“It’s what I wanted to do,” Guy Lafleur was saying in 1979 as his first LP made its way to market. Montreal’s Canadiens were coming off their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup championship that fall, so what better time, really, for their superstar winger to be releasing his debut disco/instructional album?
“It was a lot of fun to make,” said Lafleur, who was 28 that year. Lafleur! came in French and English versions, with six tracks on each, featuring the man himself offering rudimentary tips to a pulsing background laid down by the Montreal trio Toulouse. Or as Mike Rutsey, a Canadian Press writer put it:
Lafleur, whose vaunted slapshot will from now on ring to the chorus of shaboom, shaboom, has boiled the game he loves into four key ingredients — skating, checking, shooting, and scoring — and packaged it to the shuffa-shuffa disco beat.
“You can listen to it, enjoy it, and exercise,” Lafleur himself touted, “and everything on the record goes well with the music. The music is the big thing. It’s different and it’s a new method of teaching kids how to play hockey.”
I’ll take the French track-titles over the English: give me “Vas-Y” and “Y’a Rien Pour M’Arrêter,” you can keep “Face-Off” and “Power Play.” You can sample the whole (French) shuffa-shuffa for yourself here.
The vinyl was only part of the package: also included was an instructional booklet and a poster featuring a handsome, half-dressed Lafleur. For all that, pre-Christmas sales may not have been been quite what the hockey player and his people were hoping for. According to a Gazette column from November of ’79, a prominent Montreal record store reported that the 50 to 75 copies of Lafleur! that had been snapped up in the early days of its release had it lagging behind Bob Dylan’s latest (non-disco and only semi-instructional) offering, Slow Train Coming, which was selling by the thousands.
A birthday today for Lester Patrick, legendary rushing defenceman (and stopgap goaltender), hockey innovator, and architect of the New York Rangers, born in Drummondville, Quebec, on a Monday of this date in 1883. Here he is, with headgear, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto in April of 1940, when his Rangers seized the (detachable) Stanley Cup from the Maple Leafs in six games. Patrick was 56 that year, and just GM, having handed over coaching duties that year to Frank Boucher after 13 seasons on the bench. This was the sixth Cup of Patrick’s illustrious career. It was the Rangers’ third championship; they wouldn’t win a fourth (as New York fans might remember) until 1994. Cavorting with Patrick are Rangers (from left) Bryan Hextall and Neil Colville.
“Pandemonium reigned in the Ranger dressing room,” a CP dispatch noted of events at Maple Leaf Gardens before the party moved over to the Royal York, “as [Toronto] manager Conn Smythe and members of the Leaf team congratulated the New York players. In their own quarters, the Leafs proved good losers and many of them later joined the Rangers in the dawn-defying whoopee.”
Born in Winnipeg on a Saturday of this same date in 1929, Terry Sawchuk was a four-time Stanley Cup champion and a four-time Vézina Trophy winner; he was elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971, the year after his death at the age of 40. Did any goaltender in NHL history wear his puck-stopping pre-eminence so painfully? Here’s Dick Beddoes writing in 1990, recalling a night in ’67, when a 37-year-old Sawchuk helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Cup.
His single most commanding performance occurred that spring, on April 15, in the fifth game of an engrossing Cup semi-final between the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks. He replace a shaky Johnny Bower in the second period of the fifth game with the best-of-seven series tied 2-2 in games, and this pivotal game tied 2-2 in goals.
The Hawks, in the noisy three-tiered cavern of Chicago Stadium, pressed in the first two minutes of the second period, clamorous action boiling around Sawchuk. Bobby Hull pivoted 15 feet to Sawchuk’s left, almost parallel to the goal, an impossible angle from which to score. Hull shot, hard and high. The puck struck Sawchuk’s left shoulder like a crowbar and knocked him down. Other players skated around the Toronto net, circling, looking, needling.
Pierre Pilote, the Chicago captain, crafty, canny, aimed his barbs. “How’d you feel, Terry? Should’ve let it go, Terry. Might’ve been a goal.”
The scene was caught, pinned forever in a reporter’s memory. Bob Haggert, the Toronto trainer, skidded across the ice from the Toronto bench to Sawchuk. “Where’d you get it, Ukey?”
Sawchuk, on his knees, “On my bad shoulder.”
Haggert, leaning down, “Think you’re okay? Can you stay in the game?”
