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Canadiens, Red Wings made history in Europe

Played first NHL games outside North America 79 years ago

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The wire dispatch ran four paragraphs in the Montreal Gazette on March 28, 1938, and now, three years after the idea was floated, it seemed almost certain: Two NHL teams would steam across the Atlantic Ocean for an exhibition tour of England and France.

The Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings, each eliminated from the chase for the Stanley Cup, would play nine exhibition games -- the first NHL games outside North America -- barnstorming three small arenas in London and Brighton, England, with a detour to Paris to give fans a taste of professional hockey as served up by two famous teams.

The tour reportedly had been virtually certain in 1935, with the Canadiens and another team, likely the New York Rangers, the planned participants. But it fell apart for a variety of reasons.

Three years later, with a $2,500 deposit wired to the Canadiens and Red Wings by hockey federations in England and France and percentages of receipts agreed upon, the event was on for real.

Canadian and U.S. amateur teams had regularly toured Europe, but this would be something entirely different: the Red Wings, Stanley Cup champions in 1936 and 1937, against the Canadiens.

On April 11, 1938, following warmup games in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick, Canadiens and Red Wings teams of 11 players each boarded the RMS Ausonia in Halifax for a nine-day voyage to England and a memorable series of games that thrilled fans and entertained the players.

English newspapers pushed soccer coverage to the back pages to devote many column inches to the visitors, comparing NHL salaries to the relative pittance paid to that country's footballers.

The series opened April 21 in the London district of Earl's Court, more than 8,000 fans jamming the arena to see the Canadiens defeat the Red Wings 5-4 in overtime.

"London vociferously hailed its first demonstration of professional hockey, complete with power plays and with overtime thrown in for good measure," a story by The Canadian Press read.

La Patrie, a French-Canadian newspaper, described the tour opener as one that featured "minor skirmishes, discussions, hits, penalty shots, an extra period and even a five-minute misconduct handed out to [Detroit forward] Hec Kilrea, who candidly pleaded his innocence."

Red Wings general manager Jack Adams took the arena's microphone on occasion to explain to fans the differences between the amateur British game and the pros, the NHL style of play a head-scratcher for many observers.

Canadiens goaltender Wilf Cude, a native of Wales, was celebrated with great fanfare, the wire story saying he was "wreathed with a horseshoe of leeks by a London beauty queen and given an ovation."

Although a few British reporters sniffed at the quality of action on sticky ice, fans adored the show, as they did when the teams moved on to Brighton for a 5-5 tie two nights later.

They especially got a charge out of two fights in Brighton; Marty Barry of Detroit took on Red Goupille of Montreal, and Pete Bessone of the Red Wings exchanged blows with Toe Blake of the Canadiens.

The teams crossed the English Channel into Paris for three games at the Palais des Sports from April 25-29. The Canadiens won the first and third games 10-8 and 7-5, respectively, with the Red Wings winning the second 4-3.

The 10-8 game was a particular delight for fans, the hugely popular Canadiens rallying after trailing 8-5 to score five straight goals in the final 10 minutes.

"The game, which was quick and devoid of brutishness, excited the French fans, who were watching their first professional hockey match," La Patrie reported.

After Paris, back to England the teams went, the Canadiens winning twice in Earl's Court, 6-3 and 5-4, the Red Wings winning twice in Brighton, 10-5 and 5-2. Montreal's 6-3 win on May 5 featured another couple of fights -- some exhibition this was turning out to be -- and Adams livened things up by pulling goalie Normie Smith for a sixth skater with Detroit trailing by a goal on May 10 in Earl's Court.

"We've had a successful and enjoyable trip," Canadiens coach and general manager Cecil Hart said when the teams packed up and headed to Southampton for the ocean voyage home (a side trip to Switzerland was shelved when the offer arrived too late). "The boys played wonderful hockey and I'm sure they've sold the professional game in a big way to British and French fans."

The players, who were paid $250 each for taking part, raved about the experience.

It would be 28 years before NHL teams returned to Europe. The Rangers and Boston Bruins, with a few Chicago Black Hawks, played 23 games from April 29-May 24, 1959, in England, Switzerland, France, Belgium, West Germany and Austria.

"I believe pro hockey is still five years off over there," Hart said of England and France in 1938. "They haven't got the rinks yet. But think of the opportunities with no traveling expenses and such thickly populated areas. We packed them in everywhere. The last game we played over there, we turned away between 3,000 and 4,000 fans, and that with very little publicity."

But former Montreal Gazette Sports Editor Dunc MacDonald, who in 1938 was an assistant director of publicity for two English arenas, was less than ebullient in his praise.

"[The] Canadiens and Detroit staged a fake fight, which did not go over so big with the crowd, but their passing plays did get fine notice," MacDonald wrote to Gazette columnist Marc McNeil. "Neither [the] Canadiens nor Detroit tried too hard and that reflected on their showing as a whole.

"The English are pretty hard to fool, even about things they know little of. I think the biggest disappointment for the press and public alike was the lack of body-checking. Naturally, Hart and Adams were not going to take any chances on injury. But over here the press has made everyone believe NHL hockey is murderously rough, and there was nothing in Earl's Court to support the idea."

Indeed, the most noteworthy injury on the trip was to the trousers of Canadiens forward Babe Siebert, who ripped his pants leaping off the ship in Montreal before the gangplank was set.

"We are doing nicely with the simon-pures," MacDonald said of Britain's amateurs, adding that "the pro stuff" was simply too expensive.

He'd have had a hard time telling that to the English and French fans. To them, nine games between NHL teams were priceless.

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