Chicago visited the Forum late in January. A big Black Hawk defenseman, Earl Seibert, caught Morenz on a rush, forced him behind the net. Morenz went down; the tip of his left skate dug into the boards and got stuck. When Seibert came crashing in, Morenz’s leg snapped. The Montreal newspaper La Patrie noted “un sinistre craquement” — a sinister crack.
“I’m all through,” Morenz is reported to have said.
A photograph on La Patrie’s front page the next morning showed him peering up from his hospital bed. Inside the paper, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” Dr. Hector Forgues said.
A few days later, Morenz told reporters, “Don’t count me out yet.” In the weeks that followed, his room was filled with well-wishers, and an air of optimism. He was said to be mending well.
Then something happened.
Columnists mentioned “a violent nervous breakdown.” Vague at the time, the story hasn’t become clearer. Morenz was restrained in a straitjacket, a friend later said. Visitors were barred, and a guard stood at the door.
Morenz died on March 8: pulmonary embolism. The papers said “heart attack” and left it at that.
Three days later, some 10,000 mourners attended Morenz’s Forum funeral. Montrealers thronged the streets as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.
The Canadiens vowed no one would ever wear Morenz’s No. 7 again — not until his elder son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team. A benefit game later in 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for the family, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.
Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Donald, 6, died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.
Talented and hard-working, Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. After a junior stint in Montreal, he skated professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.
Howie Jr. died in 2015 at 88. His son, the third Howard Morenz, is in his 50s and lives in Ottawa. He played some hockey before deciding it wasn’t something he’d pursue.
But he has been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way the death is depicted is a continuing project, as it was for his father. In Montreal in 1937, the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man was anything but remarkable.
The family takes a different view.
“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” Howard Morenz said. “We don’t believe that at all.”
His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz conceded that he did not have all the facts, and maybe never will. He does know that the coroner’s report mentioned “cardiac deficiency” and “acute maniacal excitement.”
“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” he asked.
He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery. His father was told as much in the 1950s by a Montreal nurse who had been on duty the night Morenz died. Negligence, she said.
“I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary,” Howard Morenz said.
He finds comfort in the respect his grandfather still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens inspire quasi-religious devotion, Morenz remains a senior saint, immortalized by a statue outside the team’s Bell Centre home.
Howard Morenz takes pride in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend.
“I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he said. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.”
His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”
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