I’d Have Cleghorn On My Team Anyday


I’d like to see the Steve Downie’s and Colton Orr’s of the world go head to head with Sprague Cleghorn. Bring ’em on, any of the league’s tough guys. They’d lose, and blood would be spilled.

Tiger Williams and Chris Nilan and Tie Domi would lose too. Because Sprague Cleghorn, Montreal great rushing defenseman from 1921 to 1925, was one of the meanest and nastiest players to ever play the game. Probably only a small handful of others, like Newsy Lalonde and Joe Hall, would give the guy a run for his money in the savage department.

Guys nowadays would scramble for cover if they went up against Cleghorn. He played in an era when the sport was excessively brutal, and many a player would crash into him and like magic would drop to the ice unconscious after Cleghorn had performed a deadly operation on them. Often a player might do Mr. Cleghorn wrong early in a game and Sprague would bide his time until later on, and in the end, the other guy would skate gingerly off the ice with a large and gruesome gash across his face, courtesy of our hero.

Red Dutton was quoted in Trent Frayne’s The Mad Men of Hockey, saying, “If some of the longhairs I see on the ice these days met Sprague Cleghorn, he’d shave them to the skull. Jesus he was mean. If you fell in front of Cleg he’d kick your balls off.”

King Clancy pulled the old trick of pretending to be a teammate and calling for the puck when Cleghorn was rushing, and Cleghorn fell for it. When the game ended Clancy was walking to the dressing room to the cheers of fans and heard a friendly voice saying “King.” Clancy turned and Cleghorn turned out Clancy’s lights. “Jesus did he hit me a beauty,” said King.

The Toronto St. Pats called up a tough guy, Bill Brydge, who was going to add muscle, and he gave it to Cleghorn – the knee, elbows, stick. Cleghorn didn’t pay any attention and waited. The time came and Brydge ended up with fifty stitches.

After Ace Bailey taunted Cleghorn one night about an offside, the big fellow unloaded on Bailey and down the St. Pats player went. Bailey struggled to get up and the now-aware Bill Brydge grabbed Bailey and said, “Stay down, you crazy bastard. Do you want to get killed?”

He speared, butt-ended, punctured a spleen or two, carved up faces, and pounded players over the head with his fist and stick. Scott Hartnell and Milan Lucic and these guys wouldn’t have a prayer. This was a guy who had Gordie Howe elbows and lethal stick long before Gordie Howe.

Imagine what he’d do to Dan Carcillo?

Cleghorn by all accounts possessed lots of skill, loved to take the puck end to end, and he’s a Hall of Famer, having been inducted in 1958. He was also a dapper gentleman off the ice who liked to wear fine clothes like he was dressing for the opera, and didn’t resemble at all the vicious son of a bitch he was when he had skates on.

Our man Sprague Cleghorn died at age 66 from complications after being hit by a car. He and his brother Odie, who also played for the Canadiens (1918-25), were close all their lives and after Sprague died, Odie also passed away, on the day of Sprague’s funeral.

8 thoughts on “I’d Have Cleghorn On My Team Anyday”

  1. “Imagine what he’d do to Dan Carcillo?” My fantasy – remove him from the NHL altogether. And shave Hartnell, assuming he’d be willing to get that close to that half-apeman pseudo humanoid. I love these old timer stories. I remember when the Habs were a tough but highly skilled team that everyone feared. *sigh*

  2. They can be tough again, Tyg. All we need is a power forward or large defenceman who can really fight, and a winning team. A combo like that will strike fear into other teams. I’m hoping young Schultz can add serious feistiness in upcoming years.

  3. The Habs had a great run of bad-ass players in those days. Joe Hall, Bert Corbeau and Sprague Cleghorn.

    Corbeau and Cleghorn played one season together, I’d have hated to be a forward on any opposing team against that duo. Ironically though Corbeau’s PIM totals dropped by 60 over the previous season that year. My guess is the referees focus went to Sprague.

    They both became referees (and I think Odie did too) later on after they retired as players.

  4. Number 31, that’s a really good idea. A movie about Sprague. You’ve come up with some great ideas over the past few years.

  5. Don’t forget Ken Randall as one of the meanest to ever play. He Checked Cleghorne so hard in 1916 he broke his leg and sidelined him for months. They feuded forever. Both had retired and were coaching against each other in 1928 when their teams were involved in a donnybrook. You guessed it, both jumped on the ice in their civvies and duked it out one more time.My grandpa says he won but I’m sure Cleg would have said he beat randall to a pulp.Theirs was the greatest hockey fued of all time.

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