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Remembering Howie Morenz, NHL's first superstar

'Babe Ruth of Hockey' died 80 years ago Wednesday

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- The stories, so many of them through time, have painted Howie Morenz in a dark, brooding light.

Perhaps the first true superstar of the NHL, Morenz died 80 years ago Wednesday, on March 8, 1937, five weeks after he sustained multiple fractures of his left leg during a game against the Chicago Black Hawks at the Montreal Forum.

Morenz's career had ended Jan. 28, 1937, when he tripped along the boards and was pinned to the ice beneath Chicago defenseman Earl Seibert. Morenz was transported to St. Luke's Hospital, his leg shattered in four places. Late on the night of March 8, Morenz died from a coronary embolism, a clotting of the blood.

Stories written at the time, and repeated as fact for many decades, claimed that Morenz enjoyed wild parties and drank prodigiously in his hospital room. Rumors circulated that he had taken his own life, while his legendary Canadiens linemate, Aurele Joliat, said that Morenz simply had died of a broken heart, unable to consider life without hockey.

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

Until the late 1950s, Howie Morenz Jr., who was 10 at the time of his father's death, knew nothing different. But one night as he was leaving the Forum, he was stopped by a woman who had nursed his father at St. Luke's.

"She told me, 'Don't believe all that craziness they're saying in the paper,'" the late Morenz Jr. said in 2000, no longer able to listen to the fables. "She told me, 'Your father did not commit suicide. He did not poison himself with alcohol. He had blood clots in his leg. The doctor knew about it and he said he would look after it in the morning, but it was too late.'"

Morenz was nicknamed the "Mitchell Meteor" and the "Stratford Streak," after the two central Ontario cities that claimed to be his hometown. This much is undisputed: He was one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

He was the overwhelming choice in a vote by a panel of Canadian sportswriters as the finest hockey player of the first 50 years of the 20th century. In 1945 he was among the first 12 men inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Morenz's unmatched speed, playmaking and marksman's eye revolutionized his era. During the Depression, it is said that his skill alone brought people to the arenas, saving professional hockey in Montreal and beyond.

Those who saw Morenz play said he was unlike anyone before him. Even at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, he was a dynamic presence. Wrote Montreal Star sportswriter Baz O'Meara: "People had seen him go into an eclipse, then burst like a sun from behind a bank of sombre clouds."

Often referred to in the U.S. as the "Babe Ruth of Hockey," Morenz had 472 points (271 goals, 201 assists) in 550 regular-season games, as well as 22 points (13 goals, nine assists) in 39 Stanley Cup Playoff games from 1923-37. He played 12 seasons in Montreal, and parts of two seasons with Chicago and the New York Rangers.

He was brilliant during an era when rules discouraged offense. Morenz played his first six seasons before forward passes were allowed in all three zones, and for a time before a second assist was credited on a goal. Ice, terribly scarred by primitive steel blades, seldom was resurfaced between periods. And it wasn't until six years after Morenz's death that the red line was introduced to speed up the game and reduce offside calls, a change that would have perfectly suited his style of play.

The death of Morenz, a marquee attraction in every NHL city, was a heavy blow to the League. But it truly tore the heart out of Montreal, which saw its enormously popular, fleet-footed star prematurely lost.

His passing would haunt Seibert to his own death in 1990 at the age of 78. It mattered little that Seibert's check was clean, Morenz's skate having caught in a rut in the ice an instant before impact.

From his hospital bed, Morenz said there was nothing to forgive Seibert for, that his leg was broken by accident. In fact, the two had been friendly Chicago teammates for 15 games the season before Morenz's death. But for years Montreal fans mercilessly would boo Seibert.

"Play against him?" Seibert once told a reporter who asked whether he'd ever faced Morenz. "I killed him."

That the Canadiens won Morenz's final game 6-5 on Georges Mantha's four goals meant nothing to a sickened crowd that from every corner of the arena heard the bones in Morenz's leg break. At 34, the Canadiens icon left Forum ice for the final time not as a conquering hero, but on a stretcher.

Morenz lingered in the hospital, mending slowly. And then he died, the clotting of his blood an untreated complication of the injury.

But the tragedy did not end the heartbreak for the Canadiens. Team doctor J.A. Hector Forgues had diagnosed the clots on the morning of March 8 and scheduled surgery the following day. He never had the chance to operate.

The doctor was devastated by Morenz's sudden death, shattered that he couldn't save the very heart of the Canadiens. On March 25, Forgues had a heart attack during the Detroit Red Wings' 5-1 playoff victory against the Canadiens at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. He died in the arena.

On March 11, 1937, Morenz's casket sat on boards laid over the Forum ice for his funeral, which was attended by 10,000 mourners. A cortege took his body to a Mount Royal cemetery with tens of thousands more lining the route.

The NHL organized a benefit at the Forum on Nov. 2, 1937. The gala event, a precursor to the modern All-Star Game, was held to raise money for Morenz's widow, Mary, and their children, Howie Jr., Marlene (who would marry future Canadiens great Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion) and Donald, the youngest, who was 6 when he died of pleurisy a year after his father's death.

Morenz's No. 7 was taken out of circulation by the Canadiens that night; it was the first of 15 numbers, worn by 18 legends, to be retired by the team. Eight decades later it still hangs over the ice at Bell Centre, an appreciation for and a permanent reminder of the Canadiens' first great star.

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