blueline balladeer

“Look,” Sheldon Kannegiesser was saying in 1972, “some players smoke, some drink, and some run around. All I do is buy clothes. What’s so bad about that?” He was 24 at the time of this outburst, a second-year NHL defenceman, plying the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blueline. The occasion? Tom Alderman was profiling hockey’s best-dressed players for Canadian Magazine, and Kannegiesser was front and sartorially centre of a select line-up that included Dale Tallon, Doug Favell, J.C. Tremblay, and Pit Martin.

Commending Kannegiesser’s unerring eye and $250 custom suits, Alderman named him as “unquestionably the league’s most elegant dresser, even his jeans look made to measure.” Also? Penguins’ management had apparently “suggested that if he paid less attention to his threads and more to his hockey and more to his hockey, he might be a better defenceman.”

Born on this date in North Bay, Ontario, in 1947 (it was a Friday), Kannegiesser turns 72 today. He ended playing eight seasons in the NHL, most of them with Los Angeles Kings, though he also served post-Penguin stints with the New York Rangers, and Vancouver.

In 2009, he published Warriors of Winter: Rhymes of a Blueliner Balladeer, a collection of poems that channel (as he tells it, with due deference, in a preface) Robert Service. “As I was reading through poems and ballads Service had written during his years living in the Canadian Yukon,” Kannegiesser writes, “I thought that possibly I could create a series of poems and ballads about the years I played in the National Hockey League.”

He calls the collection “a mixed bag of some of the most colourful characters and circumstances, along with my personal thoughts about the game that dominated a majority of my life.” Included therein: a whimsy on how hockey might have originated (“The Fearless John Hock and the Mighty Michael McKey”); an ode to a superstar rival (“Standing Orrvation”); a salute to the man who made those spiffy suits he wore in the ’70s (“Styles by Miles”). There are memoirs of Maple Leaf Gardens (“Toronto’s Lonely Lady of the Street”) and what it was like to play against Frank Mahovlich (“Shoulder To Shoulder with the Big M”).

He winds it all up with his own “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” a lusty game-by-game 14-page epic, “The Series of ’72,” that’s narrated, so far as I can tell, by Canada itself. A couple of her stanzas revering Game Six in Moscow go like this:

Let history question our sins — our only job was to win;
We’ll do what’s needed no matter the cost.
Survival’s ugly resolve is for shrinks and philosophers to solve,
So a bounty was placed on the Russian star, Kharlamov.

Debate ethics if you will, ’til you’ve done had your fill;
Such is hockey’s base and brutal and bestial angle;
It’s the nature of the game: the strong survive not the lame.
So Clarke’s Sherwood, like an axe, cracked Kharlamov’s ankle!