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1931-32 NHL Season: Morenz has Hart, but three-peat falls short

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1932-1

After several seasons of prosperity and growth, the NHL now found itself in a state of turmoil. As the Great Depression continued to wreak havoc on industrialized nations, the league's 10 team existence was severely hampered and set back by the shortages that came with the times. The NHL's poorer teams could not continue to suffer and several team owners felt the need to procced in the most cautious of manners in order to fight for survival. The NHL had quickly become a league of haves and have nots.

Hockey, for now, was healthy for the three of the four Canadian teams in Montreal and Toronto, and south of the border, strong clubs in New York, Boston and Chicago held fort. The league's weaker teams from the bottom of the 1930-31 NHL standings were on life support.

Strictly due to financial reasons, the Philadelphia Quakers and Ottawa Senators franchises were suspended for the 1931-32 season, bringing the total number of teams in the NHL down from ten to eight. The Detroit Falcons were declared bankrupt, but remained afloat for the season while going into receivership.

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The Quakers were essentially still Pittsburgh owner Bill Dwyer's Pirates franchise, and their players, as well as those belonging to Ottawa, were divided up and distributed amongst the other teams in the league with their contracts intended to revert to the original clubs once the franchises were renewed. By the end of the 1929-30 season, Pirates owner Dwyer had been $400,000 in debt, and their Duquesne Gardens arena was no longer viable financially to house an NHL franchise. It was then that boxer and promoter Benny Leonard, Dwyer's front man and financial backer, requested permission to temporarily move to Philadelphia as the Quakers until a new arena was built in Pittsburgh.

Once moved, things were no better on the other side of Pennsylvania. Financial woes continued unabated in 1930-31, and on the ice, the Quakers were the definition of futility. It took the team three games to score its first goal and six games to get its first win. They finished the 1931-32 season with a horrendous 4-36-4 record. With no arena in sight for the city of Pittsburgh, and major disinterest for the Quakers in Philadelphia, dreams of eventually resusitating the Pirates franchise were abandonned. Leornard would have to lace on the boxing gloves and return to the ring to recoup his losses.

The situation was even more dire in Ottawa, where the team had been buying time by selling off star elements of the club to remain out of debt for the last few seasons. The Senators franchise had been in a downward spiral since late in 1929, when they sold off star Frank Nighbor to the Maple Leafs, followed by the sale of King Clancy to Toronto ten months later. Following these cash deals, the franchise hit rock bottom, never to recover. The original NHL franchise became a last place team in 1930-31 for the first time since 1898.

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The league truthfully did not want to lose the Ottawa team, and on September 26, 1931, it officially agreed to suspend the Senators and Pittsburgh for one year. Ottawa received $25,000 for the use of its players, and the NHL co-signed a Bank Of Montreal loan of $28,000 in order for the club to remain in business. While the Senators would return for two more seasons before moving to St. Louis for the 1934-35 season and being reincarnated as the Eagles, the Pirates / Quakers franchise would never ice a team again. At each of the next five season opening NHL governors meetings, they announced that they were suspending operations for the season. The NHL finally gave up the ghost and officially cancelled the franchise when the new arena in Pittsburgh failed to materialize on May 7, 1936.

Making matters more complicated for the NHL, the American Hockey Association, which had become the AHL in 1930-31, had declared itself a major professional league that season. The AHL was quickly condemned as an outlaw league by NHL president Frank Calder.

Other than being seen as a threat in raising the value of player's contracts, the reasons Calder cited for his words and actions was that the AHL had put a franchise in Chicago, which already had the NHL's Blackhawks, and another franchise in Buffalo, where the NHL had a minor league affiliate. However, the Buffalo team collapsed and Calder entered into negotiations to merge the AHL Chicago Shamrocks, owned by James Norris, with the Detroit Falcons, who were now bankrupt.

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There had been a potential franchise moving deal for Ottawa, involving the Chicago Stadium's owners which included James Norris Sr., to transfer the team to Chicago. When Blackhawks owner Frederic McLaughlin nixed the deal, not wanting another team within his territorial rights, Norris then purchased the bankrupt Detroit Falcons franchise instead. At season's end, Norris renamed the team the Red Wings. Inspired by the name of the Montreal Winged Wheels, he incorporated the Montreal college squad's logo onto a Motor City car wheel to form the Red Wings logo that would remain unchanged from 1932 on.

In Toronto, where the business of hockey was booming despite the hard times, Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe had desired a second team for the city, but agreeable terms could not be settled upon. Smythe had wanted a $100,000 guarantee, with a 40% split of revenues. Considering the current fate of other teams, the short lived plan was put on the backburner while Smythe turned his focus toward attempting to build what would become Maple Leaf Gardens. It was a laughable idea at the time - the cost and magnitude of his plans flew in the face of the Great Depression's harsh realities -but Smythe would eventually pull it off despite the hard time's financial restraints. Maple Leaf Gardens opened November 12, 1931, thanks in no small part to the ingenious idea of paying tradesmen in Gardens stock rather than straight up cash.

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In Montreal, for the Canadiens, it was the perfect time to be two time defending Stanley Cup champions. It didn't hurt to be the rival Montreal Maroons either while sharing an arena with the Cup champs.

For hockey mad Montreal, the popularity of the game served to buy time while the world changed and priorities shifted. As the Depression ravaged it's way through all aspects of society, the city of Montreal's woes would arrive later, rather than sooner. The rivalry of the two clubs essentially delayed dealing with Depressions effects for a few more seasons.

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For the 1931-32 season, the Canadiens smartly made few changes to the club. Gone were spare parts Gord Fraser, Gerry Carson and Bert McCaffrey, replaced by Arthur Alexandre and Dunc Munro. Left winger Alexandre was an injury callup from the Provindence Reds, who suited up for 10 games before being returned to the minors at the season's term on May 8. Twenty four year old defenseman Art Lesieur edged closer to becaming a full player, and appeared in 24 games.

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Munro was much more sought after, as he had been the player / coach of the Maroons for the past two seasons. The stay at home defenseman proved to be a tough negotiator of contracts with the Habs when he signed as a free agent on November 6. Knowing full well the club's financial capabilities, he held out for and received a $5,000 remuneration from the Canadiens.

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Not only were the Habs extremely popular in the city of Montreal, but the Canadiens success as two time Stanley Cup champions had spread well beyond the borders of Canada. During the season, team owner Leo Dandurand had received and accepted an offer from France promoter Jeff Dickson to bring the Candiens overseas after the season's end for a tournament involving European clubs. The owner fixed a sum of $25,000 for such an appearance.

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The Canadiens held out great hopes for the 1931-32 season, as the core of the team were all aged between 25 and 30, and about to enter their prime. Munro was the eldest at 31, Jean Pusie, Gus Rivers, Alexandre and George Mantha, all in their early 20's. The team's longest serving citizens were now Joliat and Morenz, 30 and 29 respectively, and the two stars were each three time Stanly Cup champions. The team's top defenseman were Sylvio Mantha and Albert Leduc, both 29.

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As expected, the Canadiens were once again one of the NHL's best clubs when the season began, but the competition for their supremacy was heated. As two time Cup champs, all teams in the league brought their best forth against the Habs. With the Pittsburgh and Ottawa franchises disbanding, the league dispersal draft shored up the weaker clubs - namely the Red Wings and Americans - first. The Canadiens added no players from the draft as little quality remained when their turn came up.

The Maple Leafs had made great off season additions to the aforementioned Senators detriment, and a resurgent Maroons club made a $40,000 bid for the services of the Bruins Eddie Shore - the NHL's most fearsome blueliner. Fortunately for the Canadiens, Boston didnt bite while its team fortunes waned, knowing full well that Shore was a franchise element.

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The Canadiens slow start to the season could be attributed to none of the eight remaining teams being the pushovers they were one season prior, thanks to the parity in the aftermath of the dispersal draft. Likely because of this, it took the Canadiens some time to get rolling in 1931-32.

Perhaps an omen to Habs fate this season occurred when a July 15 edition of La Presse erroneously sent shockwaves across the Habs fanbase when it mistakenly reported the death of goalie George Hainsworth. The Canadiens puckstopper was alive and well, and the mistake was explained within hours of the paper hitting the streets.

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Nonetheless, the season would be eventful for Hainsworth, as he would set a new NHL career benchmark for shutouts on December 10 in a win over the New York Americans. With the whitewash, he passed the Red Wings Alex Connell in marking his 64th career whitewash.

The Canadiens began the newly expanded 48 game season by being a rather ordinary team until after Christmas. During the season's first 20 games, they managed to win back to back contests only once. It was difficult to comprehend why the Cup champions now seemed so average. When the calendar year of 1931 came to a close, the Canadiens owned a dismal record of 7-8-3, closer to the bottom of the Canadian Division to the top of it.

