This is the eighth in a series of examinations of legends related to Hockey and whether they are true or false. Today we look at the strange history of how a professional wrestling promoter saved the Montreal Canadiens, learn the bizarre story of how out of hand military hockey got during World War II and discover whether angry Edmonton fans really burned Chris Pronger’s furniture.
HOCKEY LEGEND: A professional wrestling promoter ended up securing the Montreal Canadiens’ place in professional hockey history.
Les Canadiens de Montréal (otherwise known as the Montreal Canadiens) are the most successful team in the history of professional hockey. They have won the Stanley Cup a record twenty-four times (twenty-two since the Cup has been awarded to just the winner of the playoffs of the National Hockey League, before that, multiple leagues would compete for the trophy). They are the only original member of the National Hockey League (NHL) that is still playing today and are also the only team that pre-dated the founding of the NHL.
And yet, if it were not for a professional wrestling promoter, they likely never would have lasted five seasons, and we might never have had an NHL!
Read on to discover the amazing role that former professional wrestler George Kennedy played in the existence of Les Canadiens de Montréal and the formation of the NHL!
The Montreal Canadiens (as I’ll be referring to them from here out, just for simplicity’s sake) were formed in 1909 as part of political in-fighting in the Eastern Canada Hockey Association (ECHA), a professional hockey league of the time. You see, P. J. Doran, owner of the Jubilee Rink in Montreal, had just purchased the Montreal Wanderers, one of the teams in the ECHA. Doran, naturally, purchased the Wanderers so that they would become the star attraction of his arena. The other ECHA teams hated this idea, since the Jubilee Rink was much smaller than the Wanderers’ current home, the Montreal Arena and therefore their cut of the gate receipts would be considerably smaller.
So the other owners voted to dissolve the ECHA and form the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA) with three other Montreal teams (one, the Montreal Shamrocks, already existed, plus two new ones, All-Montreal, formed by Wanderers star Art Ross and Montreal Le National, an all-French speaking team) taking the place of the Wanderers (they actually gave the Wanderers a chance to join the new team, but only if they agreed to go back to the Montreal Arena. Doran, as you might imagine, did not agree to those terms).
Meanwhile, Ambrose O’Brien, a silver mining industrialist from Renfrow, Ontario, was in town to petition the ECHA to allow his hometown team, the Renfrew Creamery Kings, to join the ECHA. They turned him down. At that same meeting, though, O’Brien encountered Doran, and the two men agreed to form their own professional league, the National Hockey Association (NHA)! O’Brien owned two small pro teams in Ontario (in the mining towns of Cobalt and Haileybury, respectively) and with the Creamery Kings (it is unclear to me if O”Brien owned the Creamery Kings before 1909 or if he was just working on their behalf – whichever the case may be, by 1909 he was the owner of the team) and the Wanderers, they made up the new league. Doran, though, suggested that the CHA’s idea of a French-speaking team was a good one, and that O’Brien ought to start one so that there could be a strong rivalry in Montreal between the English-speaking Wanderers and the new French-speaking team. O’Brien agreed, and he formed the Montreal Canadiens. Right from the start, O’Brien was not particularly interested in the Canadiens, as he had three other teams to worry about (and he only really cared about the Renfrow team), so after the inaugural NHA season, he wanted to find someone to take the Canadiens off of his hands. He got his wish, but it came under unusual circumstances from a man whose whole life was unusual – George Kennedy.
George Kennedy was born George Washington Kendall in 1881 to an Irish-Catholic mother and a Scottish-Quebec Baptist father. Raised Catholic, Kennedy was also (like many Montreal residents) bi-lingual, speaking English and French. Despite coming from a well to-do family (his father owned a successful manufacturing business), George decided that he was going to be a professional wrestler! Having some sense of how this would look for his family, George took the stage name of George Kennedy, which is the name he would use for the rest of his life.
