In downtown Toronto, in the inner sanctum of the shrine dedicated to Canada’s national obsession, hockey, one will find a great hall containing the sport’s Holy of Holies, the Stanley Cup, flanked by the game’s lesser awards.
There, behind a glass case, illuminated in a royal purple glow commensurate with the solemnity of the location, is a trophy that is perhaps more sought after than any other individual award – the Hart Memorial Trophy.
Presented each year to the player judged most valuable to his team, the award is the NHL’s oldest and perhaps most storied.
The league’s greatest players have received the prestigious award, with Wayne Gretzky winning it nine times – more than any other player.
While other hockey superstars are associated with the award – including Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Eddie Shore – few people are aware of its Jewish connections.
The award, which was first presented to Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators following the 1923-24 season, was donated to the NHL by Dr. David Hart, a prominent Montreal physician at the time. David Hart was a descendant of Aaron Hart, Canada’s first Jewish settler.
David Hart’s son, Cecil Hart, continued the family tradition by coaching and managing the Montreal Canadiens for nine years (after one year heading the rival Montreal Maroons), leading them to Stanley Cup victories in 1931 and 1932.
On Dec. 14, the Canadian Jewish Experience (CJE) will hold an event marking Canada’s sesquicentennial, titled Remembering Cecil Hart 1883-1940.
The day will be dedicated to memorializing Cecil Hart’s contribution to the game of hockey, while also highlighting the role the Jewish community has played in Canada over the past 150 years, said Tova Lynch, founder of CJE.
The volunteer organization has sponsored various events throughout the year, spotlighting prominent Jews, such as songwriter Leonard Cohen and Louis Rasminsky, the governor of the Bank of Canada who broke through a “glass ceiling” in the financial world, Lynch said.
CJE felt it was appropriate to honour Cecil Hart, who played such a prominent role in hockey, “which is so important for Canada.” What’s more, “nobody knows that Cecil Hart was Jewish,” she said.
Nobody knows that Cecil Hart was Jewish.
– Tova Lynch
Andrew Ross, an archivist and specialist in hockey at Library and Archives Canada, said Cecil Hart was a prominent figure in both the hockey and baseball worlds in the 1920s. In 1921, he negotiated the purchase of the Montreal Canadiens, on behalf of the Dandurand family, from the widow of George Kennedy, who owned the team.
Together with Léo Dandurand, Joseph Cattarinich and Louis Letourneau, the other owners of the Habs, Hart was known as “the fourth horseman of the Canadiens,” Ross said.
In 1923, then acting as the team’s corporate director, Cecil Hart recruited Howie Morenz to the Canadiens. Morenz would go on to become a superstar of the day and lead the team to three Stanley Cup victories.
In 1924, David Hart donated the Hart Trophy to the league. At the time, it was the league’s only individual award, but it opened the door to a flock of other trophies, including the Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player) and the Art Ross (most points). Some trophies came and went, but the Hart Trophy remained, Ross said.
In its early days, the trophy was in the shape of a cup and small plaques bearing the names of the recipients were added to its base each year. By 1960, the base was full and it was replaced with the current Hart Memorial Trophy, which looks like a fiery ball sitting on top of a pedestal.
The league’s greatest players have received the prestigious award.
The CJE event is scheduled for Dec. 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the Pellan Room of the Library and Archives Canada building at 395 Wellington St. in Ottawa. It is timed to coincide with the wider festivities surrounding the outdoor Winter Classic game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators, which will be held at TD Place in Ottawa on Dec. 16.
As part of the festivities, participants will hear a lecture on the life and times of Cecil Hart, view a specially created CJE panel honouring Cecil Hart, listen to music and watch video presentations by former Hart Trophy winners.
And, of course, they will be able to view the trophy that links the Jewish community indelibly to the great game of hockey.