If it were anyone else, we might be able to swing players around to fill the gap. But the loss of Laprade is serious trouble.
• Frank Boucher in January of 1951
Edgar Laprade was 94 when he died last Monday at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A revered New York Ranger, the closest he came to winning a Stanley Cup was in 1950, when the Rangers lost in Game-7 double overtime to Detroit. He was a four-time All Star and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1945-46 and the Lady Byng, for peacefulness, in 1949-50. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993 as a Veteran. That, he said at the time, was his biggest hockey thrill. Richard Goldstein has a good obituary in The New York Times. Otherwise, a few further notes on a quietly outstanding career:
1. Mine Centre, Ontario, was where he was born, in October of 1919, at the Lakehead, 190 miles west of Port Arthur on the Canadian Northern Railway. “There’s some good fishing there,” Laprade told Kevin Shea at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.
2. Prospectors had struck copper in May of 1916. A year later the Port Arthur Copper Company was selling shares on the property at 30 cents apiece. “This is the great time in the world’s history for mining,” one of their ads crowed. “Metal is King. Copper is at the highest point in years.”
3. Playing in Port Arthur, Laprade was a Bruin before he graduated to the mighty Bearcats, for whom he starred with his brother Bert, a defenceman. They won the Allan Cup in 1939, beating the Montreal Royals, and would have gone on to represent Canada at the 1940 Winter Olympics if war hadn’t swept it off the calendar. In February of 1941, local fans organized Laprade Night ahead of a game with the Fort William Hurricanes where they presented the boys with silver tea services. Actually, no, just the one: it was wartime, after all, and they would have to be content to share.
4. He was the best senior hockey player in the country in those years. The New York Rangers held his rights and twice the manager there, Lester Patrick, invited him to training camp and each time Laprade said no. “We tried again this fall,” Rangers’ PR man Jersey Jones was saying in 1941, when Laprade was 22, “but it doesn’t look very promising. Lester’s raised the ante several times, I understand, but still no go. Probably when he makes up his mind to give the Rangers a break — if he ever does — he’ll have to make the trip in a wheelchair.”
5. After Elmer Lach broke his arm in the fall of 1941, Canadiens’ manager Tommy Gorman tried to lure Laprade to Montreal, and it looked like he might be lured, too, until Patrick said nyah-uh, refused to cede his rights.
6. As Don MacEachern has written in his review of western Canadian service hockey, the Port Arthur hockey team bifurcated in 1942, creating a new team, Shipbuilders, to compete against the Bearcats. Edgar and Bert stuck with the latter while a third Laprade brother, Remi, suited up for the new team. A hybrid version of the two ended up in the Allan Cup Final in the spring of 1942 where they lost to a powerhouse RCAF Flyer team boosted by the talents of recent Boston Bruins Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer.
By the fall of 1943 Bert was on the ice for the RCAF. Edgar went to Ottawa to enlist in the Army’s Ordnance Corps. For the rest of the war he served, on the ice and off, in Winnipeg and Kingston.
7. That’s where Frank Boucher, who was coaching the Rangers, went to work, in the summer of 1945. Through a friend he found out that Laprade was worried about a $5000 payment on a house in Fort William. He got an old Kingston pal, former Ranger great Bill Cook, to arrange a dinner. Boucher’s offer was a two-year contract worth $15,000 along with a $5000 signing bonus. Laprade agreed. According to Boucher, he then had to convince Lester Patrick to go along with the deal. Which he did, eventually, grudgingly.
8. The Rangers weren’t sorry. At 26, Laprade won the Calder decisively, well ahead of Chicago’s George Gee and Montreal’s Jim Peters.
9. He impressed Lloyd Percival as the shiftiest puck-carrier in the NHL. And when the author of The Hockey Handbook (1951) asked veteran hockey writers who were the best skaters they’d seen, the list included Syl Apps, Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Max Bentley, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Bill Mosienko, Gordie Howe, and Laprade.
10. He liked a nine lie on his stick, noteworthy because it’s unheard of. The lie, you’ll recall, is the angle between the shaft and the blade, and most players opt for a five or a six. This is from a Ranger teammate, Danny Lewicki:
He was very difficult to check as the lie of his stick meant he could keep the puck very close to his feet. I believe ‘Teeder’ Kennedy of the Leafs was the only other player of that era to also use the same lie stick.
11. The elusive little centre was a phrase used to describe him. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “His all-around ability and sparkling play made him the keyman of the team.” Around the Garden, there was a saying, apparently, in those years: “As Laprade goes, so go the Rangers.”
