johnny sorrell: a dead shot, if not the best conversationalist on the club

Born on this day in 1904 in Chesterville, Ontario, south of Ottawa, Johnny Sorrell launched his 11-year NHL career in 1930 when Detroit’s team was still the Falcons. He had his best years with the team once they when they’d transformed  into Red Wings, twice contributing 20-goal seasons,  twice helping Jack Adams’ team win the Stanley Cup, in 1936 and ’37. A trade later took him to New York, where he skated parts of four seasons for the Americans. “A dead shot equipped with a great burst of speed,” was how a Detroit writer described  Sorrell in 1933, declaring him as (perhaps) “the fastest left winger in hockey going into the goal from the blueline.” Also? “Not the best conversationalist on the club, but he is one of the wits of the dressing room when he is in the mood to get some timely repartee off his chest.”

proto-gritty

If the Philadelphia Flyers’ brash new mascot Gritty has helped himself to most of the headlines and the #hockeytwitter memes this season, Youppi! will always have the upper hand in terms of … seniority? It’s 40 years since the original shambling orange behemoth made his debut as the mascot for the late Montreal Expos, and so this past weekend the hockey team he defected to in 2005 fêted the anniversary throughout Saturday’s Canadiens game versus the Colorado Avalanche. Never mind that the math proposed by this postcard, team-issued in 2017, doesn’t quite add up. And would it bad form to be recalling a Montreal Gazette columnist’s thoughts on the hockey team’s acquisition of a baseball orphan? Probably so, but an unimpressed Pat Hickey’s ’05 gripe is pretty good. “The moth-eaten bastard Muppet,” he called Youppi!, not to mention “a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Expos.” Approaching its centenary, the hockey team (Hickey felt) was just fine without any such envoy at all. “If the Canadiens did feel the need for a mascot, why not come up with something more original than Fonzy’s third cousin?”

Years before the actual switch, as the 1988 Expos started their season at a stumble,  Gazette cartoonist Terry Mosher (a.k.a. Aislin) conjured Youppi! putting out feelers to Canadiens’ GM Serge Savard:

“Youppi Calls Serge Savard,” by Aislin (alias Terry Mosher); May 18, 1988; felt pen, ink, printed film, overlay on paper; © McCord Museum

 

helmets for hockey players, 1947: richard and lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos

Top Gear: Elmer Lach, on the right, fits linemate Maurice Richard with the helmet he wore for all of two games in 1947. Lach’s, just visible at the bottom of the frame, didn’t have quite so long a career on NHL ice.

Helmets for hockey players weren’t exactly new in 1947, but in the NHL they weren’t exactly a common sight — unless you were looking at defenceman Jack Crawford of the Boston Bruins, the lone man among the league’s 120-odd skaters to regularly don headgear in the post-war era.

So what prompted two of the game’s best players to (very briefly) try a helmet in the early going of the 1947-48 season? Short answer: don’t know for sure.

It could have been that, well into their high-impact NHL careers, linemates Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens reached a point where it seemed worthwhile to try to mitigate the risk of (further) head injury. Or maybe were they helping out a friend with a new product to promote? Either way, the experiment didn’t last long, raising a few eyebrows while it lasted, some mocking jeers for the cheap seats. Were the helmets too heavy, too hot, too attention-getting to last? That’s something else that’s not entirely clear: just why Richard and Lach decided to ditch their helmets after just two games.

Both players, in 1947, knew well what could happen to your hockey-playing head out on the ice.

Elmer Lach, 29 at the time, was well established in the league as an elite scorer. Two years earlier he’d won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Said his coach, Dick Irvin, in 1948: “I’ve seen them all in the last 20 years as a coach and I played against the best for some years before that and to my mind Lach is certainly among the three great centres of all time.” (The other two: Howie Morenz and Mickey MacKay.)

