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Without water there can be no ice—without ice there can be no hockey—therefore without water there can be no hockey—on skates, that is! We need not get bogged down about this same H2O which is needed to replenish the moisture lost during a game (it’s called perspiration); or the indelicate details of the parade to the showers following on-ice action. But it is easy to see how water is imperative when it comes to the world of shinny.
Water is like fire—of immense benefit when it is kept in its place—but a menace when it escapes its borders. Likewise, when it comes to Canada’s National Sport, water can provide pleasure—even amusing anecdotes—but it has also brought about perils which have long-lasting repercussions.
One of the first examples of a water tragedy occurred during the game’s fledging years. Hodson “Hod” Stuart was one of the first Canadians to heed the call to the pay-for-play scene, migrating to Calumet, Michigan, in 1904, where he skated for the Miners in one of hockey’s first openly-professional circuits. Joining the Pittsburgh Pros for the 1906 campaign, the Ottawa-born defenseman tired of the circuit’s unnecessary roughness, and returned to the land of his birth to skate for the Montreal Wanderers, enjoying the glory of a Stanley Cup Championship in 1907.
But on June 23 that same year, he dove into the water from a pier in Belleville, Ontario, struck his head on a rock, and died. The first “All Star” game in history took place in his honour, as the Wanderers challenged the best of the other ECAHA squads in a fund-raising match for the benefit of his widow.
It would be more than 20 years before this essential liquid claimed the life of another of the game’s mercenaries. George “Shorty” Horne plied his on-ice trade in the Sudbury area where he was born for five years, before he was noticed by the Montreal Maroons. However, he fizzled in his first pro attempt, and caught on with the Stratford Nationals of the Can Pro loop in 1927. In his second season with the club, he set a league record for goals and caught the attention of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He did reasonably well in his rookie campaign and appeared set for a future with the Buds. But in August, he drowned in a boating accident just north of his hometown of Sudbury. He and three others were in a canoe which was swamped by a huge wave. Strangely, he was an excellent swimmer. But he just disappeared from sight and lost his life at age 25.
Harold Ballard continually stirred the pot of controversy when he was head honcho of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But little has been said about an adventure he experienced in 1930 when he was just a young man. One chilly night in April he and two friends left the yacht club on Toronto’s Centre Island in an 18-foot flat-bottomed boat to eat at a restaurant at what was then called Sunnyside Park. The waters of Lake Ontario that evening were particularly treacherous, and a huge wave tossed all three out of the craft into the cold water. The boat continued on its own, circling crazily around them, threatening to slice them with its propeller. Ballard, a strong swimmer, sought to help Harry “Red” Foster, a famed broadcaster at the time, and Jimmy Rogers. He was able to save Foster, but Rogers was washed away by the waves. A sailor, in a passing boat pulled the two from the waters.
Mystery still surrounds the death of Jack Leswick, whose brothers Pete and Tony also played in the NHL. Following his re-signing with Chicago the spring of 1934, he made his way home for the summer. Sadly, in August, his lifeless body was pulled out of the Assiniboine River. Immediately foul play was suspected because his money and other valuables, including the gold watch given to him by the Blackhawks, were missing—as was his car. Suicide was ruled out, but no concrete evidence could be found to prove he was murdered.
In 1939, Albert “Babe” Siebert succumbed to the perils of water at a summer resort at St. Joseph, Ontario, near Grand Bend on Lake Huron. He and his family had made the trip from Montreal to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. He was swimming with a friend, his niece, and his daughters, Judy and Joan, aged 10 and 11. One of them lost her grip on an inner tube, which floated away, with Siebert in pursuit.
When he was about 150 feet from shore it became evident that he was in trouble, because he started calling for help. A friend, standing watching, fully dressed, rushed into the water, but his wet garments tangled around his feet. When he was 35 feet from away, “Babe” went down for the last time. Once more, it was the case of a big, strong man, being unexpectedly overcome by the elements.
