There are uglier hockey photographs, bloodier, brutaller. But this intimate image of Red Kelly lashing out at Toronto’s Vic Lynn in Detroit in 1950 has to be one of the most intense portraits in the archives of raw hockey rage. The fact that it’s not quite in focus only adds to the rush of the moment, and the danger. It’s a hard photograph to study without flinching: Kelly might just follow through and hit you. And of course what we’re looking at is likely only the half of it, in terms of rage: the camera doesn’t show the extent of Lynn’s ire, much less any of the general rancor and violent feeling that had filled up the Olympia that night.
It was the end of March, 1950, and the Leafs and Red Wings were playing their second game in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto had won the first game in Detroit by a score of 5-0. This game went the other way, 3-1. A subhead in next morning’s (Toronto) Globe and Mail:
Detroiters Bludgeon Way To Boisterous Victory In Mean-Mannered Game
It wasn’t just the loss motivating the Red Wings. That first game was the one in which 21-year-old Gordie Howe was grievously injured. Trying to hit Toronto Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, he, Howe, fell into the boards. The Globe and Mail called it a mishap, reporting that he’d suffered a “stiff concussion” along with a shattered cheekbone and a broken nose.
Detroit GM Jack Adams told it this way, later, to Trent Frayne from Maclean’s:
Toronto’s Ted Kennedy was carrying the puck near the boards. Howe sped toward him, cutting diagonally across the ice. A fraction of a second before the impact, Kennedy drew himself up, and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. Gordie lay limp on the ice, bleeding from his nose and eye. Later, in hospital, there was every indication that he was dying. He was unconscious, vomiting, had a broken cheekbone and nose, and a brain specialist operated, boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridor all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.
The Red Wings said it was Kennedy’s dirty fault. They said that Kennedy had butt-ended Howe.
Why did Kennedy pass by the Detroit bench to say sorry? That, for Red Wings coach Tommy Ivan, was all the confession he needed. “If he didn’t hit Howe with his stick, why did he skate over and apologize? I’m not saying it was deliberate, but it was a check made with the butt-end of Kennedy’s stick. He isn’t the only player in the league who checks with the butt. Lots of them do.”
Kennedy testified: “I was skating in to shoot when Howe and Jack Stewart of the Wings converged to check me. I got by them all right and never touched Howe. The first I knew of it was when a teammate shouted to me that Howe was down on the ice.”
The Leafs’ Garth Boesch offered, helpfully, that he thought that maybe Stewart might have inadvertently clipped Howe with his stick.
Kennedy: “I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood, and I couldn’t help but think what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn’t badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn’t and as I have always regarded Ivan as a sensible, level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry Howe was hurt, but that I wasn’t responsible.”
Sid Abel said what he had to say on the ice, chopping at Kennedy’s ankle when the game resumed. He took a slashing penalty for that. After that, Leaf coach Hap Day kept Kennedy on the bench.
NHL president Clarence Campbell, who was at the game, made it known that he was looking into the incident. He talked to both teams and called the game officials to his hotel for a two-hour confab, referee George Gravel and stand-by Butch Keeling, linesmen Sammy Babcock and Ernie Le Maitre. The first three gave formal statements; Le Maitre said he didn’t see what happened. Then Campbell gave a press conference: the first ever in league history, he said, to be called to discuss an injury to a player.
Campbell’s version: Jack Stewart started up the ice with the puck. Kennedy checked him, took the puck the other way. Stewart tried to waylay him, failed. Just as Kennedy crossed the blueline, Howe cut toward him, skating fast. Kennedy passed the puck, backhand. Brushing Kennedy slightly, Howe crashed heavily into the fence, fell to the ice. Stewart fell on top of him as the play continued.
Campbell said he believed the evidence showed that it was physically impossible for Kennedy to have hit How with the butt of his stick. He chided Tommy Ivan, but understood, assuming he’d accused Kennedy “in a fit of anger.”
Campbell said he was keeping the investigation open: “We are willing to hear evidence from any interested parties and will not make any final decision until we talk to Kennedy and Howe. It may be that one of the player’s statements would offer other facts that would throw an entirely different light on the case.”
Doctors weren’t sure, at this point, whether Howe’s career was over. They were reluctant to say.
Gordie’s mother had a sunnier outlook. “He seemed just like my old Gordie,” Mrs. A.C. Howe told the newspapermen after visiting her boy at Harper Hospital. She’d flown in from Saskatoon with her daughter, Gladys. “His first words were, ‘Why, mom, what are you doing here?’”
Another terribly head-injured hockey player was asked for an opinion. “Helmets are not necessary,” Ace Bailey said. “Hockey players carry so much armor already, they can’t bear any more.”
Toronto’s mayor, Hiram McCallum, phoned Ted Kennedy in Detroit to say the things that mayors say. The people were behind him. They knew he was blameless. “They are 100 per cent behind you all the way and know you will go on and continue to play wonderful hockey.”
“We regret very much the injury to Howe,” he continued, “as he is a great player, but at the same time know that he was the aggressor in attempting to crash you on the boards.”
So that’s the background. The Wings had vowed that they’d win the second game on March 30 for Howe, and they did that, but while the teams played some hockey, mostly in the first period, the second and third were the ones to generate the next day’s headlines: Blood-spilling Contest (The Globe and Mail), Pier 6 Brawl Fiasco (Toronto Daily Star), Free-For-All Fights Bring 19 Penalties as Detroit Six Evens Play-off Series (New York Times).
In the second period, with his team leading 3-0, Detroit defenceman Lee Fogolin tripped Ted Kennedy. As referee Butch Keeling whistled a penalty, Ted Lindsay showed up to cross-check the Leaf captain. Leaf Gus Mortson: flew at Lindsay. Sid Abel: rushed in, fists flying. Grabbing Kennedy and holding him to help out the Wings: an irresponsible fan. Wing Leo Reise: bludgeoned Jim Thomson across the head and shoulders with his stick. Jim Vipond from The Globe and Mail called it “a donnybrook of the worst order and a black mark against organized hockey.”
He went on:
This writer has often avowed that no player would intentionally injure another, but not after tonight. There could be nothing more brutal and deliberate than the Detroit players’ attempt to even a trumped-up injustice to one of their mates.
Out of it all, Reise and Thomson drew majors and Lindsay, Kennedy and Fogolin two minutes each. Abel escaped scot free, as did battler Mortson.
The Leafs scored in the third, but it was the last-minute melee that got all the press. To start, Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki exchanged a few wallops. Everybody piled in then, including Red Wings’ usually even-tempered defenceman: Red Kelly. He started a separate feud with Vic Lynn, which gets us back to that original image. Is it possible that the photographer was on the ice, standing just behind Lynn? Probably not. Below, we see, remarkably, what would seem to be the instant of Kelly’s onslaught from behind. Vipond says that Kelly’s victory was decisive: Kelly “tossed Lynn to the ice, straddled him and threw his punches.”
The referee wasn’t impressed — or not watching. “Again Keeling was lenient to the extreme. He pinned minor sentences on Ezinicki, Juzda and Lindsay, sending them to their dressing rooms. It is doubtful if Keeling saw the Kelly-Lynn preliminary bout.”
Ted Kennedy wasn’t talking much afterwards. “The game’s over,” he said. “They won it.”
“Such violence hardly seems possible in sport. Yet there it was.” The next day, The Globe and Mail devoted its lead editorial to lament, excoriating the Red Wings for their outrages, the referees for not punishing them properly, the NHL for not taking a tough enough stand: For The Good of the Game was the headline.
Tommy Ivan insisted he hadn’t instructed his players to go after anyone. “I can only repeat that I did not have any thought of my players seeking revenge. You can confirm this statement by talking to my players. Responsible lads like Red Kelly will back me up.”
Clarence Campbell warned that the feuding had to stop. If it continued, he said, there would be fines and suspensions. Also, for the third game, he was putting an extra referee on the ice in place of one of one of the linesmen. And any player bickering on his way to the penalty box would receive a misconduct.
“Hockey is a tough and rugged game at the best of times,” Campbell said, “but the stick-swinging which took place … has no place in the game at any time.”
That seemed to help: for the third game, in Toronto, lapsed back to hockey. “In contrast to the blood-letting, brawls and bickering of the initial two tilts in Detroit,” Al Nickleson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “only three minor penalties were issued, two to Leafs, in a sparkling, close-checking display.”
The Wings won the one after that. By then, Howe was ready to speak up. A week after his brain surgery, his doctors had removed the No Visitors Allowed sign from the door of his hospital room, and he was free to tell reporters what he knew. It wasn’t a whole lot. “All I remember is chasing after Kennedy. I don’t remember being struck or hitting the boards.”
“Kennedy is too good a hockey player to deliberately injure another player.”
On the subject of his future, he promised he’d be back. “Sure, I’ll be playing next season — a player has got to expect a few bumps.”
The Red Wings ended up winning the series in seven games. By the end of April, they’d won the Stanley Cup, their fourth, beating the New York Rangers in seven games. When Clarence Campbell handed the trophy to Wings’ captain Sid Abel, the fans in the rink called for goaltender Harry Lumley to join him. Then they insisted on GM Jack Adams, coach Ivan, and vice-president Jim Norris. Finally the cry arose: “We want Howe,” and Gordie Howe walked out on the ice in his street clothes.