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The outdoors is fun in winter
As snowflakes fall all around,
It lands in the trees
And touches the ground.
Snow angels made in fun,
A time out in the snow;
Tiny snowflakes in the wind
A blizzard doesn’t show.
To be sure this little ditty reflects the mindset of young children. The “snow angel” represents all that is “fun” in the white stuff—tobogganing, snowmen, and snowball fights. As they get older, they may, even in this “it’s all about me” society, be faced with operating the business end of a shovel or scraper. But, to small fry the thought of blizzards is extremely remote when they see the skies open and make their frosty deposits.
Adults in general view winter and all its negative elements through different coloured glasses. But, for over a century, for a good number of individual hockey players and entire teams, the challenges of travel, with schedules hanging overhead, have spelled anything but frivolity.
One of the first instances of this frigid nemesis ambushing a shinny contingent takes us back to the year 1902. The Canadian Amateur Hockey League, equivalent to today’s NHL, outlined a 20-game schedule for the 5-team circuit—a home-and-home arrangement which ran from January 5th through March 1st. On February 8th the Montreal AAA, sometimes called “Winged Wheelers”, set out for a match in Quebec City. Thirty miles from their destination their train broke down. They had to conscript horse-drawn sleighs to take them the last 30 miles. This caused them to arrive late, which, in turn, prompted a makeshift pre-game meal of meat, canned corn, and pie. They barely had time to wash it down with coffee before scampering onto the ice—to play 60 minutes each, no less. One might assume after such a grueling trek the MAAA might have been easy pickings—but, in fact, they won the match against their provincial cousins by a convincing 7-1 score.
The late Dick Irvin Sr. liked to share an experience from 1907, when he was just 15 years old. That winter he and his pals played their first game in an indoor rink. This rag tag crew had a pick-up team, which played all of their matches on outdoor ice. But somehow they managed to arrange a contest against a club from Dauphin, about 14 miles from their home in Winnipeg. They had no team sponsors, thus no money for travel, so Irvin’s father bundled them all in a big bobsled hitched to a team of horses and transported them to their destination.
To them this covered surface seemed like a “palace of dreams”, with goal posts imbedded in the ice, and no wind to blow them off their skates. But if the venue was unforgettable, so was their trip home. A near blizzard had developed, which whipped snow in their faces, already numb from the 25 below °F (minus 35 °C). So much snow had drifted onto the road, the boys had to get off and walk 12 of those miles, because their accumulated weight was just too much for the horses under those conditions.
Seventeen years later, on February 20, 1924, the Ottawa Senators were scheduled for the 8:30 p.m. puck drop in the Mount Royal Arena in Montreal, to face off against the Canadiens. But for two hours the inpatient spectators waited and waited for a sextet which never did show up. No news was forthcoming, except that Ottawa wasn’t coming; so coupons for admission were given for the following evening.
In reality the Senators had reason to be impatient as well. Although they left home at noon, their train had become snowbound at Cushing (near Hawkesbury). When it became obvious they would be stuck there for the night, Cy Denneny, the NHL’s leading scorer at the time, went searching for food for the hungry players. In the process he fell down an open well. Fortunately he was not hurt, and his mates rescued him. It is not known whether he was successful in finding any grub before the mishap—but the train was on its way again in the morning. Unlike the MAAA of 1902, the delay had adverse effects. The Senators lost 3-0—but Denneny held onto his scoring crown lead, and won the points championship.
In the early spring of 1931 the Oshawa Patricias, part of a little-known professional, six-team circuit in Ontario for one season, were scheduled to play in Niagara Falls against the Cataracts. This single-game tilt on March 9th would determine who qualified for the post season series. But on the 7th and 8th a late-season snowstorm hit Southern Ontario, creating power outages, disrupting bus and streetcar schedules, and leaving cars with drifts piled over their hoods and trunks. Although the province was described as being “snowbound”, the determined Pats put their shoulders to the wheel (often quite literally), and ventured onto the highways leading to Canada’s honeymoon capital.
