Howard "Howie" Morenz has often been referred to as hockey's first bona fide superstar. He electrified fans and confounded the opposition in a way that ensured his exalted status in hockey history. Remarkably, Morenz's total of 291 regular-season and playoff goals in 14 NHL seasons represents only one aspect of the enormous impression he left on the sport.
The native of southwestern Ontario was dubbed "the Mitchell Meteor" in honour of both his hometown and his natural speed. He demonstrated advanced playing skills from a very young age, but more often than not he found himself tending goal. Morenz started in net during his first game with the Mitchell Juveniles in 1916-17, but it quickly became apparent that he was more suited to an offensive role. Morenz was clearly the fastest player in the league, a quality that contributed significantly to Mitchell's western Ontario juvenile championship that same year.
The Morenz family moved to nearby Stratford in May 1917, and Howie's unique talent gained him a place on the Stratford Midgets in time for the 1917-18 season. He and linemate Frank Carson were so impressive that they were enlisted by the city's senior team for the occasional match. During one senior exhibition contest against Preston in 1919-20, the 17-year-old Morenz was the dominant performer on the ice. In another game, against Kitchener, he faced future teammate George Hainsworth in a match that brought out the best in both future stars.
Morenz was in such demand in 1920-21 that he appeared with the Stratford midget and intermediate teams as well as the Grand Trunk Railroad apprentice club. He led all three outfits to their respective championships and he suited up for the Midgets in the Memorial Cup finals against the Winnipeg Falcons.
When Morenz's amateur career ended in 1923, he was courted by a host of professional teams. After declining offers from Toronto, Victoria and Saskatoon, the Morenz family agreed to a contract with the Montreal Canadiens. The "Stratford Streak" enjoyed an outstanding decade with the Habs, accumulating 253 regular-season goals before heading off to Chicago in 1934.
Morenz's first year as a Canadien culminated in a Stanley Cup win. Playing on an exciting line with Aurel Joliat and Billy Boucher, Morenz accounted for three of his team's five goals in the two-game NHL playoff series against the Ottawa Senators. A week later, Montreal embarked on wins over both the Vancouver Maroons, champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, and the Calgary Tigers, who were the Western Canada Hockey League's best.
Morenz also contributed to the Canadiens' consecutive Stanley Cup wins in 1930 and 1931. His blinding speed and puckhandling wizardry were key factors in Montreal's upset win over Boston in the 1930 finals. The Bruins had finished the regular season with an astonishing 38-5-1 record, and they were prohibitive favourites to win the Cup, but the Habs swept the best-of-three series. In 1931 Montreal defeated Chicago in a hard-fought struggle that lasted five games. In the deciding match, a 2-0 Canadiens win, Morenz scored the insurance goal despite playing with a badly injured shoulder.
Morenz was one of the dominant offensive forces in the league in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He scored a league-high 51 points in 1927-28 and was presented with the Hart Trophy. Two years later he registered an incredible 40 goals in 44 games. In 1930-31, he won his second Hart Trophy and scoring title with another 51-point season. Morenz was also selected to the NHL's inaugural First All-Star Team in 1931. The following year he scored 49 points in 48 games and was awarded his third Hart Trophy in five seasons as well as another spot on the First All-Star Team.
By the mid-1930s, the tenacious and often violent attention of the opposition's defenders had taken its toll on Morenz's trademark speed. He was sent to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and spent parts of two seasons there before joining the New York Rangers for the last 19 games of 1935-36. Canadiens head coach Cecil Hart spearheaded Morenz's return to Montreal for the 1936-37 season. Playing with a renewed sense of purpose, the "Canadien Comet" teamed with Johnny Gagnon and Aurel Joliat to help Montreal to a first-place lead in the regular-season standings.
Morenz's rejuvenation was cut short when he suffered a severly broken leg in a home game against the Black Hawks on January 28, 1937. The leg was broken in four places, a compound fracture requiring traction whereby a weighted pulley with a steel pin was inserted through Morenz's left ankle that kept his leg straight for several weeks to allow the bone to position properly. It was generally agreed that the injury would end his career. A few weeks later, on March 8, the hockey world was stunned by the news of Morenz's death, brought on by complications related to his injury. Three days later the Canadiens turned the Forum into a shrine in honour of their fallen star. Thousands of fans lined the streets and crowded the arena in a tremendous outpouring of emotion and respect for one of hockey's immortals. Inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, Morenz was one of the first to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame when it was established in 1945.
In 1950, Howie Morenz was voted the outstanding hockey player of the half-century by a national press poll.