We live in an era where we quickly give good hockey players the label of superstar. But rarely has hockey seen a true superstar - a player who transcends the great game itself. We've been blessed to see the likes of Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux, Rocket Richard and a precious few others - hockey's true superstars.
Perhaps the first NHL player to transcend the game (arguably Cyclone Taylor, who played mostly prior the creation of the NHL, was the first hockey player to transcend the game) was the man they called "The Babe Ruth of Hockey" - the great Howie Morenz.
Morenz was the most electrifying player of his era, and perhaps ever. To compare him to a modern player for today's fans, "The Russian Rocket" Pavel Bure is an interesting comparison, although historically Morenz is most often compared to Maurice "The Rocket" Richard. However Morenz, unlike those two, excelled at both ends of the ice.
For much of Morenz's career forward passing was illegal so end to end rushes were the norm. Like Bure, Morenz excelled in that area in spectacular fashion. He had blazing speed and could do magical things with the puck at that speed. He would dance through the entire team, often with reckless abandon, and often resulting in a terrific scoring chance. He did so in dramatic fashion, often bringing the fans out of their seats like so few hockey players are able to do.
"He was the best," said King Clancy, a long time foe of Morenz and a great judge of hockey talent and hockey history. "He could stop on a dime and leave you nine cents change. He was in a class by himself. And when he couldn't skate around you, he'd go right over you."
Clancy added "I seen 'em all score goals. Howe, wicked and deft, knocking everybody on their ass with his windshield-wiper elbows. Rocket Richard coming mad, guys climbing all over him. Hull, booming a slapshot like a WWII cannon. Wayne Gretzky mesmerizing the defence as he waltzes across the blueline, then wafting a feathery pass to a fast coming winger.....But I never saw anybody - nobody - score like Morenz on a furious charge down center."
Toe Blake, who played with and against Morenz and played with and coached Richard, agrees the comparisons are accurate.
"They (Morenz and Richard) had that flair that would just lift the people right out of their seats. That's the best way I can explain it. You can take any era of hockey and the stars of yesterday would be stars of today. And Morenz is right up there at the top of the class. I don't think from end to end I ever saw a guy like Morenz. He was small, stocky, with the most powerful legs you've ever seen. He'd make rush after rush - at least 20 a game - and it never mattered how hard he got hit. Most players, after they were hit, you'd think 'Oh, he can't take that again,' but it didn't matter with him. Shot up into the seats in one rush, by killers like Eddie Shore and Taffy Abel and the like, and he'd come right back as if they didn't exist. And I'll tell you another thing, one of the greatest backcheckers I ever saw. He was just a terrific hockey player."
Nels Stewart, an legend of hockey himself, thought a little higher of Morenz when he said "They don't come like Morenz very often, about one in a century. He had everything, could rush, score goals, backcheck. You couldn't put the Rocket in the same breath as Howie, and that goes for everybody else, including Bill Cook. None of them were in the same stable.
Perhaps the great Eddie Shore said it best: "(Morenz) had a heart that was unsurpassed in athletic history and no one ever came close to him in the colour department. After you watched Howie you wanted to see him often, and as much as I liked to play hockey, i often thought I would have counted it a full evening had I been able to sit in the stands and watch the Morenz maneuvers. Such an inclination never occurred to me about other stars."
Howie was born on September 21, 1902 in Mitchell Ontario. He was the youngest of 6 children of William and Rose Morenz, German immigrants who settled in Mitchell when William got a job working for the railroad. He fell in love with hockey at a very early age, and became a prominent player on the frozen ponds and ice rinks near Mitchell - although not considered to be the best. He was already a fantastic skater but the title of Mitchell's best hockey player actually went to the team's center (Howie was a rover often) went to Johnny Cook. Though he would become famous in Stratford and world famous in Montreal, Mitchell was where "The Mitchell Meteor" called home.
The Morenz family moved down the road to Stratford, Ontario in 1917, lured by a higher paying job for father Traugart. It was a great move, in hindsight, for Howie. He had a chance to play hockey at a more organized and higher level, which really aided him in his hockey development. He had always been the fastest skater and a great puck carrier, but he really developed into a star hockey player in Stratford. In fact, Howie became such a star as an amateur in Stratford that they dubbed him the Stratford Streak Junior and senior championships became the norm and Howie, who was also the star of the baseball player, was quite the celebrity in town.
