Didier (Cannonball) Pitre, first Canadiens player ever signed, reminds of the Flying Frenchmen who are no more

0didiermug.jpgCanadiens legend Didier Pitre
Courtesy legendsofhockey.net

The Canadiens lost their 2007-08 home opener at the Bell Centre Saturday night, dropping a 3-1 game with an effort far outclassed by the visiting Carolina Hurricanes.

It was on Jan. 5, 1910 that the newborn Canadiens of the pre-NHL National Hockey Association played their first game in franchise history, a 7-6 overtime win over the Cobalt Silver Kings on the natural ice of Montreal’s Jubilee Rink.

Didier (Cannonball) Pitre, Jean Baptiste (Jack) Laviolette and Édouard (Newsy) Lalonde were on on the ice for the Canadiens that night, a trio soon to be nicknamed the Flying Frenchmen by sportswriters. On Saturday, it was very clear that the Flying Frenchmen concept is one that is gone in Montreal.

So from Monday’s Gazette, let’s revisit Cannonball Pitre, the first man to sign a playing contract with the Canadiens, and that first historic game that changed Montreal forever.

0didier.jpgDidier (Cannonball) Pitre, one of the Canadiens’ original Flying Frenchmen, in a 1920s photograph.
Rice Studios

Despite a last-place 2-10 first season in pre-NHL professional hockey, Didier Pitre, Jack Laviolette and Newsy Lalonde would lead the Canadiens to the 1915-16 Stanley Cup, the club’s first of 24

The Gazette

They were five in the lineup Saturday night – Steve Bégin, Francis Bouillon, Patrice Brisebois, Mathieu Dandenault and Guillaume Latendresse. Five francophones skating in the Montreal Canadiens’ 2007-08 home opener, though a group long removed from the club’s storied Flying Frenchmen.

Nearly a century ago, this was the label perfectly worn by Didier (Cannonball) Pitre, the first Canadien in franchise history to sign a playing contract.

Pitre starred in the club’s first game, a 7-6 overtime win over the Cobalt Silver Kings at Montreal’s natural-ice Jubilee Rink on Jan. 5, 1910.

With Jean Baptiste (Jack) Laviolette and Édouard (Newsy) Lalonde, he was one of the club’s original Flying Frenchmen, so nicknamed by sportswriters, a defenceman turned forward whose speed belied his bulk in fledgling seven-a-side pro hockey.

Pitre was Bernie Geoffrion decades before the Boomer – his heavy, loud shot, reflected in his nickname, was romantically said to move the end boards.

Coveted by both the newborn Canadiens, who had been granted a National Hockey Association franchise a month earlier, and the Montreal Nationals, of the rival, infant Canadian Hockey Association, Pitre hedged his bets: he signed with both clubs.

The Canadiens had been established to provide Montreal with a French-Canadian team, among the anglos’ Shamrocks, Wanderers and Victorias, and Pitre would be a prize catch.

In the book Hockey: A People’s History, author Michael McKinley relates how Canadiens coach/manager/player Laviolette aimed to sign Pitre, who surely would become a club cornerstone and a popular star with a French population ready for players who shared their tongue.

Laviolette had the inside track. In 1904 he had creatively spirited Pitre out of a Montreal Nationals’ Federal Amateur Hockey League deal to join him in Michigan, where they would earn a princely $100 per week in the International pro league.

“There was a race for a man during the last 48 hours,” reported the Montreal Daily Star on Dec. 13, 1909, its story headlined “Race By Train.”

Pitre was bound for Montreal by rail, and both Laviolette and the Nationals boss set off to intercept him. The latter won the race, signing Pitre for $1,100.

But Pitre inked Laviolette’s contract, too, for $600 more. The dispute landed him in a Montreal court, where he argued successfully for free agency well before its time – even with duelling contracts in his vest pocket.

The native of Valleyfield, Que., claimed “there are many others in the city who are able to occupy the position of cover point.”

Magistrate Bruneau agreed. He left the selection of woollen uniform up to the player, who chose the Canadiens.

(The CHA folded almost before it broke a sweat; the Nationals lost their four games, then closed shop after inexplicably refusing an offer to assume control of the Canadiens.)

Pitre’s new team roared out to a 4-0 lead at Jubilee Rink on opening night, in the first of the Canadiens’ 5,861 regular-season NHA and NHL games to date.

Cobalt rallied for six unanswered goals. But Montreal scrapped back to tie, and Laviolette netted the winner at 5:35 of overtime.

Together, Pitre and Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1915-16, the team’s first of 24. Pitre had four goals in five playoff games, bagging a hat trick against the Pacific Coast league’s Portland Rosebuds, well earning his $238 Cup-winner’s share.

He scored 219 times in 255 games through 13 seasons with the Canadiens of the NHA and, from 1917, the NHL. That included a career-high 30 in just 20 games in 1914-15, nearly half his team’s total output, when shifted from defence to forward.

With 200 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame, 40 or so more than the day’s average player, Pitre was mostly a gentle giant, spending only 84 minutes in an NHL penalty box through 127 games.

One incident, described in the book Ultimate Hockey, had Canadiens manager George Kennedy livid at Pitre’s shrugging off a butt-end attack by Montreal Wanderers’ Gordie Roberts, in fact a McGill-graduated doctor.

“How can I hit him back?” Pitre pleaded. “Roberts is very polite. Each time I fall, he helps me get back up and apologizes, saying it was an accident. Can I hit a man who is apologizing to me? No, never. It is not done.”

Generously paid, his $3,000 peak salary as much as six times the average hockey wage, Pitre returned much of his earnings in fines for breaking training, his weight a constant burr in management’s saddle. Instead of water at intermission, he replenished lost fluid by drinking a pint of champagne.

He was 50 when he died of acute indigestion in 1934, and in 1963 was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Canadiens’ first-game 7-6 victory over Cobalt was a highlight in a three-month season of very few, the club winning two and losing 10 in 1910 to finish last in the seven-team league.

But everything seemed possible on a magical night at Jubilee Rink. The face of sports in this town was changed forever by Cannonball Pitre and his fellow Flying Frenchmen, a concept that was history and nothing more at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.


A Newsy Lalonde hockey card, by Imperial Tobacco, and a Rice Studio portrait of Jack Laviolette.

The Montreal Star’s game report of the Canadiens’ franchise-first game and home opener, played Jan. 5, 1910 at Jubilee Rink, began with this single-sentence paragraph:

“Five thousand men and women and young people, goading the players by voice and cheers, derisive yells and tumultuous and overwhelming encomiums, precisely as did other people (long since dust and ashes) their young athletes for the sake of strength and beauty; fourteen young men battling for victory with as much passion and eagerness as was ever expressed in war; a tension painful in its acuteness; a struggle which took every ounce of power and endurance, every atom of skill, out of as athletic a set of fellows as could be imagined; an enormous expectancy which communicated itself to every soul in the Jubilee Rink and which became, as the struggle progressed, well-nigh intolerable – this was the match, this the hockey, these the conditions which marked the initial contest between the Canadiens and the Cobalts and which resulted in a victory for the Canadiens by 7 goals to 6.”

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