I was reading Brian Thiel’s article “Chris Pronger: A Lame Duck Suspension” (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/13165) when it occurred to me that we toss around the labels “superstar” and “phenom” a little too easily.
What does it mean to be a superstar in the NHL? Obviously, there are objective standards, statistics and awards and whatnot, but what about the subjective? What is it that makes us call a player a superstar?
In the 1920s (the “Golden Age of Sport”) there was Howie Morenz. Morenz was a back-checking forward born in Mitchell, Ontario. He played hockey from an early age and was one of the top players in Mitchell. Even at an early age he was known for his speed.
It was only after his family moved to Stratford, Ontario that Morenz really became a star player. He benefited greatly from the organized, high-level amateur play. They dubbed him the “Stratford Streak” and he once scored nine goals in one game.
Naturally, the professional teams heard about this and became interested in the forward from Stratford. Supposedly he received offers from Toronto, Saskatoon and Victoria, but he decided to sign with the Montreal Canadiens.
He had second thoughts about this and sent back the signing bonus with an apology and a request that the team tear up the contract. General Manager Leo Dandurand threatened to blackball Morenz as well as sue for breach of contract.
Despite his initial reluctance to leave Stratford, Morenz settled into Montreal and in return, Montreal loved him. He led the team to a Stanley Cup his rookie year and over the next 10 years, he continued to thrill the Montreal fans with his speed and ability.
In the 1924-25 season he scored 28 goals in 30 games. In both the 1927-28 and 1930-31 seasons he led the league in scoring and for seven years he was the leading scorer on his team. In 1930 and 1931 Morenz helped lead the Canadiens to two more Stanley Cups.
In an era where forward passes were illegal, Morenz played furious end to end hockey and never hesitated to use his body. “He was the best. He could stop on a dime and leave you nine cents change. He was in a class by himself. And when he couldn’t skate around you, he’d go right over you,” said frequent Morenz opponent King Clancy.
Unfortunately, Morenz’s aggressive style caught up with his body in the 1930s. During a low-scoring 1933-34 season, the Montreal fans began booing Morenz. This bothered him greatly and reportedly he went to Leo Dandurand’s office in tears.
He was traded to Chicago along with Lorne Chabot and Marty Burke in exchange for Lionel Conacher, Roger Jenkins, and Leroy Goldsworthy. Although the Blackhawks were second in the American Division that year, they lost. The 1935-36 season was another unproductive one for Morenz, which resulted in him being first benched, then traded to the Rangers.
Meanwhile, the Montreal Canadiens were struggling badly in 1935. New owner Ernest Savard wanted Cecil Hart to manage and coach the team. Hart refused unless they brought Morenz back. Savard agreed and once more a Canadien, Morenz was starting to look like his old self, scoring four goals and 16 assists between December and January of that season.
On January 28, 1937 Morenz’s career ended when he was tripped along the boards and somehow his skate got trapped in the boards. Chicago defenseman Earl Siebert accidentally fell on Morenz. His left leg and ankle were broken in four places.
At first, his recovery went nicely. However, after a steady stream of visitors, Morenz suffered a breakdown and visitors were restricted to family and Hart.
On March 8, 1937, the team physician, Dr. J.A. Hector Forgues, took x-rays of Morenz’s leg and discovered blood clots. He scheduled surgery for the next day. It was too late. Morenz died that night at the age of 34.
His funeral was held at center ice in a packed Forum and broadcast all over Canada. He was an inaugural member of the Hall of Fame in 1945 and 60 years after his death he was ranked 15th on the list of all-time greatest hockey players. Most, if not all, of the experts that voted for him had never seen him play.
Morenz had played 14 seasons, accumulating 270 goals, 197 assists, 3 MVPS, two scoring championships and 3 Stanley Cups. When Boston was debating a hockey team, his play in an exhibition game there caused Charles F. Adams to apply for the Boston franchise. When Tex Rickard saw Morenz play, he got Big Bill Dwyer to get the New York team and insisted that the Canadiens be their first opponent. Wherever Morenz played there was a full house cheering him on.
His number, 7, was the first Montreal retired. It was retired on November 2, 1937.
His daughter was married to Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and when Geoffrion’s number was retired on the night of his death, the team lowered Morenz’s banner halfway to the ice as Geoffrion’s was raised. Once the two banners reached each other, they were then raised together.
Perhaps the awe of Morenz in action was best summed up by another hockey great, Eddie Shore: “(Morenz) had a heart that was unsurpassed in athletic history and no one ever came close to him in the colour department. After you watched Howie you wanted to see him often, and as much as I liked to play hockey, I often thought I would have counted it a full evening had I been able to sit in the stands and watch the Morenz maneuvers. Such an inclination never occurred to me about other stars."
And that makes me wonder, how many of us now can honestly say that? Granted, we have been witness to Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Rocket Richard, and a few others but has there been any player as complete and electrifying as Howie Morenz?
The answer, I think, is no. (To Be Continued)