Howie Morenz Jr. mourns at his father’s graveside.
Howard Raymond Morenz
Born: February 26, 1927 (Montréal)
Died: October 9, 2015 (Toronto)
At age 10, Howie Morenz Jr. was cast into the spotlight as the grieving eldest son of a hockey star made legend by sudden death.
His father, a speedy centre with the Montreal Canadiens nicknamed the Stratford Streak after his Ontario hometown, won two scoring titles and three most-valuable-player awards in the early days of the National Hockey League. On Jan. 28, 1937, the tip of his skate blade caught between two boards along the ice just as a big Chicago defenceman crashed into him at the south end of the old Montreal Forum. Mr. Morenz was carted from the arena on a stretcher, his left leg broken in four places.
He spent weeks immobile in a hospital bed, the shattered leg elevated in traction. A newspaper photographer captured a visit by the son, the pug-nosed boy dressed in a pint-sized suit, a tie knotted at his neck, his hair carefully brushed.
Days later, on March 8, Mr. Morenz, who had been complaining of chest pains, died.
The news shocked the sporting world. On the day of the funeral, plywood covered the Forum’s cold surface and the great player’s bier was placed atop his old workplace at centre ice. Mourners shuffled past the flower-bedecked coffin before filling the stands for the funeral, the building which once rang with cheers for him now silenced. Teammates stood a guard of honour, while Mrs. Morenz and her three children sat in the front row of chairs.
After the service, a slow procession passed multitudes on the streets lining the uphill route to Mount Royal Cemetery, where the boy was again photographed for the newspapers, this time in short pants and an overcoat, staring down on his father’s final resting place while surrounded by weeping women.
From that day until this month, when he died at 88, he served as a surrogate for his late father. He signed autographs and answered questions. He also endured the humiliation of having to explain his own disappointing hockey career.
“There was some expectation of him to be the Second Coming,” said his own son.
Those hockey boots would prove impossible to fill.
His father’s death left the family in dire financial circumstance in the Depression. A charity game was held between the Canadiens and the Montreal Maroons at which the boy was presented with his father’s skates, stick and famous No. 7 sweater, which was declared to be retired save for future use by young Morenz. A substantial amount was raised, but the sum was placed in a trust untouchable until the family’s youngest child reached age 25.
After her husband’s death, Mary (née McKay) Morenz took ill and was unable to care for her children. Howie Jr. and his younger siblings, Donald and Marlene, were placed in St. Patrick’s Orphanage. On Christmas Day in 1938, Donald contracted pneumonia. He died in hospital of pleurisy early in the new year. He was buried beside his father in a ceremony attended by Canadiens manager Cecil Hart and defenceman A.C. (Babe) Siebert. (Tragedy was more familiar than triumph in those years for the Canadiens, as Mr. Siebert would drown that summer while swimming with his daughters in Lake Huron.)
Less than a week after her youngest son’s death, the former Mrs. Morenz married George Pratt, a wealthy man and prominent politician whom she had met after he returned to her a purse left behind at church. Their wedding went on as scheduled because the newlyweds planned to temporarily locate to Florida, where it was hoped warm weather would restore the bride’s health. In fact, she would die suddenly in Montreal 11 years later, aged 42.
Meanwhile, the Montreal newspapers offered breathless assessments of young Howie’s progress on ice. In 1941, the Gazette heralded him as a duplicate of his father, “the possibility of a Number 7 reappearing on Canadiens’ line-up looks decidedly bright.” It was a heavy burden for a 13-year-old schoolboy.
Mr. Morenz, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound centre, played for the Junior Canadiens, showing speed and a deft touch around the net. He scored 42 goals in 27 games in 1946-47, his final season as an junior. A year of senior hockey with the Montreal Royals led to a full professional campaign with the Dallas Texans, where he was dispatched to work on his skills far away from the hothouse lights of hockey-mad Montreal. Instead, he had a poor campaign, scoring just 12 goals in 60 games.
The Canadiens released him, citing a degenerative eye condition known as conical corneas, which hampered his peripheral vision, making him vulnerable to body checks. He played another four seasons of minor-league pro hockey in Quebec, but the dream of an NHL career ended without his ever having played a game.
Two years ago, he suffered a stroke and more recently had been diagnosed with adrenal cancer. Howard Raymond Morenz died on Oct. 9 at a palliative care facility in Toronto. He leaves a son, Howard G. Morenz; a grandson, Tyler; his former wife, Beryl Morenz; and a sister, Marlene Geoffrion, of Woodstock, Ga., the widow of Canadiens star Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion.
Throughout his adult life, Mr. Morenz felt obliged to challenge speculative and sensational descriptions of his father’s death, which in the fanciful retelling of sportswriters was often described as caused by a broken heart, which the family felt implied a suicide. Others reported he drank himself to death, empty bottles littering his hospital room. A dutiful son insisted on correcting the record — his father died of a coronary embolism, a blood clot from his damaged leg reaching his heart.
After hockey, Mr. Morenz operated several businesses, became an executive in the food supply industry, and owned his own branch of a shoe-repair chain in Toronto.
No matter his accomplishments, Mr. Morenz forever remained defined by his name and the legacy it carried. His late father cast a shadow he could never escape, so he embraced it.