Monday, September 29, 2008


If you are of a “certain age”, then you grew up hearing about the early days of the Montreal Canadiens. For most though, the stories of yesteryear have long faded and have been sadly relegated to the works of historians, who mind you, do an absolutely fantastic job researching the past in order to preserve it for the future, but it’s the stories handed down from generation to generation that seem to get lost. Most people my age and younger never had the stories of old told to them due to the tragic misfortune of growing up in a much busier society where our elders have been cast aside and ignored instead of revered as wise, experienced and worth listening to.

Lucky for me, I was born in a small farming community where growing up you had nothing but time. Time to simply enjoy life, the outdoors and the friends and family that made up your existence. I grew up learning to respect my elders and learning from them. When I say I was lucky, it’s not just because of where I was born, rather it’s because whom I was born around. No, we’ve never had anyone rich or famous in our clan, we are a hard working simple family that just happens to be crazy about sports. It all started with my grandfather, who as a kid was very athletic and played minor league baseball, his passion for sports his whole life was only overshadowed by the caring and strength he possessed when it came to molding his family. As a son of one of seven brothers who came to this country in 1900, my grandfather was part of the first generation of our family to grow up American. Coming from humble beginnings he developed a strong work ethic and an uncanny passion for all things sports related. Using the word “addicted” seems merely to scratch the surface when describing his love of sports. You have to understand we’re talking about a man who knew everything there was to know about the four major sports. Since the age of ten he saved every sports page, magazine, program, media guide, etc. just to back up his word incase anyone dared to dispute his knowledge. You only needed to challenge him once to find out you NEVER EVER want to make a mistake of that magnitude again. This man would have made ESPN’s resident trivia guru Howie Schwab look like a dumb-assed huckleberry who done “gra-G-a-tid from the sixth grade”. He loved to talk about game strategies and the inner complexities of game plans, sometimes on a level way over my head so I did a lot of listening and a little head nodding as if I truly understood. It is because of him, that this common trait that my father, uncle, brother, my son, and myself all have for sports even exists. Yes, I was lucky to have been born around this man. I was lucky that he cared enough to make sure that I knew about the heroes of his time and their glories and the games that they played.

The stories I grew up listening to were fascinating, and since I spent an enormous amount of time as a child with my grandfather, I had little choice but to hear them again and again. My favorites, of course, were the stories of hockey, the early years of the NHL (and before there was an NHL) and the fervor in which those men played a simple kids game with such skill and grace mixed with just the right amount of brutal force. Sometimes I would close my eyes while listening to him talk about Joe Malone, “Newsy” Lalonde, Cy Denneny, “Cully” Wilson, Howie Morenz, “King” Clancy, Lionel Hitchman and Eddie Shore and it would take me to a place of roaring fans hovering just above the ice surface all clamoring and waiving their hats in the air charged up in a deafening mix of joy, frustration and excitement.

I remember him talk about some players with a tone to his voice that just drew you in. You couldn’t help but to cling onto every word. One such name that always stuck with me was Sprague Cleghorn. Whenever my grandfather mentioned his name it was always accompanied with “one of the nastiest players to have ever play the game” as if this was a title given to him at birth. The stories involving Cleghorn I remember to have been filled with vicious hits (mostly leaning on the dirty side) and a sheer will to drive the puck end to end and slam it into the back of the net with a vengeance. He spoke of the 1921-22 season, the year that Cleghorn was reunited with his brother Odie in Montreal, in a trade that sent Harry Mummery and Amos Arbour to the Hamilton Tigers. According to my grandfather, “that trade changed the face of the team” it not only gave the Canadiens a whole new look, but was among one of the first ever multi-player trades to take place which in turn changed the face of the league. Cleghorn went on a rampage that year punishing opponents on both sides of the ice. Sprague led the league in penalty minutes and along with brother Odie led the Canadiens in scoring. He and his brother scored four goals each in one game to lead the Habs to a win over Hamilton. “He played that season as if he was on fire”, my grandfather would say. This conjured up images in my mind of him barreling down cross-ice and laying out an opponent at the top of the circle by any means necessary. The way my grandfather described the force in which Cleghorn played, was intense. It was as if he had no choice but to grit his teeth and squint his eyes to make the nastiest face he could when he said his name just in order to capture the rage Cleghorn displayed on the ice. I remember one time as a child sitting at his kitchen table listening to him talk of Cleghorn and him taking vicious revenge against a few of his former team-mates in Ottawa, my father chirped in “Pops, stop filling the kid’s head full of stories about goons, tell him about some of the greats.” “He wasn’t just a goon! He gave the Canadiens grit and determination. He was one of the greatest skaters the game had ever seen”, my grandfather snipped back taking exception to my dad’s comment. I just sat there with my eyes darting back and forth wondering if things would escalate. “Whatever, Pops” my father sarcastically retorted to avoid an argument, much to my relief. It was times like that, that made me listen intently to my grandfather spin the tales of the early years and the players like Sprague Cleghorn. He had a lot to tell and I was just the right sponge to absorb it.

Sprague Cleghorn’s statistics while a member of the Montreal Canadiens may not go down in history among the greats this team has seen, and some may just remember his antics, but his impact still ripples throughout the franchise as well as the league today. He is just one of many impact players over the years to have pulled a Canadiens sweater over his head, part of a special team at a special time in history. His time with the Habs bore historic fruit in the first Stanley Cup for the team as members of the NHL in 1924. One thing is certain, the Montreal native left it all on the ice each time he played and he left fans with memories to share and stories to tell.

I like to believe that somewhere out there a young boy is listening to his grandfather tell the stories that were told to him about the early days of the Canadiens and special players like Cleghorn, it helps me believe the world is a better place. My grandfather left us 20 years ago, but his stories still live on inside each member of my family. I hope that it is not too late for you to talk to yours. At least I know that there will be one future grandfather who will pass the stories down, thank you grandpa.

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