12. In 1949, he was said to be the hardest-working Ranger. It wasn’t a good team. In Laprade’s ten New York years, they only made the playoffs twice. It was his most potent weapon, his quickness. It helped him avoid some terrific smashes and even topped his superb ability as a stickhandler, a department in which he was as good as Detroit’s Sid Abel, “a real clever gent with a hockey stick.” This is all from Ralph Trost of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “That quickness,” he said, “is almost as sharp as that of a mongoose, the animal kingdom’s quickest operator in the clutches.” Just imagine if Laprade played between wingers like Howe and Lindsay. Which was more or less the point of the piece, headlined “Laprade’s Skill Lost With Rangers.”
13. A hard man to please, Ralph Trost. Here he is in 1951:
Few men in hockey have been better than Edgar. Between the blue lines, few have been his equal at puck control. Edgar and some other lad can dash in that center ice and both get spun around. But usually it is Laprade who comes up with the puck.
Yet, the same fellow within 15 feet hasn’t anywhere near the same control. His shots, when he gets them, are fluffy. The fastest man on balance at center ice seems to be the last one to get it down near the goal. How Laprade gets into that position where he has no shot but a futile backhander is a real puzzle.
Maybe if they could change that line around the goal from red to blue, nothing will stop him.
14. He never was a prolific scorer, it’s true. His best year, 1949-50, when he won the Lady Byng, he had 22 goals. In the 500 NHL games he played in his career, he notched 280 points, with another 13 in the playoffs.
15. Gentlemanly is an adjective he wears, and earned, no doubt. He went whole seasons, as the obituaries remind us, without incurring a single minute of penalty punishment. And yet he did what he had to do: in that tea-service game in 1941, the Laprades were front and centre in the game’s only fight, a double date in which they teamed up to trade punches with Fort William’s Stan Robertson and Joe Konderka.
16. “Like all peaceful guys,” wrote Tommy Holmes in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “he had the sins of the savage brought down upon him.” Which is to say that for all his lawfulness — because of it? — he seems to have been under constant attack. Here’s an erstwhile Red Wing, Benny Woit, from Rich Kincaid’s The Gods of Olympia Stadium: Legends of the Detroit Red Wings (2003):
Teddy Lindsay just nailed him this one time. You know, I still remember when he hit him. Oh, jeez, the blood all over the place.
That’s the only guy Ted Lindsay ever went back to and said he was sorry. He kind of looked at Edgar and he almost apologized. But I don’t think he did. Pretty close, yes.
17. “I never liked Gordie,” Laprade told The Globe and Mail’s Allan Maki in 2011. “Even his own linemates, like Ted Lindsay, didn’t like him. He wasn’t that clean of a player. He was a good player; you can’t take that away from him. But he elbowed me once for no reason.”
18. In his 2012 obituary for Bill Ezinicki, Tom Hawthorn refers to a bodycheck at Maple Leaf Gardens “as the hardest ever delivered in the arena.” This was 1947. Ezinicki was the hitter, penalized with a minor penalty; Laprade was the one lying unconscious on the ice before they stretchered him off. Frank Boucher, incensed, sent a telegram of formal complaint to NHL president Clarence Campbell:
Laprade in hospital with concussion from charge by Ezinicki after whistle on an offside play. Referee Gravelle [sic] claims he did not see the offense. How much longer is Ezinicki going to get away with elbowing, high sticking and deliberate injuries to opponents? Believe curb must be put on this player immediately.
19. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Montreal was amurmur at this same time over a check Ezinicki had leveled on Roger Leger while in Detroit they blamed him for injury goaltender Harry Lumley by pushing Red Wing defenceman Bill Quackenbush on top of him. Pressing his investigation, President Campbell summoned referee Gravel and the linesmen, Ray Getliffe and Sibby Mundey, looked at motion pictures from the game, before laying down his verdict:
The investigation shows there was no indication of a deliberate injury to opponents by Ezinicki as charged by Boucher.
Reports of the officials show that the check by Ezinicki to Edgar Laprade was perfectly legal and not a charge. The injury to Laprade was not caused by Ezinicki’s stick but by Laprade striking the ice as he fell.
20. In Toronto, Conn Smythe showed reporters his footage from the game. The Globe and Mail:
The pictures, re-run several times yesterday, showed Laprade taking the puck up right wing. Ezinicki, seeing him unchecked, glided across from the opposite wing and met him at the blue line with a bodycheck in which the impact was from both hip and shoulder. Ezinicki’s stick was on the ice and neither elbow was raised.
21. Smythe wanted the NHL to fine Boucher $1,000 for “making remarks prejudicial to our club.” Boucher maintained that the whistle had blown when Ezinicki hit Laprade. “If there’s anything in that telegram that is detrimental to hockey,” he said, “I’ll eat it.”
22. Laprade had a concussion — just a slight one, according to a Toronto paper — and he missed the next game, in Chicago, but he was back on the ice when the Rangers met the Bruins at home.
23. Like many Rangers, he lived in the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, near the rink. In 1951 he was sharing a four-room suite with Nick Mickoski, Don Raleigh, Wally Hergesheimer, and Ed Kullman. Somebody was sleeping on the couch, but I don’t know who. They were paying $200 a month.
