Truculent Nels Stewart was nicknamed "Old Poison" as he was the most feared goal scorer of his time.
In fact, for 16 years he was hands down the greatest goal scorer of all time, a title that only 6 other players in NHL history can lay claim to. In 1936 he surpassed Howie Morenz to become the all time leader in goals. He ended up with 324 goals in his career. He would remain the all time leading goal scorer until 1952 when Rocket Richard would score career goal 325.
Yet Stewart would always have his fair share of detractors. More on that later.
Born in Montreal but raised in the Toronto area, the burly, 200-pounder collected a total of 324 goals and 191 assists in 653 league games. He was the first to score more than 300 goals in the NHL, a record that stood for many seasons.
Stewart learned his hockey in Toronto, where his family had moved when he was a boy. He grew up in the Balmy Beach district with his future linemate, Hooley Smith, and joined the Montreal Maroons for the 1925-26 season.
Teamed with with fellow Hall of Famers Babe Seibert and Smith, the old Montreal Maroons had the most feared trio in hockey with the rough and tumble famed "S Line." Stewart scored 134 times in just 5 seasons with the "S" line, including 2 in 4 seconds, a NHL record. As a rookie he captured the 1926 Hart trophy as the league's MVP, the same year he helped the Maroons capture the Stanley Cup. He repeated as MVP in 1930.
Best remembered for his days with the Maroons, Stewart also enjoyed successful seasons with the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans.
Nels was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962, 5 years after his death. In 1998, despite having not played in half a century, Nels Stewart was ranked number 51 by an expert panel gathered by The Hockey News' to determine the 100 greatest hockey players of all time.
Yet somehow Nels Stewart is mostly forgotten about by history. Others from his era - Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Cyclone Taylor - have transcended time, but Stewart has not? Why is that?
One reason would be he mostly played on two teams that folded long before modern times. It is easy to forget a player when most people nowadays did not even know his team existed.
Another reason was his style of play was far from the prettiest, as was the case for players like Shore, Morenz and Taylor. And his reputation as a bully did not endear him to many fans. He was known more than once to participate in stick swinging battles and other acts of violence.
While the sting of his scoring prowess was inevitable, his skating was down right slow and cumbersome. There were no fancy dashes to pull the crowd out of their seats for Old Poison. Instead, like a later day Phil Esposito or Tim Kerr, he relied on others to get him the puck once he parked himself in scoring position.
But he was lethal with his shot once he did get the puck. His shot was fast and heavy, and noted to cause a more than a few injuries to the maskless goalies of the era, most notably Lorne Chabot in the 1928 playoffs.
Cooper Smeaton, a referee of the day, regarded Stewart as one of the all time greats.
"In today's game," said Smeaton back in the 1980s, "Nels would have scored 100 goals. He was terrific in front of the net, a big strong fellow who had moves like a cat. Stewart never seemed to be paying any attention to where the puck was and, if you were checking him, he'd even hold little conversation with you; but the minute he'd see the puck coming his way he'd bump you, take the puck and go off and score."
Another referee, Bobby Hewitson, was not a fan.
"I always felt that Stewart had an exaggerated reputation. I never thought he was such a great player. Nels was big and tall but awfully lazy. He wouldn't backcheck and he'd just stand around the net waiting for the centering pass, then flip the puck in. That much he could do. We used to say that Nels stood in one spot all of the time."
Its hard to believe a Hart Trophy winner and NHL goal scoring champ could have scored 324 goals by being lazy. Perhaps Stewart was more deceptive than lazy. After all, detractors also mislabeled more modern big men of the game such as Frank Mahovlich and Mario Lemieux.