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Lady Byng and the violence of Sprague Cleghorn

The Lady Byng Memorial Award is given out annually to the player who exhibits the best types of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct in the National Hockey League. Anze Kopitar is the most recent winner, the second time in his career that he received this honour. Martin St. Louis won it three times. Frank Boucher, a record seven times.

But this article is not about these men.

This is not about the men who exhibited the sort of decorum and restraint that behoved the Lady Byng Memorial Award. It is about the man whose on-ice play was so foul, so violent, so disturbing, that upon seeing this man play, Marie Evelyn Moreton, the Lady Byng, wife of the Viscount Byng of Vimy, Governor General of Canada, was so repulsed by his tactics that she was inspired to present a trophy to the NHL that would celebrate the very polar opposite behaviour.

Sprague Cleghorn.

Sprague was born in the Montreal suburb of Westmount in 1890, followed a year later by his brother Odie.

From an early age, Sprague caused problems on the ice. At 19 he was all but thrown out of the American Amateur Hockey League where he caused “an undue amount of roughness” while playing for the New York Wanderers. The ejection forced him to turn professional, signing with the Renfrew Creamery Kings of the National Hockey Association in January 1911 along with his brother Odie. Shortly after making his professional debut, Cleghorn encountered one of his greatest rivals, the Montreal Canadiens captain Newsy Lalonde. It seemed like any time these two players met on the ice violence erupted, right from their first meeting on January 27 when they came to blows for the first time, and throughout their careers as two fierce competitors.

Their most notorious collision occurred a few days before Christmas 1912, where Cleghorn was arrested by Toronto police following an on-ice incident against Lalonde during a Wanderers/Canadiens tilt. Lalonde, who was no slouch in his own right, had gathered a few penalties during the game — notably for running the goaltender — and just before the final whistle he cross-checked Odie Cleghorn across the mouth, sending the player to the ground with blood pooling.

Upon seeing his brother injured, Sprague rushed at Lalonde, and the two engaged in a vicious battle, culminating with Sprague swinging his stick and hitting Lalonde above the eye, busting him open and knocking him out. The police, who had already rushed out onto the ice to try and stop the melee, arrested Sprague for the attack. NHA President Emmett Quinn immediately suspended Cleghorn indefinitely pending the official report from the referee and fined him $25. Lalonde was seen as the aggressor in this case, and was also fined $25 but Sprague’s retaliation was seen as much worse, especially given his reputation.

Cleghorn appeared a few days later in a Toronto court to answer charges of aggravated assault. Eyewitness accounts and character references were made in front of the judge, but it was Newsy Lalonde’s letter that seemed to hold the most sway with the judge. The letter read as such:

“Sprague saw his brother fall and saw that he was bleeding and apparently lost control of himself when he saw his brother was injured. As far as I am concerned, I do not hold any hard feelings against Sprague for having struck me, and I do not desire him to be punished further.”

Historically-speaking, this letter from Lalonde could be considered a watershed precedent for ‘what happens on the ice, stays on the ice’. The letter resonated with the judge, who took into account that Lalonde didn’t want to press charges and that the NHA had already fined and suspended Cleghorn, and elected to fine him an additional $50 and release him on probation.

Initially, Cleghorn was suspended by the NHA for four weeks but the suspension was lifted after a week, infuriating a Quebec team who were eager to not face him as the Wanderers’ next opponent. If Cleghorn had the opportunity to change his ways following a brush with the law, he certainly did not seize it, earning himself two major penalties in the match against Quebec for excessive roughing.

When not taking liberty with opponents’ anatomy, Sprague was a remarkable skater, and is considered the first offensive defenceman in NHA/NHL history. He would be known for completing rink-long rushes with the puck and swiftly putting the puck past baffled goaltenders. He led the Wanderers in scoring in 1914-15 with 21 goals and 33 points, good enough for third overall in the entire league. During his 17-year pro career, he played 474 games, scoring 167 goals and adding 93 assists. If he were just known for this, then he would still have been somewhat remembered, but, of course, it was his brutality that left an impression on historians.

After the dissolution of the Wanderers in 1918, the League took over the players’ rights but allowed them to sign contracts with a team. In December 1918, Cleghorn signed with the Senators, failing to agree to a contract with Canadiens’ owner George Kennedy, unlike his brother Odie who signed with the Canadiens. In 1920 Sprague led the Senators to Stanley Cup glory, however, the League insisted that he still belonged to the them and ordered him to report to the Toronto St. Pats in December 1920 to try and level out the competition in the league. Cleghorn refused to report, setting off a messy dispute between Ottawa, the NHL, Toronto, and Cleghorn. Initially, Cleghorn was to be loaned to Toronto for the first half of the season, and then Ottawa would get him back for the second half of the season with unconditional rights. Since Cleghorn refused to report, he was suspended by the League while Ottawa argued that he needs to be returned to them, a position that was protested by the other teams in the league who believed that it would make Ottawa too strong. Cleghorn eventually joined Toronto by the end of January 1921 when they offered him a record-breaking contract for the second half of the season. Ottawa demanded his return in March for the playoffs, but Cleghorn stayed with Toronto. When Ottawa faced Toronto in the playoffs, Cleghorn played so poorly that he was scratched by Toronto for the final game. He was transferred back to Ottawa for the Stanley Cup Challenge series against Vancouver, helping Ottawa win a second straight Cup.

His contract ran out with Ottawa at the end of the year, and since he was still considered under League control, he was assigned to the Hamilton team on November 16, 1921, but once again refused to report. Ultimately, Hamilton would trade him to the Canadiens on December 3, 1921, completing a very tumultuous calendar year for him, including his first divorce in July, wedged in between the Toronto and Hamilton drama. With Kennedy gone from the Canadiens, Cleghorn was more than happy to bury the hatchet with the organization, join his brother, and set his sights on the Senators — whom he blamed for three messy contractual seasons.

