headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

the windsor draft

Ice Infantry: Soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment, starters and spares, pose in hockey garb, and not, in early 1917, in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Back, left to right: Rex White, Sydney Bennett, Jack Strong, Duke Winter. Middle: Hayward Williams, Charlie Strong, Lionel Duley, Stan Newman. Front: Ernest Churchill, Harry Mews. (Image: The Rooms, Provincial Archives Division, St. John’s, Newfoundland)

They’d been bank clerks and accountants in St. John’s, where they’d lived on Mundy Pond and on Forest Road, on Monkstown and on Rennie’s Mill Road, the sons of jewelers, of civil servants, and of sea captains, and were 18 and 19 years old, several of them, when they enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment for the duration of the war at the Church Lads Brigade Armoury, and then attested, some in the First Draft in 1914, others later on, in the Twelfth. They shipped over to England on the Bowring Brothers’ steamship Florizel, and trained at Salisbury and Aldershot and in Scotland at Hawick, and were promoted corporal and colour sergeant, and reinforced 1st Battalion at Suvla Bay, at Gallipoli, in 1915, and took ill there, before the Allied withdrawal, with catarrhal jaundice. Some of them who subsequently returned to duty in France were wounded by splinters of a bomb in raids on enemy trenches at Beaumount Hamel a few days before the disastrous attack on July 1, 1916.

In October of 1916, the plan was to reinforce the Newfoundland Regiment with a draft of recruits sailing from St. John’s to Halifax. From there they’d sail to England. But then there was an outbreak of measles in town, and the plan was postponed. Reports of German submarines hunting in the Atlantic further delayed a departure. The Florizel finally delivered what became known as the Windsor Draft to Halifax in early February of 1917. The second leg of the journey still wasn’t yet worked out, so the Newfoundlanders trained over to Windsor, Nova Scotia, 319 of them, all ranks. They found temporary barracks (some ranks) in a sawmill — some (the officers) checked into the Victoria Hotel. Waiting for what was next that damp winter, they fell sick, many of them, with measles and mumps, influenza, pneumonia, which meant that once again, plans were changed. At the end of February their sailing orders were cancelled until they were healthy.

They recuperated and, as they were able, kept busy: “route-marches, Swedish drill, platoon drill, and squad drill figured prominently in the training time-tables that appeared in Daily Orders,” G.W.L. Nicholson writes in The Fighting Newfoundlander (2006). It’s not surprising that hockey figured into the recreational program. By Gregory White’s account, the regiment had already been playing in Scotland, taking on (in one case) a team of Canadian students from the University of Edinburgh and defeating them 16-1. In Windsor, that ancient hockey capital, the Newfoundlanders skated against teams from town as well as from nearby King’s College. The visitors had to adjust their game to the local landscape, White notes: while the Newfoundlanders were used to playing a seven-man game parcelled into two halves of 30 minutes each, in Nova Scotia they converted to the six-man version, with its three 20-minute periods.

The regimental line-up seen here included several subalterns who were returning to European duty from convalescent leave in Newfoundland. Second Lieutenant Ernest Churchill, down in front in the photograph, was the Gallipoli jaundice case. In the middle row, second over from the left, is Second Lieutenant Charlie Strong, who survived that bomb — a hand grenade — at Beaumont Hamel.

It was April before the Windsor Draft continued on its way to war. Most of them: one soldier had died in February, and was buried in Windsor, while 25 others were too ill to leave hospital when the majority departed for Halifax to take ship for England aboard ships called Ansonia, Grampian, and Northland.

Among the hockey players, Harry Mews went to Ontario, after the war, where he was a sales representative for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. Ltd. of Canada. When he returned to St. John’s in 1927, he went into insurance and municipal politics. He served as the city’s eighth mayor from 1949 to 1965.

Sergeant Marmaduke Winter would, by December’17, be at Wandsworth Hospital in London recovering from a bullet wound in the back. In the summer of 1918, Newfoundland Prime Minister Sir John Crosbie came to see him there, and the regimental band was on hand, too, to play as Sergeant Winter received his Military Medal, having (as the citation read) “displayed great personal bravery in attacking two snipers single handed and killing them.”

Sydney Bennett would transfer to the Royal Flying Corps with whom, promoted captain, he won a French Croix de Guerre for his part in an air raid on German positions. He was commended for having “given proof of great courage and activity” by way of “a personal encounter” during which he “forced two enemy machines to descend.”

In June of 1917, when the Newfoundland Regiment’s 2nd Battalion deployed to the Ypres Salient in Belgium, Lieutenant Ernest Churchill was in the battle through the summer and fall in the country around Passchendaele. By March of ’18 he was back in England, in hospital in Sheffield, suffering from the effects of “shell gas poisoning.” A Medical Board report listed his symptoms: “vomiting, cough, fever, loss of voice, and pain across chest, his eyes were closed for a few days.”

Captain Charlie Strong was at Passchendaele and then, early in 1918, with 1st Battalion as they tried to hold a German advance at the Franco-Belgian border. He was commanding two companies when he was wounded by a shellburst on April 12 around 3 p.m. near a crossroads called De Seule. Transferred to a Canadian casualty clearing station near Poperinghe, he died there of his wounds, at the age of 28, at 9.15 p.m. He’s buried at Ligssenthook Military Cemetery in Belgium.

