Robert L note to readers: While events in this particular post unfolded over 70 hockey seasons ago, much of what occurred is quite relevant to today. Often when I delve into the long forgotten Canadiens past, much of my perspective pertains to the present, and to going forward, with history's lessons learned. These five seasons, are not unlike the years that preceeded and permeated the Bob Gainey era in Montreal. You can make your own comparisons and judgements, but the parallels are quite evident, from an organizational standpoint. People often note how much things have changed in hockey over the course of time. While that notion is both true and untrue in several senses, I offer that other than player salaries and free agency blurring the equation, alot has not changed in regards to how hockey clubs are run today. The politics inside organizations remain the same. This 1930's era, crucial to the Montreal Canadiens survival, could well be subtitled "From The Three Musketeers To Three Masked Marauders".
With a second World War looming, and the Great Depression in full swing, the Montreal Canadiens future looked bleak. The crosstown rival Maroons are defending Stanley Cup champions, and the trouble times are making it apparent that the city of Montreal can only financially support one team.
Having been badly managed on and off the ice, the Canadiens club has grown old. Terms such as neglect and disinterest are used to describe ownership's mishandling of the team, and rumours of an imminant sale have been rampant for a year. Owners Leo Dandurand and Jos Cattarinich steadily deny the Canadiens are for sale, although they've begun to lose large sums of money in recent seasons. Rumours have the Canadiens receiving an offer from Cleveland interests. Speculation reaches a fever pitch when it is learned that the owners have asked the NHL to suspend operations of the club for one season. When the NHL Board of Governors informs Dandurand that the Canadiens are too strong of a lrague attraction to consider such a drastic measure, the owner bargains for, and receives, a 7% increase in home gate receipts from the Forum owners.
Seeing that the team that was evaluated at being worth near $600,000 just five seasons ago is now incurred in debt, Dandurand and Cattarinich finally give in and sell the team to a consortium made up of three local businessmen named Ernest Savard, Maurice Forget, and Louis Gélinas. The deal is announced on September 15, 1935, and the sale price is a stunningly cheap $175,000, - $25,000 less than the rumoured Cleveland offer. For Dandurand and Cattarinich, there was little profit made from the team that they purchased in 1921, considering that four years earlier they had bought out original partner Louis Létourneau's shares for $150,000.
For fans of the team, the transaction is viewed suspisciously - and for good reason. The three new owners, it is learned in time, are simply a front for the true new owners of the team - the Canadian Arena Company, owners of the Forum and the Maroons. The facade of denial goes on for months and the owners secret agenda is not revealed for another two seasons. Behind it all were James Strachan and Senateur Donat Raymond of the CAC, and each denied involvement in the Canadiens at every turn. The Canadian Arena Company, also felt that the city of Montreal had long become a one team proposition. Their plan - a worst case scenario - was to possibly sell the Canadiens, perhaps to St. Louis, and keep the Maroons. These ideas, however, were a good two seasons from coming to a head.
In the meantime, the new owners had a team to run and a building to fill. It has been suggested in some areas that the Canadiens at this time were purposely badly managed by Ernest Savard and company in order to facilitate a future move and sales, but that is likely a snide opinion on how inept the new trio were at running the team.
Savard appoints himself as the team's manager, and quickly proved to have no flair whatsoever as a hockey man. He appoints Sylvio Mantha as the team's new coach, and proceeds to make so many bad deals that the Canadiens quickly head for the league basement, sadder than a laughingstock. While theteam still carried talents such as Aurel Joliat, Toe Blake, Johnny Gagnon, Wildor Larochelle and Mantha, the misguided ship sinks to an 11-26-11 record. The state of the team is reflected by poor attendance and the league is very concerned for the Canadiens fate.
In order to help the Canadiens regain its "Flying Frenchman" identity, the NHL reinstitutes the Canadiens french territorial right. The ruling gives the team the right to sign the two best unclaimed prospects out of Quebec annually over the next three seasons.With no players of note on the horizon, this right is later extended another years, with few results. Most players put under contract would toil with either the Quebec Castors or the Providence Reds, without ever impacting the club.
Following the 1935-36 season, there is still a great suspicion regarding the Canadiens ownership and their ultimate goals for the club, and Savard begins to put up appearances by making cosmetic changes to the team, more suited to putting fans in the seats than improving the team's calibre on ice.
Rumours began to swirl in April of 1936 as to what plans lie ahead for the Canadiens. Maroons coach and Forum manager Tommy Gorman had let it slip that former Habs coach Cecil Hart could possibly find his way back behind the bench of the team. Gorman also declared that he would not be surprised to see former Canadiens superstar Howie Morenz make a return to Montreal. Canadiens owner Ernest Savard is quite upset with Gorman when both statements hit the street. He denies each rumour with vehenemous passion, going so far as to suggest that Gorman mind his business.