Cleghorn unloaded all his frustrations on January 7, 1922 in a game against Ottawa, running around headhunting all the Ottawa players, including goaltender Clint Benedict. Cleghorn earned himself six minor penalties and one major. “Cleghorn simply ran amuck,” wrote the Ottawa Citizen after the game. “His attack on Clint Benedict, the Senators’ goalkeeper, was extremely brutal and committed without the slightest provocation. He jabbed Benedict in the face with the butt end of his stick and it’s miraculous that his victim was not maimed for life. The offender was given a five-minute penalty by Referee Smeaton but that fell a long way short of fitting the offence. Cleghorn openly slashed George Boucher across the face, causing a deep gash on that player’s nose and he also disabled Frank Nighbor’s left arm with a wicked blow which landed above the elbow.”

Ottawa and the Canadiens developed a volatile rivalry, with Cleghorn usually at the centre, but the games in general were rough affairs. The most notorious occurred on March 7, 1923, during the NHL Championship final between the Canadiens and the Senators where things escalated to a riotous level. Growing frustrated that they were unable to match the Senators on the scoresheet, several Canadiens players allowed frustration to take over. As Ottawa’s Cy Denneny broke a scoreless tie halfway through the second period, Canadiens defender Billy Couture slashed Denneny over the head sending him crashing to the ground. The match penalty that Couture received enraged the fans at Mount Royal arena who were already critical that Marsh was favouring Ottawa, having assessed three minors to Aurele Joliat in the first period alone. They began throwing bottles and other projectiles, and the game was concluded among a flurry of chaos, and two stoppages for cleaning the ice surface and desperate calls for calm from the referees. As the game was ending, Cleghorn attacked Lionel Hitchman, bringing his stick down on the rookie like a lumberjack trying to split a log. Assessing another match penalty, referee Lou Marsh was assaulted by the fans as he tried to leave the ice, and police had to escort the Ottawa players and the referee out of the arena. As famous as the Richard Riot is in Montreal, this event in 1923 was just as bad, if not worse, because it was triggered by sheer rowdyism devoid of any cultural revolution.

The sports editors of the Ottawa Journal wrote the following day that Cleghorn “should have been given a jail term” for his assault on Hitchman. Leo Dandurand, head coach and general manager of the Canadiens, was so incensed by the behaviour of Couture and Cleghorn, that he suspended them both and left them in Montreal for the final game of the Championship, which Ottawa would go on to win.

On February 3, Sprague once again was involved in a disturbing incident against the Senators. First he butt-ended Hitchman to the head, then he destroyed Boucher’s knee with a vigorous check. The incident incited Calder to suspend Cleghorn indefinitely pending an investigation.

Witness to all of this violence on the ice was Marie Evelyn Moreton, formally known as Lady Byng of Vimy. Ever since she first saw ice hockey played upon arriving to Canada in 1921, she quickly gained an appreciation for the sport of ice hockey. She would seldom miss an Ottawa home game, sitting in her customary vice-regal box along with her husband and a rotating cast of dignitaries and marveling at the skills showcased by her favourite Ottawa players. But she disliked the more degenerate aspects of the game.

By 1925 as her husband’s role as Governor General of Canada was winding down and they were preparing to return back to the United Kingdom, Lady Byng wrote to Calder to present the idea of a challenge cup to be awarded to the cleanest and most efficient player in the League. She desired to help the movement to make the game clean and to eliminate the needless rough play which, at the time, she considered a threat to the game.

“Feeling a great desire to help your effort to ‘clean up hockey’ and eliminate the needless rough play that at present is a threat to the national game, and also to leave a tangible record of the enjoyment I personally have had from the game during our sojourn in Canada, I am writing to ask you if you will let me offer a challenge cup for the man on any team in the National Hockey League, who, while being thoroughly effective, is also a thoroughly clean player.

“I am convinced that the public desires good sport, not the injuring of players, and if, by donating this challenge cup, I can in any way help towards this end, it will give me a great deal of pleasure.”


The award was won a few weeks later by Senators player Frank Nighbor, a player that Lady Byng would have seen play numerous times throughout the season, and who she had great admiration for. The year prior Nighbor became the first winner of the Hart Trophy, and while making the new trophy presentation to Nighbor, Lady Byng noted that Cleghorn was runner-up for the Hart despite being second in the league in penalties, and that she was presenting Nighbor with a new trophy for good clean play, a category Cleghorn was certainly nowhere near the running for.

Cleghorn was sold to the Boston Bruins in 1925 with his blessing, where he would serve as a veteran mentor and captain for a young Boston team, including a rookie by the name of Eddie Shore whom he would mould in his own image.

Before he left Montreal, a banquet was thrown at the Windsor Hotel in honour of the Cleghorn brothers by the Canadiens to thank them for their years of service to the club, including the final three as team captain for Sprague. The banquet guest list was a who’s who of hockey dignitaries, including Frank Calder and various representatives of every NHL team. For all the violence that he dished out on the ice, Cleghorn was held in extremely high esteem by those who ran the league.

King Clancy once said of Cleghorn that he “was a terrible man to play against. A terrific stickhandler, a master of the butt-end and tough. Holy Jesus he was tough.”

Sprague died on July 12, 1956, after succumbing to injuries from being struck by a car in the street of Montreal a few weeks earlier. Newsy Lalonde, Sprague’s eternal rival, suffered a heart attack upon learning of the death of Sprague. Odie died two days later in his sleep.

Sprague rests at Mount-Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

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