off the ice, though, howe was a peach

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Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.

Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”

“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”

You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.

The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?

No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”

The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”

“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”

Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.

Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):

“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”

Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:

• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”

When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.

• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”

Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.

If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.

A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”

• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:

… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!

The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.

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cocaine drops, hockey high sticks, and other tales from the history of human flight

wright

Not a full biography, faulted Daniel Okrent in May, appraising for The New York Times Book Review the big new book by (quote) our matchless master of popular history. I guess by our he means America’s, though could possibly be humanity’s, too. Anyway, the book, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster) sounds good, even if our/their/everybody’s august historian is interested in only one thing, namely how it was possible that two autodidacts from Ohio managed to satisfy a longing that that the species had harbored for centuries.

In this singular pursuit (Okrent declares), the master soars, and with an empathy and fluency that’s uncommon.

Which is good to hear. What Okrent doesn’t mention in his Times review is how McCullough does when it comes to that crucial episode in the history of the Wright Brothers and indeed of human flight, i.e. Wilbur’s hockey accident.

Without it, we’d all still be earthbound. You could argue that. Would you? Would I? Not with any real enthusiasm. The fact that Wilbur Wright took a hockey stick to the mouth in the 1880s is one link only in a long chain of events that put him in the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903. I don’t think there’s any dispute: upper-body injury or no, the brothers Wright were going to fly one way or another.

The hockey link leads back to the winter of 1884-85 (though I’ve also seen it as 1886) on a lake (that may have been a pond), although the hockey actually might have been closer to the old shinny than the hockey we know today, and that the sticks they were using may or may not have been more like bats. Either way, I think we can all understand what Elmo Scott Watson means when he says, as he did The Walnut Grove Tribune in 1930, that whatever game they were playing, there was a melee.

So Wilbur was a brilliant student, a star high-school athlete at the time we’re talking here. He was the third-born of five Wright children, aged 17 in the winter in question. This was in Dayton, Ohio, on a pond/lake adjoining the Dayton Soldiers’ Home.

McCullough:

Wilbur was smashed in the face with a stick, knocking out most of his upper front teeth.

As hockey injuries go, it’s familiar as it is painful-sounding and Bobby Clarke-reminding. Wilbur was treated at the scene by an army surgeon, as John R. McMahon tells it in his book, The Wright Brothers, Fathers of Flight (1930). The opposing team, he also elaborates, was composed of the sons of army officers. And:

He refused the offers of a ride home, saying that he would walk lest it frighten his mother if he were carried home.

While McCullough misses that detail, he and McMahon do coincide in most of what happened next.

Here’s McCullough:

For weeks he suffered excruciating pain in his face and jaw, then had to be fitted with false teeth. Serious digestive complications followed, then heart palpitations and spells of depression that seemed only to lengthen. Everybody grew more and more concerned.

McMahon:

There followed a long period of delicate health if not semi-invalidism, with a diet confined to liquids, eggs and toast. It seemed to every one that the boy was handicapped for life and none dreamed of the possibility of a great compensation …

The boys’ father, Milton Wright, was a bishop in the United Brethren Church. Wilbur’s plan had been to go to Yale and thereby, eventually, to follow in his father’s pious footsteps. His delicate convalescence put an end to the college talk. His brothers went out into the world, travelled, married. Wilbur stayed home with his parents. For three years he was more or less a recluse, “cook and chambermaid,” as an older brother wrote, to his parents. In the seven years or so he spent fully recovering his health, he spent much of his time reading, worrying now and then about his lack of ambition. He eventually joined his younger brother in business, first at Orville’s printing press and newspaper, then at his bicycle shop. This is the period, in the 1890s, that they began to turn their attention in earnest to the effort of getting themselves off the ground.

wilbur

What’s new from McCullough on all this is, at best, a footnote — but it’s a pretty sensational footnote at that. Where most previous accounts frame Wilbur’s injury as accidental and by the hand of an anonymous opponent, McCullough offers another view. Quoting Bishop Wright’s diary, he identifies the perpetrator as Oliver Crook Haugh, i.e. up there with Ohio’s most notorious all-time murderers, executed by electrocution in 1907 for killing his father, mother, and brother, and implicated in the deaths of perhaps a dozen others.

“At the time of hockey incident,” McCullough writes,

Haugh lived just two blocks from the Wrights. He was only fifteen, or three years younger than Wilbur, but as big as a man and known as the neighborhood bully. As would be written in the Dayton Journal following the execution, ‘Oliver never was without the wish to inflict pain or at least discomfort on others.’

