Hockey's Historic Highlights

A Century of Leap Year Landmarks - Part 1

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

A Century of Leap Year Landmarks - Part 1

Posted January 06, 2016

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In terms of chronology, by inserting an extra day in February every four years, leap years make up for lost time (literally).  At least one genuine scenario adds some fun to that particular date—namely dilemmas which results from having been born on February 29—with a birthday only every fourth year. As one old timer gloomily put it: “I’m only 14 years old but look at all the wrinkles I’ve got!”

   Cartoonist Al Capp, best remembered for his “L’il Abner” strip, actually started a long-lasting tradition based on a theme which constantly tickled his reader’s fancies for years. In the mythical Dogpatch community, where the Yokums lived, there dwelt “the homeliest gal in all them hills” (her own father’s words). The solution was “Sadie Hawkins Day”. The feature was a footrace, wherein all single gals were given the legal right to marry any eligible bachelor they could catch and drag across the finish line. (From this fanciful event evolved “Sadie Hawkins Dances”, where females invited males out on dates, reversing the normal practice.)

   Needless to say, this scenario brought delight to some and dread to others. Spinsters who “got their man” were all smiles; single-minded men who lost their “freedom” were singing the blues.

   As we review a century of major league hockey, from 1908 through 2008, Leap Years have continued to bring pleasure to some connected to the game, and pain to others. A number of quarterly occurrences warrant only a passing comment—others invite a more detailed digest.

   1908-In the spring of that year, for the first time, an openly-professional Canadian league was represented in the challenge for the Stanley Cup. While the Montreal Wanderers, the reigning champions, had been recognized as a pay-for-play septet since 1904, they still participated in a so-called amateur circuit. But in the fall of 1907 the Ontario Professional Hockey League was founded. The Toronto Pros were the cream of the crop, thus qualifying them the right to contest for the famous award.

    On March 14th, in a sudden-death contest hosted by the Montreal club, the Queen City squad came out on the short end of a 6-4 score. But their effort, according to the Globe & Mail (which had opposed the circuit) reported that the match had prompted “spectators to go away with a new impression of the OPHL!”

    In his excellent new volume, Art Ross, Eric Zweig revives an amusing anecdote which emanated from this game. The Wanderers, who anticipated an easy romp over the Ontario upstarts, almost blew it with their arrogance. With the Redbands ahead 4-3 in the second half, play was held up for some time over a controversy resulting from a Toronto injury. Once settled, referee Frank Patrick blew the whistle to resume. But Art Ross, goalie Riley Hern, and Walter Smaill were deep in conversation with three lady spectators. After signaling play should resume “two or three times”, the puck was dropped regardless—and “Newsy” Lalonde immediately lifted the disc all the way into gaping Montreal cage—despite efforts by Ross to stop the shot. Had it not been for two later tallies, the reigning champs would have lit up the arena with their crimson faces! (By the way—the players later married those girls.)

   1912-On January 2nd the puck dropped to open the first season of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The shock waves had barely subsided from the December 7th announcement that the newly-organized rival major league loop had granted franchises to Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster, when the scheduled matches got underway. The main reason for that frenzy rested on the fact that of the 21 skaters listed on the rosters of the rival circuit, 11 had been recruited from the National Hockey Association in Eastern Canada. In 1913 an aggregation of NHA All Stars journeyed to the West coast to play a three-game exhibition series with the pick of the PCHA. The Cougars bested their Eastern counterparts two games to one, and outscored them 16-12.  The new constituency was for real!

   1916-Pro hockey’s only military team was admitted to the NHA at a special league meeting on September 30. Included in the 228th Battalion (or Northern Fusiliers) lineup were a number of hockey stars. Originally from the North Bay/Sudbury area, they settled in the Toronto region where they competed in the bulk of the circuit’s schedule before being ordered into active service. Decked out in full kaki uniforms, save for the big battalion logo on their chests, they were a very popular sextet, winning more than their share of games. Controversy plagued them, chiefly about the eligibility of the team members; but also over a postponed game due to the military leave preceding their eventual posting overseas.

   1920-With the new NHL on more solid footing after being reduced to three teams in their inaugural season, personal highlights were in the spotlight that year. “Phantom” Joe Malone set a single-season scoring record by potting seven goals in a match again Toronto, in a 10-6 victory for his Quebec Bulldogs. That milestone still stands 96 years later.

   On the other side of the coin the boisterous Sprague Cleghorn was making headlines for playing a full game without incurring a single penalty minute.

