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Rewind: Who ruled the defensive roost in the pre-Norris days?

Before the NHL started handing out the Norris Trophy in 1954, these defensive stalwarts dominated the blueline.

Sprague Cleghorn is a name hockey fans rarely hear. Unless you’re learning about early Montreal Canadiens stars, or the best players of the NHL’s first decade, or the toughest, most violent players of all-time, Cleghorn may as well be a cartoon character. But the fact is, he was a truly fascinating talent whose life and career have never been done justice in the form of a biographical book in the 90 years since he retired.

Luckily for us, historians at spent many hours searching old newspapers to get first-hand accounts of what kind of player Cleghorn was. Here’s a synopsis:

Most of the top defensemen in Cleghorn’s era were known primarily for their offensive or defensive skill, sometimes both, but Cleghorn was a player who put both together for an extended time. First-hand accounts praised his defensive play for his entire career, and his final two NHL seasons were the only ones in which he was not a significant offensive threat. In fact, he was among his league’s three top-scoring defensemen 11 times.

Cleghorn’s offensive game was based around speed and power. His skating ability gave him the confidence to rush up ice at a time when it was a rarity for defensemen to do so, and his strength gave him the ability to be unpredictable in his rushes. He is one of the earliest cited examples of a player who was just as comfortable powering over, or through, defenders as he was speeding around them.

Much has been made over the decades of Cleghorn’s reputation as a violent, physical player, whose legal body checking and illegal stickwork alike intimidated opponents. And this is by no means untrue. But observers were also careful to mention Cleghorn’s more traditional and legal defensive abilities were top-notch, from his outstanding speed forwards and backwards, to his smarts, to his long reach and quick stick that was notorious for intercepting passes.

Sprague broke into the NHA (the NHL’s predecessor) at 20, playing one season as a center before switching to defense for good. By the time he turned 21 in 1910-11, the New York Times described him as “the best defense player in Canada today.” Fifteen years later, nothing had changed – he was the NHL’s 1926 Hart Trophy runner-up, the league’s highest-ranking defenseman by a wide margin over King Clancy, who was eighth. This was a repeat of his feat from 1923-24. If he was elite at 21 and elite at 36, you can bet he was pretty darned good in between as well. In 1922, Cleghorn became the first NHL defenseman to lead his team in scoring, a feat not repeated until Tom Anderson in 1942 and not again until Bobby Orr in 1970.

There were no advanced stats when Cleghorn played – there were hardly any basic stats – but with creative use of team goals for/goals against stats, the numbers show he was a real difference-maker. That he changed teams four times makes such an analysis possible. On average, Cleghorn’s teams were 14 percent better than the league average offensively, and five percent better than average defensively. On the other hand, in the seasons before he arrived and after he left, these teams were six percent below average offensively and three percent below average defensively. That’s a 20 percent swing in offense and an eight percent swing in defense, or about a 14 percent overall swing, largely thanks to the presence or absence of one player.

Such team-based metrics are most effective in the earliest eras, where teams typically dressed lineups of seven to 12 players, meaning any individual skater had much more ice time and therefore much more opportunity to affect the game than he does today – which brings us to another one of Cleghorn’s extraordinary feats. During the 1924 playoffs, the New York Times reported Cleghorn played 75 consecutive games without stopping for a rest. With the smaller roster sizes in those days, most starters played most of the game, and some occasionally were reported to play a full game, but Cleghorn apparently did this 75 straight times, which the Times believed to be a record.

Off the ice, Cleghorn wasn’t a paragon of virtue. In the interest of not whitewashing history, it should be noted he hit his wife Evelyn with a crutch in 1918 while recovering from a broken leg. Two years later, Evelyn thought he was missing but eventually found him living with another woman. As far as hockey was concerned, he had the respect of teammates and managers. He was a captain for seven of his 17 seasons.

Newspaper passages throughout his career noted the steadying influence he had on younger players, the protection he offered all teammates, and the way he “directed the play.” In fact, Cleghorn’s influence on a young Eddie Shore is not well-known, but Sprague recalled, “Eddie was the greenest pea you ever saw when he came to the Bruins. I helped develop his puck-carrying style by placing chairs on the ice a certain distance apart. He rushed with the puck, swerving in and out around the chairs. Of course, he had natural ability, but it had to be brought out.”

Cleghorn was also known for developing Lionel Hitchman, who was never a superstar but was perhaps the best pure defensive defenseman of his time and finished as a Hart Trophy runner-up in 1930, when he had only nine points. Cleghorn was also a notorious practical joker – he once placed a dead pigeon in his brother Odie’s luggage on a trip to the west coast, which Odie only discovered once it began to smell. Another time, he nearly made Canada’s governor general, Viscount Byng, a victim of a hand buzzer before he was stopped at the last second by Maroons’ president Jimmy Strachan (only because of how predictable his shtick had become).

Cleghorn is not as famous today as a player of his skills, accomplishments and notoriety should be. This is likely due to two factors: First, he played his first seven (and many of his best) seasons in the NHA. The NHL has never recognized anything that happened in the NHA, despite it being the same league with the same teams and the same players.

