the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

Frances Esposito once recalled that when Tony was six, he accidentally broke the family dog’s neck, and the dog died, and Phil comforted his shocked brother. “You should have seen how Phil tried to console his brother,” she said. “Another little boy would have just left him, but Phil brought him up to his room and stuck with Tony until he got out of that depression.” The dog was a collie, name of Trixie.

Mrs. Esposito, in 1971: “I put them on skates as fast as I could. Now when they play against each other, oh, boy, that’s torture. I’m telling you, that’s real torture. I want Philly to score and I want Tony to stop it.”

Dorothy Bossy was her son’s first statistician, recording the 23 goals and 0 assists he scored as a five-year-old in his first organized game. Later, when Mike was starring for the Islanders, he wondered why he didn’t get any assists. “Nobody else ever touched the puck,” she told him.

When Bobby Orr was growing up in Parry Sound, mother worked part-time as a waitress at the coffee shop at the Brunswick Motor Hotel in Parry Sound. The story’s told that after one of his boyhood games for the local team she took him aside for discussions. “What’s happened to you?” is how her side of it is supposed to have gone. “You played like an old lady.”

Dolly Clancy, for her part, is said to have been such a devoted fan of her son King that once, when he was cut over the eye and had to head off the ice for repairs, she leaned over the boards to tell him, “Hurry back, now.”

For years, before and after her own son made it to the NHL, Dorothy Bossy sent Mrs. Howe’s boy Gordie a card on his birthday, not because she knew him, but because that’s what mothers do. Mrs. Bossy also liked to wear New York Islanders sweatshirts around the house, and while sometimes (her son has written) she took off the diamond-studded 22 that she wore around her neck, it was only rarely.

“Mothers worry about injuries,” said Billy Harris, who won three Stanley Cups as a centreman for the Leafs, “and whether their sons are taking their proper vitamins.” Both Chicago goalie Charlie Gardiner’s and Boston centre Milt Schmidt’s mothers decided (independently) that their boys couldn’t play football, it was too rough.

Pearl O’Shea’s had two sons in the NHL, Danny and Kevin. “I’m pleased for them that they went into professional hockey,” she allowed, “but I shudder when I see them on the ice.”

As a college student, Ken Dryden got a job one summer on a demolition crew. He wasn’t happy, his mother, Margaret, said: “he just doesn’t like destruction.” The next summer the work he found was constructive, building a library: that pleased the whole family. Dryden has written that in the middle of his Hall-of-Fame career as a professional puckstopper, his mother — “many years after she had wanted to say it” — his mum asked him whether it was all right if she stopped coming to games. Any enjoyment was cancelled by anxiety. “She would watch until the puck came into our zone,” Dryden wrote, “then look at her feet until it had left again.”

Winnie Hillman never fretted too much about her NHL-employed sons, Larry and Wayne. “I just hoped nothing happened to their eyes, which wouldn’t be very handy to replace.”

“They didn’t have a lot of toys,” Lena Hull recalled, Bobby’s and Dennis’s mother. “I think the only things either one was interested in was a puck and a hockey stick. On rainy days, if they couldn’t go out, they had trucks, and they would play cards with their sister, and they read comic books. But they were out all the time they could be. In the summer, it was tennis and ball, and in the winter the only thing was hockey.”

“They talked hockey from the time they got up in the morning,” Jeanne Maki remembered of Chico and Wayne: “that’s all they ever thought about. If it rained and they couldn’t go out, they would put a blanket on my dining room table and play table hockey. They used to play floor hockey, too, with my pincushion as a puck. It was a little red tomato, and they took the pins out and slammed it around with two rulers.”

Which brings us to the legend of Pierrette Lemieux, Mario’s mother. When he was young, as the 1960s were turning into the ’70s, the family lived in a rowhouse at 6700 Rue Jogues in the west-end Montreal neighbourhood of Ville-Émard. For the boys Richard, Alain, and Mario, “the earliest hockey nights,” Chuck Finder wrote in a 1997 feature for Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette, “were wars waged from their knees, using cooking spoons to whack around a ketchup-bottle cap.”

Did Mrs. Lemieux at some point up the ante and, damning the torpedoes and (I guess) the family’s household insurance policy, turn her own living-room floor in a skating rink?

That’s the story told in an exemplary compendium of lore for young readers, 5-Minute Hockey Stories (2017). Meg Braithwaite is the author; Nick Craine contributed the excellent illustrations. The 12 tales they’re telling here variously feature P.K. Subban, Carey Price, and Jacques Plante, along with the Lemieuxs.

Theirs, the latter, is a story that has circulated for years in one vague version or another. The upshot: at some young point in Mario’s life, one or another of his parents (possibly both, acting in unison) saw fit to ice the family’s living-room floor for the boys to skate on.