Second Lieutenant Lionel Duley is the goaltender in the photograph. He was 20 in September of 1918. He was leading his platoon forward near a Belgian village called Kieberg, not far from Passchendaele, when he was hit in the thigh by machine fire. It was 11 in the morning when he died. “He was buried where he was killed,” his commanding officer later noted, “a cross being erected by the Regiment.” His remains were moved after the war, not far: he lies now at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near Zonnebeke.

 

the big, the bad, the once, the always e

“Eric Lindros To Be Immortalized By Flyers On Thursday” might be, but isn’t, a headline on a story filed yesterday by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s cryonics bureau; in fact, what they want you to know is that the local hockey team will tonight be retiring the number 88 that the 44-year-old former centreman wore when he led the Flyers for eight seasons in the 1990s. “He was probably the most dominant player during his time in the NHL,” said an old teammate, Rod Brind’Amour, when Lindros was elevated, and properly so, into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. Back in 1997 at this time, when Saturday Night put Lindros’ gaze on the cover, you might have had your doubts that it would ever come to this. Brian Hutchinson, who profiled Lindros in the magazine’s pages, seems to have been all doubt, all the scathing way through. Lindros was 23, then. It was a year-and-a-half since he’d won a Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, six months since he’d notched 47 goals and 115 points, wrapping up what would end up being the most bountiful scoring season of his 13-year NHL career. Hutchinson’s profile isn’t what you’d call kindly, wandering through the whole sorry history of the Lindros’ refusal to report to the Quebec Nordiques and on into the story of all the Stanley Cups he’d failed to win as captain of the Flyers. “He has come close to fulfilling his destiny,” Hutchinson writes in the course of detailing the injuries and immaturities, the failures of Flyers management that had kept Lindros from it. “He may be the most well-rounded, physically imposing player in hockey history,” he writes. “Surprisingly quick for his size, with a tremendous reach that lets him gobble up loose pucks, he also, according to Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, has one of the hardest shots in hockey, a snap shot that comes out of nowhere, untelegraphed and accurate. But he’s no innovator. Unlike Orr and Gretzky, he doesn’t change the way the game is played, nor does he have a singular talent — like Mario Lemieux’s stickhandling or Guy Lafleur’s skating — that sets him apart.” Ouch.

 

willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.

This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at  Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.

Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.

Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.

With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.

“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.

Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.

O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.

“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”

Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”

Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”

Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.

Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.

So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”

Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”

“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading

in the paint

Man With A Palette: Jacques Plante made his debut on this day in 1929: born in Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel , Québec, the Hall-of-Fame goaltender died in 1986 at the age of 57. For all his puck-stopping and face-saving, he was as famous a knitter and oil-painter as the NHL has ever seen. The knitting came naturally, he told an interviewer in 1954: his mother taught each of her 11 children to work the needles and the wool. “I can knit a pair of socks in a day,” Plante confided, “have knitted a tuque in three-and-a-half hours, and knitted a jumbo wool three-quarters-length coat for my wife in a week by knitting all day long.” That’s her, Jacqueline, here, with son Michel. Portrait-painting was, Plante said, something he’d picked up more recently, for something to do away from the ice. So far he’d worked up renderings of several of his teammates’ wives along with the self-portrait seen here, in which he’d outfitted himself in the uniform of the Montreal Royals, the QMHL team he starred for before graduating to the Canadiens. “I took a correspondence course from a school in Washington, D.C.,” Plante said, “and find painting a good hobby. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough to paint professionally.”

 

leo bourgault: it irked him to just defend

Newspaper accounts of Leo Bourgault from his days as an NHL defenceman sometimes — often, even — spelled his name Bourgeault, and called the town he came from Spurgeon Falls. Bourgault, who was born on this day in 1903 in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, near North Bay, died in 1978 at the age of 75.

He started his professional career with Newsy Lalonde’s Saskatoon Crescents in the old WHL in 1924-25 before leaping to the NHL, where he spent most of his eight-year career as a New York Ranger, he helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1928. He had stints, too, in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. As a Canadien, he was a close friend of Howie Morenz’s, and may well have been one of the Habs who wore a sweater numbered 99 during the 1934-35 season.

They said he had the heart of a forward. Harold Burr did, hockey correspondent for the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He’s forever breaking loose from a tangle of players and streaking away on running runners,” he wrote in 1929. “It irks him to just defend.”

“The wide-spreading stocky little youth” is a string of epithets referring to Bourgault you might come cross, if you go searching: another is “stocky little blue-shirted meteor.” The damage he suffered as a hockey player included a 1929 lump on the face (courtesy of the Montreal Maroons) that Burr described as “the size of an Easter egg as vari-colored.” In 1927, a collision with Reg Noble of the Detroit Cougars broke his nose doubly, which is say two nose-bones fractured, and needed surgery.

In New York, he shared an apartment with goaltender John Ross Roach. Sometimes when he talked to a local reporter he said, “In the fall at home I go after moose — just another fellow and myself. We head in for a lumber camp in the heart of the wilderness, where they cut pulp wood, with just a blanket, paddle, and tent.”

“It’s a great way to keep in physical trim,” he told Burr — hunting, that is. The newspaperman lapped it up, filling a column with Bourgault’s off-season exploits “around his home in the far Canadian country,” where he enjoyed his “mother’s home cooking of juicy steaks, wild ducks, and big fat trout.”

Some other summers Bourgault spent at Jasper Park Lodge, in Alberta, where he had a job as manager of the transportation desk. I don’t know whether he did any hunting out west, but he was working out, certainly, and golfing. That’s him on the course here, negotiating a porcupine hazard in 1927. A year later, he met a black bear. Good to see that Bourgault was wearing his Rangers’ sweater.

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.