One can only imagine the kind of trek they experienced in the vehicles of that era with their feeble heaters and even weaker windshield defrosting systems. But they drove, and pushed and shoved and shoveled, arriving at the opposition’s arena at 10:30 at night. In storybook fashion, as exhausted as they obviously were, they actually held the host contingent to a 1-1 draw, even after 10 minutes of overtime. That single point, registered after midnight, was sufficient to land them in the playoffs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs fared no better after their adventure on December 27, 1942. They were scheduled to meet the Rangers in New York the next night, but wintery driving conditions forced them to hire taxicabs to Welland where they were to meet the train for the Big Apple. They got as far as St. Catherines when they came upon a caravan of 15 stalled motor cars, victims of the bad weather. They took matters into their own hands and pushed the cabs around the snowbound vehicles and continued on their way, taking back roads to avoid any further traffic jams. But the delay meant they were late getting to Welland, and missed their travel connections. Refusing to accept defeat they continued on to Buffalo, arriving at 4:30 a.m. They were fortunate because the train to Broadway was also held up and was an hour late. They scampered aboard, and eventually got to their destination just in time to dress and take the ice against their opponents. But, the weary and worn Blue and White didn’t have enough gas left in their tanks. They lost 3-1.
The weekend of January 21, 1961 spelled trouble with a capital “T” for both the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins. Dates were booked in Montreal and Toronto respectively, for the traditional Saturday night matches. It so happened that the Motor City sextet was in Beantown, and had to leave from there. A blizzard, which had dumped a foot of snow along the Eastern seaboard, accompanied by severe cold, had prompted cancelation of normal air travel, and because of a strike there was limited rail service. With the Wings, the one train that was available was full, so they were allowed to ride in the baggage car. As passengers disembarked, one by one, the players were allowed to take their places in more comfortable quarters.
The Bruins were not so fortunate. The only transportation available was a Greyhound coach making its regular run; and only because of the alertness of a ticket agent were they able to find seats on it. But the 575-mile (925-kilometer) journey took 17 hours due to its normal scheduled stops. They left Boston at 7:30 pm on Friday, arriving at noon Saturday. Amazingly enough both wearied sets of troops won their matches.
Some players from the Hub seemed prone to fall victim to such adventures. Less than a month later, on February 12th, they battled another snowstorm to get to a home game. Johnny Bucyk, the team captain left home to pick up Jerry Toppazini on route to the Garden. 10 miles from the city his car became disabled, forcing him to hitchhike to his mate’s house. From there the pair had to thumb rides, six in all, in an attempt to get to the game on time. Twice they had to shovel benefactors out of drifts. To complicate matters, Topper’s wallet, containing $125. fell out of his pocket and was scooped into a snowbank. They had to shovel the white stuff onto the road to find it—then fling it back into the ditch before they could be on their way.
Almost a year to the day four other members of the Boston troop ended up imitating Eddie Shore’s hairy ride through the New England mountains to Montreal for a game. Unaware that their itinerary for train travel had been altered, Bruce Gamble, Cliff Pennington, Andre Pronovost, and Pat Stapleton were left to improvise. They caught the next train, but due to a wreck on the track, they were stalled. This forced them to retrace their steps to Boston, where they had to dig Pronovost’s vehicle out of a snow drift, before embarking on the hairy trip to the Mount Royal City. Weary and worn, they arrived at noon of game day, but shared in a 9-1 drubbing along with their more rested teammates.
February 10, 1969 was a memorable date for both the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. Once again the North Eastern USA was inundated with a swirling blizzard which had dumped 10 inches of the white stuff over a wide area between the two cities.
The Broad Street bullies were afflicted with a nine-hour trek, arriving 20 minutes before the scheduled opening faceoff—but without their equipment. Between that and the fact that only two of the New Yorkers were in their dressing room an hour before game time, held things up. Larry Jeffery and Jean Ratelle never made it at all. Phil Goyette, Harry Howell, and Don Marshall got a police escort to the subway before they got on their way. Goalie Ed Giacomin was totally blocked in, meaning Don Simmons had to take his place. That was the occasion when Manager Emile Francis had to sign himself to a contract in order to qualify to act as backup netminder.
