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In the March 8, 1946 issue of the Globe & Mail a vintage yarn was revived and enjoyed especially by hockey’s old guard. Jack Laviolette was a key member of the original Montreal Canadiens in 1909-10. One of his favourite moves was to round the net behind his own goalie, gathering speed for his forays up the ice. During the summer he sought thrills in motorcycle racing. Eventually it cost him dearly — he lost a leg in a tragic accident. He was fitted with an artificial limb, and, as far as he was concerned, he was ready to lace on the blades again.
However, the Habs’ General Manager, George Kennedy, felt that he was just not able to keep up the pace under those circumstances, and talked him into retiring. With tongue in cheek, his official announcement stated that it wasn’t that he would no longer be a benefit to the team, he was afraid the leg might fly off and hit someone in the crowd!
That is one kind of fabulous fable. It is so obviously a fabrication that the ready response to it would be an enjoyable belly laugh. But there is another kind: stories from the world of pro hockey which have been passed along as fact, but are actually fiction — or at least truth bent badly out of shape. Few, if any, were intended to be outright fibs; but over time they have either evolved far beyond any original reality, or historians have failed in sufficient examination of them.
Innovations have been part of hockey as long as it has been played. The evolution of player’s equipment over the years is one of the prime examples. But one piece of regalia which received more than its share of publicity was the leg pads worn by goaltenders.
On Valentine’s Day in 1896, the Winnipeg Victorias journeyed to Montreal to challenge the eastern septet of the same name for the right to become Stanley Cup champions. It is said that excited fans were just as taken with the fact that the Manitoba twine tender skated to his crease wearing white cricket pads on his legs, as they were with the anticipation of the match itself. As a result of the highly-publicized innovation, “Whitey” Merritt was acclaimed to be the first goalie to wear protection of that nature.
However, this writer has in his possession two photos; one of the Toronto Granite Club’s team in 1892; and the other of the 1895 Peterborough, Ontario’s OHA Junior Championship club. In both cases their backstops were sporting cricket pads on their legs.
Dateline March 1905. The Stanley Cup was still a challenge trophy. If Lord Stanley’s trustees deemed the request to compete from any creditable team in Canada was worth considering, the confrontation was arranged.
One of the most celebrated series took place that spring with the Rat Portage (Kenora) contingent ready to take on the mighty Ottawa Silver Seven, current championship holders.
The nation’s capital crew were well aware that this small town troop was more than country hicks biting off more than they could chew. They were especially recognized as fast skaters—and part of the reason was their use of the new “tube” skates, with narrow “runners”.
In game one, the visitors sped past the formidable rearguards in regular fashion, outscoring their hosts 9-3. As a result of that, a popular legend was born. A rumour was hatched that in order to slow these speed merchants to a manageable pace; the ice was salted causing those narrower blades to cut into the frozen surface and hinder their progress.
D.A.L. MacDonald, Sports Editor of the Montreal Gazette, ferreted out the facts, and in an editorial in 1935 maintained that the accusation was false. However, previous to the second match, they did sprinkle the ice, making it softer, and creating problems for both teams. The real hurdle came when the rink keeper was nowhere to be found after the first half, the time when he was expected to sweep the ice surface. That tipped the skates in favour of the more plodding Ottawas, and they squeaked out a win — and eventually the national honour.
The legend about Fred “Cyclone” Taylor scoring a goal while skating backwards is one of the most prevalent in the annals of Canada’s National Sport. Back in 1910, when M.J. O’Brien sought to form an aggregation of superstars to “buy” a Stanley Cup, he persuaded Taylor leave the Ottawa Senators to join his Renfrew “Millionaires”, at $5,260 for a 12-game season. His desertion had the Capital city fans in uproar already, but their fury only increased by a light-hearted remark by the capable forward in the office of the Ottawa Citizen. He joked that he could skate through the Ottawa defense backwards to score.
When he first appeared on the Senator’s ice for the first time he was showered with lemons and other debris. The host icemen won 8-5 and Taylor didn’t even get a shot on net. However, during the return match he was purported to have made good on his threat.
Although the story made for titillating reading, during two interviews, one with Frank Orr in 1974, and another with Stan Fischler in 1976 he affirmed: “No! I never did score a goal skating backwards. I know there are a lot of elderly people in Ontario today (including former Major Charlotte Whitten) who swear they saw it happen. But it’s just one of those stories that got blown up!”
While it is hardly of earth-shaking significance, the use of lights to indicate a goal having been scored also falls into the category of failure to give credit where credit is due. Following the opening contest of the 1919-20 NHL campaign, the Montreal Star commented: “The new goal lights (of the NHL) were quite an attraction…..”
However, on January 14, 1911, the Peterborough Examiner included this little tid bit on their sports page that day: “That Trenton (Ontario) Coliseum is some building…more like a barn than anything else….they have a novel way to signal a goal being scored. They have a button attached to a bulb which is over the goal umpire’s box. The red light comes on when the puck goes in!”
