The fact that he was one of the only NHL players to ever fight in an NHL All-Star game should give some indication as to what type of player former defenseman Gus Mortson was.
Born and raised in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, a tiny mining town that’s also home to hockey luminaries like Ted Lindsay and Mickey Redmond, the troublemaking Mortson carried the roughness of the mining life into his play.
Mortson, aptly nicknamed “Old Hardrock,” joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946, during one of the organization’s most successful decades. Quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s villains, Mortson led the league with 133 penalty minutes in his rookie campaign, a record which he repeated three times during his career.
Six seasons with the Leafs not only helped Mortson to four Stanley Cup championships, they also involved Mortson in more than his fair share of altercations with the Red Wings, the team with which he would end his NHL career.
During Mortson’s first few years in Toronto, the Leafs and the Wings met in the Stanley Cup finals three consecutive seasons. The intensity of the postseason matchups between the two teams gave Mortson ample opportunity to battle with his Detroit counterparts.
During the 1947 Stanley Cup playoffs, a Regina, Saskatchewan newspaper even ran an article highlighting the relationship between Mortson and Ted Lindsay after the two clashed in a game. Both players had played together on previous teams and considered themselves off-ice friends. Yet, as the article asserts, all bets were off as soon as the game started, and nothing prevented Lindsay from leaving Mortson with a bruised forehead.
Despite his rough ways, Mortson was known for more than just his physicality and his penchant for the penalty box. Before the 1947 playoffs, Wings general manager Jack Adams cited Mortson as an offensive threat that needed to be defended better.
“We won’t be letting Gus Mortson skate down the middle as though he were cutting a pie,” Adams told the Canadian Press for a story that appeared in the Montreal Gazette.
Eventful games against the Wings were commonplace for Mortson. During the first game of the 1948 Stanley Cup finals, Mortson registered an assist and scored the game-winning goal, all before breaking his leg when he crashed into Wings defenseman Black Jack Stewart.
And it just so happened that Mortson’s scrap in the 1948 All-Star Game was against a Wings’ player. During the second ever All-Star game, Mortson and Gordie Howe dropped the gloves, receiving roughing majors. Throughout his career, Mortson played in nine All-Star games, and, in a fitting complement to their bout, trails Howe for the record of most penalties in All Star games. Howe has 25 minutes in 23 games; Mortson has 21 minutes in nine games.
A few years after the All-Star fight, an on-ice incident between Mortson and Wings center Fred Glover caused Adams to seek justice against Mortson from NHL president Clarence Campbell after the game.
Upon being cross-checked by Glover, Mortson retaliated, resulting in a seven-man brawl in which Mortson attempted to kick Glover with his skate. Mortson subsequently admitted to the kick but claimed that he hadn’t made contact with Glover. Although no suspensions or fines were levied the incident certainly didn’t help Mortson’s reputation as one of the league’s premier villains.
Having spent six seasons with the Leafs, Mortson was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks prior to the 1953-54 season.
After the trade, Mortson had nothing but respect for the Leaf’s organization, telling the Montreal Gazette in 1953, “It’s a great club to break it with. They teach you plenty about the game and they watch you closely. I think that’s a good thing. If there isn’t any discipline on a club, a kid who’s never been away from home before can easily pick up bad habits that might ruin his whole career. They won’t let that happen to you with the Leafs.”
With years of scrapping against the Wings under his belt, Mortson joined his former arch rivals, including his All-Star opponent Gordie Howe, in Motor City for one final NHL season in 1958-59. He played only 36 games with the Wings, picking up one point and 22 penalty minutes.