Second, he never played in any one place long enough to become a legend there, so his legacy is not kept alive by any one team like, for example, the Canadiens do for Newsy Lalonde. When researching for the retro Norris Trophies, I assigned Cleghorn four of them: 1920, 1922, 1924 and 1926, but had the scope of this project been wider, he could have earned three or four more for his NHA exploits. Seven Norris Trophies would put him at the level of players like Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Eddie Shore, and Nicklas Lidstrom. However, that would be an overly optimistic projection.

Remember that, until 1926, the NHL was just one of two (or three) major pro leagues featuring equally high-level hockey, so winning a retro NHL Norris before 1927 is more like being the best defenseman in your conference as opposed to the entire league. If you assume that half the time he was the best defenseman across all leagues, and the other times he yielded to the best of the West, we have a player whose accomplishments and legacy rival that of a player like Chris Chelios, and, indeed, the stylistic similarities are there.

Retro Norris Trophies

1917-18 Joe Hall: NHL’s third-highest-scoring blueliner led Montreal to best defensive record, too

1918-19 Harry Cameron: Not the same reputation as Cleghorn, Gerard or Boucher but outscored them all for Tor/Ott

1919-20 Sprague Cleghorn: Highest-scoring defenseman and led Ottawa to historically dominant defensive record

1920-21 Eddie Gerard: Only fourth in defense scoring, but he was key to Ottawa’s excellent defensive record

1921-22 Sprague Cleghorn: First of three Retro Norris Trophies earned during his 30s. He led Habs in scoring

1922-23 Georges Boucher: Senator led all defensemen in scoring while
defending as effectively as ever

1923-24 Sprague Cleghorn: Completed a 75-game streak of playing entire 60-minute games this season for Habs

1924-25 King Clancy: First of nine great years, some worthy of a Norris, but the Senator & Shore were same age

1925-26 Sprague Cleghorn: Played just 78 percent of the season, but still named a Hart finalist – at age 35 for Boston

1926-27 Herb Gardiner: Like many ex-WHL and PCHA players, enjoyed immediate NHL success, winning Hart for Habs

1927-28 Eddie Shore: No official all-star vote, but the Bruin topped the unofficial vote conducted by NHL GMs

1928-29 Eddie Shore: Third in Hart voting – Mantha was fourth, Clancy fifth. Highest scoring D-man in league

1929-30 Lionel Hitchman: Probably best pure defensive defenseman of the era, Bruin was mentored by Cleghorn

1930-31 Eddie Shore: Third retro Norris Trophy for Shore, and his best years haven’t even come yet

1931-32 ‘Ching’ Johnson: It’s a surprise he won one, but the Ranger frequently placed very high in all-star voting

1932-33 Eddie Shore: Easy choice for the Retro Norris as he wins his first of four Hart Trophies

1933-34 Lionel Conacher: Hawk’s only Norris, helped by Shore, who took a hit in voting thanks to Bailey incident

1934-35 Eddie Shore: With the Bailey incident behind him, Shore gets back to his Hart-winning ways

1935-36 Eddie Shore: Wins his third Hart as best all-around player in league despite advancing age

1936-37 Babe Siebert: Hab was Hart Trophy winner in third season as D-man after nine years as a left winger

1937-38 Eddie Shore: At 35, wins final Hart, but he’s still not finished piling up Retro Norris Trophies

1938-39 Eddie Shore: His NHL career almost in the books, it wasn’t long before coaching beckoned

1939-40 Dit Clapper: A two-time all-star at RW, Bruin switched to D and topped voting two years later

1940-41 Dit Clapper: What a season – Retro Norris, Hart runner-up, led Bruins to second Cup in three years

1941-42 Earl Seibert: One of 10 years the Black Hawk was top-four in all-star voting, but only first this one time

1942-43 Jack Stewart: The top defenseman on the league’s most successful – by far – defensive team, Detroit

1943-44 Babe Pratt: League MVP, posting huge numbers and was a calming influence on Toronto rookies

1944-45 Butch Bouchard: Steady play behind more fiery Habs like Richard. Tough but not a bully.

1945-46 Jack Stewart: Tied with Crawford, Bouchard – made second all-star team but should have been first

1946-47 Ken Reardon: Fine peak season for the Hab, who retired at 28 with streak of five all-star teams intact

1947-48 Bill Quackenbush: Red Wing edged Jack Stewart, who was just as good defensively but in different ways

1948-49 Bill Quackenbush: Second-highest scoring D-man in league, efficient defender and zero penalty minutes

1949-50 Gus Mortson: A surprise winner in a slow year for top defensemen, the Leaf edged Reardon, Kelly

1950-51 Red Kelly: First of three years Red Wing held off the late-blooming Harvey for top vote honors

1951-52 Red Kelly: Known mostly for his record-breaking offense but more than capable defensively

1952-53 Red Kelly: NHL’s first actual Norris winner led All-Star voting three times before that

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.


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