(Artist: Victor De Pauw)
“McDavid looks like he’s different than everybody else. Last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league was Bobby Orr. I was nine years old. And this guy’s faster than the whole league, and it’s incredible to watch.”
• Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, November 2016
Last Wednesday, when it mattered, Connor McDavid flew down the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to score the overtime goal that beat the Florida Panthers. Earlier that night, McDavid had notched the 100th point of his burgeoning NHL career in what was his 92nd game in the league. While it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky-good — he did it in just 61 games — it’s a feat that puts McDavid fourth among active players, behind Alex Ovechkin (77 games), Sidney Crosby (80 games), and Evgeni Malkin (89 games).
Last Sunday, mostly for fun, McDavid took part in the Oilers’ annual Skills Competition. Matthew Benning was the quickest of Edmonton’s backwards-skaters on the day; Milan Lucic showed the hardest shot. When it came to racing face-forward ’round the ice at Rogers Place, Benoit Pouliot (13.895 seconds) and J.J. Khaira (13.941) were fast. McDavid, by no real surprise to anyone, proved faster, make it around the rink in a time of 13.382 seconds.
That got Joe Pack of Sportsnet wondering: how does McDavid’s speed compare to NHLers of this age and others?
He duly noted that Detroit’s Dylan Larkin took a turn of the ice at the 2016 all-star game in a time of 13.172 seconds, outdoing Mike Gartner’s 1996 mark of 13.386. But? Overlooked, Pack submits, is the fact that
Larkin, and last year’s crop of contestants, got an advantage no other skaters before had: they began from the far blue-line, only to have the clock start once they hit the red line. Gartner, and every other skater at the competition over the years, started from the red line.
So Larkin’s record, I’m suggesting, should have an asterisk attached. Gartner’s record has apparently been broken by McDavid.
The real test, of course, will come in next week’s all-star game. “Still,” Pack writes, “the conversation around McDavid’s speed has begun in earnest. Is he the fastest in the game now? Is he the fastest ever?”
While we wait to find out, maybe is a look back in order? Beyond 1996, even?
The annals of speedy hockey-player skating are incomplete. The documentation, shall we say, isn’t superb. And while hockey players have tested themselves to see how fast they go for almost as long as the NHL’s, the conditions (as Pack points out) haven’t exactly been standardized. Some have stood still on their start line, others have skated to it at full fling. Some have carried pucks as they careened against the clock — not McDavid or Larkin or most of the recent racers. Technology has changed: hand-held stopwatches have been replaced by precision timers with electronic eyes. All of which makes it hard to line up McDavid’s feat (if that’s something you felt like doing) in order to compare it with those of, say, a Howie Morenz or a Hec Kilrea.
Still, back we go.
In 1945, Montreal Canadiens’ centre Buddy O’Connor won a one-lap, flying-start, puck-carrying race around Ottawa’s Auditorium in a time of 14.8 seconds. Teammates Elmer Lach (15.0) and Maurice Richard (15.2) came in after him; defenceman Leo Lamoureux was disqualified when he lost the puck.
Maple Leaf Gardens hosted what the papers called a speed test at the end of January, 1942. The Leafs had played Thursday and would be back on the ice in earnest Saturday, but on this Friday night the occasion was charitable, with 13,563 fans showing up in support of a memorial fun for the late Toronto sportsman Robert Ecclestone.
The evening’s entertainment featured a 20-minute scrimmage of (mostly) oldtimer Leafs.
The racing involved a puck-carrying contest with players flying to the start. There were seven of them, active NHLers from each team: Syl Apps (Toronto); Flash Hollett (Boston); Sid Abel (Detroit); Tommy Anderson (Brooklyn Americans); Lynn Patrick (New York); Max Bentley (Chicago); Jack Portland (Montreal).
They wore their uniforms but not all of their regular padding. The former Ottawa Senators’ star who presided at the finish-line did so under his current title: RCAF Squadron-Leader Punch Broadbent held the stopwatch.
Each man skated twice, initially. None of them broke 15 seconds in the first round, which also saw Hollett momentarily lose control of his puck and a fall by Abel. In the second heat, Apps and Patrick both blazed around at 14.8 seconds. In the tie-breaker, Patrick slowed to 15 seconds while Apps stuck to 14.8.
So that pleased the local fans. The ovation, The Globe and Mail testified, “has seldom been matched at any time.”
(Not everyone was so impressed. When The New York Post chimed in, it was to say that the event could hardly be considered “the last word” in speedsters, given that Chicago’s Doug Bentley and Milt Schmidt of Boston weren’t involved.)
