new england nine

Recalling Mr. Hockey: It’s four years ago today that the great Gordie Howe died, on a Friday, at the age of 88, in Sylvania, Ohio. He was 49 when he joined the WHA’s New England Whalers in May of 1977. In 1979, after the WHA folded and the team joined the NHL as the Hartford Whalers, Howe played his final year, all 80 games, contributing 15 goals and 41 points. He turned 52 before the season was over, by which time the Whalers’ line-up also featured Dave Keon, 40, and 41-year-old Bobby Hull.

requiem for a rocket

L’Idole D’Un Peuple: It was 20 years ago today that the inimitable Maurice Richard died at the age of 78. “When he’s worked up,” long-time Canadiens GM Frank Selke said, “his eyes gleam like headlights. Not a glow, but a piercing intensity. Goalies have said he’s like a motorcar coming on you at night. He is terrifying. He is the greatest hockey player that ever lived. I can contradict myself by saying that 10 or 15 do the mechanics of play better. But it’s results that count. Others play well, build up, eventually get a goal. He is like a flash of lightning. It’s a fine summer day, suddenly.” (Image: “Maurice Richard et deux jeunes enfants, vers 1957,” Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94, Ed-33A)

a man for all seasons

Big Train: Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Lionel Conacher was … well, incredible doesn’t quite do it justice. “As an outstanding all-round athlete, Conacher starred in wrestling, boxing, lacrosse, baseball, and football,” an admirer noted in 1954, “and became one of the greatest defencemen of his day in professional hockey. He was better than average as a sculler and swam well. He once galloped 100 yards in 10.4 seconds in full baseball togs. He won praise from Jack Dempsey after boxing four rounds with the heavyweight champion.” Hockeywise, he won two Stanley Cups, with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and again the following year when (above) he suited up for Montreal’s Maroons. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994, he and Carl Voss share the distinction of being the only two athletes to have had their names engraved on both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

coming up rosebud

He was 25 in 1918 when he signed up to go to the war with the Fort Garry Horse, 5-foot-8-and-a-quarter, according to his Attestation Papers. His eyes were hazel, his hair was dark, his complexion fresh. He was Single and Presbyterian. He while Dick Irvin told the Canadian Expeditionary Force in that last year of war that his Trade or Calling was Salesman and Butcher, he was also an accomplished hockey player who’d already played a year as a professional centreman with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds. Irvin, who died at the age of 64 on a Thursday of this date in 1957, may be best remembered nowadays as an NHL coach, winner of four Stanley Cups, but he was counted as one of the best players of his generation, too, in his day. The photograph here dates to his second stint with Portland’s Rosebuds, which came in the old WHL in 1925-26. The following year he joined the fledgling Chicago Black Hawks. At 34, he served as the team’s first captain and finished the season second in the list of the NHL’s top scorers, a point behind Bill Cook of the New York Rangers. Dick Irvin suffered a fractured skull in his second NHL season, and that led to his retirement as a player in 1928-29 as well as the start of a coaching legend.

(Image: Oregonian/Barcroft Studios. Oregon Journal; Lot 1368; Box 371; 371N5905)

sprague cleghorn: prominent canadian hockey player #24

A.K.A. Peg: Born in Montreal on this date in 1890 (it was a Tuesday there, then), Hall-of-Fame defenceman Sprague Cleghorn had a vicious streak running through him that was the size of … well, him. Violent as he incessantly was throughout his 23-year professional career, he was also a supremely talented player, and the fact that he was left off the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 greatest players is, um, okay, let’s not get started on that. Here, above, he’s looking fairly peaceable, posed in the livery of the 1910-11 NHA Renfrew Creamery Kings. Cleghorn’s NHL career began with the Ottawa Senators, with whom he won two Stanley Cups. He was a Toronto St. Patrick, too, and a Canadien in Montreal (he won another Cup there), as well as, finally, a Boston Bruin. Sprague Cleghorn died in 1956 at the age of 66.

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)

henri richard, 1936—2020

 

(Top Image: “Henri Richard” by Aislin (alias Terry Mosher),  January 26, 1974, ink and felt pen on paper, M986.286.179, © McCord Museum)

pocket watch

Born in Montreal on a Saturday of this date in 1936, Henri Richard turns 84 today. He only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 20-year NHL career, captaining the team while aiding in the winning of 11 Stanley Cups — or course he landed in hockey’s Hall of Fame. The man they came to call the Pocket Rocket was 14 years younger than his rocketing, riotous brother, Maurice.

The great Trent Frayne profiled the younger Richard in 1958, noting that while Henri bore “a certain facial resemblance to his brother — a long jawbone, an angular chin, and a small rather pinched mouth,” they had their own distinct sizes and hockey styles. Maurice stood a strapping 5’11,” Henri was four inches shorter, “along the lines of a middleweight fighter,” but still one of the smallest men in the league. Henri’s attributes on the ice, in Frayne’s appraisal, included extreme dexterity, a quick, hard wrist-shot, and some of the fastest skates in the NHL. “In fact,” Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake said, “he’s the fastest skater I’ve ever seen in hockey.” Frayne was surprised to hear that:

“Faster than Morenz?” his interviewer enquired with the surprise of one who had always heard the the late Howie Morenz of the Canadiens was hockey’s fastest.

“I didn’t see too much of Morenz,” parried Blake, who broke into the NHL with the old Montreal Maroons in 1934, three years before a broken leg ended Morenz’s career, “but from what I saw of him, yes, I’d have to say that young Richard is faster. Certainly there’s not a player in the league today he can’t pull away from — carrying the puck, too.”

(Image: Taken 27 December, 1958, Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505651)

espo 65

Making A Meal of It: A son of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Phil Esposito was born on a Friday of this date in 1942, which means he’s celebrating his 78th birthday today. Remember him, sure, for his years as a dominant goalscorer for the mighty Boston Bruins, and the man, too, who organized the salvation of Canada’s pride in 1972 during the Summit Series, but Esposito started out a Chicago Black Hawk. Here he is at 23 in the fall of 1965, on the eve of his third NHL season, lunching with teammates (from left) Len Lunde, Chico Maki, and Fred Stanfield. The crop-marks are a newspaper editor’s from ’65; the cola is Diet-Rite, sugar-free.

born on this day, in 1929: hockey’s headgear icon

Unmasked: Jacques Plante poses in December of 1959 with the mask he first donned in an NHL game a month earlier. (Image: Weekend Magazine/Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada)

In Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec, not far from Shawinigan, Jacques Plante was born on a Thursday of this date in 1929. He remains, of course, an icon of hockey headgear, renowned for tuques and masks that his coaches (Dick Irvin and Toe Blake, respectively) didn’t want him wearing on the ice. In The Jacques Plante Story, a 1972 memoir he collaborated on with Andy O’Brien, the goaltender is quoted telling an interviewer, “My business is getting shot at.” By the end of the 1970-71 NHL season, O’Brien suggests, the 42-year-old Plante had faced 28,545 big-league shots in 865 games. “That does not include the ‘friendly shots’ — possibly 100,000 of them — fired at him in practice,” O’Brien writes, “but they can’t be ignored be ignored because they twice put him in hospital.” Add a few thousand more to the final tally: beyond the book’s telling, Plante played a further two seasons in the NHL, along with a final year with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. He died in 1986, at the age of 57.

art therapy

The Years With Ross: Born in Naughton, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1885, Art Ross (left) was an elite defender in hockey’s early years, winning two Stanley Cups on the ice before he took up as a referee, coach, manager, and all-around architect of the Boston Bruins. From refining the designs of pucks and nets to rethinking hockey’s rules, Ross was also an untiring innovator throughout his 50-year career in and around the rink. Did anyone do more to shape the game we know today, its rules and techniques and equipment? Well, maybe the man he’s seen talking to here, in a hotel room in 1935: when it comes to hockey influencers, it’s almost impossible to pick between the titanic contributions of Ross and Lester Patrick, another old-time master of defence, the founder (with brother Frank) of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association who coach, managed, and generally shaped the New York Rangers in their earliest incarnation. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

a horse for hooley

S & S: Hooley Smith (right) spent a single season with the Boston Bruins, in 1936-37, after starring for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. Here he poses with his old Maroon linemate, Nels Stewart. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Before he got going on a 17-year NHL career that would see him elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Smith was the youngest member of the Canadian team that brought back hockey gold from the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France, and one of its leading scorers. Aged 21, he netted an impressive 18 goals in five games. Of course, Canada’s schedule did include a 33-0 drubbing of Switzerland and a 30-0 squeaker over Czechoslovakia, and Smith’s bounty of goals was only half as many as that of his teammate Harry Watson — but still, gold is golden, and when Smith got home to Toronto that March, the neighbourhood where he’d grown up fêted him on a scale — well, I’m not sure that any local hockey player has seen the likes of the welcome that the Beach organized for Smith.

Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1903, Smith started out under the name Reginald. As a toddler, the story goes, he had a thing where he navigated the family backyard with a tin can balanced on his head, just like the namesake of the popular American cartoon The Happy Hooligan, which is how his father started calling him Hooligan which, soon enough, diminished to Hooley.

Out on the ice, it was as a centreman that Smith helped the Toronto Granites win the 1923 Allan Cup, which is how they ended up representing Canada at the Olympics in ’24. Arriving home triumphant in Toronto a month after vanquishing the United States for gold, the team climbed aboard a bus that paraded them from Union Station up Yonge Street to City Hall. Mayor W.W. Hiltz was one of the speechifyers there: paying his tribute, the Star reported, he mentioned “fine calibre of young manhood which composed the team” and “the manly attributes of the Canadian athlete” before expressing “hopes of continued success.” Engraved gold cufflinks were the gift the city gave the players. Before they were released, they also received three cheers and a couple of anthems, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save The King,” for their troubles.

Later, at a winter carnival in the city’s east-end Kew Gardens, Smith was honoured with displays of fancy skating and fireworks. His appreciative neighbours also unveiled a 400-ton likeness of their hockey hero that they’d sculpted out of ice and illuminated with coloured lights. One of my dearest new year’s wishes is to find a photograph of that — I’m still looking.

NHL clubs were eager, post-Olympics and ice-statue, to sign Smith to a pro contract. The Montreal Canadiens maintained that he’d agreed to join them, and the Toronto St. Patricks were eager to lure him, too, but in the end he chose Ottawa’s Senators. He played three seasons in Canada’s capital, where he learned how to hook-check from the maestro himself, Frank Nighbor, while helping the team win a Stanley Cup in 1927. He subsequently joined the Montreal Maroons, for whom he played nine seasons, captaining the team to a Cup in 1935. It was as a Maroon that Smith played on the famous S line alongside Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert. After a single season with the Boston Bruins, Smith played his final four seasons in the NHL as a New York American. Hooley Smith died in 1963 at the age of 60.

I think that just about covers it, though maybe is it worth mentioning also his gift for, well, getting gifts? When he played for the Senators, Ottawa owner Frank Ahearn gave him a fur coat. I’ve seen it reported that as a Maroon he was given a Rolls Royce and a yacht. Because he wasn’t a sailor, he’s supposed to have returned the yacht in exchange for a farm. Kenneth Dawes might have been the generous donor in question in both these cases, though I can’t confirm that. What I do know is that Dawes, a brewing magnate who served on the Maroons’ executive committee, did promise Smith a horse if the team won the Stanley Cup, which it duly did. The presentation of the black Percheron went ahead in Montreal in April of 1935 in front of a crowd of some 3,000. Smith got the horse, but it was Maroons’ coach Tommy Gorman who climbed aboard to take the first ride.