By the early 20th Century, Kennedy was the top lightweight wrestler in all of Canada. In 1903, he was defeated by Eugène Tremblay. Upon his defeat, he decided to change careers and instead become a wrestling trainer and promoter. His first client? Why, Eugène Tremblay, of course! In 1905, Tremblay won the world lightweight championship over the American George Bothner (naturally, Kennedy made sure that the match was held in Montreal). Using the success he had with Tremblay as a springboard, later in 1905 Kennedy formed (with his good friend, Joseph-Pierre Gadbois, who had been Kennedy’s> trainer) Le Club Athletique Canadien (CAC) where amateur wrestlers could train (soon they added amateur boxers, as well). The bi-lingual Kennedy was well acquainted with the fervor of patriotic French Canadian pride that existed in Montreal, and that is where he geared the CAC’s efforts (when he incorporated the club, most of its shareholders were French-Canadians).
As Kennedy expanded the CAC, he continually looked for new sports to get involved in. By 1908, he was interested in purchasing a hockey team. He tried to buy the Wanderers, but was rebuffed. At the time, Kennedy spoke of having a team that he could gear toward French-Canadians, so you can just imagine his irritation when not only pro one hockey league in 1909 came up with the same idea, but both pro hockey leagues! So by the end of the 1909-10 season, he was bound and determined that one way or another, he was going to own the Montreal Canadiens.
Meanwhile, the CHA was not doing too well. They ended up having to fold before the 1909-10 season even finished. They unsuccessfully tried to get the NHA to merge with them (as you might imagine, trying to get fans to come to five different pro hockey teams in the same city in the same year was not easy to do). Instead, the NHA absorbed two teams from the CHA (Ottawa’s team and the Montreal Shamrocks) into the NHA for the rest of the 1909-10 season, giving the NHA seven teams. O’Brien offered the Canadiens to the CHA’s French-speaking team, Montreal Le National. but they refused to play in the Jubilee Rink, so that deal fell through.
During that same 1909-10 seaso, O’Brien was determined to see Renfrew win the Stanley Cup, and even sent the Canadiens’ best player, Édouard “Newsy” Lalonde, to the Renfrew team (now referred to as the Renfrew Millionaires, due to the amount of money O’Brien was spending on players) to help them win. Instead, despite owning four of the seven teams in the NHA, none of O’Brien’s teams won. Instead, the Montreal Wanderers were the champions of the first NHA season. The Canadiens, by the way, were the worst team in the league, going 2-10. After the 1909-10 season, the Cobalt and Haileybury teams were dropped (even in 1909, cities that small just could not support professional teams).
Here is where things get tricky, and records are disputed. It is agreed that Kennedy, determining that the best way to make sure O’Brien would sell him the Canadiens (with Kennedy not knowing that O’Brien was trying to get rid of the team), sued O’Brien for trademark infringement, claiming that Les Canadiens de Montréal (yes, I know I said I would just call them the Canadiens, but it makes more sense as a possible infringement if I used the official name) infringed on his trademarked Le Club Athletique Canadien.
It is also agreed that Kennedy then did take over as the owner of the Canadiens for the 1910-11 NHA season.
What is disputed is how it happened. History has generally told us that the suit was settled by Kennedy paying O’Brien $7,500 for the rights to the team (O’Brien himself told this version of the story). However, in their brilliant 2002 book, Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey, Morey Holtzman and Joseph Nieforth argue that O’Brien simply said, “Okay, take it, it is yours” when Kennedy sued him, since the Canadiens were losing money for O’Brien and he never wanted the team in the first place. Their position is that the $7,500 figure came not from Kennedy buying the rights to the team, but from buying the rights to Newsy Lalonde, who was now on the Renfrew team (and O’Brien was not going to give him up so easy). From the circumstances of the times, I tend to believe Holtzman and Nieforth.
In any event, Kennedy was now the owner of the Canadiens (who he re-named Club Athletique Canadien, although everyone kept calling them their old name) and the team began to perform better. O’Brien, meanwhile, could no longer afford to stick around in the pro leagues, and he (and Renfrew) exited the NHA after the next season.
Kennedy continued to vary his sporting enterprises, and had a particularly notable 1915-16 season. In 1915, he purchased the rights to distribute the film of the 1915 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship (where Jack Johnson was dethroned). Kennedy had been trying to get boxing legalized in Montreal for years, and in early 1916, after a complaint from Canadian Vigilance Association led to Kennedy having to appear in municipal court, he finally succeeded in officially legalizing the sport in Montreal. He capped it all of by seeing his Montreal Canadiens win their first Stanley Cup in 1916.
