bee-stung

For the cover for the 1960 Official National Hockey Annual, artist (and former NFL lineman) Tex Coulter painted Montreal’s Bill Hicke scoring on Chicago’s Glenn Hall, and while you can’t really see the expression on either man’s face, the sense of their mutual surprise is strong, as though the last thing either man expected to see was that puck find the back of the net. I wrote in my 2014 book about the journalist and pro tem goaltender George Plimpton and his suspicion that his failure as a netminder was largely a problem of acquaintance: he’d never really gotten to know the puck. “One would appear with the abruptness of a bee over a picnic basket,” he wrote in Open Net (1985), “and then hum away, all so quickly that rather than corporeal it could well have been an apparition of some sort. A swarm of them would collect in the back of the net during the shooting drills without my being sure how they got there.”

From the veterans of the crease Plimpton apprenticed with during his stint with the Boston Bruins he learned that you never bother with a puck that ends up behind you in the net. A bee no more, that puck has become your mess and your shame — “like dogshit on a carpet.”

 

flour-pot

Let’s be honest: caught up in the chaos of Christmas, we all forgot. That today’s Ottawa Senators missed a chance to mark an important historical milestone doesn’t seem so strange, I guess, in this year of capitalized turmoil — though can we grant Eugene Melnyk & co. the benefit of the doubt and surmise that they skipped the celebrations on purpose, preferring to do it up properly when next year’s centenary rolls around? Assuming that’s the case, let’s keep our observance of the 99th anniversary here brief, recognizing, simply, that on the night of December 23, 1919, as the Ottawa Senators hosted Toronto’s St. Patricks to open the NHL’s third season, the great Frank Nighbor put his famous hook-check to use in the first period to thief the puck from Ken Randall and slap it decisively past goaltender Howie Lockhart. The goal itself was important, winning a game for Ottawa that would end 3-0, and the Senators would use this auspicious start to go on to both NHL and Stanley Cup championships that year. Those should be duly venerated when the time comes, but our business here, today, is to honour and revere the truly first-class way in which Nighbor’s goal was celebrated that winter’s night in 1919. In those days, when Ottawa still knew how to treat a superstar, Nighbor was called to centre ice after the game to receive his rightful due. For having scored that inaugural goal that season, Pembroke’s own peerless peach received from the hand of Mr. A. E. Ford of the Interprovincial Flour Mills Company a reward such as a modern-day hockey sharpshooter might only dream of taking home from the rink:

 

old; goaled

For The Defence: A year before Rangers’ coach and GM Lester Patrick famously took to the nets in the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals, he took a 43-year-old turn on the team’s blue line.

Lester Patrick’s career as a goaltender in the NHL is as famous a half-hour as you’ll find in the annals of NHL playoff history. Maybe you recall the story: in April of 1928, when the New York Rangers were battling the Maroons in Montreal in the Finals, Nels Stewart from the home team hoisted a backhand at the New York net. Rangers’ goaltender Lorne Chabot stopped it, but at a painful cost: the puck caught him (and I quote, from the next day’s Toronto Globe) full in the left eye. Chabot went to hospital, where doctors diagnosed hemorrhages of the anterior and posterior chambers of said eye. His replacement, back at the Forum? A couple of able-bodied goaltenders happened to be in the building, including the Ottawa Senators’ Alec Connell, but Maroons refused to agree that either of them should be allowed to step into the breach — it just wasn’t fair, they felt.

So Patrick suited up. Born on this date in 1883 (it was a Monday then, too), Patrick was a hockey colossus, one of the game’s most influential figures, a builder of leagues and rinks, inventor (along with his brother Frank) of the blueline and forward pass and the penalty shot, booster of women’s hockey. Now coach and GM of the second-year Rangers, Patrick had been a truly outstanding player in his day, one of the greats of hockey’s early era — which is to say, a while back. In 1906 and again in ’07, playing both on defence and at rover, he led the Montreal Wanderers to successive Stanley Cup championships. In subsequent years he’d starred for Renfrew’s Creamery Kings and the Seattle Metropolitans, the Spokane Canaries, and Victoria’s Aristocrats. He’d played regularly for another Victoria team, the Cougars, as recently as 1926. At the end of the 1926-27, with the Ranger roster thinned by injuries, he’d suited himself up for a single game on defence, making his NHL debut at the age of 43. The only statistic he registered was a minor penalty: two minutes for tripping.

A year later, another year older, Patrick returned to the ice for his NHL swan song. It’s worth noting (if not entirely a surprise) that this wasn’t his first attempt at preventing pucks from passing him by: Patrick had played some emergency goal for both the Wanderers and the Aristocrats, when the moment called, though he’d never yet been credited with a win of his own.

Standing in Chabot’s stead in 1928, making do with his equipment, Patrick deterred all but one of the 18 shots he faced — Nels Stewart was the lone Maroon to solve him, snapping in a rebound to tie the game after New York’s Bill Cook put the Rangers ahead. Frank Boucher’s overtime goal eventually gave New York — and Patrick — the win, paving the way for Rangers’ eventual triumph: they claimed their first Stanley Cup in five games.

