jim pappin, 1939—2022

From the Toronto Maple Leafs, the hard news today that Jim Pappin has died at the age of 82: condolences from here to his family and friends. Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on Sunday, September 10, 1939, Pappin made his debut as an NHL right winger in 1963 when he joined Punch Imlach’s Leaf roster in the wake of their second successive Stanley Cup championship. He won his first championship with the leafs in 1964. In 1967, Pappin not only scored the Cup-winning goal against Montreal in Game Six of the Finals, he led the league in playoff scoring. After five Leaf seasons, he went to Chicago in the trade that brought Pierre Pilote to Toronto. Pappin played in seven seasons for the Black Hawks, with whom he had his best scoring season, in 1972-73, when he notched 41 goals and 92 points. He saw action, too, with California’s Seals and the Barons of Cleveland.

eric nesterenko, 1933—2022

Eric Nesterenko has died at the age of 88, the Chicago Black Hawks are noting today. Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, he made his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1952 as an 18-year-old. After playing parts of five seasons in Toronto, the Leafs sold his and Harry Lumley’s contracts contract to Chicago for $40,000. Sixteen seasons he skated with the Black Hawks before retiring from the NHL in 1972. He subsequently joined the Chicago Cougars during the WHA’s 1973-74 season, taking a last pro turn at 40. In later years he worked as a ski patroller and instructor and taught some university as a guest lecturer. He played Rob Lowe’s father in the 1986 movie Youngblood and, apparently, passed several summers in the northern Alaska volunteering as air-defence spotter in case any Russian aircraft should stray into view.

In Bill Gaston’s wonderful novel The Good Body (2000), his protagonist, Bonaduce, marvels at Nesterenko, who in 1968 (he asserts) “scored 32 goals for Chicago and published his first book of poems.” I looked for that book, and when I failed to find it, I asked Gaston, was it true? He couldn’t remember whether or just should be. I found an address in Vail, Colorado, and wrote to Nesterenko for the final word, but my letter came back unopened, RETURN TO SENDER, the envelope demanded, while confiding also ATTEMPTED and NOT KNOWN, and finally (protesting way too much) UNABLE TO FORWARD.

It’s worth, on this day, revisiting the interview Studs Terkel did with Nesterenko for his 1974 book Working.

“It’s been a good life,” the hockey player said there. “Maybe I could have done better, have better record or something like that. But I’ve really had very few regrets over the past 20 years. I can enjoy some of the arts that I had shut myself off from as a kid. Perhaps that is my only regret. The passion for the game was so all-consuming when I was a kid that I blocked myself from music. I cut myself off from a certain broadness of experience. Maybe one has to do that to fully explore what they want to do the most passionately.

I know a lot of pro athletes who have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself. I look forward to a lower key way of living. But it must be physical. I’m sure I would die without it, become a drunk or something.

I still like to skate. One day last year on a cold, clear, crisp afternoon, I saw this huge sheet of ice in the street. Goddamn if I didn’t drive out there and put on my skates. And I flew. Nobody was there. I was free as a bird. I was really happy. That goes back to when I was a kid. I’ll do that until I die, I hope. Oh, I was free!

The wind was blowing from the north. With the wind behind you, you’re in motion, you can wheel and dive and turn, you can lay yourself into impossible angles that you never could walking or running. You lay yourself at a 45-degree angle, your elbow virtually touching the ice as you’re in a turn. Incredible It’s beautiful! You’re breaking the bounds of gravity. I have a feeling this is the innate desire of man.

I haven’t kept many photographs of myself, but I found one where I’m in full flight. I’m leaning into a turn. You pick up the centrifugal forces and you lay in it. For a few seconds, like a gyroscope, they support you. I’m in full flight and my head is turned. I’m concentrating on something and I’m grinning. That’s the way I like to picture myself. I’m something else there. I’m on another level of existence, just being in pure motion. Going wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. That’s nice, you know.”

