terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.

bob gainey: the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many

If it’s odes you’re seeking on Bob Gainey’s birthday, we’ve got those here and here. As Peterborough, Ontario’s own Hall-of-Fame right winger turns 65, maybe a short disquisition on how he exemplifies our hometown’s (his and mine) hard-working decency? This way.

In 1979, famously, the great Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov rated Gainey “the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” When Michael Farber, then of Montreal’s Gazette, asked Gainey about this and more the following year, he got (by no surprise) thoughtful answers. “No way am I the best player in the world when you look at talent and pure ability and finesse,” Gainey said. “The one thing about hockey is that the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many. But the other thing about hockey is that it’s a team sport, and if you make the team better, if you make it a more viable thing, then you also are performing an important role. People say, Bob Gainey, he’s so unselfish. Well, maybe that’s partially true, but I also know that by being unselfish, I’m personally gaining more as a member of a team. Only inside a team could I have gained so much.”

Through the 1970s, this team, it’s worth recalling, counted on Ken Dryden in goal, and featured Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, and Serge Savard on defence. Up front: Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Dougs Jarvis and Risebrough. Montreal had won four successive Stanley Cups at the time of Farber’s writing, and Gainey was the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.

“How valuable is Gainey?” Farber asked. “Consider him and Lafleur (which most pop sociologists do like so: Lafleur and his élan represent the French-Canadian; Gainey and his no-nonsense over-achieving, the English-Canadian. Incidentally, lunch with Lafleur includes a $15 bottle of wine; lunch with Gainey comes with two draft beers.) In games without Lafleur during the past two seasons, the Canadiens are 9-3-2. Without Gainey, the Canadiens are 6-5-5.”

At 26, in his sixth NHL campaign, Gainey had had his first 20-goal season the previous year, 1978-79. Compared to Lafleur or Shutt, it’s true, he didn’t score that many, though he would reach the 20-goal mark again in three of his remaining nine seasons with Montreal. Talking to Farber, he said, “It’s like writing a letter. Some nights, the hand flows freely, other days, it’s just scratches and scrawls. I’m not a good offensive player. I don’t have good timing. I’m not one of the guys who usually ends up at the right spot, or who can knock the puck down in the air with a stick.”

Steve Shutt, one of those guys: “Of course you like to have a guy who scores 50 goals a year, but you want to have a guy who stops 50 goals a year. Bob does that. There are a lot of defensive forwards in the league, but he is the only one who controls a game.”

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bring up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th1909.”

Could she have made a mistake?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mailcould very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe erred again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

straight out of cupar

The Edmonton Express they called him, but Eddie Shore was a son, in fact, of Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina, which is where he was born on a Sunday of this date in 1902. (Or was it the following Tuesday? The record seems to favour November 23.) Shore’s father T.J. moved the family to west and farther north when Eddie was eight, to a farm near Cupar. It was there that he played his first organized hockey, before making his name in, yes, Edmonton in the mid-1920s with the WHL Eskimos and then, upwards and onwards, as Boston’s most famous early Bruin.

In late December of 1933 he famously blindsided Toronto’s star winger Ace Bailey, knocking him to the ice in a fit of misdirected pique. Bailey’s head hit hard. Carried from the ice, Bailey’s chances for survival didn’t look good in the week that followed. After two brain surgeries, his health rallied, and he survived, though never did he play another hockey game. There were some who argued that Shore should be banned for life, but they didn’t convince the NHL president, Frank Calder, who eventually imposed a 16-game suspension on Boston’s star defenceman. Forty-six days after he’d last played, Shore made his (notably helmeted) return in the Bruins’ 4-2 road loss to the New York Rangers. That’s him here at Madison Square Garden ahead of the game, shaking a hand with his coach Art Ross.

“To tell the truth,” Shore said after the game, having collected assists on both of Boston’s goals, “I was a little bit worried about the reception I was going to get. New York hockey fans always greet me with a storm of good-natured booing and when I stepped out onto the Madison Garden ice, I expected to get the usual greeting.”