However, his expansions also began to stretch his finances (including a professional baseball team), especially when he tried to start a professional lacrosse league, the Dominion Lacrosse Union, including his Montreal Canadiens lacrosse team. Plus, in 1916 the CAC’s home gym burned down. Kennedy regrouped and formed a new streamlined organization, the Canadian Hockey Club Incorporated, which obviously was spotlighting the hockey team, although he continued to promote wrestling and hockey, as well (not so much his other sports – heck, Kennedy once tried to bring bullfighting to Montreal!).
Around this same time, history repeated itself when a bunch of NHA owners had a number of disagreements with the owner of one of the franchises they had added as the league had expanded (in part to replace O’Brien’s departure), Eddie Livingstone’s Toronto franchise. In 1917, led by Kennedy and the owners of the Ottawa and Quebec franchises, the NHA voted to disband and re-form (without Livingstone) as the National Hockey League. They did not intend for it to be a full-time thing (figuring that they would force Livingstone to sell and then the NHA would reform), but that’s exactly what it ended up being, as the NHL is still standing today.
In the second year of the new league, Kennedy’s Canadiens won the NHL championship and were in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals (then played between the winner of the NHL championship and the winner of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) championship) against the PCHA champs, the Seattle Metropolitans. The series was headed into its deciding game when the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920 led to the entire Canadiens team coming down with the flu. Health officials canceled the rest of the series. Four days later, Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall died of the disease. Kennedy never fulled recovered from the flu and died in 1921. His widow sold the team to Montreal businessmen Joseph Cattarinich, Leo Dandurand and Louis A. Letourneau. The Canadiens won their first NHL Stanley Cup in 1924.
And then, you know, about a gazillion more Stanley Cups.
And it can all be tracked back to a professional wrestler from Montreal!
BASEBALL LEGEND: A hockey player was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for trying to switch to another military hockey team during World War II.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
On October 13, 1943, 29-year-old Walter “Turk” Broda was on board a train headed from Ontario to Quebec, specifically to Montreal. During his career in the National Hockey League (NHL), goaltender Broda only played for one team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was for the Maple Leafs that Broda had just recently won the Vezina Tropy (which is given to the goaltender who has been “adjudged to be the best at this position”) in 1941 and was a major part of the Maple Leafs’ 1942 Stanley Cup championship (Broda would go on to win five Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs, with a career playoff won-loss record of 60-39 and a stellar average of 1.98 goals allowed per game). He was one of the best players in the NHL (and still holds pretty much all the notable goaltender records for the Maple Leafs).
Traveling with Broda was a Sergeant Major from Montreal. Before the train reached Montreal, it was halted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP claimed that Broda was trying to breach his draft notice.
The truth behind the matter, however, ultimately led to great public outcry and a dramatic change in how military hockey teams would be treated in Canada during World War II.
On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland, thus effectively starting World War II. Britain and France both declared war on Germany two days later. Now in the past, Canada was beholden to whatever England decided (so they declared war during World War I when England did), as they were a quasi-independent part of the British Empire. By 1939, however, Canada had reached full Sovereign status in the British Commonwealth, so they had control over whether to go to war. They took an extra week, but on September 10, 1939, Canada, too, declared war on Germany (and Italy). At the time of World War II’s outbreak, Canada did not really have much of a military. The Permanent Active Militia, Canada’s full time army, had a mere 4,261 officers and men. Meanwhile, the the Non-Permanent Active Militia (Canada’s reserve force) had 51,000 soldiers (who had received very little training and even less equipment).