As both rumours are later borne out, Habs fans and the media alike again raise the question regarding who exactly is running the team. In 1936-37, no two teams traded with, or helped each other, more than the Montreal based rivals.
Not unexpectedly, the Mantha coaching experiment ends, and Savard convinces former coach Cecil Hart to return behind the bench. Hart agrees to return on one condition - that Savard reaquires Howie Morenz from the Rangers. A cash deal for Morenz is completed September 1, 1936, with the star player claiming to feel rejuvenated by the trade.
Both moves seemed to have the desired effect once the season begins. The Canadiens get off a strong start, and never look back. By late January, the club is in first place in the NHL - to the general surprise of many - with an 18-9-3 record. Dreams of a first overall finish and Stanley Cup hit a wall on Thursday, January 28, 1937, when Morenz fractures his leg in several places during a collision at the end boards with Chicago's Earl Seibert.
With Morenz's season over, the Canadiens valliantly carry on, going 5-4-1 over the next ten games. Morenz's prognosis does not look promising. He is bedridden for the next six weeks, his career most surely at an end. On March 8 , Morenz dies suddenly, when an embolism in his leg disloges and moves into his heart. The entire city of Montreal is in shock, not to mention the Canadiens, who are devastated beyond repair.
The Canadiens, winless in three before Morenz's passing, win but one of five to end the season. Managing to still finish first on the strength of their strong start, they meet the top ranked Detroit Red Wings in a best of five semi final - the winner advancing directly to the Stanley Cup finale. After Montreal is handled easily handled in two contests in Detroit, they get their act together at the Forum and even the series. On April 1, a promising campaign ends with a thud - a 3-2 overtime loss to the eventual Cup champs.
It proved to be the high point of the Ernest Savard era, from there on, the Canadiens flirted with extinction.
By the start of the 1937-38 season, it became an accepted reality that one Montreal club would not be able to survive the economy of the day. While suspiscions are lively, It is not quite public knowledge yet that both teams are owned by the Canadian Arena Company. And while the Maroons have been the more successful franchise of late, it is not unthinkable, nor far fetched, that the Canadiens status could be in jeopardy.
In NHL Board Of Governors meetings prior to the start of the 1937-38 season, it was decided that the upcoming campaign would determine the future of hockey in Montreal. With the scarecity of Depression dollars, it had been agreed by the NHL that Montreal had become a one team proposition. Complicating matters, were the CAC, who privately supported keeping the Maroons alive over the Canadiens.
James Strachan, the head of the CAC and an original owner of the Maroons, was known amongst NHL governors as having a preference for keeping the Maroons going. His rationale went with the notion that the Maroons were only two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup triumph, and that publicly, he felt that for that reason, the easier sell to hockey fans in the city would be to kill off the Habs. Strachan's view was completely out of touch with the reality that Montreal was close to 70% french speaking at the time.
In NHL meetings prior to the 1937-38 season, Strachan's opionions were met with mixed emotions by the league governors. While some owners were on record as agreeing initially, Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe felt otherwise. Smythe's strong conviction that doing away with the NHL's last original franchise from 1917 would become a death knell for the league itself. He argued strongly that the "Flying Frenchman" mystique still remained a heady drawing card south of the border, and that the loss of the Canadiens would weaken the pocketbooks of the other 6 franchises. Smythe had an ally in the CAC's Senator Donat Raymond, and soon helped sway the remaining company owners and shareholders in the Canadiens favor. It would the Maroons who would be given one final season to turn matters around.
The Maroons fortunes plumetted from 53 to 30 points in 1937-38, while the Canadiens held their own, finishing with 49. The two time Cup champion Maroons, were out of business.
With the Maroons now gone, the focus would be squarely on the Canadiens activities. The picture of the Canadiens ownership was thus clarified for all, evident and obvious that the CAC consortium were in charge. Starting in 1938-39, and over the course of the next few seasons, the hockey operations of the CAC would come under great public scrutiny.
The CAC ownership group were primarily businessmen with an keen eye on profits, headed by Liberal Senator Donat Raymond, James Strachan, and William Northy. The hockey club would still be run by GM Savard, a majority shareholder who answered directly to Raymond.
The smartest hockey mind in the organization would be Tommy (T.P.) Gorman, the former coach and GM of successful runs with the Senators, Blackhawks, and most recently the Maroons. Gorman was in charge of managing the Forum, and not in a hockey position, but he freely and consistently, let his opinions on matters be known. Cecil Hart, one of the longest standing hockey men in the Canadiens scheme, remained behind the bench, at the mercy of the fractured setup.
Inside the CAC organization, there was much conflict as to how the team should be run. While Raymond and his group of shareholders felt expenditures should be kept at a minimum, Savard wanted to become more proactive and pursue better talent for the team. With eyes on turning a profit in any possible form, Raymond sold off the rights for advertising, programs, and concessions. This upset Gorman most, and he made it a priority to recoup such potential income generating avenues.
