Seven decades of hockey history

Any moment now the face of hockey as it has been recognized for nearly 70 years in Toronto will be changed forever. The Maple Leafs are deserting Maple Leaf Gardens, their home since 1931, and moving downtown to glitzy new digs inspirationally called Air Canada Centre (was there a contest?).

Accordingly, memories glide across those seven decades recalling tall moments and low ones. Almost all of the former came during the reign of Conn Smythe, whose energy and determination got the Gardens built, and the coaching tenure of Punch Imlach, who produced four Stanley Cup winners in the 1960s. The disasters of the next quarter century belonged exclusively to Harold E. Ballard, who managed to build a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

Though occasional heroes surfaced during the Ballard years (Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald) the Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since the spring of 1967, haven’t made it even to the final round. Indeed, seven times during the Ballard nightmare they missed the playoffs altogether. So to find a crowning highlight over the seven decades, a bid is made herewith for the longest game ever played in Maple Leaf Gardens.

Before we get to that weird epode, let it be noted that as far as heroes go, the list goes on and on – Busher Jackson, Max Bentley, Teeder Kennedy, Syl Apps, Red Horner, King Clancy, Babe Pratt, Turk Broda. Still, from any list there remains one missing name. It belongs to the most overlooked hero in all of hockey, a record holder who never made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Ever hear about Lorne Chabot?

Lorne Chabot (he pronounced it the French way, Sha-bo, emphasis on the second syllable) was the goaltender for six NHL teams in a 10 year NHL career. He and the longest game go hand in hand back to the spring of 1933 when the Leafs met the Boston Bruins in a playoff semi-final. The game went into a sixth overtime period, closing on three full games.

It went scoreless hour after hour. Shortly past midnight Smythe sent word to Maple Leaf radio announcer Foster Hewitt to inform local listeners they were welcome to come down to the Gardens and see the rest of the game free. So night owls filtered in and out as the game ground on.

Between periods tired players sprawled on the dressing room floor. At 1 a.m. in an ice-level corridor an earnest trio, the two team bosses, Smythe and Art Ross, and league president Frank Calder sought ways to end the ordeal. The simplest solution – postponement until the next night – was unacceptable because the winner had to be in New York the next night to open the Cup final against the Rangers.

So the teams trudged to the ice for a sixth overtime period, and following not quite five minutes, Andy Blair, a lanky moustached centre from Winnipeg, skidded a passout from a corner to little Ken Doraty, from Regina, and he redirected the puck past Calgary’s Tiny Thompson in the Boston cage. The teams had staggered through 164 minutes and 46 seconds, ending the ordeal at 1:23 in the morning.

Through it all Lorne Chabot, a tall lean fellow with bushy black eyebrows wearing a black baseball cap to control a heavy crown of dark hair, had turned away every Bruin puck. Years later Bill Durnan, a goaltender of Chabot’s size and shape, told his agent that overtime games wore especially heavy on goalers: their thick padding grew increasingly sweaty and wet. “A guy can easily add 40 pounds,” Durnan said.

Following the Boston marathon, Chabot was swapped for calm George Hainsworth, the Canadiens goaltender, then he and the immortal Howie Morenz went to Chicago. There, far from washed up, Chabot won the Vezina Trophy and was picked for the 1st All-Star team.

Whereupon the aristocratic Blackhawk owner Major Fredrick McLaughlin, determined to ice an All-American team, allowed Chabot to drift off to the Montreal Maroons so that his Chicago team could employ the American netminder Mike Karakas.

So whom do you think just happened to be in the Maroon cage when the longest NHL game in history was played on March 24, 1936?

Right. Lorne Chabot.

That night, Detroit opened the playoffs in the Montreal Forum and more than six hours later Chabot was standing in yet another goalless duel. Suddenly, Mud Bruneteau of Winnipeg put a quick shot past Chabot after the goaler had added the Forum’s 176 minutes and 30 seconds to his streak of 164 minutes and 46 seconds in Maple Leaf Gardens. Eleven shutout hours on his feet finally terminated. Now that’s a long, tall memory.