   1924-Heretofore the NHL had been an all-Canadian fraternity. But that fall an American city was granted a franchise in the elite circuit. A team from Boston, nicknamed the Bruins, headed by the blustery Art Ross, was admitted along with an additional team from Montreal, the Maroons. Although this swelled the number of entries to six. This was not “the Original Six”. Strangely enough, the Forum, always known as the home of the Canadiens, was actually built for this new contingent.

   1928-Although the story has been told umpteen times, it cannot be overlooked as the prime landmark connected with that season. In the Stanley Cup finals between the Montreal Maroons and the New York Rangers, the Mount Royal’s Nels Stewart backhanded a shot which struck the Blueshirt’s netminder, Lorne Chabot just above the eye. As he was removed to the hospital, the Rangers scrambled to find a replacement to stand between the pipes. The league rule stated that such a substitute must be a player under contract. No New Yorker qualified to fill the bill. When the Maroons refused to allow either Ottawa’s Alex Connell or London’s minor pro backstop, Hugh McCormick, to step into the gap, Manager Lester Patrick donned the big pads himself. Although his style was extremely unorthodox, he managed to lead his troops to a 2-1 victory! (It should be noted that many reports of this incident include the erroneous claim that Lester “had never played this position before”. But indeed he had. Three seasons before he had a 10-minute stint in goal with the Victoria Cougars, of which he was owner, manager, coach, and defenseman)

   1932-With the paint barely dry on the brand spanking new Maple Leaf Gardens, the daring “Little Major”, Conn Smythe, celebrated the opening of his modern facility by hanging a Stanley Cup banner in Toronto for the first time in a decade, and the initial triumph as the Maple Leafs (the last time it was as the St. Patricks). While the famous “Kid Line” had skated together previously, this was the season they came into their own. Had it not been for the pesky Howie Morenz they would have been the first triumvirate to finish 1-2-3 in the scoring derby. Three weeks on the injured list dropped Charlie Conacher into fourth spot, a single point behind the “Stratford Streak”. 

   Their reputation as “Hockey’s Fastest Scoring Line” was borne out in post-season competition. In his 1951 booklet, The Gashouse Gang of Hockey, Ed Fitkin wrote: “The performance of Primeau, Conacher, and Jackson—particularly Jackson—had the hockey world talking about little else!”  With the slick-passing “Gentleman Joe” at centre, the speedy “Busher” at left wing, and the “Big Bomber” blasting his devastating shots from the right side, they combined to dominate the ice lanes.

   1936-With a big push from Maple Leaf owner Conn Smythe, “King” Clancy reluctantly announced his retirement as an active player. Not only a skilled performer, but the source of antics and quips which injected light-hearted moments into serious situations, it was a boon to the game that he continued as referee in the league.

   President Frank Calder requested that the loop accept a trophy in his name, to be presented to the best first-year player at the conclusion of each campaign. Apparently he stipulated that the winner must not have played any games in any previous schedule.

  1940-The 1939-40 season has been tagged “the year the Canadiens almost died!”  When the 48-game span of matches had been played, the Habs finished dead last in the seven-team fraternity. This was a position they held the bulk of the year—finishing with a mere 26 points, including only 10 victories. They had only two forwards in the top 30 scoring race, and the worst goals-against-average by far. Dick Irvin Jr. recalls that the last time his father coached in Montreal against them, there were only 2500 fans in attendance. The franchise lost $60,000., equivalent to six digits today. One mischievous Montreal newspaper cartoonist depicted the Canadiens as a drowning man off a sinking ship, calling for a life-saver. It was an embarrassment to the oldest franchise in the NHL.

  1944-It has happened only once in the lengthy history of the world’s premier shinny circuit, and it went into the record books on February 20th.  With a record crowd in attendance at the Chicago Stadium, the host Blackhawks and the visiting  Maple Leafs played a scoreless tie—with no penalties called during the 60 minutes. The closest either team came to scoring was a disallowed marker by “Fido” Purpur, who tallied with a high stick. The match took only one hour and 55 minutes to complete.

   1948-One of the NHL’s significant black eyes was headlined that calendar year. On March 9th President Clarence Campbell announced the immediate lifetime suspension of Ranger’s Billy Taylor, for gambling on games and his association with Detroit racketeer James Tamer. Don Gallinger of the Boston was also suspended indefinitely, pending further investigation. It was discovered that he had wagered $1000. on a game in which he and his Bruins had played against Chicago. The Beantowners won, and he lost his bet—plus his shinny privileges for life. The ban of both players was lifted in 1970, but was of little consequence to either of them by then.

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