He is considered to be one of the first major stars of the NHL, and the first icon of the Montreal Canadiens. One of the greatest players to ever lace up the skates and the most dynamic player between the World Wars, his career was cut short but his impact lasts to this day.
Born in Mitchell, Ontario on Dec. 21, 1902 to William and Rosena Morenz, he grew up in a large family of three sisters and two brothers.
As a child, he began to play hockey on the Thames River, using a homemade hockey stick and chunks of coal for pucks. By eight he was playing in his first organized hockey game. Playing as a goaltender, he let in 21 goals and was soon switched to the position of rover. He would still play goal and in one game, when the score was 3-3, he stopped a shot, saw an opening and took the puck down the ice while wearing his padding, to score the winning goal.
By the time he began his junior career, he was playing as a forward to take advantage of his incredible speed on the ice. With that move, he took his team to the Western Ontario Junior Championship.
In May 1917, the family moved to Stratford and Morenz tried to enlist in the Canadian military but was turned away when it was found he was only 15-years-old. The ruse was found out when his mother followed him to the recruitment station and told the officers his actual age.
When he was 18, he worked as an apprentice with the Canadian National Railways factory in Stratford, and spent his time betting on horse races, playing the ukulele and playing hockey. He was known to spend a lot at the race track, including losing $1,500 before his wedding and then borrowing on next year’s contract to pay for his honeymoon.
In 1920, Morenz joined the Stratford Midget Junior Team, and led the Ontario Hockey Association in assists and points in his first season. He helped the team win the league title, and then the team went on to play for the 1921 Memorial Cup. Despite Morenz earning a hat trick in the second game of the series, the team lost the total goals series 11-9 against the Winnipeg Falcons.
Falcon’s defenceman Harry Roth would say quote:
“It was Morenz, Morenz, Morenz, as the fastest junior I ever saw, scored goal after goal. Howie had speed to burn. He would come right up to you and when you tried to check him, he wasn’t there.”
Around this time, he was gaining the name of The Stratford Streak.
His performance in the series earned him an invite to the Stratford Indians. He joined the team, and kept playing for the junior team as well, leading both leagues in goals, assists and points.
In 1922-23, he would play only for the senior league, leading the league in assists, playoff goals and points.
Despite his obvious skill, Morenz did not think he was good enough to make the NHL. He would tell his mother quote:
“You don’t have to worry about me becoming a professional, those fellows are far too good.”
That same year, he played in a CNR hockey tournament in Montreal, where he scored nine goals. This was seen by a friend of Leo Dandurand, the owner of the Montreal Canadiens, who told his friend about this new phenom. Dandurand went to see Morenz play the next month and immediately wanted him to sign with the Canadiens. Dandurand would meet with Morenz and his family, who said they wanted Morenz to finish his apprenticeship with CNR for another two years.
Morenz’s father was said to have said quote:
“It would be regrettable if he abandoned his trade.”
Of course, Dandurand soon found out that Morenz and his father were in talks with the Toronto St. Patricks, now known as the Maple Leafs, about joining that team. To prevent that from happening, Dandurand sent his friend Cecil Hart to Stratford and told him to sign Morenz at any price.
On July 7, 1923, Morenz signed a contract with the Canadiens for three years, worth $3,500 per year with a $1,000 signing bonus. With the contract signed on the seventh day of the seventh month, Morenz chose to wear seven for the Canadiens.
Soon after, Morenz began to have second thoughts about leaving Stratford and he would send back his signing bonus and a letter explaining he couldn’t play for the team. Dandurand had Morenz meet him in person and falsely threatened him, stating that if he didn’t sign, his professional hockey career would be over. Morenz, not realizing that Dandurand didn’t have that power, reported to training camp.
On Dec. 3, 1923, Morenz arrived at his first training camp and immediately impressed his teammates. On Dec. 26, 1923, he made his NHL debut, scoring a goal against the Ottawa Senators.
Elmer Ferguson would say quote:
“He’s the best looking youngster who has broken into the NHL. If he isn’t a star of the first magnitude by season’s end, it will be because he has lost a leg.”
By the end of the 1923-24 season, Morenz had 13 goals with three assists in 24 games. He also helped the team finish first for the first time in five years. Playing for the NHL championship, Morenz helped the team win against the Ottawa Senators and advance to play for the Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Maroons and the Calgary Tigers. They defeated the Maroons and in the first game against Calgary, Morenz scored three goals. Montreal won the first game 6-1 and the second game 3-0, with Morenz scoring four goals total. Morenz, in his first season, had won the Stanley Cup.
The next season, Morenz scored 28 goals and 11 assists, which was the fourth best in the league. He once again helped the Canadiens make it to the Stanley Cup Final again, but they would lose.
In 1926, Morenz married Mary McKay and together they had three children together. His daughter, Marlene, would marry Bernie Geoffrion, who had his own legendary career with the Montreal Canadiens. His grandson Dan would play for the Canadiens in 1979-80 and his great-grandson Blake would play for the Nashville Predators in 2011, and then for the Canadiens in 2012.
The season after his marriage, 1927-28, would be the best Morenz ever had. He would become the first player to reach 50 points in a season, finishing with 51. He led the league in goals, assists and points and won the Hart Trophy.
Macleans would write years later quote:
“Morenz was far more than a Canadien hero. To youngsters all over Canada he was to hockey what Babe Ruth was to baseball, and Jack Dempsey to boxing, a fairy-tale figure who could do things no one else could do and against greater odds.”
Morenz was known for his amazing speed. In one game against Ottawa, Alex Smith got a breakaway to the Canadiens net and apparently had 50 feet of space on Morenz but Morenz caught him, batted the puck into the corner and picked it up, flipping it up to a teammate who scored.
Charlie Conacher of the Maple Leafs said that Morenz once told him quote:
“Give me one good defenseman and any good goalkeeper in the league and I’ll beat any team for twenty minutes.”
Conacher would add himself stated quote:
“There were nights, when I figured he was right.”
During the height of his prowess, the New York Rangers offered $60,000 for him, while the Montreal Maroons offered $75,000. Dandurand would simply say of his star player quote:
“Morenz is beyond price.”
Roy Worters with the New York Americans would say in 1953, quote:
“He could shoot harder than anybody I see nowadays. When he’d wind up behind the net, he wasn’t No. 7, he was No. 777, just a blur.”
In 1929-30, he scored 40 goals in the season, including five goals in a game against the New York Americans on March 18, 1930. He then led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, including scoring the Cup-winning goal.
In 1930-31, Morenz once again scored 50 points, and won his second NHL scoring title and his second Hart Trophy. In the playoffs, he took the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Black Hawks. Playing with an injured shoulder, he only had one goal in 10 playoff games, but his one goal was the last one of the playoffs, helping the Canadiens win another Stanley Cup, Morenz third.
In 1931-32, Morenz had 49 points, finishing third in league scoring and he became the first NHL player to win the Hart Trophy for a third time. That season, on March 17, 1932, he scored his 334th point, passing Cy Denneny for the most career points by an NHL player.
By 1933-34, the point and goal totals for Morenz began to decline, scoring only eight goals and 21 points. Still, on Dec. 23, 1933, he scored his 249th career goal, becoming the NHL leader for career goals, passing Cy Denneny for the honour.
On Jan. 2, 1934, Morenz twisted his ankle in a game, tearing a ligament and forcing him to miss a month. When he returned to the ice, he could no play at his current level and he was booed by the fans. Dandurand would see Morenz after the game, apparently sobbing.
Matters were not helped by the fact that Newsy Lalonde was now coaching the Canadiens and he did not get along with Morenz.
With his production slipping, the Canadiens began to shop Morenz around and after the playoffs were over Morenz would say that if he was traded he would never play again. He would say quote:
“When I can’t play for them, I’ll never put on a skate again.”
On Oct. 3, 1934, Morenz was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks.
In his first season with the Black Hawks, he played 48 games and finished with a respectable 34 points. That would be his only productive season with the team. In the next season, he was benched several times and only played 23 games, finishing with 15 points.
On Jan. 26, 1936, he was traded to the New York Rangers.
With the Rangers, Morenz had six points in 19 games.
After the season was over, the Canadiens brought back Cecil Hart to coach the team and he said he would take the job only if Morenz was back on the Canadiens. This was agreed to and Morenz was with the Canadiens for the 1936-37 season, and doing quite well with 20 points by the mid-point of the season.
Unfortunately, on Jan. 28, 1937, in a game against the Black Hawks, Morenz went into the corner to get a puck and lost his balance and fell to the ice. He crashed into the boards and his left skate caught on the wood siding. Earl Seibert, the Black Hawks defencemen, could not stop and slammed into Morenz. It was said you could hear the snapping of Morenz’ leg throughout the stadium.
The Montreal Gazette would write quote:
“Daredevil Howie Morenz, who for 13 years of his meteoric career gambled with fate, seemingly, by his spectacular leaps through opposing defences and never suffered serious injury, broke his leg last night against the Forum boards in the simplest kind of accident. The fibula, just above the ankle, snapped like a reed as he crashed into the fence.”
Morenz was taken to the hospital where it was found he had broken his leg in four places.
Morenz would never play another game again.
While recovering, he received many gifts and get well cards from fans and players around the NHL. As for the Canadiens, they soon began to fall in the standings.
Morenz was receiving many visitors but he began to worry that he would never play hockey again and he became depressed. By late February, it was determined he was suffering a nervous breakdown.
On March 8, Morenz complained of chest pains. At 11:30 p.m., he attempted to get out of bed to go to the bathroom but collapsed on the floor, suffering a coronary embolism from blood clots in his broken leg. Within minutes, he was dead.
The news of his death left the hockey stunned. Lester Patrick, his old friend stated quote:
“He was one of the all-time greats of the game and it was only for the good of the game that the Rangers let him return to the Canadiens he loved so well.”
Conn Smythe of the Maple Leafs would say quote:
“I can’t believe it. It is an upsetting thing. And it is certainly hard for an athlete of Howie’s type to go so quickly.”
His close friend, Cecil Hart, who was left devastated at not being near the bedside of Morenz when he died, stated quote:
“I can’t talk about it. It is terrible. A thunderbolt.”
On March 9, the Montreal Canadiens game was cancelled in honour of Morenz but Mary Morenz insisted the game be played as that is what her husband would have wanted. In the game, the Canadiens and Montreal Maroons players wore black armbands, and a two minute silence was observed at the start of the game.
On March 11, a funeral was held in the Montreal Forum for Morenz and he was situated in his casket at centre ice. A total of 50,000 people, some say 200,000, filed by to pay their respects. At his funeral, 15,000 people attended.
For months, Montreal mourned the death of Morenz and on Nov. 2, 1937, his #7 was retired forever by the Canadiens. A benefit All-Star game was also held to benefit the Morenz family. His sweater was auctioned off for $500 and it was bought by Joseph Cattarinich, who then gave it to Howard Raymond, the son of Morenz. In all, the event raised $20,000 for the family, about $400,000 today.
Over the course of his NHL career, Morenz had 472 points, 271 goals and 201 assists, in 550 games.
Macleans wrote in 1953 quote:
“As long as hockey lasts they’ll be telling the legends about Howie Morenz. How he lived only for the game, for the fans of the Forum, how he died in tragedy and misery when the team he loved sold him down the river after a bad season.”
Many would claim that Morenz did not die of a blood clot, but of a broken heart.
In 1945, he was one of the first nine players inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1950, he was named the best hockey player of the first half of the 20th century by the Canadian Press.
In 1998, he was ranked #15 on the list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players in history. In 2017, he was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL players ever. In 1998, Macleans ranked Howie Morenz the ninth greatest hero in Canadian history, below Terry Fox and Roberta Bondar, and above Anne of Green Gables.
I will end this episode with what Ralph Allen of Macleans wrote of him, stating that Morenz was quote:
“a superhuman figure to the millworkers and tram drivers and off-duty cabbies who jammed the rush end of the Forum and called themselves, with magnificent irony, the Millionaires. They toasted Morenz in bathtub gin and when he scored they shouted their soaring battle cry, Les Canadiens sont la!”
Morenz would have a big impact on hockey outside of Montreal. After his stellar play in the 1924 Stanley Cup Final, Charles Adams, who owned a chain of grocery stores, went back to Boston wanting to establish his own team. That team would become the Boston Bruins. Tex Rickard, the owner of Madison Square Garden, also saw Morenz play and agreed to add ice to his building for an NHL team that would become the New York Americans.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, NHL.com, Hockey Hall of Fame, Wikipedia, The Hockey Writers, Biographi, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette,