A Life's Story
April 17, 2021
A hero and a Hab
George Robertson led the Winnipeg Monarchs to Memorial Cup glory in 1946 and went on to play for the Montreal Canadiens alongside some hockey legends; to his daughters, he was a one-of-a-kind dad
By: Geoff Kirbyson
George Robertson is one of a select few hockey players to have played in front of their biggest-ever crowd before they made the NHL.
The then-18-year-old Winnipegger led the Winnipeg Monarchs to the Memorial Cup in 1946 by scoring the winning and insurance goals in a 4-2 Game 7 victory over Toronto’s St. Michael’s Majors with an official crowd of 15,803 looking on.
But Bruce Heintz, Robertson’s son-in-law, says you simply can’t trust official numbers.
"There were people in the aisles and hanging from the rafters. There might have been 23,000 people at Maple Leaf Gardens that day," he says.
How that many people crammed into one of hockey’s cathedrals is the stuff of legend. Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe had been so confident that the Majors would wrap it up in six games after a decisive 7-4 win in Game 5 that he said if there were to be a Game 7 — which would surely never happen — any uniformed Canadian who’d served in the military would receive free admission.
The fact that the Second World War had ended just seven months earlier didn’t seem to factor into his thinking.
The Monarchs, to Smythe’s disbelief, won Game 6 by a 4-2 score but he was a man of his word and opened up the turnstiles to all in uniform.
Game 7 was tied 2-2 going into the third period when Robertson created his own legend.
Of the winning goal, The Canadian Press reported: "Robertson, who gathered 10 points during the series, took the puck at centre, shifted the two-man Irish rearguard out of position, and fired a waist-high shot from 15 feet out and to the side. Goalie Pat Boehmer never touched it."
All told, the series drew 102,575 fans — all seven games were played at Maple Leaf Gardens — a record for a seven-game amateur series in Canada. That’s the official figure. Who knows how many people actually took it in?
Robertson died in January at age 93 from COVID-19 as the oldest alumnus of the Montreal Canadiens, the most storied franchise in hockey history.
He was the property of the New York Rangers before being traded to the Canadiens in the summer of 1947. He played one game in the 1947-48 season but made the team coming out of training camp the next fall.
When he walked into the dressing room, he might have had trouble counting all of the future Hall of Famers.
On one side was centre Elmer Lach, who would soon be the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, and Ken Reardon, a tough-as-nail defenceman who had spent time overseas fighting the Nazis, and on the other was Doug Harvey, who was in the middle of winning seven Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenceman, and captain Butch Bouchard, who would lift the Stanley Cup four times.
And of course, the greatest of them all, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the first sniper to score 50 goals in the NHL and whose steely glare struck fear in the hearts of goaltenders and defencemen.
Two of those legends, Lach and Richard, played alongside Robertson on opening night of the 1948-49 season. Together, they would help him score the first goal of his career that night.
And while he would never be mistaken for a member of the Flying Frenchmen, Robertson no doubt took comfort that two of his teammates, Reardon and Billy Reay, who would lead the team in scoring that season, were from his hometown.
Heintz says despite the heady company, Robertson wouldn’t have been intimidated.
"He was very confident. When you’re in the Original Six, you always had to play your best," he says.
After he retired from hockey in the late-1950s, Robertson joined Labatt Breweries. He moved on to other successful roles but continued to remain connected to Labatt through curling and golf tournaments.
Even though he played hockey around North America, Robertson always returned home to Winnipeg. He and his wife Vi built the family home in East St. Paul along the Red River 65 years ago. He was predeceased by her in 1988 but is survived by daughters Susan Robertson (Frank Bevilacqua) and Pamela Heintz (Bruce) as well as grandchildren Lauren and Thomas Bevilacqua.
Even though he hadn’t donned the bleu, blanc et rouge for more than a half-century, the Canadiens hadn’t forgotten about him. After a road victory against the Jets in Winnipeg in March 2019, Geoff Molson, president of the Canadiens, was informed that Robertson was about to celebrate his 92nd birthday.
"A member of the Montreal Canadiens family for the past seven decades, you are now our most senior member," he wrote in a letter to Robertson.
"As a Memorial Cup hero in 1946, you certainly made your presence felt in Montreal when, in just your second game with the franchise, playing alongside Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach, you recorded your first goal as a Hab on opening night 1948-49, three minutes into the game. It may have happened over 70 years ago, but it remains one of several memorable moments in Canadiens history and I take this opportunity to thank you for your contribution and to wish you well."
Robertson was an avid lover of the outdoors, including hunting, fishing and many sports, but especially hockey. He also loved his home on the river but by far his most cherished treasure was his family. He regaled his children, grandchildren and their partners with his many stories, often told (and retold) around the fireplace. He captured their attention with his uncanny way of making them feel that they were reliving the memory with him.
"He taught us life lessons of humility and kindness. He was always willing to help others without asking or expecting a favour in return. He will always be a true one-of-a-kind hero to us," say his daughters Pamela and Susan.