In the early days of hockey, one of the most dominant players in NHL history was the man they called Old Poison, better known as Nels Stewart.
Born in Montreal on Dec. 29, 1902 as Robert Nelson Stewart, he would play hockey on the outdoor ponds and rinks of Toronto for most of his youth. He grew up with Hooley Smith, a lifelong friend who he would play on the Maroons with, and who he would join in the Hockey Hall of Fame decades later. For the most part, Stewart played in city leagues during his youth, including with the Parkdale Canoe Club in 1919-20 when he had 20 points in eight games. When he turned 18, he signed with the Cleveland Indians of the United States Amateur Hockey Association, beginning his hockey career.
Stewart would spend the next five seasons with the team, leading the team in scoring four out of five seasons and registering 29 points in 1923-24. His play was good enough to gain the notice of the NHL, and he was signed by the Montreal Maroons, a new team in the league. At the same time Stewart was signed, the team also picked up Babe Siebert, another Hall of Fame player. Also on the team were Clint Benedict, Punch Broadbent and Reg Noble. Not bad for a new team. The team would quickly rise to the top of the league, winning the Stanley Cup in 1925-26. In his first season with the team, Stewart had 42 points in 36 games, along with 119 penalty minutes. In the playoffs on the way to the Cup, he had seven points in four games. His skill with the stick was evident in that series. In the first game, he was hit by Clem Loughlin of the Cougars, and separated by the puck by five feet. While sliding on the ice, he hooked the puck with his stick and pushed it past Hap Holmes to score. In the second game, he was hit by two Cougars players at once, and while off balance, stayed on one foot and shot the puck in the net. It was because of his accuracy as a shooter that he gained the nickname, Old Poison.
To sum things up that year, his first year in the NHL, Stewart won the Stanley Cup, led the league in scoring and points and won the Hart Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the NHL. If the Calder Trophy existed at the time, he would have won that too. Few players have won the Hart as a rookie, but one of them was named Wayne Gretzky.
On of the interesting aspects of Stewart was that he was not a great skater, and often appeared to be sluggish on the ice. His critics called his skating lazy and careless. Never someone to do end-to-end rushes, he instead focused on having a hard-hitting style, working on scoring from bad angles and collecting rebounds and staying at the mouth of the net.
Art Ross would call Stewart, quote:
“The greatest inside player in the game.”
While some would state that he was collecting garbage goals, his style would later be adapted by other NHL greats, including Phil Esposito.
For the next seven seasons, Stewart would shine for the Maroons, reaching a career high of 55 points in 44 games in 1929-30, earning himself a second Hart Trophy for his efforts. On Jan. 3, 1931, Stewart scored two goals in four seconds against the Bruins, setting a record that would last until December of 1995.
Sadly, the team was not doing well financially, and at the end of 1931-32, Stewart was sold to the Boston Bruins, where his dazzling play would continue. In his three seasons with the team, he had 36 points once and 39 points twice. He accomplished this while playing defense quite a bit, which still allowed him to finish second on the team in points.
In 1934, Stewart was selected to be one of the NHL All-Stars who faced off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Ace Bailey Benefit Game.
In 1935, Stewart was traded to the New York Americans, where he would spend the remainder of his career with except for a brief time with the Boston Bruins in 1936-37. Through those seasons, he tended to do well on the ice, earning 36 points in 1937-38 in 48 games, and in his last season he still put forth 13 points in 35 games in 1939-40.
In 1936, he passed Howie Morenz for the most goals all-time in NHL history at that point.
Upon his retirement, Stewart had 324 goals and 191 assists for 515 points in 650 games. His goal total would remain an NHL record until it was broken by Maurice Richard in 1952. For 16 years, no player had scored more goals than Stewart, which no small accomplishment. He was also the first NHL player to score more than 300 goals.
When Richard surpassed Stewart in goals, Stewart sent a telegram to congratulate him on beating the record. Richard would say at the time, quote:
“It was the greatest thrill of my hockey career.”
During his career, Stewart had a reputation for not only being a clutch goal scorer, but also a player with a hard and heavy shot that injured goaltenders. In 1928 for example, Stewart hit Lorne Chabot in the left eye, giving him a hemorrhage. He was also known for being ferocious on the ice as a pest and fighter. He would often chew tobacco on the ice and spit it into the goaltenders’ eyes. If his teammates were being pushed around, he stood up for them and never backed down from a fight. He often used his stick to ward off opponents, often slashing with two hands across the wrists and ankles of opposing players.
Cooper Smeaton, an NHL referee, would say of Stewart, quote:
Of course, not everyone saw him in that light. Another referee, Bobby Hewitson, said quote:
“I always felt that Stewart had an exaggerated reputation. I never thought he was such a great player. Nels was big and tall but awfully lazy. He would not backcheck and he would just stand around the net waiting for the centering pass, then flip the puck in. That much he could do. We used to say that Nels stood in one spot all the time.”
For several years in his retirement, he would coach the Port Colborne Sailors of the Senior Ontario Hockey Association, as well as in St. Catherine’s.
On Aug. 21, 1957, Stewart suffered a heart attack at his summer home in Wasaga Beach, Ontario and was found dead soon after.
In 1962, Stewart was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 1998, he was ranked #51 on the list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players.
While Stewart would have a large impact on hockey as a player, he would also impact it as a coach. In 1942-43, he would encounter a young Ted Kennedy while coaching the Port Colborne Saints. Kennedy was not fast, but he was good on his feet and had excellent stickhandling. Stewart said to Kennedy that to compensate for the lack of speed, he could become a great playmaker and learn how to work the corners. He would work continuously with Kennedy to improve his games. The next season, Kennedy would debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs and over the course of 696 games, he would have 560 points, and became the last Maple Leaf to win the Hart Trophy. He would also help lead the Maple Leafs to five Stanley Cups, becoming the first player to ever win that number of Cups.
Oddly, while Stewart was certainly a hockey legend, he is mostly forgotten today and it is believed that it was because his play was far from pretty compared to people like Howie Morenz and Eddie Shore, and he played mostly for two teams that no longer exist, The Montreal Maroons and the New York Americans. His rough and bullying play on the ice also did not win him many fans outside of his home rinks.
Information comes from Hockey Hall of Fame, Wikipedia, Montreal Maroons Greatest Players, HockeyGods.com, Sportsnet.ca,