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History #18 - 1916-17 - Where it really hits the fan

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"History is written by the victors." - Winston Churchill

(Not everything I write will come from Holzman and Nieforth's Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey  - actually, quite a bit doesn't - but it's a good bet that this book will have influenced it.  Seriously - go get a copy and read it.  It's good.  Wikipedia is also your friend.)

1916-17 - where it really hits the fan.

Just had a little chat with PPP in which we got to talking about context.  Events which seem all but inexplicable in and of themselves look a lot different when placed in context.

The primary context of the fall and winter of 1916 was war.  The First World War was the pretext that brought Eddie Livingstone into the NHA in 1914 and it would be the pretext for driving him out in 1917.

One of the impacts of the war, seen from the very beginning, was that it made for a shortage of professional-calibre players.  With teams having very limited roster sizes, the loss of a single star was huge and teams fought tooth and nail to limit raids and poaching from other leagues - or even other teams within their own leagues.

The fight for players would consume much of Eddie Livingstone's time in the first half of 1916-17, mainly over the services of his two scoring leaders from the previous season: Duke Keats and Cy Denneny.

Keats enlisted prior to the start of the new season and, as was true of a large number of professional hockey players, was assigned to the 228th Battalion.

The 228th was an interesting unit.  I can only presume that the proliferation of hockey players in their ranks was by design.  Heading into the 1916-17 season, they applied for and were granted permission to play in the NHA as the second team from Toronto.  The thought was that their presence would serve as a recruiting tool for the Army.  From the NHA's perspective, this re-balanced the schedule and put the second team back in Toronto to help offset the costs of the road trip. 

The franchise used by the 228th was the dormant Shamrocks franchise.  The suggestion for this came from the Wanderers Sam Lichtenhein, but it was approved unanimously, so if Eddie Livingstone was that bent out of shape about it, he wasn't saying.  Perhaps it appealed to a higher sense of duty or perhaps it was calculated to mollify the owners who were upset about the previous spring.  I have no evidence to support anything on this.

The 228th had to put up a $3000 bond to the league to guarantee that they would complete the season.  They had no expectation of being called up right away, though, so a commitment into March didn't seem like such a big deal.

The starters for the 228th included such luminaries as Howard and George McNamara, Goldie Prodgers, Eddie Oatman, Amos Arbour - and Duke Keats, most recently of the Blueshirts.  Their one hole was in net.  Percy LeSueur, for reasons unclear to me, belonged to the unit, but his NHA rights were still with Livingstone (it might be timing - H&N state that they couldn't use any player who joined up after September).  Prior to the start of the season, Livvy traded the 228th the rights to LeSueur for the rights to Duke Keats. 

LeSueur, though, had some other ideas.  He had a training job and was just as happy not to play.  The 228th had to use Howie "Holes" Lockhart in net instead.  (Livingstone would start the season with former Tecumseh Billy Nicholson - the aging, 250-pound star of the 1902 Final - in net.  This wouldn't work, either.)  Unhappy with the way things turned out the 228th demanded the return of Keats.

Livingstone was in no hurry to return Keats though.  As far as he was concerned he'd made a deal in good faith and expected to keep the player.  Somewhat unusually, the league backed him on this even though the 228th threatened to withdraw from the league if its demands were not met.  (The Montreal clubs both threatened to throw the Blueshirts out of the league if the 228th left.  Wanderers owner Sam Lichtenhein in particular tended to urge for the removal of Livingstone any chance he got.)

The 228th relented and instead took their frustrations out on Keats.  He'd be locked up on some trivial offense only to be released moments before game time.  Any undesirable duty immediately went his way.  They never went so far as to interfere with his ability to play a scheduled game, as that could have landed them in hot water with the league, but Keats' experience in 1916-17 was anything but pleasant.

One big driver behind Livingstone's desire to keep hold of Keats was that he was also having trouble keeping the services of burgeoning superstar Cy Denneny.  Cy had been enticed to Ottawa in the summer to play lacrosse and had been found a job there.  With hockey season about to begin, Cy declined to come back to Toronto for training camp and instead asked for a trade to Ottawa.

Livingstone, of course, was incensed.  He smelled a rat and called out the Senators for tampering.  The Senators, for their part, were all wounded innocence.  It wasn't their fault, Tommy Gorman wrote in the Ottawa press, that this had come about.  Denneny had simply come to Ottawa to play lacrosse not hockey.  He now had this super duper new job and wasn't Livingstone a big old meany for keeping a fine young man like this out of hockey.  A shame really.

Ottawa's position on the matter seems plausible until one little thing is factored in - the person responsible for player recruitment for the Ottawa Senators?  Tommy Gorman.  The person who helped land Denneny's Ottawa job?  Tommy Gorman.  The manager who ran the Ottawa lacrosse club responsible for luring Cy Denneny to Ottawa in the first place?  Tommy Gorman.

The fight escalated as Denneny refused to come to Toronto for camp and was suspended.  Livingstone offered an arrangement whereby he could come solely for the games and keep his Ottawa job and this was refused.  Livingstone offered the rights to Denneny in exchange for star forward Frank Nighbor but this was publicly mocked.  (Nobody could scoff in the press like Tommy Gorman.)

The fight dragged on through mid-season.  Denneny sat on the sidelines and Gorman and Livingstone shot daggers back and forth through the press.  Livingstone eventually reduced his demands to a cash payment for his services but the Ottawa position was that they didn't want to pay anything much for the poor boy who had so magically dropped in their lap.

At the end of January a deal was finally finished.  Ottawa got Denneny while Toronto got goalie Sammy Hebert and $750.  Ottawa couldn't use him yet, though - his first appearance acutally got them disqualified from the game.  The reason was that while Ottawa and Toronto were finally negotiating, the Wanderers swooped in and signed him to a deal - the question of NHA playing rights obviously being considered of little consequence.  Ottawa wasn't officially allowed to use Denneny until the new rights kerfuffle between the Sens and Wanderers was sorted out. 

Remember, it was Livingstone who would be routinely accused of shady practices.

The day of the Ottawa - Toronto trade, a report made the papers - the 228th could soon be shipping out.  This would prove to be the definitive moment of the season - the 228th was being called for duty.

Next - Goodbye and (not particularly) good luck, Mr. Livingstone.