Hockey's Historic Highlights

Christmas Specials

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


Christmas Specials

Posted December 23, 2013

Viewed 2593 times

"Christmas Specials" are everywhere! The advertising flyers which fill our newspapers to the choking point are blaring opportunities for bargains of all kinds. The "box" stories offer 50% off on toys, 60% off on clothing, 65% on Christmas wrapping, and 70% off on (selected) household items.

Even car dealerships get in on the act, with their offers to shoulder the first six months of payments on a new vehicle.

And, when it comes to TV — well, it's the same old fare — but promoted as if it were brand new. There's the never-dying "It's A Wonderful Life"; "A Charlie Brown Christmas"; The Grinch Who Stole Christmas; and the inimitable Dickens's "Christmas Carol".

The archives of Canada's National Sport have rhemes and rhemes of specials with which to tickle our shinny fancies as well. These scenarios vary in kind, time frame, and length, but all revolve around this holiday season of the year.

Our first scene takes us back of December 25, 1930, and is dedicated to all the disciples of Don Cherry and his "Rock 'em, Sock 'em" philosophy approach to hockey. On that occasion the Boston Bruins blanked the Philadelphia Quakers 8-0. Tempers flares when George Owens knocked "Hib" Milks into the middle of next week. A free-for-all erupted, and everyone got into the brawl except the Quaker's goalie Wilf Cude, who lounged nonchalantly in his net. Police were called to quell the rhubarb and six players were assessed major penalties and the accompanying $15.00 fines—no small amount when the average player's salary was $7,500. per.

A much more pleasant setting, which turned out to be a long-standing tradition, originated on December 22, 1934 at Maple Leaf Gardens. During the NHL's nine-team era it was advertised as "Hockey's Santa Claus Night for Kiddies." Shortly thereafter it became known as "Young Canada Night." For that initial occasion each Gardens ticket holder was entitled to one free child's ticket. It was estimated that 5000 youngsters made their way through the arena turnstiles that historic evening to watch the Leafs and Blackhawks play to a scoreless draw. In the ensuing years, perhaps because of the Great Depression, the offer was altered to "one free child's ticket for every TWO subscriber's tickets".

Two years later an adaptation of the accompanying radio broadcast saw Foster Hewitt give his 8-year-old son Bill a few minutes to take a crack at the play-by-play of the Toronto/New York Americans tussle.

In 1949 a new wrinkle was added. Not only did Bill take the gondola microphone again, but Greg McKnight, Allan Coleman, Kerry Day, and Lionel Conacher Jr., sons of Wes, Jim, "Hap" and Lionel Sr., made up the Hot Stove League personal.

It was déjà vu on December 22, 1962, 26 years after Bill's nervous debut as a play-by-play announcer, that HIS son Bruce, also 8, followed his father's halting example at this unique trade.

Lady Byng Trophy winner Sid Smith was the playing of the Whitby Dunlops when they were International Champions in 1958. As much of a highlight as that was, 11 years earlier he had an experience that topped it. On December 25, 1947, he was a member of the Leaf farm club's Pittsburgh Hornets, an AHL club which had agreed to play the Marlborough Seniors on Christmas night. Smith potted three markers that evening, and it so impressed the parent club, that he was called up to the big team and stayed the rest of the season.

Many hockey buffs recall how suddenly Lou Fontinato's big league career came to an end with a broken neck. But early in his struggle to make it, he caught the brass ring on Christmas day. When he discerned he would probably not make the Rangers at the 1954 training camp, he crossed his fingers hoping his demotion would be to Saskatoon not to Vancouver. On December 25th, having had his hopes dashed, he was having that special meal, when the phone rang. Good news this time!. He had been reassigned to the Quakers. At that moment he thought "There really is a Santa Claus!"

An amazing record was shattered on December 25, 1950. The New York Rangers, who had an unbelievable record of win on that day, finally lost to the Red Wings (in the Olympia where they invariably played on Christmas Day), 4-1. In 1928 they had been outscored by their Madison Square Garden co-tenants, the Americans, 4-0. But, except for a tie with Chicago in 1940, they had compiled 16 successive wins on that date in 22 years. Their record was 7 and 7 in the ensuing campaigns, until the NHL changed its policy of no contests on December 25th.

It had been a decision long in coming, and one which made countless players — and especially their families — deliriously happy. The witty Frank Martin, who was usually notoriously shy, once looked up into the stands and muttered: "Don't these people have some place else to be on Christmas Day?" Those participating in the action certainly did. This tradition got its start in 1920, with Toronto hosting Montreal on that special holiday.

SIHR's own John Krieser shares an interesting piece of Christmas trivia. On December 25, California's rookie, Stan Gilbertson, slid the puck into the King's empty net, with 18 seconds left on the clock, sealing a 3-1 victory for the Seals, making him the last NHL'er to score on Christmas Day. He also visited the sin bin late in the match to become the last to serve a penalty on Christmas Day as well.

The Saviour's birthday was not a merry one for the Montreal Canadiens in 1957. They went down to defeat at the hands of their archrivals, the Maple Leafs, wth rookie Frank Mahovolich bulging the twine three times. The general consensus, shared by goalie Jacques Plante, whom he victimized that night, was that he was prepackaging a gift for himself with that scoring spree — namely, the Calder Trophy — which he eventually DID win.

The dream of a white Christmas was realized in an unwelcome fashion in 1965. After having their way blocked by a train wreck on their way to Toronto on Christmas Eve, they were forced to return to the Windy City. They then took a bus to the airport, but were held up by a snowstorm. They finally reached Maple Leaf Gardens a few hours before game time, but by that time they were exhausted. Little wonder they lost 5-3.

Typical of our modern era, commercialization reached its peak in 2003, when the New York Islander's PR department came up with a promotion gimmick to put more bodies into the stands. Anyone who came dressed as Santa would be admitted free. It worked far better than they imagined, when 1000 red and furry spectators showed up. But there proved to be a fly in the ointment — in the form of spies in the Coliseum. Three of these St. Nicks were Ranger fans sporting that team's colours, evident when they doffed their tunics. The melee which followed to 10 minutes to quell.

In the lighter vein we go back to 1936 to conclude this nostalgic narrative. In the dressing room of an unnamed pro team, there was much jocularity over the prospect of going home for the Yuletide holiday. While the guys from the Western provinces knew it was not possible for them to make such a trip, it was a first year skater who lived nearby who really seemed to be downcast. The coach had him parked on the pines most of the season thus far, and he was not a happy camper.

His buddies sought to cheer him up by mentioning that even stalwarts like King Clancy and Frank Finnigan had not seen much action their first season. But that talk fell on deaf ears. He was not relishing going home having to explain his bench-sitting role to his relatives.

He was asked: "Aren't you taking presents home for Christmas?"
"Sure!", he replied. "My hockey pants!"
"Well, that's a funny present", his peers agreed.
"No! It's a good present for the old folks. They won't have to buy any more wood for kindling this winter! I've ridden the bench so much, they'll be able to pick over a cord of wood out of the seat of my pants! Just a regular little Santa Claus coming to town — that'll be me - and my pants!"

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