the corkscrew rusher

Little Bullet Joe Blue Streak Corkscrew Babe Ruth Simpson

William McBeth was the Windsor sportswriter who decided that New York needed an NHL hockey team — he just didn’t have the money to pay for it. Stan Fischler tells the story in Those Were The Days (1976): how McBeth persuaded the bootlegger Bill Dwyer to bankroll the team and, in 1925, ended up with most of the players from the newly defunct Hamilton Tigers. McBeth, for his part, signed himself up as the Amerks’ publicity director. He’s the guy who crowned Billy Burch as hockey’s Babe Ruth. Joe Simpson he dubbed (according to Fischler) The Blue Streak From Saskatoon — even though he came from Selkirk, Manitoba. Fischler continues:

New Yorkers, unschooled in hockey fundamentals, seized upon the nicknames and immediately
goal from them each time Billy or Joe would touch the puck.

Conscious of their newly created audience, Burch
and Simpson responded by stressing their individual
exploits. “Every time one of them passed to another
player,” wrote Frank Graham, Sr., who covered sports
for The New York Sun, “the spectators howled in rage
and disappointment. Seeking to please the customers,
Billy and Joe did as little passing as possible. This resulted
in spectacular but futile one-man raids on the enemies’
nets and a rapid disintegration of the team play necessary
to insure victories as the other players then all tried to get
into the act as individuals.

Which brings us to another nickname of Blue Streak Babe Ruth Bullet Joe’s: Corkscrew Joe. It’s not quite as evocative as Bullet, I don’t think, but close. Jim Coleman says that the Amerks’ first manager was the one who coined it just for Joe in New York. “When he was carrying the puck,” Coleman attested, “Joe skated rapidly on a twisting route and Tommy Gorman publicized Simpson’s unusual tactics as ‘corkscrew rushes.’”

Makes sense. Very evocative, too. Just the corkscrew on its own suggests an up-and-down motion involving a wine bottle, a drilling down that would be cartoonishly pleasing to see but not so purposeful in a hockey context. It takes the rush to set it into motion down the ice. It sounds tiring. What is it that distinguishes it from other types of rushes, I wonder. I’m guessing it differs from dipsy-doodling in speed and frenzy. Does anyone rush corkscrew any more or, like the dispy-doodling, is it gone from the game?

Juncos effuses spiralis

If you look it up, you’ll find that the corkscrew rush is a grassy perennial known formally as juncos effuses spiralis. It likes wet conditions — the edge of a bog, say — but also full sun. Its interesting coiled stems can spiral up to 24 inches high — making it a real conversation piece, many people agree.

From horticultural references I jumped to hockey: in The Hockey Phrase Book (1991) by Lewis and Aaron Poteet, chapter six takes care of “Tricks.” Under “a: Showing off. Cool moves,” you’ll find feathering the puck, firedancing on ice, and the mistaken assertion that dipsy-doodle (“adroit skating with the puck”) was coined by Danny Gallivan — but no corkscrew rushing.

The closest Pierre Dallaire’s Lexique de termes de hockey (1983) comes would be stickhandling — tricotage in Quebec or, in Europe, dribblage.

And Andrew Podnieks’ Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007)? Better luck: on the page with cord cottage and Cooperalls, the definition for corkscrew rush goes like this:

end-to-end rush with plenty of dekes
and feints, not in a straight line.

Which makes sense. No provenance provided, though. Billy Finlay saw Simpson play in Winnipeg after he moved on from his hometown team, the Fishermen, to play senior hockey for the Victorias in 1914. He was a rover, then, in the old seven-man game, and nothing so special — until he moved back to defence. That’s where he got good, I guess, and in 1916, before heading to the war in France, he captained Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion team when it won the Allan Cup. Here’s Finlay, writing in 1932:

It was after he joined the army and played
hockey for the 61st Battalion that Simpson
really came to the front. His wonderful playing
both on defense and attack had more than
anything else to do with the team capturing
the Allan Cup, emblematic of the amateur
hockey championship of Canada. It was that
year that he became famous as “Corkscrew”
Joe, owing to his style of dodging through the
opposition.