The professional leagues of course heard about this man they called the Stratford Streak, and a bidding war of sorts started over his services. Supposedly Toronto, Saskatoon and Victoria all put in nice offers, but Howie signed with the Montreal Canadiens. Howie never felt at ease with his decision as he never really wanted to leave Stratford, and actually sent back all of his signing bonus and an apology to the Canadiens and asked to have the contract torn up as he did not want to leave Stratford a couple more months to think about it.
The Canadiens of course were upset as they didn't want to lose the hottest hockey prospect in all of Canada. They basically forced Howie to attend training camp and become a professional. The Habs threatened legal action as they had a signed legal document. They also threatened to get downright dirty and smear Morenz's name and chances to ever return to amateur hockey by proving that Morenz was receiving forms of payment from his employer to stay and play in Stratford even though he was supposed to be an unpaid amateur. Morenz reluctantly left Stratford for the big city of Montreal
Morenz would soon forget those feelings of reluctance. Montreal became his town, and hockey his game. He elevated his game to true superstar levels once he arrived in Montreal. Over the next 14 years, most of which was spent in Montreal he piled up 270 goals and 197 assists, two scoring championships, three MVPs and three Stanley Cups.
From 1923-34 through 1933-34, Morenz dazzled the Montreal faithful. He was named the Canadiens Comet or the Hurtling Habitant, but the name Stratford Streak always stuck the most. In his first year he centered a line with Billy Boucher and Aurel Joliat. Joliat in particular would become a long time partner in greatness with Morenz. Morenz became an immediate box office attraction. He scored 13 goals in 24 games and led the Habs to the Stanley Cup.
After that initial season Morenz lost all of his feelings of homesickness and was eager to get a new NHL season underway. He had a great 1924-25 season, scoring 28 goals in just 30 games. That year Morenz trailed only Joliat in the Habs point scoring race. But for the next 7 years no other player would lead the team in goals or points than Morenz. Two of those years, 1927-28 and 1930-31 he led the entire NHL in scoring. In both 1930 and 1931 Morenz led the Habs to two more Stanley Cup championships
Morenz's aggressive game caught up to him by the mid-1930s as injuries limited his effectiveness. After a poor 1933-34 campaign which shockingly included the Montreal faithful booing Morenz for his sudden lack of production, Morenz was traded to Chicago. He never did recapture his previous form, and after a year and a half was traded to the Rangers in New York. He only played 19 games for New York.
In 1936-37 Morenz was brought back to Montreal as the team was really struggling. Morenz, it was hoped, would spark a turn of fortunes for the Habs, and they did to a certain degree. Morenz in the meantime had made it all but publicly known that this was going to be his last season in hockey, and he seemed to really be enjoying and savoring every moment.
That's when tragedy struck. On the night of January 28, 1937, Howie Morenz suffered a horrific injury. He broke 4 bones in his left leg and ankle in a game against Chicago when. He was tripped in the corner of the rink and somehow his skate got lodged into the boards. Chicago defenseman Earl Seibert accidentally fell over Morenz, breaking the leg viciously.
Morenz seemed to be recovering nicely in hospital, but too many visitors helped to contribute to a nervous breakdown. Shortly afterwards Morenz died. Legend has always falsely said that he died of a broken heart when doctors told him he wouldn't be able to play hockey again. In actuality the cause was heart failure on the heels of the breakdown that cause his death.
Morenz would have enjoyed his funeral service. It was held at his home: center ice at the Montreal Forum. Much like Rocket Richard many years later, the forum was packed as fans paid their respects.
In 1945 he was an inaugural member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1950 Morenz was honored as the Canadian Press named him the greatest hockey player of the half century. By the end of the century, more than 60 years after his death, The Hockey News poll of experts ranked Morenz as the 15th greatest hockey player of all time. That's pretty impressive considering most of the "experts" had never actually seen Morenz play.