Lester Patrick’s 50 Years on Ice

Is hockey as good as it used to be? Did Cyclone Taylor really score goals while skating backward? After five decades in the game the old Grey Fox offers some verdicts—and also some heresies


Lester Patrick’s 50 Years on Ice

Is hockey as good as it used to be? Did Cyclone Taylor really score goals while skating backward? After five decades in the game the old Grey Fox offers some verdicts—and also some heresies


Part One

IT IS curious, when you come to think of it, that the most vivid symbol of Canadian life consists of a game in which 12 overstuffed men on artificial feet use an artificial wooden arm 53 inches long to propel a piece of artificial rubber along a stretch of artificial ice.

Yet Canadians play hockey, talk hockey and dream hockey as naturally as they breathe. Hockey, better than any other thing, expresses Canada. It is, perhaps, our only truly national expression which cuts across language, race, age and distance.

But hockey has become much more than a game. It is a myth. By now the myth has produced its first, mythological figure. His name is Lester Patrick.

As was said by Hilaire Belloc of the French nation, Lester has marched across the world (on skates) only to be sucked back to his original home, having accomplished nothing but an epic. He is home again in Victoria, after 50 years of hockey—a powerful, white-haired and handsome old gentleman of 66 who could pass for 50—and, having accomplished his epic, is amusing himself with his old love—a minor-league hockey team, the Victoria Cougars of the Pacific Coast League.

The epic will not be recounted in detail since most Canadians know it already—the lean, gangling Montreal amateur with a face like an eagle and a body of structural steel who invested the family wealth, hardly short of disaster, in the hockey teams and rinks of the Pacific Coast, played spectacular hockey himself until he was on the edge of 50, managed five world championship clubs, sold his teams just in time to the National League and climaxed his public career managing the New York Rangers.

All the exploits of a figure who was part athlete, part tough businessman and part adventurer have made Lester one of the most famous Canadians of his time. His reputation is largely caricature, for under the public fantasy (which Lester tolerated because it was good business but never liked much) lies in fact an extremely simple Canadian, highly domesticated, God-fearing, studious, businesslike essentially a family man and small-town citizen with a single aberration, a boy’s love of hockey.

What follows is not a profile of Lester but an attempt to distill what he has learned about hockey, and about Canadian life which it reflects since he cut his first crooked stick in the woods and played shinny on the icy sidewalks of Montreal.

After many days of talk, with Patrick leaping across the floor behind an imaginary puck, thrusting an imaginary stick in the listener’s face and scoring imaginary goals from the blue line and after digesting his scrapbooks that weigh 48 pounds, 12 ounces, I can tell you what the man who made that epic thinks of hockey.

He thinks hockey is better today than ever.

To old hockey players and to most Canadians over 40 this statement will come as a shattering heresy. And inevitably, to prove that hockey has become a sissy game, they will retell the legend of Cyclone Taylor, who used to bet that he could score goals skating backward and win his bets every time.

The Truth About Taylor

Lester played with Taylor and thinks him the greatest hockey performer in history, but he saw the original incident from the ice and herewith deflates the legend for the first time:

“In 1909-10 Taylor and I were playing for Renfrew. Taylor had played for the Silver Seven of Ottawa (what a team!) and now he was back in Ottawa to play against his old teammates. He was a modest fellow and still is, and a very fine gentleman, but he liked to joke in those days. And in the old Windsor Hotel, before the game, some sports writers asked him how he expected to get past the Ottawa defense. Taylor laughed—that contagious boy’s laugh of his ’Why,’ he said, 'I can score on those fellows skating backward.’

“Well, of course he didn’t mean it seriously. But on one of his rushes the Ottawa defense stopped him cold and turned him around with his back to the Ottawa goal. He flipped the puck, back-handed. It nosed past the goal tender. I was on the ice and saw the whole thing and we went on playing. But by the time the sports writers had finished with it you’d have thought the Cyclone had deliberately won a bet, and you’d have thought he repeated this performance just about every night afterward. The Cyclone didn’t make the legend. The public did.”

It is staggering and rather sad for a Canadian to hear the truth about Taylor’s famous goal. It is like being told that Laura Secord had no cow, that Sir John A. was a teetotaler. Fortunately no one will believe the truth.

