Perhaps mainly older fans of the Canadiens - older than I - would know that in the Canadiens first half century, many of their players excellent in other sports. Doug Harvey was reputedly so good at baseball, he could have turned pro. John Ferguson once considered a challenge to step in a boxing ring with George Chuvalo, but was overuled by Sam Pollock. Marcel Bonin once wrestled bears and Larry Robinson played polo.
Lacrosse, perhaps better than any other sport, combines the skill, agility, flow and toughness of hockey.
From where I live in Cornwall, the sport is best associated with native people, but it would be a stretch to suggest I know a whole lot about the game, because I know very little. I see lacrosse and I see a ball instead of a puck, sticks in the air instead of on the playing surface, which is moved across minus skates.
I do know that you have to be one tough bugger to play it, which might be why I lost interest in the sport as soon as I learned I could not pass the ball back and forth, never mind trying to do it while being chased and hit.
I also knew that Cornwall native Newsy Lalonde, Habs team mate Jack Laviolette and others such as Lionel Conacher, Corb and Cy Denneny (also Cornwallites) and goalie Harry "Hap" Holmes had played lacrosse. In fact, Newsy might have been better at lacrosse than hockey. Having played both sports in his youth, he once tried out for the goaltender position on the Montreal Nationale lacrosse team, but lost out to the incumbant. Undeterred, Newsy make the club at a different position, and not only went to win the league scoring championship that season, but ended being named Canada's best lacrosse player for the first half century.
In sports heritage for Canadians, lacrosse was to hockey then, what soccer is to hockey for Europeans now - a sort of year round method of training in honing skills brought to both games.
The reason I am babbling on outside my normal realm, is in regard to a letter from a reader names James S., who pointed me in the direction of a story from the 1930's that has faded with time. Some Habs fans will recall that beginning in the 1950's, the Canadiens had touring baseball teams during summer, which made it's way around La Belle Province playing games for charity. Few fans of the team might know that earlier members of the Canadiens were once a professional lacrosse team - called the Montreal Canadiens, of course - who played competitively in an organized league in 1931.
James' letter had me up later than usual yesterday, researching this story, because it is so interesting, it deserved to be shared.
James wrote, "all Habs know that the Canadiens have 24 Stanley Cup championships. However, what some (most) people don't know is that they have 25 championships. The "unknown" championship happens to be in box lacrosse in 1931, in which they beat the Maple Leafs (of course) at Madison Square Garden. It was the one and only season that the NHL had its teams play box lacrosse during the offseason, but the Canadiens made the most of it. The league was called the "International Lacrosse League". Aside from the Canadiens and Leafs, the Maroons were another club
in the league.
To quote Johnny Carson, when intrigued..."I did not know that!"
I Googled the book James referenced - "Lacrosse, A History Of The Game", by Donald Fisher - and found its pages in whole at Google book reviews. I entered "Montreal Canadiens" in the search bar, and "Voila!", the whole passage James was telling about was there to be enjoyed.
Here, through the magic of "Copy and Paste / Paint", you can now read it as well.
I find it most interesting that the lacrosse league with hockey players idea, was brought about by the actual team owners, looking to fill their arenas and make a buck after the ice melted. The players - who weren't paid grand sums then, of course - were surely looking to add some cash to their annual income. The whole thing fell apart when the Depression ravaged through North America, taking NHL box lacrosse down with it.
Interesting isn't it, that the Canadiens were never beaten by the Maple Leafs at lacrosse. It sure was a different time. I wonder how the Habs and Leafs would do on golf course - both teams get lots of practice in this day and age.
Here's the article James' brought to our attention.
The photo of Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, and Jean-Guy Talbot as Habs ball players is courtesy of Dennis Kane.