It took defenceman Ivan Irwin a couple of tries before he stuck in the NHL. Boston and Montreal both took a look in the early 1950s, but he was deemed too awkward, not strong enough a skater. He finally caught on in New York at the age of 26, playing four seasons with the Rangers. Born in Chicago to Canadian parents on a Sunday of this date in 1927, Irwin died last month in Toronto, on February 11, at the age of 91. Contemporary articles recounting his exploits on the Ranger defence feature words like thump and bash and bop. “There’s a crudeness to his form when he’s in action,” Stan Saplin wrote in a 1955 profile for Hockey Blueline magazine, “and yet, if this makes any sense, there is a polish to Irwin’s crudeness. As he says, he’s far from an accomplished skater and often he looks like a first-timer on blades as he hurries to respond to a distress signal. There’s nothing amateurish about his defensive work.” His coach, Frank Boucher, thought that even as a newcomer to the NHL, he played like a veteran. “He gives you that little opening and then closes it,” Boucher said. “And when he hits you, you know it. I’ve noticed time and again that forwards bringing the puck in don’t drive against us as they did before Irwin joined us. They think twice and look to avoid him.”
Harry Howell’s adjectives as a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman included smart and steady, efficient, and unostentatious, but it’s Roger Angell’s description of his late-career blueline style in 1967 that I hold dear: “Howell,” he wrote in The New Yorker, “has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic.”
Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932, Howell died on Saturday at the age of 86. Appreciations of his life and times that you might want to attend: Scott Radley’s for The Hamilton Spectator and, at NHL.com, this one by Dave Stubbs.
Howell was 20 when he joined the New York Rangers in 1952. Three years later, he was appointed captain of the team, though he relinquished the role after two seasons, handing the C to Red Sullivan. “Handsome Harry voluntarily gave up the post,” The New York Daily News reported at the time, “agreeing that the weight of the job had affected his play.” It couldn’t have helped that the fans in New York had started to boo him and his relentless (if not exactly electrifying) competence.
“It was quite a relief,” Howell said, years later. “I added about ten pounds to my playing weight and I turned my game around right away.”
The fans forgave, or forgot, or learned to appreciate Howell’s game. In all, he skated in 17 seasons for the Rangers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in games played, with 1,194. He ended his NHL years on the west coast, serving with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and California Golden Seals. He played three years in the WHA, for the New York Golden Blades/Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, and the Calgary Cowboys.
He was 35 in 1967 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman, edging out Chicago’s Pierre Pilote and Boston’s 19-year-old rookie Bobby Orr. “I’m glad I won it this year,” Howell said when he took the trophy in hand, “because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade.” He was close: Orr would win the Norris in each of the next eight years. They would enter the Hall of Fame, as it happened, together, in 1979.
In January of 1968, the Rangers celebrated Howell’s stout service ahead of his 1,002nd NHL game. New York was playing Boston that night at Madison Square Garden, and would beat them by a score of 2-1. Ahead of the hockey, Howell, along with his wife Marilyn, and the couple’s two children (11-year-old Cheryl and seven-year-old Daniel), stood at centre ice to receive a shower of gifts. Other NHL teams had organized nights like this, for it was a first for the Rangers. I promise you I’m not inventing any of this. As reported in the press that week, the inventory included:
A set of Ben Hogan woods and irons
A golf-club membership (“paid-up”)
A three-piece set of luggage
A cartoon of Howell (“laminated”)
Kent cigarettes (“cartons of”)
Cigars (“from 21 Club”)
A pool cue
A razor and a year’s supply of blades
A set of encyclopedias (32 volumes)
A dozen Gant shirts
Two pairs of custom-made golf slacks
A ski outfit
A bespoke mohair suit
Thread (50 spools)
Roses for Mrs. Howell before every Rangers’ game played on a Wednesday night
Ten beauty-parlor appointments for Mrs. Howell
A vacation at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, near Liberty, New York
Dinner at a Hamilton, Ontario hotel
A month’s stay at Glen Oaks Village, in Queens, New York
A night at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, New York
A two-week vacation in Palm Beach, Florida
Swimming-pool privileges at Loew’s Midtown Hotel, New York
Dinner at Toots Shor’s restaurant, New York
A pair of children’s bicycles
A gas barbecue
An electric frying pan
An electric blender
A dishwasher (also “electric”)
An portable stereo (RCA)
25 record albums
A portable TV
An 8mm movie camera and lighting equipment
An 8mm projector and screen
A colour film of the evening’s proceedings
A hairdryer (“women’s”)
A Christmas tree (“seven-foot artificial”)
A year’s supply of cheese (“from Finland”) and hams (“Polish”)
A week’s rental from Avis Rent-A-Car
The final gift, driven out on the ice by two of Howell’s former teammates, Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato, was a 1967 Mercury Cougar.
(Top image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)
More views from yesterday’s public visitation for Ted Lindsay in and around Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena. Above is Ottawa artist Tony Harris’ 2017 portrait of Lindsay, painted as part of the project celebrating the NHL’s centenary celebration of the 100 players judged to be the best in the league’s history. Below, a billboard tribute to Lindsay on the Arena’s west side and (on sale in the Arena store) a selection of socks bearing Red Wing faces — Lindsay, Yzerman, Probert — for any interested in styling those on their ankles. (Datsyuk currently out of stock.)
The news from Detroit this morning isn’t good: Ted Lindsay died overnight at the age of 93. For the Detroit Free Press’ account of his life and torrid, steer over here.
For a full obituary of Andy Hebenton, the durable former Rangers winger who died on January 29 at the age of 89, I’ll refer you here, to The New York Times. Born in Winnipeg, Hebenton would go on to compile a record of remarkable reliability, playing 16 straight seasons in the minors and the NHL without missing a game. Starting with the Rangers in 1955, he was a steady scorer who won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 1957. His NHL ironman streak of 630 consecutive games stood until Garry Unger of the St. Louis Blues surpassed it in 1976. As of today, Hebenton stands eleventh on a league’s list that’s headed by Doug Jarvis and his 964 consecutive games. Active players ahead of Hebenton as of today are Phil Kessel, Patrick Marleau, and Keith Yandle.
(Image: Credit: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e002343734)
News, Monday, from the NHLPA: Dan Maloney, whose career as a dogged left winger saw him play nearly 800 games for the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, and Toronto Maple Leafs, has died at the age of 68. “I don’t do anything fantastic,” he self-assessed in 1975, arriving from Detroit as part of the trade that sent Marcel Dionne to California. “I’m not a fancy stickhandler. I’m not a fancy skater. I’m not a fancy scorer. I just work hard.” He went on to coach once his playing days were over, steering the Leafs for two seasons in the mid-1980s before moving on to Winnipeg, where he lasted two-and-a-half seasons. The Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby has an appreciation of Maloney’s life and hockey times, here.
(Image: Hockey Media)
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.