It’s a Tough Game

SPRAGUE CLEGHORN December 15 1934

It’s a Tough Game

SPRAGUE CLEGHORN December 15 1934

It’s a Tough Game



ONE THING that young players with a yen for the applause and the money that goes with a professional hockey career do not always fully understand is that, once they have set their names to a contract, they don't belong to themselves any more. They are club property, just as the sticks and sweaters and boots and skates are club property. They can be sold or traded, or loaned or optioned; and if they don’t like it, their only alternative is to quit hockey entirely. Never can they remain in professional hockey and pick their jobs.

That sounds like a squawk, but it isn’t. There has to be a system. Likely the present system is the best the hockey magnates have been able to put together so far. The point I am trying to make is that it comes often as a shock to the young, inexperienced player just breaking in, who signs a contract to play for a club in Toronto or Montreal and thinks he is going to play in Toronto or Montreal, to suddenly find himself playing in Providence, Rhode Island, or New Haven, Connecticut; or if he wants to play for Boston to discover that he has to turn out for Quebec.

It couldn’t verywell be different. The Big Time clubs have to have reserves and they have to have player limits; but it might be easier for the kids if they thoroughly understood that the percentage of new players who make good in the National Hockey League in their first professional season is very, very small. Some high-strung youngsters have been set back for months because in their overconfidence they failed to appreciate the vast difference between the professional and the amateur games. Shunted into a strange city on a minor loop, they have curled up and sulked. The worst handicap any club can have is a sulky player.

Something of the sort came close to happening to me at the beginning of the 1911-12 hockey season. After Alf Smith made me a defense man, in spite of myself, with

Renfrew, I was feeling pretty cocky. The newspapers were telling the world that I was good, the Renfrew' fans patted me on the back—although when I was trying to be a forward they had called me nasty names—the Renfrew directors were complimentary to both Odie and myself. We had made good in our first season as professional hockey play'ers.

Then, after the Renfrew backers had examined their balance sheet, things looked different. The enterprise had no justification from the business standpoint since its inception. The club was $5,(XX) behind on the season, and individual directors had spent as much again out of their own pockets to give the boys a good time. For one winter at any rate, the O’Briens and their associates had put the creamery town on the big-league hockey map. It had been good fun while it lasted, but there didn’t seem to be any sense in throwing away another $5,000 w-ith no earthly chance of getting any of it back. Renfrewwithdrew from the National Hockey Association, and w-ent back to the Ottawa Valley League. The franchise w'as returned to the N.H.A. along with the players.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Percy Quinn, a brother of Emmett Quinn, president of the National group, had ambitions to organize a professional club. He gathered some friends about him, obtained a franchise from the N.H.A. and began to assemble his team.

At a league meeting the Renfrew players were doled out to the other clubs. Nothing was said to the players about this distribution. They were dealt from the pack, and Sprague Cleghom was turned over to Toronto. Odie was given to Sam Lichtenhein, who had recently acquired the Wanderers of Montreal from Jimmy Strachan and his associates.

The arrangement didn’t please me. Not that I have anything against Toronto. Certainly I liad nothing against Percy Quinn. But Montreal is my home town, my family

wanted me there, and above all my brother would be playing for Wanderers. We had never been separated during our brief hockey career except for one season when we were Intermediate amateurs, and I did not relish the notion of having to slam Odie around in the tough pro game. Or, for that matter, of having Odie slam me around.

Had that deal been made today, chances are I could have done nothing about it. As a matter of fact, some years later we did play on opposite sides in the National Hockey League, and neither gave nor asked for quarter; but we were younger then and not so hard-boiled.

The National Hockey Association was by no means as rigidly controlled an organization as is the National HockeyLeague. Things could be wangled. I went to see Sam Lichtenhein.

Sam said: “I'd like to have you, Sprague. Maybe we can fix this. You leave it to me.”

He fixed it. Toronto took Pud Glass, an older and more experienced player than I was, and I went to Wanderers with Odie. I took the same salary I had received from Renfrew, when I might have held out for a few hundred dollars more from Toronto and got it; but I was satisfied. That started the brother act that went steadily forward with Wanderers for six straight seasons.

And what a team that was ! We never won a championship, although we did get into play-offs, and we spoiled other clubs’ title chances often enough; but we sure had fun. I’ve never seen a club, amateur or professional, before or since that time quite as dizzy as that Wanderer outfit.

