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.  

  

rené robert, 1948—2021

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.  

gilles lupien, 1954—2021

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.   

Montreal’s Cup-winning 1978-79 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Gilles Lupien, Larry Robinson, Rod Langway, Serge Savard, Brian Engblom, Guy Lapointe, Rick Chartraw. Second tier from the back, that’s Yvon Lamber, Pat Hughes, Mario Tremblay, Bob Gainey, Cam Connor, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Doug Risebrough. Third tier from the back: trainer Eddie Palchak, Doug Jarvis, Pierre Mondou, Mark Napier, Pierre Larouche, Rejean Houle, Jacques Lemaire, trainer Pierre Meilleur. Front: Michel Larocque, director of player development Claude Ruel, coach Scotty Bowman, captain Yvan Cournoyer, president Jacques Courtois, GM Irving Grundman, vice-president Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden.

johnny peirson, 1925—2021

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera against a background of trousers and underwear in the Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

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. 

Golden Bears: Boston’s Bruins, 1956-57 edition. Back row, from the left: Trainer Win Green, Larry Regan, Cal Gardner, Johnny Peirson, Floyd Smith, Leo Boivin, assistant trainer Hammy Moore. Middle, left to right: Doug Mohns, Jack Caffery, Floyd Hillman, Vic Stasiuk, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Jerry Toppazzini. Front, from left: Allan Stanley, Fleming Mackell, GM Lynn Patrick, Terry Sawchuk, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, Leo Labine, captain Fern Flaman.

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.