Perhaps, in this case, it is appropriate to recall M.T. Tupper’s famous quip: “Despise not small things”. Trenton’s population that year was 3,988 as compared to metropolitan Ottawa’s size—123,417.
Frank and Lester Patrick have been rightly credited with several innovations, which improved the fastest game in the world. Included in those credits is introducing numbers on the backs of players’ sweaters. However, almost a full year before the founding of their Pacific Coast Hockey Association, the Winnipeg Telegram’s January 11, 1911 issue reported: “Spectators at the Kenora-W.A.A.A. game Monday found a new system of numbering players of great convenience……every man had his number, while in a little programme distributed gratis at the doors, he was properly classified and his position given!”
During World War II, at the commencement of the 1942-43 campaign, the NHL had lost no less than 90 of its players to the armed services, either regular or reserve. There was actually some doubt whether or not big league hockey could survive for the duration of the conflict. With some teams especially, innovations were necessary to enable them to be reasonably competitive. The most crucial was the stocking of rosters. Bringing up underage skaters; persevering with veterans who were past their prime; and even resorting to amateur replacements was necessary.
But on the ice, improvisations were also evident. During the 1940-41 season the Red Wings utilized the “dump and chase” approach to attacking. They would loft the puck into the opposition zone, while all five skaters would pour into the defensive zone, forechecking the opposition, attempting to force them to cough up the disc. This appeared to make up for the scarcity of competitors able to carry the puck into the opponent’s end. Several reviewers of the game’s history speak of the Red Wings introducing this tactic. Actually they just “reinvented the wheel”.
In February of 1938, one of the headline stories making the rounds focused on what was tagged “Tommy Gorman’s latest wrinkle”. As it turn out it was this very “dump and chase” ploy credited to the wartime Motor City Six. His forwards would simply shoot the puck before crossing the blueline, then move in to retrieve it. His philosophy was that it protected the playmakers and forced the defending rearguards to chase after the old boot heel instead of hitting the incoming centres or wingers — because they couldn’t do both.
Fans would eventually call the system “hooligan hockey”. But what is ironical is that Dick Irvin Sr.,who was anything but complimentary in tagging it “pitching horseshoes” , was using it regularly by 1940, previous to Detroit’s alleged introduction of the format.
If there is one tale which is more tantalizing than others, it is the much-publicized emergency use of Alfie Moore on April 5, 1938. Classified as the league’s “sub-goalie”, he had spent the bulk of the ’37-’38 season with Pittsburgh, Toronto’s farm team in the International American Hockey League (which became the AHL). The minor league season completed, he was back home in the Queen City contemplating his hockey future.
That night was the first of a best-of-five Stanley Cup series between the Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks. Mike Karakas, the Windy City’s regular cage cop had suffered a broken toe, and was unable to don the big pads for that match. The Leafs’ Conn Smythe refused the visitors permission to use the Rangers’ Dave Kerr, but consented to loan them Moore.
The saga which has found its way into many publications in the ensuing years, features the journeyman backstop discovered in his favourite pub, then taken to a secret room in Maple Leaf Gardens, waiting for President Frank Calder to rule on Smythe’s offer. Given the nod, he performed on-ice heroics, allowing only one marker in a 3-1 Chicago victory! His services were no longer required, but he was paid $300 for his contribution.
In 1962 Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star squashed the myth of Moore’s dramatic conscription. Alfie denied that he had been drinking anywhere. Rather, when he came home at suppertime there was a message that he should go to the arena because he might be needed to play that evening. In a separate interview with Ken McKenzie of the Hockey News, he added that Manager Frank Selke Sr. had actually phoned and caught him at home — but that the message was essentially the same. In the middle of the squabble over his eligibility, he wanted no part of the hassle. Still, if he were to play, he told the Toronto C.E.O “he would beat the Leafs, even if he had to eat the puck!”
What happened on the ice was rightly reported. But he claimed it was Chicago’s Publicist, Joe Farrell, who embellished the recruitment procedure to make it sound more interesting.
Prior to the 1947-48 NHL season, the league’s Montreal office prepared a press release. The gist of it was this: “NHL fans attending games this year might be puzzled by the on-ice antics of the men in white — referees and linesmen — in designating an offside of an iced puck. One of President Campbell’s innovations in officiating was a series of signals for stopping certain plays, or the reason for not bringing action to a halt. The four basic ones – “intentional off-side, slow whistle, icing the puck, and not icing the puck — are designed to keep players, officials, and spectators instantly informed of all decisions on the ice…..”
This has long been referred to as the initial use of such information relayed from the ice surface to those observing the game.
However, on December 29, 1939, when the Bruins hosted the Blackhawks, the referee that night used hand signals to indicate, for instance, the kind of penalty assessed, previous to the announcement over the public address system. According to the Montreal Gazette the whistle-tooter that night was Norman Lamport. Apparently he practiced this new wrinkle of his own volition, and indeed was the only official who did so at the time. Columnist Mac McNeil praised him for the originality of this adaptation, and added: “It would not be hard to arrange a code of signals with a key to it in programmes!” Monsieur Lamport scooped Mr. Campbell and his cronies on this score by almost a decade.