Between Savard and Raymond's tussles, Gorman managed to slowly begin to turn a profit with the Forum by booking activities beyond the Canadiens sphere. He brought in Quebec senior league hockey games on Sunday afternoons, wrestling and boxing matches, and the odd musical performance. Together they helped sturdy the Forum's finances enough that the additional cash helped bolster the Canadiens bottom line.
While these achievements were testament to Gorman's organizational worth, it was no secret within Forum walls that Gorman and Raymond had a hearty dislike for one another. Troubling this, were the truth and fact that the pair needed each other to be successful. Raymond knew of Gorman's contempt for his high society ways, just as Gorman's heavy handed manners and opinions went against Raymond's respectful business acumen. The gist of their disputes sprung from the notion that the monies earned by Gorman were not being used by Raymond for the betterment of the club, but rather his own private interests based in a myriad of other endeavors. It was a tumultuous relationship for the pair, that lasted surprisingly long despite locked horns on opposing viewpoints. In all this, GM Savard felt rather uncomfortable and compromised to be caught in the middle. It would be a handcuffed Savard, who would eventually bring the pot to a boil.
The Canadiens (18-17-13) were heavy favorites over Chicago (14-25-9) in the 1937-38 Quarter Finals, but lost 2 games to 1. Montreal hockey fans were not pleased. Part way through the 1938-39 campaign, when Savard reacted to the cat calls from fans demanding that the loyal coach Cecil Hart (6-18-6) be replaced, he brought in associate Jules Dugal in what was understood to be a temporary measure. The club responded positively under Dugal, and went 9-6-3 in his tenure. Unfortunately, Dugal had no desires for the job on a permanant basis.
In the seven team NHL, the Canadiens finished sixth, losing 2 games to 1 to fifth place Detroit in the Quarter Finals. Ernest Savard is lost for coaching solutions, and considers returning Hart to the post. With Hart's health in question, Savard looks elsewhere for a new bench boss. He signs on former Hab Pit Lepine, who promptly guides the club to one of its worst seasons in franchise history in 1939-40. The club finishes the season with an 10-33-5 record, and fans of the team who are not disillusioned are likely indifferent. The Montreal Canadiens franchise is at the bottom of the barrel, and signs only point to more hopelessness.
Nearing the spring of 1940, Canadian Arena Company president Senator Donat Raymond seriously begins questioning whether he wants to remain associated with the CAC,the Canadiens, and the business of hockey. With 1,500 fans in a desolate and empty Forum for hockey games, the multitude of questions begged for Raymond, and rumours of the sale of the Canadiens began to trickle out from business circles within the city. The outlook is dire.
Within the organization, manager Savard is extremely unhappy with the working arrangement he has with the CAC, and pushes issues with an ultimatum for purchasing the entirety of the Forum and the Canadiens team. Barring this, he is willing to hand in his resignation and part with his company stock.
The ownership question in regards to the Habs is a many tentacled complication. Savard, and partners Gelinas and Forget own shares of the hockey club itself, but overall have minority company stock in the CAC. Raymond, Strachan, and Northy hold the Aces in the card's deck. Former team owner Louis Létourneau had also bought back into the CAC by virtue of team shares, and worked as a member of the hockey club's administration council. He was last with the club in 1930, when he sold his shares to Leo Dandurand and Jos Cattarinich. Other directors with investment in the hockey club include Pierre Rolland, Alphonse Patenaude, Armand Dupuis, John Pritchard, Raoul Grotté, C.N. Moisan, and Frank Commons, and each one signs Savard's letter of intent to purchase the team and the Forum.
The CAC are hesitant to consider selling all interests to Savard and company, and again, a thought is given to suspending the club's activities for one season in light of World War II, which is about to break. Former owner Leo Dandurand jumps to the notion of this worst case scenario, professing that it would be a "sporting tragedy" if such occurred, and offers to buy the club outright in that eventuality.
Fed up with having his managerial hands tied by the corporate CAC's purse strings involving hockey matters, Savard offers an a verbal ultimatum to the CAC's president Raymond in March. On April 5,1940, Savard and his shareholders submit an offer in writing to purchase full stock in the hockey club and all arena company holdings. Along with this, barring the sale, Savard informs Raymond of his buy out price, whereupon all shareholders, Savard included, if refused, will hand in their resignations.
Raymond ponders these questions, listening to his heart, and within days, informs that the CAC has turned down Savard and his group's offer of purchase. All 10 team directors immediately resign, and Senator Raymond becomes the new team president. He immediately names Forum manager, Tommy T.P. Gorman, as the new GM of the hockey club.
Little did Raymond realize at the time, that his decision to step up and assume command of the organization may have sealed the fate of the Montreal Canadiens.
His committment, would alter the course of Montreal Canadiens history, by no small margin.