Lach was also, famously and unfortunately, prone to injury. The headline in 1950 when Trent Frayne came to chronicle this painful propensity for The Saturday Evening Post: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.” Lach’s skill and spirit was beyond doubt, Frayne wrote; “this all-out performer” also happened to be the man who’d been “injured severely more often than anyone in this violent game.” In his second year in the NHL, he’d missed all but Montreal’s opening game after a fall into the boards broke his wrist, dislocated a shoulder, and shattered his elbow. He was subsequently sidelined by a fractured cheekbone and (both in the same season) one broken jaw after another.

Then when Don Metz of the Toronto Maple Leafs hit him in early February of 1947 — as Frayne described it, his feet were “thrust into the air so that he landed on the top of his head. His skull was fractured, and for a brief period his life was in danger.” Montreal accused Metz of general malevolence and specific spearing, while in Toronto the hit was declared fair and clean. Upon further review, NHL President Clarence Campbell decided that the injury was accidental. (Lach, as it turned out, agreed. He’d tell Frayne that he took a check like Metz’s a hundred times a season without aftermath; in this case, he just happened to have been off-balance at the moment of impact.)

Lach didn’t play again that season. Without him, Montreal still made their way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell in six games to the Maple Leafs. Richard’s performance that April might have itself been a further argument in favour of protecting the heads of hockey players, except that it wasn’t, really, at the time — the lesson didn’t seem to take. In the second game of the series, Montreal’s 26-year-old Rocket twice swung his stick at and connected with bare Leaf heads, cutting and knocking out winger Vic Lynn and then later going after Bill Ezinicki, who seems to have stayed conscious if not unbloodied. Both Lynn and Ezinicki returned to the fray that night; Richard got a match penalty and a one-game suspension for his trouble.

“Elmer Lach looking in the pink and shooting in the low 70s on the golf course,” Montreal’s Gazette was reporting in August of ’47. “No more ill effects from that fractured skull.” He had a strong training camp that fall back between Richard and left-winger Toe Blake. In mid-October, with Montreal about to launch a new campaign at home against the New York Rangers, Richard waited until an hour before the puck dropped to sign his contract for the season. But once that was done, it was back to business as usual for Canadiens’ famous Punch Line.

Nokomis’ Own Dandy: Lach in his helmet on the day of its debut, November 27, 1947.

Lach and Richard didn’t don their helmets until late November, a full 15 games into the schedule. Montreal had already played Toronto twice that year, with all concerned coming through more or less unscathed, so it doesn’t seem like they added the headgear merely because it was the Maple Leafs in town. Canadiens’ trainer Ernie Cook was said to have known nothing of the headgear until he saw Lach and Richard skate out on the Forum ice on the night of November 28. The sight was rare enough that Dink Carroll of The Gazette saw fit to describe to his readers just how these newfangled contraptions worked: they “appeared to be made of plastic material and were fastened by straps that went under the chin.”

Red Burnett’s take in The Toronto Daily Star: “Richard and Lach looked as if they were sporting lacquered hair-dos.”

Fans recalling Lach’s injury would be comforted by the sight of his helmet, Carroll thought. In his Gazettecolumn that week, he wondered why more players didn’t favour similar protection. A decade earlier, he noted, a whole parcel of players had worn helmets, including Eddie Shore, Flash Hollett, Earl Seibert, and Babe Siebert — though of course all but Shore had eventually shed theirs, playing on without.

“Some say the helmets became uncomfortable after the players started to perspire,” Carroll wrote. “One of the featured of the newest model is that it absorbs perspiration, so that objection is no longer valid.”

And what about those fans who complained that helmets detracted from their views of their good-looking heroes? Carroll wasn’t buying it. “It is our belief that the boys can wear helmets on the ice without detracting too much from their glamour while acquiring more protection than they now enjoy.”

Boxed: Maurice Richard sits out his third-period elbowing penalty during the November 27 game at the Forum.

But even then, the trial was almost over. The night Lach and Richard debuted the helmets at the Forum, Montreal beat the Leafs by a score of 2-0. Two nights later, when the teams met again at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the home team prevailed, 3-1.

