He played hockey decades before Wayne Gretzky. This flashy, five-foot-nine center who could skate like the wind went by several rather catchy nicknames: “The Babe Ruth of Hockey”…“The Stratford Streak”… “The Mitchell Meteor”… and “The Canadian Comet.” Wearing Number 7 on his uniform, he was so fast that an opposing goaltender once said that his number appeared more like 777 because he was a blur going past the net. Toronto Maple Leaf great King Clancy remembered him in another way: “He could stop on a dime and leave you nine cents change.” During the “The Golden Age of Sports” in the “Roaring Twenties,” his talents put NHL hockey on the map, especially in the United States after the league had expanded to New York, Detroit, Chicago and Boston. He put butts in the seats with tremendous box-office appeal and was the first of hockey’s true superstars.
His name: Howie Morenz.
Morenz was born September 21, 1902 in Mitchell, Ontario, and played his junior and senior in nearby Stratford. Scouted simultaneously by the NHL Montreal Canadiens and Toronto St Pats and two teams in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, he eventually signed with Montreal on September 30, 1923 for a reported three-year contract worth $3,500 per season, plus a $1,000 bonus, an excellent rookie salary at the time. Making his pro debut that December 26, he scored a goal in his first game, a 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators before a record-breaking hometown Ottawa crowd of 8,300 fans. After that, Morenz never looked back.
Well on his way, he played the entire 24-game schedule. He scored 13 goals with 3 assists, back when only one assist was allowed per game. In the first round of the two-game, total-goal playoffs against the Senators, he scored the only goal in the first game on March 8 and added another in a 4-1 win three days later. The NHL champs now in the five-team league, the Canadiens still had to defeat the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion Calgary Tigers to take the Stanley Cup, which they did in two straight games, in an era when the NHL did not have sole possession of the Cup. In the first game, Morenz scored a Hat Trick in a 6-1 victory and another goal in a 3-0 win three days later. This was the Canadiens first Cup since joining the NHL in its inaugural 1917-18 season. And it wouldn’t be their last.
In 1924-25, centering a line with Hall of Famer Aurel Joliat and Billy Boucher, the Canadiens went to the Stanley Cup finals again after beating the Toronto St Pats, but lost out to the Victoria Cougars of the newly-formed Western Canada Hockey League in a best-of-five series by three games to one. Morenz scored seven goals despite the loss.
Over the course of his 14-year NHL career, Morenz’s accomplishments were many. He was a vital part of three Stanley Cup winning teams (two consecutively), all with the Habs. For seven straight seasons, he led his team in goals and points. Named league MVP three out of four years, he was also an All-Star three times. Morenz would’ve won more All-Star tributes had the voting been a part of the game in his first six years with the Habs.
In 1927-28, in a 44-game schedule, he was the first player to net 50 points in a season, finishing with 51, of which 33 were goals. Three seasons later, he duplicated his 51 points: his second scoring title. In 1929-30, he was the first to score 40 goals. In a game against the New York Americans on March 18, 1930, he scored five times. In a game against the Detroit Red Wings on December 23, 1933, he scored his 249th goal, making him the leader in career goals. By then, however, he wasn’t the same player he used to be.
On January 2, 1934, Morenz sustained an ankle injury, tearing ligaments and bruising a bone. Returning to the ice a month later, the unappreciative Habs fans quickly booed their former star who they felt was not playing up to par. Going into the playoffs, trade rumors swirled, as the Habs were beaten out in two games by the Chicago Black Hawks who went on to win the Stanley Cup, although Morenz stated to the press that he would not play for any other team but his beloved Canadiens. In October, 1934, the rumors were true. Morenz and goaltender Lorne Chabot were dealt to the Hawks for four players.
In 1934-35, Morenz played the Hawks’ full 48-game schedule, scoring eight goals and assisting on 26 others, a vast improvement over his 21 points the season prior. In the playoffs, Chicago bowed out in two games, with Morenz going pointless. On January 26, 1936, mid-way through his second season away from Montreal, he was traded to the New York Rangers, following a few weeks of his playing time severely cut. For the season, he scored only 21 points in 42 games.
That summer, the Canadiens re-hired coach Cecil Hart, who had last led the Habs in 1931-32, and had won their previous two Stanley Cups. His priority was re-signing Morenz. On September 1, 1936, he arranged a deal to purchase Morenz outright from the Rangers. Reunited in the coming season with Aurel Joliat, Morenz looked like his old self, skating hard, and netting 20 points in his first 30 games, while the Montreal fans cheered his every move. He also helped to lift the Canadiens from a last-place finish the previous season to an instant contender.
Then disaster struck…
In the first period of a game against the Black Hawks in Montreal on January 28, 1937, Morenz and six-foot-three defenseman Earl Seibert went after a puck in the Chicago end. Seibert body checked Morenz who then lost his balance and fell, jamming his left skate into the boards, while Siebert fell on top of him. Morenz’s leg snapped, with a dreadful sound heard throughout the rink. Helped to his bench, Morenz was quickly rushed to a Montreal hospital where the doctors discovered that his leg was fractured in four places.
While in a hospital bed, Morenz hit a deep state of depression brought on by his believing he would never play hockey again. On March 8, he complained of chest pains, which doctors diagnosed as a possible heart attack. His wife, Mary, and Cecil Hart were summoned to the hospital. But before they arrived, Morenz, while leaving the bed for the washroom, collapsed to the floor and died on the spot. He was only 34.
The funeral was held at a jammed Montreal Forum on March 11, 1937. With the casket at center ice, over 50,000 fans filed past to pay their last respects to the player who many believed had died of a broken heart. “It’s just terrible,” Cecil Hart said to the press. “I can’t talk about it. I have known and loved him since I first signed him to a Canadiens contract in 1922.” Aurel Joliat added: “No one can ever take his place with us.”
The Canadiens honored their comrade by retiring his Number 7 jersey--the first Canadien jersey so honored--during a ceremony held on November 2, 1937. Five days later, a benefit game between the Montreal Canadiens and Montreal Maroons was played that raised $20,000 for the Morenz family.
The Montreal fans never forgave Seibert and booed him for the next several years at the Forum. “I was the guy who killed him,” Seibert admitted, although he wasn’t penalized on the play. “I didn’t mean to hurt him, but I gave him the body check.” In his defense, the future Hall of Famer and 10-time All-Star, Seibert wasn’t known to be a dirty player.
At the time of his death, Morenz held the all-time NHL point record at 472, with 271 of those goals. In 1945, along with such stars as Charlie Gardiner, Georges Vezina, and Frank McGee, Morenz was one of the first nine inducted into the brand-new Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1950, the Canadian Press voted Morenz the best hockey player of the first half century. In 1998, The Hockey News ranked him 15th on the prestigious list of 100 Greatest Hockey Players.
Morenz’s youngest daughter, Marlene, married Hall of Famer Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, who also played for the Habs, and the Rangers as well. At a ceremony the night of Geoffrion’s death on March 11, 2006, the Canadiens retired his Number 5 jersey. To add to the occasion’s distinction, Morenz’s banner was lowered just as Geoffrion’s banner was being raised. They met half-way, stopped for a brief moment, as if to unite the two families in a fitting gesture, then were raised together into the rafters.
I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the Forum that evening.