There’s no question that Simpson was the leading corkscrewer of his time. Later disciples include M.A. Wingham of the Regina Patricias; Paul Thompson, flashy centre ice man of the Calgary Canadians; Red Deer defenceman Joe Martin; and Central Butte’s Ken Johnson. Was he the first though? In Edmonton, Terry McGovern was corkscrewing for the Dominions in 1914. And before that, as early as 1912, there was Art Ross, playing for the Tecumsehs in Toronto: “certainly some boy with those corkscrew rushes.” That doesn’t mean that Simpson wasn’t first — his first year with Selkirk was 1912, too — but it does seem to say that the practice was a little more widespread, and a little earlier, than previously thought.

There’s more to say about Corkscrew Joe, but first a bit of a dodging detour in the direction of my grandfather, a corkscrew rusher in his own right, as it turns out.

He was a lawyer and later a judge in Edmonton, where he has a school that’s named after him, in recognition of the judging and his school trustee-ing and maybe other contributions to the community, not including hockey. The motto at S. Bruce Smith School is “Strive To Be Your Best!” They used to have a resident dog named Crush who was hypoallergenic and calm, and helped the school counsellor. I don’t know if they still have the dog, though.

He played hockey while he was studying the law at the University of Alberta, starting in 1918, which was around the same time Roland Michener was doing the same at U of A, and just ahead of Clarence Campbell. As my dad remembers it, the Black Hawks tried to lure him to Chicago when they joined the NHL in 1926, but he stuck with the law.

My dad thought he played centre. After some digging I found that, no, he was a defenceman. Scottie McAllister was his partner. Their “blocking tactics” were famous. Billy Esdale was the captain of the Gold and Green that year, 1920, a left winger. He was “modest” and “unassuming” and he had “worlds of speed.” At centre was Harry Morris. He had weight, speed, and a wicked shot. My grandfather was “one of the prettiest stick handlers on the team and “his dazzling cork-screw rushes led to many goals.”

I wish I’d been there to see some of them. I could have caught Simpson, too, while I was there. That’s where he was at his best; he wasn’t the same player by the time he got to New York in 1925. “The east did something to him,” wrote Baz O’Meara, later, in The Montreal Star. “He became a wobbly skater, put on about 20 pounds that he never seemed to be able to shed, and was always too amiable to be impressive.”

Home from the war he went to play for his hometown Fisherman. By December of 1918 he was back to corkscrewing again. Ahead of the 1920 season the Edmonton Eskimos paid him $3,000 to turn professional and play in the Big Four.

That’s where his legend bloomed. He was fast, a great checker, clean, conscientious, played a full 60 minutes. In old newspapers you often see the word “flash” associated with his name. People, it was said, would drive miles to see him, in buggies or sleighs. Newsy Lalonde thought he was the best player alive. The great Duke Keats was an Eskimo teammate when Edmonton played for the 1923 Stanley Cup: Keats rated Simpson one of the best defencemen he ever saw, along with Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn. “It was too bad so few sport writers in the east saw him at his best,” said Baz O’Meara. “They would have seen a player who could break faster than Hamby Shore, skate faster than Clancy, handle a stick like Gottselig, shoot like Sprague Cleghorn.”

Simpson corkscrewed his way all through the accounts of the 1923 finals, which were played in Vancouver. Ottawa won, in the end, but to see Simpson in full fling sounds like it must have been glorious. “Every time he rushed in Saturday’s game he was given an ovation,” said the report from the second game. “His work was the outstanding incident. He was half the Edmonton attack, and his uncanny faculty for keeping his feet and his legs under difficulties is amazing.”

There does seem to have been a certain amount of futility involved in the dribblage that was corkscrew rushing. If we’re ready to sum up, here, I think we should get that in. It wasn’t just Billy Burch and Simpson on their one-man raids down the ice in New York. I’m just looking and — no, rarely do reports of corkscrew rushes end up with goals. A Western Canadian specialty, with a strong Albertan flavour, the preserve (mostly) of defencemen, popularized by Joe Simpson, the corkscrew rush at its best was fast, even frenzied, and very exciting to see — not necessarily all that useful in the end.

Is that why it died out? Killed by coaching? Sacrificed to solid, responsible teamwork? Or is it the term that faded away, out of use, in the way that hockey terms do, like donnybrook, dipsy-doodle, kitty-bar-the-door. Wally Stanowski is the last NHLer I can find who rushed corkscrew on a regular basis. When he joined the Leafs in 1939 there was talk that he was the next Eddie Shore. Later, when he wasn’t, his nickname was The Whirling Dervish. Sometimes in a game, says The Hockey Hall of Fame, if there was a delay to tend to an injured player, Stanowski would entertain the fans by pretending to figure skate.