Oliver Haugh, photographed before his execution in 1907. (Photo: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

Oliver Haugh, photographed before his execution in 1907. (Photo: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

Haugh “threw the bat that struck Wilbur” is the phrasing in Bishop Wright’s diary. Did he have a score to settle with Wilbur, or was he just mean and/or carried his stick carelessly on the ice or — high? We’ll never know for sure, but as the old master writes in an unexpected coda to the hockey episode, it turns out the murderer-to-be did have a job working at a Dayton drugstore where the druggist, taking pity on the boy’s complaints regarding his painfully rotting teeth, gave him a popular cure of the day: “Cocaine Toothache Drops.”

Hard to say what lessons we can draw from all of this. Mouthguards might have helped, if someone had thought to invent them in time. It’s always a good idea, too, to try to keep the psychopaths off the ice. Unfortunately for Wilbur Wright, it was at this time, as McCullough recounts, that

young Haugh became so dependent on drugs and alcohol, his behavior so out of control that he had to be committed for several months to the Dayton Asylum for the Insane.

fanbelt

fan fighter

7-2 was the score, that night in New York at the Madison Square, high-flying Montreal truncheoning the hometown Rangers. Some of the fans didn’t like that. From The New York Times:

There were no penalties until the final period, and perhaps out of frustration, a fan in a leather jacket grabbed Terry Harper’s stick late in the game. Harper finally wrestled it free, but when [Dick] Duff came along and took a swipe at the spectator, the fan removed his belt and started swinging it. He was hauled away by three guards.

The wire services told a slightly different tale. UPI said the guy was trying to attack another Montreal defenceman, Ted Harris:

The fan became so enraged that he climbed to the ice before being restrained by a half-dozen Garden policemen.

For what it’s worth, the Rangers did score their second goal four seconds after play resumed following the police action. So there’s that.

Above, number 2, that’s yet another Montreal defenceman, Jacques Laperriere, offering his stick to the fan in exchange for a swipe of leather.

(Image: Frank Johnston)

hanged, fired

Ottawrath: Senators' fan Kevin Fabian puts a flame to an effigy of Alexei Yashin in Arnprior, Ontario, in October of 1999. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward)

Ottawrath: Senators’ fan Kevin Fabian puts a flame to an effigy of Alexei Yashin in Arnprior, Ontario, in October of 1999. (Image: Jonathan Hayward)

Chicago fans went to the trouble of noosing up a fake Frank Mahovlich in 1962 in order to … intimidate the visiting Leafs? Disturb the sleep of one of their rival’s prominent scoring forwards? Show how much they loved their Black Hawks? Subtly state a nuanced position on capital punishment? Hard to say what exactly might have been in the hearts and/or heads of those zealous executioners, but it wasn’t the first time that hockey’s faithful had rigged up an effigy to punish in public, and it wouldn’t be the last. Herewith, several other instances of hockey fans with rough justice in mind:

 1955

Fans hurled abuse and vegetables at NHL president Clarence Campbell after he suspended Montreal’s Maurice Richard that year for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs, too, and they threw a city-wrecking riot in his honour, too — not to have organized a ceremonial lynching would have just seemed lazy. As Rex MacLeod wrote in The Globe and Mail, Campbell was indeed “hanged in effigy and some lawless elements were even determined to improve on that.”

1962

The Boston Bruins had missed the playoffs for three years running and things weren’t exactly looking up: after starting the 1962-63 season with a win over Montreal, the team ran up a 13-game winless streak. In November they lost at home on a Sunday night to Detroit and that’s when fans at the Garden strung up coach Phil Watson in effigy. GM Lynn Patrick soon took their point, firing Watson and replacing him with Milt Schmidt — the man he’d succeeded a year and a half earlier.

Watson was philosophical. “It’s the old story,” he told Jack Kinsella from The Ottawa Citizen. “You can’t blame the players, or the ice, or anything else for losing. So you blame the coach. But I don’t blame management too much. After all, they’re in a business, and when the fan starts demanding action, something has to be done.

The team had offered him a front-office job, he said, but he wanted to coach. What about with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League? They were in need. Kinsella pressed: would Watson be interested?

“You’re darn tootin I would,” said Watson. “Besides, I haven’t heard of an Ottawa coach hanged in effigy yet.”

1969

As a hard-cored Leafs defenceman, Pat Quinn earned the wrath of Boston fans in the spring of the year by persecuting their beloved number 4. As was plentifully noted at the time, last month, of Quinn’s death, over the course of a couple of games in March and April, he crosschecked Orr into a goalpost; punched him; kicked him; flattened him with an elbow; knocked him unconscious; left him concussed. Newspaper accounts from the time describe shoes hurled at Quinn and punches thrown, death threats, too; I haven’t come across any contemporary mentions of noosed effigies. But Milt Dunnell says there were those, too, hanging from the galleries at the Garden, so we’ll say it was so.

1974

Another spring, another Leafs-Bruins playoff match-up. The Bruins won this one with dispatch, offing Toronto in four straight games, the last of which was a 4-3 overtime win at Maple Leaf Garden. Boston right wing Ken Hodge scored two goals, including the winner, while fans dangled a dummy in his likeness overhead. He’d been playing dirty, they apparently thought, though Hodge himself was perplexed. “I can’t understand why the fans in Toronto think I’m vicious,” he said after the game. “In Boston, the fans boo me because they wish I was even tougher.”

1988

When Edmonton Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington decided to trade/sell Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in August, fans keened and wailed. Edmonton’s mayor was shocked — letting Gretzky leave, he said, was like removing all the city’s bridges. There was talk of cancelling season’s tickets, of boycotting the team. And in front of city hall that week, a small group of disgruntled fans burned Pocklington in effigy.

1996

Florida beat Philadelphia in the Prince of Wales Conference semi-finals that spring, but the Flyers didn’t go down easily, winning two of the first three games. Eric Lindros scored game-winning goals in both of those victories which, I guess, you know, is a capital offence in Florida. The Associated Press:

During the [third] game, fans sang anti-Lindros chants, threw objects at the Philadelphia bench and hung the center in effigy from the upper deck of the Miami Arena.

“I don’t know if I feed off the crowd,” said Lindros. “It’s not something I’ve not been through before. I could care less.”

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I did not spear him, sam-I-am

lucicI’m not saying Milan Lucic shouldn’t have speared Alexei Emelin because — or, no, wait, yes, I am saying he shouldn’t have, because that’s awful behaviour, even within hockey’s permissive code, enough to provoke a five-minute major and a game misconduct, if it ever actually happened at all. To be clear, then: Milan Lucic, I’m saying, shouldn’t have speared Alexei Emelin.

This is oldish news, from back in regular-season late March, when Montreal beat Boston one night at the Garden. It seems like a long time ago, a distance you can measure out in newer, bigger, louder Montreal victories (last night); at least two more Lucician spearing incidents (involving Detroit’s Danny deKeyser and Emelin again); and (also last night) the spectacle of Boston’s burly left winger shaking the hands of his triumphant rivals while at the same time threatening them with death.

Oh and, too, Lucic published a kids’ book called Not Cool To Bully In School. He launched it the night after he speared Emelin for the first time. Which, I guess, happens sometimes. All I’m saying is, whether or not it was a good idea on the ice, can there really be any question that from a publishing point of view, this was the wrong thing for the book?

It’s a story about — but maybe let’s come back to that. First, it’s probably important to review the spear itself, if that’s what it was. Lucic said it wasn’t. Emelin — I don’t know if he said anything in public one way or the other. He felt something, which cause caused him to fall to the ice.

That was evident if, like me, you were watching that third period TSN on TV: the puck was down the ice, in Boston territory, and Lucic was skating out of the Montreal end with Emelin and they were …. conversing. The blood was bad, the atmosphere tetchy: I don’t know what they were saying, just that conversation wasn’t quite doing it for Lucic. I grant that it may be a more general memory I have, though I believe it’s specific to this particular exchange, and that I’m fairly describing his complexion as clotted with anger and ill-intent, as it tends to be. To me it looked like he brought the blade of his stick up with unfriendly speed and force between Emelin’s legs. In hockey parlance, that’s called a separator, though there are non-hockey words that come to mind too, culinary terms like spatchcock or maybe the one whalers use when they’re carving up a carcass, to flense.

As in: flensed, Emelin fell.

Two referees didn’t call a penalty, which I guess means they didn’t see it, because if they’d seen, they would have to have called it, since with spearing even intent is sanctioned: under Rule 86, if you stick an Emelin, or anyone, even if you don’t make contact, that’s a double minor. Continue reading

game on: when prime ministers attack

harperWe know it’s coming, we just don’t know when. It makes no sense — and that’s exactly why we should be on our guard. Because we can’t wish it away — and we can’t — we’ll do our best to ignore it, but at our peril.

It’s going to be ugly. How could it be anything but? All the more reason we should be bracing for the day that Prime Minister Stephen Harper turns his attention from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to focus on hockey and, specifically, the urgent business of reducing it to a smoking ruin.

Stop in at www.conservative.ca and you’ll find a passion for hockey listed under 10 THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER, but it’s never been a secret, has it? That he’s learning to speak Spanish, used to collect coins, and “owns numerous atlases:” that counts as news. “A consummate hockey dad, he can often be seen cheering Ben on at local rinks or joining his son in the stands for the occasional NHL match-up:” not so much.

He published A Great Game, after all, in the fall, a study of antique Toronto hockey arcana, and for anybody who’s saving it up for the beach this summer, here’s the takeaway: denying Mr. Harper’s love for the game would as ridiculous as doubting Riddy Ridpath’s significance to the rise of the Toronto Professionals in 1906.

Still, this is politics, where everything’s written in ice. That deficit you were never going to run? You do what you have to do. A prime minister’s enthusiasms thaw, too. Am I right, Accountability Act? The thing about governing is, there’s no slowing down. Scuttled the National Roundtable on the Economy and The Environment? Great. Bombarded the Parliamentary Budget Office? Congratulations. Backed up the bus far enough to knock down Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright, Neil Young, the public service, and the CBC? Nice driving. What’s next?

I think we all know how it’s going to start. On a Friday afternoon, late, in an 800-page omnibus bill called Creating Jobs & Growth While Granting The Beatles Canadian Citizenship & Returning to Balanced Budgets & Yay For The War of 1812. Buried deep within its pages, look for several dense paragraphs halving the size of the puck and eliminating left-wingers.

Next up, over the weekend: a series of attack ads will go after Senators Frank Mahovlich and Jacques Demers, casting doubt on all those Stanley Cups they allegedly won.

Monday morning Pierre Poilievre will be front and centre, taking swipes at Sidney Crosby’s lack of playoff scoring, Carey Price’s rebound control, and Chicago’s zone-entries, all based on taxpayers needing to know whoever elected any of them to anything, anyway? Continue reading

smoke ’em if you got ’em, having just shut out detroit, while recovering from the chicken pox. plus, two stitches

abel + rollins

The Light Years: Chicago was in last place in December of 1953, thanks in part to first-place Red Wings trouncing them 9-0 and 9-4 to start the month. Still, a week later, the Black Hawks went into Detroit and beat them 3-0. Which pleased coach Sid Abel (left), understandably. With 40 saves, goalie Al Rollins earned the shutout and the smoke. A Detroit stick had cut him for two stitches by the left eye during the game. As game reports noted, he was also recovering from chicken pox.

The Toronto Star’s ever nimble Cathal Kelly wonders today (here, paywalled) about the nagging of athletes who might or might not smoke a cigarette every now and then. “While professional athletes and the stakes they play for are growing,” he writes, “players are perversely expected to avoid doing anything which puts themselves or others at risk of harm. That was once the whole point of most sports. Watching grown men trying to kill each other.

Now it’s the counterpoint — the constant reaction to violence in football, drugs in baseball, fighting in hockey and smoking everywhere.”

 

fine, then

Montreal defenceman Ken Reardon at home with his gun collection, circa 1950.

His New York Rangers won the game, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2, but coach John Tortorella didn’t like the work of referees Ian Walsh and Dennis LaRue in last week’s NHL Winter Classic. Especially galling, I guess, was the penalty shot awarded to the Flyers with 19.6 seconds remaining. “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game,” Tortorella said after it was all over. “For two good refs, I thought the game was reffed horribly. I’m not sure what happened there.”

“Maybe they wanted to get into overtime. I’m not sure if they had meetings about that or what. But we stood in there. I don’t want to … because they are good guys. I just thought it was, in that third period, it was disgusting.”

By Wednesday, Tortorella was on the phone apologizing to the Flyers and — well, for the refs, he wanted to wait and do it in person. He did say sorry to the league’s Colin Campbell, too, though that didn’t keep the NHL from fining him $30,000.

A quick look back, then, through hockey’s annals of paying the price: Continue reading

barn dance

Unpunched: Conn Smythe's spectacles, sold in November by Montreal's Classic Auctions Photo: Classic Auctions

So Toronto general manager Brian Burke had a plan to punch it out in the straw with his Edmonton counterpart, Kevin Lowe, in Lake Placid, New York, in a barn he was going to rent. In 2007, I guess — maybe you recall — Burke was running the Anaheim Ducks when Lowe came after one of his restricted free agents, Dustin Penner, with an offer sheet that Penner signed. Burke could have matched but didn’t. Penner went to Edmonton, leaving behind a furious Burke. The words he used in public to lambaste Lowe — unfair, inflationary, stupid, desperate  — give some idea what he might have been saying under his breath.

For his part, Lowe is supposed to have gone on the radio and challenged Burke to duel of the fists.

“That’s not really how you challenge a guy to a fight,” Burke was saying last week, in a TV interview on The Score. “If you want to challenge a guy to a fight, you pick a place and time. So I called Glen Sather and said: ‘This guy went on radio to challenge me to a fight.’ I said, ‘I’m going to be in Lake Placid at the U.S. junior camp.’ I gave him three dates. I told him I would rent a barn. Dead serious.”

That’s not really how you challenge a guy to a fight. But if hockey history has any guiding to do, the etiquette governing bust-ups between hockey executive bust-ups makes no specific demands as far as scheduling or venue. And how did Glen Sather get in there? Looking specifically at Toronto Maple Leafs precedents, the way you challenge a guy to a fight is … well, you stand slightly behind him and take a swing at his head. Continue reading