It has long been held that goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis was the first to use a first baseman’s glove on his catching hand. It was viewed as such a departure from the norm in 1947-48 that protests were sent to President Campbell: “Francis new toy belongs on the baseball diamond, not on the ice!” But the circuit’s C.E.O. could find no rule against it and the modification was given approval. One historian put it this way: “And so the ‘catcher’ or the ‘trapper’ was born.
But in reality, Chicago’s Mike Karakas led the way 10 years before ‘The Cat” even played the game competitively. Harold McNamara, an old time puckster turned journalist, in a February 1936 editorial, wrote of hearing veteran netminder Lorne Chabot commenting on the young Windy City goalie’s catching mitt. To summarize, he looked on it as something strange.
A personal letter to this writer from Mike’s brother Thomas, also a goalie, confirmed that indeed “Iron Mike” was the first to utilize this type of goaltender’s gauntlet.
It is said there are three main parts to success in life: wishbone, backbone, and funnybone.
The three main elements in hockey are: skates, puck, and sticks.
There are a number of embellishments involving the latter; which have come to be viewed as truth and nothing but the truth.
In 1962, during a Chicago Blackhawks practice, Stan Mikita’s stick blade was partially broken, resulting in it looking like a hook. The story is well rehearsed. It caused the puck to do funny things when used to shoot — and it eventually became the norm for pucksters from pee wee to pro. But ”Jolly Jack” Adams, who was a skilled player in the game’s vintage years, and who became better known as an NHL coach and general manager, recalls an earlier deviation. Back in the 1920’s, Cy Denneny, flashy forward for the Ottawa Senators, and league scoring champion, utilized the “banana blade”. His contemporaries said that it looked like a scimitar. In fact he was known around the circuit for his ability to curve his shot with the bent lumber.
The other myth related to shinny shillelaghs was revisited on March 11, 2006. On that day, a CBS News headline announced: “Inventor of the slapshot dies!” It was, of course, Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion’s death notice. The hard shooting Canadiens’ winger has been normally credited with this tactic. The fact of the matter is, he only popularized it — but did not invent it. Several references are made about this method of propelling the puck before the Boomer made it the “in thing”.
In fact, at least two giant steps backward hold sway in this chronicle. In 1992 the Hockey News featured an interview with Alex Shibicky, who skated with the Rangers from 1936 through 1946. He admitted that it was Bun Cook’s use of the slapper in practice that gave him the idea to hone his skills with this adaptation. Cook hesitated to utilize it in game situations; but Shibicky did not.As a result, he was the team’s leading goal scorer. “Geoffrion was still learning to skate when Alex was firing bullets past NHL goalies”, the article said.
However, even that piece slipped up in its accuracy. The slick centre soon became famous for his howitzer. But to tag him as the “inventor of the famous shot” is also misleading. As far as the NHL is concerned, at least, a retreat to 1929 comes closer to the truth.
In January of 1941, Archie Wilcox, former NHL player and referee, made this comment to the press corps in the Mount Royal city: “Modern players know nothing about scoring. When they get ten feet from the net why don’t they use the bat shot instead of deking the goalie. There hasn’t been a slap shot artist since Armand Mondou…..”
In 1938, Marc T. McNeil penned a feature on that Canadiens’ forward: “Armond Mondou — Master of the Slapshot!” There are historians who claim that a black skater, a member of the Halifax Eurekas, was observed using this antic in the late 1800’s. Perhaps we will never know who was the very first.
Family Feud has been called TV’s hottest game show. If 21 continuous seasons is any indication of that claim, then it must be a creditable boast. If we were to believe the popular press, there was also a family feud in hockey circles commencing in January 1990. That’s when the Washington Capitals fired their coach, Bryan Murray, and replaced him with his brother Terry. Now if it were not for the fact that the latter was the bench boss of the D.C.’s farm club, it would have been a perfect example of leading with one’s chin. Talk about rubbing it in!
And, even though the immediate sports news made it clear that it had not caused any strain between the siblings, the rumour mill was well oiled and running smoothly. It didn’t take long for the brothers to be portrayed as being at odds; and their wives were not on speaking terms either.
After nine months of this media mania, in late October, Bryan openly condemned the gossip which had been festering during that time.
“Bryan Murray admits he’s still miffed over constant media suggestions that his wife and brother Terry’s wife are at odds over Terry replacing Bryan as coach of the Washington Capitals last season. ‘An Ottawa reporter started the rumour by telling our parents that we weren’t friends. (But) the wives get along very well and so do Terry and I’’
There have been other instances of reports which were iffy – often involving who did what first. And, for the most part, it has been of a case affirming the late Milt Dunnell’s conclusion: “Nothing does so much for a story as the passing of time!” In Canada’s National Sport many of them have become hockey’s fabulous fables! So the “sky isn’t falling after all”, Henny Penny!
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