bob plager, 1943—2021

So sorry to hear the news that Bob Plager died in a car accident this afternoon in St. Louis. He was 78. Born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he was an original Blue, joining brothers Barclay and Bill in St. Louis in 1967 after starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers. He played 10 seasons on the St. Louis blueline, and continued with the Blues beyond his retirement as a scout, executive, and (briefly) head coach.

walter gretzky, 1938—2021

Saddened to hear this morning of Walter Gretzky’s death yesterday at the age of 82. Son Wayne posted a message late last night announcing the news on Twitter. The Toronto Star has an obituary of the world’s most famous hockey dad here, and Kevin McGran weighs in with a fond collection of Wally stories — along with a lovely image of the man himself in what always seemed like his natural habitat, the storied backyard rink back home in Gretzkytown, Brantford, Ontario.

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frank orr, 1936—2021

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Sorry to see the news today that long-time Toronto Star hockey writer Frank Orr has died. Born in 1936, he grew up on a farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario, northeast of Guelph, to which (as he later said) Foster Hewitt’s voice carried from the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1940s. “You grew up with it — it was the Saturday night of your life,” he recalled. “We watched games on radio.”

He was a radio DJ before he started in newspapers, starting with the Cornwall Standard Freeholder and Guelph Daily Mercury before joining the Star’s sports department in 1961. Awarded the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award and elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the media in 1989, he said that witnessing Bobby Orr’s rise was one of the highlights of his career.

“I saw him play his first major junior game at the age of 13 for Oshawa and watching him grow from the little blond-haired kid into one of the greatest players of all time was a thrill.”

He noted, too, his admiration for Montreal defenceman Doug Harvey.

“He wasn’t necessarily the best to have ever played, but he was my personal favourite,” he said. “I was also a big admirer of Red Kelly for the simple reason that he was an all-star defenceman as well as an all-star centre.”

As well as treading the Leafs beat, Orr wrote more than 30 books, most of them non-fictional, there were novels, too, including a couple in the mid-’60s about a plucky young centre by the name of Buck Martin and, later, in 1983, the altogether bawdier Puck is a Four-Letter Word.

ralph backstrom, 1937—2021

Sad news tonight that Ralph Backstrom has died at the age of 83. A son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he played parts of 13 seasons at centre for the Montreal Canadiens starting in the late 1950s and on through the ’60s, winning six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy along the way. He skated for the Los Angeles Kings, too, and the Blackhawks in Chicago. In the WHA, he played for Chicago’s Cougars as well as the Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics, and the New England Whalers. He later coached at the University of Denver and with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. He was a founder, too, of the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.

Dave Stubbs has a good look at Backstrom’s memorable career at NHL.com, here.

(Top Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada)

george armstrong, 1930—2021

Friendly Giant: A triumphant George Armstrong towers over grateful fans on the cover of the 1962-63 Leafs media guide.

Twenty-one NHL seasons George Armstrong played, all of them in the blue and the white of Toronto’s Maple Leafs. The sombre news from the team today is of Armstong’s death at the age of 90. Born in Skead, Ontario, northeast of Sudbury, he would grow up to captain the Leafs for 12 seasons, the longest tenure of any leader in team history. He played 1,298 games for Toronto, regular season and playoffs, collecting 322 goals and 773 points. Winner of an Allan Cup in 1950 with the Toronto Marlboros, he led the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, in 1962, 1963, 1964, as well as that long-ago last one in1967. As a coach, he steered the Marlboros to two Memorial Cups, in 1973 and 1975. He coached the Leafs, too, in 1988 and into ’89, when he held the fort between the John Brophy and Doug Carpenter eras. George Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.

john muckler, 1934—2021

 

A sad advisory from the Edmonton Oilers, confirming the news that former coach John Muckler died on Monday night at the age of 86. A native of Midland, Ontario, Muckler cut his head-coaching teeth in 1968-69 with the Minnesota North Stars. He joined the Oilers as an assistant on Glen Sather’s bench in 1981 and played his part in five Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton, the last one, in 1990, as head coach. Above, he’s pictured in 1984-85; the team group below finds him between Father and goaltender Andy Moog in 1983. He subsequently spent four years coaching and managing the Buffalo Sabres and another three seasons on the New York Rangers’ bench. Muckler was GM of the Ottawa Senators from 2001 through to the summer of 2007.

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bill fitsell, 1923—2020

Cold Comfort: Bill Fitsell, left,  in the blues of his beloved Maple Leaf, hands on knees à la Charlie Conacher, out on the ice in Lindsay, Ontario, in the early 1930s.

So very saddened, still, by the news that came on Thursday of my friend Bill Fitsell’s death in Kingston, Ontario, at the age of 97. His career was in newspapers, as a reporter, editor, and columnist, and it spanned 55 years. His passion was hockey history: that he pursued in his books and in dozens of other projects that were dear to his heart. One of the latter was the community of fellow travellers that he dreamed up and made real, the Society of International Hockey Research. Last month, writing about the first NHL hockey game that Bill ever attended — that piece is here — I tried to translate his contribution in all that endeavoured into hockey terms. “His calibre,” I ventured, “might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.”

