History Lessons: Howie

I always wonder what Leo Dandurand must have thought when the crying started. This was the 1920s, after all, when gender roles were still fairly restrictive and the spectrum of male social expression ran pretty much from ‘enraged’ to ‘stoical’. And anyway, it’s hockey. There is no crying in hockey. And yet here he is, the managing owner of the Canadiens, sitting in his office, staring across his desk at the single most promising prospect of the young century, who is sobbing and blubbering into his handkerchief.

I have no idea what Dandurand was thinking then, but I’m pretty sure it was not complimentary.

Howie Morenz didn’t want to play hockey. That was why he’d come to Montreal; that’s why he broke down in tears: he wanted out. A Canadiens scout had seen him play in Stratford and seen what everyone else had seen, that the boy was talented beyond talent, faster than anyone in the game then, faster possibly than anyone had ever been. He was that rarest of creatures, the natural hockey prodigy. Unfortunately, his great dream was to become a railroad engineer.

It had been hard for Dandurand to convince him to sign with the Habs, but not that hard. Howie was bad with money and already $800 in debt, a phenomenal sum for a twenty-year-old in 1922. Over his father’s objections, he’d signed the contract, mostly for the $1000 signing bonus that had been offered on the spot. But later that summer he changed his mind, and sent the checks and the contract back to Montreal with a note saying that he was very sorry, but he simply didn’t want to play professional hockey, and would Mr. Dandurand please be sportsmanlike and let him out of the deal?

Now, in 1922 no owner ever let any player out of a contract for anything save injury, incompetence or death, so of course Dandurand said no. Howie came to Montreal begging, weeping, saying, please don’t make me play pro hockey, and Dandurand said, kid, you don’t play for me, you’ll never play again for anyone, professional or amateur, your whole life long, and Howie gave in. He showed up at training camp with all his worldly goods in a box and skates so battered it was a wonder he could stand in them, resigned to his fate.

His fate, as it turned out, was to center the first line, score sixteen points in twenty-four regular season games, lead the team in playoff scoring, and win the Stanley Cup in his first season.

Howie didn’t have a ‘transition’ to the NHL. He was great from the beginning and rapidly got greater. By the late 1920s, he invariably led the Canadiens in points and sometimes the League, winning the scoring title (subsequently to be called the Art Ross) twice and the Hart three times. He was the only player to score more than 50 points before the introduction of the forward pass, and in 1933, he took over the record for most goals in the history of the League to date.

But the thing that people seemed to find so compelling about Morenz wasn’t so much the results as the process. He didn’t look like a hockey star; he barely even looked like an athlete. Photos of him- and these are promotional photos, mind you, meant to capture the Canadiens at their best- show a short, awkward man with a receding hairline, hunched shoulders, and an uncomfortable expression. On the ice, he routinely drifted out of position, disappearing entirely out of the play and then abruptly bursting up the middle at top speed, one net to the other. In an era where the typical hockey player was a brawling, trash-talking, punch-throwing, stick-swinging pile of machismo, Howie was cool and detached. His opponents talk about his play having a dream-like quality, something vague and faraway, as though he didn’t even see them. In an era where hockey was largely defined by players running into or running over each other, he just seemed to go through defensemen, a phantom forward there and then gone. When they speak of him, Clancy or Shore or Joliat, the tone isn’t so much one of admiration as sheer bafflement, and the recurring theme is I don’t know how he…. He did great things, yes, but he did them oddly, in a way no one else could quite define or replicate. It was Howie’s style, rather than his achievements, that made him a superstar. It was his style that sold Charles Adams of Boston and Tex Rickard of New York on the idea of founding the first American NHL franchises. And it was, I think, his style that ultimately destroyed him.

He took a terrible pounding from hockey. All that oblivious rushing, all those quick sidesteps around the defense, when it worked it was a beautiful thing but there were plenty of times it didn’t, and these weren’t the sort of defensemen that slowed down an attacker with good gap control. When they came for him they came hard, with two-handers to the head and the back of the knees, hooks around the ankles and the elbows, cross checks to the back, punches in the face. They brutalized him, and it made no matter how many fights his teammates fought or how many times the bench was cleared, the strategic calculus never changed: he was the man to stop, and there were no clean ways to stop him. Howie got beaten up twenty rushes a game, forty games a year, for fifteen years.