A tragedy almost befell the Canadiens entourage on Christmas day. The 4 year old daughter of defenseman Albert Leduc swallowed an aluminum toy whistle and lost consciousness. The courageous father, acted immediately, and after long desperate minutes, managed to retrieve the toy blocking the young girls windpipe and she was soon revived.

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Typical of how things were going for the Canadiens early on, was an oddity that occurred on December 2. A league rule stipulating that goaltenders had to serve their own penalties resulted in a Canadiens loss when netminder Hainswworth sat in the box while defenseman Albert Leduc tended goal. The rearguard would surrender the winning goal in a Blackhawks 2-1 win.

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Early in January, after going 1-3-1 in a five game span, the Canadiens finally began to resemble themselves. Over the final half of the schedule, the Habs went on a 16-5-3 tear, and reclaimed their Canadian Division supremacy for the fourth time in five seasons. Despite the deceiving start, the Canadiens ended with a record of 25-16-7 - the NHL's best - and they were seen as favorites once more in the Stanley Cup run.

Seemingly, the Canadiens newfound winning ways also had a benefit to their fanbase. Jean - Louis Lefebvre, a 40 year old veteran of World War I, who had lost use of his voice during combat, refound the joys of exclamation thanks to a goal by the Canadiens Johnny Gagnon in January. Listening in to a CKAC broadcast of a Habs and Red Wings game at the Forum on the 30th of the month, Lefebvre jumped and shouted with glee as Morenz passed the puck to Gagnon, leading to his third goal on the night, giving Montreal a 4-3 edge. A similar occurrance would happen years later in 1957, when paralyzed cardiac arrest victim Jean-Marie Pelletier would regain his speech thanks to Maurice "Rocket" Richard's fourth goal on the night.

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In addition to claiming the O'Brien Cup for the NHL regular season title, the Canadiens also earned their fourth Kennedy Cup by winning the season series against the Maroons. In seven years of existance, the Canadiens dominated their cross town rivals by a 4-1-2 score.

Howie Morenz was again a force for the Habs, effective as ever on the way to winning his third Hart Trophy in five seasons. Finishing third in scoring with 24 goals and 25 assists, Morenz was still seen as the best drawing card the NHL had and was awarded the trophy much in part for his second half play that led to the Habs resurgeance as the league's top team.

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Perhaps motivating Morenz, were former NHL'er Cy Denneny's career marks for goals and points. As the season wound down, it looked as though Denneny's goal standard of 246 was safe, temporarily, but his total points record of 341 was firmly within reach. Morenz attacked the season's three final contests on a mission, notching a goal and three assists in all three games to surpass Denneny.. The record for goals scored would be his in another two seasons, a record Morenz would hold until being surpassed by Nels Stewart in 1937.

Other Canadiens players had strong seasons, starting with Hainsworth. Not only did he lead the league in wins with 25, he was third in shutouts with six, and his goals against average was a miniscule 2.20 - good for third in the NHL as well.

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After Morenz, five other Habs shooters hit for double digits in goals scored. Second line center Pit Lepine matched Johnny Gagnon's 19 goals, while Wildor Larochelle - very consistent all season - scored a career high 18. Reliable as a clock, Aurele Joliat put in 15-24—39 totals on the year, and was awarded the first team left wing position on the All Star team for his efforts. Forward Nick Wasnie chipped in another 10 goals for a Habs attack that finished the season with 128 goals to their credit.

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Three Canadiens were represented on the year end All Star squad, with Morenz sharing first team honours with Joliat, and Sylvio Mantha earning a second team nod on defense. Inexplicably, coach Hart - whose team finished in first place - was usurped by Lester Patrick and Dick Irvin, of the second and third place Rangers and Leafs respectively. Hainsworth was also shafted for an All Star merit, as Roy Worters of the New York Americans was given the second team honours, despite playing for a last place club and giving up 31 more goals than Hainsworth.

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As the playoffs were about to get underway, it was again the Canadiens who were the favorites to win a third straight Cup, and matched up against the American Division champion New York Rangers in a best of five. The Rangers had finished with a 23-17-4 record and were led by 33 goal scorer Bill Cook.

