A rare newsreel film of 1932 game action between the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs shows some profound differences between NHL play prior to World War II and the game today.
This game seems to have been played on March, 5 1932, as it matches the description of a game written about by Charles L. Coleman in Volume 2 of The Trail of the Stanley Cup, the league’s official history of the period. But the film was not edited and released until 1933. It was narrated by Foster Hewitt, the Leafs radio announcer.
The Canadiens at the time were defending Stanley Cup champions, and they were in a hot race with the Leafs for first place in the four-team Canadian Division (the other two teams were Montreal Maroons and New York Americans) of the eight-team NHL. The Habs would beat back the Toronto challenge to win the Division in 1932 (as well as the Prince of Wales Trophy for finishing first overall and the O’Brien Trophy for having the most points among Canadian NHL teams). Winning the division earned a first-round bye, but they were knocked out in the semi-final round by New York Rangers, who finished atop the American Division (ahead of the Black Hawks, Detroit Falcons — they’d become the Red Wings the following season — and Bruins). The Leafs would eventually win the ’32 Stanley Cup.
Hewitt says the game is between “the two fastest and smartest teams in the National Hockey League.” The goal scorers in the 1-1 tie were Charlie Conacher for Toronto and Howie Morenz for Canadiens. Morenz would be awarded the Hart Trophy at season’s end for the second straight year and would finish third in scoring just behind Conacher’s linemates, Harvey (Busher) Jackson and Joe Primeau. Conacher led the NHL in goals that year with 34, including five in one January game against the New York Americans, a modern record that would stand until 1944.
Here’s the film:
As you can see, both teams are wearing their dark sweaters, but the blue and red would be contrasting to the spectators in Maple Leaf Gardens. It does make it hard to follow in black and white, however. The Leafs had a white sweater for when they’d play the Rangers, since both of those teams had blue as their primary colour. (And if you’re wondering what happened when Canadiens played Detroit, the Falcons’ sweaters were white with red trim.)
The goalie for Canadiens, who Hewitt doesn’t identify, was Hall of Famer George Hainsworth and on the goal he surrenders, it appears he was trying to cut off Conacher’s pass in front from the wing and he misplayed it into his own net. Hainsworth was elected captain of the Habs the following year by his teammates, a one-season break in the tenure of long-time captain Sylvio Mantha.
Morenz, and his linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny (Black Cat) Gagnon, are prominent in the film. Morenz — who doesn’t seem to be wearing his customary Number 7 but rather 5 — shows his speed as he backchecks nicely and cuts off a Leaf attack at the 4:08 mark of the video and, shortly after, stops another Leaf attack in the neutral zone, dishing it off to Gagnon.
With the Habs trailing 1-0 in the third, the film shows Habs defenceman Georges Mantha stopping a 2-on-1 by King Clancy and Hap Day.
A great backcheck by Joliet starts the play for the tying goal which Morenz finishes on a shot from the wing.
There are some very noticeable and obvious differences between this game and today’s. For one, the ice has fewer lines. In fact, only the blue lines seem evident and they are pretty thin. There’s only one face-off dot, in the middle of the rink. Faceoffs are taken with the centres facing the sideboards. There’s much lower fencing on top of the boards than we currently have (there was no plexiglass at the time, so it was likely chain link).
Note how the defencemen rarely stray from their posts and are so often stationary on the ice. Very few defenders were mobile back then — Eddie Shore and Clancy were exceptions, to name the most prominent. And you can see from where they often stand motionless how defencemen got the nickname “blueliners.”
There’s also very little passing compared to a few decades later. Puckcarriers tried to beat defenders one-on-one, which was a factor in why the games were so low scoring. Prior to 1926-27, forward passing was prohibited in the neutral and attacking zones; the puck could only be passed laterally or behind the puckcarrier. This footage is from seven seasons later, however, and it’s obvious that these players are still not head-manning the puck very much and haven’t really adjusted to the new rules.
Nor do we see a great deal of physical play in this game compared to what we see today. There’s lots of standing around, and the shifts were certainly much longer then than they are now. It could be the relative speed of this particular game made body checking less prevalent than it might have been if Shore and the Bruins were the opponent. But late in the game, Morenz tried one of his patented rushes where he’d attempt to hurdle through the tightly bunched defence pair, much as Alex Ovechkin sometimes does today. This time, Morenz is bodied to the ice by Toronto’s Red Horner.
The film was produced by Associated Screen News of Canada, a company owned by Canadian Pacific Railway that produced newsreels, shorts and industrial films from 1920 to 1958. Bernard E. Norrish, former head of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, whose name appears in the opening credits, was the head of ASN. Hewitt was hired to narrate the film.
Why Hewitt? The big Hockey Night in Canada national network was still a few years away, but he was already calling the Leafs games, starting in 1931 over small network of radio stations, which included one in Montreal, the first network broadcasts of NHL action. But the network was not yet called the CBC; at the time, it was at the Canadian National Railway radio network. (In May, 1933, it became the Canadian Radio Broadcast Commission before becoming the CBC in 1935 — and the CRBC was also the regulatory forerunner of the current CRTC.). The Railway connection between the film company and the radio network didn’t hurt his getting the narrator’s job for this film.
This YouTube video was uploaded by Rétro Québec, which uses its channel to, in its words, bring viewers content “not available elsewhere on the Internet.” It was recently posted on Facebook by Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum in Boston. Richard is a huge hockey fan who has a great regard for the game, its roots in Montreal and the history of the Canadiens.