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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Howie Morenz: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Thrilled Canadiens fans with one-man rushes, won Stanley Cup three times with Montreal

by Wayne Coffey / Special to NHL.com

Beginnings don't necessarily foretell endings. Often a story, or a life, starts one way and then takes off, missile-like, in an entirely different direction, winding up in a place nobody would have predicted.

So it was with Howie Morenz, Hall of Fame center for the Montreal Canadiens, a man whose life was as brilliant as it was brief. Many hockey historians consider Morenz the NHL's most dynamic player between the two World Wars, a status built on his trademark, high-speed rushes up ice that saw him blow by opponents as if they were traffic cones, seemingly inventing moves as he went.

 

Video: Howie Morenz was feared for his one-man rushes up ice

 

For the first six years of Morenz's career, forward passes were not permitted in the offensive zone, making his one-man rushes perhaps the greatest weapon in the sport.

"I don't think from end to end I ever saw a guy like Morenz," Toe Blake, legendary Canadiens coach, said in a piece on www.greatesthockeylegends.com. "He was small, stocky, with the most powerful legs you've ever seen. He'd make rush after rush -- at least 20 a game -- and it never mattered how hard he got hit. Most players, after they were hit, you'd think 'Oh, he can't take that again,' but it didn't matter with him. … And I'll tell you another thing, (Morenz was) one of the greatest backcheckers I ever saw. He was just a terrific hockey player."

King Clancy was a career-long rival of Morenz and a standout with the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

HOWIE MORENZ CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 550 | Goals: 271 | Assists: 201 | Points: 472

 

"He was the best," Clancy said, according to greatesthockeylegends.com. "He could stop on a dime and leave you nine cents change. He was in a class by himself. And when he couldn't skate around you, he'd go right over you."

Born in Mitchell, Ontario, on Sept. 21, 1902, Morenz was the youngest of three brothers, a boy who manifested his love of hockey from an early age, even if his mother had different ideas. Mrs. Morenz saw how smitten her two older boys were with hockey and was determined to have Howie learn to play the piano. Lessons were arranged for Saturday mornings.

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Morenz, her son had to cross the Thames River to get to the piano teacher's house. The Thames is where Howie learned to skate, in hand-me-down skates that were so big he had to stuff wads of newspaper in the toes to make them fit. The temptation was too much. Howie stashed his skates at a friend's house, and every Saturday he would dutifully leave for his lesson, pick up his skates and spend the hour on the Thames and not a piano bench.

When he returned home, he diligently practiced the one piano piece he knew so his mother wouldn't get suspicious. After some weeks passed, Mrs. Morenz called to check in with the teacher, eager to see how her son was progressing and to ask when the teacher planned to introduce other pieces for Howard to play.

"Who's Howard?" the teacher asked.

Whatever repercussions Morenz might've faced because of his duplicity, the kid kept on skating. He was on the pudgy side, with a round face and a somewhat unathletic bearing, and his brothers had what they thought was a splendid idea: Let's make Howie a goalie!

The younger sibling went along with the plan, and was in goal when he played his first organized game for the Mitchell Juveniles at 13. He allowed 21 goals in that one game, and would've been on the way to an all-time hockey record for worst goals-against average if the Juveniles coach hadn't mercifully decided to move Howie to rover. This was just a few years before a ballplayer named Babe Ruth decided to forego pitching to be an outfielder.

The payoff for Morenz was no less striking, and immediate, the Juveniles belatedly discovering that their former goaltender was the fastest and most clever skater on the team. In no time Morenz earned the nickname "Mitchell Meteor."

After the family moved some 15 miles away to the bigger town of Stratford, Morenz started with the juniors and soon found himself with another alias, "Stratford Streak." The kid was a blur on any sheet, in any town, and when he scored nine goals for the Stratford senior team, word about young Morenz traveled as fast as, well, a meteor. The Toronto St. Patricks - who would be renamed the Maple Leafs in 1927 - were first in line, supposedly offering the 20-year-old Morenz $1,000 to play the last five games of the 1922-23 season.

"No thanks," Morenz said.

He had a steady job in the same railroad machine shop where his father worked, and was inclined to hold on to it and make extra bucks playing hockey on the side. Besides, he had seen how big and fast and good the guys in the NHL were, and didn't believe he was at that level.

