William Wright "Billy" Breen is surely one of the greatest hockey players that most fans of the game have never heard of. Even some historians conversant with the time he played (1900 to 1909) aren't familiar with him, likely because he played his entire career in Manitoba, a place that has long been overlooked in the study of the game's history.
Breen was born December 6, 1882 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Some sources list his date of birth as October 11, 1883 but the 1882 date is supported by both the 1901 and 1911 Canadian censuses, and makes more sense when you look at when he started playing senior hockey at any rate. He was an accountant by trade, and was one of the most renowned players in Manitoba, earning as much praise as the great Dan Bain, whose career was winding down as Breen's was heating up. Breen died fairly young in 1927, after an operation. He was apparently suffering from lymphosarcoma, a malignant cancer. His place of death is listed as Rochester, Minnesota, which suggests he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic at the time of his death.
Billy Breen was an excellent bowler and golfer, but where he truly shone was on the hockey rink. He was small by modern standards, but was of a fairly typical size for his time, and was noted as an outstanding skater and shooter. He was an exceptional rusher and would pour shot after shot in on opposing netminders, with a hard and accurate release. His recorded hockey career began in the 1900 season, when he played for the Winnipeg HC second side in the intermediate section of the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association (MNWHA) at the age of only 16. His 16 goals in eight matches led the league, and he easily outscored Rat Portage's Tommy Phillips (a future Hall-of-Famer), who was about seven months older than Breen. He missed a few games of the following season's intermediate schedule, but on a goals-per-game basis he beat out not only Phillips (who played cover-point that season), but Hall-of-Famers Tom Hooper (who was the same age as Breen), Billy McGimsie (three years older than Breen), Joe Hall (two years older than Breen) and Jack Marshall (six years older than Breen). Breen was a teenager playing against men, and was still the scoring star of the league.
He also played some senior hockey in these seasons, and performed well. The Pegs at this time were dominated annually by the Winnipeg Vics, though, so he had limited success at that level. However, his five goals in five senior matches in 1901 was enough to tie him for the league lead. In 1902 the Pegs were again terrible, but the 18-year-old Breen led his side in scoring once more.
Breen broke out in 1903, when the Winnipeg Rowing Club, replacing the Pegs, finally broke the Vics' hold on the provincial championship. He tied for the lead league in scoring, and outpaced another Hall-of-Famer in Fred Scanlan, who skated for the Victorias. In 1904 he was far and away the leading scorer in his league, recording 20 goals, when the second-best had 8. He was playing in a separate league from the Rat Portage Thistles in these years, however, so it was unclear how he stacked up against McGimsie who was busy leading Rat Portage to victories in the MNWHA.
When the two leagues finally came together again in 1905, Billy Breen was able to compete directly against McGimsie and Phillips, who had returned from studying in the east. The results make it clear that in terms of offence, it was Phillips, McGimsie and Breen, and then everyone else. Phillips scored 29 times in eight matches, one ahead of his teammate, while Breen managed 25 in nine games. No one else had more than 16, and that was in 10 games.
In 1905 it was more of the same, except this time Breen crept to the front of the list. He scored 26 times in nine games, ahead of Phillips' 23 in seven (a pace of over 29 for nine games). McGimsie scored 19 in in eight matches. After that, the next best was 11, scored by Breen's teammate Billy Kean, about whom we'll have a post sometime soon.
So in these two seasons of direct competition, Phillips scored 52 times in 15 games, McGimsie 47 in 16, and Breen 51 in 18. These three men were the MHL, offensively. No one could even approach them, not Tom Hooper or Si Griffis (another Hall-of-Fame Thistle) or Joe Hall, who was a forward at this time in his career, or even Cyclone Taylor, who scored three goals in three games as a rover for Portage in 1906.
When the Manitoba Hockey League turned professional in 1907, Breen remained an amateur while Phillips and McGimsie pursued (and won) the Stanley Cup. He was again a big fish in a small pond, counting 20 goals while the next-best total was nine, recorded by teammate and future pro Bert Boulton. Breen himself turned pro the following season, and although Kenora (formerly Rat Portage) was out of the league, there were a number of excellent pros in the league, partly due to the downfall of the International Hockey League. The MHL was dotted with names such as Hamby Shore, Lorne Campbell, Fred Lake, Don Smith, Skinner Poulin, Barney Holden, Ernie Dubeau, Jack Fraser and Art Serviss, quality professional players all. Don Smith was third in the NHA in goals in 1911, Campbell had led the IHL in scoring in 1907, and Shore and Lake formed the core of the mighty Ottawa Senators defence in the early 1910s. The MHL in 1908 was easily the second-highest quality league in the country to the ECAHA, far outpacing the OPHL in terms of the quality of player.