He beat himself up too. Off the ice he was nervous and restless, a bad sleeper who’d spend whole nights wandering the streets of Montreal. He drank heavily, both to celebrate victories and while stewing over losses, and although he made decent money for a hockey player of the time, he seems to have piled up debts faster than earnings. No matter how high his star climbed in the League, no matter how many accolades piled up, Howie never seems to have been happy in the game.

It wore him down, the hundreds of injuries big and small, never fully healed, the drinking, the stress. His play dropped off suddenly and dramatically: In 1932 he was the League MVP; by 1934 he was a has-been. His speed vanished, his scoring touch dulled, the fans at the Forum began to boo whenever he touched the puck, and the trade rumors began. He vowed, desperately, that he would quit hockey rather than accept a trade out of Montreal. They traded him anyway. The night before he left for Chicago, the team threw him a going-away party at a Montreal nightclub, two hundred people talking about how much he had done for the franchise and how deeply he’d be missed. Howie sat there blank and silent, chewing his lip nervously and drinking to the sudden death of his stardom.

He spent a season and a half exiled in America before the Canadiens, struggling hard and feeling nostalgic, brought him back. His play revived a little, and for the last four months of 1936, Howie seemed briefly, genuinely happy to be playing hockey.

Then, on January 28, 1937, he went into the boards with Earl Siebart, a Hawks defenseman. His skate caught, and his leg shattered, four distinct fractures through the bone. They say that even in the cheap seats you could hear Howie breaking. They carried him to the dressing room in tears and panic, and thence to the hospital, where they set the leg and strung it up on pulleys. Then began the waiting, to see if it would heal, and how.

Howie didn’t take well to the hospital. He had a lot of company during the days but spent his nights alone and immobile, a hard thing for an inherently restless man. He drank constantly, beer with friends, whisky in solitude. Sometimes visitors would find him consumed with wild enthusiasm and spinning stories of his eventual triumphant return to hockey; others times he’d weep heavily and predict his death in dull tones. He had a nervous breakdown in his bed. His doctor ordered him confined to a straightjacket and forbade further visitors. On March 8th, six weeks after the original injury, he tried to get out of bed and had a heart attack. He died, alone, on the floor. He was 34.

It’s an awful story, and not just because it ends in death. It’s awful because of the stark contrast between the expectation and the reality. He won everything hockey players aspire to win: the Cups and the trophies, the fame and renown, the adoring fans and worshipful press, the stunned opponents and loving teammates. He was the muse of the first wave of American expansion, the first real superstar of hockey, the unquestioned miracle of the Golden Age. He inspired not just respect but awe. Howie should have had a glorious life.

And yet he didn’t. Howie’s problem was that he didn’t just get the accolades, he got everything there is to get from hockey: all of its blessings, all of its plagues. In between the triumphs and victories and hardware were constant forces of coercion, control, and manipulation, struggles with alcohol and money, injury and pain. Howie never truly flourished in hockey, but rather struggled through it all, the meteoric rise and the precipitous collapse, the rhapsodic cheers and the merciless boos. He cried and wandered and drank his way through a stunning career, buoyed by a mysterious gift that nobody- himself least of all- really understood.

There are other guys from the Golden Age who came to define our modern notion of what a hockey player is, the Eddie Shores and King Clancys, rough violent men with colorful personalities, guys who played the game in a blustery, fractious way, huge. They had their own troubles, for sure, but they skated headlong into their drama, grinning maniacally. They fought their way through hockey. They didn’t cry.

Howie Morenz represents different things, more difficult things. He’s the patron saint of the misfit players, the ones who have the talent but not the disposition, the one’s who’ve never quite been comfortable in the culture, the ones who left the game broken and damaged and full of regrets. He’s the god on the altar of the reluctant goons, the inconsistent scorers, the gifted busts, the head cases, everyone who never got quite what they were supposed to get from hockey. He’s the grim fairy tale, the one you’d never tell to children but sometimes adults need to hear, when one must acknowledge that sometimes life is hard and then it’s over and that’s all.

Howie.

He was the greatest hockey star of his generation.

His career began in tears and ended in a straightjacket.

Then he died.

The end.

Sources: Putting a Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport to Spectacle, by Michael McKinley; The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory, by D’arcy Jenish.