Hockey's Historic Highlights

It Happened on December 25th

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

It Happened on December 25th

Posted December 21, 2016

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If the Good Lord spares me for another year, and I am allowed to continue submitting the game’s themes under “Hockey’s Historic Highlights”, I may offer a feature entitled, “My Best Christmas Ever”. It will include the testimonies of skaters from the so-called “Original 6” era as they share insights about how they spent December 25th during their careers. This much I can guarantee—not one will mention their time spent on the ice in one of the half dozen NHL arenas during games as a highlight.

   You see there was time—from 1924 through 1971 to be exact (not counting earlier games, one in 1919 and one in 1920), when the league’s big wigs decided that since everyone was enjoying a holiday on that date, they may as well encourage fans to help fill their team’s coffers by attending regularly-scheduled matches. They may have seen it as something positive. The fans may have thought it was a great way to be entertained on Christmas night. But the players in no way shared that enthusiasm. Many of them, in fact, could identify with Bob Goldham, who said he had not been home on December 25th for 12 years, commencing with his first year in the loop.

‘Nuff said?

   But for now, we will be content to scan some significant moments which were recorded during contests scheduled for that date over the course of those 48 seasons.

   With the NHL schedule commencing on November 29th, the new season was less than a month old when the first regular-season contest was waged on December 25th. There were two matches, and there was little sign of gift giving in either one. Montreal shutout Boston 5-0, and Hamilton walloped the St. Pats 8-1. The only concession was made in that second game, with

McCaffrey, in his first pro season, managing to slip one past “Jumpin’ Jackie Forbes. If attendance was any indication of fan reaction to having games on the Saviour’s birthday, the conclusions drawn had to be those of disappointment. Only 3,500 made an effort in the Mount Royal City; and while no exact number is recorded, the press reported that the Steel City turnout was “small”.

   Whether for that reason or not, there was no competition on December 25th the following season. It was the only gap of that kind during the five decades this policy was in place.

   The 1928 competition was a memorable one. The tilt between the Maroons and Leafs was rough and tumble from beginning to end. The parade to the penalty box seemed endless. “Red” Horner also found it unforgettable. He had just signed with the big club, and had one game under his belt, when he suffered a broken hand, which kept him sidelined for several weeks.

He was joined in sick bay by Art Smith (scalp cut), and Montreal’s Dave Trottier who had his neck gashed. Apparently Nels Stewart kept the abrasive atmosphere alive, and Conn Smythe’s objections to referee O’Leary cost him expulsion and a $100 fine.

   The same script writer must have been engaged for the 1930 Holiday confrontation. There was certainly no “peace on earth” (or on the ice), as the Bruins blanked the Philadelphia Quakers 8-0.  A free-for-all followed George Owen’s thunderous check on Hib Milks. Wilf Cude, the goalie for the city of brotherly love, was the only player who did not become embroiled in the brawl.

   Referee Mickey Ion and his sidekick, Shaver, took a few knocks themselves, before the police finally came in relays to quell the disturbance. Several major penalties, which included $15 fines, were assessed.

   The Maple Leafs took a page out of the Quaker’s book, being walloped 10-1 by Detroit. Regular netminder Lorne Chabot was missing, and sub Benny Grant bore the brunt of the assault. It was Toronto’s worst ever defeat on a Christmas night.

   That evening also marked the beginning of the New York Ranger’s amazing record of 16 wins, no losses, and one tie when they played on December 25th. They did not compete on Christmas day in 1936, 1937, 1944, and 1945, but for two decades this seasonal contest seemed to work magic for them. That evening they topped Ottawa 4-1.

   Perhaps the most significant thing about the 1935 session, was that the Boston Bruins introduced a new team member that evening. It wasn’t that Paul Runge was any kind of game-altering forward—he tallied only 18 markers in 140 NHL games. But he imitated the great Eddie Shore by reversing the “Edmonton Express’” trip between Montreal and Beantown. Having just been traded to the Hub, he drove all the way from the Quebec Province city to Boston, arriving just two hours before the first puck dropped,

   Fans must have been adjusting to December 25th contests, since the start of the game was delayed in order to allow the crowd of over 13,000 to make their way into the building.

  Unbelievably, the popular “Dit” Clapper bore the brunt of the spectator’s disfavor when the Ranger’s attack slipped through the defense to score. It was a first for the lanky defender.

   One of the flukiest incidents took place during a 1940 game, when the Red Wings and the Leafs faced off in the Motor City. The host club won the game, but lost the services of rookie Joe Carveth, who collided with Hank Goldup and broke his leg. What was so unbelievable was that Carveth had missed most of the previous schedule because he broke his leg in almost the identical spot on the ice that year. The amazing Rangers continued their habit of not losing on Christmas by knotting the score with Chicago, 3 -3. Their only tie in that sequence of matches.

   Those same Blueshirts proved again they possessed charmed lives at that season of the year, when they did it again in 1943. Their familiar designation in the press seldom changed: “they were firmly entrenched in the league cellar”. Up to that point in the schedule they had won only four and tied one. But on December 25th they ran roughshod over hometown Toronto, carting off a 5-3 win. What was equally amazing is that three of those markers were scored by Ossie Aubuchon, about whom most fans asked, “Ossie who?” Traded from Boston he had managed only 12 NHL games previously—with four total goals.

   It was a rare occasion when “Young Canada Night” fell right on Christmas day. The many kids who were in attendance were disappointed, as goalie Paul Bibeault, recently discharged from the service, did not play well.