And? “As soon as I came through the gate, the crowd went wild and it was several seconds before I realized the fans were cheering me. What a reception. What great sportsmen those New York hockey fans are. Why, they cheered me to the rafters every time I made a move, and how they yelled when Ching Johnson flattened me. I’ll never forget them. I’ve been around hockey a long time, but I’ve never heard the like of it.”

Bunfest: New York’s Bun Cook scores a second-period goal at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1934, leaving Boston’s Tiny Thompson and Nels Stewart in his wake (on the ice), and just-returned Eddie Shore, too (still standing).

game face

Today’s a day (in 1976) that Clint Benedict died — Butch Keeling, too, as it happens (in 1984). Benedict, intrepid goaltender, hockey innovator, was 84. He spent his NHL years with Ottawa’s original Senators before departing, unhappily, for the Maroons of Montreal. He won four Stanley Cups, but those triumphs aren’t what he’s remembered for. In 1930, he was (almost without doubt, but not quite) the first goaler to wear a mask in an NHL game. He tried it for five games at the end of that season, but neither the mask nor Benedict was quite right, and the experiment ended with the latter, still shaken from puck-wounds, slipping out of the league. After a stint with the IHL Windsor Bulldogs, Benedict ended his playing days to take up coaching.

 

first timer

Born on this date in 1900, the goaltender Lorne Chabot made his debut in Montreal, where he also died in 1946, just five days beyond his 46th birthday. In between, Chabot mostly did the work of trying to stop pucks, tending NHL goals in his time for the Toronto Maple Leafs and both Montreal teams, Canadiens and Maroons, as well as the Chicago Black Hawks and New York’s Rangers and Americans. He won Stanley Cups with the Rangers in 1928 and the Leafs four years later; with the Hawks in 1935 he was rewarded with the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender. He probably should be in the Hall of hockey Fame, though the institution itself hasn’t so far consented to invite him in.

It was during his single season in Chicago that Timeput Chabot on its cover, making him the first NHLer to appear there. (Dave Kerr of the Rangers followed a few years later.) Also making news that February halfway through the turbulent ’30s? Time noted that U.S. President and Mrs. Roosevelt had welcomed trailblazing flyer Amelia Earhart to the White House. In New Jersey, Bruno Hauptmann was on trial for the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son, Charles Jr. British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, meanwhile, was denounced by an MP in favour of Scottish independence in language so strong that it was censored out of Hansard. “The Prime Minister is a low, dirty cur who ought to be horsewhipped and slung out of public life,” is some of what was excised, for the record.

Towards the end ofTime, Lorne Chabot was described in an unbylined feature as “a bulky, silent, languid French Canadian.” By way of biography, there were notes on his soldiering (underaged, in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in the First World War) and his subsequent policing (as a member of the RCMP). Duly mentioned, too, was the famous 1928 episode when he was injured and left the Ranger net to the care of his manager, 44-year-old Lester Patrick.

He was superstitious, Time reported, insisting on donning “the same pair of lucky (hockey) trousers” that he’d always worn as an NHLer. Off the ice, he liked grey spats. His Chicago address was the Croydon Hotel, where he lived with his wife and two children. “More amiable than he appears when professionally engaged, Chabot, like most hockey players, has a summer job, as ice cream salesman. His Black Hawks salary is $4,500.”

As for his goaltending technique:

Chabot almost never leaves his net. Slow at regaining his feet when he falls down, he indulges in few of the acrobatic tricks that make the work of smaller goalies more spectacular.

These qualities give his style of play a peculiar indolence which he exaggerates as much as possible. Instead of chattering encouragement to his teammates, the method by which most goalies relieve their nervous tension, he munches slowly a huge wad of chewing gum, rarely speaks a word during a game. Instead of waving his arms, he lounges against his cage as if it were a mantelpiece. All this helps mask his real capabilities: preternaturally quick eyes, phenomenal ability to spread his bulky frame across his goal.

Chabot was said not to mind when the fans in Chicago tossed dead fish down from the gallery onto the ice. The only thing that bothered Chabot was when he failed to keep the puck out of the net. How bothered could he get?

“Last fortnight,” Time advised, “he clubbed a goal judge with his hockey stick for daring to assert that his opponents had contrived to score a goal. He was amused by news that the goal judge was suing him for $10,000.”