Monday, March 31, 2008

Nels Stewart

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.

5 comments:

Derek said...

In what I have seen in my research - Phil Esposito is a good comparison to Nels Stewart - not fast but picking up goals near the crease.

Derek said...

Interview with Ching Johnson:

“At centre you'd pick Nels Stewart?"
“Nobody else. Of course, they've been shifting centres to the wing and back to centre again in the last year or so, but it doesn't make much difference. Stewart and Morenz and fellows
like that play either position, but I guess it doesn't matter, they're all forwards."
"Stewart isn't so rough, is he?"
"Oh, he isn't? Well, what's your idea of rough? He can certainly give you the elbow or the short end of the stick in the ribs - if the referee isn't looking. He's no parlor athlete, that boy. But it's all right. I guess none of us aim to be extra gentle. He’s my idea of a great player."
"But he doesn't backcheck."
"Not if he sees there's no need of it. He doesn't waste any energy. But if he sees that there's help needed, he'll backcheck with any of 'em. He's a terror around the nets. Just bad news, that's all."

The Battering Rams. That is what they call this Stewart-Barry-Clapper line. It is the heaviest forward line in professional hockey. That line averages close to 200 pounds on the hoof. Clapper and Barry eventually refused to play with him because he was too slow.

Derek said...

-Big Nelson Stewart, whose lumbering gait gives him more the appearance of a grizzly than the Bruin on his jersey, scored the deciding goals for the visitors, a bitter pill for the gathering of 8,000 that watched the former Maroon whip two shots into the Montreal cage in the second period.

Roy Worter’s attributes his success to watching the eyes of would be scorers.
“By so doing I am able to learn which way the player is going to move before he takes the shot,” explains Worters. “Nels Stewart, tricky veteran of the Boston Bruins, is the hardest for me to outguess, because his eyes are hidden by the visor of a baseball cap.”

As good as Stewart was - he was never chosen on an all-star team. A poll between players and coaches in 1934-35 chose Stewart as 2nd only to Frank Boucher.

For years lumbering Nels has been mystifying the NHL with his effortless sleight-of-hand, skating hard only sometimes but always turning up in scoring position when the occasion beckoned.

Nels had a quick and accurate shot and from 1940 to 1952 he was the all-time goal scoring leader in the NHL with 324 goals. In 1952 Maurice Richard surpassed that total. In 1942 Paul Thompson, ex-Black Hawk, stated: “The way hockey is played in the NHL today with every skater on the ice except the goalie playing forward, and power plays working overtime, Nels Stewart would score 50 goals a season.”
For a number of years after his retirement he coached the Port Colborne Sailors of the Senior Ontario Hockey Association and St. Catharines.
In 1952 Nels published a book entitled “How to Watch and Enjoy Hockey”.
The knock on Stewart was that he was a slow skater.
“..first man in history to score 300 goals, got most of them by cruising at a leisurely pace until he saw an opportunity, then driving in before the opposing netminder knew what had happened.”

“Stewart favored the heaviest stick he could get.”
In the summer of 1957 Nels died suddenly while vacationing at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay in Ontario. He was 56. It has not been widely publicized how he died, just that he was found dead, death by natural causes. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame five years prior to his death.
“A big, deceptively slow-moving player, he was a terror at close range. Stewart displayed cat-like speed in front of the net. His amazing physical strength made it tough for opposing defensemen to move him out of position.
“His ability to take a pass from any angle and whip it into the net made him a goalies nightmare, a fact that made fans say he was a dose of “old poison”.

Derek said...

Nels Stewart was a dirty player as well. One of the toughest and dirtiest lines to play against was the Triple S Line which practically killed Eddie Shore one night. Here are a couple incidents of his toughness when he was playing with Boston.
Stewart vs Bowman
On one of their excursions into Ottawa territory, Stewart and Bowman were both guilty of using high sticks but got away with it. Soon afterwards the Bruins were milling about the Ottawa net and in the scrimmage they started at it again. Both were rather clumsy at first, but before long Bowman landed his stick on Stewart’s head with considerable force and the battle was on. Prior to this point it was a battle of sticks, but now Stewart took off his gloves and began to pound away and the two quickly went to the ice where they were separated. If a decision were to be given it would have to go to Boston Nels for he landed more numerous and cleaner punches. The crack he received over the head, however, undoubtedly hurt him more than any of his punches did the Senators defense man, in fact it looked for a moment
as though Stewart were going to collapse under the impact.


Stewart vs Klein
The battle started in a roughing match between Nels Stewart, big Boston centre, and Lloyd Klein, American left-winger, when Boston was trailing 3-1 in the third period. It wound up in a stick-swinging match in which Stewart was badly
cut. Klein was knocked unconscious as Stewart broke his "hickory" over the Amerk's head, and both were given match penalties. Klein suffered a 4-inch scalp cut and a battered shoulder as the result of Stewart’s wallop, while Stewart was less seriously hurt.
The affray resulted from a wild roughing match. As Klein and Stewart were waved off the former rapped his rival with his stick. Stewart then swung his club so hard he broke it over Klein’s head and then started dodging as Red Conn went after him the same way. It was ten minutes before play could be continued and Klein was unconscious even longer.
“I want Stewart banished altogether
from organized hockey. His attack on Klein was unjustified. I have written a letter to President Calder to have Stewart banished and I am going to fight the last ditch to have it done," roared William Dwyer, Jr., commenting this morning on last night's rousing joust between New York Americans and
Boston Bruins.
“It’s all in the game,” said Simpson, “Why should I ask to have Stewart put out of the league? Frank Patrick, the Bruins’ manager, came to see me afterwards and told me how sorry he was for what happened.”
Deed didn’t display any signs of rancor or ill feeling in the dressing room. Asked how the argument with Stewart had started, he just muttered, “Aw, forget it,” and continued trying to comb his hair without touching the deep cut on his scalp or straining his dislocated shoulder.
The imbroglio grew from the sort of bumping match that is a part of the game. Tempers were at fever heat along with the pace of the game, however, and Klein cracked Stewart over the head with his stick. Officials intervened and all seemed quiet when suddenly Stewart let the American winger have his stick across the skull.
It was reported eight stitches were necessary to close the cut Stewart's head suffered in the melee.

Stewart was under suspension pending investigation. He missed one game.

Derek said...

Red Horner told the following story when Nels was a member of the Maroons:
Red was just out of junior company and pretty cocky as a Leaf defenseman. He took the puck early in the game and rushed for goal.
“I was on my way back when I heard a voice say, ‘You’ll be back, youngster. When you do come, keep your head up.’
“I looked and saw it was Nels Stewart. I laughed. I was 17 and heavy. They couldn’t hurt me.
“I got the puck again and sailed up. Next thing I know I’m on my knees on the ice. There’s blood in front of me and I’m picking what turns out to be three of my teeth.
“Above me I hear the voice of Stewart saying in gentle tones. ‘I guess that’ll teach you to be mindful of your betters, young ‘un.’”

Nels was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1952 and the following was written about him:
“Nels “Ole Poison” Stewart played 14 seasons in the NHL. He played with the Montreal Maroons from 1925-26 through 1931-32; the Boston Bruins from 1932-33 through 1934-35; and the New York Americans, 1935-36 through 1939-40. He set an all-time NHL scoring record during that time when he deposited the puck behind opposing goaltenders on 324 occasions. He amassed a total of 514 scoring points. The 324 goals and 514 scoring points were compiled during regular scheduled play and his playoff performances are excluded.
Born and raised in Toronto, Stewart played for Cleveland in the United States Amateur League before joining Maroons in 1925. No other NHL player ever had as spectacular a first season as did big (6’1 – 200 pounds) Nels. He won the Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player, topped the league in scoring, and the Maroons went on to win the Stanley Cup. That was the 1925-26 season, prior to the selection of the outstanding rookie. Naturally, he would have won that prize too had there been a rookie award. He was deadly around opposing teams goalmouths and was a dangerous scoring threat throughout his 14 year NHL tenure. Now 50, Nels is employed by a beverage company, working out of Port Colborne, Ontario.

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