Three years later, Bert Corbeau, who starred in the teens and 1920’s with Canadiens, Hamilton, and Toronto, perished along with 24 others, when his 79-foot power-driven yacht unexpectedly listed, filled with water, and sank like a stone. He had arranged this cruise, which was to be an annual event, with 42 employees of the Midland Foundry and Machine Company, where he was superintendent. Corbeau, who was nicknamed “old pig iron”, was an outstanding defenseman who excelled at stickhandling. He had been retired from the game for 13 years.
“King” Clancy had to put up with a lot as a referee when he worked games in the Chicago Stadium. He was used to hearing organist Al Melgard introduce the referee and two linesmen by playing “Three Blind Mice”. Specifically, he had his own theme song whenever he called a penalty — “Clancy Lowered the Boom”. But he preferred that to what happened to him in March 1946. As he left the ice between periods a fan doused him with a bucket full of water!
In the summer of 1955, Ross Lowe, whose impressive season with Springfield of the AHL had prompted the Rangers to draft him back into the NHL, drowned near Haliburton, Ontario. He had retired prematurely two years before, after failing to stick with either Montreal or Boston. But after being second in league scoring, and voted as the All Star centre, he relented, and accepted New York’s invitation to join them.
He and a friend had been using a row boat as a diving board, when a gust of wind caught it and it pushed away from them. He started after it, collapsed from exhaustion and sank.
A number of tragic incidents related to water have involved boats. Such was the case with the “Golden Jet”, Bobby Hull. In 1960, he bought a summer place on the Bay of Quinte near Picton, Ontario. He and his wife, Joanne, had been water skiing, and returned to the dock to give family members a ride in his twenty-two-foot power boat. His parents, his grandfather, and a cousin, Carol Cook, climbed aboard ready for a spin. But when he restarted the engine, it blew up. Joanne was blown onto the dock, and his dad knocked overboard. The latter was a swimmer, as was Miss Cook. But he was forced to haul his grandfather and his mother to safety. She spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from burns caused by the explosion.
In June 1962, the Detroit Red Wings almost lost their opportunity to see how winger Larry Jeffrey would fare in the big time. Following his rookie campaign in the motor city, he was enjoying the off-season near Goderich, Ontario. He and two friends, one a young lady, had rented a 15-foot boat for water skiing. About a mile from shore their craft capsized when it was hit by a huge wave from the break wall. All three went down with the boat.
His buddy couldn’t swim, so Larry gave him the only life preserver and sent him to shore. For what seemed forever he and the girl hung onto pieces of the boat, much of the time treading water—and followed their friend shoreward. After making it to terra firma his friend started searching for help. It was an hour and a half before another boat finally rescued them. The young lady spent 30 hours recovering in the hospital. Jeffrey told reporters that he had ordered an outboard for himself—but after that experience he promptly cancelled it.
Eddie Shack continually got into hot water with referees and the NHL’s disciplinarians. But in the 1969 off season he found himself in trouble in cold water, when he tangled with the propeller of a motor boat. While details are sketchy, Ed Fitkin’s Footloose column in the Hockey News reported that the boisterous winger was run over by a motorboat, and “suffered zebra-like lacerations on his right leg”.
Strangely enough, water accidents are not limited to the summer season. On December 2, 2008 former NHL’er, Pit Martin, plunged into the icy waters of Lake Kanasuta near Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, when his snowmobile hit a patch of thin ice. Martin lived on an island in the lake and commuted to shore by boat in the summer and by snow machine in the winter. The former Masterton Trophy winner was 64.
The most recent instance of a hockey personality drowning took place in July of this year. On the 16th, about 6 a.m. in the morning, former NHL netminder, Ray Emery went for an early morning dip near Hamilton, Ontario. He jumped off a boat—but didn’t resurface. Emergency crews were summoned to search the water, but didn’t find his body until 2:30 in the afternoon. He had guarded the goal crease for four different clubs: Ottawa, Philadelphia, Anaheim, and Chicago.
Happily, all these tragedies by water have positive counterparts, most of which may be classed as the “pleasures”—at least lighthearted incidents.
