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 well as 27 penalty minutes.
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. During that same stretch of time, he also registered 238 penalty minutes, amounting to at least one penalty in every game. His highest total was 51 penalty minutes in only 19 games in 1914-15.
After not playing in 1917-18 due to a wartime exception on the condition he not play professional hockey, he would join the Ottawa Senators for his first NHL season the following year, registering 13 points in 18 games with the team.
Cleghorn would write later, quote:
Kennedy had said this because Cleghorn had suffered two leg fractures but Cleghorn felt he was ready.
Cleghorn had wired Tommy Gorman in Ottawa stating, quote:
“Give me a chance to show you that my legs are good and I’ve still got my stuff.” The response was come and show that you do, which Cleghorn did.
In 1919-20, he would record 21 points in 21 games, along with 85 penalty minutes. He would help lead the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup in 1920 and 1921. In the 1921 run to the Stanley Cup, Cleghorn had three points in five games, and nine penalty minutes. Despite being a star player in Ottawa, he was never popular there/
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 for one year.
For the rest of his career, whenever he played against former Ottawa teammates, Cleghorn would often take cheap shots and instigate brawls in a personal vendetta.
Speaking of joining the St. Pat’s, Cleghorn would write, quote:
“At Toronto I teamed with Harry Cameron on the defense. Mitchell was in goal and we won the second section of the split schedule with the aid of Babe Dye, Ken Randall, Corbett Denneny, Reg Noble, Doc Smillie and Bill Stewart.”
In 1921-22, Cleghorn would find himself playing for the Montreal Canadiens, where he would also play with his brother Odie.
Cleghorn would write, quote:
“The situation with regard to Canadiens had changed. George Kennedy, who had never entirely recovered from the effects of the Canadien’s trip to the coast at the close of the 1919 season, when the whole club was stricken with influenza and Joe Hall died out there, finally succumbed. Control of the Canadien Hockey Club had been purchased by a Dandurand-Cattarinich-Leoumeau combination and those gentlemen were just as keen to have me on their payroll as I was anxious to play in Montreal…In that fashion, I returned to Montreal to play on the same team with Odie and I was very happy about it. “
Cleghorn would describe his time with the Canadiens as the most pleasant of his hockey memories.
He would say of his time, quote:
“My reason for holding especially friendly recollections of my association with the Canadien Hockey Club does not come from pride in my achievements while I was wearing a Canadien sweater, so much as from my appreciation of the comradeship and understanding between the owners of the club and the men on their payroll. Through four seasons there was never the whisper of an argument between us. I signed a blank contract at the beginning of winter. The owners fixed my salary. I never asked the Canadien management for an increase and I always got it if it was coming to me on the record.”
His best season with the team was 1921-22 when he had 26 points in 24 games, and 80 penalty minutes, which was second among NHL defencemen for the year. For the next three seasons, Cleghorn would be named Captain of the Canadiens, and as Captain he would win the Stanley Cup in 1923-24, the last of his career. That same season, he would place second in Hart Trophy voting, losing to Senators forward Frank Nighbor.
In his last season with the Canadiens, 1924-25, he would record 18 points in 27 games and hit a career high in penalty minutes with 89.
By this point, he was beginning to feel his age on the ice. He would write in 1935, quote:
At the end of the season, he was sold to the Boston Bruins for $5,000, or $75,000 in today’s funds. The move to Boston was done on his blessing, with Canadien’s management stating that Art Ross wanted him in Boston to steady the new team as a veteran. Cleghorn would say, quote:
“Ross was my old friend since school days. I knew nothing of Charles F. Adams then but I did know that Art Ross was the white-haired boy in his hockey enterprise. I made my deal with Ross and Charles Adams accepted the terms without a murmur.”
In his three seasons with the Bruins, he served as an unofficial captain and was also the assistant coach in his last year. It was with the Bruins that he helped serve as a mentor to an up and coming defenceman by the name of Eddie Shore.
Cleghorn would say, quote:
“I broke him in the big time and I claim some credit for making Shore the stand-out defenseman he is today. He had a lot of stuff when he joined us, but there were still things he needed to learn and I taught him those things.”
In those three seasons, he had 23 points in 109 games, along with 147 penalty minutes. In 1925-26, he would again place second in Hart Trophy voting, losing this time to Maroons forward Nels Stewart.
At the end of his career, his 148 points was second all-time among NHL defencemen, behind only George Boucher, and his 85 goals was third behind Boucher and Harry Cameron.
While his time in the NHL was done, he would play one season for the Newark Bulldogs, where he served as a player-manager. This was followed by his last season of professional hockey in 1929-30 with the Providence Reds. In his two seasons coaching the Reds, he led the team to 47 wins and 22 losses. In 1929-30, the team won the league championship, and lost in the second round in 1930-31.
I need to take some time away from talking about his statistics to talk about the player that he was. Cleghorn is considered one of the greatest defencemen in NHL history, but also one of the nastiest players to ever take to the ice. It was said that he played as if he was unfamiliar completely with the rules of hockey. His stick was used with skill to score goals and lead his team to victory, but it was also used on his opponents. Many players on opposing teams stayed clear of wherever Cleghorn was on the ice.
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?”
Going back to his vendettas against Ottawa players, in one game against Ottawa he injured Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, Tommy Gorman and Eddie Gerard. This all resulted in police action and the league made moves to ban Cleghorn for life but two teams would not agree to the ban.
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.
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.”
In 1931-32, Cleghorn became the coach of the Montreal Maroons, taking them to 19 wins and 22 losses, which allowed them to finish third in the Canadian Division. Making it into the playoffs, the team was eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs.
In 1935, he was hired to coach the Pittsburgh Shamrocks of the IHL but he was fired after getting into an argument with Ray Babcock, the president of the club, over his salary. The media said that Cleghorn had refused to leave with the team for a game in Windsor because he claimed the team had not been paid yet. The ownership of the Shamrocks said that Cleghorn did not join the team because he had been suspended for misconduct covering the previous month. In response, on March 14, 1936, Cleghorn filed a lawsuit claiming he was owed $420 in salary, plus a $1,000 bonus.
The last coaching job for Cleghorn would be with the Cornwall Cougars, which lasted for one month. After going winless in their first six games, and losing 11-0 at home, he was fired.
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.
On June 29, 1956 while walking to work in Montreal, he was hit by a car and sustained severe head injuries and a fractured vertebrae. He would die two weeks later on July 12 at the age of 66.
Cleghorn was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958 and The Hockey News would rank him as the 88th greatest player of all-time.
Following Cleghorn’s death, his brother Odie would say of him “He was my brother and I don’t like to boast but I never saw a tougher or better defenceman than Sprague.”
Two days later, Odie died in his sleep, only hours prior to Sprague’s funeral.
In speaking of his life and hockey as a profession in 1935, Cleghorn would say, quote:
“Hockey is the finest game on earth. Your boy today has advantages which Odie and Sprague Cleghorn never imagined back in 1910. The game is organized, settled, controlled. Frank Calder, undoubtedly the biggest individual in professional hockey in 1934, was once a schoolmaster. The young players your son will meet and associate with will be educated as he is. Many of them will be university graduates. Their manners, their general outlook on life and living are better, finer. And, always providing that your boy does not lose his sense of proportion, no occupation in Canada equals professional hockey for a young man, for a few years, in financial rewards. If he has the hockey instinct. Would I do the same again, supposed that I had the chance? You bet your life I would.”
Information comes from the Hockey Hall of Fame, Wikipedia, EliteProspects, NHL.com, HockeyDB, Canadiens.com, HabsLegends, Maclean’s