danny lewicki, 1931—2018

Head Leaf honcho Conn Smythe liked the look of the young left winger he was watching at Toronto’s training camp in September of 1949. Eighteen-year-old Danny Lewicki was fast, impossible to hit, a great stickhandler. “He looks to me,” the Leafs’ managing director said, “more like Aurèle Joliat than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Born in what was then Fort William, Lewicki died in Toronto on Monday. He was 87. His NHL career, which spanned nine seasons, included stints with the Leafs, the New York Rangers, and Chicago’s Black Hawks. There’s memorial news of that here and here, though not all of it entirely accurate. The assertion that Lewicki was the last surviving member of the Toronto team that won the 1951 Stanley Cup will be news to 95-year-old Howie Meeker. (Update, September 26: CBC.ca has amended its story to acknowledge Meeker’s survival.)

Working on a training-camp line, in 1949, with another young junior star, George Armstrong, Lewicki had Smythe thinking of some great old Leafs, too. “They’re the best pair I’ve seen together since Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson,” he said.

All of which boded well for the here-and-now Leafs, but for one small catch: Lewicki had no interest in playing for the Leafs. He had, it’s true, signed a contract as a 16-year-old indenturing himself to the team, but as he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks To The NHL, Lewicki felt he’d been duped. Rather than report to the Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros as the Leafs wanted, Lewicki preferred to return to the team in Stratford where he’d played previously. “I don’t like Toronto,” he told reporters. “It’s too big.”

Smythe stood fast: Lewicki could either play in Toronto or he could play nowhere at all. He eventually did join the Marlboros in time to help them win the 1950 Allan Cup.

Graduating to the Leafs the following year, he skated on a line with Joe Klukay and centre Max Bentley. Bentley told him that it was the second-best line he ever played on, next to the so-called Pony Line on which Bentley had previously prospered in Chicago alongside brother Doug and Bill Mosienko. Lewicki finished third in the voting that year for the Calder Trophy for best newcomer, behind Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk and teammate Al Rollins. And then there was, too, of that Stanley Cup the Leafs won in the spring of ’51, beating Montreal in five games. Not a bad way to start an NHL career in the city he’d done his best to shun.

No Go: As this (slightly gleeful?) headline from Winnipeg recalls, Lewicki’s dispute with the Leafs was national news in September of 1949.

 

ab mcdonald, 1936—2018

Later on, in 1972, Ab McDonald would captain the original WHA Winnipeg Jets, but he was a distinguished veteran by then, with a 15-year NHL career behind him. He got his start in 1957 in Montreal, winning three straight Stanley Cups with the juggernaut Canadiens before a trade took him to Chicago in 1960.

Born in Winnipeg in 1936, McDonald died there on Tuesday. He was 82.

The Stanley Cup followed him to Chicago in 1961, when the Black Hawks surpassed Montreal in the semi-finals before defeating the Detroit Red Wings for the championship. Rudy Pilous was the Chicago coach that year, as he was in the fall of 1962, which is when he posed here, above, with McDonald ahead of the Black Hawks’ home opener. By then, McDonald was a member of the Scooter Line, skating the left wing alongside centre Stan Mikita and right wing Kenny Wharram. McDonald made subsequent NHL stops in Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis before taking his talents back home to Winnipeg. Bobby Hull was the big noise then and there, of course, though a court challenge kept the Gilded Jet out of the Jets’ first game in New York on October 12, 1972. With Hull benched (he was also the Winnipeg coach that year), McDonald took it upon his 36-year-old self to poke Jean-Guy Gratton’s pass by goaltender Gary Kurt to open the scoring in the Jets’ 6-4 win over the hometown Raiders, and register the first goal in franchise history.

make like mikita

Stan-dard: While Stan Mikita played poster boy for the life insurance company The Equitable in the spring of 1970, his Chicago Black Hawks saw themselves swept out of the Stanley Cup’s East Division semi-finals in four straight games by the eventual Cup champions from Boston. If Mikita, who died August 7 at the age of 78, was a key to the series it was because the Bruins understood how closely they had to check him. “We had to stop [Bobby] Hull and we had to stop Mikita,” Boston coach Harry Sinden said in the aftermath. “And we did it.”

a man called pie face

Paperboys: “Pie” they called him, though sometimes it was “Pie Face.” Remembered mostly for his years as a right winger for the Boston Bruins, Johnny McKenzie, right, was reported to have died Saturday at the age of 80. Born in High River, Alberta in 1937, he also skated for Chicago, Detroit, and the New York Rangers in the NHL, and for a bevy of WHA teams, including the Philadelphia Blazers and New England Whalers. Here, in Bruin days circa 1969, he peruses a paper alongside teammate Glen Sather. “Pesky” is an adjective sometimes appended to McKenzie’s name during his career, and “disturber extraordinaire” is a phrase. He won two Stanley Cups with Boston, in 1970 and ’72.

johnny bower: when his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won

I don’t know of anybody playing with Johnny who ever had a bad word to say about him. He’s just one of those wonderful fellows who comes along that’s tolerant of everything. If trouble is there, he’ll enjoy it and try to find a way to get out of it. I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face. When his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won. If you try a hundred per cent, then you should have no bad feelings about the outcome. That was relayed to me once and I think somebody must have told Johnny the same thing. There’s a good picture of us together when the Leafs won the Cup in 1963 and I’ve got my arm around him at centre ice, congratulating him. I felt it was the right thing to do. He was an old friend and I had to go congratulate him.

• Gordie Howe in his foreword to The China Wall, Bob Duff’s 2006 Johnny Bower biography.

 

(Image: Stephen Smith)

zarley zalapski, 1968—2017

Bad news today from the NHL: former defenceman Zarley Zalapski has died at the age of 49. Born in Edmonton, he played 12 NHL seasons, mostly for the Calgary Flames, though he also skated for Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal, and Philadelphia. “I played defence,” he once recalled, “’cause we were short defenceman.” His father disagreed: as Zarley’s earliest coach, Len Zalapski said he’d consigned his son to the blueline. “I always had a theory that defencemen get more ice time.”

Long before Ken Hitchcock found his way to the Stars’ bench in Dallas, he cut a 15-year-old Zalapski from his team in Sherwood Park, Alberta. (The coach confessed his regret, later.) In 1984 the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux first overall, and they followed that up in ’85 by claiming Craig Simpson. Zalapski was next: Pittsburgh made him their first-rounder in ’86, fourth overall. He also wore the maple leaf, patrolling bluelines for several Team Canadas. At the 1986 Izvestia tournament in Moscow, he was voted top defenceman ahead of Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary (Canada finished fourth), he joined a defensive corps that also counted Randy Gregg and Trent Yawney. “I’ve never really expected anything out of hockey,” Zalapski said in those years. “It really didn’t matter as long as I kept at it, kept enjoying it.”

The name? His father borrowed that from his favourite golfer, Kermit Zarley. “It’s always worthwhile if you have a unique name,” Len Zalapski said.