Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Howie Morenz Jr: The Name Game

One can only imagine the immense pressure.

First, there was the sad and difficult experience of having to deal with the sudden passing of your beloved father. The first undisputed superstar produced by the National Hockey League. A dad you shared with hockey fans all across the world. A dad whose name just happened to be Howie Morenz.

Secondly, there was the subsequent period of having to contend with the glare of the public spotlight being pointed directly in your path.

Following the passing of Howie Morenz on March 8, 1937 the Montreal Canadiens concluded their NHL commitments and headed out to Canada's east coast to take part in a Maritime hockey tour. Joining them on this trip was ten-year-old Howie Morenz Jr. In the final encounter, played in Moncton, New Brunswick on April 13, 1937, young Howie dazzled 5,000 spectators by scoring a goal.

The media, jumping all over this story, reported on the adventures of Howie Jr. Although this was only an exhibition series, along with the fact Morenz was still a boy, didn't prevent conversation on his future in the game. Writing in the April 14, 1937 edition of The Toronto Daily Star, Red Burnett provided his readers with this assessment. "Young Howie Morenz Jr. is showing early signs of hockey greatness. Like his late father the 10-year-old youngster appears to have the happy knack of knowing the shortest way to the goal."

In the fall of 1937, the Montreal Forum played host to the Howie Morenz Memorial Game The contest featured a collection of NHL All-Stars versus the Montreal All-Stars. For many, the highlight of this event took place when Howie Morenz took to the ice and skated with teammates who once shared the space with his dad.

There are good times and bad when an individual is the focus of public scrutiny and the Morenz family couldn't escape the negative side of being well known members of society. In mid-November of 1937, Howie's mother, Mary, received several disturbing telephone calls from unknown persons. The purpose of these contacts only inflicted more pain and tension to an already distraught household.

During the initial call, Mrs. Morenz was told to "be on your guard" as a plot was in motion to "snatch" her son. As a result, Howie Morenz received protection from the Montreal Police Department. The detectives assigned to investigate the matter speculated the threats came due Morenz participating in the Memorial game.

At the age of sixteen, Morenz continued to hear the comparisons with his legendary dad. This is clearly documented in a piece penned by the Vancouver Sun's Charles Edwards on November 20, 1942. The Vancouver scribe wrote, "Young Howie has the same sloping shoulders, the same deep through the chest look, that distinguished the late Canadiens star." In reply to a question concerning his dad's greatest asset as a hockey player, the tremendous speed he could generate when skating, Morenz stated, "I don't think I am anywhere near that speed."

Baz O'Meare of the Montreal Star set lofty goals for Morenz when he wrote, "there will come a night when high drama will ride the lists and young Howie will skate out with the lucky seven number on his sweater, the number that has never been worn by any Canadien since his dad passed on."

In October of 1943, Morenz joined the Montreal Jr. Canadiens in the QJHL. The jump from playing for Catholic High School to junior hockey was a major step and reflected his talents as a player. However, the comparisons to his dad weren't far behind. A story published in the Calgary Herald (dateline Montreal) on October 21, 1943 heralded his ascension up the hockey ladder. "Howie Morenz Jr., will play for the Canadiens in the junior amateur hockey association loop here this season, maintaining the Canadien tradition of his famous National Hockey League father, it was announced Tuesday."

Morenz spent four-years in the Quebec Junior Hockey League with Montreal. His best season came in 1946-47 when produced 42 goals in 27 games.

Following his time in junior, Morenz graduated to the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League. In an interview with writer Len Bramson, Morenz addressed the question of his ability to turn pro being linked to the family name. "I know a lot of people think I am living off of my father's publicity, that's as ridiculous as it is stupid. When my dad died I was only 10-years-old up until that time I had a lot of privileges that other kids didn't have, but after he died I had to come the rest of the way by myself just like the rest of the fellows did, step by step."

His crack at professional hockey came in1948-49 with the Dallas Texans of the United States Hockey League. In 60 games, he notched 12 goals and 17 assists for 29 points. This would be his only stint at the pro level.

Recently, I sat down with Howie Morenz Jr. to discuss his dad and his own life in hockey.

You were only 12-years-old when your dad passed away. Did you ever see him play in a National Hockey League game?

 I saw my father play in two hockey games. That was it. I was going to school and couldn't go to many games. By the time they got out of the Forum it was kind of late at night and a lot of times the players arranged to go out and eat with their wives. It would have interfered with my schooling. I don't know how much I should have been impressed, but he was playing well. He was fast.

Following the 1936-37 season, the Montreal Canadiens embarked on a Maritime hockey tour visiting Canada's east coast. You played with the team during their trip out east. What was that experience like?

 By golly, I played with all the oldtimers Aurel Joliat, Pit Lebine, Johnny Gagon, Albert Leduc and Lionel Conacher who played for the Montreal Maroons. Joffre Desilets, there is a name that crops up. He didn't stay in the league long, but he was a very nice gentleman. We had an incident going across from the mainland to Prince Edward Island. Three players were standing up - Aurel Joliat, Albert Leduc and Johnny Gagon - by the bow of the boat. The nose would rise-up and go crashing down on the ice. They didn't expect this and they were all standing wearing their raccoon coats which were a favourite in those days. They all ended up looking like a bunch of drowned rats with their fedoras capped with ice, snow and water! (Laughing!).