Playing in the highest-quality league he ever had, Breen scored two goals per game, which ranked behind only Hamby Shore, and nearly one assist per game, far outpacing everyone else in that category. These assists are reconstructed from game reports, of course, because they were not officially awarded at the time. But the description of play was very detailed in the Winnipeg newspapers at this time, so these assists, while estimated, should be fair. Breen displayed his playmaking chops this season, and only his missing four games kept him from the very top of the scoring list. Here are the per-game figures:
|BREEN, Billy||Winnipeg Strathconas||2.00||0.92||2.92|
|KENNEDY, Harry||Winnipeg Maple Leafs||1.92||0.50||2.42|
|SHORE, Hamby||Winnipeg Strathconas||2.13||0.27||2.40|
|CAMPBELL, Lorne||Winnipeg Maple Leafs||2.00||0.25||2.25|
|CHARLTON, Roy||Portage Plains Cities||1.73||0.27||2.00|
|KEAN, Billy||Winnipeg Maple Leafs||1.40||0.40||1.80|
|LAKE, Fred||Winnipeg Strathconas||1.31||0.38||1.69|
|SMITH, Don||Portage Plains Cities||1.50||0.07||1.57|
|SWITZER, Frank||Winnipeg Strathconas||0.93||0.20||1.13|
|POULIN, Skinner||Portage Plains Cities||0.80||0.27||1.07|
Breen played only one professional game after this season, recording four goals in two assists for the Winnipeg HC before that team folded. The MHL did not survive after the 1909 season; just as with so many of the professional leagues at this time, that circuit's life was brief and volatile. Breen wanted to get back into the senior amateur ranks in Winnipeg, but now that he had played professionally that was not going to be easy. He became a coach and referee while fighting to get his amateur status reinstated, which took until 1913. At this point, he had not played for four years, and decided he was done as a player. He coached the 1913 Winnipeg Hockey Club, winners of the Allan Cup, and later coached the Toronto Rowing Club in the OHA.
His career by Point Allocation:
|1900||Winnipeg Pegs II||MNWHA (Int)||9||16||80||1600||4.3||0.0||0.0||4.3||2.69|
|1901||Winnipeg Pegs II||MNWHA (Int)||9||17||46||920||3.9||0.0||0.0||3.9||4.24|
His defensive stats should be taken with a grain of salt. It's something of an artifice of the Point Allocation system that outstanding offensive players in leagues below a certain level of quality will receive little or no defensive points. Based on the descriptions of his play it seems clear that Breen was an effective checking forward as well as an offensive dynamo.
Writers of the time spared no compliment when describing Breen:
And then again it was a case of too much Billy Breen on the forward line. As brilliant a skater, and as effective a shot as ever, it was his dashing playing that unquestionably put his team on top. Four goals out of five comprised his scoring record, and that it about his usual average. He is a great player, and a gentlemanly little captain of the Rowing Club. As an effective forward he is in a class by himself to-day, and the game has seldom seen a better. (Winnipeg Free Press, 30 Dec 1904)
Billy Breen – a name to conjure with! The dashing little forward has long since made his reputation. He has been the hero of many a hard-fought content, so any more comment on his playing is almost superfluous. It can, though, be truly said he never deserved the plaudits of enthusiastic admirers more than he did last night. A fitting leader is he to a representative seven of Winnipeg's best athletes. (Winnipeg Free Press, 7 Jan 1905)
For the Winnipegs, Billy Breen was the bright particular star, just as the brilliant little centre forward has been in so many games he has played. His dashing, hurdling rushes could not help but ring applause from the most apathetic, and seldom has a finer individual exhibition been seen on Winnipeg ice than that put up by the only Billy Breen last night. And when another man carried down the ice, it was always Breen who was in front of the net to take the pass. (Winnipeg Free Press, 23 Jan 1906)
Breen and Shore made a brilliant pair in centre ice. It is doubtful if there are two faster centre men in the country, while in Switzer and Lake they have a pair of wings who work in well on goal, and are strong at checking back. (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan 1908)This last comment on checking back leads us to a discussion of Breen's defence. He was surely most noted as a dynamic offensive player, but it's clear he was defensively responsible as well.
One of the principal reasons for the Oarmen's victory was the system of close-checking adopted by their forwards [Breen, Claude Borland, Harry Kennedy, Billy Field]. Not only did they play together well, and shine individually when attacking, but every mother's son of them was after the puck all the time, and the gritty never-say-die spirit in which they hung to their checks, proved to be an important factor in bringing about the ultimate result. (Winnipeg Free Press, 7 Jan 1905)
Another important factor in the result was the splendid way the Peg forwards [Breen, Kennedy, Billy Kean, Harry Gordon] checked back. (Winnipeg Free Press, 5 Jan 1906)
While sometimes he would stop an opponent's rush directly, the most frequent mention of his individual defensive play is for intercepting passes. For example:
Breen stole a pass and went down but M. Brown blocked. (Winnipeg Free Press, 21 Feb 1906)
On a pass back from Campbell, Breen stole the puck and pressed [sic] over to Lake who slapped in into the net. (Winnipeg Free Press, 8 Feb 1908)Based on these plays and others, it seem Breen had a particular talent for breaking up an opponent's rush by intercepting a pass, and immediately transforming it into an offensive rush of his own.
Although he was primarily a shooter, it's also clear that Breen had substantial playmaking/passing ability. Aside from his leading the MHL in assists in 1908, descriptions of his play make frequent mention of skilful passing.
Breen passed out from the corner to Shore, who slipped in a counter. (Winnipeg Free Press, 25 Jan 1908)
Breen got away with a magnificent dodging run, hurdled three or four sticks and passed over to Lake who shot an easy goal. (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan 1908)
The next game was a short one. Breen rushed down the side, passed over to Haddock, who scored a pretty goal. (Winnipeg Free Press, 30 Jan 1906)
I also noted several mentions of Breen winning a faceoff before starting a rush, so it seems likely he was very good on the draw as well. All of this gives us a picture of an all-round hockey talent, one whose main talent is skating and shooting, but who was also a gifted passer and was at least responsible on defence, if not better. The one flaw in his game seems to have been that he played in Manitoba instead of Montreal.