“With his balding head gleaming under the lights,” Deane McGowen wrote in a New York Times obituary in 1979, “the 6-foot, 210-pound Mr. Johnson would carry the puck down the rink like a runaway locomotive at full speed. There were few opponents who dared to impede his progress.”
Nobody called him Mr. Johnson: though first and officially labeled Ivan Wilfred, he was nicknamed early on and certainly as an NHL defenceman was only ever really known as ChingJohnson. Today’s his birthday: he born in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 7, 1897.
Johnson served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, as a driver for the 3rd Division’s ammunition column. The record of his military service testify that he acquired both a social disease and a Good Conduct Badge in France before he was demobilized in 1919.
He played some hockey in Belgium before he came home, after the Armistice, he was among a group of Canadian soldiers who “satisfied their hankering for the blades and sticks with games on a pond in front of a chateau outside Brussels.”
That’s according to Damon Runyon, the writer, of Guys and Dolls repute, who was also a hockey fan and sometime (what else could he be?) Runyonesque hockey columnist in the late 1920s
Johnson had signed on with the New York Rangers by then — was, in fact, one of the long-serving original Rangers, along with Frank Boucher, Bun and Bill Cook, and Murray Murdoch, whose numbers the team has somehow failed to retire. (Johnson’s was 3.)
He played 11 seasons in all with the Rangers, plus an extra one at the end of his career with the Americans across town. The Rangers won two Stanley Cups during Johnson’s tenure. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team twice, in 1932 and ’33. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.
Here’s Runyon’s perspective on Ching Johnson and his predilection for bodychecks from a 1927 column:
Weighing 211 pounds, splendidly distributed in bone, muscle, and skin of healthy glow, he believes firmly in the efficacy of a hip movement that combines the dexterity of Gilda Gray’s shimmy and the potency of a battering ram. In a game against the Chicago Black Hawks, he floored five men — all but the goalie, who cannot be charged on without fracturing a rule — through the medium of his highly educated hip and sheer driving power.
“A sturdy six-footer,” The Star Weekly styled Boston defenceman Bob Armstrong in the copy accompanying this 1960 photo spread that featured him keeping tabs on Detroit’s Gordie Howe; his defence was, in its time, described as bruising and no-nonsense. At 29, having spent a decade on defence for the Boston Bruins, Armstrong played in his only NHL All-Star Game in 1959-60. He accumulated the best offensive statistics of his career that season, notching five goals and 19 points in 69 games — along with the 96 penalty minutes that put him ninth on the list of most-penalized NHLers that year, a little ahead of Ted Lindsay. Armstrong, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1990 at the age of 59, wore number four for the Bruins for 11 seasons. Pat Stapleton got it after him for a while, then Bob McCord, then Al Langlois, before Bobby Orr made it his own in 1967.
(Image: Harold Barkley)
The night the Bruins fêted Fern Flaman at the Boston Garden in 1960, they gave him a hockey-rink cake and a colour TV set, also a freezer, a necktie, a big portrait of himself, some silverware, bicycles for the Flaman kids — and, oh, a six-month supply of meat and ice cream, according a contemporary account of the Boston Globe’s, which, it pains me to report, could easily have but did not itemize what meats and what ice creams, exactly, were involved. This was all before the Bruins faced their old rivals the Montreal Canadiens, and beat them, too, 6-5, though I should say that Flaman’s big present that night, they wheeled it right out on the ice, was a brand-new Rambler station wagon that, when Flaman skated over and peered within, guess what, his mother, Mary, was sitting there, surprise, just in from her home in Regina.
The Globe reported that it was the first time in Flaman’s career that he’d “cried on the ice.”
“I just couldn’t help it,” he said.
And Mrs. F? “What made this night wonderful,” she told the Globe, “was having others think Ferny is wonderful. I’m a very happy mama.”
Flaman was 34 that, playing in his 17th and final NHL season. The Dysart, Saskatchewan, native, who died at the age of 85 on a Saturday of this date in 2012, was just 18 when he made his start with the Bruins in the winter of 1945, making his debut, a winger, then, in a game against the New York Rangers. “A fast and rugged youngster,” was how the Globe introduced him, “put on the third line to add a body-checking element.”