It was assumed in Montreal that the Rangers would be easily handled by the Canadiens. The teams met six times on the season. Montreal lost 4-1 to the Blueshirts on opening night, tied them 2-2 at the Forum on December 16, and were blown out of the water at Madison Square three night later by a 6-2 score. After the Canadiens second half turnaround, the Rangers were of little concerns in successive wins of 5-3, 4-1, and 3-1. The team's last meeting occurred on February 13, and the Rangers were poor down the stretch, going 4-7-3 in their final 14 games after the last defeat to the Canadiens. Montreal, in that same span, had gone 9-2-2.

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The series began with two games on Forum ice, and the Canadiens pulled off a tight 4-3 win in Game 1. Two nights later, the Habs lost a rugged overtime battle to the Rangers, succumbing by a 4-3 score. The loss would prove costly, as Joliat and Morenz were visibly hobbled, but played on. With little time for injuries to heal, Montreal were at MSG one night later, losing a 1-0 heartbreaker that seemed to dash the club's hopes.

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With Morenz being shut down and Joliat on the limp, the Canadiens two most effective forwards in the series became Armand Mondou and Wildor Larochelle. More bad news awaited, with word than Pit Lepine was out for the playoffs. A listless group of Canadiens were no match for the Rangers on March 29, and the Broadway Blueshirts ran off with a 5-2 win. There would be no Stanley Cup party at the Windsor Hotel this spring.

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Bolstered by their slaying of the two time Cup champs, the Rangers advanced directly to the final, and it was no surprise to followers that their opponant turned out to be the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs had been quite a story all season, thanks in great part to the emergence of the "Kid Line", composed of Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson. The trio were far and away the NHL's top line all season in accounting for 75 of their team's goals. With Jackson the youngest at 21, scoring 28 goals, and Primeau the eldest racking up an amazing 37 assists, the line was rounded out by the 22 year old Conacher, who netted 34 tallies.

Toronto, and it's Kid Line, made meat of Blackhawks goalie Chuck Gardiner, while blowing Chicago off in two games. After taking the Maroons to sudden death in the second contest, the Leafs advanced to meet the Rangers in the Cup conquest.

As strong as the Rangers appeared with their manhandling of the Canadiens, they proved no match for the Leafs. Toronto swept the final, by scores of 6-4, 6-2, and 6-4. The final series was termed the "Tennis Round" back in the day, as the scoresheet outcomes read like a win at Wimbledon.

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The claiming of the Lord Stanley mug for Toronto proved to be perfect timing for the franchise's first Cup. With Maple Leaf Gardens opening that season, there was no better outcome that hockey pioneer Conn Smythe could have hoped for to launch his dream during the Depression era.

In terms of Canadiens history, this particular Cup win by the Maple Leafs would hardly prove incidental. While it would be another ten years before the Leafs would triumph again, the 1932 win became the launching pad for the careers of two astute hockey thinkers who would go on to play a pivotal role in Habs history.

The 1931 Leafs had started off on an even worse course than the Canadiens this season. Winless after five games, the Leafs fired coach Art Duncan, and Smythe replaced him with former Blackhawks boss Dick Irvin. Irvin's strict no nonsense approach would mold the Leafs into a Cup winner in short order. They became perennial Cup contenders for the duration of the 1930's, appearing in five of the next seven finals with no titles to boast of. Irvin would be dismissed by the Leafs in the summer of 1940, joining the Canadiens shortly thereafter.

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Frank Selke had been Smythe's partner in Toronto since 1929. Their allegiance at that time had been built on a mutual respect as long time rivals, but the two proud men may just have been two similar to one another for the partnership to endure. At the turn of the 1940's, the Maple Leafs began to hit their stride as a team. With Cup wins in 1942 and 1945, Selke received great credit on the homefront, while Smythe was overseas serving in World War II. A legendary falling out occurred when Selke robbed the Canadiens in a 1943 trade involving Ted Kennedy, without consulting Smythe on the matter. The player the Canadiens received - Frank Eddolls - was a Smythe favorite, although he had never suited up for Toronto. Angered that he had not been briefed, a rift grew into an intolerance for Selke and Smythe. Their parting of ways led Selke directly to the Canadiens in 1946.

Irvin and Selke's firings would lead to the formation of a tandem the likes of which were never before seen in Montreal, setting the stage for the building of the powerhouse team that followed. In seasons to come, both moves would be seen as pivotal moments in Montreal Canadiens history.

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