24. A master of the pokecheck, Andrew Podnieks calls him. Crack centre you sometimes see. In 1949 he was rated best stickhandler in the NHL. “Beaver” was his nickname: he was industrious. “He was a real smoothie,” testified Danny Lewicki.
25. Back home in Port Arthur in March of 1949, he stirred up something of a fracas by (purportedly) calling the NHL “terrible.”
Clarence Campbell struck back with what must have seemed to him to be a perfectly air-tight answer: “I don’t believe Laprade ever said any such a thing, and if he did it isn’t true.”
26. Laprade had a lot to say from the north, if it was him. “The small fellow with some ability is smashed by the guy with the muscle,” he (supposedly) railed.
“New York Rangers finished last because they lacked experience in a game which puts brawn before brains.”
He was thinking of staying home, actually, retiring from the NHL, leaving it all behind, going back to the amateur ice. It was on his mind.
27. President Campbell wasn’t having any of it. What was Laprade talking about? Take the season just finished. Of the NHL’s top 14 scorers, nine were small men: Doug and Max Bentley, Ted Lindsay, Jim Conacher, Paul Ronty, Billy Reay, Gus Bodnar, Bill Mosienko, Ken Smith. “Those comparatively small fellows didn’t seem to be suffering any great handicap in their play.”
And what about Roy Conacher? He led the league as a big man and he was one of the cleanest players on the circuit. Sid Abel let his brawn rule his brain? Please. What about Harry Watson? Or Bud Poile? Campbell was just flabbergasted by this outburst that probably had never even been spoken at all. “Laprade’s statement — if he made it — just doesn’t hold,” he insisted.
28. In a collision with Milt Schmidt, the fibula bone in his left leg fractured, an inch and a quarter above the ankle. This was in the final second of a game in January of 1951 at Madison Square Garden. A different account says he was pushed into the boards near the Boston bench and a heap of Boston and New York players fell on him. He went off on a stretcher. Dr. Vincent Nardiello was the Rangers’ doctor and after he’d taken a look, Laprade was on his way to St. Clare’s Hospital. Six to eight weeks he’d be out.
29. Later that year, November, a new season, he surprised some people by punching Gus Kyle of the Boston Bruins, a former teammate who outweighed him by 45 pounds. Laprade threw a right cross, to be exact, that hit Kyle high on his cheek. Later, the reporter from the Associated Press took down Laprade’s measured explanation:
I do not care to be high-sticked. I was provoked — not once, but twice. The first time I was in a face-off, and he came charging at me with his elbows. I never liked Kyle, even when he was a teammate.
What about the Lady Byng, he was asked — didn’t this damage his chances of winning it? “Who can think of the Lady Byng,” Laprade said, “when there is a stick in your face.”
30. He didn’t agree with Sid Abel, Detroit’s captain, when he said that year that hockey was turning tame. “It’s as rough as ever,” Laprade said.
31. He did quit, in 1952, filed his retirement papers, went back to Port Arthur to be with his family. He was managing a hotel and he had his own sporting goods business up and going by then and it was thriving.
32. It didn’t stick, though. Come the fall, Boucher travelled to Port Arthur and persuaded him to return. Or else, when Rangers’ rookie Ron Murphy had his jaw broken by Bernie Geoffrion smacking it with his stick, Laprade called Boucher and volunteered a return. Either way, he started working out at home with the Bearcats. Chicago and Toronto tried to claim him, thought they each had a case, and briefly tried to make it before deciding, no, they didn’t. By Christmas Laprade was back in Manhattan.
33. The Rangers had Max Bentley in blueshirt that year, and he was wearing Laprade’s old number, 11, which he gave up, took 22, and also joining the team for the new year was Max’s brother Doug, so that was another boon for the Rangers.
34. How did it all work out? They still missed the playoffs.
35. He came back for two more years, but in 1955, his season ended by a hernia, he announced another retirement.
36. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association re-instated him as an amateur. That’s not the end of the story, not by any stretch, he was just 35, the man had years still up ahead of him, three decades in the sporting goods trade as co-owner of Perciante & Laprade, not to mention a career at city hall as an alderman. He tried coaching, says Andrew Podnieks, but hated it. Port Arthur blended with Fort William in 1970 and then it was Thunder Bay, and still Edgar Laprade was going strong. Eventually he sold his store, travelled a bit with his wife, though mostly he stayed home: he liked the seasons, the winters especially. He didn’t watch hockey, because, as he told Brian McFalone, “If I can’t play, I don’t watch. I get frustrated — I’m not a very good spectator.”
He didn’t have to worry about that in 1955, leaving New York in the springtime, aiming for home with his brand-new amateur’s card, where the winter would come again and he’d take the ice, again, as another year as a Bearcat.