Cleghorn was the first prototypical hard-nosed defenseman that was a mainstay in the NHL. Known for his physical play that sometimes got him hated, Cleghorn was a big man for the era: 5’10” and 190 lbs, meaning he could effectively throw his weight around. Cleghorn played on a few amateur teams before foraying into the professional leagues with the Renfrew Hockey Club of the NHA in 1910. His physical style resulted in a fair number of penalties and he ended up with 27 PIM in 12 games during that season.
His NHA career continued the following season with the Montreal Wanderers, where he not only had 40 PIM in 18 games, but also scored 9 goals as a defenseman. It’s worth noting that Cleghorn was known to occasionally play games as a forward, perhaps inflating his numbers somewhat. His career continued with the Wanderers for a few years and he endeared the Wanders fans with his rowdy playstyle. In December of 1913, Cleghorn scored five goals in a single game and two seasons later in the 1914-15 season, Cleghorn scored 21 goals in 19 games.
Sprague’s younger brother Odie was also a star player for the Wanderers and Sprague would often fiercely defend his brother if anyone took any liberties against him. Cleghorn continued with the Wanderers until their arena burned down in 1918, at which point Cleghorn eventually found his way to the dominant Ottawa Senators of the NHL. By the time Cleghorn first played in the NHL, he was already 28 and reasonably experienced.
Cleghorn continued his hard-nosed style for the Senators, even piling up 85 PIM in 21 games in the 1919-20 season. Cleghorn was able to help the Senators win the cup in that season and the following one, despite spending the regular season of 1921 with the Toronto St. Patricks. Cleghorn then returned back home to play for the Montreal Canadiens, leading the NHL in PIM in the 1921-22 season with 80 PIM and scoring 17 goals in 24 games along the way, which placed him at 8th in the League.
Cleghorn had another strong season in 1923-24 and finished 2nd in Hart Trophy voting during the first year it was offered. Not phased, Cleghorn helped the Canadiens with the Cup and he had his name engraved for the third time in his career. The following season, Cleghorn would have a career-high 89 PIM despite his aging body, now at the age of 34. Cleghorn’s last strong year would be in the 1925-26 season, when he was again 2nd in Hart Trophy voting, this time for the Boston Bruins.
Cleghorn retired from the NHL in 1928 and was known for not only his offensive rushes, but also for his stellar defensive play, together which almost won him two Hart Trophies and did help his teams with three Stanley Cups. Cleghorn dabbled in coaching after his playing career and led the Montreal Maroons to the semi-finals in 1932 NHL playoffs. Cleghorn was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.