“I stopped the fucking shot, didn’t I?” Sawchuk struggled to regain his feet. “Help me up and I’ll stone those sons of bitches.” He groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work.
It is a 23-year-old story, a footnote in clutch exhibitions, how he went home again to glory, how he stopped 36 shots in Toronto’s 4-2 conquest, frustrated the most insatiable shooters in the game, shut them out with the remnants of the young Sawchuk: down the glove, out the arm, over the stick, up the glove, shutting off daylight the shooters thought they saw — all in a kind of desperate epileptic action. You were left wondering who choreographed the most stylish goaler in the galaxy.
I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.
I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.
Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.
Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.
It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”
Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.
But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.
You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.
Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.
In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.
Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:
“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe
With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”
Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.
Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?
I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?
It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.
Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.
Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”
The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.
“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”
It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.
“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”
Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,
it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.
I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.
The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.
I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:
They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.
It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.
“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …
“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.
“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”
So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?
Howe leans in close.
“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.
A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.
The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.
Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.
Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)
That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:
However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.
Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:
He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.
That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”
The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?
Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.
In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”
Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:
THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.
GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.
Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.
This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”
Back to Howe’s telling:
There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.
Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”
Maybe not all problems; hockey, as we know, has trouble keeping its own house order on even the best days. That headline phrase was narrowly focussed when it appeared, 50 years ago, as a headline on a newspaper article by Anatoly Tarasov. This was 1971, when the ebullient coach known as the Father of Russian Hockey was still at the helm of the mighty Soviet national team.
Tarasov, who was born on this date in Moscow in 1918, had long been angling to arrange a meeting of his team with a deputation of the best Canadian professionals, i.e. NHLers. In April of ’71, when his team cruised to another World Championship, the Soviet Union’s ninth a row and 11th overall, hockey politics and hubris saw to it that Canadians were again missing from the action.
That September, Tarasov concentrated his thoughts on the subject into an article — and a challenge — for Sovetsky Sport. “We know that in Canada along with amateur hockey there lives professional hockey — original, rough, but bright at the same time, in which technique is perfect and sportsmen are fanatical to the limit. We had a feeling that this was a new type of hockey with many bright and talented performances. And our desire as coaches to meet with professionals was understandable.”
Why so shy, Canada and, specifically, the NHL? After years of hearing excuses from across the icy divide, Tarasov had no words left to mince. Again and again, he wrote, Canada’s “hockey leaders” had shown “the white feather.”
“It seemed to me that though they shout about the strength and invincibility of their hockey, they are subconsciously afraid of defeat, afraid to lose their indisputable authority.”
“It is clear to any reasonable person that self-isolation will be harmful only to Canadian hockey,” he wrote, building up to his big finale. Soviet teams would happily take on club teams. “If the NHL leaders do not want to risk their prestige, they can keep their leading clubs, such as Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, or Chicago Black Hawks, in reserve. We agree to start with team from St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Vancouver.”
But if Canada truly wanted to test its hockey mettle? “If they want to play against the united team of the USSR — world champions for nine years running — they are welcome; let them organize a team of professional hockey stars. We are ready to accept this challenge also.”
He finished with a flourish. “So now what is your answer, gentlemen from the NHL? Agree — and then your spectators in Canada and the USA, as well as Soviet spectators and hockey enthusiasts in Europe and in the whole world will be able to enjoy hockey games with the participation of sportsmen of two principally different schools. And though each team will strive for victory, world hockey will not lose; on the contrary, it will enrich itself.”
It was, of course, almost exactly a year to the day later that Canada’s bright professionals were processing the 7-3 loss to the team that Tarasov had forged over the years to open the 1972 Summit Series at the Forum in Montreal.
Tarasov himself was out, having lost his job as Soviet coach in February of that year in the wake of another gold-medal performance by his team at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan; for the Summit, he was replaced on the bench by Vsevolod Bobrov and Boris Kulagin.
Anatoly Tarasov died in June of 1995 at the age of 76.
Born in 1902 on a Sunday of this date in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina, the volatile Eddie Shore won a pair of Stanley Cup championships with Boston; four times he was handed the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable asset.
“Undoubtedly the greatest individual player in the game,” Niven Busch called Shore in 1929, when Boston’s number 2 was in full fettle.