In the early days of World War II, Canada did not expand their military in any sizable fashion. They committed just two divisions to the war effort – one for Europe and one for their own defense back home. However, a major event would take place in 1940 that would change things dramatically. You see, before the Canadian division could even reach France to help support the British/French defense of France, the Germans won the Battle of France, successfully invading France. The shocking victory of Germany sent British and French troops scrambling to get out of France so that they could re-group for later battles (this was the famous Operation Dynamo troop evacuation from the shores of Dunkirk, France). This distressing news from May 1940 hit Canada like a ton of bricks. No longer could they run a “Phony War” – they would have to step things up. Canada quickly passed the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA), which provided for the registration of all Canadian citizens and conscription, but only for duty in Canada. People could enlist to go overseas, if they so chose, and a great many Canadians did just that – volunteering for overseas service. But the government still remembered the difficulty that they had drafting Canadians for overseas service in 1917 (French-Canadians rioted over the idea of being drafted to fight in a war to support a monarchy that they could care less about), so the Canadian government decided not to make overseas service a requirement. Initially, training as part of the NRMA would just last a month and then citizens could go back to their everyday lives. Most NHL players got their training done right before the 1940-41 season.
Right before the 1941-42 season began, though, a new wrinkle was thrown into the mix. Government boards started to refuse to allow Canadian hockey players to travel to the United States to play for U.S. hockey teams, under the theory that these were able-bodied men and they should not be playing hockey when they could be serving in the military. As you might imagine, this went over very well from a public relations standpoint, with only a few detractors asking, “Why single out hockey players? Why not ask that question to any Canadian citizen that has not enlisted in the army?” A general low turnout of enlistment in late 1941/early 1942 (particularly after the United States entered the War in December 1941 – Canada joined the U.S. in declaring war on Japan) coupled with the reality that they might have to contribute to a two-front war led to the Canadian government drastically changing their standards regarding conscription. They formed the National Selective Service (NSS) which would be in charge of all enlistment issues. They extended the NRMA and began to make various restrictions on the able-bodied men of Canada (making any single men between the ages of 20-29 eligible for call-up and not allowing men aged 17-45 to perform “non-essential” jobs). In addition, Prime Minister Mackensie King received permission from all Canadian provinces besides Quebec to go back on his promise of “no overseas conscription” if need be, stating famously “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” Overseas enlistment increased dramatically.
Naturally enough, hockey players wished to enlist. However, the owners of the NHL did not wish to see their star players go overseas to actually fight in battles, and indeed, of the many, many NHL stars who enlisted in the military, I do not believe that a single NHL star was killed during military service (heck, I don’t believe any NHL regular player period was killed during military service – only young prospects). Instead, they were often given physical instructor jobs at military training camps, or other non-combat jobs like supply truck drivers. As more and more NHL players enlisted, they also began to play hockey for the military teams. It was here that things began to get a bit out of hand. You see, the idea of having teams for military service is to boost morale among the troops. Here, though, the roster of the squads were beginning to fill up almost entirely with professional hockey players. In addition, these teams were then beginning to compete in amateur competitions against each other. The Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers, for instance, had the complete famed “Kraut Line” from the Boston Bruins – Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer and Milt Schmidt!! Naturally enough, in 1942 the Flyers won the Allan Cup, the award given to the nation’s best senior amateur team (it replaced the Stanley Cup when the Stanley Cup began to be awarded to professional teams). The coach of the New York Rangers, Frank Concher, formed the Ottawa Commandoes, a similar all-star hockey team that won the 1943 Allan Cup.
This was becoming a big business – in fact, Conn Smythe’s Maple Leaf Gardens was the exclusive home to all senior hockey games played in Toronto, most notably being the Toronto Army Daggers, and the profits were not being donated to the war effort (do note, though, that Smythe himself enlisted very early, even though he was in his mid-40s and he actually served overseas in World War II). These amateur games were being taken so seriously that they even had trades between teams! Trades! You see, the rules of amateur hockey have always allowed for military teams to transfer players between teams because, well, obviously military personnel gets transferred sometimes. So this rule was used to enable trades between squads.