“He played his part with zest,” Harold Kaese wrote, “so much zest that late in the game he even challenged Bucko McDonald. This, as Flaman learned, was much like challenging a cement-mixer. He was shaken up, but should be ready by Sunday.”
In 1950, the Bruins traded Flaman to the Maple Leafs in a deal that also sent Leo Boivin, Ken Smith, and Phil Maloney north in exchange for Bill Ezinicki and Vic Lynn. He arrived in Toronto in time to win a Stanley Cup in 1951, when Bill Barilko, his partner on the blueline, scored that famous overtime winner of his.
Three times during the ’50s he was named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Montreal’s Doug Harvey owned the Norris Trophy in those years, taking home seven of eight between 1955 and 1962, but Flaman finished third in Norris voting in both ’56-57 (behind Red Kelly) and ’57-58 (trailing Bill Gadsby).
In a poll of NHL coaches in 1958 that ordained Gordie Howe the league’s “smartest player” and Maurice Richard “best man on a breakaway,” Flaman was deemed “best fighter.”
“I played with him and I played against him,” another Bruins’ captain, Milt Schmidt, said at the time of Flaman’s death, “and there was no-one tougher in the National Hockey League.”
Flaman went back to Boston in 1954 in a trade for Dave Creighton. He played a further seven seasons for the Bruins, the last six as team captain, before he moved on to the AHL Providence Reds as playing coach in the fall of 1961. He later coached Northeastern University.
Fern Flaman was inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
When Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. I’ll let Stewart tell you where he got his nickname:
I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.
He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings of the tale, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the Hall of hockey’s fame, to which he was inducted in 1964. His online bio there also includes the words: complete package, rock-solid, poise, work ethic, excellent stamina, brute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He played a dozen NHL seasons in all, the first ten for Detroit, then the final two for the Chicago Black Hawks, where he was the captain. He won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings; three times he was a First Team All-Star.
He never argued with referees. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s. People remembered his bodychecks in Detroit for years after he was gone: when Howie Young played there a decade later, they said he hits almost as hard as Black Jack Stewart. Stewart’s philosophy? He said this:
A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.
Some dates: born in 1917, died 1983, on a Wednesday of this date, when he was 66. The love he had of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. He went back home to work on the farm in the off-season when he was in the NHL. Later, after he’d hung up his skates, when he was making a living as a salesman for a Detroit lithograph firm, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association.
He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up in Detroit in the later ’40s, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said, looking back:
He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.
There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone who knew from trying said. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins: so he said himself. Something else Stewart said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.
Here’s a story, from ’48, about another Red Wing rookie, the great Red Kelly, who was in his first year in the NHL, a 20-year-old fledgling. That January, driving in downtown Detroit, Kelly made an illegal left turn and hit a car belonging to one John A. Watson. Summoned to traffic court, Kelly appeared before Judge John D. Watts with his teammate Stewart standing by him to argue his defence.
Kelly’s license, it turned out, was Canadian, as was his insurance. Convicted for the improper turn, Judge Watts gave him a suspended sentence and told him to pay $52 in damages to Watson.
“You had better get another attorney before you go to jail,” the magistrate was reported to have told Kelly regarding Stewart’s courtroom efforts. “This man sounds more like a prosecutor.”
Watts did ask Stewart to make sure that his teammate paid the damages and secured a Michigan license. “I’ll see that he does both,” Stewart is said to have promised, “if I have to break his neck.”
The proceedings came to jocular end. “I fine you two goals,” Judge Watts told Kelly, (laughingly, according the Detroit Free Press), “and you’d better deliver them tonight or I’ll have you back in court tomorrow.”
Detroit did dispense with the New York Rangers at the Olympia that night, by a score of 6-0, but Kelly wasn’t on the scoresheet. The team, the Free Press noted, “left for Canada shortly after the game.”
Alertness on face-offs was, to Stewart, a cardinal rule. That’s what he said in 1949, when he and his fellow All-Stars were asked to share their hockey insights.