“This Eddie Shore is an odd chap,” Busch pronounced in the pages of The New Yorker. “He was born at a Hudson Bay Station, and as soon as he had made some money playing hockey, he went back to Saskatchewan and bought a big farm there. He works on his farm in the summer, and does well at it for a fellow whose agricultural experience after boyhood consisted of such glimpses of the country as he was able to get from the locomotive cabs in which he was a fireman. Last year Boston paid him twelve thousand dollars and this year he asked for five thousand more, and got most of it — how much was not announced. At seventeen thousand dollars, if that’s what they pay him, he is the highest-paid player in hockey, as well as the ablest. In spite of what you can say for Dutton, Bourgault, Johnson, or Lionel Conacher, he is the only defenceman who also ranks as a great forward. He is perfectly built for hockey; not particularly heavy in the shoulders, but with a solid, barrel-shaped trunk, tremendous legs, and wide hips. He and Conacher are natural rivals. Both about the same size and equally aggressive. Conacher, an all-round athlete, good at baseball and lacrosse, and one of the best football players in Canada, is far better known in the North than Shore, who has made the most of his reputation in the United States.”
(Image, from 1937: Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)
“One of the brainiest hockey players in the game,” Toronto’s Daily Star tagged him: “not one of the showy type of player, but is very effective and has a wicked shot.”
He was Newsy Lalonde, one of hockey’s true greats, a dominant centreman in his day, who happens also to have been one of the best lacrosse players Canada has ever produced. Born in Cornwall, Ontario, on a Monday of this same date 134 years ago, in 1887, Lalonde was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950 and the lacrosse pantheon in 1965.
On the ice, Lalonde was a force unto himself, a goalscoring engine, who was also known, it has to be said, for his merciless temper and violent tendencies. That Star appraisal dates to 1916, when Lalonde, then 29, was named playing coach of the Montreal Canadiens, the team he’d been starring for since 1912, helping Montreal to win its first Stanley Cup championship in 1916.
Lalonde was coach and captain of the Canadiens when the NHL dawned in 1917, scoring a goal in the Habs’ NHL debut and continuing on from there: he would score 16 goals in Montreal’s initial eight games that year. Lalonde led the NHL in scoring in 1919 and again in 1921. Departing Montreal in 1922, he went west to play for the WCHL Saskatoon Sheiks before making a return to the NHL to coach again. He steered the New York Americans for a season, 1926-27, and took another turn in Montreal, for the 1932-33 season.
Frank Boucher’s legacy as an altogether upright and admirable citizen was already well-established in the fall of 1951 as the NHL prepared to launch into its 34th season on ice. Scion of a famous Ottawa sporting family, he’d served as a constable in the RCMP before starting into a stellar career as a pro hockey centreman for Ottawa’s original Senators, the old PCHA Vancouver Maroons, and (most notably) New York’s Rangers.
Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, Boucher had helped engineer Stanley Cup championships for the Rangers in 1928 and ’33, combining superlative skills with good graces, such that he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years in the NHL’s first decades. The respect for fair play he learned, he always said, from his hero, the original winner of the Lady Byng, Frank Nighbor. Boucher took as coach of the Rangers in 1939, and served a decade in the job. By 1951, he was concentrating on his role as the team’s GM — and on refining the hockey that was playing out on NHL ice.
Born in Ottawa in 1901 on a Monday of this past Thursday’s date, October 7, Frank Boucher found himself turning 50 this mid-century week in ’51. He was with his team at training camp in Guelph, Ontario, working with Rangers’ coach Neil Colville to evaluate his team’s talent and, ever an innovator, tinkering with the tenor of the game.
Rangerswise, Boucher considered his team to be 25 per cent better than it had been the previous year, when the Rangers had finished fifth — out of the playoffs — in the six-team NHL.
“The big difference will be in offensive power,” he told Al Nickleson from the Globe and Mail. “Now we have more fellows who can put the puck in the net. One of the new ones, Gaye Stewart, can help us plenty. The team is in much better shape than at this time last year. Centre Ed Laprade looks better right now than he has for the last three seasons and shows no effect from the leg he fractured last winter.”
If the previous season had been a write-off for the Rangers, it did include, for Boucher, at least one rewarding night. In February of ’51, ahead of a Madison Square Garden meeting with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Rangers celebrated Boucher with a generous testimonial. Bill and Bun Cook, Boucher’s old Ranger linemates, were on hand, along with Murray Murdoch, another Ranger original. New York mayor Vincent Impelliterri presented Boucher with the keys to a brand-new black 1951 Studebaker sedan, paid for by fan subscription.
Other gifts included a typewriter (from New York’s hockey writers); a tool chest (from the St. Paul Saints, a Ranger farm team); a pen-and-pencil set (from the MSG Corporation). Ranger captain Frank Eddolls and his Ranger teammates chipped in for a television — and a 5-1 win over the Black Hawks.
In September, as the off-season dwindled away, Boucher was back in the news, advocating for the NHL to institute an amateur draft. The league didn’t get around to doing that, of course, until 1963; in the meantime, as the longtime chairman of the NHL’s Rules Committee, Boucher was doing his best to streamline (and possibly even improve) the game the league was unleashing on the ice day-to-day.
By the first week of October, with the opening of the new season just a week away, Boucher’s mind was on the perennial challenge of how to keep players focussed on playing the hockey they were of capable of rather than concentrating on straying outside the rules to thwart their opponents.
A pre-season report from Guelph noted that he was telling his own players to cut out “hacking, slashing, boarding and other illegal tactics.”
“No particular person is to blame for the type of play that is spoiling the game,” he expounded. “The rules haven’t changed. The only thing needed is for the referees to call the play according to the book, and this rough stuff will be cut out.”
Boucher maintained that the rules committee was all for a crackdown. “Spectators like a good tough check, if it is clean, and the fans, players, club officials, and referees should be told that any rules infractions will be penalized. Then we’ll see some hockey.”
Unleash the league’s stars, Boucher implored. “[Montreal’s Maurice] Richard would be a truly great player if he didn’t have a couple of guys draped around him during a game.”
There’s no record of any official NHL response to Boucher’s opinionating — none that I’ve been able to unearth, anyway. League president Clarence Campbell was focussed on a project of his own: replacing the two 20-foot face-off circles that traditionally flanked NHL nets at either end of the rink with a single one, 30 feet in diameter, directly in front of each goal.
A decade had passed since the NHL’s introduction of the ten-foot circles. They’d been introduced to augment the face-off dots that had been in place since 1937 at the same time as the penalty-shot circle was erased from the high slot. The new-old face-off circle was described in press reports as Campbell’s “brainchild.” It quickly proved unpopular.
Campbell’s motive for refiguring each zone with a single central face-off circle? “It is his idea,” Windsor Star columnist Doug Vaughan explained, “that it will provide spectators with a clearer view of what takes place, livelier action, and prevent a lot of the old jamming along the boards.”
Frank Boucher didn’t agree. “Suicide,” he called it. The central face-off circle was, he said, unfair to goaltenders. “Also,” he argued, “the new circle will only prolong something we have long been trying to eliminate. At least under the old system the teams spread out for a face-off. Now they gang up in a huddle in front of the goal.”
Toronto Maple Leaf managing director Conn Smythe was with him. “In sport,” he ventured, “you want rules that won’t prevent the better side from winning. But you also them so that the better side doesn’t get the advantage of a rule. This new circle gives the advantage top the better team which can put on the pressure and keep the puck in there.”
“A goalie can make a great save, but can’t get rid of the puck before the whistle blows. Then, under this new plan, he’s actually penalized because the face-off is made directly in front of him. That’s not right.”
NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss watched a couple of pre-season games in which the new circle was deployed and came out as another naysayer. “I was for it at first,” he said. “But now, in the last two games I’ve seen, the players seem to be getting on to it, and it’s not working out the way we had hoped.”
Major changes in the rules needed approval from all six teams. “It won’t get it,” Boucher said of unanimous support for Campbell’s plan. Never mind settling for the status quo, Boucher had his own variation to offer: keep the two face-off circles on either side of each net but enlarge them from 20 to 30 feet across.
The Rangers quickly put the expanded circles to the test in a pre-season game against the Black Hawks in Guelph. In Toronto, Smythe had them drawn in at Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leaf scrimmage. Both goaltenders, Turk Broda and Al Rollins, declared them a success.
Clarence Campbell, too, came around. He agreed that his idea posed problems for goaltenders. “We don’t want any rule which makes a good team better at the expense of its opponent,” he conceded. All six team were in favour of Boucher’s fix, Campbell said; it was duly adopted for the new season.