The game of hockey has always been a physical one. Men with blades on their feet, sticks in their hands, and doing their best to go skate past an opponent to get possession of a small rubber disk. Inevitably opposing players will run into each other. The “check” has long been a method of crashing the body into that of a player of the other team to force that player off the puck. When done correctly, there is no real harm to either player and the game continues. Every so often though, whether angles of the bodies or how close they are to the boards, among other things can lead to an injury on the player who is getting checked.
The most famous of these hits was when Boston Bruin Eddie Shore checked Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1933. Shore’s check sent Bailey to the ice where he hit his head, became unconscious and went into convulsions. Bailey was taken to the hospital with a fractured skull and went into surgery that would take more than four hours. Bailey would never play hockey again.
It would be 14 years before such an event would happen again to such a shocking level.
The game, played at the Montreal Forum on February 7, 1947, as the Montreal Canadiens were hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was the era of the “Punch Line” for the Canadiens that consisted of forwards Elmer Lach centering Toe Blake and Maurice Richard and the Habs were certainly the favorites to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions.
“When Lach launched an attack from his zone, forechecking Don cut across the ice; Lach, doing an NHL version of the Titanic, swerved into him. The collision sent the helmetless Canadiens star tail-spinning, his head violently striking the ice,” described hockey author and historian Stan Fischler in a 2017 piece on Don Metz.
Lach was taken to the hospital with a fractured skull. His recuperation would keep him out of the Canadiens lineup throughout the remainder of the season and the playoffs. He would return to play with Montreal in the 1947-48 season, ultimately retiring after the 1953-54 season.
As Ottawa Journalist Bill Westwick wrote the next day, “Even the most rabid of [Maurice] Richard’s French-Canadian following in Montreal never have attempted to underrate the importance of Lach’s position as key-man on the high-scoring Canadien first line. He has been an unselfish, good-natured athlete, in addition to being one of the most talented of centre ice players. The injury is a terrific blow to Canadiens’ chances at this stage.”
While the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens have always been fierce rivals, the injury to Lach escalated that “dislike” a hundred-fold. The question was, would NHL president Clarence Campbell hand down some justice. He had been vocal up to that point in the season “warning against increasing rough play.”
“Some sections of the Montreal press suggest that the Toronto management is overdoing it in encouraging robust hockey on the part of their hirelings and there is bound to be an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding this serious injury to one of the game’s top stars,” continued Westwick.
Metz pleaded innocent stating that he had hit Lach from the side and hadn’t seen him fall. President Campbell would ultimately exonerate him.
As the season got to the playoffs, Canadiens head coach Don Irvin decided that it would be up to a higher being to determine if Metz’s hit was an accident or intentional.
“Irvin prophesied that the outcome of the series rested solely in the hands of Providence,” wrote columnist Jim Coleman in the Globe and Mail. “He said that if the accident was only an accident, the Leafs would win the series. If the injury was deliberate, Providence would intervene and the Canadiens would win the Cup.”
When the playoffs were over, the Maple Leafs had won the cup, so it must have been an accident.
- Bill Westwick, “The Sport Realm,” The Ottawa Journal, February 8, 1947, p. 24