When it came to off-ice conditioning, Stewart said he tried to go walking as much as he could. “I eat foods,” he added, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.”
Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday,” Black Jack Stewart said.
It was on a Wednesday of this date in 2005 that Leaf legend Red Horner died at the age of 95. He played all 12 of his NHL seasons with Toronto, leading the league in penalty minutes in seven of those. In 1932, he aided Toronto’s effort to win the Stanley Cup. He succeeded Charlie Conacher as Leaf captain mid-season in 1938 and continued in the role until he retired in 1940. Inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1965, he was booster of kitchen appliances and Alka-Seltzer as well as a Maclean’s coverboy. Carrot-topped is a common epithet associated with him during his days on the defence; buxom in size and crude in action is how the Montreal Gazette described him in 1934.
Hockey history remembers him by his nickname, Flash, but he was Frank William Hollett — or just Bill — from his earliest days, which got underway on a Thursday of this date in 1911 in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Hollett later recalled learning to skate on the local harbour ice in Cape Breton. His father, Frederick Hollett, was a fisherman who died of Spanish flu in another pandemic, whereupon his mother, Lena, moved her six children to Toronto’s west end.
In 1932, as a 21-year-old, Hollett signed to play professional lacrosse for the ball-slinging version of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a new league that collapsed before a single game was played. He made his debut with the puck-slapping Leafs a year later, when he was called up to replace a suspended Red Horner in the grim aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending injury. Hollett notched a goal and an assist in his debut, and after spending the following year on loan to the Ottawa Senators, returned to the lead the Leaf backline in scoring in 1934-35, a year in which only Boston veteran Eddie Shore had more points among NHL defencemen.
When Hollett started slowly the next season out, chief Leaf and affirmed knave Conn Smythe blamed it on Hollett’s having married over the summer. A contract dispute and a wrist injury didn’t help Smythe’s view of his young defenceman, and in early 1936 the Leafs sold Hollett to the Boston Bruins for $16,000.
A “brilliant young player,” the Boston Globe crowed, by way of introducing Hollett to Bruins’ fans, “who, by his color, has earned the nicknames of ‘Flash,’ ‘Headline,’ and ‘Busher,’ but prefers ‘Flash’ himself.” He played nine seasons with Boston, piling up the points along the way. The two Stanley Cups he helped the Bruins win included the 1939 edition, when Hollett scored the final goal of the series that saw his new team defeat his old, the Maple Leafs. In 1941-42, Hollett set a new NHL record for goals by a defenceman when he scored 19, surpassing the 18 Harry Cameron had registered two years running for the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21 and ’21-22.
Hollett scored 19 again the following year before getting to 20 in 1944-45. That record stood for 24 years: no defenceman scored more in a season until Boston’s Bobby Orr got 21 in 1968-69. That record-breaking year, ’44-45, Hollett was playing for Detroit, where he captained the team and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team. After retiring at 35 from the NHL in 1946, he returned to the ice as an amateur, joining the OHA senior Toronto Marlboros, with whom he’d win an Allan Cup national championship in 1950. Flash Hollett did this month in 1999. He was 88.
(Top image: © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography. Photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved. Bottom: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
Sad news from Strathroy, Ontario, where Pat Stapleton is reported to have died of a stroke last night at the age of 79. His years working NHL bluelines got going in 1961 with the Boston Bruins, but it was as an offensively minded Chicago Black Hawks defenceman that he made his reputation. He served as Chicago’s captain during the 1969-70 season, succeeding Pierre Pilote. In 1972, he was a member of Team Canada’s epic struggle against the Soviet Union, famously scooping up the puck with which Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal and (probably) hanging on to it. After a decade in the NHL, Stapleton played five further seasons in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars, Indianapolis Racers, and Cincinnati Stingers. As playing coach of the Cougars, he steered the team to the Avco Cup finals in 1974. Stapleton also coached the Racers in 1978-79, just before the WHA dissolved.
(Image: from December 24, 1966, Library and Archives Canada)