   The Rangers kept up their momentum the next night, beating Chicago 7-6, but returned to their doormat ways, losing 4-0 and 13-3 in their next two.

      In 1946 referee George Gravelle probably wished he could have stayed home and decorated the Christmas tree. Either he or the spectators had been sampling too much eggnog, because the poor fellow had to have a police escort to get safely from the ice surface to the dressing room. The angry crowd didn’t have presents on their minds—only his unwelcome presence as the official for that game. Midway through the final frame, the host Red Wings sent five attackers into the Toronto zone, in a concentrated effort to tie the game at 2. There was a wild scramble in front of “Turk” Broda, and, just as the red light went on to signal a goal, Gravelle blew the play dead. He claimed that Roy Conacher had batted the puck with his hand to Ted Lindsay, who shot it into the twine. The crowd thought differently. It was some time before order could be restored, and Gravelle was not allowed to forget what the fans thought was a bad call.

  “All good things must come to end”, the old adage has it. And that was the case to the New York Rangers on December 25, 1950, a 4-1 loss in Detroit. The following year, back in the same city, an all-day blizzard, which brought traffic almost to a total standstill, cut attendance drastically to 7,240, caused the Motor City management to wring their hands about the gate receipts. But for the Broadway Blueshirts another ill wind blew in their direction. After 21 seasons on not losing a game on Christmas Day, they would fall to the host Red Wings for a second time in a row, this time by a score of 2-1, after their amazing record. Only Don Raleigh was able to dent Sawchuck’s armour. The Wings had already bested the visitors five times previously that campaign, indicating the handwriting was on the wall.

1950-51 New York Rangers
1950-51 New York Rangers

   One of the closest battles for an individual trophy was waged during the 1957-58 season, between Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich and Chicago’s Bobby Hull. On Christmas night of 1957, the former took a huge step in solidifying his eventual victory in that nip and tuck contest. He recorded a hat trick, contributing largely to the Leaf’s 5-4 win over the first-place Canadiens.

He had been switched from centre to left-wing, and went on a spree, bulging the hemp 12 times in 11 games. Along with a former three-goal splurge, those half dozen markers may well have spelled the reason for his selection for the Calder. He finished with 20 markers, while Hull had only 13.

   Injuries, included broken bones, seemed to raise their ugly heads on a night which is usually connected with laughter and good times. In 1962, the Blackhawks, in the unfamiliar first place in the team standings, were whipped 6-0 by the Canadiens, also in an unfamiliar place—third.

But the Habs did suffer a loss that night, when slick centre Phil Goyette collided with Eric Nesterenko along the boards in the third period. He was carried off the ice on a stretcher with a suspected broken left ankle. Further examination confirmed the fracture, which would cause him to miss the rest of the campaign. Ironically, in the same Windy City hospital, Chicago’s big Elmer Vasko was recovering from an ankle injury as well, suffered two weeks before.

   Three years later those same Blackhawks were involved in an unwelcome adventure on their way to play the Leafs on December 25th. It actually began Christmas Eve, but climaxed the next day in annoying fashion. When the players awoke the next morning they were under the impression they were approaching the Queen City. Instead they were returning to Chicago. Unknown to them, there was a wreck on the rails 80 miles out of home base, forcing an about face. This necessitated taking to the air, and they boarded a bus headed for the airport—only to be held up by a snowstorm. Eventually they reached their destination a few hours before game time. But the wearying experience took its toll. They lost to their hosts 5-3.

  With double the number of teams due to expansion, the 1967 December 25th games involved five games, as compared to the normal two or three. The Bruins/Seals contest made most of the headlines, when anything but “peace” prevailed in their on-ice battle. Tempers flared when Oakland’s Charlie Burns and Boston’s Ken Hodge got into a shoving match, which erupted into full-scale fisticuffs. Ted Green and Kent Douglas got into the act, followed by a bench-clearing brawl. The Seal’s goalie, Gary Smith, always ready for excitement got into the act, adding a two minute bench minor for the novice club. Incidental, it seems, was a Boston 5-3 victory.

   The new North Stars sextet had anything but a happy holiday. They were blanked 1-0 by the Blues. It was their third straight shut-out loss. Not a great welcome to their new fraternity.

   At long last, the players had their say about this kind of scheduling. The NHLPA put a stop to it, once and for all. December 25, 1971 was the final chapter in this frustrating struggle to be able to spend time with family at Christmas.

  There were six matches that night, and six expansion clubs, like all positioned low on the totem pole, had the privilege contributing to the swan song.  Three of these contests held some significance. For the Rangers, who had that matchless record of no losses for two decades, added to the win column. So, the Broadway-ites totals for December 25, over the years this policy prevailed, was 25 wins, 10 losses, and 2 ties.

    Billy MacMillan, Toronto winger, scored the last hat trick during a December 25th match. It led his team to a 5-3 decision over Detroit. And, Stan Gilbertson, part of the Seals new kids on the block aggregation, scored the very last NHL goal on a Christmas day. With 18 seconds left in the action, he slid the old boot heel into the empty cage against the neighbours from Los Angeles. He also managed to be assessed the last penalty of a Yuletide competition.

   The suspension of Christmas Day games didn’t solve all the problems. With 30 teams, spread all the way from Florida to Vancouver, having the 24th and 25th off sometimes  represents a time frame too short to travel home and back again if scheduled games are too close together.

The time involved in transportation alone, can eat up the entire short vacation. But it certainly is a great improvement over old format.

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