The slap that Shea Weber puts into his shot has a history of wreckage. Pucks he’s propelled have torn through nets at the Vancouver Olympics and busted out endboards in Nashville. He’s broken Chris Osgood’s mask. Bones, too, several of which have belonged to teammates whose dangerous duty it was to stand in front of a net Weber was aiming at. Martin Erat broke a leg that way when Weber played for Nashville, and Jordin Tootoo a foot. Weber is in Montreal now, and the breakages continue. Last week, his slapshot smashed Brendan Gallagher’s hand. He’s out for eight weeks.
Investigating Weber’s assets earlier this month, The Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon described his on-ice demeanor as “Mars, the god of war, maybe, only with a migraine.” Heavy and high-flying, Weber’s shot, Gordon wrote, is “terrifying” and a “demoralizer.” He asked Carey Price about it. “So fluid and smooth,” the Montreal goaltender said, “and just so, so hard.”
Rod Gilbert once noted that Boom-Boom Geoffrion and Rocket Richard would sometimes bash pucks off the boards so hard that you’d have to cover your ears. Weber’s shot, Gordon writes, has a similar quality — “it sounds different than other players’ hitting the boards on the occasions his rangefinder is off.”
What is it that makes the Weber shot so powerful? Size (6’4” and 230 pounds) matters, and muscle. Montreal captain Max Pacioretty told Gordon that you have to be a very fast skater to have a shot like that, and also mentions “body control.”
Weber himself isn’t much help. He can’t really say how he acquired the shot. “Just repetition, I guess,” he told Gordon.
His stick is a factor, its stiffness in particular. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, famously, uses a customized Easton that’s believed to have a flex rating down around 70, which gives the shaft the pliability of a whip and makes his shot (as James Mirtle has written) one of the hardest-to-stop in the world. Winnipeg’s exceptional rookie Patrick Laine uses an 87 flex.
Many NHLers tend toward a stick in the 100 flex range. Weber’s is well beyond that. In a game this month against Toronto, Weber broke a stick with a flex of 122 cross-checking a trespasser Leaf in the Montreal slot. “You need to be a strong man to use that thing,” Carey Price told Sean Gordon.
There are heavier sticks in the NHL, but not many. Zdeno Chara’s, for one. His, as you might guess, is longer than anyone else’s in the league. On skates Chara towers almost seven feet over the ice, which is why he gets an exemption from the NHL’s limit on stick-length. Fifty-three inches is the rulebook maximum; Chara’s Warrior is said to wander on for 65.
On the ice, that means it’s ubiquitous, as Jonathan Toews told Nicholas Cotsonika of Yahoo! in 2013. “I don’t know what to compare his reach to,” the Chicago captain said. “It’s tough to get away from him. On his half of the rink, he’s going to get a piece of you somehow.”
At that length, Chara’s sticks have to be exceptionally stiff. According to Boston’s equipment manager, Keith Robinson, they’re typically 150 to 155 flex. If Weber’s stick is unyielding, Chara’s (as Justin Bourne has written for The Score) “is basically a gigantic piece of rebar.”
All of which leads, inevitably, to a headline from The Vancouver Daily World in December of 1921:
Sounds like a salacious euphemism. Maybe that’s as the sub-editor intended. In fact, it’s a faithful description of the story it tops. As is this one, from The Ottawa Journal, across the country:
Newsy Lalonde was 34 that year, and pretty much at the end of his playing days. He’d been a superstar in both hockey and lacrosse for years by then. On the ice, he was Montreal’s almost-everything: coach, captain, primary offensive weapon. If he was slowing down as an NHL force, it wasn’t obvious: when the 1920-21 season came to an end, he led the league in scoring.
Senators’ manager Tommy Gorman tried to pry him from Montreal in the fall of ’21, bring him west to play for Ottawa, but that didn’t work out. The news of his newfangled stick surfaced, if only briefly, just as the new season was about to get underway. Just how it all worked out, and whether he was permitted to use it, isn’t clear: I can’t find any follow-ups to these original articles.
What they say is that Lalonde had designed and built his own stout stick. The description isn’t much: “Lead is filtered in,” the papers tell us, “and it is balanced to an ounce when held from the centre.” With no evidence to the contrary, I say we have to accept that this was all about improving his puckhandling. Lalonde does sound like he wishes the news had never leaked: he wouldn’t say, The Globe mirthlessly reported, “what this stick would do in a game.”