“And in case you’re disappointed,” said Lester, “I’ll tell you something still more amazing that Taylor actually did, and I saw him do it. (Patrick began to demonstrate by skating across the living room floor.) I forget just when it was but I can see the Cyclone now—taking the puck down the entire rink, being forced behind the opposing goal, slipping out with the puck, skating all the way back and around his own goal, and then down the ice all the way again, through the whole opposing team and scoring, without the help of anyone! Skating backward,” said Lester, retreating zig-zag across the room, “was nothing to the Cyclone. He could skate faster backward than almost anyone else could skate frontward. But taking the puck twice down the ice, holding it all the way and finally scoring—that was special, even for him.”

The truth, as Lester sees it, is that there are few if any hockey stars today as good as such immortals as Hod Stuart or Tom Phillips—and few, he might have added but didn’t, as good as Lester Patrick. There is none, he says, as good as Taylor. But the game is better, faster, more scientific and more spectacular.

This is indeed a heresy but Lester is entitled to utter it, for his experience in the actual play of hockey, apart from its management, is unequaled. He played in the East in his teens and twenties and had won a Stanley Cup virtually single-handed, before he moved out to Nelson, B.C., to work in his father’s lumber camps and mills. He returned to the East in the winters to play his first professional hockey and then, tired of such migrations, established with his father, Joseph Patrick, and his brother, Frank, the rinks of Vancouver, Victoria, New Westminster and later Seattle into which the whole Patrick fortune was plunged and almost lost. And all those years, east and west, he was playing hockey himself as one of the greatest defensemen of all time, first because it saved a player’s wages and, second, because he couldn’t live without a hockey stick in his hands.

Comparing modern with ancient hockey, you have to remember, says Lester, that a seven-man team used to play 60 minutes—no substitutions allowed unless a player was knocked out completely—and by the end of the game every player was exhausted. That cut down speed.

Lester himself invented the substitution of an entire forward line in the famous Stanley Cup series of 1925 in Victoria and revolutionized hockey overnight.

“The Canadiens came west and those easterners who came with them in their hard derby hats bet their last dollar that an upstart team in Victoria (Victoria, the city of flowers at Christmas) couldn’t stop them. Who could stop Morenz and Joliat and Boucher? Who could score on the great Vezina? But I knew we’d win because our second forward line would just tire them out, and it did.

“From then on, with three, then four interchangeable teams spelling each other, the game speeded up and it’s immeasurably faster now than ever.

Cutting Down the Whistles

Again, a defenseman’s job in the old days was to get the puck and hurl it up to the other end of the rink. When Lester stopped off at Brandon in the fall of 1903 and was persuaded to play hockey there—working in a laundry all day—he was expected to stay where he belonged, on the defensive as point. (The defense then consisted of the point and cover point, one in front of the other and the rover in front of them.) In the first game Lester rushed down the ice and scored and the local management rushed with similar speed into the dressing room and almost fired him for spoiling the team’s strategy. After a few more goals it realized that Lester had something and allowed him to rush as he pleased.

Soon all the defenses began to rush until Art Duncan, a defenseman, became the leading scorer of the world champion Vancouver Maroons. That change of tactics also meant speed.

However, the biggest revolution in hockey, Lester thinks, was the Coast League’s introduction of the blue lines and the forward pass in the season of 1913-14. Lester’s brother Frank thought them up when he saw a game between Vancouver and Victoria interrupted every minute or so by an off-side whistle. At first the eastern leagues wouldn’t hear of the new rule. Now, Lester asks, who would abandon it? This alone speeded up the game about 50%, he says.

But in this revolution Lester is a little worried about modern stickhandling. “Now, with all this long and beautiful combination play, a man can get by without so much stickhandling. There are still some great stickhandlers. Edgar Laprade and the Bentley boys and Elmer Lach are as good as they came. But there aren’t many of them.” Here Lester paused, in a dangerous demonstration just in front of my goal, to wonder wistfully if stickhandling would become a lost art in 10 years or so.

There is a paradox here, or a law of diminishing returns. The hockey stars are no better than the originals of Lester’s youth. Hockey is better because it is drilled and organized. The individual team is no better than it was, say 30 or 40 years ago, for an obvious reason: Where a few teams in the old days could assemble seven superstars in one uniform, there are so many teams today that the superstars are widely scattered, talent is spread thin.

These problems Lester understands by bitter experience. After he and his brother had established the Pacific Coast teams they set out to win the Stanley Cup. They had to do it on finances vastly inferior to those of the eastern teams which they raided for players, paying high salaries to lure such stars as Taylor westward. In such a process a man learns management as well as hockey.

In 1926 the Patrick empire, so glittering on the outside, had no negotiable asset but its teams. The game was expanding into the United States; Lester had the only teams ready to fill the American arenas and he knew it. So he waited and the eastern Mohammed, as he expected, came to the western mountain, desperate not for individual players but working hockey machines. The Patricks sold their playing property for a quarter of a million and cut the losses of their original investment to a round hundred thousand. They were glad to escape so easily for better than anyone they know how money can be lost when it is put on ice.

The Nine-Goal Collapse

Comparing present-day hockey with the past, Lester says, for example, that no better team than the Montreal Wanderers of 1905-06, 1906-07, and 1907-08 ever touched the ice, but he admits his old age and prejudice.

Everyone who pretends to know Canadian history remembers that the Wanderers, captained by Lester, won the first game of the 1905-06 Stanley Cup series by 9 to 1 in Montreal. At Ottawa three nights later the Wanderers quickly made it 10 to 1. And then came the strangest catastrophe in the annals of hockey—Ottawa scored 9 goals, one after the other, evening the score.

Young Captain Patrick saw his team fall to pieces before his eyes. He doesn’t know to this day what happened to them. He remembers vaguely that he picked up a loose puck at his own goal, started down the ice and saw the puck sail into the Ottawa net. He repeated a few minutes later.

That has been called the greatest single performance in a Stanley Cup series—a legend only second to the Cyclone’s back-skating goal. Lester is old enough and scarred enough—50 inches of stitches on his skin—not to be boastful or overmodest. That famous game, he said, shows how hockey has improved. No modern team would let 9 goals past it in about 30 minutes, said Lester.

“And remember this,” he added, pointing straight at the writer as a horrible example, “fellows like you, in middle age, look at modern hockey with disillusionment. Of course hockey doesn’t look as good as it did when you were young and fancy-free. Neither does life. But the young find it just as exciting as you did before the shine wore off.”

What about professionalism? Has it been good for hockey, good for the players, good for the kids and the public?

Lester took up a menacing stance on the blue line to defend the central goal of his life.

“Of course professionalism has been good. You couldn’t have modern hockey without it. And without professionalism, which made the modern game possible, Canada couldn’t have exported hockey to about 25 countries all over the world. Hockey could never have got this far—not just as a game, mind you, but as a big factor in Canadian life—without professionalism.”

Patrick’s Brother Act

Lester speaks as a professional player and manager, the most experienced in the business. But he had played a lot of amateur hockey before three telegrams reached him in Nelson, B.C., one day in November 1909, the first inviting him to play professionally for Ottawa, the second with the same invitation from Montreal and the third from Renfrew.

Lester’s father, the late Joseph Patrick, was against professionalism, advised his son to stay in the lumber business with him.

The only lumber that really interested Lester was that used in hockey sticks. Being of age and, as he thought, in his right mind, he offered to play for Montreal for $1,200 because he liked Montreal, asked $1,500 from Ottawa because he wasn’t attracted to it and as for Renfrew—who had ever heard of Renfrew? To make sure he wouldn’t go there Lester asked $3,000 which no one would pay.

Within an hour back came a telegram from Renfrew asking him what he was waiting for. Lester put up one last defensive play—he would play for Renfrew if he could bring along his brother, Frank, at $2,000. Renfrew wired the two Patricks to catch the first train.

That was how Lester became a professional, drawing a salary of $300 a game.

Not long afterward Frank proposed to his father that he invest the proceeds of his lumber business, something under $350,000, in a hockey league on the Pacific Coast. At a family conference called to consider all such decisions Lester voted against the venture. Yes, unbelievable as it seems, Lester voted against hockey. He thought it wouldn’t pay. (He was right.) His father sided with Frank.

The rest is public history—the creation of the Pacific Coast league, the raid on eastern teams, the travels of the Stanley Cup from the East to Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria. Thus Lester knows professional hockey from the ice and from the box office, where the game is even tougher.

Professionalism alone, he says, could provide the money needed to build rinks, to finance the training of young players, to make the teams, and the spectacle, which inspire every normal boy in Canada to play hockey.