Nobody knew what we were going to do next. One night we’d beat Ottawa in Ottawa by nine to two or some such unreasonable score. A few evenings later, Ottawa would bust us wide open on our own ice by the same margin or a larger one. It was the same with Canadiens, Toronto and Quebec. We earned our reputation as the wildest in-and-out team in the National Hockey Association.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have the players. Both Odie and myself were going strong, although I think we played better hockey in later years. Art Ross, Ernie Russell, Jack Marshall, Harry Hyland, Gordie Roberts, Art Bernier, Art Boyes and Cadotte were on that Wanderer payroll at various times, together w'ith others just as smart—and just as tough; but, w'ith one or two exceptions, we simply didn’t take this hockey business seriously. Just a bunch of playboys playing games.

A Unique Hockey Magnate

"DOR A LOT of this spirit President Lichtenhein himsell was responsible. Sam Lichtenhein, I think, has been one of the most misunderstood men in hockey. Many people have thought him stingy. Actually he is one of the most generous of men—but he insists on being generous in his own way. He would fight like a tiger bereaved of her cubs in league meetings for his rights, and once his mind was made up as to the amount of salary he was going to pay any one of his players, that was the salary he paid and not a dollar more. Yet he would organize parties for the boys at which champagne would flow from the water taps, buy them expensive clothes, jewellery, hats, anything else they might take a fancy to.

He had accounts in every swanky haberdashery in Montreal. When he met one of his players on the street, it would be:

“Come along with me, I’m going to buy you something,” and he’d drag you into the nearest men’s shop.

Continued on page 54

It’s a Tough Game

Continued from page 18

"Pick out some neckties."

"But, Mr. Lichtenhein, I don't want any neckties. I’ve already got more neckties than I know what to do with.”

"I said, ‘pick out some neckties.’ Who’s your boss, anyway?”

And always he’d insist on buying the most expensive line of neckties on display.

His parties were famous not only among the hockey men, but in the summer among the baseball people, too, for he owned the Montreal International League franchise at that period. Then, after having had the boys out half the night, he’d scold them the following evening for not giving him their best. He hated to lose, and if Wanderers had turned in a bad game he’d storm up and down the dressing room, waving the goldheaded cane he always carried—some people wisecracked that he took it to bed with him —and shout:

“Listen to me. You bums aren’t observing training rules. You know you’re not. Now, I’ll have no more of that nonsense. I’ll fine every man on the team who isn’t under blankets by eleven o’clock every night!”

Next week he’d gather a bunch of the boys together and plan another party.

Sam was a fussy dresser himself. The late Murray Williams, who used to write baseball for the Montreal Star in a humorous vein that nobody has been able to duplicate, was always poking fun at his fancy “weskits. ” The striped and spotted and checked vest was stylish in those days. Sam Lichtenhein must have owned two or three hundred of them. He rarely wore the same one more than once in a month. Both Odie and myself have something of a reputation around Montreal for noisy clothes. I guess we caught the fever from Sam.

Six Goalkeepers

TN THAT exciting period there is one game A —or rather one series—I’ll never forget. Wanderers finished second to Quebec in 1914, but we started the 1915 season like Cavalcade in a race for selling platers. We galloped into a big lead, then laid back and had fun until Ottawa caught us and passed us. At the end of the schedule we were tied for first place, and the N.H.A.

■ ordered a two-game series, most goals to ! count, to settle it.

We blew the works in the first game, and lost by four to nothing. Four goals is quite a handicap in that sort of a series, but not so serious a one under the old rules as it would be today. Scores of eight, nine or ten to one or two were not uncommon even between well-matched teams. A lot depended on the breaks. There were no blue lines, the offside rule was easier on the forwards, and the defensive system in front of the goalkeeper was nothing like as airtight as it is in the present game.

So, when we went to Ottawa for the second and final contest, although we were four goals behind we weren’t downhearted. Every man was in perfect physical condition, and we knew just what we had to do. We planned to blaze in on the Ottawa nets from the first whistle until we had got those four goals back, and keep right on blazing until we had at least a two-goal lead. We’d beaten Ottawa plenty of times before. There seemed no good reason why we couldn't do it again.

That was one blaze that never caught fire. We were playing the six-man game introduced from the Pacific Coast league a couple of seasons previously, and when we hurled our first attack against Percy Lesueur every man on the Ottawa team was down there in front of the nets shoving us around. They never came out. Wanderers played against six goalkeepers that night.

In the third period Harry Hyland found what must have been the only open space offered a Wanderer forward during the entire game and snapped one in. A minute

or two later I took a poke in the ribs that knocked me cold, and I was on the rubbing table with a doctor feeling my bumps when the game ended. The boys trooped in.

"Did we get any more goals?” I asked.

"Not a one,” they told me. "But we beat ’em, one to nothing.”

That was my first big experience with the packed defense of the kitty-bar-the-door type. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now.