The pros kept chasing. The Canadiens were the most ardent suitor, offering Morenz $2,500 to play the full 1923-24 season with them. Morenz said no again, before the Canadiens added a $1,000 bonus. Morenz's father signed the contract - Howie wasn't yet 21 - but almost immediately Howie had misgivings. He didn't want to leave Stratford, his job, his family. He was still doubtful that he could cut it against the pros. He mailed the contract back to Canadiens owner/general manager Leo Dandurand, explaining that he was sorry but that he couldn't go through with it.

Dandurand was shocked but wasn't about to let Morenz get away without a fight, and got the kid to change his mind and give pro hockey a try. The results came almost as quickly as one of Morenz's leg-churning surges up ice.

Morenz took over as the first-line center in his rookie year, scoring 13 goals in 24 games to help the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup, and more than doubled his total, to 28, in 1924-25. In 1927-28, Morenz led the League with 33 goals, 18 assists and 51 points, capturing the first of his three Hart trophies, teaming with wings Aurele Joliat (28 goals) and Art Gagne (20 goals) to form the most explosive attack in the annals of the young League. Literally and figuratively, Howie Morenz, No. 7, was in the middle of it all.

"He's not No. 7 to me," Roy Worters, goalie for the New York Americans, said in an article in Sport magazine. "He's number 77777. Just a blur."

Morenz wasn't French-Canadian by birth, and spoke no French, but it didn't prevent him from becoming a Canadian hockey icon, star of three Stanley Cup winners, a 1945 Hall of Fame inductee and a player who earned the admiration of his fiercest competitors, such as Eddie Shore, the bruising, hard-skating defenseman for the Boston Bruins who regarded Morenz as the only player in the League who could outskate him.

"(Morenz) had a heart that was unsurpassed in athletic history and no one ever came close to him in the color department," Shore said, according to greatesthockeylegends.com. "After you watched Howie you wanted to see him often, and as much as I liked to play hockey, I often thought I would have counted it a full evening had I been able to sit in the stands and watch the Morenz maneuvers. Such an inclination never occurred to me about other stars."

By age 30, Morenz's scoring output fell to 14 goals, and the Canadiens tumbled below .500. He slowed noticeably again in the 1933-34 season, managing eight goals, and Dandurand decided it was time to rebuild, shipping Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks on Oct. 3, 1934. Chicago traded him to the New York Rangers in the middle of the 1935-36 season. It looked as though the great Howie Morenz would be finishing his career with the Rangers, until new ownership took charge of the Canadiens, a once-mighty franchise that had fallen to last place. With fans discontented and the Forum awash in empty seats, the new owners knew they needed to inject life into their team. They made a deal with the Rangers on Sept. 1, 1936, to bring Morenz back to where his career started.

At 34, Morenz was well past his high-speed prime, but he was nonetheless energized by his return to Montreal, and so were the Canadiens, who were 17-9-3 with a road victory against the Maple Leafs in late January of 1937.

"There was something missing inside when I was away the last two seasons," Morenz said. "I got it back when I came back with the Canadiens. I'm giving the fans everything I've got. The end may be in sight, but the heart is still sound."

The Canadiens returned to the Forum to take on the Black Hawks on Jan. 28, 1937. Early in the game, Morenz skated hard into the Chicago zone, the Blackhawks' Earl Siebert in pursuit. Morenz lost his footing and caught his skate blade in the boards, and Siebert had no time to react. He slammed into Morenz, an unintentional but brutal collision that shattered Morenz's leg in four places. The suddenly hushed crowd watched as Morenz was carried off and rushed to Montreal's Hopital Saint-Luc. Doctors stabilized the leg with pins and put Morenz in traction, and though his leg began to heal, Morenz knew his career was over. He was still in the hospital six weeks later when he died on March 8, 1937, from a coronary embolism.

He was 34.

Two days later, Morenz's funeral was held in the Montreal Forum, some 50,000 fans passing by his casket, which lay at center ice. When the service ended, Morenz was carried by eight teammates to a hearse, which made its way through city streets lined with approximately 250,000 fans, a slow, sad procession for the fastest and most electrifying player of his time, another story that ended in a way nobody could have predicted.

 

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