Patrick went back to coaching after his game-two debut, with the Rangers calling on the league back-up, Joe Miller, to finish the job in the nets. He did so despite suffering a serious cut on the head in the final game, courtesy of Hooley Smith’s skate. As for Lester Patrick, he remains to this day the oldest player to have skated in the Stanley Cup finals. He died in 1960, aged 76.

blazer focus

Face Time: The WHA’s Blazers made a home in Vancouver for two seasons in the early 1970s, neither of which was particularly successful. (Pre-B.C., the franchise played a year in Philadelphia; afterwards, they transformed into the Calgary Cowboys for two final campaigns.) In 1973-74, the four goaltenders who shared the guard of the Vancouver nets included Pete Donnelly and George Gardner. In 1974-75, the man pictured here mostly took over, Don McLeod, playing a league-leading 72 games over the course of the season while allowing 233 goals (also tops among his peers). Nobody’s goals-against numbers were exactly stellar in the high-scoring WHA that year: Ron Grahame of the Houston Aeros led the pack with 3.03 average, while McLeod (3.34) finished tenth-best, just back of Edmonton’s Jacques Plante.

terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.

tenacious d

Backline Boss: “When he touched the puck, something magical began to happen on the ice,” a Montreal editorial eulogized in 1989 when Doug Harvey died, on this date, a Tuesday, at the age of 65. Legendary Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman said that Harvey was the best defenceman he ever saw, and Harvey had the Norris Trophies to back the man up: indeed, Harvey was named the NHL’s superior defencemen seven times during his 20-year career in the league. Mostly, of course, he manned a Montreal blueline, helping Canadiens win six Stanley Cups; later on, he suited up for the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues, too. (Image, from 1959: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada/ e002343733)

the nhl’s first noël: christmas day, 1920

Scored, Sat Upon: Toronto’s Babe Dye, c. 1920.

“Fair and cold” was the forecast for Toronto on December 25, 1920, with a half-inch of snow due to fall. Mayor Tommy Church proclaimed a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy new year — “one full of sunshine, prosperity, success, and every blessing.”

NHL teams last played a game on Christmas Day in 1971, when 12 of the league’s 14 teams took to the ice, but the very firsttime was on a Saturday 98 years ago when the Toronto St. Patricks hosted the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of some 4,000 at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The season was still young, and both teams were looking for their first win, both having lost on the road when the NHL’s fourth season launched three days earlier. Toronto prevailed that Yuletide night, coming from behind to notch a 5-4 win.

A few notes of the night? While each team had just two substitutes on the bench, the St. Patricks effectively had only one, with injured forward Rod Smylie getting into the game for no more than a minute. The word in the papers (including some in Montreal) was that the Canadiens line-up was in poor condition, having skated as a team just three times that winter — four, if you wanted to count the opening game they’d lost in Hamilton.

Toronto’s Daily Star teased that Montreal’s “rolly-polly Canadien veterans” had arrived in Toronto accompanied by the rumour that they only had ten minutes of hockey in them, after which they’d fade out of the rink. But: “Rumour was a lying jade.” In fact, Montreal took the lead and held it for 37 minutes before the home team pulled in front, and even then the visitors never showed signs of quitting.

Goals by Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde put Montreal ahead before Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron loosed a “wicked” shot from beyond the Montreal defence that beat Georges Vézina to put Toronto on the board. Coming just before the close of the period, this goal (quoting The Gazette here) “proved a saving grace, instilling added pep and enthusiasm into the St. Patricks’ squad.”

Pitre scored again in the second, but Toronto wasn’t to be denied. Goals by Cully Wilson and Ken Randall tied the score at three before Mickey Roach put Toronto ahead to stay.

Babe Dye scored what would stand as the winning goal in the third. Bert Corbeau got one back for Montreal, but while Canadiens pressed in the game’s latter minutes, they couldn’t score. Toronto goaltender Mike Mitchell “looked like a smart net guardian,” despite having stopped an early shot of Lalonde’s that “almost took an ear off.” His head “buzzed:” the Star reported that he would have been replaced, except that the St. Pats had no substitute goaltender to stand in his stead.

In the Gazette’s opinion, Toronto showed improvements on their opening-night performance, though “their shooting was at times erratic.” Right winger Babe Dye “played a heady game and proved a thorn in the side of the ambitious Canadiens. He peppered shot after shot on Vézina and was finally rewarded with the first goal of the final period.” He also broke up several of Lalonde’s rushes with “a deceptive check.”

Toronto’s Reg Noble didn’t score but gave a good account of himself, I see; the Star’s verdict was that he alsoplayed “a mighty heady game all the way.” Cameron “contributed a few nice rushes, of the old time brand;” along with his goal, he got “a rap in the mouth that shook up his dentistry.”

For Montreal, goaltender Georges Vézina was a standout. “He stopped the proverbial ‘million’ and it was not his fault that the team lost,” the Gazette opined. “Had a less capable goaler been in the nets, they certainly would have been beaten by a bigger score.”

Lalonde? “Lalonde was the Lalonde of old, but he showed signs of strain at times.”

The Globe reported 37-year-old Didier Pitre to be “heavier than ever” — “but occasionally he showed speed that was amazing.”

While Toronto nosed ahead at the end of the second period, the Star reported, “the Montrealers did not lie down enough though Pitre was hanging over the fence like a piece of old wash and every time Mummery rushed he had to use the end of the rink to stop himself. He was so weak in the knees he couldn’t pull up any other way.”

This was Harry Mummery, of course, the hefty defenceman who’d once played for Toronto. In the third period, one of Dye’s shot caught him on the knee and put him out of the game. Before that, said the Star, he “bumped around like a baby rhino.” At one point he “created a barrel of fun by sitting on Babe Dye.”

“All the fans could see of Dye was his yell for help.”