babes

One Babe And Another: Gordie Howe with a Ruth impersonator.

It wasn’t the hockey players they were trying to impress in 1925 when they called Bullet Joe Simpson the Babe Ruth of hockey. If they’d wanted to do that, they would have announced he was the Cyclone Taylor of hockey or maybe the Scotty Davidson. To some people who saw him play, Davidson was the best ever, barring none, which is intriguing to hear because, well — Scotty Davidson? But: Babe Ruth. 1925 was the year that bootlegger Big Bill Dwyer and his buddies bought the roster of the Hamilton Tigers and replanted it in Manhattan as the New York Americans. Tex Rickard needed a new attraction to fill his Madison Square Garden and hockey, he and Colonel John Hammond had decided, was it. To a New Yorker who’d never seen a game before, Cyclone Taylor wasn’t going to mean much. Everybody understood the dominance of Ruth, the swagger of the most famous Yankee of all — which still doesn’t explain how the team came to have two Babe Ruths playing for them that year.

Billy Burch came first, I’m pretty sure. He was captain of the new Americans, younger than Bullet Joe, and as the reigning Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s MVP, altogether more marketable. It’s Rickard who’s supposed to have hatched the whole scheme in the first place, hanging up a signboard up in the foyer of the Garden with a picture of Ruth at one end and Burch at the other. The message in-between: You know baseball’s Babe Ruth. You’ve got to meet the Babe Ruth of hockey.

Billy Burch

Burch scored 22 goals that first year, but later the fans yowled at him if he passed the puck — they only wanted him taking direct routes to the net. It may be that the team’s PR people decided on a better pitch for Burch would be the local angle, because while he’d grown up in Toronto, he was born just up the Hudson River, which is how he came to known as Yonkers Billy Burch. Which, I guess, allowed Bullet Joe to take over as the hockey Babe.

Bullet Joe Simpson wasn’t a Joe at all, in fact, though his elder brother was: he was born Harold Edward in Selkirk, Manitoba. Serving with the Cameron Highlanders in France in the First World War, he’d been a bit of a Babe Ruth of infantry, winning a Military Medal for bravery. Twice he was wounded, “once [it was later reported] by machine gun bullets in his legs,” though “good surgery kept him from lameness. In the early 1920s Newsy Lalonde said there was no better player alive. His forte (said The New Yorker): “solo goal-shooting from mid-ice.” Joe himself didn’t like having Ruth’s name hung on him. It embarrassed him. He considered it unlucky.

Babe Dye could hardly have avoided the comparison to Ruth, especially since he spent his summers in the late ’20s playing ball in the minor International League. (He was a .300 hitter.) By 1928 the Babe Ruth of hockey was well established as a shorthand in the American press for hockey’s consensus best player. Frankie Frederickson wore the mantle when he went to play in Pittsburgh as a Pirate that year. In Montreal, meanwhile, a rumour that the New York Americans and the Detroit Cougars were each offering $50,000 to buy Howie Morenz was met with the assurance (from The Ottawa Citizen) that “Canadiens wouldn’t dare sell the ‘flaming meteor’ any more than the New York Yankees would sell Babe Ruth.”

Boston’s Eddie Shore was making a name for himself, which is also to say he was taking on Ruth’s. As were, into the early 1930s, the Leafs’ Charlie Conacher and the man they called “the toughest little man in the toughest sport” and Toronto’s “mighty atom,” a.k.a. “the iron man of ice hockey,” King Clancy. You’ve never heard of Lou Bates, but he was the Babe Ruth of English hockey at this time, a huge star, Ottawa-born, the “handsome young captain” of the Wembley Lions, idol of the fans, who’d bay at him, Loooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuu, long before there was such a thing as Roberto Luongo. “Women fans,” testified The Vancouver Sun, “are particularly enthusiastic about Bates whose long, wavy hair and clear-cut [sic] features give him an edge over the other hockey battlers in that direction.”

They were all just pretenders compared to Shore, though. Time trumpeted his Ruthfulness, and called him “gnarled, battling” and “the mightiest Bruin of them all.” The two men met at least once, had their pictures taken smiling, shaking hands. As the tyrannical owner and manager of the Springfield Indians, Shore was called “the little Napoleon of hockey,” but that was later. The “bad man of Saskatchewan” has a ring to it, and so does “The Man o’ War of hockey,” which he also heard. Recognition as the one, true hockey Ruth didn’t necessarily mean that Shore was the best player in the game, apparently. For The Milwaukee Journal, it was all about quality of excitement and what the fans felt: “A simple gesture from Eddie will make them rise in their seats. And he shares Ruth’s talent for getting into trouble and making stories.” John Lardner explained it this way: “Like the Babe and baseball, Eddie Shore was the one player in hockey known to people who generally ignored hockey. Just as Ty Cobb was a greater player than Ruth, Shore was no Lionel Conacher, but in the way that Ruth was Mr. Baseball, Shore was Mr. Hockey.”

Writers casting back from the 1950s sometimes thought Newsy Lalonde was a retroactive Ty Cobb, named by a writer in 1950 who also referred to him as “a one-time printer’s devil.”

C. Michael Hiam’s biography, Eddie Shore and That Old-Time Hockey (2010) insists that Shore was the Ruth and the Ty Cobb of hockey, “a brilliant player with an unmatched temper.” Does that seem greedy?

John Kieran of The New York Times thought it was all useless talk — meaningless. Looking back in 1940 to the early Americans, he blamed early “tom-tom beaters and tub-thumpers for the invading sport.” Bullet Joe tried his best — “broke everything but his back trying to live up to” the name, but it was something he never should have been asked to do. Trying to “borrow prestige from the diamond” was a big mistake.

There never will be any Babe Ruth
of hockey any more than there will
be a Bobby Jones of tennis or a Bill
Tilden of the prize ring. Or a Jack
Dempsey of baseball, for that matter.

Kieran rattled away on the subject more than once. Could Ruth even skate? He’d never seen him. It seemed to make him boil. Even if there were a Bambino of the ice, he declared, he wasn’t named Simpson or Burch: the only possible candidate, in Kieran’s view, was “good old Ivan the Terrible, the Chinaman Ching.”

So that was it for Babes Ruth and hockey — you’d think. I mean, Ruth retired in 1935, and then with his death in 1948, and also hockey having made its mark at least in the northeastern United States — you’d think it was a phrase whose time had passed.

Or … not. In 1957, Rocket Richard when scored his 500th goal, he was “still the Babe Ruth of hockey” — and his scoring record would stand up for as long as the Babe’s 60 home runs in a season. It’s there if you watch the 2005 movie The Rocket, with movie-Dick Irvin pulling aside movie-#9, in case he hadn’t heard yet: “You’re the Babe Ruth,” he confides, “of hockey.” When Richard retired in 1960, some Montreal papers were calling 22-year-old Habs’ winger Billy Hicke the George (Twinkletoes) Selkirk of hockey, after the New York Yankee who replaced Ruth in right field when he quit the game.

Sometimes, too, in the 1950s, people said it was Richard’s teammate, Jean Béliveau, who was more Ruthful. For grace and general all-around classiness he also got the Joe DiMaggio of hockey, sometimes. Eddie Shore got that, too, once or twice (without any mention of grace); later, Wayne Gretzky and Mike Modano would get DiMaggio’d, too.

Willie O’Ree was called the Jackie Robinson of hockey, of course.

For durability — he never missed a practice or game — the New York Rangers’ Murray Murdoch was hockey’s Lou Gehrig, according to Emile Francis and others.

I thought Gordie Howe might have been the last of hockey’s Babes Ruth, but, not so, Gretzky got it too. In St. Louis, in 1999, joking teammates also called Gretzky “the Michael Jordan of hockey;” subsequently it’s been applied with straighter faces to Mario Lemieux, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos.

Chicago’s Bobby Hull was making about $35,000 a season in 1965, same as Gordie Howe in Detroit, it was generally agreed. “I’m not being conceited when I say I am worth $100,000 next season,” Hull said. “I am the big draw for the club and I feel I am to hockey what Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays to baseball.” This was in July, and Hull was sorry not to have said so to the Black Hawks before he announced it in public; it was October before he (purportedly) signed a contract and got his money.

Today you don’t see it much, I don’t know why. The Novak Djokovic of hockey. The LeBron James? Doesn’t really work. Is it that hockey has reached the age of its majority and so doesn’t need even such an illustrious crutch as Ruth? When someone says, as they did last week, as the NHL prepared for its weekend of All-Stars, that Pavel Datsyuk is widely considered to be the most-skilled player in the league, there’s no need to say any more than that. Likewise with his teammate, Nicklas Lidstrom, though Detroit coach Mike Babcock did have more to say, calling his captain “one of the best players ever period. He’s an incredible human being, he’s very humble, he provides unbelievable leadership.”

Nick Lidstrom is, in other words, the Nick Lidstrom of hockey.

I guess once it probably meant something to call a hockey player an all-star, but now it seems kind of worn-out. To call someone a star isn’t really saying much at all; superstar isn’t much better. The game’s need to define its greats goes on and on, over and above the plain facts of their careers, the games played, goals scored, points piled up. Watching their feats on film is, I suppose, the best way to do it, which we can do, as much as we like on TV and online, with the Lidstroms and the Datsyuks.

But where does that leave the likes of Bullet Joe Simpson and Billy Burch? There may be a few people left alive who saw them in the flesh. Maybe somewhere there’s a scrap of film that shows them at play. No-one wrote their biographies, beyond a few scant paragraphs if (like Burch) they were elected to the Hall of Hockey Fame. Otherwise our grasp on them is limited to a few bare phrases, a scattering of brittle old adjectives, and those we’re left to gather where we can. Burch was big and skillful and (said John Kieran) polite. His friends rated as good a centreman as the great Nighbor. The reason he smoked Lucky Strikes was that they never made him cough suddenly, which could be very dangerous, during a scramble on the ice (said Lucky Strikes).

Soft hands is a compliment in a sport that mainly values unyielding surfaces: hard-nosed is a high hockey commendation; skating hard; hard to the front of the net; defencemen firing the puck on a quick hard-around to the winger. Philadelphia coach Fred Shero once collided with his winger Paul Holmgren in practice. “Every part of me hurt. Even my hair. I didn’t know hair could hurt.” If that’s the equivalent of a, say, 9 on Mohs Scale of mineral hardness, Stephen Scriver has a line describing a 10 in All Star Poet:

He’s got a shot that’s harder than the back/ of God’s head.

Pat Quinn, when he was coaching the Leafs, applauded his centreman Yanic Perreault’s creativity. “He can create chicken,” he said, “out of chicken salad.” In 1975 Doug Jarrett likened the Soviets to “a bunch of Yvan Cournoyers with Gordie Howe heads,” something that might have made them all — Howe, Cournoyer, and the Soviets — blush from bashfulness.

Geography can be high praise and low, a good example of the former being when Brian Burke was in Anaheim and told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber that his Swedish centreman Samuel Pahlsson was so tough that “he seemed to hail from Red Deer, Alberta.”

The ultimate hockey praise might be the mathematical. It’s the form I prefer over all the others, anyway. “Give me fifteen Gary Dornhoefers on my team,” Fred Shero once said, “and I don’t have a care in the world.” Though, just to confuse things, in aid of what sounds like an iffy retirement plan, Shero would also have taken many Rick McLeishes: “I wish I had ten more like him, then I could stay home.”

Others, more recently, have wished for Sutters in bulk — which is how they come anyway, of course. Though certain Sutters are, I guess, more necessary than other. No offence, I’m sure, to Brent, Duane, Ron and Rich, but nobody seems to have ever wished multiple thems. “Give me 20 Darryl Sutters and I’ll win a Stanley Cup,” Chicago g.m. Bob Pulford used to say. Maybe in the finals he would have been up against Jacques Demers’ ideal of a St. Louis squad. “A coach’s dream is to have 20 Brian Sutters,” he said. “But of course, that’s impossible.”