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If A Picture Could Talk: The tale behind a rare photo of a star-studded Canadiens team

Rare photo from 1927 shows a happy Howie Morenz front and center during a Montreal Canadiens’ bonding day in back country.
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One of the first things you notice in this photo from 1927 is the youthful look of excitement on the face of Howie Morenz, seated in the snow in the middle. He either just shared a laugh with Herb Gardiner, looking down on him from his left, or he got a nudge in the back from the foot of Pit Lepine, standing above him with a devilish look to Morenz’ right.

Maybe Morenz and George Hainsworth shared a joke about how they’ll soon be walking away from this photo shoot with wet bums. They’re lying in the snow with the same gap-lipped smile, suggesting they were laughing or talking a second earlier.

Whatever it was, Morenz looks great. A happy kid. Just 24. Hanging out with his Montreal teammates. That’s such a different look from what hockey’s history has taught us over the decades. Morenz was one of the game’s early greats – maybe the first true superstar of the NHL. But by the time he was 30, he was broken down and tired. When he was 32 and playing in Chicago, he looked 50. His game deteriorated and he became a nervous wreck. He broke his leg at 34, went to hospital and was dead less than six weeks later.

Not on this day. Young Morenz was in his prime. He was in his fourth NHL season with the Canadiens and on his way to finishing second in the league in goals. He won the goal-scoring title the next season. He’d win his third Hart Trophy a few years later and would score his 200th NHL goal before playing in his 300th game.

And on this day, he was frolicking in the snow with the rest of the Habs. There were four Hall of Famers in the group you see here. Gardiner and Hainsworth were in their 30s but playing in their first NHL seasons after storied careers in the comparable Western League. Sylvio Mantha, standing above Hainsworth with a foot resting on the goalie, was a 23-year-old blueliner in his fourth NHL season. Another Hall of Famer, Aurel Joliat, was on the team but not in the photo. Could he have been the one snapping the shot? He did a lot of that on the ice, scoring 30 goals in 25 games two years earlier.

It’s a rare photo. Here’s the story behind it.

Herb Gardiner is my great uncle. He’s a Winnipeg native who served in the First World War. After service, he became an engineer settling in Calgary. He was a force for the WHL’s Calgary Tigers, typically playing 60 minutes a game on defense. The Tigers lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1924 Stanley Cup final, and after the last game, the Canadiens offered Gardiner a contract for the 1924-25 season. Gardiner declined, saying he was raising his family in Calgary. When the WHL folded in 1926, the Canadiens went after Gardiner again. He accepted the offer and went on to win the Hart Trophy as a 35-year-old rookie. He’s one of just three rookies to win the Hart.

Partway through Herb’s rookie season, the Canadiens must have gone out to the back country during a break in the schedule for a retreat to a cabin on snowshoes. That’s when this photo was taken. It became part of the Herb Gardiner scrapbook collection, compiled by his wife Carrie. It was later passed along to his daughter Pat, then her cousin Barry (my father), then recently to me. I had never seen that image before and was stunned when I first set eyes on it. It’s pure art.

Players are identified by last name, written in ink on the 7-by-10-inch print itself. We don’t know whose penmanship it is. There’s no date written on it, but the neat thing about a team photo is you can time stamp what season it’s from by the players you see. Laying in the snow next to Morenz is Carson Cooper, a 27-year-old right winger who only spent a few months with the Canadiens. He was acquired Jan. 17, 1927 from Boston in a trade for Bill Boucher. The two players were returned to their original team May 22.

That’s the window. After the Canadiens acquired Cooper, they had three five-days breaks in their schedule when they were in Montreal – late January, early February and mid-March. One of those is probably when they had this team outing.

Most players are on snowshoes. People in street shoes are standing on the snowshoes of their teammates for this photo, as though they’d sink too much in the snow or the frozen ground was uncomfortably cold on their feet. Four players are wearing their Canadiens sweaters – they were wool, after all, and warm on cold, snowy days. The cresting isn’t consistent, though, but Montreal Canadiens historian Carl Lavigne said there was little regard for uniformity in team jerseys back then, saying it was usually the trainer or his wife who sewed things together. The sleeve patch you see on a couple sweaters was done for the 1925-26 season, so it looks as though Art Gagne and ‘Battleship’ Leduc were hanging out in the previous season’s duds.

In addition to the 11 players in the photo (NHL teams went with 10 skaters in the 1920s), there are some team personnel, including Canadiens part-owner Louis A. Letourneau (wearing a fur coat and smoking a cigar), trainer Ed Dufour, club secretary Jules Dugal, and reserve goalie Alphonse Lacroix, as well as men identified as Kennedy and Disken. Historian Lavigne has no record of their first names.

It certainly looks like it was a good bonding session that day. Montreal was 10-10-1 before acquiring Cooper, then went 18-4-1 afterwards, losing in the second round of the playoffs to eventual Cup champion Ottawa. Was this the trigger for the turnaround?

Maybe. When Morenz was happy, the Habs were doing well.

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