Again, Lach and Richard started the game with headgear in place, for the second and last time.The DailyStar reported that the helmet was a model manufactured by a friend of Richard’s, and this was the Rocket aiding in the marketing effort. It “looked like a halved coconut,” one wag noted; another overheard the local quip that Lach and Richard were trying to keep “their heads from swelling any further.”

None of the game summaries I’ve read mention that maybe the Leafs’ Gus Mortson would have benefitted from a helmet of his own. Reacting to a bodycheck, Kenny Reardon swung his stick and cut Mortson’s head, earning himself a five-minute major. Mortson? “Continued to play, turned in a good game,” the Globe’s Nickleson wrote.

Richard’s helmet seems to have made it through to the end of the game in Toronto, after which its NHL career ended for good. His teammate’s took an earlier retirement. “Lach discarded his headgear for the third period,” Nickleson noted, “which led Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson to remark that ‘Lach’s taken off his bathing cap.’”

For Montreal’s next game, in Detroit, Lach and Richard returned to regular bare-headed order. With that, the debate for and against helmets in the NHL went into hibernation for another couple of decades. The anniversary of its awakening is this week, in fact: Tuesday it will have been 51 years since Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died at the age of 29 after a hit that knocked him and his unhelmeted head to the ice.

Tusslers: Richard and Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson … hard to say what they’re up to, actually. A bit of vying, I guess; some grappling?

howling for blood and more blood, with shouts of “get him! get that man!”

St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, is proud of its puck-pushing heritage, styling itself as a bit of a hockey cradle: the first organized game in the United States is supposed to have been played on the ice of the prestigious prep school’s Lower School Pond in 1883. American hockey’s late great lamented legend Hobey Baker learned to ply the puck there, before making his name at Princeton and with New York’s St. Nicholas Club. Other prominent hockey-playing graduates include a couple of teammates from St. Paul’s 1961-62 varsity team: former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Robert Mueller, the erstwhile director of the F.B.I. now quietly toiling as Special Counsel for the Department of Justice.

During the 1920s, the hockey coach at St. Paul’s was Thomas K. Fisher, a veteran of World War I who’d played previously for Harvard’s varsity team. When he wasn’t out on the ice, he did his best to spread the hockey gospel across the U.S. by way of pen on printed page. In 1926, he published Ice Hockey, an instructional guide for players and coaches. Dedicated to the memory of Hobey Baker, it laid a heavy emphasis on sportsmanship and, well, purity of play. Sample sentence, from the book’s opening chapter: “The individual player in nine cases out of ten desires with his whole heart that the rules be followed and the game be clean, for otherwise it is not hockey and degenerates into food for the lower appetites of the purely bloodthirsty.”

Fisher would elaborate on his theme in the cover story he contributed to St. Nicholas magazine in early 1929. The piece is a lengthy one, and ranges widely, back through the history of the sport and on through Baker’s glorious collegiate career. For all that, it does show Fisher to be pre-occupied, still, with the game’s seamier side. His optimism appears to have waned. In this exasperated excerpt he almost seems ready to give up on the game’s corrupters, not to mention those guilty of egging them on:

It seems almost incredible that in a country noted for its fair-mindedness and sportsmanship, players should deliberately reach out and trip a more skillful opponent to prevent a score, or hurl an opponent to the ice, hit him with a stick, crash him against the side-boards, or even strike him with the fist. That a player so mistreated should resent such dirty play is very proper; that he should even lose his temper to the extent of seeking revenge in fisticuffs is not incredible, though deplorable, but it is then a sad fact that a sportsmanlike game has degenerated into a gladiatorial contest. Here is where many members of the general public are to blame, for they seem to forget that they have come to see a game of skillful skating, clever dodging, well-timed passing, and exhilarating team play, and howl for blood and more blood with shouts of “Get him! Get that man! Kill him!” They should have gone to a boxing contest if they lusted for a fight, but even then I suppose such people would have been disappointed, for boxers wear padded gloves and would hardly discard them to grasp a neighborly cane with which to brain an opponent.

