How Canada’s Greatest Tragedy and America’s Response Spawned Michigan Hockey

Hello, Loyal Readers!

Hope all’s well in your worlds.

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, which you can pre-order by clicking on the title, debuts on Tuesday, November 7. That night I’ll be presenting at Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium at 7 p.m., introduced by Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty, and hosted by Literati, which will have hundreds of books for purchase.

As we have for my three previous books, we’re going to sneak one beforehand in Chicago Monday night, November 6, at the Diag bar. I’

Hope to see you in your city!

Thanks again for your great support. Without it, I could not continue to do what I love doing for a living: telling stories.



Now, back to our program!

For the longer version of this essay in MGoBlog, with photos, click here:

For the audio version, click play.

The University of Michigan hockey team started its season last week. But the program started 94 years ago, a surprising byproduct of the worst man-made explosion to that point, and a young man who changed his mind about Americans because of their response to it.

Joseph Barss is one of the most important people in the history of Michigan athletics. But you wouldn’t have guessed that from his family background.

His great-grandfather, Joseph Barss Jr., was the most notorious privateer in Canadian history. During the War of 1812, he captured, sank, or burned more than 60 American ships, making him America’s most wanted man.

Three generations later, Joseph Ernest Barss grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. At his hometown Acadia University, he starred in football, hockey, baseball, and boxing. After graduating cum laude in 1912 at age 19, Barss moved to Montreal, where he rose to become a district manager for Imperial Oil. He seemed to have it all: a great career, money, and fun, but no sense of purpose. That changed when Barss decided to become a machine gunner in World War I.

Barss was itching to fight. He wrote his parents, “As you have probably noted, I am full of this thing.” But after a year of combat, he said, “I think we are all heartily sick of the whole show.”

A few weeks later, a German shell sent Barss flying, knocking him out, paralyzing his left foot, and giving him hand tremors. He spent six months in a body cast, then returned to his parents’ home to re-learn how to walk.

His rehabilitation was interrupted by the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen.

On Thursday, December 6, 1917, a French munitions ship called Mont-Blanc bumped into a Norwegian ship at 8:46 a.m. That wasn’t uncommon during the Great War, but Mont-Blanc’s cargo was: 6 million pounds of explosives, or 13-times the weight of the Statue of Liberty.

The collision knocked over barrels of airplane fuel on Mont-Blanc’s deck, spreading fire across the bow. Mont-Blanc’s crew ran to their lifeboats, while workers and schoolchildren on shore watched the ghost ship slip perfectly into Pier 6.

18 minutes later, Mont-Blanc blew up, wiping out half of Halifax. In less time than it takes to blink, 25,000 people were homeless, 9,000 were wounded, and 2,000 were dead. It was the world’s largest manmade explosion before the atomic bomb, and one-fifth as powerful.

When Barss went to help he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I saw some terrible scenes of desolation and ruin at the front,” he said, “but never did I ever see anything so absolutely complete. In that entire area of over three-square miles there was not one stick or stone standing on another. Every house and building had just crumpled up and the whole was a raging mass of flames.”

Barss put his First Aid experience to use for three sleepless days before being relieved by medics from Boston. Barss was impressed, writing that “The [Americans’] response was so spontaneous and everything done even before it was asked for. It brought tears to all our eyes. You know we have always been a trifle contemptuous of the U.S. But never again! They can have anything I’ve got. And I don’t think I feel any differently from anyone down here either.”

Barss returned home with a new sense of purpose. He decided to go to the University of Michigan’s medical school, marry a woman from Battle Creek, become an American citizen, and start the University of Michigan’s hockey program, which has won a record nine national titles.

It all started with a wounded veteran of the Great War, a young man who decided to put his life back together by helping others do the same.

* * * * *


11/6/17 – Chicago, IL

Host: UM Club of Chicago

Location: The Diag, 2856 N. Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657

Time: 7 PM


11/7/17 – Ann Arbor, MI

Host: Literati Book Store

Location: Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St. Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1070

Time: 7 PM


11/20/17 –  Ann Arbor, MI

Host: UM Club of Ann Arbor

Location: Weber’s Inn, 3050 Jackson Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Time: 10 AM


11/22/17 – Ann Arbor, MI

Host: Rotary Club of Ann Arbor

Location: Michigan Union, 530 S State St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Time: 12 PM


11/28/17 – Philadelphia, PA

Host: UM Club of Philadelphia

Location: TBD

Time: Evening


11/29/17 – New York, NY

Host: UM Club of New Yor

Location: TBD

Time: Evening


11/30/17-12/1/17 – Boston, MA 

Host: UM Club of Boston

Location: TBD

Time: TBD


12/4/17 – Grand Rapids, MI

Host: UM Club of Grand Rapids

Location: Founders Brewing Co., 235 Grandville Ave SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Time: 6:30 PM


12/5/17 – Ann Arbor, MI

Host: Nicola’s Books

Location: Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Time: 7 PM


12/7/17 – San Diego, CA

Host: UM Club of San Diego

Location: TBD

Time: Evening


12/8/17 – Los Angeles, CA

Host: UM Club of Los Angeles

Location: Los Angeles Athletic Club, 431 West Seventh Street, Los Angeles, CA 90014

Time: 7 PM


12/10/17 – Portland, OR

Host: UM Club of Portland

Location: TBD

Time: Evening


12/11/17 – Seattle, WA

Host: UM Club of Seattle

Location: Gordon Biersch Brewery, 600 Pine Street, #401, Seattle, WA 98101

Time: 6 PM


More to come soon.


Posts by 

No Comments Leave a comment  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter your keyword: