One of the many ways “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe (1928-2016) was honored during his astounding 33-season on-ice professional career is with the Hart Trophy (since 1961 given as the Hart Memorial Trophy).
The award, which Howe won half a dozen times, is awarded each year to the one player in the league who the hockey writers feel contributed most during the regular season to his team – the greatest solo contribution measured in what is undeniably a great team sport.
Most skaters who win the honor do so once. A few great ones – Jean Béliveau, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and several others – have won it two or three times. And then there is what is so far an elite pair – two super-superstars who have won the Hart so often it’s tempting to at least think about renaming the trophy after one or both of them.
Wayne Gretsky won the Hart 9 times in nearly consecutive seasons for his contributions first to the Edmonton Oilers and then to the Los Angeles Kings, and Howe collected 6 wins, all with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Given the subtitle of this blog – “The battles we fight, the wars we wage” – you might wonder how all this relates to a battle, or a war – but it does, and not just by calling hockey “a battle” (which it can be).
The Hart was first given in the 1923-24 season – the 7th season of the NHL and the last year it was an all-Canadian league. The award went to a center, Frank Nighbor, at the Ottawa Senators. Nighbor was not the top scorer (Cy Denneny was), and his team did not win the Stanley Cup (Montréal did), but his contribution must have persuaded the guys who wrote about the season to honor the work he did.
A decade before Nighbor joined the Senators, the native of Pembroke, Ontario, played on a short-lived team called the Toronto Blue Shirts. The Blue Shirts, also called the Torontos, were formed as a club in 1911 and began playing in the 1912-13 season – the only season Nighbor was on the roster. Also on the 1912-13 roster were several other notable Canadian hockey players:
- Harry Cameron, a defenseman, from Nighbor’s hometown of Pembroke;
- Frank “The Flash” Foyston, a center, of Minesing, Ontario (north of Toronto, on the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron) ;
- Hap Holmes, a goalie, of Aurora, Ontario (between Toronto and Minesing);
- Jack Marshall, who played center and defense in his career, and who was from the shores of the St. Lawrence River, just east of Québec City;
- John Phillip “Jack” Walker, a forward who shot left, of Silver Mountain, Ontario. If Thunder Bay – a Lake Superior hockey player factory – had suburbs when Walker was born in 1888, Silver Mountain was one;
- and Allan McLean “Scotty” Davidson, a right winger, also from Ontario.
Allan McLean Davidson, known as “Scotty,” was born in March 1891 in Kingston, Ontario, descended (as am I) partly from the Genge family of Yeovil, Somerset, England, who had immigrated to Canada by the middle of the 19th century. The Davidsons arrived from Ireland. In 1911, at the age of 20, Scotty was a machinist’s apprentice, who had grown up playing hockey with his neighbors and cousins and had a wicked wrist shot. He was signed in 1912 by the Blue Shirts for their inaugural season, was among the league’s highest scorers that year and the next – scoring 5 goals in one win – and captained the Blue Shirts to their first (and only) Stanley Cup, in 1914.
But World War had broken out that year, and with Canada’s close alliance to Britain – they still both honored King George – Canadian men flocked to recruiting offices. In short order, Scotty – already a Reservist in Kingston – signed up, as did his longtime hockey coach, Kingston native James T. Sutherland (who would return after the war as a captain), along with Scotty’s cousins Arthur Davidson, Harold Smith, and John Holder.
In September, Scotty was installed as a private in “E” Company, 2nd Batallion, Infantry, of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and in early October he headed for England for training. By December, he had been promoted to Lance Corporal. The winter and spring were a series of bitter, famous, and costly battles.
The story of Scotty’s death on June 16, 1915, as it was offered by another Kingston man serving in his regiment, George Richardson, was that the hockey captain died heroically, carrying out dangerous missions against the German foe – he calls them the Huns, in the pejorative slang of the day – until the odds simply caught up with him.
“He crawled up to within a few feet of their trenches and buried bomb after bomb in the midst of the Huns,” Richardson wrote in a letter published months later in the Calgary Herald. “Two of his companions retreated, but Davidson refused to do so until he had gotten rid of his bombs. Finally he was discovered, surrounded and ordered to surrender. Scotty refused and crashed his last hand grenade against the body of a German officer, blowing him to pieces. We found Scotty’s body the next morning, riddled with bullets and jabbed with bayonets, but he had kept his promise, and it was apparent that his death cost the enemy dearly.”
The truth is that the odds actually had caught up with Scotty, in a foreign war that would be remembered for brutality, for intractable trench warfare that promised little or no gain but much loss, for an unprecedented scale of death. But the truth does not support the movie-star bravado Richardson may have felt would give an extra measure of respectability to what was really a loyal man carrying out what he felt was his duty – serving his nation and his king’s empire.
The official account of Allan McLean Davidson’s death, from his military record, now public:
“16 June 1915
“Was instantly killed by a shell which exploded near him in the trench.
“Vicinity of Givenchy”
June 2016 marks the 101st anniversary.
To close the loop in this story – to reach back once more to touch the tale of “Mr. Hockey” Gordy Howe – we travel again to Toronto in 1912-13, to be reminded that Harry Cameron was one of Scotty’s teammates on the Blue Shirts that year.
Well, Cameron also is considered the first NHL player ever to register a peculiar statistical phenomenon known as a Gordy Howe Hat Trick.
To score an ordinary hat trick, a player scores 3 goals within the same game. Empty-netters count, as well, as do any overtime periods. (That happened about 70 times in NHL in the 2015-16 regular season.)
Of course, there are variations – but none is more famous than the Gordy Howe Hat Trick: totally contrived, an odd hybrid of performance and theater. It occurs when a player scores a goal, contributes an assist to someone else’s goal, and gets in a fight with a skater from the other team – all within the same game. (That happened just 7 times in the NHL in 2015-16.)
This unusual designation is named after Howe, we are told, because everyone knows about his ability to score, and about his ability to contribute to goals – and because many people insist he is as well known for his fighting prowess as he was for collecting points around the net.
But thanks to the work of Washington Post Sportswriter Neil Greenberg, we might know better.
Citing authoritative sources (which you can easily trace if you follow this link to Greenberg’s delightful 10 June 2016 Washington Post story on the truth behind the Gordy Howe Hat Trick), Greenberg notes that Howe fought only 22 times in his 33 professional seasons – less often than once a season, on average – and that he can be credited with the very “hat trick” variation named after him only twice, ever, in all those 33 seasons: once in 1953 and once in 1954.
Well, such is the stuff of legend.