Last we know, the league was studying the case. I’d surmise they nixed Lalonde’s bespoke stick, but I don’t know for certain.
Canadiens opened their season a few nights later in Toronto against the St. Patricks, a.k.a. the Irish. They lost, 5-2. The goal Newsy Lalonde scored in the third period on a pass from Didier Pitre was the least of the news he made, whatever stick he had in hand.
In a game that featured (said The Globe) “much ill-feeling and rough play,” Lalonde was “the storm centre.” Lou Marsh told the tale for The Toronto Daily Star and in his lively narrative next morning, Lalonde was both “wily” and a “human pest.” Early on, he clashed with Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron. There was an encounter, too, with centreman Reg Noble, in which the two men “sassed each other with the good old ash.”
In the second period, Toronto winger Corb Denneny cross-checked Lalonde across the stomach, which provoked the Montreal captain, a few minutes later, to charge Denneny from behind. Marsh’s description is the vivider:
In an Irish rush on goal [Bert] Corbeau knocked Denneny kiting and the Toronto lad spilled Lalonde. Both went sliding into the nets like a varicolored avalanche, with Lalonde riding the prostrate Denneny. In the melee Lalonde’s stick lovingly caressed Denneny’s neck, and Denny did the possum act in the corner. Lalonde was booted for a major penalty despite his protests that it was all an accident. Lalonde shouldn’t have accidents with his truncheon caressing the vicinity of the other fellow’s collar button. It doesn’t seem reasonable.
In the third, before Lalonde scored his goal, he ran into Toronto’s Babe Dye. I’ll let Lou Marsh take it out:
Lalonde spilled Dye and Dye gave a correct imitation of a corpse. While the first aiders were doing resuscitation business and Lalonde was standing around weeping crocodile tears, Denneny sailed across the pond and pucked the famous Canadien one in the famous puss. Lalonde looked as surprised as a bulldog bitten by a gold fish.
Stick Tap: Hayley Wickenheiser announced her hockey retirement today at the age of 38. A five-time Olympic medallist (four golds and a silver), the Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, native is the all-time leading scorer in Canadian women’s hockey. CBC has an overview of her outstanding opening career here. As Wickenheiser said today in bidding her farewell, she’s focussed now on the one that comes next, which has her heading to medical school.
(Top Image: Dave Holland, 2014, Simon Fraser University Communications)
As the NHL looks ahead to its centenary in 2017, the last week of 2016’s December marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the final dysfunctional season of the NHA, its now lesser-known and largely unloved predecessor. As the First World War entered its fourth ruinous year, the National Hockey Association opened its 1916-17 with six teams, five of which might be fairly classified as conventional franchises along with an entirely unlikely sixth. Joining Montreal’s Canadiens and Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa’s Senators and the Toronto Blueshirts on the eastern Canadian ice that winter was a team representing the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Raised in Ontario’s near-north and headquartered, originally, at North Bay, the battalion adopted the moniker Northern Fusiliers, a name that served the hockey team, too, along with Men O’ The North and just plain Soldiers. The story of how a team of Canadian infantry was (briefly, while it lasted) one of professional hockey’s powerhouses is a fascinating one that I wrote about recently in The New York Times. It’s one I’ll be reconnoitering in greater detail here, too, starting with (why not) the team’s first foray on ice ahead of the season’s opening. The NHA schedule had been published, with league play due to get underway on Wednesday, December 27. Across the league, rosters were still taking shape and indeed at the end of November, a nasty string of disputes over players had thrown the 228th’s participation into doubt. That was out of the players’ hands: they just wanted to keep skating.
The Soldiers hit the ice for practice at the Arena on Mutual Street in early November, the earliest Toronto pros had ever started their preparations in the city hockey history, some said. Even then they were being touted as favourites to win the championship of the NHA barely a month after their application to join the league was accepted.
Apart from the quality of their roster, it would be the fittest by far. The Ottawa Journal acknowledged the advantage that all the teams were calculating:
with a summer’s military training under their belt and with them doing gym work now as well as getting in an occasional practice on the ice, [the 228th] is bound to be in the best possible condition when the season opens.
From the NHA’s point of view, adding the 228th as a franchise made the straightest kind of sense. These were, after all, some of the best players in the land. They also lent the league patriotic cover during a time in which the debate about whether professional sports should be carrying on as usual was a real and active one.
