Throughout the 1920s, there were many stars and one that burned brighter than most was Cy Denneny, the man who would set NHL records that would last for decades and have more Stanley Cup success than most players of that era.
Denneny was born on Dec. 23, 1891, as Cyril Joseph Denneny in Farran’s Point, Ontario, near to Cornwall. The town no longer exists, as it was flooded with the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958. His father was James Denneny, who was one of the best lacrosse players of the 19th century, so sports was in his blood.
Denneny would play senior hockey in Cornwall beginning in 1909-10, before moving on to play for the Cornwall Internationals the following year where he began lighting up the scoresheets. In 1911-12, he would have nine goals in eight games with the team.
That same year, he tried out for the Montreal Canadiens but did not make the team and went back to playing senior hockey.
In 1912-13, he would play for the O’Brien Mine Team of the Cobalt Mining League and was a major reason the team won the league championship that year.
In those days, there were no scouts and players had to find ways to stand out. Denneny would say quote:
“There were few coaches and practically no scouting then. Each player was supposed to dream up his own trick plays and some of them might be useful today but the whole thing is a full-time, year-round business today.”
Denneny would begin playing for the Toronto Shamrocks in 1914-15. That year, he had six goals in eight games, along with 43 penalty minutes. In his next season with the team, he had 24 goals in 24 games and 28 points total. That year, he was joined by his talented brother Corb Denneny. On a line with Duke Keats, the brothers became the top-scoring line in the NHA. It was also in Toronto that fans started to call Denneny the Cornwall Colt.
At the time, he was making $35 per week, about $827 today and he was unhappy with his salary and chose to not play, which got him suspended by manager Eddie Livingstone.
The Montreal Star reported quote:
“Cy Denneny announced in a letter to a Toronto friend yesterday that nothing can coax him into hockey this winter.”
A few weeks later, the Ottawa Journal would write of the matter, stating quote:
“If the Cornwall boy does not play this winter, he will likely be placed on the board of referees in the Ottawa Valley League if it operates. Livvy is expected in Ottawa the latter part of the week to talk matters over with Denneny.
Thankfully, T.P. Gorman would step in and bring him to Ottawa to play lacrosse.
Then, in 1916, Gorman gave the Shamrocks $900 for Denneny so he could play for the Ottawa Senators, and it was with that team he would have the most success and cement his legacy.
Getting that trade done was no easy task. The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“The club tried today to get in touch with Manager Livingstone, of the Toronto team, over the long-distance phone with a trade proposition which it is expected the Toronto magnate will accept and allow Denneny to stay in Ottawa.”
A few days later, word on how much Livingstone wanted had many expecting the trade to fall through. The Victoria Daily Times reported quote:
“Manager Livingstone of the Toronto Hockey Club has announced that he would consider a straight trade of Nighbor for Cy Denneny or sell the young star for $1,800.”
Another few weeks would pass, and the trade offer was now Clint Benedict, a future Hall-of-Famer, for Denneny. The Montreal Star reported quote:
“This was accepted by the Toronto owner, but the Ottawa club backed down. After doing this, the local magnate stated that he would have no further dealings with the Ottawa Club.
Sammy Herbert would go over to Toronto in the trade. Herbert would go on to play two games for Toronto, picking up one goal. He would not be in the NHL again until 1923 when he played another two games with one goal. Without a doubt, Ottawa won the trade. Denneny would say quote:
“I don’t know whether he ever played for the Ontarios or not.”
In his first season with the Senators, he would have only three goals in 10 games, not a high total but that would soon change.
When the NHL started up in 1916-17, Denneny would explode with 36 goals in only 21 games, along with 10 assists. For the next decade, he would never have less than 17 goals in a season, and he quickly cemented himself as one of the best players in the entire league.
In 1917-18, Denneny would set an NHL record by opening the season with four straight multi-point games. This record would be solely his until 2013 when Patrick Marleau tied it.
Denneny was not known for being a fast skater, but he possessed a highly deceptive shot that was considered to be the most accurate in the league. He would also develop tactics that are still used today, including using the opposing defencemen as screens for the goalie. He would also use head fakes to fool the goalie, allowing him to score. Another innovation he had was to use a curved blade, allowing him to use high-rising shots that fooled goaltenders.
Denneny would say years later quote:
His accuracy would also allow him to have a drop shot that would not be seen again until Bobby Hull came along. Denneny would say quote:
“The puck would start high and then drop suddenly. I scored two goals from centre ice in New York with the drop in one night.”
George Hainsworth, one of hockey’s greatest goalies, would say he feared Denneny’s shot more than any other.
In 1920-21, Denneny would score six goals in a game, something only five other players in NHL history have accomplished.
Not one to be pushed around, he also filled the role of enforcer on the team and racked up a lot of penalty minutes. In his years playing in the NHL, Denneny would have 301 penalty minutes, including 80 in 1917-18. It was not until his later career that his penalty minute total began to decline.
Bill Westwick would write of Denneny in 1970 quote:
“The curly-haired, pudgy wingman played in a tough era but there was nothing dirty about Cy who could look after himself but was a mild-mannered and good-natured type all of his life.”
In one game in 1923, Sprague Cleghorn, who formerly played for Ottawa but was now with the Canadiens, carved through his former teammates. Denneny was hit hard in the head but was back two days later, having suffered a concussion. He would score the winning goal in his first game back.
Denneny would state quote:
“There were fewer players then and more feuds. But most of the time individual feuds where one man promised to get the other next game were usually patched up and we settled down to play hockey.”
Despite the rough time he played in, Denneny would say years later he worried about the sport and violence in it. He would state quote:
“It is a wonder somebody hasn’t been seriously hurt, let alone killed. In a sport, where it’s possible to have broken legs and collar bones anything can happen.”
In 1923-24, Denneny led the NHL is scoring with 22 goals and one assist, which is the lowest total anyone has ever led the league with in points.
Denneny would play for the Senators until 1928-29. During that time, he won four Stanley Cups with the team in 1919-20, 1920-21, 1922-23 and 1926-27.
In October of 1928, he would sign with the Boston Bruins. The signing in Boston was not something many in Ottawa greeted with happiness. The Ottawa Journal would write quote:
“For Cy has become to be looked upon almost as a fixed star in the Ottawa hockey firmament. He belonged and it will be difficult to get accustomed to the idea that he will no longer wear the barber pole uniform of his erstwhile teammates. Is it possible that never again will the lusty cry, Come on Cy, ring through the rafters of the auditorium?”
While Denneny would play and help coach the Bruins, his home would remain in Ottawa, and he would only be away during the hockey season.
Prior to his first game, the Ottawa Journal wrote quote:
“Hundreds will be on hand tonight to look over Cy Denneny in his new role. Denneny is going to play at some part of the game against Ottawa. Art Ross is certain to put him on to see how he goes against his old teammates.”
He would play his last season in the NHL with the Boston Bruins as an assistant coach-player, winning his fifth and last Stanley Cup.
Upon his retirement, the Halifax Evening Mail wrote quote:
“Cy Denneny, he of the whistling shot, has hung up his skates. The man who ranked as one of the greatest sharpshooters in modern hockey, who scored more goals than any other player in the National in more seasons than one, announced his retirement from the ice game at his home here.”
Over the course of his career, he had 247 goals and 85 points in 329 games. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in goals and points. Howie Morenz would pass him for goals in 1933-34 and for points in 1931-32. He also set a record for the time as the first player to record 200 goals and the fastest to reach 200 goals, which he did in only 181 games. He would hit the 20-goal mark eight times during his career.
Even today, Denneny ranks third on the Ottawa Senators, if we include the modern Senators, trailing only Daniel Afredsson and Jason Spezza for most goals in team history.
The Ottawa Citizen would write of him quote:
Denneny would then spend some time as a referee in the NHL from 1929 to 1931, and then began coaching in the Ottawa Valley leagues. In 1932-33, he was made the coach and manager of the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately, the team was crippled by debt and had sold most of its best players. Denneny would last only one season with the team.
He was offered the chance to coach in Boston but his friend and former teammate, Eddie Gerard, would convince him not to. Denneny would say years later quote:
“Eddie and I worked side by side in a government office and we’d talk things over. We agreed there wasn’t much security in hockey.”
Denneny would add later quote:
“I thought more of the security offered by my government job than I did of a career in hockey. Top players in those days were paid only $600 to $800 as professionals.”
After his retirement from hockey, Denneny would work for the Canadian federal government as a civil servant. He had first started working in the job in 1916, and he would work for the government until 1959. Upon his work retirement, he was presented with a clock radio, picnic basket and a certificate for his 43 years of work in the National Parks Branch.
That job with the government came about thanks to the man who brought him to Ottawa, Tom Gorman.
Denneny would say quote:
“Tommy got me my government job and we still kid each other about those days when we get together on race nights at Connaught Park.”
The same year he retired from the government; he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He would say upon his induction, which for some reason took 14 years from when the Hall of Fame was created, quote:
“I didn’t think they remembered me. This is a wonderful thrill. It is nice to be elected at the same time as Tiny Thompson and Jack Adams. Adams played with me on the Ottawa team, before he took the job at Detroit and Thompson was in the nets in the 1928-29 season when I was up front with the Bruins in our Stanley Cup winning year.”
On Sept. 10, 1970, Denneny would die in Ottawa at the age of 78.
In 1998, he was ranked #62 on the list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players of All Time by The Hockey News.
Upon his death, Westwick would write quote:
“All who knew Cy would agree with the unfailing reference that an Ottawa club owner made when his name was brought up. A great little gentleman.”
Information from Hockey Hall of Fame, The Ottawa Citizen, NHL.com, Wikipedia, The Ottawa Journal, Quant Hockey, Montreal Star, Victoria Daily Times, Halifax Evening Mail,