One of the first examples takes us back to what has fondly been termed “the Gashouse Gang” era—the early to mid 1930’s. The Toronto Maple Leafs, featuring “King” Clancy, “Hap” Day, Joe Primeau, Charlie Conacher, et al, were known for their outlandish shenanigans. While in Boston, involved in the playoffs against the Bruins, the hotel in which the team was staying had a pool. Day and Conacher had cooked up a gag, wherein “Hap” would jump in the pool with all his clothes on. The catch was that “Red” Horner, a partner in crime, was taking tickets to see the performance—at $1. a head. As promised, decked out in suit, tie, bowler hat, and even carrying his case, the frivolous defenseman plunged into the drink.
A decade later, Ab Demarco was traded from New York to the Bruins. During that 1943-44 campaign, his team also found itself with access to an indoor pool. The Beantown trainer had gone along with the team to enjoy some aquatic fun, and, in the course of time, he bet the North Bay native that he could swim underwater further than him. Ab agreed, and the contest was on. The pair dove in, with half cheering Demarco on, and the other half urging Oscar on. After a few feet the big defenseman climbed out of the water, ran 30 feet, and jumped back in. When Oscar surfaced, he was amazed to discover that his opponent had not surfaced yet! Finally he appeared, fresh as a daisy.
Trainer Oscar refused to admit defeat and bet a ten spot that the next try would prove to be in his favour. Once more Ab exited the water and stood by to watch what took place. The over-zealous attendant stayed under water too long—and when he finally came up for air, he was so weak he sank again—and had to be rescued!
When “Punch” Imlach was coaching the Quebec Aces in the 1950’s he had to put up with the bragging of one of his troop, who claimed he was the best in ANY sport. As the team made its way through La Belle Province, they moved along the Soulanges Canal on Highway 2. Seeing the water, he began to boast about his swimming abilities. Having heard about enough, defenseman Joe Crozier piped up: “You couldn’t even swim that canal!”
Ignoring the chilly November weather, he immediately countered that “he bet he could!” The response was enough opposition bets amounting to about $50. Imlach ordered the bus driver to stop at the next bridge. And, without hesitation, the braggart dove into the drink. It was so cold that he swam for his life. When he reached the other side, he appeared stark naked, because his underwear had come off en route. Almost frozen, he was shaking like a leaf. But they stopped at the first restaurant and got him thawed out.
Ab McDonald won four Stanley Cups in a row—the first three with Montreal, and the fourth with the Blackhawks in 1961. During the first year in Chicago, at age 25, he determined that he was going to learn to swim. He was joined by goalie Glenn Hall, five years older, who, like the big winger, had never had the opportunity to imitate fish in the water. They arranged for lessons at the Lagranda Gym, where many of the team went to play basketball etc. between games.
When their mates saw these grown men, especially McDonald at 6’ 3”, standing gingerly in the shallow end of the pool, they were given the raspberry in no uncertain terms!
Toronto’s Jim McKenny, who manned the blueline for the Leafs from 1966 through 1978, was a master of the quick quip. Once, when asked if he was going to be the team’s “policeman” that year, he snapped back: “No just the metre maid!”
He was also the unofficial Maple Leaf swimming champion. Late in the ’72-’73 schedule the squad met at an Oakland, California, pool for their morning aquatics. George Ferguson, knowing of Howie’s reputation, challenged him to a race. But it really didn’t amount to much. There was a log in the water, and Ferguson dove right into it, leaving McKenny to skirt the obstacle and win easily.
Mike “Shakey” Walton was, to put it mildly, a nonconformist! He was in and out of trouble with management regardless of the team for which he played. In 1976 he sought to become a modern-day “Hap” Day. Once, the Minnesota Fighting Saints were waiting in their equipment overlooking a pool in the facility where they used the ice for practice. Suddenly, Walton appeared in the pool area, and, minus his skates, jumped in the water with all his gear on. It soaked up the moisture so quickly he had trouble getting back to the surface!
Dwight L. Moody once said: “As long as the boat is in the water, all is well. It’s when the water gets in the boat that the trouble starts!” And, it’s also the case with pucksters and H2O. It can either be a case of peril or pleasure!
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