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Tiny Thompson and Sandon

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

NHL star goaltender Cecil Ralph (Tiny) Thompson was born in Sandon. While this fact is well known, Thompson’s relationship with his birthplace has not been explored to any great extent. And some of the details that have been handed down to us are wrong.

Thompson earned fame during a 12-season NHL career with the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. He won the Stanley Cup with Boston as a rookie in 1929 and the Vezina Trophy four times as the league’s top goalie. He was the first NHL goalie credited with an assist. He played in the second-longest game in NHL history (and lost in the sixth overtime period — but opposing fans gave him a standing ovation). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959.

Tiny Thompson’s 1933 World Wide Gum card noted his birthplace on the back.

Denis St. Denis, who was in the lumber business in Nakusp when fire leveled Sandon’s business district in 1900, recalled in a 1958 memoir that he received an order written on the side of a shoe box from burned-out hotelier Gassy Thompson:

You likely have heard of Tiny Thompson who played goal for Chicago Black Hawks for some years and his brother also played forward. They both were Gassy’s boys and learned to skate and played their first hockey in Sandon.

Those two sentences contain three errors. First, Tiny never played for Chicago, although he did become a scout for them when his playing days ended. Second, Gassy wasn’t Tiny’s father, but his uncle. And third, it is extremely doubtful that he ever laced up skates in Sandon.

While various sources agree that Tiny was born in Sandon on May 31, they have long disagreed on the year: some say 1903, others 1905. (Some also claim Sandon is in Alberta, an error that has been perpetuated since 1935.)

Turns out the correct year was 1903. At least that’s what appears on Tiny’s birth registration (seen below), which became public in 2004. However, for some reason it was not filed until 1921.

The 1911 census also lists Tiny’s birth as 1903 and that’s the date on his gravemarker as well.

Another source we would expect to corroborate the year fails to do so: Tiny’s birth wasn’t mentioned in the Sandon Mining Review, which was usually on top of such things. (Sandon’s other newspaper, The Paystreak, had recently amalgamated with The Ledge of New Denver, and no longer carried as much Sandon news.)

The birth registration further reveals Tiny’s parents were William John (Jack) and Ada Jane (Kenty) Thompson, both natives of Hants Cove, Nova Scotia. They married in Revelstoke on Aug. 27, 1902 and then moved into a house on Cody Avenue in Sandon, previously occupied by George B. Knowles. It was here that Tiny was born, delivered by Sandon’s leading physician, Dr. William E. Gomm.

The birth registration lists Tiny’s given names as Ralph Cecil, rather than Cecil Ralph as they are given in every other source.

About that nickname: at 5'10" Tiny certainly wasn’t one of the smaller netminders of his day. One theory suggests it was meant to be ironic. Another says the name had nothing to do with his stature but reflected the low number of goals he surrendered. Unlikely.

Probably it was bestowed on him by his family, several of whom also had nicknames: his father was called Echo because he once owned the mining claim of the same name, while his uncle Eri was known as Gassy, possibly because his real name sounded like “Airy.”

But the name may have indeed related to Tiny’s size in his youth. Tiny himself said: “Just about everyone I played against in those days was bigger than me so they nicknamed me ‘Tiny,’ although I wasn’t crazy about it. I guess alongside them, I looked tiny.”

One story had it that in his first game in goal, around age 11, Tiny was shorter than the crossbar. The earliest published mention of his nickname is from 1919, when he was 15 — although we don’t know how tall he was then.

Before and after Jack and Ada Thompson married, Jack ran the Exchange Hotel in Sandon with Gassy. They also had the Thistle Hotel in Silverton. Another brother, Jim, was a miner, but may have been involved in the hotels as well.

However, Tiny’s family soon moved to Alberta. His brother Paul was born at Langdon, 12 km east of Calgary, on Nov. 12, 1906 (some sources incorrectly give the year as 1907).

According to Andrew Podnieks in Players: The Ultimate A-Z Guide (2003), Tiny “grew up in Calgary from the age of two, and it was in that city that he started to play organized hockey.” Of brother Paul, the same book says “The Thompson family moved to Calgary when Paul was five, and it was there that he and his brother … learned to play the game with local teams.”

There is a discrepancy here insofar as Tiny would have been two in 1905-06, while Paul would have been five in 1911-12. (Either way, the fact Tiny spent his childhood in Alberta no doubt helps explain the persistent notion that Sandon is in that province.)

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 16, 1935. Sandon is placed in the wrong province and the wrong birth years are listed for both Tiny and Paul.

Tiny started playing hockey with Haultain public school in Calgary, but the first team he is formally credited playing for is the 1919-20 Calgary junior Monarchs, who went to the Memorial Cup. After seven seasons starring for senior and minor-pro teams in Calgary, Bellevue, Duluth, and Minneapolis, Tiny made his NHL debut with Boston on Nov. 15, 1928 and posted a shutout — the only Hall of Famer to do so.

Did Tiny ever return to Sandon? Not that we know of, although he did come back to West Kootenay in 1945 to scout three young Nelson players, St. Clair Duffy, Earl Duffy, and Guilford Brett. A Nelson Daily News story said:

[T]heir brilliant performance throughout the past three years was such as to be noticed by Tiny Thompson … who also does the scouting for talent for the Chicago Black Hawks. Thompson had hoped to make a trip through the Kootenays early this year and had looked forward to meeting the three youngsters.

Brett told a reunion of the Fairview Athletic Club in Nelson in 2012 that Thompson did indeed check him out — but neither was impressed with the other. Brett recalled Thompson thought he should play right wing rather than centre and was aghast that Brett was considering post-secondary education. To top if off, Thompson had the foulest mouth he’d ever encountered.

And I’m used to bad language. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear vulgarity. But this guy was unbelievable. He said “What do you mean you want to go to school? Don’t talk to me about school. Get out of here! I don’t want to talk to you if you don’t want to play hockey and get your teeth knocked out.” … So I never made Chicago. He didn’t like that. That was Tiny Thompson. That was the character that he was.

Thompson lived in Calgary most of his life, although he spent some time in Vancouver in the 1940s. His brother Paul coached the Vancouver Canucks of the PCHL from 1945-47 and the Kamloops Elks of the OSHL from 1948-53. Tiny was said to be moving to Kamloops in 1949 to join his brother, but if it happened, it wasn’t for long.

(One other bit of trivia: on Dec. 21, 1937, while playing for Chicago, Paul put a puck past Tiny to become the first player in NHL history to score on his own brother.)

Tiny did play at least one game in BC, an old-timers charity match in Vancouver on March 3, 1953. The legendary Cyclone Taylor recruited him and Toronto Maple Leafs star Turk Broda to mind either end of the rink. There was more Kootenay content on Tiny’s team too: he split goaltending duties with former Trail Smoke Eater Percy Jackson, while Lester Patrick was their coach. They won 7-3.

Tiny Thompson died in Calgary on Feb. 9, 1981, age 77, survived by his wife, daughter, and two grandchildren.

The house where Tiny was born in Sandon was still standing as of Sept. 30, 1938 when a picture of it appeared in the Nelson Daily News with the caption: “This house in Sandon is pointed out by Sandon oldtimers as the birthplace and one-time home of Tiny Thompson …”

It’s not clear who lived there at the time. I don’t know for how much longer it stood, but it’s long gone.

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