"Look at it this way," says Lester. “When an amateur player sees a crowd that’s paid $10,000 to get into the rink and knows, if he’s a star, that they came to see him well then, if he's normal, if he has a family to keep, he mints some of that money. Why not?

“We give it to him openly. There is no subterfuge, nothing under the counter. To accept payment is as honorable in hockey as in any other business—and far, far better than the old system when kids were corrupted with secret subsidies and signed false affidavits, swearing they were amateurs when they were just dishonest professionals. That, didn't make amateurs. It made Canadian boys into cheap crooks."

Lester’s Night in Goal

But if amateurism means that a man’s heart is in sport, that he plays for the love of it, then Patrick believes all the professionals are really amateurs.

"Look," says Lester again, crouching beside his fireplace to demonstrate some hard play before the nets, "you ask if players play for money. Sure, but incidentally. They’d play if their cheques were cut in half, because they'd rather play than do anything else.

“What price would you offer for my Rangers in the world series of 1928 when they were playing with old Ching Johnson in agony with a wrenched knee and three stitches in the face. Bill Cook with a Charley horse that almost crippled him. Bun Cook spiked in the heel, the main tendon almost severed, till we had to cut his boot off afterward because it was glued to his socks with blood, and Joe Miller cut between the eyes with a puck, disfigured and almost blind, how do you pay men to take that kind of punishment?

"Or take Vezina of the Canadiens, whom many believe to be the best goal tender of all time. Do you think it was money kept him there in the nets, dying of tuberculosis, and knowing it, till they dragged him out in the middle of a game to die?

"Call them pros, call them mercenaries, but in fact they’re just grown-up kids who’ve learned on the creek or on the flooded corner lot that hockey is the greatest thrill in this life. I guess any professional hockey player worth his salt is really an amateur.”

The classic illustration of his thesis, which Lester didn’t mention until I brought it up, occurred, as everyone knows, in Montreal in 1928—perhaps the supreme moment of hockey, one of the major adventures in the history of sport and the apex of Lester’s epic.

The story has been told a thousand times, will be told over and over again to our grandchildren and need not be detailed here—Lorne Chabot is in goal for the New York Rangers; a puck knocks his eye out of its socket; he pushes it back in with his glove and falls, unconscious; the Montreal Maroon management and players refuse to allow anyone but a Ranger in goal, for the Stanley Cup is at stake; Frank Boucher finally suggests in desperation. “Well Lester, you’ll have to go in, there's no one else”; Lester agrees reluctantly, though he is 44 years old and hasn’t held a hockey stick in three seasons; he puts on Chabot's sweat-soaked clothes, holds the Maroons to one goal in 43 minutes and wins the world’s championship again.

I asked Patrick next whether a boy who can play good hockey is wise to turn pro.

"In almost all cases, yes. He will earn $7,000 minimum as a regular in the big league and if he's a star he’ll get $12,000 or more for a winter’s work. Where else can a young fellow earn money like that?

“In case parents have any doubt about it, I'd like you to put down that hockey players live a clean, hard, honest life. The old days of dissipation (which are exaggerated) are long past. You can't dissipate and play 70 games a winter. The boy learns a sense of discipline, he learns to play for the team, he becomes a social animal. With his money saved, and his character formed, he should be set for life. Of course I'd let my boy play pro hockey.”

Of course, he did, two of them. Lynn and Murray, fine big-league players but neither the equal of the old man. And now it can be related that the worst moment in Lester's life was when Lynn first played for the Rangers. "Would he make good? Or was I just a foolish old father who was favoring his son? Well, by the time the second season rolled around the boy was in high gear and on the way to super-stardom. And I was harder on him than on any other player in my team.”

A final question ended this first overtime game: Could big-time hockey survive in Canada against the American money which buys up Canadian players?

Yes, says Lester, hockey is safe in Canada. Places like Montreal and Toronto will always have their teams in the big leagues, first, because they can afford it, second because American hockey magnates, however wealthy, will never eliminate the "international angle" which is good at the box office and attracts the American crowds by the glamour of hockey's origins on the ponds and rivers of the mysterious north. Anyway, most hockey players will always come from Canada because it has the climate and more important, the tradition, to produce them.

The good hockey player is a strange and unique organism, very tough outside, very brittle and delicate inside, not the creature that the public imagines at all. What makes him so Lester will tell in the next article of this two-part series.