And yet even after the Soldiers came aboard, their place in the league remained unsettled through November. Not all of the NHA’s civilian teams were willing to cede the hockey rights to players who, before they’d donned khaki, had been on their books. Canadiens seemed resigned to having lost Goldie Prodgers, Howard McNamara, and Amos Arbour to the khaki, but Toronto and its contentious owner Eddie Livingstone wasn’t as serene when it came to Duke Keats, Archie Briden, and Percy LeSueur. Wrangling over Keats in particular would nearly scupper the 228th’s NHA plan altogether, and it wasn’t until the end of November that the Northern Fusiliers finally backed down and ceded Keats and Briden to the Blueshirts.
Even so, the line-up as it was shaping up in the months ahead of the season’s opening was an impressive one. “The 228th Battalion could present as strong a team as ever played in the NHA,” Ottawa’s Journal was telling readers as early as September. Sergeant Percy LeSueur, 34, was pencilled in as the goaltender, a two-time Stanley Cup winner destined to end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Baz O’Meara also called him, in 1944, “the handsomest man who ever stood in front of a corded cabin.”) The brothers (and fellow lieutenants) McNamara (a.k.a. the Dynamite Twins) manned the defence. Slated for the attack were Sergeant Goldie Prodgers, Lieutenant Art Duncan, Amos Arbour, and Gordon Meeking.
In November, the team snapped up Eddie Oatman, who’d starred at centre for the 1915-16 season with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds, the team the Montreal Canadiens had beaten to claim the Stanley Cup. The 228th already counted three members of that Canadiens team in its ranks in Arbour, Howard McNamara, and Prodgers.
As The Toronto News told it, the latter pair travelled to Oatman’s home in Tillsonburg, Ontario, to persuade Oatman to forgo a return to the west coast. Why not join their campaign, instead? There would be controversy, later, regarding the terms of Oatman’s agreement with the battalion, and indeed whether he’d enlisted in the Army at all. He had, signing his attestation papers on November 1, with teammate Jack Brown standing by as his witness. According to the News, upon their arrival back in Toronto, the recruiters and their star catch made only the briefest stop at the 228th quarters before heading for Arena ice, where Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone watched the “Big Five” (the McNamaras, Prodgers, Oatman, and Keats) “take a whirl on skates.” Prodgers for one was reported to be “as enthusiastic as a schoolboy;”
now that Oatman has been added to the ranks, he can see nothing but another championship before they go overseas.
When the Soldiers weren’t skating, they were working out under the direction of Sergeant Frank Carroll’s direction at the West End YMCA at the corner of Davenport and College. Carroll, a former boxer with a Canadian welterweight title to his name, was a trainer of some repute in Toronto sporting circles. He’d tended the Toronto Blueshirts when they won the Stanley Cup in 1914 as well as working a summertime job for the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s AA International League. After the war, he’d take on the same role for Toronto’s inaugural NHL team, the Arenas, where his brother Dick was coach.
Given all the trouble the 228th got into regarding the propriety of icing a professional hockey team and the permission to do so, it’s worth noting that the battalion did seek permission through the chain of command before getting involved in celebrating an Allies’ Carnival at the Arena in early December. Organized by the 204th (Beavers) Battalion, it featured as its centerpiece a hockey game in which the 228th deploying against a select military team drawn from the 204th and other battalions quartered at Toronto’s lakeshore Exhibition grounds. Organized and led by a former OHA star, Lieutenant Herbie Birmingham, the All-Stars counted a ringer, too, in their ranks: Bruce Ridpath, the first captain of Toronto’s original NHA team and a Stanley Cup winner with Ottawa in 1910-11.
A crowd of 5,000 were on hand for the game. The referee was Harvey Sproule, another future coach of the NHL Arenas. In this, the Soldiers’ first test, they passed colourfully, and with pomp. “The 228th can hardly be improved upon,” decided the correspondent from Toronto’s World.
Plowerplay: Sometimes mistakenly attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, this photograph from Toronto circa 1909 shows workmen and a shinny crowd at a city park that could be (says Toronto Archives) either Ossington Avenue Park, Willowvale Park, or Christie Pits.
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, William James family fonds, Fonds 1244, Item 460A)
Pushback: He was still often Gordon Howe in the press in 1947, starting into his second NHL season working the right wing for the Detroit Red Wings, though Gordie was starting to take hold more and more in the hockey pages. Didn’t matter either way, I’ll guess, to Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson, seen here in November of that year on Maple Leaf Gardens ice, doing his best to separate the puck from Howe’s possession. The Leafs prevailed 5-3 on the night, with Howe contributing an assist on a goal Ted Lindsay scored, and serving out two minutes for a minor penalty.
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 120324)