The NHL has had its fair-share of tough individuals, including the legendary Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s, but few were as tough, or as vicious, as Sprague Cleghorn.
The average hockey fan may not know who Cleghorn was, even though he has been in the Hall of Fame since 1958, but he had a large impact on the early NHL and was one of its greatest players.
Born in 1890 in Montreal, Cleghorn played for a variety of junior and amateur hockey teams until 1909 when he joined the New York Wanderers of the United States Amateur Hockey Association. He would have an immediate impact, scoring seven goals in eight games.
In 1910, he switched to the National Hockey Association, where he played for the Renfrew Creamery Kings with his brother Odie. Playing as a defenceman, he had five goals in 12 games.
As a defenceman, he enjoyed joining the rush and could be considered the first offensive defencemen. For the next six seasons, playing for the Montreal Wanderers, he would have 112 points in 103 games. In 1918-19, he joined the Ottawa Senators, registering 13 points in 18 games with the team. He would help lead the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup.
In 1920, in an attempt to even the playing field in the league, he was transferred by the NHL to the Hamilton Tigers. Refusing to report, the Senators asked the league if he could be brought back. The league threatened to throw Ottawa out of the league if they did, and Cleghorn joined the Toronto St. Patricks, helping them win the Stanley Cup. One year later, he returned to Ottawa and won the 1921 Stanley Cup. Again, transferred to Hamilton he refused to report and would join the Montreal Canadiens for the 1921-22 NHL season.
Playing with his brother Odie, he had 26 points in 24 games and was named captain. He would win another Stanley Cup with them in 1923-24.
Cleghorn’s style of play could only be described as angry. In 1923, he struck Senators defenceman
Lionel Hitchman in the head with a stick and was charged with aggravated assault. His own team suspended him after the incident and fined him. In another incident, he injured three players on the Senators team and Ottawa now attempted to have him removed from the league. One referee called him a disgrace to the game.
Once when bill Brydge gave Cleghorn a knee, elbow and stick, Cleghorn waited and when the time was right, gave Brydge a hit that required 50 stitches. In a later game, after taunting Cleghorn, Ace Bailey was crushed with a hit. Brydge came up to him and said “Stay down you crazy bastard. Do you want to get killed?”
Cleghorn once said he was involved in at least 50 incidents that sent another player off the ice in a stretcher. According to legend, Evelyn Byng was so disturbed by Cleghorn’s playing style that she donated the Lady Byng Trophy to the NHL in 1924 to encourage sportsmanlike playing.
In 1924-25, he was sold to the Boston Bruins for $5,000 where he played the final three seasons of his career. While there, he would serve as a mentor to another tough player, and future Hall-of-Famer, Eddie Shore. In his NHL career, he would have 83 goals and 55 assists for 138 points in 259 games.
Following his career, he would coach various teams briefly, including the Montreal Maroons in 1931-32, winning 19 games and losing 22.
Married three times, his marriages were sometimes rocky. In 1918, he was arrested for beating his first wife with a crutch. His wife would divorce him in 1921 after finding him with another woman. He would remarry twice, with his third wife predeceasing him.
Cleghorn was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, two years after he passed away from his injuries after being hit by a car in Montreal.
Speaking of Cleghorn, King Clancy once said.
“Cleghorn was a terrible man to play against. A terrific stickhandler, a master of the butt-end and tough. Holy Jesus he was tough.”