helge bostrom: chicago’s past master in the art of interference

Winnipeg-born this very week in 1894, Helge Bostrom didn’t arrive in the NHL until late in his hockey career: a bulky defenceman, he’d just turned 36 when he debuted for the Chicago Black Hawks in January of 1930. By then, his resume showed a year-long war-time stint with the Fort Garry Horse, the paperwork for which divulges that his eyes were blue, his complexion fair, and his feet flat (“no disability,” the examining doctor deemed). The teams Bostrom played after he got back to Canada in 1919 were some talented ones. Bostrom was a teammate of Duke Keats’ and Bullet Joe Simpson’s on a 1923 Edmonton Eskimos team that fell to the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals. Later, with Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Maroons, he lined up alongside Frank Boucher and Hugh Lehman. A stout defender, Bostrom also gained a name for himself in those old western leagues for his penalty-shot prowess. 

He played parts of four seasons in the NHL, serving as Chicago’s captain for the last of those, 1932-33. Adjectivally, contemporary newspapers have down as rugged and husky, a proponent of bang-up hockey and a past master in the art of interference — though he was also heralded as good-natured and a right smart fellow. Paging back, you’ll also see him referred to as the most stitched player in hockey history. As per Chicago’s Tribune, he accumulated 243 during his career on the ice, 140 of which were administered by Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor at Madison Square Garden, in November of 1931 after Bostrom’s ankle was deeply cut in an accidental encounter with a skate worn by Rangers’ defenceman Earl Seibert. The 142 isn’t a number I can vouch for, personally: I’ve also seen it given as 142, 144, and 187. Anyway, the wound was bad. “He was lucky he didn’t lose his leg,” Black Hawks’ teammate Johnny Gottselig said.

Bostrom played on with a succession of minor-league teams after he left the NHL in 1933, Oklahoma City Warriors, Philadelphia Arrows, Kansas City Greyhounds. He went on to coach the AHA Greyhounds, too, and eventually made it back to Chicago and the NHL: in 1941 Major Frederic McLaughlin hired him to serve as an assistant to head coach Paul Thompson. Helge Bostrom was 83 when he died in January of 1977.

 

frank mahovlich: guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music

Frank Mahovlich scored a pair of goals on this date in 1968, the day of his 30thbirthday, powering his Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings. But the man they called the Big M wasn’t long for the Leafs at that point: a little more than a month later, after almost 12 years in the blue-and-white, Mahovlich was traded to those very same Wings in a seven-player deal. Heading for Detroit with him were Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger (along with Carl Brewer’s rights); the return for the Leafs was Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, and Norm Ullman.

Born in 1938 in Timmins, Ontario, Mahovlich grew up to be a golden boy in Toronto, of course, starting in the mid-1950s with a starring Junior-A role as a St. Michael’s Major. Profiled by Hockey Pictorial’s Margaret Scott after he won the Calder Trophy in 1958 as the NHL’s superlative rookie, Mahovlich divulged his boyhood heroes (Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay) and discussed what he liked to eat on a game-day (steak at lunch, eggs around four o’clock). In terms of his record collection, well, he admitted a partiality for musicals like Oklahoma! and the “semi-classical” stylings of Mantovani. An “enthusiastic” dancer, Mahovlich acknowledged that no-one had to coax him onto a dancefloor, unless the music playing was rock ’n’ roll. “I guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music,” he told Scott. “Something nice and quiet and not too fast.”

The impact that Mahovlich continued to have as a Leaf left winger is hard to overstate. Twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, he featured on a very good Toronto team that would win four Stanley Cups in six years through the 1960s. Writing in Maclean’sin ’61, Peter Gzowski thought he could be a defining figure in NHL history, the rightful heir to Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. At 23, Mahovlich was, Gzowski felt, “making an honest, exciting and, it appears now, worthy bid to claim the new era for his own.” Even if that didn’t quite work out as planned, The Globe and Mail’s Louis Cauz had no trouble deeming him “the most productive goalscorer the Leafs have ever had.”

