the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)

l’idole d’un peuple

Rocketry: August 4 was a Thursday in 1921, and the weather was fine: the morning edition of Montreal’s La Patrie promised that, despite some rain in Alberta and Saskatchewan, “il fait généralement beau et modérément chaud par tout le Dominion.” The day’s headlines brought tidings from Dublin, where Éamon de Valera was taking steps to declare himself President of the Republic. In London, the seventh anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany was noted but — but for the first time since 1918 — not observed with any ceremony. From Liverpool came news that Lord Byng of Vimy and Lady Byng were embarking for Canada so that he could take up his duties as the new governor-general. Not noted in La Patrie’s columns that day: the birth of a baby in Montreal’s east end, a first son for a young carpenter named Onésime Richard and his wife, Alice. Joseph Henri Maurice they’d call their boy, which served him for his early years, until the world saw him on skates, and decided it preferred Rocket. (Photo: National Film Board of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / e003525243)

leaf lookout

Point of Blue: Photojournalist Rosemary Gilliat Eaton went north in August of 1960, to Canada’s eastern Arctic. On a visit to what was then Frobisher Bay, N.W.T. — today’s Iqaluit, Nunavut — she met a Leafs fan named Moosa, seen here with his binocs. Eaton’s notes, it should be said, reflect a nominal uncertainty — she also refers to her subject as Mosha, Moshah, and Mosher, as well as “son of Mike the Captain.” (Photo: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton / Library and Archives Canada / e010975445)

 

ted talk

Terrible 92: A birthday today for Ted Lindsay, who’s turning 92. Debuting in Renfrew, Ontario, he was his parents’ ninth and last child, born in 1925, six years after his father Bert retired from a distinguished goaltending career that include stops during the NHL’s initial seasons with Montreal’s Wanderers and the Toronto Arenas. Above, that’s Lindsay minor during the 1943-44 season, the year he played junior for Toronto’s St. Michael’s Major before winning a Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals. The great Charlie Conacher was his coach there, and his opinion of Lindsay’s virtues only grew as his career took him to the Detroit Red Wings and, later, Chicago’s Black Hawks. In 1957, Conacher deemed the man they called Terrible Ted and Little Scarface the best left-winger he’d ever seen. “He’s like Ted Williams,” Conacher told Trent Frayne. “He can do everything, does it with a flourish, and has a mind of his own.” (Image: Lyonde, Louis Laurier/Library and Archives Canada/PA-053809)

duke keats enraged and other tales: a wandering history of irene castle mclaughlin and the chicago black hawks

Ireman: Duke Keats as a Chicago Black Hawk, circa 1927.

It’s 80 years since Major Frederic McLaughlin schemed to end the tyranny of Canadian hockey domination by turning his Chicago Black Hawks all-American. I wrote about that in The New York Times not long ago. I would have liked to have expanded there on McLaughlin’s background and his marriage to Irene Castle, not to mention her hockey history, but I’m willing to do it here instead.

William F. McLaughlin starts selling coffee in Chicago in the 1860s. This isn’t a beverage history, but if it were, this would be the part that mentions how he helped to revolutionize the way Americans prepare their coffee at home. When W.F. dies in 1905, an elder son, George, takes over as president of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee while Frederic, younger, steps up as secretary and treasurer. Frederic is 27. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s already making a name for himself as a crack polo player for the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois. Accounts of his exploits on the turf remark on his supreme horsemanship, his daring, his fearlessness.

He gets married in May of 1907, at noon, to Helen Wylie, in Baltimore. “One of the surprises of the seasons,” The Chicago Tribune calls it. Not even a year later The Washington Post alerts readers: “The supposed domestic trouble of the McLaughlins is a frequent subject of gossip.” The Tribune’s sources suggest that the trouble stems from (i) McLaughlin refusing to give up “old haunts and friendships” and (ii) his wife spending too much on clothes. McLaughlin denies that they’re divorcing — his wife, he says, just spends a lot of time in Baltimore, visiting her mother. In 1910, the couple does divorce. Mrs. McLaughlin isn’t in court when her husband, alleging desertion, files suit, so he’s the one who does the talking.

Judge Lockwood Honore: Are you living together at the present time?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: How long have you been separated?
McLaughlin: A little over three years.
Judge: Did you leave her or did she leave you?
McLaughlin: She left me.
Judge: Did you know she was going?
McLaughlin: Yes.
Judge: Did you request her to leave?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: During the time you lived together, how did you treat her?
McLaughlin: All right.

The divorce is granted. Mrs. McLaughlin doesn’t ask for alimony; she just wants her name back.

McLaughlin plays more polo, suiting up for the Midwick Country Club in Los Angeles when the weather’s wintry in his native north.

In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sends troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin summers there, serving in the Illinois National Guard as a sergeant of artillery.

A year later, the United States joins the war against Germany. McLaughlin secures a commission with the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, where he takes command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. The division trains in Chicago and then England before shipping out for the front in France — just in time for the peace that breaks out in 1918.

Post-war, Major McLaughlin goes back to selling coffee and playing polo. In photographs from this time, he wears a tidy moustache, and accessorizes his bowtie, mohair coat, and Homburg hat with an air of privileged impatience. He returns to Chicago society as one of “the prize ‘catches’ among American bachelor-millionaires.” That’s what the newspaper columnists note in 1923 when news of the Major’s secretive wedding begins to leak. He’s 46 now, living in what’s described as a “seven-room deluxe bachelor apartment” on the top floor of a former coffee warehouse on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.

Prizeworthy as he might be, he’s also the least famous member of his new marriage.

The new Mrs. McLaughlin is the old Irene Foote, from New Rochelle, New York. She’s just 18 when she gets married for the first time, in 1911, to the English actor and dancer Vernon Castle, who’s 23. Together they help generate the ballroom-dance craze that sweeps the United States as the First World War starts to quake. The Castles teach America the tango, the maxixe, the hesitation, the turkey trot. In New York, they opened a dance academy and a night club. They taught and toured and lectured. “They ruled completely,” a later review of their regency recalls. “They set America to dancing as a naturally temperate country had never danced before. Weightlessly she moved; without effort he spun her about; smart people adopted and fads bore their name.”

Irene is a movie star, too, and revered as America’s best-dressed woman. The bob haircut is an innovation of hers, along with the ankle-length skirt and the velvet headache band.

Frederic McLaughlin isn’t the only one duty calls: Vernon Castle, too, joins up in 1916. There will come a time for romanticizing this later, with passages in The New York Herald telling how he’s “led by a glorious discontent to lay down his life for his country.” In the meantime, he returns to his home and native land, where he volunteers for the Royal Flying Corps, is commissioned as a lieutenant, ends up commanding a squadron at the front. Serves with distinction — wins a French Croix de Guerre — before he’s transferred to instructional duty in Canada in 1917.

He nearly dies there, in a crash near Deseronto, Ontario, before he’s killed in a training accident near Forth Worth, Texas, in 1918.

His widow marries Captain Robert Tremain, an American aviator, three months later, though the match isn’t announced for a year after the fact.

In 1923, amid rumours that she’s angling to divorce her second husband, Mrs. Tremain insists that no, she’s not. Captain Tremain rushes to France, just in case, to woo her back, which he succeeds in doing, the papers report, with Al Jolson’s help. “If I ever get a divorce,” Irene says when she arrives (alone), Stateside, “it will be because I want to be single and not because I want to get married.”

That turns out to be not entirely true: she has a Paris divorce in hand when she says this, and in November, she and Major McLaughlin celebrate a quiet wedding at his Michigan Avenue apartment.

In December they sail away as honeymooners, from Seattle, on the President Grant. It’s supposed to be a six-month trip, but they’re back within two. Gossip, inevitably, attends their return. Some of the honeymooners’ shipmates are talking, and the newspapers are happy to take it all down. They report on Mrs. McLaughlin’s charm and poise, and how popular she is, along with her Belgian Griffon, Joy. The Major they find cold and aloof. Two weeks out, during a storm, in the middle of a round of mahjong, he’s reported to take offense at a stray comment by a New York silk salesman, whom he then knocks under a table with one punch.

There’s more trouble, supposedly, when they land in Japan, and Mrs. McLaughlin draws more attention than her new husband would like. Report on this run long, with plenty of detail, though not a lot of direct quotation. The couple cuts short their journey, returning home on the ship they’d come out on.

Canadian reporters rush to the deck for a comment when the ship docks at Victoria, B.C. In vain, as the Vancouver Daily World reports it:

While the ship’s orchestra played “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Major McLaughlin answered three questions with the terse “No, we will give no interviews.” Irene herself refused to speak at all.

Take that, if you want, as the first public evidence that she’s giving up her old life, retreating from the limelight, effacing Irene Castle in favour of Mrs. McLaughlin.

 

A New York columnist confides that the marriage is “a surprise, a shock, and a disappointment to Chicago society.” The feeling there, it’s said, is that the Major should have married further up the social ladder. His mother is reported to have opposed the match.

Happier Days: The McLaughlins head for Canada in the late 1920s.

Continue reading

the five leaf retirements of george armstrong

Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.

That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”

There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”

Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.

He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”

He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”

He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.

The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”

He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.

“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”

Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.

It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”

“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”

He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.

The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.

Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.

Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”

Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”

“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”

He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”

It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.

(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)