bob gainey: the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many

If it’s odes you’re seeking on Bob Gainey’s birthday, we’ve got those here and here. As Peterborough, Ontario’s own Hall-of-Fame right winger turns 65, maybe a short disquisition on how he exemplifies our hometown’s (his and mine) hard-working decency? This way.

In 1979, famously, the great Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov rated Gainey “the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” When Michael Farber, then of Montreal’s Gazette, asked Gainey about this and more the following year, he got (by no surprise) thoughtful answers. “No way am I the best player in the world when you look at talent and pure ability and finesse,” Gainey said. “The one thing about hockey is that the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many. But the other thing about hockey is that it’s a team sport, and if you make the team better, if you make it a more viable thing, then you also are performing an important role. People say, Bob Gainey, he’s so unselfish. Well, maybe that’s partially true, but I also know that by being unselfish, I’m personally gaining more as a member of a team. Only inside a team could I have gained so much.”

Through the 1970s, this team, it’s worth recalling, counted on Ken Dryden in goal, and featured Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, and Serge Savard on defence. Up front: Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Dougs Jarvis and Risebrough. Montreal had won four successive Stanley Cups at the time of Farber’s writing, and Gainey was the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.

“How valuable is Gainey?” Farber asked. “Consider him and Lafleur (which most pop sociologists do like so: Lafleur and his élan represent the French-Canadian; Gainey and his no-nonsense over-achieving, the English-Canadian. Incidentally, lunch with Lafleur includes a $15 bottle of wine; lunch with Gainey comes with two draft beers.) In games without Lafleur during the past two seasons, the Canadiens are 9-3-2. Without Gainey, the Canadiens are 6-5-5.”

At 26, in his sixth NHL campaign, Gainey had had his first 20-goal season the previous year, 1978-79. Compared to Lafleur or Shutt, it’s true, he didn’t score that many, though he would reach the 20-goal mark again in three of his remaining nine seasons with Montreal. Talking to Farber, he said, “It’s like writing a letter. Some nights, the hand flows freely, other days, it’s just scratches and scrawls. I’m not a good offensive player. I don’t have good timing. I’m not one of the guys who usually ends up at the right spot, or who can knock the puck down in the air with a stick.”

Steve Shutt, one of those guys: “Of course you like to have a guy who scores 50 goals a year, but you want to have a guy who stops 50 goals a year. Bob does that. There are a lot of defensive forwards in the league, but he is the only one who controls a game.”

little green

Born on this date in 1899 (when it was a Tuesday), Redvers was the younger of the Green brothers who played in the early NHL; Wilfred was three years older. They were Sudbury boys who started out skating for their hometown Wolves before they found a way into the big time in 1923 with the Hamilton Tigers, where they were known, respectively, as Red and Shorty. Red (pictured here, for some reason, on bare concrete) played on the left wing, Shorty on the right. Shorty was team’s captain in 1925, and he was at the fore when the players went on strike at the end of the season. They didn’t get the money they were angling for; instead, the NHL suspended the team and saw it sold to buyers in New York. Most of the former Tigers ended up there the following season, repackaged as Americans in star-spangled red-white-and-blue uniforms like the one Red Green is styling here.

Shorty ascended to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. For Red, his best night was back in Hamilton, in December of 1924, when he scored five goals on John Ross Roach of Toronto’s St. Patricks.

“The little fellow from the northland was tireless,” said the papers next day. Also: “Goalkeeper Roach never had a chance. These fleet Hamilton players were merciless. They just naturally beat the defense with the greatest possible ease, and when they let the puck go there was a zip and a sting behind it that spelled goal.” Final score: 10-3.

stretch and sag

Hard Sell: Surrendering to Bobby Hull’s 1970s salesmanship, you might find yourself wrapped in the warm embrace of a handsome sweatercoat as you headed out with your trusty hockey stick in hand to check on the stretch and sag of your fenceline. Then again, maybe would you be content to stay in, suiting up to hunker down to finish the circuitry on that hi-fi you’ve been working up on your home production-line? Up to you. Follow your bliss.

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57thbirthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58thbirthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported. All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

bruins + leafs, 1931: swing and a miss

One wintry meeting between Leafs and Bruins deserves another, so here’s this scene from 88 years ago or so, when the two teams clashed at Boston Garden during the 1930-31 season. What I can’t say with complete certainty is which Leaf visit this was, of the two they paid their old Massachusetts rivals that year. Guessing, I’d have to go with the second game (March 10, 1931) over the first (December 2, 1930), if only because Benny Grant tended the Leafs’ goal in the latter while in the former it was Lorne Chabot who, to my squinted eye, seems to be the man in the net in the photograph here.

Other Leafs? Battling for the puck behind the net is Toronto’s number 4, Hap Day. Out in front — well, Day’s usual partner in those years was King Clancy, though I don’t think that’s him, so it’s either Red Horner or Alex Levinsky. Skating for centre is surely Ace Bailey, whose linemates that year tended to be Baldy Cotton and Andy Blair. As for the Bruins, wearing number 7 is Cooney Weiland with Dit Clapper (5) hovering nearby. Together with centre Dutch Gainor those two played on Boston’s “Dynamite Line” around this time, so let’s say that’s Gainor digging for the puck with Day.

The game (if it is the second one) ended in a 3-3 tie that overtime couldn’t change. Bailey and Blair scored for the Leafs, as did Charlie Conacher; Weiland got two of the Bruins’ goals, with George Owen adding the third.

Other notes of interest: according to the Boston Globe, the game was a high-spirited affair, on the ice and off. In overtime, King Clancy “tried to punch a spectator through the wire screen behind the Toronto goal, something which one would not expect such a brainy person to do.”

Before that:

At the end of the first period, Art Ross, the Bruin manager, and Connie Smythe, the chief moving spirit behind the Leafs, had a verbal altercation in the lobby, with Ross swinging but missing the jaw of Smythe. This drama was repeated at the end of the second stanza, when Smythe ventured to inquire how Ross liked being behind.

(Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

for the defence

On The Move: Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert, left, tries to head off an inbound (fellow Berliner and former teammate) Ott Heller of the New York Rangers, c. the early 1940s.

Earl Siebert’s name will ever be grimly associated with Howie Morenz’s: he was, of course, the Chicago defenceman who tangled or collided with — maybe bumped? — Montreal’s speedy star one January night in 1937, with the two players ending up in a heap on the ice. Morenz ended up in hospital with a badly broken ankle; a month later he’d died of a coronary embolism. Born on this date in 1910, a Wednesday, in what was then Berlin, Ontario (now it’s Kitchener), Seibert had a distinguished NHL career that lasted 15 years and saw him named to the league’s First All-Star team four times. He started as a Ranger in New York, and won a Stanley Cup there in 1933 before a trade took him to Chicago in 1936. He helped the Black Hawks win the Cup in 1938 and went on to captain the team in the 1940s. His final stop in the NHL was in Detroit. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963, joining his father, Oliver, in hockey’s pantheon. Seibert died in 1990 at the age of 78.