The blond Bomber the papers called him, sometimes, and fine and industrious and the fast-skating wing man. A Canadien and a Red Wing who played four-and-a-half NHL seasons, Léo Gravelle died on October 30 at the age of 88. One of his nicknames was The Gazelle.
“Léo Gravelle swished in Glen Harmon’s shot” is a sentence you might have seen after Montreal beat Chicago in 1947. He was born in Aylmer, Quebec. Witnesses who watched him play called him an extraordinary and sprightly skater. And of course there’s the time, in Chicago, that teammate Kenny Reardon hit a steelworker in the stands with his stick and the steelworker’s friends tried to throw a chair at him and Gravelle went to Reardon’s aid, and the two players ended up in jail, charged with assault with a deadly weapon. “I did not strike any of the spectators,” Gravelle said, later. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.” (The charges were dropped.)
In May of 2007, Léo Gravelle was the guest of honour at the annual meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research in Ottawa. Speaking to an audience that included two Howie Morenzes (son and grandson of the original) as well as the hockey artist Mac McDiarmid, and the man who knows more about minor-league hockey than anyone in the whole world, Gravelle talked about his life in hockey. It was like a spell he was speaking, an incantation. “I’ve had a good life,” he began, and
A lot of people, they think it’s easy, the start in life. When I was six years old, it was hard times. We didn’t have electricity until I was 17 years old. When it comes time to play, I’m gonna tell you the truth. In those days the skates are not like today. It’s just a leather thing. When it gets wet it expands. I had to wear my cousin’s skates. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was my turn. I put on six pairs of socks. I don’t know if you still have your mother or not, but after you lose her you miss her a lot. I had a good father. Sometimes he had to walk from Hull to Aylmer after working his day’s work. We didn’t have radios. I was an office boy. I used to run everywhere. We had a hockey team. I will tell you what we used to do. Shinpads, it was a piece of felt. Hockey sticks, we were paying 25 cents. Excuse me, ladies, if I’m swearing sometimes. I was an altar boy for eight years. Have you heard of a hockey game after midnight mass? It was the choir versus the altar boys. In the morning when I got up there was an apple, an orange, and a piece of paper. Thank you, Lord. What do you get for Christmas today? I was working for the government, office boy, 39 dollars a month. My first suit cost me 39 dollars, so my mother had to pay my streetcar for the next month. I was playing Juvenile at 17 years old. Port Colborne. At St. Mike’s the coach was Joe Primeau. When you win the Memorial Cup, a fellow has to be proud. I went to the Montreal Royals. I had a line with Floyd Curry and Howard Riopelle. I could name you some names. When you play for a team like Montreal, they can decide to send you to Buffalo. They sent me to Houston. We win the United States Hockey League championship. The next year they brought me up to Buffalo. Then I graduate back to Montreal. Then this guy, Kenny Reardon. He used to call me Gravel. We did some damage. That was another thing that went by. I got traded for Bert Olmstead. I think I can brag about this. I’m the only one who played with Howe and Richard. Sid Abel was injured. I played with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Then Sid Abel came back. I sat on the bench for 13 games. Then they sent me down to Indianapolis. Jack Adams said, Léo Gravelle will never play another game in the NHL. I never did. I learned one thing in my life, when you go in to get a job, when they tap you on the back, that means they don’t want you. But I’ve had a good life. What I’ve told you today, it’s from the bottom of my heart. The Rocket could score on his knees. Gordie Howe was sort of a brute. They were two good guys for me. I don’t know how I’ve still got my nose, my face. Black Jack Stewart, he picked me up and drove me into the end. I didn’t know where I was.