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.

fred sasakamoose, 1933—2020

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Sad news this hour, via Hockey Night in Canada‘s Chris Johnston, that hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose has died in hospital in Saskatchewan at the age of 86. His son Neil Sasakamoose shared the news this afternoon on Facebook, here.

howie meeker, 1923—2020

Sorry to hear the news today that, just days after his 97th birthday, Howie Meeker has died. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1923, Meeker broke into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946. He won the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, just three years after he’d been injured in a training accident involving a grenade while he was serving in the Canadian Army. Meeker went on to play eight seasons on the Toronto right wing, winning four Stanley Cups for his efforts. He was elected to Canada’s Parliament in 1951, while he was still skating for the Leafs, and served two years the Progressive Conservative MP representing the southern Ontario riding of Waterloo South.

Meeker’s tenure as coach of the Leafs lasted just a single season, 1956-57, and when the team fell short of the playoffs, Billy Reay replaced him as he took on duties as Toronto’s GM. He started job with a bang, signing 19-year-old Frank Mahovlich to a contract on his very first day in office. The thrill didn’t last: Meeker was dismissed before the pucks dropped to start the new season. He upped skates, next, for Newfoundland: Premier Joey Smallwood wanted him to come and help develop the province’s youth hockey program, so he did that.

As a player, the adjectives that adhered to Meeker were speedyand pugnacious. If you’re of an age to recall his fervent years at the Telestrator on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, you might remember that his style as a broadcaster was much the same, and how he shook the nation weekly with his barky sermonizing. His enthusiasm for teaching hockey fundamentals extended to summer skills camps as well as to books.

Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) was influential enough to have been the only hockey-minded volume to be included in The Literary Review of Canada’s 2006 listing of Canada’s all-time Most Important Books. The author himself professed some shock that his modest 1973 paperback was mingling in the company of Margaret Atwood, Stephen Leacock, Jacques Cartier, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. “You’re kidding,” Meeker said when he heard the news. “That’s sensational.”

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jim neilson, 1940—2020

The New York Rangers are reporting the sad news this hour that former defenceman Jim Neilson has died at the age of 79. Born in 1940 in Big River, Saskatchewan, northwest of Prince Albert, Neilson, whose mother was Cree, made his debut with the New York Rangers in 1962. He played a dozen seasons with the Blueshirts before GM Emile Francis engineered a deal in 1974 via the waiver draft that saw Derek Sanderson join the Rangers from Boston, while the Bruins got Walt McKechnie from the the California Golden Seals, who acquired Neilson. He spent two seasons on the coast before the franchise moved to Cleveland, and he played two more years with the Barons. He was named captain of the Seals in 1975 and when the team shifted the following year he became Cleveland’s first captain. Neilson played his final year of pro hockey in 1978-79 with the WHA version of Edmonton’s Oilers.

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Sad news from Edmonton: Joey Moss, a joyful spirit and a beloved dressing-room attendant for the Oilers and CFL Eskimos, has died at the age of 57. More here from CBC.ca.

bob nevin, 1938—2020

Shake On It: Bob Nevin, left, lends a hand to Chicago defenceman Dollard St. Laurent in the aftermath of the 1962 Stanley Cup Finals, wherein Toronto overcame the Black Hawks in six games.

Sad to see the news this morning that Bob Nevin has died at the age of 82. Born in 1938 in South Porcupine, Ontario, Nevin made his NHL debut in 1960 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A right winger, he finished second in voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing teammate Dave Keon when the ballots for the Calder Trophy were tallied. Nevin won a pair of Stanley Cups with Toronto, in 1962 and ’63. In early 1964, a trade took him to New York when the Leafs swapped him (along with Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown, Dick Duff, and Bill Collins) for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. He succeeded Camille Henry as captain of the Rangers in 1965, serving six years in the role before another trade sent him to the Minnesota North Stars. Nevin went on to skate for the Los Angeles Kings and spent a final year, 1976-77, with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers.

dale hawerchuk, 1963—2020

Heavy news today: Dale Hawerchuk has died, of cancer, at the age of 57. A son of Oshawa, Ontario, he was a sublime centreman whose 16-year NHL career flourished most memorably in the 1980s when he led the Winnipeg Jets. It was with Winnipeg that he  won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1982. He went on to play for Buffalo, St. Louis, and Philadelphia before a hip injury ended his on-ice career in 1997. With the 1,409 regular-season points he racked up over the course of his career, he stands 20th in the all-time NHL register, just behind Doug Gilmour, a little ahead of Jari Kurri. Hawerchuk was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

eddie shack, 1937—2020

Sorry news today: Eddie Shack died last night at the age of 83. Irrepressible on the ice and off, the Sudbury-born left winger with the outsized personality was most memorably a Maple Leaf. He won four Stanley Cups with Toronto, in 1962 and ’63 (he scored the Cup-winning goal that year), as well as in ’64 and ’67. He also saw service with the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres during an NHL career that lasted from 1958 through 1975. In recent weeks he had been in palliative care, suffering from the effects of throat cancer.

jack mcilhargey, 1952—2020

Sad news today from the alumni association of the Vancouver Canucks: former defenceman Jack McIlhargey died yesterday, July 19, of cancer. He was 68. Edmonton-born, McIlhargey was a Cougar in Victoria and a Bomber in Flin Flon before he got started in the NHL, in 1974, with the Philadelphia. Along with Larry Goodenough, McIlhargey and his moustache arrived in Vancouver in 1977 by way of a trade that returned Bob Dailey to Philadelphia. McIlhargey worked the Canucks’ blueline for parts of four seasons before ending his career with the Hartford Whalers. After retiring in 1982, he worked as both an assistant coach and assistant GM for the Canucks; he also, over the years, steered several of Vancouver’s minor-league affiliates, in Milwaukee, Hamilton, and Syracuse. He had stints, too, back in Philadelphia, with the Flyers, as both an assistant coach and as a scout. Jack McIlhargey was elevated to British Columbia’s Hall of hockey Fame in 2011.

pat stapleton, 1940—2020

Sad news from Strathroy, Ontario, where Pat Stapleton is reported to have died of a stroke last night at the age of 79. His years working NHL bluelines got going in 1961 with the Boston Bruins, but it was as an offensively minded Chicago Black Hawks defenceman that he made his reputation. He served as Chicago’s captain during the 1969-70 season, succeeding Pierre Pilote. In 1972, he was a member of Team Canada’s epic struggle against the Soviet Union, famously scooping up the puck with which Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal and (probably) hanging on to it. After a decade in the NHL, Stapleton played five further seasons in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars, Indianapolis Racers, and Cincinnati Stingers. As playing coach of the Cougars, he steered the team to the Avco Cup finals in 1974. Stapleton also coached the Racers in 1978-79, just before the WHA dissolved.

(Image: from December 24, 1966, Library and Archives Canada)

 

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)