a Case for Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin is closing on in 600 goals. He will become just the 20th player in NHL history to reach this milestone … and there’s a case to be made that he might just be the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history. If not the greatest, he’s certainly one of the greatest.

Ovechkin, at age 32, is under contract for three more seasons. Though he’ll have earned $124 million by then under the 13-year deal he signed in 2008, at age 35, he’ll likely choose to stick around for a few more years. Will he be able to score the nearly 300 goals needed to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s career record of 894 goals? Not very likely! But still…

Top 20
The top 20 scorers in NHL history … through games played yesterday.

There are a lot more skillful number-crunchers out there than me. I know there are those who can work the numbers to better reflect how relatively “easy” or “hard” it has been to score goals in the NHL in different eras. For me, I rely mainly on what I see. Yes, of course, the game is faster now than its ever been (but hockey has always been as fast as it could be). Still, one need only to look at how few players reach 50 goal or 100 points these days to know that scoring is at a premium in the current NHL.

So here’s the thing about Ovechkin. Virtually everyone who’s above him on the all-time scoring list played the majority of their careers in an era when goals were a lot more plentiful than they are now. The game was a lot more wide open and goalies were not as well-coached or well protected. Of the players ahead of Ovechkin, only Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull played the bulk of their NHL careers at a time when goals were as hard to come by as they’ve been for most of Ovechkin’s career.

In my less-than-scientific approach, I would offer that Ovechkin and Bobby Hull may just be the greatest scorers of all time. And their numbers are remarkably similar. Currently, Ovechkin leads the NHL with 40 goals this seaon. If he holds on (Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, and a few others are making it close), this will mark the seventh time that Ovechkin has led the NHL in scoring. That would match Bobby Hull for the most NHL goal-scoring titles. Phil Esposito did it six times, while Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Charlie Conacher did it five times each. Ovechkin also has seven 50-goal seasons, with a shot at eight this year. Only Gretzky and Mike Bossy, with nine each, have more.

Ovie Hull
Ovechkin has a huge lead on all other goal-scorers from the time his NHL career began
in 2005–06 through yesterday. The numbers were fairly comparable for Bobby Hull from
the time he entered the NHL in 1957-58 through the 1971-72 season when he reached the
600-goal plateau. (Hull jumped to the WHA after that season.)

When Kelly Hrudy and Ron MacLean discussed this briefly prior to the outdoor game between Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs in Annapolis last Saturday, they pointed out that at the age of 32, Ovechkin would be the oldest player to lead the NHL in goals since a 33-year-old Phil Esposito in 1974-75. Gordie Howe was also 33 when he led the NHL in 1962-63, as was Maurice Richard in 1954-55. Only 37-year-old Bill Cook, when he scored 28 goals in a 48-game season back in 1932-33, has led the NHL at a more advanced age. (Records have traditionally shown that Cook was “only” 36 … but genealogical sources reveal he was actually born in 1895, not 1896.)

Here’s a look at some of hockey greatest goal-scorers as they were approaching or just passing the 600-goal plateau. These numbers rank the top scorers during the times of the career for each player in question. For example, the statistics for Wayne Gretzky show the goal-scoring totals for players only from the seasons from the start of Gretzky’s career in 1979–80 through 1987-88 when he reached 583 goals. I think these numbers give pretty solid evidence that few players in NHL history have been as far ahead of the rest of the league during their time in the NHL as Ovechkin is today.

Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky scored 583 goals from his first NHL season in 1979-80 through 1987-88.
He had a pretty good lead on all other goal scorers during that period.

Howe
Gordie Howe also had a pretty good lead through 1964-65 on
the players who’d been active since his career began in 1946-47.

Richard
Maurice Richard retired with 544 goals in 1959-60. Only Gordie Howe was close
to him among the players who’d been active since Richard began in 1942-43.

Jagr
Jaromir Jagr ranks third all-time with 766 goals, but when he topped 600 in 2006-07
there were six others who’d scored over 500 goals since he entered the NHL in 1990-91.

BrHull
Brett Hull ranks fourth in NHL history with 741 goals. He
scored his first goal in 1986-87 and reached 600 in 1999-2000.

Dionne
Marcel Dionne entered the NHL in 1971-72 and was approaching 600 goals through 1983-84. Dionne would up his total to 731 over the next five seasons. Guy Lafleur had also been a rookie in 1971-72,  but would soon begin a three-year retirement before making a comeback.

Espo
Phil Esposito scored 596 of his 717 career goals goals from 1963-64 through 1976-77
and had a pretty good lead at the time on some pretty big names from those years.

Lemieux
When he retired for the first time after the 1996-97 season, Mario Lemieux had scored
613 goals in just 745 games. Most of the other top scorers from that era had played
150+ more games than Lemieux had since his debut in 1984-85.

Bossy
Was Mike Bossy the greatest scorer ever? When injuries forced him to retire in 1986-87,
he’d scored 573 goals in just 10 seasons. His career average of .762 goals per game
is the highest in NHL history among players with 200 goals or more.