Up today at the SIHR website — here — is a retrospective I wrote of Bill’s life and times.

Working on that, I found a page in my notebook from the fall of 2018 that I’d filled on the train from Kingston back to Toronto after sharing a coffee with Bill.

He’d told me about his dad and the rink he made for his boys in the 1930s in the lot beside the family’s home in Lindsay. As I write in the SIHR piece, there was no minor hockey program there, then, other than what Bill and his friends concocted. “You organized your own teams in those days,” he told. “And of course my team was called the Maple Leafs. I went down and registered us, and we’d play Saturday mornings.”

“We all had different Leaf sweaters,” he remembered. His own version is the one that’s pictured here above, with an authentic Maple Leaf stitched on the front. The stripes, though, at the waist? They weren’t correct, he said, and the collar was a roll-neck, not at all what the genuine Leafs wore — though altogether warmer, Bill told me with a smile, out on the cold January ice.

Incoming: A drawing of Bill’s, Leafs and Rangers, that decorated the cover of one of his childhood scrapbooks.

fred sasakamoose, 1933—2020

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Sad news this hour, via Hockey Night in Canada‘s Chris Johnston, that hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose has died in hospital in Saskatchewan at the age of 86. His son Neil Sasakamoose shared the news this afternoon on Facebook, here.

howie meeker, 1923—2020

Sorry to hear the news today that, just days after his 97th birthday, Howie Meeker has died. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1923, Meeker broke into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946. He won the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, just three years after he’d been injured in a training accident involving a grenade while he was serving in the Canadian Army. Meeker went on to play eight seasons on the Toronto right wing, winning four Stanley Cups for his efforts. He was elected to Canada’s Parliament in 1951, while he was still skating for the Leafs, and served two years the Progressive Conservative MP representing the southern Ontario riding of Waterloo South.

Meeker’s tenure as coach of the Leafs lasted just a single season, 1956-57, and when the team fell short of the playoffs, Billy Reay replaced him as he took on duties as Toronto’s GM. He started job with a bang, signing 19-year-old Frank Mahovlich to a contract on his very first day in office. The thrill didn’t last: Meeker was dismissed before the pucks dropped to start the new season. He upped skates, next, for Newfoundland: Premier Joey Smallwood wanted him to come and help develop the province’s youth hockey program, so he did that.

As a player, the adjectives that adhered to Meeker were speedyand pugnacious. If you’re of an age to recall his fervent years at the Telestrator on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, you might remember that his style as a broadcaster was much the same, and how he shook the nation weekly with his barky sermonizing. His enthusiasm for teaching hockey fundamentals extended to summer skills camps as well as to books.

Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) was influential enough to have been the only hockey-minded volume to be included in The Literary Review of Canada’s 2006 listing of Canada’s all-time Most Important Books. The author himself professed some shock that his modest 1973 paperback was mingling in the company of Margaret Atwood, Stephen Leacock, Jacques Cartier, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. “You’re kidding,” Meeker said when he heard the news. “That’s sensational.”

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jim neilson, 1940—2020

The New York Rangers are reporting the sad news this hour that former defenceman Jim Neilson has died at the age of 79. Born in 1940 in Big River, Saskatchewan, northwest of Prince Albert, Neilson, whose mother was Cree, made his debut with the New York Rangers in 1962. He played a dozen seasons with the Blueshirts before GM Emile Francis engineered a deal in 1974 via the waiver draft that saw Derek Sanderson join the Rangers from Boston, while the Bruins got Walt McKechnie from the the California Golden Seals, who acquired Neilson. He spent two seasons on the coast before the franchise moved to Cleveland, and he played two more years with the Barons. He was named captain of the Seals in 1975 and when the team shifted the following year he became Cleveland’s first captain. Neilson played his final year of pro hockey in 1978-79 with the WHA version of Edmonton’s Oilers.

joey

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Sad news from Edmonton: Joey Moss, a joyful spirit and a beloved dressing-room attendant for the Oilers and CFL Eskimos, has died at the age of 57. More here from CBC.ca.

bob nevin, 1938—2020

Shake On It: Bob Nevin, left, lends a hand to Chicago defenceman Dollard St. Laurent in the aftermath of the 1962 Stanley Cup Finals, wherein Toronto overcame the Black Hawks in six games.

Sad to see the news this morning that Bob Nevin has died at the age of 82. Born in 1938 in South Porcupine, Ontario, Nevin made his NHL debut in 1960 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A right winger, he finished second in voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing teammate Dave Keon when the ballots for the Calder Trophy were tallied. Nevin won a pair of Stanley Cups with Toronto, in 1962 and ’63. In early 1964, a trade took him to New York when the Leafs swapped him (along with Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown, Dick Duff, and Bill Collins) for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. He succeeded Camille Henry as captain of the Rangers in 1965, serving six years in the role before another trade sent him to the Minnesota North Stars. Nevin went on to skate for the Los Angeles Kings and spent a final year, 1976-77, with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers.