Monday, December 20, 2010

The Great Howie Morenz

Great Athletes

 “I don't think from end to end I ever saw a guy like Morenz. He was small, stocky, with the most powerful legs you've ever seen. He'd make rush after rush - at least 20 a game—and it never mattered how hard he got hit.” 

 —Hector “Toe” Blake, who played with and against Morenz,
and was later the coach of The Montreal Canadiens 
& Hockey Hall of Famer

“(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.”

Eddie Shore, player for the Boston Bruins  (1926-40)
and Hockey Hall Of Famer

Howie Morenz, “The Mitchell Meteor” (1902-1937): Centre of the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL from 1923 to 1934 and again from 1936 to 1937, circa 1936-37. 
Photo Credit: Montreal Canadiens

I mentioned in a previous post that when I was a youngster I was a great fan of sports, both as a player with average abilities and as a  follower of the professional teams. In Montreal, at that time we had three professional sports teams: the Alouettes (football), the Expos (baseball) and the Canadiens (hockey).

Of the three, hockey and the Canadiens was the regional religion, and people lived and died with the fortunes of the Montreal Canadians. I and my friends numbered among the many thousands of faithful.

Thankfully, for the adherents, the Canadiens, (or Habs, the shortened nickname of the team) built a dynasty and won 24 Stanley Cup championship games—the most of any hockey team. With such an impressive record, the Club is not only considered a hockey dynasty but a professional sports dynasty.

The Montreal hockey dynasty rivals the New York Yankees, which have won 27 World Series baseball championships; the Boston Celtics, which have won 17 NBA basketball championships; and Manchester United (England), which has won a record 11 FA Cups in soccer (football). All such teams carry with them a storied history and great sense of accomplishment. Great coaching and great players make champions.

That being the case, many great players have proudly worn the Montreal Canadiens jersey: Guy Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Jacques Plant, Ken Dryden and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrien, to name a few of the Hall Of Famers the team has produced. Another Hall of Fame inductee is Howie Morenz, a name synonymous both with professional hockey and tragedy. (My friend, Jack, reminded me of this great player a few days ago.).

Howie Morenz was one of professional hockey's first superstars. Morenz was born in small town Canada, in Mitchell, Ontario, on June 21, 1902. He played chiefly for the The Canadiens between 1923 and 1937. Standing only 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Morenz played centre alongside Aurèle Joliat and Bill Boucher. He was a scoring sensation and a goaltender's nightmare, says The Montreal Canadiens official site:

No hockey player’s star ever shone brighter than that of Howie Morenz. Known as both “The Stratford Streak” and “The Mitchell Meteor”, Morenz was the NHL’s first true superstar, carving out a reputation as one of the best to ever play the game. His 14-year career began reluctantly and ended suddenly, sadly and prematurely.

Happy in small town Ontario and not thrilled by the prospect of life in the big city, Morenz was courted by both Montreal and Toronto, eventually signing with the Habs. Bursting onto the scene to start the 1923-24 season, he quickly became one of the fledgling NHL’s top scorers. Morenz’s speed, skill and manoeuvrability lifted hometown fans out of their seats. They rose to cheer on their new favorite player as he began one of his trademark rushes up the ice that almost invariably ended with the puck behind the opposition’s goaltender.
Morenz won the Hart Trophy–awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player– three times: in 1928, 1930 and 1931, which has not been duplicated by any other Canadiens player. He also finished atop the scoring race twice, peaking with an unbelievable 40 goals in 44 games during the 1929-30 campaign, in which the team won the Stanley Cup. Morenz's name is etched on three Stanley Cups.

Howie Morenz in Hospital: As D'Arcy Jenish reports in The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory (2008): "Though there were many visitors, Morenz often found himself alone in the hospital room, unable to move off his bed. To pass the time, he read newspapers to stay up to date with the Canadiens as they finished the season. Since his injury, the team had dropped in the standings, causing Morenz to worry. He began to think he would never play hockey again and became depressed."

But tragedy struck on January 28, 1937, when The Canadiens were playing the Chicago Black Hawks at the Montreal Forum, says Wikipedia:
In the first period, Morenz went after the puck in the Chicago end while being chased by Black Hawks defenceman Earl Seibert. Morenz lost his balance and fell to the ice, crashing into the boards and catching his left skate in the wooden siding. Seibert, unable to stop, landed on him with full force. The resulting impact snapped Morenz's left leg, creating a noise heard throughout the rink.[34] Helped to the Canadiens bench by his teammates, Morenz was taken to Hôpital St-Luc, where it was found that his leg was fractured in four places [3].

While in hospital, Morenz, his leg in traction, received many get-well cards, visits from his team-mates and players from opposing teams. Morenz spent his time reading the sports pages, following the fortunes of his team, which were doing poorly without his presence.

On March 8, Morenz began complaining of chest pains, which doctors attributed to a heart attack. Mary Morenz, his wife; and Cecil Hart, the team's head coach, were called to the hospital around 11:30 pm. But before they could arrive, Morenz had collapsed on the floor while trying to get to the washroom. Morenz died minutes before his wife and coach arrived. The official cause of death was a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot, resulting from the original leg fracture, which stopped his heart. He was 34.

As is reported on The Canadiens site, his death was given all the honours due a legend. The funeral was broadcast all across Canada on radio.Thousands of fans lined the funeral cortege as Morenz's body was transported to Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal for final burial.
He lay in state at the Forum while thousands of devoted admirers filed in to pay their last respects to the NHL’s most spectacular player. A benefit game that pitted stars from around the league against a squad made up of representatives from the Canadiens and the Maroons, Montreal’s other NHL team, raised $20,000 dollars to benefit the Morenz family.
More honours followed. His No. 7 sweater was retired forever in 1937, the first player among the Canadiens greats to have his sweather placed in the rafters of the Forum. When the Hockey Hall of Fame was opened in 1945, Howie Morenz was among its first 12 inductees.

In 1950 the Canadian Press named Morenz the best ice hockey player of the first half of the twentieth century. And In 1998, he was ranked 15th on the List of 100 Greatest Hockey Players by The Hockey News.

In a interesting note, Morenz's daughter, Marlene, in 1952, married Bernie Geoffrion, who played for both the Canadiens and the New York Rangers from 1950 to 1968. Their son, Howie's grandson, Dan Geoffrion, would briefly play for the Canadiens in the 1979-80 NHL season.

The memory of Howie Morenz lives on.

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