Nels Crutchfield

Lionel Conacher is one of the greatest athletes in Canadian sporting history, not to mention the NHL. So when I noticed the transaction on October 3, 1934 that saw the Montreal Canadiens traded the great Conacher AND Herb Cain, a fine player as well, to the Montreal Maroons in exchange for a local kid named Nels Crutchfield, I figured this Crutchfield kid must have been one hell of a player! I wondered how come I never heard of him before, and began researching his career.

William Ian Nelson Crutchfield was born on July 12, 1911 in Knowlton, Quebec. "Nels" was an amateur star in the Montreal area in the early 1930s. While earning his Bachelor of Commerce he starred with McGill University for 3 years in the Montreal Senior League where he dominated both on the score sheet and in physical battles.

Crutchfield was an extremely big man for 1930s hockey (6'1" 175lbs in an era where players under 6' was the norm) and played very physically. Known as one of "The Four Hoursemen," he liked to create room for himself and his teammates by taking liberties on other players, even with his stick. He did what it took to win, and win he did leading the Redmen to three Queen’s Cup intercollegiate titles (1931, 1933, 1934), two Quebec Senior Hockey League championships (1931, 1934) and one Quebec Amateur Hockey Association provincial championship (1931).

The Habs, who acquired Lionel Conacher from Chicago in the summer of 1934, shipped him to the Montreal Maroons before Conacher even had the chance to dress for the Habs. They moved the old warhorse (and future NHL scoring champ Cain too, don't forget) in order to get their hands on the amateur star who had been the property of the cross town rival Maroons. Having the hulking Crutchfield in a Habs uniform not only made sense from a hockey standpoint, but also a box office stand point.

It turns out the reason I never heard of him before is because he only played in 41 games, all in the 1934-35 season. He scored just 5 goals and 5 assists in an otherwise insignificant season. The summer following his rookie season he suffered career ending injuries in a tragic car accident and never got to fulfill his destiny as an NHL star.

The only moment of significance in Crutchfield's career that NHL history books recall is a terrible moment that came in the playoffs of 1935. With the Habs facing the New York Rangers, it was Crutchfield's job to shut down the powerhouse scoring machine known as Bill Cook. Crutchfield was using every dirty trick in the book to get under Cook's skin, usually behind the referee's back. Finally Cook had enough.

"Crutchfield was interfering with me throughout the game and the referee wouldn't do anything about it" recalled Cook. "So I finally caught Crutchfield with the butt end of my stick. Then he hit me right on the bean (head) with his stick. The next thing I saw was a million stars. When I finally came around, all I saw was the stocking of the players who were scrapping. I never saw so many players getting belted on the ice."

Leading the charge of the bench clearing donny-brook was Bill's brother Bun. Every Ranger wanted to get at Crutchfield for trying to behead Bill Cook, but none more so than Bun. Meanwhile Frank Boucher, a relative pacifist in hockey terms, was attending to Bill and told him that Bun would kill Crutchfield if he got a hold of him. At one point Bun was chasing Crutchfield, yielding his stick like Babe Ruth would his baseball bat, and Boucher deliberately tripped up his own line mate, in order to save Crutchfield's life.

It turns out that wasn't the only time Nels Crutchfield needed his life saved. Several weeks after the season ended his career came to a screeching halt as he suffered a fractured skull in a car accident in September 1935.

A benefit exhibition hockey game was played on his behalf at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 31, 1936. 11,000 spectators attended and raised some $7,000. There was no official All Star game, but rather two "mini" all star games featuring the likes of Mike Grant, Newsy Lalonde, Art Ross, King Clancy and Charlie Conacher. In addition there was figure skating displays, a race between goaltenders Wilf Cude and Bill Beveridge, and a women's hockey game between the Canadiennes and the Maroons.

From that point on, the life of Nels Crutchfield seems to have escaped my researching lengths. He spent his life working for Alcan and the British American company throughout Quebec before retiring in Shawinnigan, Quebec. Sadly he died in another car accident in 1985, in Huntsville, Ontario. He was returning from a golf game with former McGill Redmen and Montreal Canadiens teammate Jack McGill. At age 74 he was buried in Shawinnigan.

McGill University posthumously honored Nels in a ceremony in 2001.


A. Rivest 1:53 PM  

I've found a picture of Crutchfield playing in an oldtimer game between the Maroons and the Canadiens organised by Leo Dandurand on the 25th of february 1942.

Anonymous,  6:48 PM  

I knew Nelson Crutchfield quite well - very likeable man. Nelson and my father were very good friends and golf buddies. His son, Charlie, and I were best friends in high school and continue to be good friends. I played with Nelson quite a few times as well. He had a golf cart with a squeaky well. Sometimes I would hear his cart squeaking when I was playing a shot... From your description of his playing years, perhaps I was lucky he didn't elbow me instead!

Anonymous,  5:45 PM  

A Rivest
If you can email it to me at brianwurts@hotmail.com, I'll send it to his son. I know he would be thrilled. Cheers

Serge 11:18 PM  

Crutchfield is surely one of those players which hockey players would look up to for those who still remember him up to this day.

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