10

Fin: Guy Lafleur (on the right) on the ice at the Montreal Forum in the late 1970s alongside his long-time left winger, Steve Shutt. Quebec is honouring Lafleur with a national funeral this morning at Montreal’s downtown Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral. (Image: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

guy lafleur, 1951—2022

Minus Ten: Montreal’s Gazette is reporting this morning that Guy Lafleur has died at the age of 70. A colossus of the Canadiens cosmos, he played 14 seasons for Montreal before he retired in 1985. He made a return with the New York Rangers, with whom he skated for another season, and played a further two for the Quebec Nordiques. He won five Stanley Cup championships with Montreal, along with a cluster of individual awards: three Art Ross trophies, 2 Harts, a Conn Smythe.

 

skate away

Shocked by the news, shook with a sorrow that goes beyond saying to learn that Steve Heighton has died. What a writer. What a lovely man, kind and funny. When I was a student at Queen’s, long ago, writing studenty sentences, he was already a sparking star in Kingston’s firmament, in the thick of literary doing, rising fast, a poet in the flesh and spirit, on the page, on the fly, cool as they come, and just as friendly. Later I was writing about a novel of his, a very good and beautiful one, and assigned to profile him for a magazine, I contrived to spend a good part of a month in that collaboration, tracking him to Kingston, talking, talking, words and craft and books and everything else, drinking hellfire grappa together, nearly (almost) going out and getting myself a thrumming Selectric typewriter because that’s what Steve worked on, a one-fingered (like me) typist. I shadowed him one day as he did publicity rounds in Toronto, ending up in a vast Chapters where he sat surrounded by the books his publisher was expecting him to be autographing, and he got down dutifully to that, right after he’d schooled my forger’s pen in how to simulate his signature, to speed the work so we could get to the bar. Then when I wrote a book there was no more attentive or generous reader than Stavros, as he would sometimes sign the notes he wrote, often they’d come through after midnight, such was the urgency of celebrating the pith and pleasure of a single phrase or just a word, or maybe he had a thoughtful question, or was sending a story of his. Mine was a hockey book, and Steve loved to skate, and played the game with a serious (and self-deprecating) passion, and then for a long time we were talking hockey back and forth, about how to hook-check (“It might work really well in pick-up”), or he was reporting what happened when he suited up on Kingston beer-league ice to try his hand and reflexes as a goaltender: “Once I flopped,” he submitted, “I couldn’t get up — I lay there thrashing, grabbing at the posts — like a cockroach fallen on its back.” He invited me to join a team of his, the Journeymen, a troupe of writers who laced on skates, took up sticks for a weekend tournament that was the best mid-winter fun I’ve ever had, out in the wind and the snow on Wolfe Island, because of Steve. I was in it because of him, and he was all in, on the ice, and everywhere. What a man.

Wolfe Island Debrief: Steve Heighton, on the right, at the Lake Ontario Cup, February 7, 2015.

 

“Wheat Town Beer-Leaguer, Good Snapshot, No Backhand” is in Steve’s 2016 collection The Waking Comes Late (Anansi)

 

mike bossy, 1957—2022

So sorry to see news this morning of Mike Bossy’s death at the age of 65 of lung cancer. What a superlative — and stylish — goalscorer he was in the ten seasons he played the right wing for the New York Islanders. He was instrumental in the team’s run of four Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, of course, and a pure pleasure to watch, even if you happened to favour the Montreal Canadiens over those upstart Islanders. Bossy won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1978 and added a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1982. Three times he won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. 22 was his number; the Islanders retired it in his honour in 1992.

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emile francis, 1926—2022

Top Cat: Sorry to hear tonight of the death of Emile Francis, a.k.a. the Cat, at the age of 95. Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1926, his NHL goaltending career had him stopping pucks for six seasons with the Chicago Black Hawks and New York Rangers. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982, Francis went on to coach the Rangers, steering them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, where they lost to the Boston Bruins. He coached the St. Louis Blues, too, and served as GM, too, of the Rangers, Blues, and the Hartford Whalers.

clark gillies, 1954—2022

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.

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curt ridley, 1951—2021

Stopgap: Curt Ridley’s 1977 O-Pee-Chee hockey card.

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.

charlie burns, 1936—2021

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.

 

 

fred stanfield, 1944—2021

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.

rod gilbert, 1941—2021

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.