Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Game Film : Circa 1931

Spending hours sifting through newspaper archives can be rewarding and frustrating at the same time. Every once in a while, a story or image will capture your full attention. As you pursue additional details, the trail goes cold. Then, there are stories or images which send your heart racing and your imagination into overdrive.

For this writer, the text in the above noted article supplied that affect. It was published in the February 27, 1931 edition of the Toronto Telegram. I couldn't read it fast enough. Were my eyeballs playing tricks on me? After all, gazing at microfilm for an extended period of time can cause double vision. Was it possible - an entire game from 1931, featuring Montreal and Toronto, preserved on film?

My first reaction was to investigate the rosters for both teams. From goal out, the line-up for each club contained names which have become part of hockey history. Chabot (Leafs) and Hainsworth (Canadiens) guarded the nets. Toronto's famed Kid Line of Primeau, Conacher and Jackson fuelled the Blue & White offense. Montreal countered with Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat. The icing on the cake? The venue - Mutual Street Arena. The first home of Toronto's NHL franchise would be the backdrop for all the action. Many people can declare they have watched a game from Maple Leaf Gardens, but few can reply in the affirmative concerning the Mutual Street Arena.

As I digested all this information, my imagination took over the thoughts running through my mind. Was it really possible? An entire contest showcasing the skills of hockey's greatest performers. In a way, I didn't want to know the answer. What if the film was destroyed or in such poor condition that it was classified as being useless. If this was the case, my hope of screening the film would evaporate.

I can't tell you how many times the 1931 article has been shuffled from pile to pile on my desk. Each glance bringing a wide smile to my face. It was similar to a security blanket. The game film, if it existed, would be something to look  forward to viewing. Not in the present, but in the future. Why shatter the visual in my thought process with harsh realities of the truth. Why not let the matter linger in a state of abeyance?

Ten years later (Yes, that long!), I am now ready to confront this unresolved issue. Would this turn ugly or have a happy ending? To answer this question, I sought help from an individual who would be qualified to pronounce the patient dead or alive. This person was Paul Patskou, an audio/visual archivist specializing in sports research. Paul's work has been documented in a number of books including "Barliko - Without a Trace" (Kevin Shea) and "Toronto Maple Leafs, Diary of a Dynasty, 1957-1967" (Shea / Patskou / Harris / Bruno). I sent Paul an email and he quickly provided a diagnosis.

Is any footage still around today?
 Yes, the few minutes of that National Film Board piece exists. The NFB has it for purchase and my copy came directly from them.

Is it in good condition?
 Yes, great quality.

Was there any sound?

Was it shown anywhere?
 Maybe in a movie theatre at the time. The newspaper report of the game explains more.

Is any of the content available online for viewing?
 Maybe the NFB has it on their site. Otherwise, it's on DVD

It was a brutal blow. Obviously, it was time to abandon the hope of viewing an entire game from 1931. Still, I had to know the details. For this, it was back to the newspaper archives.

If ever a hockey game was meant to be immortalized on film, it was this one. It incorporated many facets unique to the game during that era.

As the newspaper headline indicates, the contest on February 28, 1931 was a rambunctious affair. With residual anger from the previous meeting between Toronto and Montreal festering, all hell broke out in the third period. The initial combatants were Maple Leaf Harvey "Busher" Jackson and the Habs Marty Burke. While in penalty box, Jackson and linemate Charlie Conacher ganged-up on Burke. Conacher was already in the sin-bin serving time for an infraction. As one would expect, a good old donnybrook erupted. The melee included players, fans and three policemen. Imagine watching that on film?

The offensive talent on both teams took over when fisticuffs weren't dominating the action At 1:40 of the final frame, Howie Morenz gave Montreal a 3-1 advantage. Toronto fought back, netting 2 goals and sending the matter to overtime. In the NHL during this circa, teams would play one period of extra time prior to calling it a night. The end would not come with sudden death. In the overtime, Montreal restored it's 2 goal lead. Then, a hero materialized for Toronto. Andy Blair's goal lifted the Leafs to within one and he assisted on Charlie Conacher's equalizer. Montreal - 5 Toronto - 5. Imagine watching that on film?

The final paragraph in a newspaper report seems to be the most accurate summation as to what occurred on Saturday February 28, 1931. Montreal Canadiens versus Toronto Maple Leafs.

There have been many better games played at the Arena, but for excitement, hard feeling and turbulence, and interest, it would be hard to equal this one.

For now, I will resist the temptation to watch what remains of the National Film Board footage. Why let a few minutes of delight be extinguished so quickly. It should be an event that is savored and enjoyed at the right moment. Sound familiar?

Besides, I don't want to remove the Toronto Telegram article from the huge mound of paper on my desk. It has been there so long, I can't picture it not being somewhere in the mess gathering dust. Would anyone ask Linus (A character in the "Peanuts" comic strip) to give up his blanket?

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