Phantom Joe Malone

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CraigBaird

I’m going to play a clip from a game on Dec. 30, 1981. It involved the setting of a record that may never be broken.

Gretzky would finish with 92 goals that season. It is a stunning record, but what if I told you that there was someone who if he had of played a full modern season he would have had 50 goals in 23 games, but also double the goal total of Gretzky’s season record?

The name of Joe Malone has stood the test of time. He played his last NHL game almost 100 years ago and when I was thinking of who to start my first episode with, Malone was the first person who came to mind. A player who holds a record that has stood for 100 years, one of the first superstars of the NHL and someone who still ranks highly in terms of the greatest players in the history of the game.

I could spend this episode just talking about his accomplishments as a player, his Stanley Cups, his ability to score at a pace that wouldn’t be seen again until a guy named Wayne Gretzky came along. Instead, I am going to start at the beginning.

Maurice Joseph Malone was born on Feb. 28, 1890 in Sillery, Quebec, where he would spend his youth along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, playing hockey, lacrosse and baseball. He would first turn professional with the Quebec Crescents of the QAHA in 1907-08, before moving on to the Quebec Bulldogs the following year. That year, he would show his goal scoring abilities with eight goals in 12 games.  The next season, the National Hockey Association, the precursor to the National Hockey League, would be formed but the Quebec Bulldogs were not part of the league. As a result, Malone would begin playing for the Waterloo Colts in the Ontario Professional Hockey League.

The next season, 1910-11, he would rejoin the Quebec Bulldogs, who were now part of the NHA. In that first season, he had nine goals in 13 games but that total would only increase when in 1911-12 he exploded for 21 goals in 18 games. The Bulldogs would go on to win the Stanley Cup that season, with Malone scoring five goals in two games to help the team reach the championship.

In 1912-13, Malone erupted with 43 goals in only 20 games. To put that in perspective, let’s look at if a player did that in today’s NHL over the course of 82 games.  First, Malone would completely destroy Gretzky’s record of 50 goals in 39 games by getting his 50th goal in only his 23rd game of the season. If that pace continued through the entire season, Malone would finish with 176 goals, almost double the current record of 92 goals in a season. Amazingly, 1912-13 is not even the highest goal total over course of 20 games for Malone. Once again, and for the second time in a row, Malone would help the Bulldogs win the Stanley Cup, recording nine goals in one game. Yes, nine goals, in one game for the Stanley Cup. In fact, Malone and his linemate Jack McDonald accounted for 14 of the team’s 17 goals that night against the challenging team from Moncton.

During his most productive years he would gain the nickname of Phantom because of his swift skating and elusive abilities on the ice, allowing him to move through opposing players like they weren’t even there. In one second he was against the boards, and as a player went to crash into him, Malone was gone down the ice. By the time Malone joined the Montreal Canadiens for the first NHL season in 1917-18, he had recorded an astonishing 179 goals in only 123 games, along with 27 assists for 206 points.

With the NHL now a league and the Quebec Bulldogs not part of the league, Malone went over to the Montreal Canadiens and likely ensured that franchise’s existence to this day. A dispersal draft of sorts was held with the Bulldogs’ players being distributed to the Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. The only provision was that if Quebec joined the league, those players would go back to the Bulldogs. The Wanderers were allowed to pick first and they chose Dave Ritchie, who had 17 goals in 19 games. The Canadiens were next and quickly took Malone.

Why the Wanderers did not choose the clearly superior Malone has been up for debate but it is believed that since Malone was working for the Quebec City government and making more at that job than his hockey job, that he would not leave to play in Montreal. This was a miscalculation that would have lasting ramifications for the NHL. As the NHL’s first season began, the Canadians were coming off their first Stanley Cup win in 1916 and were ready to take over as the most popular club in Montreal. Malone would join a team that included Georges Vezina, Joe Hall and Newsy Lalonde. In his first four games in the NHL, Malone would record 11 goals, including five goals on Dec. 19, 1917 against the Senators, which happened to be the first night of hockey being played in the history of the NHL. This also qualifies as the first natural hat trick in NHL history. You could say that Malone stormed into the NHL like no other. That record of five goals is still unbroken to this day for anyone on the Montreal Canadiens.

Then, on Jan. 2, 1918, a fire destroyed the Westmount Arena, home to the Wanderers and Canadians. At the time, the Canadiens had a record of 3-1, while the Wanderers were 1-5. In their three wins, the Canadiens had outscored opponents 27-8, and that put them in a better situation to survive the loss of the arena. Fans want to support a winning team, not a losing one. The Canadiens would go play in the Jubilee Arena and the play of Malone and the success of the team ensured the fans would follow.

Playing for the Canadiens, Malone would record 44 goals in only 20 games by the end of the season. That record would stand until a guy named Rocket Richard scored 50 almost three decades later. That first season of the NHL, Malone also set three NHL records that stand to this day, 103 years later. First, his 44 goals in 20 games is the highest goals-per-game average for one season in NHL history. He also recorded three consecutive three-goal games that year, a record only equaled by Mike Bossy in 1980-81. On top of that, he also recorded the longest consecutive goal-scoring streak from the start of a season in NHL history that year, with 14 games. That streak is also the second longest overall in history. During that 14-game streak he had 35 goals, and at least seven times that season he scored three goals in a game. Twice he scored five goals in a game that season. No player, not even Wayne Gretzky, has scored five goals in a game more than once in a season. As scoring leader of the first season of the NHL, it is likely that Malone would have been awarded the Hart Trophy, if it existed at that point. If the Art Ross and Maurice Richard Trophies existed at the time, he would have won those as well.

The Canadiens would survive that first season, and continue, to this day as the most storied franchise in NHL history, winning 23 Stanley Cups during their time in the NHL. As for the Wanderers, they were out of the NHL in 1918.

A lot of the success of Malone could be attributed to different rules back then, and a different game than we know today, but that is only part of the story. Malone was a legendary player who would have likely succeeded in any era that he happened to play.

In 1961 during an interview with Vern Degeer of The Hockey News, Malone would say of playing in those early years.

“We had a lot of ice time but I’ll tell you we didn’t go up and down the rink like they do today. We’d hustle when opportunities presented and then we’d loaf. At least I did. It was the only way you could go the 60 minutes and a lot of players had to do that.”

As for the goaltending, Malone would tell Degeer:

“I didn’t have the hardest shot in the world but I knew where it was going most of the time. You can’t say as much for the slap shot. With the old wrist shot you looked where you were shooting, trying to pick your spots. With the slap the player has to keep his eye on the puck, like golf, or you’re liable to fan the shot enterly.”

Malone would suffer an injury to his arm the following season and missed most of the season as a result. He appeared in only eight games, registering seven goals and two assists. He played five games in the playoffs but had to pull out of the Final against Seattle because of the injury. That is the same final that was cancelled due to the Spanish Flu.

The Quebec Bulldogs joined the NHL in 1919-20 and Malone joined the club, leading the league in goals with 39. That season, he set another record that stands to this day when he recorded seven goals in one game on Jan. 31, 1920 against Toronto. Of the 10 goals Quebec scored that night, 70 per cent were by Malone. If a player scored seven goals in a game today, highlights would be all over social media, it would be talked about endlessly on sports shows and the player would be heralded as a force to be reckoned with. For Malone, it barely received a mention in newspapers as it was a mid-season meaningless game. The Toronto Star, in its report on the game, spent the first 75 per cent of the article talking about how cold it was for the players, giving only the last paragraph to a brief mention of what Malone had accomplished. The article stated:

“For the locals, Joe Malone was the bright star. The lanky forward had his biggest night of the year, setting up an individual performance that has not yet been equaled this year. He scored seven tallies and played a great game.”

In addition, it was the coldest night of the year and the crowd was sparse. The air was so cold in the arena that Corb Denneny of the Toronto St. Pats actually suffered having his right hand badly frozen. One of the greatest nights in NHL history only had 1,200 people in the stands. In the century since he had that legendary game, only three players, Syd Howe, Red Berenson and Darryl Sittler have scored six goals in a game.

On March 10, he would score six goals in a 10-4 win over Ottawa. Since the Second World War, only two players have scored six goals in a game. Red Berenson of the St. Louis Blues in 1968 and Darryl Sittler of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1976.

In 1920-21, the Bulldogs became the Hamilton Tigers and for the next two seasons with the Tigers, Malone recorded 28 goals in 20 games and 24 goals in 24 games. During that time he also served as both the player and coach.

By this point, Malone was reaching the end of his career and the Canadiens would trade for Malone in 1923. With the team, he recorded only one goal in 20 games playing as a substitute. The next season, he played only ten games and recorded no goals, but he would help the team with Canadiens win the 1924 Stanley Cup, the third of his career. He didn’t play any games in the playoffs, so his name is left off the Cup for that year.

Malone, in that same interview, explains how he knew it was time to retire.

“I took a look at a new kid in our training camp in Grimsby, Ontario and knew right then I was ready for the easy chair. He was Howie Morenz. In practice he moved past me so fast I thought I was standing still. I knew it was time to quit. Besides, I was bothered by a throat ailment. I didn’t want to grow old on the Canadiens’ bench. I had a good job as a tool maker. So I said goodbye. I didn’t stay long enough in 1923-24 to get a goal. Morenz had taken over.”

With his career over, Malone had recorded 143 goals in 126 games in the NHL, along with 32 assists for 175 points. Over the course of his career in the NHA and NHL, he recorded 343 goals and 32 assists. His goal total is the third highest for the first half-century of hockey in the 20th century, behind only Newsy Lalonde and Nels Stewart. Over his NHA/NHL career, he only failed to score at a goal-a-game pace in only four seasons, one of which was his rookie season, the other the season he was injured and played only eight games, and his last two seasons. During his career, he scored five goals or more in a game five times, something that remains the best in league history and ahead of players such as Rocket Richard, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.

In 1950, Malone was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1998, he ranked 39th on the list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players, a list that came 74 years after his last game and 91 years after his professional debut, making him the earliest player on the list. He is also a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

He would pass away on May 15, 1969 in Montreal and is buried at the St. Laurent Cemetery in Montreal.

Information from Vintage Hockey Cards Report, Wikipedia, Our History Canadiens, The Hockey Hall of Fame, Elite Prospects, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, Ottawa Citizen,

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