The Growth of Hockey

T^\NE THING that gives me a lot of satisfaction as I look back on my years of professional hockey experience is the fact that I came along with the game through all its early misadventures until it became a part of the great siiort organization it is today. Hockey executives and hockey players had a lot to contend with in those early years. The old National Hockey Association could never be .sure from season to season what clubs would be in and what would be out when the time came for drafting next year’s schedule. Ottawa and Canadiens were the only two clubs that stuck to the ship throughout; and now Ottawa’s gone, leaving Canadiens the oldest professional hockey organization in the world, continuously in operation since its formation.

Toronto never seemed to get settled in professional hockey until after the present club was created. In the National Hockey Association, we had Toronto, Toronto Tecumsehs and Toronto Shamrocks at various stages. Quebec was in one year and out the next. That colorful gentleman, Sam Lichtenhein, quit at the start of the 1917-18 season. You couldn’t blame him. The old Montreal Arena burned to the ground and Wanderers were without a home. He had spent a barrel of money on the club, and it had never returned him a championship. The only ice space available was the old Jubilee Rink, and to play Wanderer games at the Jubilee was to pocket a loss before the season opened. It was located in the east end of the city, far away from Wanderer territory, and its utmost seating accommodation was 2,000 people. All the percentage was against Sam. The only sensible thing he could do was to throw in his cards.

It was no fault of mine that I was not right in the middle of all this Wanderers’ grief, but as a matter of fact I was on the sidelines watching. They made me captain in 1916, and we started out in good style with a useful stack of wins in a row. Then one night in Montreal when we were playing Toronto, Ken Randall handed me a stiff body check along the boards. The play was fair enough, but it was heavy, and we both came down together. I crashed feet first into the fence, and when they picked me up I had a badly splintered ankle. My cheek was gashed open by one of Randall’s skates, too, but that didn’t bother me. Anybody can play hockey with his face stitched up, but,

if you can’t walk, how in heck are you going to skate?

That fracture healed slowly, but by next winter I was around with the boys for the early practices, testing out the wobbly pin, sure I was coming back as good as ever. Ho-hum. I was walking along the street one icy night, slipped on the sidewalk, and the doctor didn’t have to tell me that my other leg had gone.

Well, it seemed then as though all the bad luck I had been able to duck all those years had caught up at last. They had been calling me "Iron Man” and a sixty-minute player. Right then I felt more like glass than iron, and I couldn’t imagine it likely that I’d ever be able to play competitive hockey for as much as sixty seconds, after this second smash.

For the second winter in succession, I looked at my hockey from the other side of the fence. It so happened that during that season of 1917-18 the Cleghorn family was completely out of the hockey picture, since Odie joined the Royal Air Force in ’seventeen, and, although they stopped the war when they heard he was in it, he did not get back into hockey until the start of the 1919 festivities.

Broken Legs Are Best

rT'HERE WERE plenty of people besides

A myself who figured that Sprague Cleghorn was through. Even after the second break had knitted and I was getting the idea into my head that maybe I could stage a comeback, the wise men of the game went around shaking their heads when such a suggestion was put into words.

My old boss, Sam Lichtenhein, was gone, and the Wanderers hockey club had gone with him; so, naturally enough, I turned to George Kennedy, owner of the Canadiens, the only Montreal team left in the National Hockey League, which had been organized with Frank Calder as president to succeed the National Hockey Association in 1917.

George Kennedy was considerable of a playboy himself, but in his sports promotions, on the ice or off it, he was all business —quite a different type from Sam Lichtenhein. Kennedy couldn’t see me at all. He told me, and quoted examples to prove it, that no man with two broken legs, however well they might have healed for ordinary purposes, could ever be worth real money to a hockey team.

It sounded reasonable enough at that; but I was just dumb stubborn enough not to believe it. After several weeks of argument on the subject Kennedy at last made me an offer of $1,000 for the season, take it or leave it.

“It’s too big a gamble, Sprague,” Kennedy told me. “I can’t afford to carry any cripples.”

I’ll admit I was mad. I thought my experience alone ought to be worth more than that sum, which represented a smaller salary than I had ever taken in professional hockey. So I hopped on a train and went to Ottawa. When I came back I had a contract in my pocket to play for the Senators in 1918-19, for a lot more money than George Kennedy had offered.

Perhaps it was because I was keen to show Kennedy he was wrong. Perhaps it was just that I still had a lot of hockey in me and it had to come out. I don’t know; but I was with Ottawa for three seasons and in two of those seasons Ottawa won the world’s championship.

I had to break both legs to get on a championship team for the first time in my career.

Note: This is the third of four articles by Sprague Cleghorn and Frederick Edwards, telling the story of Sprague’s spectacular hockey career. The final article will appear in the next issue of Maclean’s Magazine.