This competitiveness came to a head in October, 1943, with the aforementioned Turk Broda. Broda, you see, had enlisted and was assigned to the Royal Canadian Artillery in Toronto. However, he was given an offer to join a Montreal unit and play for the Montreal Army senior team. In return, Broda would be paid $2,400 on top of his military pay. Broda took them up on the offer and was on his way to Montreal when the Mounties took him into custody. Publicly, the Mounties put it out there that Broda was trying to breach his draft notice. This was untrue, as Broda was not eligible for the draft (he was married with three kids). However, he was technically AWOL (absent without leave). The Montreal newspapers wrote that they felt Broda was being brought back to Toronto so that he could play for the Toronto Army Daggers. It is unclear whether that was the actual reason why the Mounties wanted to bring Broda back to Toronto, but it is clear that that was why he was headed to Montreal (even given a Sergeant Major escort!). As you might imagine, this led to great public outcry over the notion of the military teams being used as sort of a “shadow NHL.” The Toronto Army Daggers were ordered to cease competing in amateur competitions, and many other units did the same (and all of them pulled out of the Allan Cup competition – the Allan Cup was actually halted in 1945 period). However, many military units did continue to field hockey teams with professional players, and in 1944 they made the news once again when it was reported that essentially professional hockey players would stay in camp to play on the teams while newly enlisted men would be sent off to fight in Europe.
This was part of the drive to install overseas conscription in Canada that ultimately came to fruition late in 1944 when Prime Minister King sent a one-time levy of 17,000 troops overseas.
Broda, interestingly enough, ended up going overseas himself (although he did not go into combat – he did pretty much the same thing in Europe as he did in Canada, serve as an athletic ringer, playing football and hockey in Canadian military units in Europe) for two years before returning to complete his impressive NHL career (including a second Vezina trophy in 1948).
Thanks to J. Everett Ross’ feature “Arenas of Debate: The Continuance of Professional Hockey in the Second World War” within John Chi-Kit Wong’s Coast to coast: hockey in Canada to the Second World War for most of the information required for this piece!
HOCKEY LEGEND: Angry Edmonton fans burned Chris Pronger’s furniture after he moved away from Edmonton upon being traded.
STATUS: I’m Going with False
Chris Pronger is in his eighteenth season in the National Hockey League, and he is still a very productive player. The six-time All-Star defenseman is such a great player that he actually won the league’s Most Valuable Player award (called the Hart Trophy) in 2000, the first defenseman to win it since 1972!!
“Yeah, there’s obviously a few things that didn’t set well with me, for instance, taking the furniture that I had in my house and burning it, and having a ‘Burn Chris Pronger’s Furniture Day,’ that really did sit well with me very much,” Pronger said. “They burned my kid’s crib and things like that. When you hear stories like that it doesn’t sit well.”
A star player for the Hartford Whalers and the St. Louis Blues, Pronger spent the majority of his career as a star in St. Louis. That was where he won his Hart Trophy. However, following the NHL labor dispute in 2005, a new salary cap system was put into place and the Blues could no longer afford Pronger. So they dealt him to the Edmonton Oilers. After signing a five-year contract with the Oilers, Pronger helped lead the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season with the team, where they lost the series in the seventh game.
Pronger caused some controversy, however, when he asked to be traded after the season ended.
As you might imagine, fans in Edmonton were quite stunned. They get this big star, he signs a long-term deal, he helps them get to the seventh game of the finals and then he demands to be traded?
Edmonton agreed to his trade request, and dealt him to the Anaheim Ducks (where he eventually led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup championship in his first season there, further turning the screws in Oiler fans’ hearts).
Pronger spoke about the reaction of Oiler fans on Jim Rome’s syndicated radio show.
“Yeah, there’s obviously a few things that didn’t set well with me, for instance, taking the furniture that I had in my house and burning it, and having a ‘Burn Chris Pronger’s Furniture Day,’ that really did sit well with me very much. They burned my kid’s crib and things like that. When you hear stories like that it doesn’t sit well.”
While obviously Oiler fans were quite outraged, it does not appear as though they ever actually did what Pronger suggested they did.
According to the furniture rental company that rented Pronger his furniture while in Edmonton, “It never happened. We got it back in immaculate condition.”
There were no reports in Edmonton of any such occurrence. It seems more likely that some local radio host must have made a joke about how they SHOULD do something like that and it made its way back to Pronger as they DID do that.
It does not appear as though it happened, though. It seems clear enough that I’m willing to go with a false here.
Thanks to David Staples of the Edmonton Journal for the information for this piece.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org