At the young age of 16, people were making comparisons between yourself and your dad. Did you feel pressure to follow in his footsteps?

 Well sure.  I always tried my best and enjoyed hockey. During the wintertime on the outdoor rink, I used to skate every night. After school I would do my homework, then bingo I was out on the rink. I loved hockey. Unfortunately, I wasn't another second-coming.

After playing for Catholic High School, you joined the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1943 and were coached by former NHLer Wilf Cude. It must have been a big thing in your career to take the next step?

 Your stepping-up in class there. A lot of good young hockey players were in that league. I played four-years in junior and I had one really great year which made everyone think I was going to be the second-coming, but it didn't happen.

As you started in junior, your mom was quoted as saying you "will be larger than your dad because he continues to grow like a weed." You must have been very close to your mom following your dad's passing?

 Oh yes. My mother God Bless her, had a rough time after my dad died. She had a young family with three children, but we survived. Mom met another gentleman about three years later and they got married. His name was George Pratt. He became a step-father to me and treated us all well.

While still in junior, you had the opportunity to play in several benefit games which involved the Montreal Canadiens. Usually, you would play on the opposing team. In April 1946, you skated for an All-Star team which played the Habs. You got to play with the likes of Billy Taylor and Bob Goldham that must have been fun for a young player like yourself?

 Absolutely. It is funny you mentioned Bob Goldham because he is the one I remember most. He spent all kinds of time talking to me. I really appreciated that fellow.

In 1947-48, you moved to the QSHL with the Montreal Royals. Was it difficult making the jump from junior to senior hockey?

 I didn't have a particularly good year in '47-'48. I don't know why I didn't get to play with them a second season. I guess they (Frank Selke and the NHL Canadiens) were in a hurry to see what I was going to do as competition got a little tougher. So, they sent me to Dallas.

In Dallas during the 1948-49 season did you still hear the comparisons to your dad?

 There was a lot of propaganda when I first got there. The team got very little notice in the papers.

After one season playing professional for the Dallas Texans, you returned to the QSHL for a brief stint with the Valleyfield Braves in 1949-50.

 I had an accident while playing in a game. At the time, they put up glass partitions behind the nets and took away the chicken wire. I carried the puck into the offensive zone and a defenceman ran me into the post which was supporting the glass. I was knocked-out colder than a mackerel. They carried me off the ice and I came to in the dressing room. I started to have vision troubles. The club sent me to see Dr. Bromley Moore. He wrote Mr. Selke advising him I shouldn't continue playing hockey. If I got hit in my left eye in a fight, by a stick or a puck, any kind of accident, I would lose my eye. Selke told me he didn't want me to play with the Montreal Canadiens because if I got hurt in such a fashion after what happened to my dad, it wouldn't be good for hockey and it wouldn't be good for the Montreal Canadiens. He told me if I wanted to play for someone else on my own, they wouldn't interfere. I went and played in the provincial league and I got more money playing there than I did for the Montreal Canadiens.

Did you have a favourite Canadiens player after your dad's passing?

 I liked them all. As I got older, I started to measure the value of players. Then, players like Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach came along - all the great ones.

Your dad's death was a very public event. Did it help you deal with things?

 It helped me in my day-to-day life after I finished playing hockey. I was a curiosity because of his fame. It helped me a lot.

What did your dad teach you about the game?

 Skating. He started me at three-years-old and built a rink in the lane way which had to be used by cars and delivery wagons which came around at that time. The milkman. The breadman. He flooded it and no one drove over the rink made by Howie Morenz! He got me a pair of what was referred to after as cheese-cutters. Those were the skates you strapped to your shoes and they had two runners like a sleigh. You really had to run rather than skate. He was out there saying "No, no, you cut this way, cut that way." Finally, I got the hang of it. He took me down to CCM and they made me a real pair of skates. Then, I really got into it as I could skate fast.

In late December of 1950, your dad was at the top of the list of a Canadian Press poll naming Canada's greatest hockey player for the first-half of the century. Was this the greatest honour bestowed upon your dad?

 And how. Everybody I met after that, new and old, all said it was something I should remember all my life and I certainly do.

Tell us about introducing you sister, Marlene, to Boom Boom Geoffrion in 1951.

 She use to practice skating at the Montreal Forum and that is where they first met. I acted as an interpreter for them. Boomer's English wasn't good at the time, but he appreciated the fact I could speak French, so we got along okay.

What do think of the next generation with Blake Geoffrion of Nashville carrying on the family tradition?

 I've never seen him play. I hope he does real well because Bernie was a great player and I hope he inherited some of his talents.

What is your fondest memory in regards to your dad?

 It actually happened in the summertime. We were taking part in a regatta. He and a bunch of players got into a canoe race which they won by the way. The officials refused to recognize their win because they were professional athletes. We had a swim meet, which I didn't win, but came in second. I won a little trophy. He was happier than you can imagine.

Howie Morenz Sr.

Howir Morenz Jr. - 2011

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