Toronto Maple Leafs: The First Game of Christmas

Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Our tale begins nearly a century ago, as the plucky St. Patricks take on the veteran Montreal Canadiens at Arena Gardens in what would become the first NHL game of Christmas.

It was 1920, and a rough time for hockey in Toronto. The Arenas only existed on a temporary basis, loaning players out from Eddie Livingstone’s Blueshirts. They won their Stanley Cup with talent that didn’t belong to them and got greedy. They forced their way into the NHL, praying that Eddie would move aside and let them keep his best players.

It didn’t work. Livingstone wasn’t having it, and his litigation prevented the Arenas from keeping any of their core. They limped through the rest of their years as shadows of their past selves until there was no money left. Their last hope was the amateur St. Patricks club in Toronto, who, in association with Charlie Querrie, bought the team.

The St. Pats were nothing less than underwhelming. They retained what was left of a struggling Arenas team that hardly had a right to be there. This was not the sort of season that a team on the verge of a second bankruptcy would consider ideal.

For their first game of the new season, they were welcomed back via a 6-3 beatdown at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa. They headed out of the frying pan of the unhelpfully named ‘The Arena,’ and into the fire of a hungry Montreal Canadiens team.

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As what became tradition, the Canadiens were what the St. Patricks were not. Only four years ago, they had won a real Stanley Cup. We’re not talking about a team of stolen loanees; this was a team with management and legitimacy.

They signed players with talent to contracts, and they won games with them. As our dear reporter from the 1920 Canadian Press pointed out, they were on the verge of signing Canadian sports legend, Lionel Conacher.

From their Stanley Cup-winning team, the Canadiens still featured Newsy Lalonde, who was one of the greatest players in these early stages of our sport. In goal was none other than Georges Vezina, whose name has, of course, been immortalized in the trophy that is now awarded to the best goaltender in the world. His performance in the upcoming game was lauded universally.

Beyond the obvious, though, both the report in the Globe and the Montreal Gazette emphasized one thing: The Pats didn’t look like a hockey team. No one in this ragtag bunch weighed more than 180 pounds. Reg Noble, Babe Dye, and Cully Wilson stood at 5-foot-8, and Mikey Roach weighed just 158 pounds at 5-foot-6.

This point is exaggerated since people just weren’t as tall then. That much is true. The Canadiens, though, sported big Harry Mummery, who clocked in at 220 pounds and would undoubtedly have been a firm presence in front of the already formidable Vezina.

If anything favored the ‘Irishmen’ though, perhaps it was their condition. If they were nothing else, they could at least work hard for every inch of ice. They were in good shape and ready to play. The Canadiens had returned rusty from a lazy offseason and had held only three team practices thus far. Their disappointing season opener saw them battered 5-0 in Hamilton.

This was made even more important by the way rosters were constructed at the time. Not only did teams not change on the fly,  but they didn’t really have ‘Shifts’ per se. Teams usually carried two substitutes who could switch out when someone on the team really, truly needed a breather.

Unfortunately for the Pats, recently signed Rod Smylie was out with a knee injury. This left Roach as their sole substitute who, according to the Globe, was still relegated to support duty and played very little. If players seem gassed after 30-second shifts today, imagine what it was like to play for whole periods at a time.

Here at the modest Arena Gardens, 4,000 fans spent their Christmas night watching this strange sport. Those on the ice put their bodies on the line until they were completely spent. The fastest player on the ice, Didier Pitre, pulled out of the game early on account of exhaustion.