That was in 1967. Earlier the same year, Leaf legend King Clancy offered this on Mahovlich: “He’s as nice a man as I’ve ever known in this game. Perhaps that is his trouble. He has the talent to be the greatest hockey player who ever lived, if only he was a little meaner. But he isn’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

For all the goals scored and the Stanley Cups hoisted, it’s true that life as a Leaf came with a cost for Mahovlich, who was twice treated in the 1960s for what the papers variously termed “emotional breakdown,” “tension,” and “nervous depressions.” The second time, in the fall of ’67, Mahovlich missed 11 games. Gordie Howe was one who weighed in with a diagnosis at the time — of the Leaf faithful. “If Toronto fans would appreciate his great talent and give him the cheers he deserves, instead of booing him, maybe the pressure wouldn’t cook the guy.”

Mahovlich had his ups and his downs when he returned to the fold in ’67, dominating one night, lagging some others. The boos continued. Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach was said to be dissatisfied, too, with Mahovlich’s defensive play, and by time Imlach sent him to Detroit in March of ’68 all the talk of rifts between coach and fans and player meant that the trade didn’t come as a surprise to many.

That’s not to say it didn’t traumatize Toronto. Indignant fans jammed the switchboard at Maple Leaf Gardens with complaining calls the morning the deal was announced, while others out in front of the rink stopped traffic on Carlton Street with their moody milling. In the wake of the trade’s announcement, The Globe and Mail reported that shares in MLG Inc. fell by $1.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

For Mahovlich, the shift to Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was as good (on the ice) as a rest: he would thrive in Detroit, scoring a career-high 49 goals the following season, 1968-69. He eventually went to Montreal, where he enjoyed his best years, statistically, in a three-and-a-half-year stint that saw him help Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1971 and ’73. Mahovlich played three seasons in the WHA after that, returning to Toronto as a Toro in 1975 before following the team when they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and reconstituted as Bulls.

Lightly interrogated by Norman Brown for the 1965 edition of Canadian Boy, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of Canada, Mahovlich had said he thought he had another eight years of hockey in him. “I don’t know. I’d say I might quit around 34 or 35.”

As it was, he was 41 in the fall of 1979 when he made a bid to return to the NHL with the Red Wings before deciding that it wasn’t to be. “He gave it everything he had,” said Detroit coach Bobby Kromm. “When the exhibition games were over, he came to us and said he didn’t think he could hack it. I’m glad it happened that way, that we didn’t have to go to him. He was a great player.”

 

 

 

 

you would like to have a goalie tree, mike babcock says, but there is none of that

With their regular goaltenders indisposed, Toronto’s modern-day Maple Leafs will look to 28-year-old Michael Hutchinson to defend their goal in tonight’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. Main man Frederik Andersen has a faulty groin, we’re told, while back-up Garret Sparks is concussed, so Hutchinson, acquired a week ago from the Florida Panthers is, of a sudden, the Leafs’ new number one. Asked whether the team might seek to trade for yet another goaltender to reinforce the Toronto crease, coach Mike Babcock took the arboreal view in a conversation reported by The Toronto Sun today. “Well, there is no tree,” Babcock divulged. “You would like to have a tree in your backyard and you just pick them off, but there is none of that. We’ll see what happens.”

To be clear, there was never a goaltender orchard in Toronto, which means that in, say, 1954, the Leafs had to harvest their goaltenders more or less the same as they do today, either developing their own youngsters or via trade. Harry Lumley, seen here on the left, arrived that way, from Chicago, and in his second year as Leaf earned a Vézina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender along with a place on the NHL’s First All-Star Team. That 1953-54 season he played all but one of Toronto’s regular-season games, with homegrown Gil Mayer  stepping in for the game Lumley missed to nurse a badly bruised hip. That’s not Mayer here, it should be emphasized: can’t say for certain, but Lumley’s enthusiastic sapling apprentice might possibly be a son of his own.