creases, they’re for crashing

The Chicago Cougars were blue in February of 1975, in a bleak place. I’m not referring to Toronto here, though that’s where they were geographically, on another stop on the WHA’s schedule. The funk that the Cougars were in related to the losing streak they rode into Toronto (they’d won just 3 of 16 games) as well as the team’s uncertain financial future. Before this, their third season in the upstart WHA, the original owners of the Cougars had sold the team to three of its prominent players, Ralph Backstrom, Pat Stapleton, and Dave Dryden. By February, with the new (playing) ownership having trouble finding further financial backing, there was talk that the Cougars might be upping skates and leaving Chicago — that, or folding entirely. 

Toronto was a balm, actually, in the face of all this: the Cougars ended up beating the local Toros, 4-3 in overtime, on a goal by Rosaire Paiement. Reporting for The Globe and Mail, Jeff Goodman wrote that the Toros helped in the effort as best they could: his account of the game at Maple Leaf Gardens features the phrase erratic passing and the word sleepskating

Pictured here in the fearsome mask is Chicago owner Dave Dryden, in the company of Toros defenceman Steve Cuddie and (in back) Chicago’s Darryl Maggs. “This win was something we needed badly,” said Chicago coach Jacques Demers when it was all over but the flood. “Things just weren’t going good. The players were depressed because they didn’t know where they stood.”

The Cougars finished the season, but the franchise didn’t live to see another one. After failing to make the WHA playoffs in April of ’75, the Chicago Cougars were dissolved. Many of the players (Maggs included) ended up with a new franchise, the Denver Spurs. They didn’t last long: by December of that same year, they’d folded, relocating to Ottawa, where they played out the season (but not beyond) as the Civics. 

The Edmonton Oilers claimed Dryden in the draft that dispersed the Cougars, and he played there for five seasons, four of them as the WHA wound up and one as the team debuted in the NHL. He took his mask with him, apparently. A friend in Chicago by the name of Bob Pelkowski was an artist and painted its ferocious face, according to Michael Cutler’s 1977 book Hockey Masks and the Great Goalies Who Wear Them. Dryden told Cutler that he had made the mask himself in 1965 at a cost of $10, and it as the only one he’d ever worn during his pro career. When he got to Edmonton, he had Pelkowski repaint it, with drops of oil dripping down over the eyes. Did he subsequently change it up? Certainly this one, below, seems like a different model, with a different array of ventilation holes.

Oil Patches: Dryden with his mask ca. 1977-78.

power to the flower

Last night’s win over the Colorado Avalanche was the 89th of Marc-Andre Fleury’s playoff puck-deterring career, which means that he’s now fourth on the list of game-winners all-time among NHL goaltenders. Fleury’s Vegas Golden Knights beat the Avalanche 6-3 to take their second-round series four games to two, if you hadn’t heard; he stopped 30 shots on the night. Next up, of course, are the Canadiens, who’ll be on the ice in Nevada to start the Vegas-Montreal semi-final on Monday night.

(Top image, from Frédéric Daigle’s 2019 biography for young readers from Les Éditions de l’Homme; infographic, via the NHL)

on a day like this, 1955: toe picked

The early months of 1955 were tumultuous ones for the Montreal Canadiens. In March, as the regular season was winding to an end, Maurice Richard’s suspension roiled the team and, soon enough, the city of Montreal. The Canadiens did get to the finals that spring, but without the Rocket they fell to the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. That was in April. To start May, the news from Montreal was that after 15 seasons and three Cup championships, coach Dick Irvin was moving out and on, to Chicago, where he hoped to resurrect the Black Hawks.

There was plenty of speculation in Montreal, of course, on the matter of who might take Irvin’s place. Canadiens Managing Director Frank Selke was quick to rule out a couple of candidates with experience on the Montreal blueline: Ken Reardon, who was already ensconced in the organization’s front office, was thought to be a GM-in-waiting, while Butch Bouchard still hoped to play another season or two. Former Leaf great Charlie Conacher had experience coaching in Chicago, and when he was seen chatting with Selke, the rumour was quick to spread that he was the man. Another defenceman on the Canadiens roster, Tom Johnson, told a reporter that while he’d heard the names of former Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy and Toe Blake bandied about, he didn’t think either man would end up in the job: he suspected the new man would be a Quebecer. So maybe Roger Léger, yet another former Canadien (and one more defender), who was coach of Shawinigan in the Quebec league? Billy Reay was mentioned, too, though he was from Winnipeg, an erstwhile Canadien now coaching the Victoria Cougars in the WHL. 

By the end May, Maurice Richard was weighing in. No disrespect to his old teammates Léger and Reay, but the Rocket felt — or knew — that it would be his former linemate, Blake, who should be taking charge. “I think Blake is the best of the three men, as he can handle men both on and off the ice,” Richard told reporters on a visit to Timmins, Ontario, to receive an award. “He should get the job over Reay or Léger, although they both have done good jobs.”

Blake, who was 42 that spring, and a son of Coniston, Ontario, which is now p[art of Sudbury, had been coaching previously in Montreal’s farm system, notably with the Valleyfield Braves of Quebec’s Senior League. As predicted by the Rocket, he was appointed to the job of Canadiens coach 11 days later, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955. 

“I am stepping into a big pair of shoes in taking over from Dick Irvin,” Blake said told the press that day. “I have always considered him the best in the league, and with the help of Mr. Selke and Mr. Reardon and the players, we will continue to keep Canadiens hockey name on top. The team won’t let the fans down. I am not going to promise the Stanley Cup, but we will continue as a great fighting club.”

Blake’s first game in charge came that October, when Montreal beat Toronto 2-0 in the opening game of the 1955-56 season. The Stanley Cup that Blake’s Canadiens won the following spring was the first of five in a row, of course, as Blake steered Montreal to eight championships in the 13 years he remained at the helm before retiring in 1968 and handing over to Claude Ruel. 

(Image, from the late 1960s: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

sign language

The Houston Aeros won the 1974-75 WHA’s championship — their second consecutive Avco Cup — with this pair stopping the pucks. On the left is Wayne Rutledge, who did back-up duty; at right is Ron Grahame, who led the league when it came to regular-season wins (33) and goals-against average (3.03) that year. He was elected to the WHA’s First All-Star team for his efforts, and won the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the WHA’s top goaltender, too, along with the league’s inaugural trophy for playoff MVPhood.  

Born in Victoria, B.C., on a Wednesday of this date in 1950, Grahame is 71 today. He signed with the Bruins in the NHL in 1977, and was the starter in Boston for a year before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings for a first-round draft pick that turned into Ray Bourque. Grahame played parts of three seasons with the Kings and had stint, too, with Quebec’s NHL Nordiques. He went on to serve as athletic director for the University of Denver. 

His son, John, was a goaltender, too, and he won a Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. His mother, Ron’s wife, was the first in the family to get her name on the Cup: Charlotte Grahame was a member of the Colorado’s front office when the Avalanche went all the way in 2001. She’s still on the job today, as Colorado’s executive director of Hockey Administration.  

ed-dee!

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this same date in 1939, Ed Giacomin is 82 today, so a birthday nod to him. ““Ed-dee! Ed-dee! Ed-dee!”  is what the fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden chanted in 1989 when the Rangers retired the number 1 Giacomin wore in his decade with the team, starting in 1966. He was twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team and (with Gilles Villemure) won the 1971 Vézina Trophy. He was beloved in New York, which is why it registered as such a shock in the fall of 1975 when Rangers GM Emile Francis exposed him on waivers. Snapped up by the Detroit Red Wings, Giacomin played his next game was at MSG … against the Rangers. Wearing Red Wing red and number 31, Giacomin stymied his former teammates sufficiently for Detroit to depart with a 6-4 win. Fans booed the Rangers that night, and every time Giacomin stopped a shot, his name echoed through the building: “Ed-dee! Ed-dee! Ed-dee!”  

Ed Giacomin played parts of three seasons with Detroit before he retired in 1978. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. The sales job depicted here dates to 1974.

old sun

Old Sun Indian Residential School had been in operation for more than 40 years by the time this photograph was taken in the 1930s. Established in 1886 by the Anglican Church on what was then the Blackfoot Reserve (Siksika Nation) within the Treaty 7 area, southeast of Calgary, near the town of Gleichen, Alberta, Old Sun lasted another four decades, finally closing in 1971, after 85 years. As the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation notes in its online registry of residential schools, a 1908 report on Old Sun described the school as “unsanitary,” its buildings “unsuitable in every way for such an institution.”   

Setting hockey aside, recommended for your reading today is Andrew Nikiforuk’s feature from The Tyee this week on Dr. Peter Bryce, Canada’s first chief medical officer of health, who (more than a century ago and repeatedly) warned the government he worked for of the all too fatal flaws of their residential schools. He was ignored. That’s here.

Also: watch, if you would, this statement from former Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

mite is right

“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. Howie’s linemates, in fact, were even more diminutive than he was: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, nicknamed the Black Cat for his speed and his coiffure, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”

Widen your eyes, if you would, then, for Gagnon, whose birthday falls today: born in Chicoutimi on a Saturday of this date in 1905, he was a Canadien for ten years through the 1930s, which means that he was in on Montreal’s 1931 Stanley Cup. He also saw duty, briefly, for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Goalswise, he had his best year, notching 20, the season of Morenz’s untimely death, 1936-37. 

Gagnon went on, later, to serve as a scout for the New York Rangers. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.

Back to the ’30s and his gig as a flyweight partner to Howie Morenz. Here’s Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January of 1931 about the Stratford Streak’s wingers and the rivalry (possibly exaggerated) around what they displaced:

Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.

It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.

“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.

 “Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.

So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.

“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.

A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.

“One hundred and thirty-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.

Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the description of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”

In A Minor Key: Johnny Gagnon, Howie Morenz, and Aurèle Joliat.

ott’s job

A son of Kitchener, Ontario, back when it was still called Berlin, Ott Heller was born on a Thursday of this date in 1910. After starting as a right winger, he grew up to be a defenceman, and a stalwart one at that, working the New York Rangers blueline for 15 seasons starting in 1932. New York won two Stanley Cup championships in those years. From 1942 through to ’45, Heller served as captain of the Rangers. 

The game in which he’s depicted here won’t be held up, perhaps, as an exemplar of his or his teammates’ defensive prowess: on this night, March 4 of 1944, Heller’s Rangers lost to the Bruins at Boston Garden by a score of 10-9. That’s Heller on the right, clashing with Boston center Art Jackson, who contributed a pair of goals to the Bruins’ total. Jackson’s teammate Bill Cowley collected four goals and a pair of assists. Winger Fern Gauthier scored a hattrick for New York. Ken McAuley was the Ranger goaltender, with Bert Gardiner in the Boston net. 

At the time, the 19 goals the teams combined for was reported to be a new NHL record for scoring abundance, though it wasn’t so: on January 10, 1920, Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks splurged to the tune of 21 goals in a 14-7 Canadiens win. Several other previous games had seen 19 goals, too. That 1920 game still has a hold on the record, though it’s now shared with a modern-day game from December 11, 1985, when Edmonton’s profuse Oilers overwhelmed the Chicago Black Hawks 12-9. 

coffey break

Born in Weston, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date in 1961, Paul Coffey is 60 today, so many returns of the day to him. A three-time Norris Trophy winner, he helped the Edmonton Oilers win three Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s and added another to his CV with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team four times. Other than Bobby Orr, he’s the only NHL defenceman to score over 100 points in a season more than once: Orr did it six times, Coffey five. In 1986, Coffey broke Orr’s seemingly unassailable record for most goals in a season by a defenceman when he scored his 47th. (Coffey finished the season with 48, a record that still stands.) 

Writing in 2004, when Coffey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal recalled Coffey’s remarkable mobility. “With apologies to Orr, who could spin and bob and weave his way through traffic,” Matheson wrote, “no-one had Coffey’s breathtaking ability to sail effortlessly by checkers like they were construction zone cones.” 

Matheson went on to recall the night in Edmonton in ’86 that Orr’s broke in an 8-4 Oiler win over their visitors from the coast.

Coffey rolled back to pick up the puck in the Oilers end and skated through the entire Vancouver Canucks team before lifting a shot past goalie Wendell Young. 

Funny thing was, Coffey had nothing left in his tank before the play started. 

“I haven’t told this to anybody but I actually was looking to get off the ice,” Coffey [told Matheson].

“I was exhausted when I went to get the puck in the left corner. The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Geez, it’s a long way to the bench.’ I was trying to get to centre so I could dump it in. But I picked up some speed, looked up and said, “Whoa, there’s some room here.”

He went by five Canucks like they were inanimate objects.

215

215.

It’s a horrifying, heartfreezing number, from a shameful, genocidal Canadian legacy. Last Thursday, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said that a survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia’s southern interior had revealed a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children, some of whom were as young as three when they died. 

“It’s a harsh reality, and it’s our truths. It’s our history, and it’s something … we’ve always had to fight to prove,” Chief Casimir said in a news conference via Zoom on Friday afternoon, as reported by The Globe and Mail. “To me, it’s always been a horrible, horrible history that’s always been, you know, basically denied from government.”

Across the country, Canadians expressed their sorrow and anger, and acknowledged the disgrace of the residential school system by which, for more than a century — until 1996 — the Canadian government made a policy of separating some 150,000 Indigenous children from their families with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into a culture not their own — taking “the Indian out of the child,” in one early insidious formulation of what the schools were all about.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated from 1890 to 1969, mostly under the authority of a Roman Catholic order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The lives of the children who died there have been honoured over the course of the past several days with vigils and flags at half-mast. Indigenous leaders are calling for gestures to be followed up with action: on Sunday, Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was one who urged the federal government to undertake to identify the remains, return them to their families, as well as to further investigate undocumented deaths and burials at residential schools across Canada. 

In 2018, in looking at the history Indigenous players in the NHL, I wrote in passing of how hockey is knotted into the story of residential schools. From a New York Times feature I filed that July:   

The government has apologized and compensated survivors. Between 2008 and 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission crossed Canada to hear their stories and investigate abuses. Among the findings in the commission’s final 2015 report is ample evidence of how sports, including hockey, could be a refuge for many children. But the report also explains how, especially in early years, some in authority looked to sports as an instrument of forced assimilation, just another means of “civilizing” students.

The comfort and freedom that hockey offered only went so far. That’s a story told in Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese’s powerful 2012 novel of hockey and residential-school abuse that director Stephen Campanelli and executive producer Clint Eastwood brought to movie screens in the spring of 2018. The pain and the rage deriving from what the central character, Saul, calls the “scorched earth” of his residential-school boyhood — “it corroded everything, even the game.”

Indian Horse is a good place to start — or to revisit — if you want to learn more about the corrosion and hockey’s part in it. 

The memoir that Fred Sasakamoose completed just before his death at 86 in November last year, should also be required reading. Published earlier this month, Call Me Indian is in many ways an inspiring story, of perseverance and dedication — but it is, also, a thoroughly harrowing testament of Canadian racism and the neglect and abuse that Sasakamoose suffered at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.

All Canadians should educate themselves by reading the TRC report, I’ll also submit. It’s not hard to find — here you go. I went back today to re-read some of the discussion of how sports were integrated into the insidious system: 

The Canadian residential schools were established at the same time as the rules were being standardized for games such as football, baseball, and hockey, and agreement was being reached on what constituted a standard playing field and the length of play. In the late nineteenth century, such sports spread throughout the country. As with band music, the promoters of these games argued that organized sports would help reduce conflict between the classes. And, while manliness and sportsmanship were supposed to reflect the values of the empire, Canadians not only played British games such as cricket, with its associations with the private schools of the elite; they also played sports popular in the United States such as baseball, and uniquely Canadian games such as lacrosse and ice hockey. These games also were played at the residential schools. 

It was hoped that these sports would contribute to “civilizing” residential school students. In his 1889 report, Indian Affairs inspector J. A. Macrae wrote of the Battleford school: 

“A noticeable feature of this school is its games. They are all thoroughly and distinctly ‘white.’ The boys use the boxing gloves with no little science, and excellent temper and play good games of cricket and football with great interest and truly Anglo-Saxon vigor. The girls dress dolls, make fancy articles of dress, and play such games as white children do. From all their recreation Indianism is excluded.”

Macrae seemed to believe that “Indianism” was a static phenomenon and that to play a European game well, a boy became less of an “Indian.” “Indianism” was, by definition, undesirable: an 1895 report on the Middlechurch, Manitoba, school noted approvingly, “The manly games of cricket and football, introduced and practised by the principal, have done much to take ‘the sneak’ out of the boys.” Some school officials also said that the role that sports played in the schools had to be closely controlled. If this were not done, instead of spreading the values of manly Christianity, sports would simply delay the process of assimilation. 

(Image: Students rally around a puck at Washakada Industrial School in Elkhorn, Manitoba, northwest of Brandon, near the Saskatchewan border, circa 1911-15. Established by the Anglican Church in 1888, the Washakada Indian Home originally had room for 16 boarders. Fire destroyed most of the school’s buildings in 1895; the new, relocated Industrial School opened in 1899. At its peak, the residential school had an enrolment of 122. It closed in 1949. Glenbow Archives, NA-4101-40)

decision day

“When we’re skating and shooting the way we can, it doesn’t matter whether they put bulldozers out there against us. We’ll just go around them.” 

That was Montreal captain Henri Richard on another Monday, in another playoffs, as his Canadiens skated at the Forum ahead of a Stanley Cup semi-final against the Philadelphia Flyers to start the week of April 16, 1973. That’s Richard laid out third from the bottom in this team stretch, I think. Alternate captain Yvan Cournoyer is nearest the camera, with Steve Shutt next in line. Goaltender Ken Dryden is sprawled to the right of the night, beside (possibly) Guy Lapointe and one of the back-ups, Michel Plasse or Wayne Thomas. 

“We’ve been too tight so far,” Richard told reporters that day. “We have to loosen up to get going at our best.” Two nights earlier on this same Forum ice, the Canadiens had lost the first game of the series, 5-4 in overtime, with Rick MacLeish scoring the decisive goal for Philadelphia. The day after this practice, on Tuesday, April 17, Larry Robinson scored Montreal’s winner in a 4-3 OT win that tied the series.

Montreal would go on to dismiss the Flyers in five games. In the finals that followed that year, Montreal dispensed with the Chicago Black Hawks in six games to claim their 18th Stanley Cup.  

(Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)