A remarkably talented and fierce competitor, Henry William Sprague Cleghorn was admired, despised and feared during his playing days. Wherever he skated, Cleghorn served as the anchor of his team's defense or occasionally posed an offensive threat as a forward. His on-ice accomplishments and physical style of play made him a virtual archetype of the hard-nosed star of hockey's early days.
The Montreal native attended Westmount Academy as a young man. Here, at the age of 15, he first crafted his reputation as an extremely tough competitor. Between 1906 and 1909, he played with several amateur teams in the city before spending a year with the New York Wanderers in the United State Amateur Hockey Association.
The original "Big Train" made his professional debut with the Renfrew Millionaires of the National Hockey Association in 1910-11. He began that season as a forward but was quickly moved back to defense, where he was such an intimidating presence. At this time Cleghorn was heavily influenced by his teammate Fred "Cyclone" Taylor. Cleghorn rushed forward with the puck in much the same fashion as the illustrious defender and was one of the earliest incarnations of an offensive defenseman.
The 1911-12 season brought Cleghorn back to his hometown to suit up for the mighty Wanderers. His end-to-end rushes and cantankerous defensive play rapidly endeared him to the Montreal fans. The bruising star came to be known simply as "Peg" by his adoring public. On December 27, 1913, he scored five goals in one game against the Toronto Ontarios. Cleghorn recorded a personal best of 21 goals in 19 games during the 1914-15 schedule. Another facet of his game was to protect his brother and teammate Odie. Many times Sprague lost his temper and violently punished individuals who took liberties with his sibling, such as star forward Newsy Lalonde, who once checked Odie hard and was made to pay for his action. Cleghorn stayed with the Wanderers until the franchise's arena burned down, whereupon he was signed by the Toronto Arenas and later transferred to the Ottawa Senators.
Cleghorn was a major factor in Ottawa's Stanley Cup triumphs in 1920 and 1921. During the 1920 championship series against the Seattle Metropolitans, he formed an effective backline tandem with fellow star Eddie Gerard. Although Cleghorn spent most of the 1920-21 regular season with the Toronto St. Patricks, he rejoined Ottawa in time to be a part of the squad's Stanley Cup triumph over Vancouver in a hotly contested and often violent championship series.
Following the 1921 Cup triumph with Ottawa, Cleghorn returned to Montreal to suit up for the Canadiens. Teamed with Billy Coutu, the Canadiens had what was arguably the most feared defensive tandem in hockey at that time. After he attacked Ottawa defenseman Lionel Hitchman in the 1923 playoffs, Cleghorn was suspended by team owner Leo Dandurand, who described his player's actions as "befitting an animal."
Cleghorn claimed his third Stanley Cup win in 1923-24 when his playing helped Montreal eliminate Vancouver and Calgary from the Pacific league in the playoffs. Cleghorn served as team captain from 1921 to 1925. The hard-nosed rearguard concluded his NHL career playing with the Boston Bruins until 1928.
After retiring, Cleghorn tried his hand at coaching in a number of leagues. He began with the Newark and Providence franchises of the Can-Am league. In 1931-32, he guided the Montreal Maroons to the Stanley Cup semifinals in his only year at the helm of an NHL team. He later coached Pittsburgh of the International-American Hockey League in 1935-36 and the Cornwall Cougars of the Quebec provincial circuit in 1947-48.
Over his 16-year career in the NHA and the NHL, Cleghorn accumulated 169 goals, mostly from the defense position. At the time of his retirement he trailed only Harry Cameron among defenders on the all-time scoring list in the pro leagues. His goal contribution and competitive nature were key components to the success of every team he played on.
As well known as he was for his speculative rushes on offense, Cleghorn was lauded for his play even when he didn't have the puck. Many of the game's top forwards were less inclined to venture near a net guarded by a tough defender. But Cleghorn wasn't a mere bully; he was respected for exceptional defensive play that was considered to be at the same level as such stars as Eddie Gerard and George Boucher.
Cleghorn was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.