Even referees have not been able to escape Jack Frost’s winter fury. In December of 1966 Vern Buffy had worked a Saturday night match in St. Louis and boarded a flight for Chicago Sunday morning. But a snowstorm had closed O’Hare Airport, forcing his plane to circle for two hours before being rerouted to Cincinnati. He discovered that the only flights available from there were charters, and they were large planes, with high price tags attached. But, he managed to find four other travelers willing to fork over $40. each enabling him to continue on to the Windy City. But that plane had engine trouble, again prompting an emergency landing in Indianapolis, and subsequent change of plans. No charters were available from there, but he managed to get accommodation on a commercial flight—landing him in the arena 20 minutes before game time. (Little sympathy was forthcoming from the NHL. When he had a similar experience three years later, being snowbound in Denver and missing a game in Minnesota, he faced possible discipline for his absence)
The end of the decade was no kinder when it came to blustery winter weather. On December 27, 1969, a 30-inch deluge dumped on the city of Montreal, playing havoc with the Habs, who had been on the road, getting to their home game against the Flyers. They ended up stranded in Toronto. Their only option was to take a train, where they arrived five hours before game time. But the story didn’t end there. Philadelphia then had trouble getting to their home game against Boston. The trip took them 18 hours, getting them into the Spectrum just a short time before the first puck was dropped.
Perhaps the most ironical scenario involves the December 2, 1974 match which scheduled the Leafs against the Wings in Detroit. Toronto arrived in lots of time ready to play—but the Motor City gang couldn’t get through the foot of snow which blocked their driveways. The game had to be cancelled.
In early December 1989, Greg C. Adams was traded to Detroit Red Wings. At the time he was playing with Halifax of the AHL, and decided to drive to his new club. But what should have taken him 30 hours turned into a four-day marathon. Early in the journey he ran into a snow storm, making only a couple of hours the first day. Within 15 minutes the next day he ended up in the ditch. He had to wait three hours for the tow truck. More snow and needed repairs in Montreal summarized third day. Finally, on December 10th, after a 10-hour stint behind the wheel, he arrived at his destination.
To avoid boring repetition, we move ahead to the New Millennium and another example of the perpetual headaches caused by the typical inclement weather in the Buffalo area. On December 29, 2001, the Sabres had to utilize four-wheel-drive vehicles to get to the Niagara Falls airport to catch a flight to Columbus for a game against the Blue Jackets.
Perhaps the latest snag which buffaloed the Buffalo franchise has faced took place last fall, on November 18th. Five feet of the stuff through which one “dashes in a one-horse open sleigh”, which was headlined as a “massive snow storm”, cut the attendance to 6,200 at the Niagara Centre (actually it was amazing that many prevailed). It was also hard to believe that only one skater was snowed in so tightly he couldn’t get to the arena.
Two or three rather bizarre incidents seem to be appropriate to cap off this missive.
In 1948 the Toronto Star was the only big city newspaper which noted with even a passing comment, a startling story coming out of Northern Manitoba. In February the Sherridon Intermediate team drove 70 miles (106 kilometers) to Flin Flon by snowmobile to play against their counterparts there.
In 1949 freezing rain made travel by car impossible in South Porcupine, Ontario (near Sudbury). The result was that two hockey clubs had to skate six miles following their games. The Junior Combines played a sextet in the local arena, while the Juveniles took on a squad from McIntyre. Both teams faced the same plight—no transportation home. But the imaginative lads simply donned their skates again and glided along the frozen highway. It was quite a sight to see 30 hockey players racing along that six-mile stretch of frozen surface. The Juveniles had it down hill all the way; but the poor Combines, who had been trounced 17-2, had an uphill climb.
In February 1964 former NHLer Pentti Lund, at that time Sports Editor of the Thunder Bay Chronicle, made the public aware of what it is to be determined to play Canada’s National Sport. Several players, who lived on an Indian Reservation near Port Aylmer, regularly walked 10 miles to Kenora to play hockey—then walked 10 miles to return home. It was not unknown for them to leave at 10 p.m., when the temperature was 25 °F below zero (minus 32 °C).
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