So sorry to see the news tonight of the death of Clark Gillies at the age of 67. Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1954, Gillies played a dozen unrelenting years on the left wing for the New York Islanders in the 1970s and early ’80s, captaining the team for three seasons and winning four Stanley Cup championships. He played his final season-and-a-half in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres before his retirement in 1988. The Islanders retired his number, 9, in 1996, and in 2002 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Islanders paid their respects tonight: they’re here.
Sorry to say that Curt Ridley has died at the age of 70. Born in Winnipeg in September of 1951, he got his NHL start at the age of 23 with the New York Rangers in 1974 when Ed Giacomin was sidelined, nursing a wonky knee. Ridley was tending goals for the AHL Providence Reds that year when his coach, John Muckler, told him he’d be starting for the Rangers against the Boston Bruins. “Was he surprised?” Muckler was asked. “I dunno,” Muckler said. “He had his mask on.” The Bruins rang up six goals on Ridley before Giacomin limped in to relieve him. With Phil Esposito notching three goals and four assists, the Bruins won 11-3. Ridley found some redemption (and his first NHL win) ten days later when he was back in net for New York’s 2-1 triumph over the Kansas City Scouts. Ridley’s did his steadiest NHL work for the Vancouver Canucks, with whom he played parts of four seasons. He took several turns, too, in net for the Toronto Maple Leafs before his NHL career came to its end in 1981. In 2015, Curt Ridley was inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sorry to hear of the death, late last week, of Charlie Burns at the age of 85. Born in Detroit in 1936, he grew up in Toronto and went on to join the OHA Junior A Marlboros in the early 1950s. He was 19 in 1954, starting his third year with the Marlboros, when he suffered a double skull fracture falling into the boards in an accident at practice. He underwent brain surgery, during which a silver plate was installed to stabilize his skill; he wasn’t expected to play hockey ever again. He recovered and did indeed return to the ice — wearing a helmet.
It was in 1958, with the Allan-Cup-champion Whitby Dunlops of the EOHL that Burns starred at centre at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway, when Canada won gold. His teammates included Harry Sinden and tournament-leading-scorer Connie Broden; a 21-year-old Burns distinguished himself an ace penalty-killer, and was named the tournament’s outstanding forward.
Burns launched into his NHL career that same year, with the Detroit Red Wings, and he went on to play 11 seasons, taking turns over time with the Boston Bruins, Oakland Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota North Stars. Numberswise, his best year was 1968-69, when he notched 13 goals and 51 points for the Penguins.
Midway through the following year, 1969-70, Burns was named playing-coach of the North Stars, succeeding Wren Blair, the man who’d coached him with Whitby a decade earlier. After going 10-22-12 in the regular season, Burns saw his regime come to an end after the North Stars were eliminated in six games in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals by the St. Louis Blues. He does maintain the distinction of being the last playing-coach in NHL history.
After hanging up his skates in 1974, Burns served as assistant GM in Minnesota, making a return to the bench that year when he replaced Jack Gordon. His record that time around was 12-28-2 and in the summer of ’75, Burns gave way to a new coach, Ted Harris, returning to his GM duties.
Saddened to hear the news that former Boston Bruins centreman Fred Stanfield has died at the age of 77. Born in Toronto in 1944, he broke into the NHL with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1964 before he was traded (along with Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge) to the Bruins in 1967 in exchange for Pit Martin, Gilles Marotte, and Jack Norris. In Boston, he often lined up with Johnnys Mackenzie and Bucyk, and in so doing, piled up six successive 20-goal seasons, aiding in a pair of Bruin Stanley Cup championships, in 1970 and ’72. He played two seasons with the Minnesota North Stars and parts of four others with the Sabres in Buffalo before he stowed his skates in 1978.
So sorry to hear the news this evening of the death of Rod Gilbert at the age of 80. Born in Montreal in 1941, he only ever skated in the NHL as a New York Ranger. He was a speedy right winger who scored profusely for the Blueshirts: the 406 regular-season goals and 1,021 points he collected in his 18 seasons with New York are still tops among Rangers. In 1979, a year after his retirement, the seven Gilbert wore on his sweater became the first number to be retired by the Rangers. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.
Sorry be hearing the news tonight that René Robert has died at the age of 72. Born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1948, he made his name in the 1970s as the right winger on the Buffalo Sabres’ famous French Connection line. Robert had suffered a heart attack in Florida a week ago. The Buffalo News has an obituary here.
Saddened to have learned it, sorry to report it: former lofty defenceman Gilles Lupien died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 67. Born in Lachute in 1954, he was drafted by Montreal in 1974 and joined the AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs. At 6’6” and 210 pounds, he got into policing, and led the league in penalty minutes for two of the three full-time seasons he spent in the A. “I guess you can say they wanted me to be an enforcer,” Lupien said in 2010. “I think I did a good job.” He played three seasons with the Canadiens, collecting a single regular-season goal and 100+ penalty minutes in each one. His colleagues on defence included Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and Guy Lapointe, which goes a long way to exaplaining why, at the end of both of the first two seasons in Montreal, in 1978 and again in ’79, Lupien hoisted the Stanley Cup with his teammates. He went on to play parts of two more NHL seasons, lining up with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers before ending his on-ice career with a combative season with the AHL Binghampton Whalers in 1981-82. Gilles Lupien was, in recent years, a popular player agent.
He described himself as an “above-average not-great player,” but maybe flag that for excess of modesty, because Johnny Peirson was a very proficient goalscorer in the 11 seasons he played the right wing for the Boston Bruins between 1946 and 1958, scoring 20 goals in four of those campaigns, and finishing among the NHL’s top ten scorers three times.
Peirson, who was born in Winnipeg in 1925, died on April 16 at the age of 95. The Bruins’ alumni site has an obituary, here. After 98-year-old former Detroit Red Wing Steve Wochy, Peirson was the second-oldest NHLer.
Peirson got much of his hockey upbringing in Montreal, where he chased high-school pucks for Westmount Academy before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After a stint in the Canadian Army, he studied and skated at McGill. In 1946, he signed for Boston’s AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, for a princely $4,500.
As a rookie with the Bruins, Peirson found a berth on what teammate Woody Dumart dubbed the “Muscles Line,” for the irony: at 5’11” and 170 pounds, 22-year-old Peirson was the bulk of a unit that also counted centre Paul Ronty (6’, 150) and left winger Kenny Smith (5’7”, 155).
“I would say I was above average because I was a better balanced player,” he told writer Frank Pagnucco, “a forward that knew how to backcheck. I had some defensive skills as well as being able to find the net sometimes.”
The first time he retired was in 1954, when he was 28. He stashed his skates to go into the furniture business with his father-in-law, across the river from Boston in Cambridge. He unretired after a year, rejoining the Bruins in 1955. His first game back, he played on a line with Cal Gardner and Vic Stasiuk, scoring a goal and setting up another to spark the Bruins to a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks.
He played three seasons, after his comeback, and could have kept it going beyond that, maybe, but decided not to. “You reach a point in your career where you realized you’ve lost half a step,” he said, looking back. “In those days, with six teams, there weren’t a lot of places to go. I had a job offer which I had to weigh against the possibility of making the team again or moving to another team … and with four kids, that didn’t make any sense.”
Regrets? Hockey-wise, he had at least a couple. “I’d have given my eyeteeth to play on a Stanley Cup winner,” he once said. He also wished he’d worked harder on developing his upper-body strength — his, well, muscles. “I would have been a better player. I lost a lot of battles and wasn’t able to do what I would like to have done from the point of view of strength.”
While the Bruins Peirson played for never won a Stanley Cup, he was at close hand when the team started winning championships in the late 1960s, serving as a long-time colour analyst on Bruins’ TV and radio broadcasts alongside Fred Cusick.
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.
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.
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.
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)