Finder doesn’t mention it. He did pay a visit to 6700 Rue Jogues for his piece, but the only damage that rates a mention therein was belowstairs, not in the living-room. In a revised version that appeared in the Post-Gazette-produced Mario Lemieux: Best There Ever Was (1997), Finder tells it this way:

Before he glided past defensemen and made the puck dance, he deked around columns in the family basement. Before he banked pucks off goaltenders and goal posts, he plinked them off his mother’s piano. Before he triumphantly raised his stick to the glee of thousands, he ripped the hell out of Jean-Guy and Pierrette Lemieux’s ceiling.

He shoots. He scores. He exults.


 “We had to change the ceiling a few times,” the youngest son recalls with a smile.

Lawrence Martin looks into the frozen living-room in his 1993 biography Mario. In Martin’s telling, the future phenom’s father, Jean-Guy, was “quiet, stern, stoic” while Pierrette … wasn’t. “A loud and brassy dynamo, a bowling ball crashing through the pins” is his description of Mario’s mother. Both parents took their sons’ hockey seriously, attended every practice, every game. He writes:

The boys trampled so much snow into the house in the winter that they turned Pierrette’s living-room rug into a slide. Not one to mind that, Pierrette was even prepared to take things a step further. According to local lore, when the snow got too deep to play hockey outside. Madame Lemieux transported shovels of snow into the house. She threw the snow on the carpet and pounded it down to a smooth surface that glistened like ice. With the heat in the house turned off and the doors opened to let the cold blow in, she had her boys, just past toddler age then, practice hockey on the rug.

Martin acknowledges the sceptics. “Outsiders could never believe the story,” he writes. “The Lemieuxs, they said, had wonderful imaginations.” But:

After he turned pro, Mario would claim that he first learned to play in his living room. As for Pierrette, she too continued to talk about the old ice-carpet days. “They really did quite a job on my rug,” she recalled. “But it was good for strengthening their ankles.”

James Deacon tells it sort of the same way in a 1996 profile of Lemieux for Maclean’s. Bringing the outdoors in was something the family did regularly, he writes, so that “Mario and his brothers could practice after dark,” packing snow “onto the living-room carpet to create an indoor surface.” Like Martin, Deacon doesn’t specifically mention skates or skating.

In Braithwaite’s telling, Mario and his brothers are more than toddlers. And the in-house rink, here,  is a magical one-off.

On a day when the snow wouldn’t stop and the rink that Papa Lemieux had flooded out front wasn’t ever going to be clear enough to skate, Mrs. Lemieux had her spectacular idea.

First thing? She dialled down the thermostat. “No heat this evening.” Then, as any good mother would, Maman opened all the windows, got down to shovelling, snow and more snow, until the living-room floor was heaped high. Next step: Maman packed it down ’til it was hard and even.

I’d like to know what happened after this was all over, and just how the Lemieux melted their rink away, what the carpet looked like, and the floorboards underneath — did they warp? — but that’s not the stuff of storybooks, is it? Braithwaite:

When she was done, the snow had frozen into a flat sheet of silver ice, shiny and slippery. The living room had been turned into an indoor skating rink!

Maman turned to the boys.

“Voilà,” she said. Get your skates on!”

Braithwaite echoes Lawrence Martin in framing the story as possibly-not-entirely-factually-based.

“Not everyone believed she had actually turned her living room into a hockey rink and let her little hockey players ruin the carpet,” Braithwaite writes. “But that’s the way hockey star Mario Lemieux remembers it — a frozen carpet, an icy living room, and the coziest, homiest hockey rink ever.”

Update: Stephen Nesbit wrote an in-depth review of Lemieux’s early days in Montreal in October of 2019 for The Athletic. You’ll need a subscription to read it all the way through, but if you have one of those, you’ll find photographs of 6700 Rue Jogues, which the Lemieuxs sold 20 years ago, as well as mention of indoor hockey. It doesn’t prove the case one way or the other, but it’s worth a look. In this version, the location of the rink has shifted:

Pierrette would pack snow over the carpet in the hallway and leave the door open to the freezing air so her sons, Alain and Richard and Mario, could skate in the house.

[1] Phyllis Gretzky, mother to Wayne and Brent; [2] Dorothy Bossy, mother of Mike; [3] Howie Meeker’s mother, Kathleen; [4] Grace Patrick, mother of Lester and Frank; [5] Rose Morenz, mother of Howie; [6] Agnes Clapper, mother of Dit; [7] Katherine Howe, Gordie’s mother; [8] Donna Fleury, mother of Theo; [9] Meyrem Domi, mother to Tie; [10] Anastasia Lewicki, mother of Danny; [11] Katherine Howe; [12] Liz Gadsby, mother of Bill; [13] Ethel Baun, Bob’s mother; [14] Donna Fleury; [15] Lucille Potvin, mother to Denis and Jean; [16] Pauline Schultz, mother of Dave; [17] Palma Plante, mother of Jacques; [18] Florina Geoffrion, mother of Bernie; [19] Helen Worsley, mother of Gump; [20] Rose Morenz.

[Some of this material featured previously in a different form on pages 35-37 of Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted, and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession.]